Thursday, September 20, 2007

John Calvin on Church Discipline

I thought I'd share something from my reading today. Calvin has some interesting things to say about Church discipline. He seemed quite anxious that the Church's exercise of discipline might turn into cruelty and legalism.

"Although excommunication also punishes the man, it does so in such a way that, by forewarning him of his future condemnation, it may call him back to salvation. But if that be obtained, reconciliation and restoration to communion await him. Moreover, anathema is very rarely or never used. Accordingly, though ecclesiastical discipline does not permit us to live familiarly or have intimate contact with excommunicated persons, we ought nevertheless to strive by whatever means we can in order that they may turn to a more virtuous life and may return to the society and unity of the church. So the apostle also teaches: 'Do not look upon them as enemies, but warn them as brothers' [II Thess. 3:15]. Unless this gentleness is maintained in both private and public censures, there is danger lest we soon slide down from discipline to butchery." [From Calvin's Institutes, Chapter XII, Section 10].

When Calvin spoke of "excommunication," he meant that persons under discipline were not allowed to partake of the Lord's Supper, unless they met the condition of repentance for which they were under discipline. This is why he mentions that the "anathema" is very rarely or never used. Anathema meaning that someone was essentially cut off from Christ without hope of reconciliation.

4 comments:

Eric said...

Can you share a quote or a source where Calvin describes excommunication as consisting of a removal from the Lord's Supper? This is what I believe excommunication should be, but in the quotation you provided Calvin says, "[E]cclesiastical discipline does not permit us to live familiarly or have intimate contact with excommunicated persons..." That sounds more consistent with the harsh sort of dis-fellowshipping that takes place in so many congregations today –- even in some self-consciously "Reformed" congregations.

Brad Williams said...

Hi Eric, thanks for the question. I gathered what I wrote from this comment:

Although excommunication also punishes the man, it does so in such a way that, by forewarning him of his future condemnation, it may call him back to salvation. But if that be obtained, reconciliation and restoration to communion await him.

He'll be restored to communion upon repentance. Certainly, his relationship to the body of Christ and to Christ Himself will suffer in the meantime, if he knows Christ at all. But the worst part of public censure was the exclusion from the communion service.

Sean Martin said...

When Calvin is speaking of communion here, he is speaking of communion wiht the body, not the sacrament. He is speaking of the harsher discipline of excommunication and the possibility for re-entering the fellowship of believers upon repentance.

CD-Host said...

This is an older post, but I thought I should comment for people interested in this topic that I run a blog dedicated to church discipline. In a few months I'm going to be doing a series on some of Calvin's disciplinary cases.