Hammer to the Nail: The Requirement of Local Church Membership – Part VI

What an odd chart if the elders of the Consistory in Geneva in Calvin’s day and beyond never practiced punitive church discipline or had no biblical basis for it.  We need to be careful that our representations of Reformed theology and practice actually accord with the history of the matter (as reported in Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors):


The book goes on to describe sixteenth century Geneva and the nature of punitive discipline as practiced by the city’s elders and here are some choice quotes from Manetsch in that regard:

“The Ecclesiastical Ordinances recognized two kinds of excommunication, minor excommunication (usually called suspension) and major excommunication. The penalty of minor excommunication or suspension was the least severe and far and away the most common form of interdiction: around 96–97 percent of all known excommunications in Geneva between 1542 and 1609 were of this sort. Described in the sources variously as a ban ( une interdiction ), a suspension ( une suspension ), or a prohibition ( une défense ), minor excommunication barred the sinner from the sacrament of the Lord’s Table but not from social contact with other church members or from public worship services. The ministers and elders expected that suspensions would be of short duration, for one or two of Geneva’s quarterly communion services, after which sinners were to be reconciled to the church…The penalty of major excommunication ( l’excommunication ) was a more severe judgment but was employed much less frequently. Between 1542 and 1609, only around 3–4 percent of all interdictions were of this more extreme variety. “Very rarely must one resort to excommunication,” Beza once commented in a letter to Heinrich Bullinger. The Consistory reserved this type of discipline for hardened sinners who stubbornly refused to repent, or who were guilty of egregious public sins such as habitual usury, flagrant sexual misconduct or religious heresy.”

“Before 1541, townsfolk had freedom to move between temples and attend the preaching service of their choice. This practice, Calvin feared, fostered the perception that the ministers were preachers, not pastors. The Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541) addressed this concern by requiring that children hear the weekly catechism sermon and adults take the Lord’s Supper in their local parish temples.

Although men and women were still permitted to attend sermons of their choice in other parishes, this stipulation assured at least a degree of pastoral oversight.”

“Calvinist discipline in Geneva depended upon an elaborate system of surveillance and pastoral supervision within the city and countryside parishes. The Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541) required that twelve lay elders be assigned to each of the city’s neighborhoods so that they might “keep an eye on everything.” In a similar fashion, Geneva’s ministers lived in different neighborhoods of the city so that they might know the members of their local congregation and be in a better position to exercise pastoral care and corrective discipline. In addition to pastors and elders, city officers known as dizeniers —minor magistrates whose primary duties were military and administrative—were given broad powers of supervision over each of the city’s twenty-five civil districts to warn sinners and if necessary, send offenders to Consistory.”

“At the same time, the Ecclesiastical Ordinances created an institution called the Consistory, a church court consisting of the city pastors and lay elders that was to meet each Thursday at noon for the purpose of overseeing public morality and doctrine, and admonishing and disciplining people guilty of flagrant sin.”

“Every Thursday at noon, dozens of people were summoned to the Consistory’s chambers for interrogation or to provide testimony. Most defendants came voluntarily; those who did not were brought forcibly by the lieutenant of the Consistory (called the sautier ) or by the rural garde.”

“In 1556, the magistrates allowed for the first time that formal oaths be administered to witnesses who testified in disciplinary cases; henceforth lying to Consistory constituted the civil crime of perjury. The following year, the council issued an edict that required people who had been suspended from the Lord’s Supper to be reconciled to the church within six months, on pain of banishment from the city. The Edict of 1560 extended the ministers’ role even further in that it gave them new advisory powers in the annual elections of elders to Consistory, allowed men of bourgeois status (and not just full citizens) to be appointed to the office of elder, required that major excommunications be announced publicly from the church’s pulpits, and mandated public reparations for sinners guilty of notorious scandals.”

“The Consistory was required to follow the guidelines for church discipline outlined in Matthew 18:15-17. In cases of private vice, the pastors and elders were first to admonish the sinner in private. If the offender ignored these warnings, he or she should be summoned to Consistory for examination and formal rebuke. Those sinners who remained obstinate, who refused to repent or reform their behavior, were to be suspended from the Lord’s Supper for a brief period of time so that they might “humble themselves before God and better recognize their error.” In cases of public misbehavior, the Ordinances stated that the ministers and elders might forgo private admonitions and summon the offender directly to Consistory for examination and censure. Defendants suspected of criminal conduct were to be delivered to Geneva’s magistrates for additional civil punishments. In all of its deliberations, the Consistory was expected to treat offenders with moderation and gentleness, recognizing that these “corrections are nothing but medicine to bring sinners back to our Lord.”

Obviously, this is far different from Bojidar Marinov’s claim that:

“[C]hurch discipline is teaching and training, not punishments. Where there is no teaching or training, or where the people have been fed only the fundamental milk of the faith, there is no discipline. Excommunication is a very minuscule part of discipline, and it is not given as a prerogative to elders. It is a responsibility and a privilege of the whole church, of all the individuals in it; and subject to it must be first and foremost the very teachers and leaders in the church…Thus, when John MacArthur complains about people moving from church to church, “never submitting to the care of elders,” he accuses these people of “misunderstanding of the believer’s responsibility to the body of Christ.” The truth is, MacArthur only shows his ignorance of the Biblical teaching and of Reformed theology. Under the principle of the right and duty of private judgment, this is exactly what people should be doing: listening to sermons in the churches and judging the preachers according to the Word of God.” [emphasis in the original]

Of course, Reformed theology since the time of Calvin has most certainly demonstrated a preference for elders to govern the church in conjunction with the Christian magistrate using punitive discipline where necessary and this is exemplified not only by the actual history noted above but also through the way they interpreted the Scriptures in doing so.