A Kind Word or Two for Disciplinarianism

In two very interesting essays on Calvinist church discipline, Robert Kingdon suggests some qualifications to traditional narratives.  First, although in England at least, presbyterian church discipline proved so threatening to the jurisdiction of the magistracy, Kingdon doesn’t think it was always seen so.  In “Social Control and Political Control in Calvin’s Geneva,” Kingdon argues that as a matter of fact, so successful was Calvin’s consistory in achieving social cohesion and control in Geneva that it may have been the source of envy by some other magistracies, which were eager above all in that period for an effective way of achieving an orderly, moral populace.  The adoption of Calvinist discipline in the Palatinate, over Erastian, he suggests, may paradoxically have been due to the magistrate’s decision that the former was actually a better political tool.  (Of course, what’s interesting in this whole argument is Kingdon’s realization that ecclesiastical discipline, even in Geneva, was more an extension of civic order than a “government of the spiritual kingdom.”)   

In his second essay, “Calvinist Discipline in the Old World and the New,” however, Kingdon asks us to learn to see this “social control” in positive terms, not merely negative.  Sure, the Genevan Consistory and its offspring were capable of authoritarian overreaches, but in fact, the vast majority of cases the consistory involved itself in were interventions on behalf of the exploited, rather than mere busybody meddling.  And even a controlling morality police, he points out, is not without real social blessings.  Calvinist discipline, he argues, actually worked:

“It did strengthen family ties.  It did reduce immorality.  For example, in every community with a substantial Calvinist presence for which we have adequate records, we can demonstrate that the rate of illegitimate births dropped sharply to very low levels, among the lowest ever recorded in history.”

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