Church Discipline in the Reformation

Longtime readers of this blog may recall that for a brief spell last summer, I was churning out a number of posts related to Reformed views of church discipline in the sixteenth century.  Those were, as it were, the scraps on the cutting room floor from an article I was helping my friend Jordan Ballor write for the online journal EGO: European History Online.  After nine months of peer review and such, the article is finally up here.

While the topic may sound a bit arcane, it is in fact crucial to understanding the development of Reformed ecclesiology and political theology, topics near and dear to my heart, as they should be near and dear to yours.  Although our article is largely encyclopedic in intent (that is to say, to provide a broad overview of the whole topic, rather than advance a particular new argument), we do seek to challenge entrenched misconceptions at a couple points.

First, we argue that it is dangerous to do history too much in hindsight, starting from the fact of later rifts and reading those back into earlier periods.  Accordingly, we suggest that the  Zurich/Geneva dichotomy (Erastian vs. Calvinist models of church/state relations), a firm fixture of Reformation scholarship, while a clear reality of the post-1570 world, should not be overstated when we are talking about earlier periods.  The two models shared a number of key similarities amidst their differences, and neither side (particularly the Zurichers) insisted that theirs was the only right way of doing things.  Indeed, there were a number of hybrid forms in other Reformed cities and principalities, which combined elements of each vision.  Moreover, inasmuch as there were two models, it is somewhat inaccurate to see the second as the creation of Calvin and Geneva; to a large extent, Calvin developed his approach from those used in Basel and Strasbourg.

Second, we argue that, to the extent that different models of church discipline, and consequently of church/state relations, did emerge, these were shaped as much by particular local circumstances and political structures as they were by actual ecclesiological doctrines.  Thus we challenge the two-mark/three-mark dichotomy, another regular of Reformation scholarship.  For most of the 16th-century Reformed, the question of whether one classified church discipline as a “mark of the church” or not was not a matter worthy of controversy; nor does it appear that a three-mark ecclesiology necessarily generated a distinctive approach to church discipline and political theology. This is not to say the question is of no consequence, but it was less a matter of whether discipline was designated a mark, than how and in what sense it was so designated.

Third , we suggest that it is inaccurate to see the development of the disciplinarian movement in English Puritanism as a straightforward application of Calvinist ecclesiology or polity (as almost all English Reformation scholars have done).  On the contrary, a more decisive influence for the English Presbyterian movement may have been the approach to discipline and church polity pioneered by Polish reformer John á Lasco, and his associates in the Stranger Churches.  This model, we suggest, may have been particularly influenced by Anabaptism, and it constitutes a third variant of Reformed ecclesiology in the sixteenth century that was at least as influential as the Zurich or Geneva strands.

We conclude,

Even though the magisterial reformers broadly agreed that the civil magistrate had some clear duty to promote true religion, and to defend against breaches of commandments in both the first and the second table of the Decalogue, local contexts and views about hierarchy, anti-clericalism, and the influence of Anabaptist emphasis on a gathered community (whether positive or negative), all helped shape differing views of the role of the church authorities relative to that of the civil magistrates. As the 16th century drew to a close, some models, such as that developed by Calvin and Łaski, were better situated to survive in the context of a free or disestablished, or even persecuted, church. Others, such as that advocated by Bullinger, were more naturally linked to established church polities. Subsequent hardening of differences in the 17th century thus should not obscure the fluidity, diversity, and flexibility of Reformed discipline in the age of Reformation.

All of the above, however, is a dramatic oversimplification of an already dramatically-condensed sketch, so if any of this intrigues you, I would encourage you to check out the whole article, and the copious footnotes.

I should add, in closing, a word of heartfelt thanks to Jordan Ballor for inviting me to assist him in such a fascinating investigation.

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