Man, am I enjoying Scott Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors. I have decided to describe it as a pastoral theology disguised as history. Here is Manetsch’s summary of the ways Calvin and his successors believed ministers exercise the power of the keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:19).
First, the spiritual authority to “bind and loose” was exercised in a general way when ministers preached the gospel in their sermons, announcing God’s righteous judgment upon the wicked and God’s promise of salvation to those who turn to Christ in repentance and faith. Second, the power of the keys was employed more particularly when pastors and lay elders conducted annual household visitations to examine the character and doctrine of church members, or when they admonish sinners in private conferences. Finally, ministers and elders employed the power of the keys through the ministry of the Consistory as they confronted people who were guilty of moral failure and excommunicated from the Lord’s Table those who refused to repent of their error. At each stage of discipline, church leaders needed spiritual discernment to apply the appropriate measures of rigor and gentleness to bring about the repentance and restoration of the sinner. Wise pastors, Beza [Calvin’s successor] once observed need “not only to discern the illness, but also the best medicine to prescribe, preaching the Law to the hardened, and the gospel of grace to those despairing. In brief, let us always condemn the sin, but try to save the sinner.” This was Calvin’s view as well. The power of the keys needed to be exercised with wisdom and gentleness in hopes of rescuing the sinner. Otherwise discipline might degenerate into “spiritual butchery.”
Just a couple of notes from this paragraph.
First, church discipline is often understood only as excommunication. This is a serious mistake and fails to recognize that a majority of discipline in a church occurs from the pulpit in a general fashion or one on one either through visitation or counseling.
Second, the lost art of visitation is one of the reasons why sin among the congregation is not more quickly recognized and dealt with. Visitation does two things: it creates a stronger relationship between the minister/elders and the members so when rebuke is necessary there should already be a bond of love. And it gives the minister a chance to be in the home and ask questions about how the member is doing. If the only time a minister/elder speaks with a member is before or after a regular meeting or when there is crisis then sin will not be adequately dealt with.
Third, discipline in all it forms, preaching, private meetings, and excommunication requires great wisdom on the part of ministers. It is easy to make mistakes, especially in our age where the congregation usually does not want anyone exercising authority in their lives, whether from the pulpit or in their living room, and the pastors have rarely seen spiritual authority exercised well, if at all.