Calvin on Church Discipline

Last week, I posted an old essay I wrote in my first church on the connection between the sacraments and church discipline. Today I wanted to post a quote by Calvin on his definition of the “keys of the kingdom.”

But first, a couple of comments about leadership and the expression of biblical authority in the Church today.

First, any notion of authority in the local church is one that is met with skepticism in our day. But it has been the practice of godly Christians for generations to understand the right expression of authority as essential to the existence of the Church.

Second, fewer things are more certain to create a spirit of dissension and division as the failure of godly men to carry out their god-given calling as spiritual fathers in Christ’s church in the exercise of spiritual authority amongst God’s people.

That’s correct: it is the failure of leadership that creates division and disunity in the church, not its expression. As counter intuitive as this is, it is true: what divides the church is not godly authority, or elders seeking to lead God’s people in the ways of the Lord, but sin and vice and selfishness and idolatry.

Now here’s what Calvin said about the keys of the kingdom; I quote the Scripture texts below for reference and context.

Calvin on the keys & discipline—Institutes 4.12.1


The discipline of the church, the discussion of which we have deferred to this place, must be treated briefly, that we may thereafter pass to the remaining topics. Discipline depends for the most part upon the power of the keys and upon spiritual jurisdiction. To understand it better, let us divide the church into two chief orders: clergy and people. I call by the usual name “clergy” those who perform the public ministry in the church. We shall first speak of common discipline, to which all ought to submit; then we shall come to the clergy, who, besides the common discipline, have their own. But because some persons, in their hatred of discipline, recoil from its very name, let them understand this: if no society, indeed, no house which has even a small family, can be kept in proper condition without discipline, it is much more necessary in the church, whose condition should be as ordered as possible. Accordingly, as the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so does discipline serve 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 to hinder its restoration—whether they do this deliberately or out of ignorance—are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church. For what will happen if each is allowed to do what he pleases? Yet that would happen, if to the preaching of doctrine there were not added private admonitions, corrections, and other aids of the sort that sustain doctrine and do not let it remain idle. Therefore, discipline is like a bridle to restrain and tame those who rage against the doctrine of Christ; or like a spur to arouse those of little inclination; and also sometimes like a father’s rod to chastise mildly and with the gentleness of Christ’s Spirit those who have more seriously lapsed. When, therefore, we discern frightful devastation beginning to threaten the church because there is no concern and no means of restraining the people, necessity itself cries out that a remedy is needed. Now, this is the sole remedy that Christ has enjoined and the one that has always been used among the godly.

Finally, the two texts in the Bible that either directly mention the keys of the kingdom of heaven, or indirectly describe their use:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13-20 ESV)

And in John, the keys are not mentioned directly, but the function of exercising authority (“binding” and “loosing”) is described:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:19-23 ESV)