Reformed theology has long followed Calvin’s lead in identifying the “marks of the Church” as the faithful preaching of the Word of God, the right administration of the sacraments, and the proper administration of church discipline. Most people are quick to embrace, defend, and vigorously uphold the first two marks. But bring up the idea of discipline in the church, and we get a little uncomfortable.
There are probably a few reasons for that. We don’t want to be seen as judgmental or arrogant. We don’t want to imply that we are not sinful and that we look down on others. We don’t want to scare away a possible member/giver/volunteer. We’re not sure just what it means or how to do it.
Here are some helpful thoughts from John Calvin on the “necessity and nature of church discipline” (from the Institutes IV.xii.1):
Discipline depends for the most part upon the power of the keys and upon spiritual jurisdiction…But because some persons, in their hatred of discipline, recoil from its very name, let them understand this: if no society, indeed, no house which has even a small family, can be kept in proper condition without discipline, it is much more necessary in the church, whose condition should be as ordered as possible. Accordingly, as the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve as its sinews, though which the members of the body hold together, each in its own place. Therefore, all who desire to remove discipline or to hinder its restoration–whether they do this deliberately or out of ignorance–are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church. For what will happen if each is allowed to do what he pleases? Yet that would happen, if to the preaching of doctrine there were not added private admonitions, corrections, and other aids of the sort that sustain doctrine and do not let it remain idle. Therefore, discipline is like a bridle to restrain and tame those who rage against the doctrine of Christ; or like a spur to arouse those of little inclination; and also sometimes like a father’s rod to chastise mildly and with the gentleness of Christ’s Spirit those who have more seriously lapsed. When, therefore, we discern frightful devastation beginning to threaten the church because there is no concern and no means of restraining the people, necessity itself cries out that a remedy is needed. Now, this is the sole remedy that Christ has enjoined and the one that has always been used among the godly.
Lest this be read through the whole “Calvin was a cold tyrant” false stereotype, his following thoughts flesh out with compassion and clarity and understanding of what discipline is and is not in the church.
It is not a means of public humiliation or arbitrary censure. It is not to be applied vindictively or aggressively. It is to be done with pastoral sensitivity, and with proper distinctions. For example, Calvin differentiates between “concealed and open” sins and between “light and grave” sins. The primary forum for discipline is personal, private, and pastoral counsel. More formal discipline from governing bodies (sessions, presbyteries, councils, etc) is only to be done in cases of extreme, public, or deliberately persistent sin.
Calvin goes on to say that church discipline “has three ends in view”. First, that those who “lead a filthy and infamous life” may not profane the name of Christ, his Word, or his Table. Second, that “the good be not corrupted by the constant company of the wicked, as commonly happens”. Third, that “those overcome by shame for their baseness begin to repent”. The common desire in all of these cases is to see Jesus Christ honored and to see others be drawn to him with repentant hearts in order to find healing and restoration.
These are good and necessary things enjoined upon the church by her Lord and his Word. So why do they make us so uncomfortable? Why has “ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’ Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished” (Scots Confession, ch. XVII) become the forgotten mark of the Church?