Calvin: Discipline

A couple weeks back I wrote about Calvin and cancel culture – it was a pretty straightforward run at unity and politics and leftists online, using one very specific bit of Calvin as the base for the conversation. Today I want to offer the other end of the spectrum, just in the interest of balance. It’s more for how we think about Calvin than anything else – I just don’t want anyone getting the idea that he’s a nice person. In Book 4 Chapter 12 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin discusses the role and function of discipline in the church. Discipline is important, he says, as a “curb to restrain and tame those who war against the doctrine of Christ,” as a “stimulus by which the indifferent are aroused,” and as a “fatherly rod” (hmm). The whole idea is that if somebody does something bad, the church should punish them. If anybody “commits something worthy of blame, he must allow himself to be admonished” (4.12.2). There’s an escalating system of punishments, and if the sinner “persists in his iniquity,” he (or she) should be “debarred from the society of believers” (12.2). I just wanted to bring that back into the point from the other week about unity – Calvin is still very heavy-handed about morality and so on, to the point where he’s very happy excommunicating people for being bad and unrepentant. When he says that sometimes sinners remain within the church, to him that’s a breakdown in due process.

So the other week I took that idea and used it to talk about how we’re all sinners and we need to create room for people who’re a bit shit. But Calvin’s actually making a different point: he wouldn’t contest that we’re all sinners, but he’d say that some of us are repentant and some of us are not. He’d say that the unrepentant sinners should be rightfully excluded from Christian community, and that we’re failing in our duty if we allow them to remain. He does repeat his caution that we shouldn’t be too hasty to remove ourselves from Christian community: “private individuals must not, when they see vices less carefully corrected by the council of elders, immediately separate themselves from the church” (12.11). That’s the idea that I was riffing on the other week. But that idea is subordinate to the basic principles of correction and punishment. In a sense, actually, the two mistakes here are of a similar kind. If a sinner is not corrected properly, the elders are neglecting their duty to the church. But if someone quits the church because a sinner has not been properly corrected, the quitter is also neglecting their duty to the church. They’re neglecting their obligations to unity alongside the elders. Calvin’s ultimate point, then, is that two wrongs do not make a right. Any breach in the duty of the elders should not be met with splintering off into your own little sect. But the elders do still have a responsibility to punish and ultimately excommunicate unrepentant sinners from the church. That’s the part that I probably neglected the other week.

Within this whole situation, the ironic bit is that Calvin left the church himself. He was raised Catholic, but broke with the church in 1530 – and he’s probably generated a bunch of reasons as to why his break is valid, but to be honest I don’t care that much. We’re interested in the consequences of his actions. They move in two different directions. We must not cut ourselves off from the church, but we must cut ourselves off. The Bible is the sole authority, but some of its teachers are unreliable. Submit yourself to the church, but not one of the fake ones. It’s no wonder that we end up with our current denominational buffet.

Let’s briefly think about the ways in which discipline functions in the modern era. Because it obviously still exists, right. Churches censure their members. We often think about that in quite a negative context – all the stories about people being thrown out of their community for coming out as queer – but discipline does still play a productive and beneficial role. If somebody’s running around and screaming during a funeral, they’d be told to calm down, and if they kept misbehaving they’d be thrown out of the service. In itself, discipline is a neutral proposition. It can be handled well, or handled poorly. It can be applied in ways that we agree with, and in ways that we disagree with. But it obviously still exists, and there are clear instances where it’s good and necessary and appropriate. The key difference, to me, is that in a post-Reformation era we have more leeway to choose the discipline we submit ourselves to. There are a range of denominations, a range of different churches, and they all have different visions of discipline. At least to some extent, we are submitted to religious discipline to the extent that we choose to submit ourselves to it. If we don’t like a church and its rules, we can leave, or withdraw. They don’t have any disciplinary power over us excepting the power that we give to them.

I don’t want to lean into this idea too hard – obviously none of us are really Rational Free Agents. There are external factors that limit and constrain our choices. For instance, children obviously don’t have a lot of say over which church they attend. They are at the disciplinary whims of their parents. There are other things too – maybe you don’t like any of the available choices. Maybe all the churches in your small town are shit, or maybe your family will disown you if you stop coming to Mass. But despite these exceptions, when it comes to religious affiliation, it’s fair to say that many people get to choose (to quite a meaningful extent) the discipline that they submit themselves to. In that sense, hypocrisy and guilt take on an inflated importance. Say you decide that you’re a Baptist. Say you submit yourself to the rules and discipline of that denomination. Say you go on to break those rules – what you’re really breaking are the standards you set for yourself. In that situation, you have two basic options: you feel guilty, or you’re a hypocrite. Guilt very much ties into that idea of failing yourself, falling below your own expectations. On the other hand, if you don’t care about breaking your own rules, then you’re a hypocrite. You don’t genuinely care about the rules you claim to believe in. You can see these dynamics playing out in real life; for instance, when somebody breaks their own rules, you’ll sometimes see them shifting the goal posts really fucking quickly. They’ll say oh, that was never really a rule, it doesn’t really matter – they’ll disown it so they don’t have to feel guilty.

It’s only a brief sketch, really – there’s plenty more to say, and no time left to say it. But even in a very sketchy way, I think we can see how some of the tension from Calvin resonates with part of our cultural milieu today. Calvin told us to submit ourselves to the church, but not to any of the fake ones. He placed an obligation on individual believers to figure out what was true, and to submit themselves to the discipline that they thought was most aligned with God’s will. Even though external pressures continue to exist, we have also internalised personal responsibility for finding and following a moral compass. Part of that manifests in how we punish ourselves for failing to meet our own standards. Sometimes we feel guilty. And then sometimes our ministers or elders tell us not to do things. When that happens, we take a moment to consider whether that’s something we want to submit ourselves to. If we don’t like what they’re saying, we can often move right the fuck on.

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