Talk of church discipline today often brings to mind “images of witch trials, scarlet letters, public humiliations, and damning excommunications.”1 However, each of the Protestant Reformers, in their own way, recognized the importance of church discipline. John Calvin went so far as to say that the neglect of church discipline would contribute to the “ultimate dissolution of the church.”2 If Calvin could “discern frightful devastation beginning to threaten the church”3 in sixteenth century Geneva, what would he say about today’s Western Protestant Christianity, where the reigning ideal of tolerance and the omnivorous appetite of the market have combined to eviscerate the church of any remaining sense of its disciplined character?
Here are Calvin’s remarks in the fuller context of his discussion of church discipline in the Institutes:
“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 its sinews, through 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 as 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 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.”4