According to Calvin there are three ecclesiastical powers – Doctrine (Institutes, 4.8.9), Legislation (Institutes, 4.10) and the third, Jurisdiction (Institutes, 4.11, 4.12). Jurisdiction is the focus of this chapter and pertains to the discipline of morals, which is an order framed for the preservation of the spiritual polity which is not the same as civil polity.
To Calvin “the preservation of spiritual polity courts of judgement were established in the Church from the beginning to deal with the censure of morals, to investigate vices, and to be charged with the office of the keys” (Institutes, 4.11.1). Calvin cites Paul’s letter to Timothy that there are two kinds of presbyters; “those who labor the word, and those who do not carry out preaching of the word yet rule well” (1 Timothy 5: 17) - those whose power depends on the keys which according to Matthew 18: 15-18, Christ gave to the Church.
To Calvin, Matthew means that “those who are contemptuous of private warnings be severely warned in the name of the people; but if they persist in their stubbornness, they should be cut off from the believers fellowship. He adds that this has to take place only with due and fair process – which gives the Church some jurisdiction for the application of the keys which Christ gave to the church. Calvin says that two passages, one from Matthew, where Christ promises to give the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter and that whatever he binds or loosen on earth shall be confirmed in Heaven, (Matt. 16:19) and gospel of John “if you forgive the sins of any, they will be forgiven, if you retain their sins of any, they will be retained in Heaven” (John 20:23). To Calvin this is solely in reference to the ministry of the Word, because Jesus equipped the apostles for his work.
Forgiveness of sin and damnation which they preached are from God. According to Calvin both text have the power of binding and loosing, it is the same command, and the same promise. The difference is that the first is concerned with the preaching of the word, whereas the second applies to discipline and excommunication which is trusted to the church. The church binds him who it excommunicates but not call him to despair. But one is also loosened when one regrets and is accepted into communion.
The difference between civil and ecclesiastical powers are as follows; that for the civil punishment, the sinner is punished against his will, whereas for ecclesiastical, the sinner professes his repentance in a voluntary chastisement. In doing this it is important that care is taken to understand the true use of ecclesiastic jurisdiction and the first aim of ecclesiastical jurisdiction is “that offenses be resisted, and any scandal that has arisen be wiped out” (Institutes, 4.11.5). In which case the spiritual power be separated from the magistrate’s authority over the use of sword. And also, such jurisdiction be administered not by one person but by a lawful assembly as observed in scripture (1 Corinthians 5: 4 - 5).
Calvin outlines stages of church discipline as follows:
First - Private admonition – if anyone does not live honorably, or has committed any act disserving blame.
Second - if any man stubbornly rejects such admonition and persist in his own vices, he should be admonished second time in the presence of witness. Then he is admonished by public authority. If he persist, then he be removed from the believers fellowship (Matt. 18:15, 17)
According to Calvin, there are private sins and public sins, for which he quotes, “Reprove him, between you and him” (Matt. 18:15) and “rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Timothy 5:20), respectively to show how correction is to be carried out.
Calvin also distinguishes between light and grave sins. He says that “some are faults; others, crimes or shameful acts” (Institutes 4.12.4). For Calvin agrees with Paul on the use of severe remedy – to correct crimes or shameful acts. To Calvin, the purpose of church discipline, include; first, that discipline, the order of the church may be preserved. Second, the good be not corrupted by the constant company of the wicked. Bad examples lead us away from Christian living. Third – Those overcome by shame for their baseness begin to repent.
Calvin enjoins church discipline to be gentle for the church is the body of Christ. Accordingly, he advises individuals also to temper themselves to the wilderness and gentleness of church discipline. Unfortunately, heinous crimes – thievery, killings, and other occur in the church, how do we reconcile or civil powers and ecclesiastical powers over such crimes?