In 1554 John Calvin wrote these words to another pastor:
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. (Letters of John Calvin, 3:66-67.)
For Calvin, discipline was essential for correcting those who were in error. He believed that Jesus instructed the church to practice discipline in Matthew 18:17-18. Calvin writes:
For this power which we speak depends entirely upon the keys which, in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew , Christ gave to the church. There He commands that those who are contemptuous of private warnings be severely warned in the name of the people; but if they persist in the stubbornness, He teaches that they should be cut off from the believers’ fellowship (Matt 18:15–18). Now these admonitions and corrections cannot be made without investigation of the cause; accordingly, some court of judgment and order of procedure are needed. Therefore, if we do not wish to make void the promise of the keys and banish excommunication, solemn warnings, and such things, we must give the church some jurisdiction. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.11.1)
So for Calvin, the unrepentant sinner was to be cut off from the fellowship of believers in hope that this action would penetrate that sinner’s heart and restore him/her to proper fellowship with God and the church.
I am not aware of many churches today that practice church discipline (although I know there are some). I wonder if, by refusing to discipline its members, the church is actually stunting the spiritual growth of its people; perhaps even giving unbelievers (who wrongly believe they are saved) a false sense of security because they, along with their unrepentant mindsets, are warmly embraced by the community of Christ. Have we contributed to a growth in nominal Christianity in our desire to love others unconditionally? Have we forgotten that sometimes we love others best by correcting them using “tough love” rather than allowing them to continue to live a life of self-destruction?
If we as churches refuse to practice discipline, are we unknowingly weakening the Body of Christ? Calvin summarizes his position in the Institutes:
As the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the Church, so discipline serves as its sinews, through which the members of the body hold together, each in its own place. Therefore, all who desire to remove discipline or hinder its restoration—whether they do this deliberately or out of ignorance—are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.12.1)
Does your church practice church discipline? Do you think that church discipline is appropriate? Is Calvin right when he says that neglecting discipline contributes to the downfall of the church?