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

The Consistory in Geneva was the pastors and elders in the city and provided punitive discipline as needed. The Consistory functioned in conjunction with the “state” (the city councils) to enforce discipline but was not really a state agent. In fact, the Consistory spent its early years in conflict with the state in attempting to raise moral standards in the city. However, its reach was not just in the city but in the surrounding rural areas as well. Additionally, Calvin’s influence provided this paradigm for many more areas under Reformed control in Europe during that time. Later, many communions (including the Puritans early on in England and later in the New World) adopted a similar model though without the complexity and tensions of Geneva’s government. Among them were the Presbyterians and the Dutch Reformed–the two main branches of Reformed practice today remaining somewhat dominant in America as the inheritors of the original magisterial Reformation.

Even still, as Manetsch makes clear every major communion in play during the sixteenth century used punitive discipline to enforce moral codes in one way or the other.  He writes:

All of the major Christian confessions during the early modern period— Roman Catholic, Lutheran, the Church of England, Anabaptist, Reformed— were committed to defending orthodox doctrine and enforcing standards of public morality among their adherents. Nevertheless, reformed churches following Geneva’s example gave special prominence to moral discipline and created institutions to oversee societal righteousness and encourage personal sanctification.

So, for Marinov to claim otherwise is certainly not in line with the history of the matter. It is true that there were figures like Hooker and Andrewes that believed that lay elders shouldn’t have any participation in disciplinary action on the part of the church, but they also didn’t completely jettison the notion of excommunication or disciplinary procedures in the church. Instead, they reserved its use for the ordained clergy when absolutely needed.

The point here, however, is not to say that Geneva was universally normative during the Reformation. Rather, the essential biblical model of church discipline that was elder or minister-led, rightly punitive on occasion in terms of suspensions/excommunications from the Table, and that later informed more modern Reformed practice was part and parcel of what it meant to be Reformed. Geneva is just one particularly historic and influential implementation of these biblical truths where we have really good records to display and fill out what it is a magisterial Reformer like Calvin in the main believed that later largely influenced whole communions. Other Reformed communions held to the same general principles in varying degree.

Mr. Marinov has claimed that Reformed theology has virtually no place for elder or even ministerial rule, that there really is no such thing as punitive discipline in the churches led by duly appointed or ordained officers, and that sections of the Westminster Confession of Faith (to say nothing of others like the Belgic Confession) must be edited where it’s been made clear that the normal ministerial offices of the church remain authoritative on the basis of God’s Word to guard and discipline the flock. That is what at odds with the Reformed tradition on the whole, and not the specifics of any historic implementation of it like Geneva. Geneva merely provides us with a convenient and obvious example.