Brad Littlejohn has an informative post detailing Calvin’s position on church discipline, and quotes heavily from the Reformer’s response to the famous anabaptist Schleitheim Confession. One aspect of Calvin’s teaching I at first had a bit of trouble with was this:
“The debate is over this: they think that wherever this order [excommunication] is not properly constituted, or not duly exercised, no church exists, and it is unlawful for a Christian to receive the Lord’s Supper there. Thus they separate themselves from the churches in which the doctrine of God is purely preached, taking this pretext: that they do not care to participate in the pollution committed therein, because those who ought to be excommunicated have not been banished.
[Edit: I notice that I did not clarify what I meant here. Calvin is obviously summarizing the position of the Anabaptists at this point. My concern was that his implied negation of this view might be seen as unbiblical.]
However, in typical fashion, Calvin both defends his position and nuances it carefully, removing what troubles I had with it. Firstly, he qualifies his point:
“This pollution ought to be eliminated by the discipline of the ban, and the church ought to diligently work, to the best of its ability, to do so . . . but [even the most diligent] never arrive at a point where there still aren’t a large number of unpunished evildoers present. For the malice of hypocrites is often hidden or, at least, is not so well discovered as to permit one to pronounce sentence against it.
“Now I readily acknowledge that discipline also belongs to the substance of the church—if you want to establish it in good order—and when good order is absent, as when the ban is not practiced at all, then the true form of the church is to that extent disfigured. But this is not to say that the church is wholly destroyed and the edifice no longer stands, for it retains the teaching on which the church must be founded.”
And he also defends it:
“Therefore, let us not deceive ourselves by imagining that a perfect church exists in this world, since our Lord Jesus Christ has declared that the kingdom will be like a field in which the good grain is so mixed with weeds that it is often not visible (Matt. 13:24). Again, the kingdom will be like a net in which different kinds of fish are caught (Matt. 13:47). These parables teach us that although we might want an infallible purity in the church and take great pains to achieve it, nevertheless, we will never see the church so pure as not to contain many pollutions.”
In addition to these comments and others, Littlejohn also provides a closing comment which I think is quite important for grasping the logic of Calvin’s position here:
“let us take thought of what we can do. And when we have done what was in our power and duty, if we cannot achieve what we had hoped to and what would have been desirable, let us commend the rest to God that He might put His own hand to it, as it is His work.”
The only qualification I would want to add to Calvin’s outlined position here is that, it seems from several OT and NT texts, that God’s mercy does have a temporal limit on congregations who refuse to exercise appropriate discipline. I discussed this in an old post on this blog. However, once the quote from Calvin immediately above is taken into account, it does not really conflict with this biblical theme. For one can easily understand that these passages reflect churches that were not truly doing “what was in [their] power and duty.” Now, of course, the question will be raised: how much is enough? And I think the answer is hard to provide a priori. But it seems to me the principle would have to be along these lines: if one has Calvin’s principles, and attempts to follow them sincerely, so that especially heinous and public sins are dealt with, but not attempting to punish things not really known or things only in the heart, then you are probably doing “what is in your power”.
A church may for a time fail to do what they are able, and therefore remain a church even while sin persists in the church. I think Calvin’s appeal to NT churches is powerful in proving his position here. Nevertheless, God will eventually remove the lampstand of congregations that do not do what is in their power. They will be revealed to be what, at least many in the congregation (or the clergy of the congregation), really were: people not willing to obey the commands of Jesus that called them to administer discipline. And intentionally and persistently rebelling against the commands of Jesus are a good sign that something is fundamentally wrong with one’s heart, which is another way of saying, it is a good sign that a person is not really in the (invisible) church at all.
The long and short of it is: I think Calvin was profoundly biblical and pastoral on this matter. His ecclesiology remains a well thought out position that needs to be considered again today.