Oecolampadius: Father of Reformed Church Discipline

We can be very thankful that God raised up a man such as Oecolampadius to study the doctrine of church discipline and develop it for proper use in the church. He was a shepherd and heart. He brought to light the pastoral nature of church discipline, in contrast to the false idea that church discipline is punishment. He also saw that discipline was the work the Great Shepherd through the church, and not the work of secular authorities. Today we include this doctrine under the reformed concept of the autonomy of the local church. The autonomy of the local church means that each congregation is a complete manifestation of the body of Christ who exercises His authority through individual believers and the special offices of minister, elder and deacon which are called by Christ through the church to rule the church by means of preaching, administering the sacraments, and exercising Christian discipline.

Oecolampadius was born in 1482 to parents who were quite different in character from one another. He was given the name Johannes Hausschein. His father was known in the small town of Weinsberg as a rather shrewd merchant while his mother was noted for her religious piety and dedication to good works among her neighbors. We can be thankful that young Johannes received his mother’s character along with his intellectual gifts because his wise and loving character lives on in the Reformed approach to church discipline.

Although his father could see no use for higher education, his mother directed him along a course of study that would prepare him for higher education. In 1499 the University of Heidelberg admitted young Johannes, now 17 years old, to study under its distinguished professors. It is likely that here Johannes was introduced to Reformation ideas through the reform minded Jakob Wimpfeling who taught only a few years at Heidelberg, but had a strong and attractive personality.

After completing his liberal arts education in 1503, his father wanted him to study law, but he pursued a degree in theology instead. Before completing the degree in theology, Johannes accepted the invitation to tutor the young son of Philip of Pfalz and therefore lived in Mainz from 1506 to 1510. After tutoring he was called to preach at his home town until 1513 when he resigned after realizing his need for further education.

From this time on, the life of Johannes was flooded with Reformation ideas. Between 1513 and 1516 he studied Greek and Hebrew at Tubingen, Heidelberg, and Basel, became good friends with Melanchthon and Capito, and helped Erasmus with his Greek New Testament. He even began to use the Greek form of his name around this time: Oecolampadius; perhaps an indication of his enthusiasm for Greek and reading the Word of God in the original languages.

After this flurry of academic activity, he went back to Weinsberg to preach with a baccalaureus formatus. But soon, 1518, he went to Basel, where, among other things, he published his Greek grammar, received his doctorate, and became Cathedral preacher of Augsberg. During this time he began to read the writings of Luther. His reading of Luther had something to do with the great tension he began to feel between the practices of the church and his own experience. Though Oecolampadius never indicates why, most historians believe that it was this tension which forced him in 1520 into the Brigittine monastery at Altomunster.

It was not long, however, before he discovered to his horror that the monastery was full of the same conflict between church practice and what the Scriptures taught. Nevertheless he stuck it out for two years, using the agitation of his situation to formulate his thoughts.

He finally came to the conclusion that “The rock on which Christ intended to build his Church is not Peter nor even his faith alone, but the faith of all believers in Christ.”1 Unable to contain himself, Oecolampadius ended up making an “open challenge against the Church’s entire system of sacramental dispensation and her authority guarded by the holy order of priesthood.”2 Finally in 1522, he fled the monastery “a fully-fledged and convinced Reformer,” and hid in Basel. But because Oecolampadius was famous as a scholar and evangelical preacher, the people forced him out of his scholarly recluse to the pulpit of St. Martin’s Church.

The city of Basel was on the brink of making a complete reform. The subsequent process of reform (1522-1528) depended on Oecolampadius for its success and provided him with the environment necessary for doing his work in Reformed polity. Iconoclasm and other inappropriate behavior of overzealous people followed closely in the wake of reform, and left Oecolampadius, along with other Reformers, feeling the need for discipline in the life of the church. But “What distinguishes Oecolampadius from all the rest of his fellow Reformers, either in Switzerland or Germany, was his profound insight into the very nature of church discipline itself, namely its pastoral and curative function.”3

It is not clear exactly how Oecolampadius came to his position on discipline. His position appears to be quite original with him. He did not get it from Zwingli of Zurich or Haller of Bern. Neither did it come from the Anabaptists. Demura remarks in his thesis that:

“The general tenor of his theology, characterized by the pre-eminence of love as the central motif of Christian life and thought may have something to do with the formation of Oecolampadius’ idea of restorative, curative, and amendatory church discipline.4 “

Needless to say, his ideas were based upon Scripture which brought about his concern for the sanctity of the Lord’s Supper, and the Supper could only be safeguarded by means of the discipline of excommunication. The purpose of excommunication as understood by Oecolampadius was “the holiness of the Church. The Church could not judge the heart; but if it did not judge the fruit of faith, every hypocrite would be able to break in.”5 This understanding of Oecolampadius resulted in this significant contribution to church government:

“The genuinely original contribution of Oecolampadius to the history of the Reformed church polity, in our judgment, consists in his incessant assertion of the autonomy of the Church, namely her complete independence of the temporal power in her execution of the disciplinary measures over her own members.6″

Since discipline was a matter of judging the fruit of faith, only the Church could do it. Oecolampadius believed that there was a big difference between church discipline and temporal discipline:

“The one consists of power and dominion for the constraint of the wicked and the delinquent, and thus for the maintenance of peace and order of the civic com-munity, whereas the other consists of mercy and love, the restoration of the lapsed and diseased brethren being its sole objective. To the one is allowed the use of physical coercion and corporeal punishments, while the only suitable weapon for the other is verbal persuasion to the effect of the offender’s repentance.7″

With these ideas at hand, Oecolampadius produced a new and original formula under the title Form und Gestalt etc. which put into practice his radically transformed concept of excommunication. By 1529, the City Council of Basel issued a famous Reformation Ordinance under the guidance of Oecolampadius. This Ordinance brought about, among other things, the formation of a synod. Especially important was the September 26 synod of 1531 (shortly after which he died), because “the address Oecolampadius made in this synod… struck out in an unequivocal way his idea of autonomous church discipline.”8

How did the ideas of Oecolampadius find there way into the stream of reformed thinking? Comparative study reveals that Martin Bucer of Strasbourg forms the link between Oecolampadius and Calvin. When Bucer came into contact with Oecolampadius around 1530, Bucer became convinced that discipline was both desirable and possible and should be under Church control.9 The influence of Martin Bucer on Calvin, in turn, is substantial in the areas of church discipline and polity, and evident when one compares Calvin’s views before and after his years spent with Bucer in Strasbourg 1538-1541. Thus, after Oecolampadius, the idea of autonomous church discipline “was further developed by Guillaume Farel and John Calvin, and fully explicated by Theodore Beza. In the end, it was the position of Oecolampadius that became the Reformed approach to church discipline.”10

This is evident in the Reformed “Form of Excommunication” which breaths the spirit of Oecolampadius. Its primary concern is the spiritual welfare of the individual walking in unrepentant sin. The goal is that “by your [C]hristian admonition and prayers to God, [he] might be brought to repentance, and so be freed from the bonds of the devil (by whom he is held captive), and recovered by the will of the Lord.” It is with sorrow, that the church at last must, at the command of Christ in Matthew 18, excommunicate the member, lest he “put the whole body of the Church in danger, and that God’s name may not be blasphemed.”

All through his life, Oecolampadius displayed a quiet, careful, humble, and loving character. His character is preserved in the spiritual and amendatory approach of the Reformed form of excommunication. This approach is suited only for church discipline that is separate from state control. Not only must we maintain autonomy and discipline, we must maintain its character. All three aspects are interdependent and necessary for the preservation of the church. State involvement will destroy its character. A lack of discipline invites all sorts of heresy and eventually state involvement. A lack of spiritual character destroys the purpose of discipline. Never was this clearer than in the days of Oecolampadius, and as a result he developed a doctrine which we must never abandon. ❖




1Akira Demura, Church Discipline According to Johanes Oecolampadius in His Life and Thought (Thesis, Princeton Theological Seminary, photocopy Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1980), p. 22.

2Ibid., p. 43.

3Ibid., p. 79.

4Ibid., p. 337.

5Wayne Baker, “Church Discipline or Civil Punish­ment: On the Origins of the Reformed Schism.” Andrews University Semetic Studies 23 (1985): 17

6Ibid., p. 330.

7Demura, Op. Cit., p 330.

8Ibid., p. 67.

9R. E. H. Uprichard, “The Eldership in Martin Bucer and John Calvin,” Evangelical Quarterly, 61, 23 (1989).

10Baker Op. Cit., p. 18.