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Mennonites in Europe

Church Discipline
Chapter 41 (Pages 347-349)

The early Mennonites were a unit in the emphasis they placed on the need of scriptural church discipline. Originally the leaders in the Protestant state churches, Luther and Zwingli, were of one mind with them on this point. Within a short period, however, both these reformers, as elsewhere indicated, consented to a close union of the church with the state. In consequence they found scriptural discipline impracticable.

Ulrich Zwingli, in the earlier years of his reformatory labors, taught that discipline, including excommunication, "was instituted by the Lord Himself." As late as April, 1525, Zwingli defended discipline as indispensable. But very soon after the establishment of the Reformed state church in Zurich, Zwingli found that under existing conditions discipline was an impossibility. He began to oppose it and to teach that it is not only unnecessary, but adverse to the best interests of the church. Contrary to his advice, the introduction of discipline was attempted in the Zwinglian churches at Basel, St. Gall, and other places, but was soon abandoned as impracticable.

In a synod of the Reformed state church held at Frauenfeld, in 1529, there was a lengthy discussion on this subject between Zwingli and Dominic Zili, the head pastor of St. Gall, who had obviously been under Swiss Brethren influence. Zili demanded the introduction of discipline, asserting that for a true church it is absolutely necessary. Zwingli, on the contrary, spoke as an opponent of discipline. Replying to Zili, he made the remarkable statement that the practice of excommunication "would cost many preachers," indicating that many ministers were guilty of open transgression. In a synod, held in the following year at St. Gall, Zili again defended the need of discipline, against Zwingli who opposed it on the ground that, as he expressly stated, it would jeopardize the material prosperity of the city of St. Gall. Thereupon Dominic Zili, addressing Zwingli, replied, "I believe that all temporal things should be forsaken and counted but loss for the sake of the eternal Word of God, but according to your statement the divine Word must be abrogated and forsaken in the interests of material prosperity." The well-known Reformed church historian, Emil Egli says: "Zwingli at first approved of excommunication and intended to introduce it, but later rejected and opposed it."

Martin Butzer, the Zwinglian reformer of Strasburg admitted that without the practice of discipline there can be no true Christian church. In other words, he conceded that the national church, in which he was a prominent leader, could not claim the prerogative of a true church. John Calvin, in the earlier period of his reformatory labors, was for a time associated with Butzer at Strasburg, and there is adequate ground for thinking that Calvin's strict views regarding the need of discipline are at least partly to be ascribed to the influence of Butzer. There is furthermore convincing evidence that Butzer was, in turn, influenced by the Swiss Brethren. Calvin, in his treatise on the Schleitheim Confession, admitted that the teaching of the Swiss Brethren on church discipline was scriptural. He remarked that the Brethren had learned and adopted their views on this point from his writings. And yet they had held these teachings from their inception as a church and long before Calvin's renunciation of Romanism.

Butzer, realizing the need of discipline, as indicated above, did his best to introduce it in the Reformed state church in Strasburg, but his attempts to this end were in vain. Calvin, on the other hand, was successful in his efforts toward this end. He enforced church discipline in the city of Geneva. His method of enacting discipline was by coercion through the civil authorities. To a greater degree than Luther, Zwingli, Butzer, or any other reformer, John Calvin succeeded in the endeavor of making the state do the bidding of the state church. Excommunication was practiced in the Geneva state church, and excommunicated persons were not tolerated within the borders of the state.

In the debate held at Zofingen in 1532, a spokesman of the Reformed state church said, that to excommunicate (according to the usage of the Anabaptists) all who were guilty of transgression, was impracticable, for the reason that the result would be that "the number of the excommunicated would exceed that of the pious, and they would exile and drive out the pious."

The Swiss Brethren, as repeatedly stated, never swerved from the position which Zwingli and other reformers had originally shared with them, as concerns scriptural discipline. In the great disputations which, after Zwingli's death, the Brethren had with the leaders of the Protestant state church, the Brethren showed that discipline is a vital characteristic of a true Christian church. "There is no [true] church where there is no excommunication after the manner and method of the apostles," said one of their spokesmen in the disputation of Bern, in 1538. The theologians of the state church, on the contrary, defended the view that under a [nominally] Christian government, where the civil authorities punish wrongdoing, church discipline is not essential. And yet at the same time they expressed regret that discipline could not be practiced in their church.

Menno Simons wrote on church discipline:

It is evident that a congregation or church cannot continue in the salutary doctrine and in a blameless and pious life without the proper use of discipline. Even as a city without a wall and gates, or a field without an enclosure or fence, or a house without walls and doors, so is also a church without the true apostolic exclusion. For it would be open to all deceiving spirits, all godless scorners and haughty despisers, all idolatrous and insolent transgressors, yes to all lewd debauchers and adulterers, as is the case with all the great sects of the world. In my opinion it is a vital characteristic, an honor and a means of prosperity for a true church to practice with Christian discretion the true apostolic exclusion and to observe it carefully with vigilant love according to the teaching of the holy divine Scriptures.

Copyright Rod & Staff Publishers

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