Part of this week’s assignments reminded me of Hebrews 5:14:
“But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (ESV)
Calvin dishes out this solid food in 4.12.11 when counselling against excessive demands for church discipline (emphasis added):
Another special requisite to moderation of discipline is, as Augustine discourses against the Donatists, that private individuals must not, when they see vices less carefully corrected by the Council of Elders, immediately separate themselves from the Church; nor must pastors themselves, when unable to reform all things which need correction to the extent which they could wish, cast up their ministry, or by unwonted severity throw the whole Church into confusion. What Augustine says is perfectly true: “Whoever corrects what he can, by rebuking it, or without violating the bond of peace, excludes what he cannot correct, or unjustly condemns while he patiently tolerates what he is unable to exclude without violating the bond of peace, is free and exempted from the curse” (August. contra Parmen. Lib. 2 c. 4). He elsewhere gives the reason. “Every pious reason and mode of ecclesiastical discipline ought always to have regard to the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. This the apostle commands us to keep by bearing mutually with each other. If it is not kept, the medicine of discipline begins to be not only superfluous, but even pernicious, and therefore ceases to be medicine” (Ibid. Lib. 3 c. 1). “He who diligently considers these things, neither in the preservation of unity neglects strictness of discipline, nor by intemperate correction bursts the bond of society” (Ibid. cap. 2). He confesses, indeed, that pastors ought not only to exert themselves in removing every defect from the Church, but that every individual ought to his utmost to do so; nor does he disguise the fact, that he who neglects to admonish, accuse, and correct the bad, although he neither favours them, nor sins with them, is guilty before the Lord; and if he conducts himself so that though he can exclude them from partaking of the Supper, he does it not, then the sin is no longer that of other men, but his own. Only he would have that prudence used which our Lord also requires, “lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them” (Mt. 13:29). Hence he infers from Cyprian, “Let a man then mercifully correct what he can; what he cannot correct, let him bear patiently, and in love bewail and lament.”
The sooner one learns the lessons Calvin holds out here, the better, because they are a masterful blending of truth and love. I heard a pastor once compare truth to strength and love to beauty. He then posed the question: which would you rather have, strength or beauty? The pastor then said he would prefer strength (truth) to beauty (love). Sadly, that isn’t a biblical option, and this particular pastor should have known better.
Consider Psalm 117. What that little psalm lacks in length, it makes up for in potency in that it answers the pastor’s question head on. Most likely writing after the exile, the Psalmist exhorts all nations to praise the Lord, for two reasons: 1) great is the Lord’s steadfast love; and 2) the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever. The Hebrew here rendered as steadfast love is chesed, which refers to God’s condescending lovingkindness. The word translated as faithfulness is emet, which means firmness, faithfulness, or truth. So the lesson the Psalmist has learned is that God has been infinitely loving (his lovingkindness has conquered) and He has been true to his word (He carried out the forewarned judgment). Israel rebelled repeatedly against God and, true to his many warnings through all the prophets, God judged the nation by overthrowing it and sending the people into captivity. But the Lord also restored them and lovingly brought them back into the land after purging them of their idolatry. And so the Psalmist holds out hope for all nations, in essence proclaiming: if God can deal justly and lovingly in our case, he can do the same for every nation.
But the take-away here is that one may not camp out on either truth at the expense of love, or vice versa, for the simple fact that they are not separated in the holiness of God. In his holiness God is both infinitely just and infinitely merciful. And this is where wisdom is distinguished from folly by the former’s ability to distinguish good from evil (Heb. 5:14) and hence to cut a faithful course between two extremes when confronted with unaddressed “vices”, to borrow Calvin’s term. One extreme is to cut and run or do nothing, which is what laymen are most inclined to do when church discipline fails to live up to expectations, with the rationalization that such is the best way to preserve peace and purity. The other is to seek to impose one’s will in a boorish, unloving manner. The former approach abandons the truth, and the latter abandons love, and so both fall short.
I confess looking back over my life I can think of instances where I have shown too much zeal and not enough love. The pastors in Calvin’s Geneva failed in this area as well at times. In their zeal for the truth, the pastors sought to stop what they regarded as the superstitious practice of parents naming their children after local saints. So when parents brought their children for baptism, the pastor would change the child’s name on the spot. If parents brought “Claude” to be baptized, for instance, the pastor would baptize him as “Abraham”, or some such name. According to an account detailed by Herman Selderhuis in his biography on Calvin (John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, pp. 152-153), this very thing happened on August 26, 1546. The father was so distraught that he took his child back, proclaimed the baptism as illegitimate, and said he would wait until his son turned 15 to have him baptized when he could choose his own baptismal name! Now that is a prime example of “unwonted severity” throwing the whole church into confusion!
Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes: