The Jurisdiction of the Church by John Calvin

The Jurisdiction of the Church and its abuse as seen in the Papacy


There remains the third part of ecclesiastical power, the most important in a well-ordered state. This, as we have said, consists in jurisdiction.But the whole jurisdiction of the church pertains to the discipline of morals, which we shall soon discuss. For as no city or township can function without magistrate and polity, so the church of God (as I have already taught, but am now compelled to repeat) needs a spiritual polity. This is, however, quite distinct from the civil polity, yet does not hinder or threaten it but rather greatly helps and furthers it. Therefore, this power of jurisdiction will be nothing, in short, but an order framed for the preservation of the spiritual polity.

For this purpose courts of judgment were established in the church from the beginning to deal with the censure of morals, to investigate vices, and to be charged with the exercise of the office of the keys.Paul designates this order in his letter to the Corinthians when he mentions offices of ruling [1 Corinthians 12:28]. Likewise, in Romans, when he says, “Let him who rules, rule with diligence” [Romans 12:8 p.]. For he is not addressing the magistrates (not any of whom were then Christians), but those who were joined with the pastors in the spiritual rule of the church. In the letter to Timothy, also, he distinguishes two kinds of presbyters: those who labor in the Word, and those who do not carry on the preaching of the Word yet rule well [1 Timothy 5:17]. By this latter sort he doubtless means those who were appointed to supervise morals and to use the whole power of the keys.

For this power of which we speak depends entirely upon the keys which, in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew, Christ gave to the church. There he commands that those who are contemptuous of private warnings be severely warned in the name of the people; but if they persist in their stubbornness, he teaches that they should be cut off from the believers’ fellowship [Matthew 18:15-18]. Now these admonitions and corrections cannot be made without investigation of the cause; accordingly, some court of judgment and order of procedure are needed. Therefore, if we do not wish to make void the promise of the keys and banish excommunication, solemn warnings, and such things, we must give the church some jurisdiction. Let my readers observe that that passage does not deal with the general doctrinal authority, as do Matthew 16:19 and John 20:23, but that the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin is for the future transferred to Christ’s flock. Until that day the Jews had their order of governing which Christ establishes in his church as an institution merely, and that with grave sanction. This is reasonable, for the judgment of a contemptible and despised church could otherwise be spurned by rash and foolish men.

And so that my readers may not be troubled that Christ in these same words expresses two things somewhat diverse from each other, it will be helpful if we solve this difficulty. There are, then, two passages which speak of binding and loosing. One is Matthew chapter 16, where Christ, a

FTer promising to give the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter, immediately adds that whatever he binds or looses on earth shall be confirmed in heaven [Matthew 16:19]. By these words he means the same thing as by the other words which occur in John, when, about to send the disciples out to preach, a

FTer he breathes on them [John 20:29], he says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they will be forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they will be retained in heaven” [ John 20:23]. I shall bring to this an interpretation not subtle, not forced, not distorted; but natural, fluent, and plain. This command concerning forgiving and retaining sins and that promise made to Peter concerning binding and loosing ought to be referred solely to the ministry of the Word, because when the Lord committed his ministry to the apostles, he also equipped them for the office of binding and loosing. For what is the sum total of the gospel except that we all, being slaves of sin and death, are released and freed through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus [cf.Romans 3:24]? and that they who do not receive or acknowledge Christ as their liberator and redeemer are condemned and sentenced to eternal chains [cf. Jude 6]? When the Lord entrusted this mission to his apostles to be carried into all nations [cf. Matthew 28:19], in order to approve it as his own and as coming from himself, he honored it with this noble testimony—and he did this to the extraordinary strengthening both of the apostles themselves and of all those to whom it was going to come. It was important for the apostles to have constant and perfect assurance in their preaching, which they were not only to carry out in infinite labors, cares, troubles, and dangers, but at last to seal with their own blood. In order that they might know, I say, that this assurance was not vain or empty, but full of power and strength, it was important for them to be convinced that in such anxiety, difficulty, and danger they were doing God’s work; also, for them to recognize that God stood beside them while the whole world opposed and attacked them; for them, not having Christ, the Author of their doctrine before their eyes on earth, to know that he, in heaven, confirms the truth of the doctrine which he had delivered to them. On the other hand, it was necessary to give an unmistakable witness to their hearers that the doctrine of the gospel was not the word of the apostles but of God himself; not a voice born on earth but one descended from heaven. For these things—forgiveness of sins, the promise of eternal life, the good news of salvation—cannot be in man’s power. Therefore, Christ has testified that in the preaching of the gospel the apostles have no part save that of ministry; that it was he himself who would speak and promise all things through their lips as his instruments. Accordingly, he has testified that the forgiveness of sins which they preached was the true promise of God; the damnation which they pronounced, the sure judgment of God. This testimony, moreover, was given to all ages, and remains firm, to make all men certain and sure that the word of the gospel, whatever man may preach it, is the very sentence of God, published at the supreme judgment seat, written in the Book of Life, ratified, firm and fixed, in heaven. We conclude that in those passages the power of the keys is simply the preaching of the gospel, and that with regard to men it is not so much power as ministry. For Christ has not given this power actually to men, but to his Word, of which he has made men ministers.

2. THE POWER OF BINDING AND LOOSING* The other passage, in Matthew chapter 18, deals, as we have said, with the power of binding and loosing. There Christ says: “If any brother… refuses to listen to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a publican. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” [Matthew 18:17-18 p.]. This passage is not entirely like the first [Matthew 16:19] but is to be understood a little differently, abut I do not make them out to be so different as not to possess considerable connection between them. Both are alike in this first respect; each is a general statement; in both is always the same power of binding and loosing (that is, through God’s Word), the same command, the same promise. But they differ in this respect: the first passage is particularly concerned with the preaching which the ministers of the Word execute; the latter applies to the discipline of excommunication which is entrusted to the church. But the church binds him whom it excommunicates—not that it casts him into everlasting ruin and despair, but because it condemns his life and morals, and already warns him of his condemnation unless he should repent. It looses him whom it receives into communion, for it makes him a sharer of the unity which it has in Christ Jesus. Therefore, that no one may stubbornly despise the judgment of the church, or think it immaterial that he has been condemned by the vote of the believers, the Lord testifies that such judgment by believers is nothing but the proclamation of his own sentence, and that whatever they have done on earth is ratified in heaven. For they have the Word of God with which to condemn the perverse; they have the Word with which to receive the repentant into grace. They cannot err or disagree with God’s judgment, for they judge solely according to God’s law, which is no uncertain or earthly opinion but God’s holy will and heavenly oracle.

Upon these two passages—which I believe I have interpreted briefly, familiarly, and truly—these madmen (as they are carried away by their own giddiness) indiscriminately try to establish now confession, now excommunication, now jurisdiction, now the right to frame laws, and now indulgences, indeed, they cite the first passage to establish the primacy of the Roman see.Thus, they know so well how to fit their keys to any locks and doors they please that one would say they had practiced the locksmith’s art all their lives!

3. CIVIL AND ECCLESIASTICAL JURISDICTION Some imagine that all those things were temporary, lasting while the magistrates were still strangers to the profession of our religion. In this they are mistaken, because they do not notice how great a difference and unlikeness there is between ecclesiastical and civil power. For the church does not have the right of the sword to punish or compel, not the authority to force; not imprisonment, nor the other punishments which the magistrate commonly, inflicts. Then, it is not a question of punishing the stoner against his will, but of the sinner professing his repentance in a voluntary chastisement. The two conceptions are very different. The church does not assume what is proper to the magistrate; nor can the magistrate execute what is carried out by the church. An example will make this clearer. Suppose a man is drunk. In a well-ordered city, imprisonment will be the penalty. Suppose he is a fornicator. His punishment will be similar or, rather, greater. So will the laws, the magistrate, and outward justice be satisfied. Yet he may happen to show no sign of repentance, but, rather, murmur or grumble. Shall the church stop there? Such men cannot be received to the Lord’s Supper without doing injury to Christ and his sacred institution. And reason requires that he who offends the church by a bad example remove, by a solemn declaration of repentance, the offense he has caused.

The argument brought forward by those who feel otherwise is too barren. Christ, they say, entrusted these functions to the church, since there was no magistrate to carry them out. But it very o

FTen happens that a magistrate is rather negligent, indeed, sometimes perhaps deserves chastisement himself, as happened to the Emperor Theodosius.One can say as much about nearly the whole ministry of the Word. Today, then, according to our opponents, let pastors stop rebuking manifest misdeeds; let them cease to chide, to accuse, to rebuke. For there are Christian magistrates who ought to correct these things by laws and sword. And as the magistrate ought by punishment and physical restraint to cleanse the church of offenses, so the minister of the Word in turn ought to help the magistrate in order that not so many may sin. Their functions ought to be so joined that each serves to help, not hinder, the other.

4. THE CHURCH AND THE CHRISTIAN MAGISTRATE Truly, if a man more closely weigh Christ’s words [Matthew chapter 18], he will easily see that a set and permanent order of the church, not a temporary one, is there described. For it is not fitting for us to accuse to the magistrate those who do not obey our admonitions. Yet this would be necessary if the magistrate should take over the office of the church. What of that promise? Are we to say that it is for one year or for a few years: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth… ” [Matthew 18: 18]? Furthermore, Christ here instituted nothing new but followed the custom always observed in the ancient church of his people. By this he signified that the church cannot go without the spiritual jurisdiction which it had from the beginning. And this was confirmed by the agreement of all times. For, when emperors and magistrates began to accept Christ, this spiritual jurisdiction was not at once annulled but was only so ordered that it should not detract from the civil jurisdiction or become confused with it. And rightly! For the magistrate, if he is godly, will not want to exempt himself from the common subjection of God’s children. It is by no means the least significant part of this for him to subject himself to the church, which judges according to God’s Word—so far ought he to be from setting that judgment aside! “For what is more honorable,” says Ambrose, “than for the emperor to be called a son of the church? For a good emperor is within the church, not over the church.” Therefore, they who, to honor the magistrate, deprive the church of this power not only corrupt Christ’s utterance with a false interpretation but condemn in no light fashion all the holy bishops who have been from the time of the apostles for having taken upon themselves the honor and office of magistrate on a false pretext.

5. THE SPIRITUAL CHARACTER OF ECCLESIASTICAL JURISDICTION But it also behooves us, on the other hand, to see what was formerly the true use of ecclesiastical jurisdiction and what great abuse crept in, in order that we may know what is to be abrogated and what of antiquity is to be restored, if we wish to overturn the kingdom of Antichrist and set up again the true Kingdom of Christ.

First, this is the aim of ecclesiastical jurisdiction: that offenses be resisted, and any scandal that has arisen be wiped out. In its use two things ought to be taken into account: that this spiritual power be completely separated from the right of the sword; secondly, that it be administered not by the decision of one man but by a lawful assembly.Both of these were observed when the church was purer [1 Corinthians 5:4-5].

Now the holy bishops did not exercise their power through fines or prisons or other civil penalties but used the Lord’s Word alone, as was fitting. For the severest punishment of the church, the final thunderbolt, so to speak, is excommunication, which is used only in necessity. Now, this requires no physical force but is content with the power of God’s Word. In short, the jurisdiction of the ancient church was nothing but a declaration in practice (so to speak) of what Paul teaches concerning the spiritual power of pastors. “A power has been given us,” he says, “to destroy strongholds, to level every pinnacle that vaunts itself against the knowledge of God, to subjugate and take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience.” [1 Corinthians 10:4-6 p.] As this is done by the preaching of the doctrine of Christ, so, in order that this doctrine may not be a laughingstock, those who profess themselves of the household of faith ought to be judged in accordance with what is taught. That cannot be done unless there be joined with the ministry the right to call those who are to be admonished privately or be more sharply corrected; also the right to bar from the communion of the Lord’s Supper those who cannot be received without profaning this great mystery, Therefore, while Paul says in another place that it is not ours to judge strangers [1 Corinthians 5:12], he subjects the children of the church to censures to chastise their vices, and he then implies that there were then judgments in force from which no one of the believers was immune.