In several recent posts, I have hinted at the tendency of Reformed disciplinarian thinking to fall into the same errors as Anabaptism, attempting to collapse the gap between the pure Church, hidden in Christ and only glimpsed in the world, and the mixed Church of wheat and tares in which we must live and worship—or, to put it more succinctly, attempting to immanentize the eschaton, anticipating the judgment which only Christ can make by claiming to identify in the here and now all those who are his and those who are not.
In his Brief Instruction for Arming All the Good Faithful Against the Errors of the Common Sect of the Anabaptists (a critique of the Schleitheim Confession), however, John Calvin offers an extraordinarily fine summary of what is at stake, and why rightly Reformed discipline must never seek to overstep its all too human limits. (Of course, it may justly be argued that Calvin himself perhaps did not always sufficiently maintain these caveats in practice, and later disciplinarians would certainly cite him as precedent for some of their excesses.) Here is the nub of the matter:
"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.
"We, on the contrary, confess that it certainly is an imperfection and an unfortunate stain in a church where this order is absent. Nevertheless, we do not hold it to be the church, nor persist in its necessity for communion, nor do we hold that it is lawful for people to separate themselves from the church."
He subdivides this matter into two questions: (1) is a church that does not discipline still a church? (2) is it legitimate to separate oneself from a church on the account that it does not practice discipline?
On the first, he appeals to the example of the Corinthians and Galatians, who were still designated "churches" despite their severe corruptions.
"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."
This ongoing pollution is of two kinds: first, the persistent sin in the lives of believers, who are simul justus et peccator, so that "even if we had the best-disciplined church in the world, nevertheless, we could not evade the fact that we would daily need our Lord's cleansing of us in delivering us from our sins by His grace"; second, in that the church always contains hypocrites, who do not fear God or honor him in their lives.
Now, it is the role of excommunication to remove the latter from the Church, but we must be realistic about its limits:
"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.
"Therefore, in sum, let us hold to what our Lord says, that until the end of the world, it is necessary to tolerate many bad weeds, for fear that if we should pull them all up we might lose the good grain in the process (Matt. 13:25, 29). What more do we want? Our Lord, in order to test his own, has willed to subject His church to this poverty, so that it has always contained a mixture of good and bad."
It is for this reason that Calvin refuses to elevate discipline to a mark of the Church, as some other reformers, influenced by the Anabaptists, were doing:
"For we owe this honor to the Lord's holy Word and to His holy sacraments: that wherever we see this Word preached, and, following the rule that it gives us, God therein purely worshiped without superstition, and the sacraments administered, we conclude without difficulty that there the church exists. Otherwise, what would you have? That the wickedness of hypocrites, or the contemptuous of God, should be able to destroy the dignity and virtue of the Word of our Lord and His sacraments?
"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."
Discipline cannot be a mark, because discipline is something that we do, and the Church is the work of God:
"it would be incorrect to base consideration solely on men. For the majesty of the Word of God and His sacraments ought to be so highly esteemed by us that wherever we see that majesty we may know with certainty that the church exists, notwithstanding the vices and errors that characterize the common life of men.
"In summary, whenever we have to decide what constitutes the church, the judgment of God deserves to be preferred over ours. But the Anabaptists cannot acquiesce in the judgment of God."
The second question to be addressed follows logically from this discussion—ought we to separate ourselves from churches that do not discipline properly? (Note that Calvin has in mind a context where there is essentially one established Christian community—or one Protestant community at least—not a modern denominational setting where many different instantiations of the church exist alongside one another. To separate from the church at Geneva, in Calvin's context, would have been a declaration that it was not a legitimate church.) The Anabaptists said that "wherever the undisciplined are not excluded from the communion of the sacrament, the Christian corrupts himself by communing there." Unholiness, on this understanding, is intrinsically contagious. Note that this is not the concern (which Calvin elsewhere will express) that sinners left undisciplined will corrupt other Christians by their bad example, but that their mere presence at the Table is sufficient to bring judgment on all present, to turn the Supper of the Lord into a table of demons. Such attitudes remain remarkably common among many Reformed today (I knew a Reformed seminary professor once who considered that at a church that practiced paedocommunion, one could not receive a valid sacrament!). Calvin has firm words for this kind of thinking:
"a Christian ought certainly to be sad whenever he sees the Lord's Supper being corrupted by the reception of the malicious and unworthy. To the best of his ability, he ought to work to see that such does not happen. Nevertheless, if it does happen, it is not lawful for him to withdraw from communion and deprive himself of the Supper. Rather he ought always continue to worship God with the others, listen to the Word, and receive the Lord's Supper as long as he lives in that place."
Calvin goes on to fortify this opinion with Biblical examples, and particularly with the example of Christ himself, who did not scorn to participate in the rites of a deeply corrupt temple system. Indeed, we should remember that Paul is quite clear in 1 Cor. 11:28 where chief responsibility for fencing the Table lies:
"he does not command everyone to examine the faults of his neighbors, but says accordingly, 'Let every man search himself, and then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For whoever comes in an unworthy manner will receive his condemnation.
"In these words there are two matters to note. The first is, to eat the bread of the Lord in an unworthy manner does not mean having communion with those who are unworthy of it, but not preparing oneself properly by examining if one has faith and repentance. The second is, that when we come to the Lord's Supper, we ought not begin by examining others, but each should examine himself."
In summary, Calvin says, while churches should seek to discipline the openly ungodly in their midst, such discipline should not think of itself as maintaining more than a poor approximation of the holiness that properly belongs to the Church:
"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."
(all quotes taken from pp. 57-66 of Calvin's Treatises Against the Anabaptists and the Libertines, edited and translated by Benjamin Wirt Farley)