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Pierre Viret and Church Discipline

Author: Olivier Favre

Excerpt from Olivier Favre, “Pierre Viret (1511-1571) et la discipline ecclésiastique,”
La revue réformée
, Vol. 49, No. 3 (1998), 55-76

I. Pierre Viret, a great Reformer

Pierre Viret is the second of three sons of a man of the lower middle class, raised in the village of Orbe, not far from Lausanne. Having an inclination for letters and religion, he was, according to the custom of the time, devoted to the priesthood. In 1528, at the age of seventeen, he journeyed to Paris, to the college of Montaigu, which was shortly before frequented by a certain John Calvin. It was here that Viret acquired his solid training, and also where his conversion occurred. He speaks of this event as a painful moment and an intense struggle.1 In His providence, God led him in the French capital to become a privileged instrument for the Reformation of His Church and the conversion of many.

Returning to his native village in 1531, Viret heard a sermon of Farel’s. Some weeks later he mounted the pulpit, convinced by “the thunders” of Farel that he must pursue the newly commenced work. Thus he began a ministry which he did not quit until the moment the Lord called him home, forty years later, at Pau, in the kingdom of Jeanne d’Albret.

Before becoming established at Lausanne in the beginning of 1536, Viret’s ministry led him across French-speaking Switzerland. He went to Neuchatel, then Payerne. He was at Geneva during the “disputation” seeking the establishment of the Reform in that city. He returned many times to meet with his friend Calvin and also to carry on the ministry there.

During Calvin’s banishment from 1537 to 1542, Viret was loaned to the Genevans for a sixmonth duration, and indeed remained a year and a half at Calvin’s request, who desired to have his friend Viret at his side during his return from Strasbourg.

At Geneva Viret was greatly valued and worked a remarkable work. Farel wrote of him to the pastors of Zurich: “I have seen the admirable building constructed by the work of Viret. His labor has been immense to restore the people to the right way.”2

Viret returned to Geneva in 1559, after being banished by the Bernese because of his persistence in establishing Church discipline; he was forced to quit his country once and for all. Owing to the simplicity of his words, and his persuasive gentleness mingled with great depth recognized by all, Viret was so appreciated in Geneva that, from his arrival, a place of pastor was afforded him. The registers of the Lordship of Geneva speak of his “prodigious”3 success, and a certain Verdheiden declares: “His speech was so sweet that he kept his hearers wide-awake with attention. His style had such force and a harmony so caressing to the ear and spirit that the least religious amongst us, the most impatient . . . listened to him ungrudgingly and with pleasure. One has said that they appeared to be suspended upon his lips, that they wished the sermon to be even longer.”4

Nevertheless, it was not at Geneva that Viret’s career ended. Following an illness, he was forced to convalesce in the south of France. His trail is found, among others, at Orange, Nimes, Montpellier, Avignon, Valence, and Lyons. Afterward he permanently left Geneva with his family and, in 1567, responded to an appeal from Jeanne d’Albret, queen of Navarre. The acts of the Synod of 1567 attest that “under the good pleasure of the Queen, . . . his residence will be at Pau . . . and he shall be named the super numeraire following the Queen, as his health and convenience will allow.”5

Despite the little information that we have on this period of his life, some indications show that Viret very likely played a role of first importance in the establishment and organization of the Reformed Church. His salary was largely above that of a married pastor. He was moderator of four successive synods, even though the regulations stipulated that it was impossible to occupy this post for two consecutive years.

Throughout the course of his life, Viret wrote profusely: about fifty works, some of which are quite voluminous. In the majority of them his constant concern for the edification of the people is apparent. This is why he made abundant use of dialogues. He desired the Word of God and doctrine to be given the people; hence he encouraged, among others, the translation of the Psalms into Bearnese and that of the New Testament into Basque.

Our purpose is not to worship a man, but only to demonstrate that Pierre Viret is a great forgotten Reformer. Where does he stand on the Reformer’s Wall in Geneva? He is mentioned in a base relief on the left side as he who administered the first evangelical baptism at Geneva on February 22, 1534, but he is not placed beside the four great statues of Knox, Farel, Calvin, and Beza. Nevertheless, when Beza speaks of Calvin, Farel, and Viret in his True Portraits, he calls them “the elite trivet,” and in his Latin verses, he praises “the wisdom of Calvin, the thunders of Farel, and the honey of Viret.”6

Though Viret sojourned at Geneva and in Bearn, he is above all the Reformer of the city of Lausanne. It was here that he exercised the greatest part of his ministry, and here also that his thought over Church discipline was developed and affirmed. As he himself declared, Viret settled in Lausanne a little before the invasion of the land by the Protestant Bernese army which occurred February–March, 1536.

If, at first, Viret put up with this new sovereign who protected him in the proclamation of the Gospel, tensions were not long in arising because of the dictatorial attitude with which the Bernese sovereign tended to run the newly Reformed Vaudois Church. Various controversies burst forth: over the ecclesiastical goods, predestination, the Lord’s Supper, the administration of baptism, the catechism, the instruction manual of the Lausanne Academy—which was no other than Calvin’s Institutes—and, finally, Church discipline.

Lausanne also became the city in which the tensions between two divergent theologies were focused. The Bernese embodied a Zwinglian ecclesiology, with its concept of a State Church to which its citizens belonged. According to them, it was the magistrate who possessed final authority over the Church. Though Viret and the Lausanne pastors who assisted him adhered to an ecclesiology which we would by anachronism call “Calvinist,” it very probably developed in an earlier time, independently of Calvin. It was an ecclesiology which maintained the distinction of the two jurisdictions (that of the Church and State), though both were instituted by God and received their authority from Him.

Bern refused point-blank to grant the pastors the “power” to exercise excommunication upon “scandalous” (notorious or public) sinners, permitting them at most to summon them before the Consistory, that they might be “duly warned . . . nevertheless we will not hear of the Lord’s Supper being refused them.”7

This was not sufficient for the Lausanne pastors—Viret most of all—who maintained that excommunication played an integral part in a Biblical Church discipline. To the very end, they sought to obtain the Biblical means to correct the “scandalous” sinners, twice threatening, in 1558, to postpone the Lord’s Supper if they did not obtain a favorable response to this discussion. This was too much for the Bernese, who suspended the Supper until a new order, and banished Viret, Valier, and Banc, the three pastors of Lausanne. The rest of the Classe joined with the pastors, so much so that all the pastors were incarcerated for two days in the chateau of Lausanne.

This is a dramatic moment for the history of the Lausanne Reformation. This land of asylum having become inhospitable, it appears that six hundred to a thousand French left Lausanne with Viret, some for Geneva (this was the case, among others, with the better professors of the Lausanne Academy), others to return to their own country.

II. The importance of Church discipline for Pierre Viret

Viret’s relentless desire to maintain Church discipline in all its extent reveals the importance he attached to it. For him, this discipline is essential, and no Church worthy of the name can neglect it, for it is impossible that the Word of God and the sacraments be properly administered without it. Church discipline is at the heart of his ecclesiology.

The importance that Viret attached to discipline arises from the fact that he rightly linked it to the preaching of the Word of God and the sacraments, particularly the Lord’s Supper. It was instituted by God; He “who ordained and commanded that the Gospel be preached, and who ordained baptism and the Lord’s Supper, also ordained this discipline.”8 Thus, for Viret, the Church could neglect this discipline “if she can neglect the administration and use of the Word of God and the sacraments.”9 Discipline is thus the line which couples the two poles of Reformed orthodoxy: doctrinal faithfulness and conformity of life to this doctrine. Viret believed that the Church must be purified both of heretics as well as the lecherous and immoral: “The dogs and swine must be cast out of the assemblies of the Church: those who declare themselves dogs and swine by their life must be treated in the same manner as those who declare themselves such by their doctrine.”10

By his words Viret testified of his attachment to a well-disciplined confessing Church. He could not tolerate the inclusion into the bosom of this people of a multitude who had made no confession of faith and refused to conform their life to Biblical standards.

From what we have seen, we understand the great importance of Church discipline for Viret. It is practically the third mark of the true Church, unceasingly accompanying the preaching and sacraments. Its importance is placed third, essentially constructive, seeking and consisting of:

  • restoring the erring believer

  • protecting the Church against false teachers

  • preserving God’s honor and the purity of the sacrament

Certainly, discipline chastises and excludes the one who will not amend his ways, but its driving force is always love, a love which must change its object according to the reaction to the discipline. First, it is a love which is exercised toward one’s neighbor. Then, this love is exercised toward the Church of Jesus Christ to the end that it be not contaminated by error. And, finally, this love is also exercised toward God, whose glory and honor within the bosom of His people must not be tarnished by a rebellious sinner.

In discipline, Viret did not believe that our neighbor must be the sole beneficiary of our love. He is the first, certainly, for if we see him in sin, it is by love and not suspicion that we must go to restore and edify him by the Word of God. If he hardens himself in his sin, however, the love must change its object. It is no more a question of favoring him with love. This rebellious sinner is a “wolf” who risks ravaging the flock. For Viret, to ignore this and remain passive in such a situation is to lack love for the faithful brothers and the Church of God.

Peter: Do you think we act in mercy if, after a wolf has eaten the sheep, we have pity and compassion on him, and save him, that he might eat still others? Nathaniel: It seems to me that this would rather be a great cruelty. For this would be to murder the sheep to save the wolves, and abuse the mercy which it is fitting to exercise toward the sheep.
Peter: . . . there are many who, in matters of justice, employ such love and forgiveness, in tolerating the wicked who deserve punishment, and leaving them to trample the righteous and innocent, instead of punishing them as they ought. The same also ofttimes happens in the Church, when we tolerate far too much the scandalous, and pay no heed to the great damage they bring to the entire Church.”11

Likewise, if the Church tolerates a scandalous sinner within its midst, it scorns the honor of God every time this person approaches the Lord’s Table. Such laxity is not without consequence for the Church who, by her tolerance, finds herself associated with this sinner and his deeds, at the same time placing herself also under God’s judgment.

“For if we do our duty toward such people by removing the evil and setting right the scandals which they do . . . it is certain that we render ourselves guilty of the sins which they have committed and the punishment they merit by them.”12

We thus see that if Viret could not neglect Church discipline and excommunication, it was by no means out of a desire for revenge, but out of love:

  • He loved his sheep and desired to see them grow in obedience to the Word; he therefore did not hesitate to resort to the means that the Lord appointed in Scripture to spur them on.

  • He loved his flock; therefore he did not hesitate to resort to the means that the Lord appointed in Scripture to protect them.

  • He loved his Shepherd—the Good Shepherd—therefore he did not hesitate to resort to the means that the Lord appointed in Scripture to glorify and honor Him.

Do we so love our brothers and sisters, our churches and our God, to resort to the divinelyappointed means, even if they are painful to employ? Even if they are often laden with consequences for those who employ them?

III. The framework of discipline according to Viret

Upon whom rests the responsibility to exercise Church discipline? Such is the question we shall now attempt to answer in this section.

For Viret, supreme authority resides in God, who delegates it to those whom He has established: the civil magistrates and the ministers of the Gospel. Their functions cannot be lawfully exercised save by submitting, both, to the written Word of God: “. . . when the Law reigns and commands, it is God who reigns and governs, and not man, who is but God’s minister . . .”13 However, despite their common divine appointment, their common book of reference, and a complementary and reciprocal relationship which must be exercised between them, Viret did not confuse the civil magistrate and the minister of the Gospel. Their fields of action were distinct: “For the minister of the Church and the office of the magistrates are two charges clearly distinguished by the Word of God. We must not confuse the one with the other, but always distinguish them, as the Lord who ordained them distinguishes them.”14

The interpretation of Scripture and the exercise of Church discipline is given to the ministers of the Gospel, whereas the establishment of laws is attributed to the magistrates. It is thus within the Church that the practice of Church discipline finds its application. Such being the case, we must turn our attention to this Church to discover its structure.

Viret distinguished between what he called the true Church—that is, the Church universal—and the local manifestations of the people of God. The Church universal, known by God alone, is the believing people throughout all time. Man is incorporated into it by the regeneration God works in the heart. Thus, membership into this Church depends upon God alone, who alone knows the hearts. But, here below in time, this Church universal is revealed in the form of local churches. Each is imperfect, for the acceptance of a new member into its midst does not pass judgment upon the heart, but only upon visible and fallible requirements: confession of faith and growing conformity of life unto the Word of God.

There is thus a mixture within the local church, but the Church cannot long bear the responsibility of allowing the true nature of the sinner to remain hidden. It is the work of the preaching of the Word, coupled with a right exercise of discipline, which brings this hypocrisy to light and causes the assembly of the people of God to grow in holiness.

But within this Church not all possess the same function. The responsibility to exercise discipline resides in the ministers and elders, their decisions being ratified by the Church. In referring to the New Testament, Viret recognized that these different terms described one and the same function, which we currently designate by the term pastor. In the person of the pastor is thus found collected an important number of distinct functions described by the New Testament. At the time of his consecration, the pastor receives from the Church—who received it from the Lord—an authority of office, the power to accomplish his ministry. Thus pastors “must never allocate to themselves any power or authority the church has not, and cannot, give them. And the Church cannot give them any more than what she has received from her Bridegroom and Head, upon whom she wholly depends.”15

By this means Viret established a double action which seeks to prevent every form of deadly tyranny. The minister possesses authority over the Church, but he receives it from the Church, herself having received it from Christ. If such is the case, no man, not even the pastor, possesses such an authority as to exempt him from submission to Church discipline. This is why Viret advocated a sort of self-supervision among the pastors.

The minister is thus a servant consecrated by the Church and employed by God within her. He summarizes his task thus: “The complete charge of ministers of the Church consists in naught but prayers, teaching, the administration of sacraments, and Church discipline.”16

Although these four tasks form an indissoluble whole, the brevity of this article constrains us to limit ourselves to the teaching of doctrine and Church discipline. As we have already seen, the two are closely linked. Very often, moreover, private teaching administered by the pastor in the home of the parishioner is intertwined with the first steps of Church discipline. For he must teach “by pure doctrine, [but also] by exhortations and admonitions taken from the Word of God, and sometimes by correction and rebuke, when occasion requires it.”17

In order to sustain pastors in their disciplinary task, Viret added to them what he called elders. These were men whose mission was “to aid and maintain the discipline of the Church, without concerning themselves with preaching.”18 These were members of the Consistory, chosen for their wisdom and virtue, very often men holding a public office.

Composed of pastors and laymen, the consistory’s purpose was to prevent the tyranny of the pastor over his Church, and to be representatives of the Church community. For

it is good that there also be other people of the Church, who be joined with them to recognize that the Church, concerning the power and discipline which Jesus Christ has given it, . . . is not a monarchy, or some other temporal lordship, in which certain rulers are all-powerful: but is a free community which is therefore called the communion of the saints, to which Jesus Christ has given in general—and not to any one in particular—all power and authority, to be used for edification, and not for destruction.19

IV. The practice of discipline

It must not be thought that, before the establishment of the Reformation, excommunication was nonexistent. It was practiced, albeit badly. Thus, in his Exposition familière sur le Symbole des apôtres, Viret denounced an abusive use of excommunication: “How can the bishops and priests excommunicate snakes, worms, mice, leeches, eels, and other such beasts?”20 It is within such a context that he was compelled to work to reestablish a sound Church discipline. But of what does this truly consist?

Before broaching the different stages of this discipline, it is useful to note that Viret distinguished between different “types” of sin. There are sins committed knowingly and those which result from the ignorance of those who practice them. There are scandalous and public sins which necessitate a swift and public intervention. But there are also secret sins which we must entrust to the Spirit of God who applies the Word to the heart of the believer. This allows us to understand that Viret did not envisage discipline as a simple rigid and uniform code of laws, in which a sanction against every sinner is found. No, what counted above all was not punishment, but seeing the sinner repent and return from his wicked way. We must then be watchful to make use of the most favorable means to produce this result.

We come now to the “levels” of the disciplinary system we believe to have discovered within Viret’s writings. It is composed of six stages which we will treat successively even though, in the practice and function of the nature of the offence, it is possible to omit some of them.

1.) Personal discipline

Viret believed in the importance of public preaching in the process of sanctification. This is why, in his preaching, he never limited himself to the mere exposition of Scripture, but he also applied it to the specific needs of his listeners. He did not hesitate to join the Law to the Gospel, for “[the ministers] must begin the proceedings of every man by their preaching, showing by the Gospel the salvation offered them in Jesus Christ. This is what I literally call binding and loosing, pardoning and retaining sins . . .”21

When the Word of God is faithfully preached, the minister exercises the first stage of discipline. When he faithfully proclaims the Law-Gospel, he binds and looses, opens and closes access to the kingdom of God to his listeners, according to the work that the Spirit accomplishes in their hearts. This first stage is hidden, characterized by the internal personal struggle to resist affections contrary to the will of God, a will expressed by the preaching of the Word.

2.) Private admonition

Private admonition is joined to what we earlier called “private preaching.” It might happen that, during a visit, the pastor discovers a sin within his faithful. At this moment, it is his duty to resort to exhortations and admonitions to convict his listener of sin. But this must be done “out of zeal for the glory of God, and out of the kindness and love he bears toward the sinner, to remove him from his sin and restore him to God; he does well if in doing this he exposes his sin, and names it by name, without dressing it up . . .”22

On the pastor resides this weighty responsibility to discern the nature of sin, to explain the Word and, if necessary, to address a more or less firm rebuke by way of remedy to the person in question.

In the event that the faithful respond obediently to the exhortation, the discipline can end there; if not, it must follow its course and proceed to stage three.

3.) Admonition with two or three witnesses

With this stage we arrive at a point of Viret’s disciplinary practice which remains obscure. He speaks of it several times in supporting the text of Matthew 18:15-16, but no biography of the Reformer alludes to the practice of a visit of several people to the home of the disciplined.

This being the case, could it be that the Consistory played this role of “two or three witnesses”? This appears improbable for, as we have seen, it is by definition a representation of the Church body.

Faced with this obscurity, we must not fail instead to advance the hypothesis that Viret, tormented and occupied with the numerous scandalous sinners he had to regain, never had the occasion to practice this stage of discipline, though it was well present in his spirit.

4.) The Consistory

It is before the Consistory that every person who continues in his rebellion must be summoned. By its representative office of the Church, only those presumed wisest were permitted to offer a ruling on the case and impose the punishment suitable for each situation.

When the admonition of the Consistory bore its fruits, another advantage is discerned: that of not having to unnecessarily reveal this sin to all. If, on the other hand, the sinner persisted in his lack of repentance and an excommunication must be pronounced, it was the duty and jurisdiction of the Consistory to do so. But, in this particular occurrence, Viret on several occasions counseled the confirmation and approval of this decision by the assembled Church.

5.) Excommunication

In practice, how did Viret conceive excommunication? The Vaudois Reformer left abundant writing on the subject.

Let us recall, first of all, the profoundly spiritual nature of this punishment. It is a visible sign of an invisible judgment and cutting off. It was a portrayal within the local church of what occurred in the spiritual realm of the invisible Church if the sinner persevered in his way. Thus, to be excommunicated from the local Church is to be rejected from the kingdom of God as long as an attitude of Christian repentance does not arise to prove the contrary. For

excommunication is not a vain ceremony, . . . but a sure witness of God, which He has ordained to make known and declare who are to be taken as members of His Church, or to be taken as corrupt, cut off, rejected members of it, and consequently of the kingdom of heaven, to which none can enter if they be not first a true member of the Church.23

The end of this quotation recalls an oft-forgotten teaching of the Reformers: outside the Church there is no salvation. This does not mean that the Reformers ascribed to the Church a work which can come from God alone—that is, the work of salvation in the heart. But the Church, without having this regenerative power, nevertheless remains the earthly representation of the invisible people of God; thus that which is cut off from the local church because of sin cannot claim to be in communion with Jesus Christ, the Church’s Bridegroom.

We now understand why Viret could make an equivalence of sense between the terms excommunicate, bind, and deliver to Satan. For him, to deliver to Satan clearly conveys what the first expression so plainly demonstrates: a rejection into the kingdom of the devil.

“St. Paul used this manner of speaking—delivering to Satan—for excommunication, that all might better understand the state of the excommunicated, and how this ecclesiastical censure and correction is to be feared when it is lawfully exercised according to the Word of God.”24

Because excommunication is such a grave matter, Viret took particular care to repeatedly expose its consequences in detail to those who risked incurring it upon themselves. As a last resort, these people were publicly named during three successive Sunday worship services to the end that, awakened by its gravity, they might yet return to God.

But if, despite all these attempts, they continued in their rebellion, the declaration of excommunication was made.

By the care, patience, and wisdom of Viret, we see that excommunication was by no means a hasty rejection to rid oneself of an embarrassing person. The desired goal is first to restore the brother. This is why broaching the question of Church discipline while omitting to speak of reconciliation is to forget its essential part.

6.) Reconciliation

For Viret, reconciliation with Jesus Christ was inevitably bound to reconciliation with His Church. “For we cannot have reconciliation with Jesus Christ her Head if we do not also have it with her [the Church]. For He cannot be divided or separated from her, nor her from Him. But just as Jesus Christ her Bridegroom is forgiving, so also she is forgiving toward her children, . . .”25

Thus, even as the Church has the duty to excommunicate, so she must also welcome back those who display the fruits of a sincere repentance. The spiritual door of reconciliation is to be received by Christ into His kingdom. Just as with excommunication, it is not the Church who possesses the power, in herself, to grant salvation. Nevertheless, if she rests upon the Biblical requirements to discern the reality of the repentance of the excommunicated, her task is effective, for she acts with the authority delegated her by Christ.

Just as with excommunication, reconciliation must not be done in haste. Viret emphasized time as a determining factor to test the sincerity of the repentant. He even recommended at times attaching a “punishment” (a work—not meritorious, but reparational) to repentance to allow the entire Church to discern the new direction of the repentant sinner. In the occasion that these conditions were met, reconciliation could occur. This, however, was not a matter of a quiet reintegration into the bosom of the people of God. It must be just as solemn as the ceremony of excommunication. As much as possible, Viret recommended doing this on a day in which the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated, to reinforce the symbol.

It is with this magnificent ceremony to the Spirit that the Church must courageously envisage exercising Church discipline, counting on the faithfulness of God toward His elect.

V. The practice of discipline in an age of tolerance

Can the twentieth-century Church gain anything from Viret? We believe so. As this article is not the place for a detailed analysis of Viret’s thought, we must set aside the rest and finish by inciting some reflections upon the subject which has engaged us.

A) A true love

The current situation of the Church is very often that of sentimentalism and laxity. In making tolerance and man’s “liberty” the rule of all things, we have come to denigrate—indeed, condemn—Church discipline and those who practice it. In the name of this type of love, we prefer to keep the gangrenous member within the body, at the risk of endangering the entire body.

But what would you say to a love shown you by a doctor who refused to amputate your gangrenous arm because of the fondness he had for this diseased member? We believe that the present difficulty of practicing Church discipline finds its roots, in a large measure, in a lack of love for the Church of Jesus Christ and the God who saved her. Thus the renewed practice of Church discipline proceeds from a rediscovery of the character and attributes of God. He is the thrice holy, perfectly just, immutable God, intolerant toward sin and the rebellious sinner, but offering grace to all those who come to Him in Christ.

In His grace this holy, just, and good God who saved us does not leave us alone. He joins us together in churches, thus affording us the means of grace necessary for our growth and conformity into the image of His Son. And one of these means is that of Church discipline.

We learn to have a profound brotherly communion within the Church—a communion which is revealed by a true love, from which exclusion is a genuine deprivation—having a love which dares to recover the brother in sin for, in the light of Matthew 18:15, the first stages of Church discipline must not be the prerogative of pastors alone.

B) An accurate use of the Word of God

Within the Church today an increasing doubt exists over the ability of the Word of God to accomplish the work of God. Public preaching is shortened, private preaching is tainted by psychology, and the Bible is scarcely opened.

Nevertheless, as the apostle Paul taught Timothy (2 Timothy 3:16-17), the Bible is the instrument perfectly adapted to the pastoral task. If it was sufficient to perfectly equip this young servant of God in a dysfunctional Church, is it not so for us today?

This Word of God works the work of God, both in the formative discipline of the personal response to the preaching and in the preventative and medicinal discipline which can lead to excommunication. We have no fear and no doubt.

  • We must courageously preach both the Law and the Gospel, for without conviction of sin, there is no Gospel.

  • We must study the Truth, that we might utilize it with precision in the particular cases we will be confronted with during private conversations.

It is by a healthy use of this Word that we show whether we truly love the sheep of our flock.

C) An accurate understanding of authority

Today, in matters of authority, two tendencies divide us: clericalism, with a class of virtually untouchable pastors, and anti-clericalism, with its search for the abolition of all differences and offices.

By his position on discipline, Viret guards against authoritarian clericalism by emphasizing that every man is a sinner and that none among them, not even the pastor, can pretend to be above a proper use of Church discipline. Discipline is not the “weapon of the pastor” with which he destroys his personal enemies. When he is convicted of sin, he himself must also submit to this discipline, and the Church as a body must remember that it has the duty to call back their pastor when he has lost his way—indeed, to excommunicate him if he persists in his sin.

On the other hand, Viret never allows us to believe that preaching, the administration of the sacraments, and Church discipline can be practiced by any member of the Church whatsoever. These are inseparable acts, the responsibility and administration of which has been confided to those whom God has given as teaching pastors to His Church (Ephesians 4:11).


Thanks to Pierre Viret, we have discovered that Church discipline is not a trivial practice in the life of the Church which she can easily neglect. It is thus essential that we become aware of its importance if we desire our churches to remain true Churches.

But the practice of Biblical discipline is not without risk. Viret was banished from his country for this very reason. Nevertheless he preferred banishment to surrender, for he understood that he went for the honor of his Lord and the survival of the Church of Jesus Christ. Currently, the risks are different, but the question remains the same: shall we prefer our comfort, our pastoral position, the image of the pastor who “knows what’s what,” to faithfulness to Biblical teaching? May the Lord by His grace allow us to make the right choice, no matter the cost.

Olivier Favre is pastor of two small Reformed Baptist churches in Neuchâtel and Payerne, Switzerland

Author Bio:

Oliver Favre served as pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Lausanne for fourteen years. He now pastors two small pioneering churches in Payerne and Neuchâtel in French-speaking Switzerland. He is married to Denise and they have three adult sons. After undertaking his theological studies at the European Bible Institute in Lamorlaye and at the Free Reformed Theological Faculty of Aix-en-Provence where he obtained a Masters degree in Theology, writing his thesis on the Ecclesiastical Discipline in the Thought of the Reformer Pierre Viret.


[1] Pierre Viret, Disputation Chretiennes . . . (Geneva, 1544), preface, 7-9
[2] Cited in Philippe Godet, Pierre Viret, 65-66
[3] Henri Vuilleumier, Notre Pierre Viret (Lausanne, 1911), 237
[4] Verdheiden, Praestantium aligot theologorum effigies, cited in J. Cart, Pierre Viret, le Réformateur Vaudois (Lausanne, 1864), 129
[5] L. Latourette, “Les dernières années de Pierre Viret (1567-1571),” Revue de Theologie et de Philosophie (Lausanne, 1938), 60-68
[6] Cited in Godet, Pierre Viret, 81
[7] Ibid. 63
[8] Pierre Viret, De la vertu et usage de ministère de la Parole de Dieu et des sacrements dépendants d’icelle (Geneva, 1548), 337
[9] Pierre Viret, Instruction chrestienne en la doctrine de la loi et de l’Evangile . . ., Tome I (Geneva, 1564), 91
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., Tome II, Ibid., 577-578
[12] Viret, De la vertu et usage de ministère de la Parole de Dieu, 331
[13] Pierre Viret, De l’Estat de la conférence, de l’authoritié, puissance . . . (Lyons, 1565), 57-58
[14] Ibid., 129
[15] Ibid. 71-72
[16] Ibid., 131
[17] Pierre Viret, De vray ministère de la vraye Eglise de Jésus-Christ . . . (Geneva, 1560), 6
[18] Pierre Viret, Des actes des vrais successeurs de Jésus-Christ et de ses apôtres . . . (Geneva, 1554), 254
[19] Viret, Instruction chrestienne, Tome I, 85-86
[20] Pierre Viret, Exposition familière sur le Symbole des apôtres . . .(Geneva, 1544, 1560), 333
[21] Ibid., 416-417
[22] Pierre Viret, Réponse aux questions proposées par Jean Ropitel . . . (Geneva, 1565), 150
[23] Viret, Instruction chrestienne, Tome I, 88
[24] Ibid., 74
[25] Viret, De l’Estat de la conférence, 126-127

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