Blog 202: 4.12.11-18

It is a dangerous and impious zeal that seeks to "unchurch" a brother or sister because they do not meet our standards of perfection. Discipline in the church,  Calvin argues, must be done with a measure of grace and understanding; it must be on biblical grounds and not out of rigid severity. In the crosshairs for Calvin are the ancient Donatists and the contemporary Anabaptists. Calvin's model is Augustine (whom he cites often in these sections). Even Calvin, it seems, encountered Christians who were prepared to leave the church if they deemed the eldership too lenient in their discipline of an errant brother. Such a prompting, Calvin suggests, to "merciless cruelty" proceeds from a messenger of Satan rather than an angel of light.

Calvin (as did Augustine) underscores that the best form of discipline is by careful and faithful preaching of the Scripture, due application to the conscience and personal admonition. Writing to Aurelius, bishop of Carthage, he complains that drunkenness (so severely condemned in Scripture) is raging unpunished in Africa, and he advises calling a council of bishops to provide a remedy.  He then adds: "These things, in my judgment, are removed not roughly or harshly, or in any imperious manner; and more by teaching than by commanding, more by monishing than by menacing.  For so we must deal with a great number of sinners.  But we are to use severity toward the sins of a few."

The use of severe discipline must be rare and only towards those whose willful sin is great. Good advice, then, from the reformer. We must not, of course, use this advice as a license to withdraw from all discipline for fear that any judgment violates the principle of grace. A Scylla and Charybdis then, and the path lies straight down the middle!