“The Sinews of the Body of Christ” Calvin’s Concept of Church Discipline -- By: Stephen M. Johnson

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 59:1 (Spring 1997)
Article: “The Sinews of the Body of Christ” Calvin’s Concept of Church Discipline
Author: Stephen M. Johnson


“The Sinews of the Body of Christ” Calvin’s Concept of Church Discipline

Stephen M. Johnson

In 1554 John Calvin, writing to Gaspar Lister, pastor at Nurlingen, sounded a warning to those who neglected the exercise of church discipline.

I congratulate you on the tranquility of your churches, but it is greatly to be regretted that you do not possess, along with it, the sinews of discipline so necessary to insure its continuance.1

His admonition to exercise discipline (including excommunication) is not an isolated emphasis in his writings or practice.

The metaphors Calvin uses to describe discipline demonstrate its importance. Discipline is pictured as: 1) “a bridle to restrain and tame those who rage against the doctrine of Christ,” 2) “a fathers rod to chastise mildly…those who have more seriously lapsed,” and 3) his favorite metaphor, “sinews through which the members of the body hold together.”2 The last of these metaphors underscores discipline’s role in the preservation and health of the church as a body. He remarks:

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.3

Although inadequately treated, the importance of discipline for Calvin can be demonstrated by its place during his pastoral ministry. In fact, to trace discipline through Calvin’s ministry is essentially to write anew his biography. The rejection of Calvin’s disciplinary proposals by the Genevan counsels, at the instigation of the “Libertines,” led to his expulsion in 1538. His pastoral labors at Strasbourg (1538–41) display significant progress in implementing Martin Bucer’s pioneering work in the realm of church discipline. Discipline was a condition for Calvin’s return to Geneva in 1541

and it was one of the first agenda items on the day following his return. Calvin on his return reflected, “I would never have accepted the ministry unless they had sworn to these two points: namely to uphold the Catechism and the discipline.”4

For fourteen years Calvin struggled with the Genevan counsels to obtain for the church a critical element of church discipline—the right of excommunication. In 1543 Calvin wrote to Viret concerning the issue: “The Syndic brought us word that the Senate retained in its own hand the right of exc...

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