Church Discipline in Church History (Part 3)


historyNote: This installment of our mini-series on Church Discipline in Church History will be a bit longer than normal in order to address the next time period which influences our current understanding of this practice. For review you may find the first two installments here and here.

Although there are some twelve centuries of history between the third century fathers, Tertullian and Cyprian and the Reformers, I will focus on the latter group. These men heavily influence our modern practice of church discipline. Therefore, it would seem wise to address at least two of the most well-known individual Reformers as well as one group within them.

John Calvin [1].

John Calvin is a French born Reformer who spent the bulk of his ministry in Geneva, Switzerland. He is known for his Institutes of the Christian Religion as well as his extensive commentaries on the Bible. Further in his work Ecclesiastical Ordinances he laid out what he believed to be the three marks of a true church; 1) ministry of God’s Word and prayer, 2) the administration of the ordinances of the church, and 3) church discipline.[2]. Calvin’s commentaries provide some insight how he came to understand church discipline.

John_Calvin_by_HolbeinFrom a review of Calvin’s harmonized commentary of Matthew, Mark, and Luke one comes away with the impression that he understood church discipline to be an activity which is compassionate toward the sinning brother as well as protective of the local church. He interprets Matthew 18:15-20 as the prescription of discipline as a course of action which does not cause stumbling in the life of the reproved, but rather is a loving call to take the “cure for one’s disease” in the form of repentance [3]. Calvin explains 3 steps to administering medicine; 1) private correction, 2) semi-private correction with witnesses included, and finally 3) public correction through the inclusion of the local Body of Christ [4]. Calvin bases his conclusions upon his understanding that the matter at hand is a private one originating between Christians and not a well-known pattern of life. Following these steps prevents one from immediately announcing to the entire church the matter out of “hatred and malice” which is the direct opposite goal of church discipline and restoration [5].

However, one should not conclude Calvin understood this to be the only method of practicing church discipline because he further compares this activity undertaken for more private sins with those of a decidedly public nature. He whole-hearted approves of bringing those in public sin to the forefront, to include those in church leadership as an example that no-one is above correction (cf. 1 Timothy 5:20) [6]. This is further displayed in his understanding of Titus 3:10 and dealing with a “heretical man.” Where he still calls for obedience to the Word of God by pointing to the fact that even such a man is to be reproved and instructed so that he/she may correct their error. He further concludes that in matters such as these it is necessary the church leadership be enjoined earlier in the process as such an activity is more likely to be a public matter [7].

As familiar as this process may seem to contemporary Christians it is not necessarily safe to conclude that Calvin viewed church discipline and restoration in exactly the same way as the church today. As a matter of fact, he was directly opposed to some of the views which have been carried forward from a group of Dissenters known as the Anabaptists, accusing them of holding to similar views of the Donatists in regards to their dissatisfaction with the current application of church discipline and restoration [8].

Martin Luther

An older contemporary of Calvin, and perhaps the man most credited with the start ofMartin_Luther_by_Cranach-restoration_tif the Protestant Reformation, was Martin Luther. Luther is included in this survey for two reasons; 1) his opposition to the sale of indulgences, and 2) his own subjection to the process of church discipline and restoration by the Catholic Church of his day.

The practice of selling indulgences has its roots in the Crusades, or religious wars of the centuries preceding Luther. The idea was that a person could purchase a letter of indulgence from the church in order to alleviate the suffering of loved ones in purgatory by taking time off their sentence, so to speak [9]. The proceeds of such sales then went to fund the Crusaders. However, by the 16th century this practice had been transitioned from funding military campaigns to funding Pope Leo X’s desire to build a new basilica in Rome [10].  It was this opposition to the sale of indulgences by John Tetzel that prompted Luther to pen his 95 Theses and then nail them to the Wittenberg Church door on October 31, 1517. A thing that is often overlooked, however, is the fact that Luther was not attempting to overthrow the religious system of his day. He did not deny that such a thing as purgatory existed nor even the authority of the pope rather he disputed the validity of monetary gain from the perception of selling forgiveness [11]. This is best displayed in theses number thirty-six; “Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without indulgence letters” [12].

Within two years Luther was called to a debate concerning his 95 Theses with John Eck. Eck was an able opponent and was able to draw Luther into stating that he believed general councils of the church were able to err and to lend at least tacit approval to some teachings of the condemned Hus and Wyclif. As a result the pope seized upon the opportunity to deal with Luther and issued a letter threatening him with excommunication unless he withdrew his earlier statements [13]. To say that Luther “refused to listen” (cf. Matthew 18:16) would be an understatement. Instead he solidified his disagreement with the established church by burning the pope’s letter. This action paired with his refusal to recant before Charles V completed Luther’s break with the Roman church [14].

95 thesesThere are two significant things to learn from Luther and his exposure to church discipline and restoration. The first is it seems as if the pope was applying Titus 3:10 to the situation. Luther was a public figure and a monk within the official church system and was speaking out against the practices of the church. The papal letter offered an opportunity to ‘repent’ by withdrawing earlier statements with the implication that so doing would allow for continued fellowship within the church. Further, a second warning or opportunity was given by way of Charles V, the sitting emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The conclusion being that regardless of one’s opinion of the Roman church, it would seem as if they dealt with Luther’s perceived rebellion/sin biblically, whether on purpose or by accident.

The second has to do with the fact that one is able to see that even when the biblical model is followed a church can be in error with its application. What is meant here is that the issue being addressed as sin in Luther’s case was not actually sin. A disagreement with church practice is not necessarily a sin on the part of the dissenter, but rather may be an opportunity to point all parties back to the Word of God. In this case, Luther wanted to initiate debate to bring reform to the existing church to the glory of God. His actions were instead perceived to be a challenge to the traditions of the church and the authority of the pope and therefore sin. Hopefully, such application of church discipline is not occurring in the church today.

The Dissenters

The Dissenters may be best described as a group or groups which came out of the Protestant Reformation who had disagreement with the views of Lutheranism or Presbyterianism [15]. Some of these disagreements had to do with baptism as it applies to whom should be considered a candidate as well as the mode of the ordinance. Others had to do with matters of blending church and Church and statestate as had been the case since the institution of Christianity as the official state religion by Constantine [16]. It is this second area of dissent which most directly relates to the current discussion regarding church discipline and restoration.

In the view of the various groups making up the dissenters was the idea that the church was made up of only the redeemed of Christ. Thus to them a key problem was the idea that the church was made up of all the people in a particular location [17]. This latter idea is a result of the institution of state religion whereupon the citizens of the state are likewise members of the church [18]. The former sees the church as an institution separate from the state, being made up of the redeemed who are “walking worthy of their calling” (cf. Ephesians 4:1) which likewise lends itself to the practice of church discipline and restoration as aids to the same [19].

Oddly enough, this call to separate church membership from state citizenship is a demonstration of grace and mercy. During the time leading up to the Reformation, and even within some Reformation movements, when a person was faced with excommunication he faced not only being removed from fellowship in the church but also the local community because the two were intertwined. The only means of accomplishing such an end-state was the execution of the offender [20]. However, in the view of the dissenters the separation need not extend to the state if excommunication should be called for as the ‘world’ is made up of those who are to be considered “tax collectors and Gentiles” (cf. Matthew 18:17). In this way the life of the one who is unrepentant is spared physically and thus the opportunity for true repentance or initial conversion is disciplinepreserved. Such practice by these groups allowed for the conclusion that though God has ordained the government to wield the sword, the church is to exercise church discipline and restoration as part of the possession of the “keys to the kingdom” (Matthew 16:19) [21].

In our final installment of this series we will take a look at contemporary church practice in this area from the 19th century to present.

[1]. For those who are going to bring up Michael Servetus in the comments, don’t. I am aware of Calvin’s role in this particular outcome of ‘church discipline.’ However, the focus of this portion of the series and this post is to present the view of Calvin as available through his published works.

[2]. Steven J. Lawson, A Long Line of Godly Men, vol. 2, Pillars of Grace: Ad 100-1564 (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2010), 513.

[3]. John Calvin, Harmony of the Evangelists; Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trans. William Pringle Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 352.

[4]. Ibid.

[5]. Ibid., 356.

[6]. Ibid.

[7]. John Calvin, The Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. William Pringle Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005), 340-342.

[8]. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 4, 12:12 cited in Leonard Verduin, The Dissident and Nonconformity Series, vol. 14, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Paris, AR: Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., 1964), footnote t, 120.

[9]. Lawson, 398.

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, completely rev. and expanded ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 156.

[12]. Lawson, 398.

[13]. Lane, 156.

[14]. Ibid.

[15]. The Presbyterianism of the Reformation is most closely associated with Calvin in Switzerland and John Knox in Scotland.

[16]. Leonard Verduin, The Dissident and Nonconformity Series, vol. 14, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren (Paris, AR: Baptist Standard Bearer, Inc., 1964), 95.

[17]. The concept of the church consisting of only the redeemed is also a key issue on the disputes concerning baptism, its mode, its candidates, and its purpose.

[18]. Verduin, 95 & 116.

[19]. Ibid., 118.

[20].  Ibid., 118-119.

[21]. Ibid., 121-122.

  • Jason

    Thank you Andy! I love this series! Church history can teach us so much regarding the development and formulation of thought and history. 🙂