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Prof. Cammenga is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Calvin’s Initial Struggles Over Church Discipline in Geneva

From one point of view, Calvin’s entire ministry in Geneva can be viewed as his struggle for the recovery of biblical church discipline. It was really with a view to the organization of the church and the establishment of discipline, recognizing his own inabilities in this area, that William Farel first persuaded Calvin to take up his ministry in Geneva.

It was August of 1536. Calvin was just twenty-seven years old. The city of Geneva at that time had a population of nearly 10,000 people. By the standards of the day it was a large and prosperous city. Prior to this, the city had committed to the cause of the Protestant Reformation and had expelled the Roman Catholic clergy. William Farel, the leader of Geneva’s company of pastors, recognized in the young Calvin the God-endowed gifts that were desperately needed in the Reformed church of Geneva.

From the beginning of Calvin’s first stay in Geneva in August of 1536, the matter of church discipline was a contentious issue. It was contentious among the people, many of whom were not willing to have their lives ordered by the discipline of the church. Many of them were glad to be rid of Rome, and for this reason had supported the decision to become a Protestant city. But they resisted the application of the principles of the Reformation to the ordering of the church, and particularly to their lives.

But especially were the efforts of Calvin and Farel resisted by the Genevan magistrates, the two main ruling councils of the city. It was because of their steadfast insistence on church discipline that barely a year and a half after Calvin began his work in Geneva, he and Farel were banished from the city. It was April of 1538.

Calvin lived for three years in Strasburg. This was a three-year respite from the struggles in Geneva. It was an enjoyable three years, as Calvin pastored a French refugee congregation in the city. It was a productive period in Calvin’s life. But it was also a time of preparation. For God used Calvin’s stay in Strasburg to prepare him to resume his work in Geneva, especially his work on behalf of biblical church discipline.

The leading reformer in Strasburg was Martin Bucer; he had prevailed upon Calvin to come to Strasburg. Bucer was a leading proponent of biblical church discipline, and it was Bucer who influenced Calvin greatly and whose views Calvin adopted. Bucer’s fundamental position is expressed in his statement: “There cannot be a church without church discipline.”

After a three-and-a half year exile from Geneva, Calvin was finally convinced to return to Geneva. He returned with the clear understanding that Geneva was persuaded of the necessity of church discipline and was committed to a return to biblical church discipline.

Calvin’s Effort to Institute Biblical Church Discipline in Geneva

On Calvin’s return after his banishment, he immediately set to work to institute anew discipline in the Genevan church. The day after his return, he and the other ministers began drawing up a definite order for the government and discipline of the church. The fruit of their work was the formulation of the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of the Church of Geneva, which was ratified and officially introduced into the church on November 20, 1541. This document is the earliest predecessor of the Church Order used until recently in most Reformed churches. The restoration of discipline and the office of ruling elder occupy a large place in these Ecclesiastical Ordinances.

A constant thorn in Calvin’s side in his effort to restore discipline to the church of Geneva were the Libertines. They were a kind of political party in Geneva whose members included a large number of wealthy and influential citizens of Geneva. Many of them had embraced the Reformation with eagerness, but not out of any real zeal for the Reformed faith. Their main objective was to throw off the oppressive yoke of Roman Catholicism. Their battle cry was: “Liberty! No tyranny!” When it became plain that the new discipline introduced by Calvin was in many ways more rigorous and demanding than Rome had ever been, they reacted violently against the Reformation. At every turn they opposed Calvin, crying out against the new discipline as an infringement of their liberty and personal freedom. They had been largely responsible for Calvin’s banishment several years before, and if they had had their way, he would have been banished again. Calvin once commented that compared to the Libertines, he considered the pope to be a pretty decent fellow. If you are familiar with Calvin’s opinion of the pope, you can pretty much surmise what his feelings toward the Libertines must have been.

In his preface to his Commentary on the Psalms, Calvin rehearses his struggles with the Libertines.

Afterwards, for the space of five years, when some wicked libertines were furnished with undue influence, and also some of the common people, corrupted by the allurements and perverse discourse of such persons, desired to obtain the liberty of doing whatever they pleased, without control, I was under the necessity of fighting without ceasing to defend and maintain the discipline of the Church. To these irreligious characters and despisers of the heavenly doctrine, it was a matter of entire indifference, although the Church should sink into ruin, dis

provided they obtained what they sought—the power of acting just as they pleased (p. xlv, “The Author’s Preface,” Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 1).

In the end, Calvin’s efforts on behalf of the recovery of discipline met with success, and the leaders of the Libertines were banished from Geneva.

Fundamental Features of the Discipline Calvin Restored

What were the fundamental features of the discipline that Calvin restored? We can point to six main features of the church discipline Calvin put in place in Geneva.

In the first place, the form of church discipline restored by Calvin was “Presbyterian,” that is, rule over the local congregation by a body of elders. Calvin, along with the other Reformers, rejected the hierarchical system of the Roman Catholic Church. Over against the Romish view, Calvin insisted on the truth that Christ is the one King and Head of the church. No pope, no bishop, no church council may rob Christ of His crown rights. His rule of the church is rooted in and reflects His redemptive work on behalf of the church. Christ exercises His rule through His Spirit and Word. The Bible, therefore, is the constitution of all sound church government. It is the sole standard for the church’s discipline.

In rejecting the hierarchical system of church government, Calvin brought the church back to the biblical pattern of the rule in each congregation entrusted to certain men whom Christ appoints to the office of ruling elder. Calvin resurrected the office of ruling elder. Each local congregation, he insisted, was autonomous, that is, self-governing. Within each congregation, and appointed from among the members of the congregation itself, the rule and discipline of the church was entrusted to elders. Government by a body of elders, all of these elders themselves of equal authority, was a cornerstone of Calvin’s biblical church discipline.

In the second place, Calvin insisted that in its work of discipline the church was self-governing and independent. Not only did Calvin face the opposition of the Libertines in Geneva, but he was also constantly at odds with the civil government, which always and again insisted on the final say in matters of discipline, especially excommunication. Many of the other Reformers, as Luther and Zwingli, somewhat due to force of circumstances, did give to the state a large role in the discipline of the church. And constantly Calvin was under pressure to do so as well. But Calvin steadfastly refused, and insisted on a sharp distinction between the state’s sphere of authority and the church’s sphere of authority.

It might be a question, perhaps, whether Calvin was always himself consistent in maintaining this principle. But there can be no question about it that this was a principle for which he fought tenaciously. Again and again he refused to tolerate the magistrate’s encroachment on the rights and duties of the consistory, especially in the exercise of excommunication. At one time he handed in his resignation from office and declared that he would sooner die than comply with the city council’s demand that one who had been excommunicated by the consistory be granted the right to partake of the Lord’s Supper.

In keeping with this sharp distinction that Calvin made between the jurisdiction of the state and that of the church, Calvin also maintained that in the carrying out of its authority the church must confine itself to the use of spiritual means. The sword and temporal punishments had no place in the church’s exercise of her authority, of which things the Roman Catholic Church of Calvin’s day made use in her efforts to enforce her rule, as she does also today. Throughout history, it remained a temptation to the church to take up the sword in the cause of the gospel. Against this grave danger, Calvin insisted that the church was shut up to spiritual means, exhortation, and admonition, with excommunication as the extreme remedy.

Third, Calvin taught that the objects of the church’s discipline were those members of the church who erred either in doctrine or in life. Unbiblical views as well as ungodly living, unrepented of, called for the church’s discipline. Neither heretics nor the unholy may be tolerated in the fellowship of the church. Both must be dealt with.

In the fourth place, it was an outstanding feature of the church discipline restored by Calvin that not only the lay members of the church but also the officebearers were subject to the discipline of the church. The practical fruit of the Roman Catholic hierarchical system was that the priests and clergy were virtually above discipline. It was practically impossible for concerned church members to do anything about wicked clergymen. At the time of the Reformation the church was at the mercy of unbelieving and vile priests and bishops. This same disgusting fruit of the Roman Catholic hierarchical system is evident in the sex scandals that have come to light in recent years. All this was changed with the recovery of biblical church discipline. Not only were the officebearers in the local congregation entrusted with the duty of exercising church discipline among the members, but they were also themselves under the discipline of the church, including the ministers. Especially did Calvin insist on the supervision of the ministers by the elders. Ministers held their office in the local congregation. They were subject to the supervision of the elders and of their fellow ministers. And, if need be, ministers who showed themselves unfit could be removed from office.

Fifth, it was one of the outstanding contributions that Calvin made to the Reformed practice of church discipline that he clearly articulated the three main reasons for discipline. He did not only call the church to discipline, but motivated the church faithfully to exercise the key-power of discipline. Calvin saw that the purity and preservation of the church depended on discipline. Calvin also had an interest in the salvation and recovery of the erring church member.

But, last, Calvin especially, as in all things, sought the glory of God in the exercise of faithful church discipline. God is glorified by the church in the truth, that is, in purity of doctrine and in holiness of life. The church must discipline, therefore, in order that by this means the church may glorify God.

It was his zeal for the glory of God that sustained Calvin in his struggle for the recovery of biblical church discipline. He was willing to suffer reproach, death threats, personal indignities, banishment, and even death, if need be, for the sake of the reinstitution of proper church discipline. Where can such zeal for the glory of God be found today?