Tag Archives: systematic theology

The Church of Christ — Ferguson (1): Introduction

One of my primary goals on this blog is to help us think biblically about church. As I seek to grow in my own understanding, I find it helpful to read authors who wrestle directly with Scripture, form conclusions, and send me back to Scripture myself to weigh their conclusions.

Recently I’ve finally begun one such book, one that has been calling my name for several years: The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today, by Everett Ferguson.

ChurchofChristFerguson

Ferguson is best known as an historian of the early church, having written books such as the seminary standard Backgrounds of Early Christianity and, more recently, a massive book on Baptism in the Early Church. I recommend both.

But in this book Ferguson aims to speak as a biblical student, not as an historian. Here is how he explains things in his Preface:

Recent scholarship has emphasized the diversity of theologies within the New Testament… I have chosen to pay more attention in this study to the melody than to the individual instruments.

Although the synthetic approach adopted in this book may be out of fashion, the recognition of the authority of a canon of scripture… justifies the effort to bring together the teaching of the various New Testament documents… This kind of reading does not serve the purposes of historians well, but it is a necessary task for theologians.

The book is written by one whose academic training is primarily that of a historian, but a historian interested in theology who has used history as a way of understanding theological questions. I have set my hand in this work to a book that is completely theological and systematic…

The “Today” in the subtitle does not mean a tailoring of biblical ecclesiology to the interests of the present but is meant to emphasize that biblical ecclesiology is viable today… (pp. xiv-xv)

So far I am only about 136 pages into Ferguson’s 443-page book. But I’m starting to like it enough that I’ve decided I’d like to share a series of posts quoting and interacting with this book.

Ferguson arranges his book in a way that is unexpected but exactly right: around Jesus. After the Preface and Introduction, the book consists of six long chapters, each building on some aspect of Jesus’ identity and work:

  1. The People and the Messiah: History and Eschatology
  2. The Church and Her Lord: The Nature of the Church
  3. The Church and Her Savior: Salvation and Church Membership
  4. The Church and Her High Priest: Worship and Assembly
  5. The Church and Her Bishop: The Continuing Ministry
  6. The Church and Her Teacher: The New Way of Life

Don’t let these titles overwhelm you. They repay close reading. For example, note that Jesus is identified by six titles: Messiah, Lord, Savior, High Priest, Bishop, and Teacher. Ferguson uses these titles of Jesus to understand the church. Thus (in chapter three), if Jesus is “Savior,” how should this shape our understanding of church membership? Or (in chapter five), if Jesus is “Bishop,” how should this shape our understanding of human leaders and servants within the church?

This means that all the “practical” topics you may be curious about are probably found in one of those chapters. For example, subheadings address things such as this:

  • The Body of Christ
  • The Family of God
  • The Meaning of Ekklesia
  • Attitudes toward Worship
  • Activities in the Assembly
  • Shepherds, Preachers, and Servants
  • Discipline
  • Unity

I’m thinking I’ll share about seven posts on this book—this one plus one for each chapter. If I am bursting with extra thoughts and time, one more concluding post may appear.

To wrap up this first post, here are some highlights I enjoyed from the book’s Introduction:

God gave a person, then a proclamation, and then a people. This is the historical and theological order.

God gave first a person, Jesus Christ…

The proclamation centers in the person…

The proclaimed word calls and gathers a people… This book studies the people, the church. As such it is concerned with what is derivative and in third position… I seek to relate every aspect of the doctrine about the church to Christ…

The oral message about Jesus Christ gathered a people and so created a church. That word was put in written form… In a historical sense, one may say that “the church gave us the Bible.”… Although the church was historically prior to the Bible as a given collection of books, the word contained in the Bible was theologically prior to the church. The recognition of a canon of scripture was an acknowledgment by the church that it was not its own authority and was an act of submission to the authority of  apostolic preaching inscripturated in the apostolic writings…

The witness of the first generations of Christians about what was authoritative for them is an irreversible decision and remains determinative of what the essence of Christianity is… The historical circumstances of the first century are not normative for Christians in later centuries, but the apostolic teaching given in those historical circumstances is normative…

The effort to find an authoritative word in scriptures on the matters discussed does not mean adopting the kind of “proof-text” approach that often takes verses out of context. The effort has been made to show the interconnectedness of themes…

There is such an interconnectedness of themes that this book could almost be considered a New Testament theology organized with reference to ecclesiology. It is not that; there are too many aspects of New Testament theology that are not included…

The person of Jesus is more attractive than those who claim to follow him are. But… one cannot have Jesus without the church. We hope to show that Christ or the church is a false alternative… To emphasize Christ is to make his church important.

Sometimes people, finding the heart of the gospel, want to treat the rest of biblical teaching as irrelevant. It may be secondary, but it is not irrelevant. The proper procedure is to work out from the center of the gospel to other things and apply the gospel to other aspects of doctrine. On our topic, that means working from Christ to the nature of the church and its activities…

Perhaps the problem for many has been in taking the church too much in an institutional sense and not sufficiently in terms of a people, a redeemed community… The church may often have been presented in such a way as to obscure Christ…

The first three chapters of this book develop the theological axiom that Christology and soteriology determine ecclesiology. The last three chapters then apply this insight to the ministry, worship, and life of the church. We want to take seriously that this study concerns the church of Christ. He gives existence, meaning, and purpose to the church. Christology is the norm for ecclesiology, and that is what justifies the title of the book. (pp. xvii-xx, bold added)

I won’t add much to that except to say that typing those excerpts renews my excitement about Ferguson’s focus as he examines ecclesiology. Whatever points of disagreement we may discover with him along the way, he has certainly started his study very well indeed!


What stands out to you from these introductory thoughts from Ferguson? What do you want to say Amen to? Is there anything you’d balance differently? What do you hope he addresses (and I review) in his book? Share your insights below.


Note: I participate in an Amazon affiliates program, so if you buy a book using the links above, I will earn pennies. Thanks!


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What I Learned at AIC 2015 about How To Use the Bible

This past weekend I was blessed to attend most of the Anabaptist Identity Conference, held this year near Napannee, Indiana. This was the 10th AIC, and it lived up to its reputation as an event which gathers a provocative diversity of speakers and listeners.

We heard an Amish speaker (David Kline) explain the benefits of organic farming, and during one meal I sat across the table from a retired Goshen College history professor (Theron Schlabach). David Bercot shared with surprising candor his experience of how hard it is for most non-Anabaptists to ever join an Anabaptist church, given our cultural additives and our reluctance to let “outsiders” have a meaningful voice in shaping our churches. In contrast, Matthias Overholt, dressed in a plain brown suit and sporting a massive beard, animatedly preached the importance of “visible reminders that we are not a part of the world’s culture.” Beachy, Hutterite, Charity, Holdeman, MCUSA, Old Order Amish, New Order Amish, first-generation Anabaptists, unidentified plain Mennonites, and more–we all mingled without bickering for a few days and enjoyed GMO-free meals together. Some even traveled all the way from Down Under just to learn more about the Kingdom that turned the world upside down. Organized by the hippy-Anabaptist Overholt brothers, it was an earthy little bit of heaven on earth.

I don’t plan to give a detailed report of the weekend. The talks should soon be posted online here so you can listen and ponder for yourself. [Edit: See also the reviews by Rich Preheim and Theron Schlabach at the Mennonite World Review.] It would be interesting to discuss John D. Martin’s remarks about participatory church meetings  and observance of the Lord’s Supper (we need more of both) and Chester Weaver’s observations about how we have been shaped by Fundamentalism (some pro, mostly con). Suffice it to say that throughout the entire weekend I sometimes said “Amen,” I sometimes shook my head and agonized over error, and I always enjoyed the immersion education experience.

So, keeping things fairly general and naming names judiciously, here are some things I learned at AIC 2015 about how to use or not use the Bible in our preaching and teaching.

  1. Do call each other to passionately follow Jesus. Dean Taylor’s favorite question is so helpful: “What if Jesus really meant every word he said?” We need to hear more, not less, about following in Jesus’ steps, obeying his call to radical discipleship. The AIC always does well at this, and for that I am grateful.
  2. Don’t pit Jesus against Paul. I overheard one of the speakers in conversation, suggesting that it might be wise to place less emphasis on Paul’s writings. I believe he was suggesting that focusing on Paul’s writings tends to increase church conflict and distract us from following Jesus. I think this is a sad misunderstanding. I’ve written at length about this in my essay “Red Letter Reductionism,” which you can find here.
  3. Do emphasize that obedience is crucial. Head knowledge without obedience is useless. Preach the Sermon on the Mount! Keep James in the canon, for sure! And don’t hide disobedience behind either theological sophistication or a plain suit and cape dress. Again, AIC generally does very well on this point.
  4. Don’t say theology is unimportant. I heard one AIC speaker say “We are not theologians.” Another speaker (David Bercot) had a book on display entitled Will the Theologians Please Sit Down? (Full disclosure: I have not read the book through, so I may be wrong; but my sense from the title, excerpts, and some reports is that the book is not as well-balanced as some of Bercot’s other books. At minimum, I sense some readers are using it to bolster an unhealthy whole-sale rejection of theology.) Ironically, every one of the AIC speakers is obviously a theologian himself! This was evident by the multiple explanations (sometimes generalizations) of how Anabaptist soteriology (theology of salvation) and ecclesiology (theology of church) is different from that of Protestants. Theology is inescapable and essential.
  5. Do learn from historical examples of interpreting and obeying the Bible. One of AIC’s greatest strengths is its emphasis on history. Chester Weaver’s talks on Russian Mennonites were fascinating! AIC always includes such historical talks. Incidentally, the discipline of studying how the church in the past has understood and obeyed the Scriptures is called historical theology–more evidence that AIC is full of theology, despite some protests to the contrary.
  6. Don’t rely more on history than on the Scriptures. One of AIC’s greatest weaknesses is its emphasis on history. (No, I am not contradicting myself.) AIC speakers are very concerned with statistics about how few Anabaptist children have remained in the churches of their parents. They trace the patterns of the past and issue warnings about the future. Make no mistake: I definitely share some of their concerns. But I am even more concerned when I hear almost no appeal to Scripture during a panel discussion on how cultural traditions affect our ability to pass on the faith and integrate non-Anabaptists. (I raised my hand too slowly to add my question: How should 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 affect both our approach as witnesses and also our goals for the kind of self-identity that we want our disciples to adopt?) Some AIC talks referenced much Scripture faithfully and effectively. Others, not so much.
  7. Do shape your sermons around Scripture. One of the best AIC talks this year was one by Ernest Strubhar, where he traced through the whole Bible the big story of the war of Satan against God. This is theology–biblical theology! Some of Strubhar’s Bible texts are notoriously difficult to interpret, and I quibbled with a handful of details in his sermon. But the big picture that he painted was faithful and powerful, providing a real hopeful foundation for radical discipleship.
  8. Don’t pull Scripture out of context to bolster your own claims. Unfortunately, another sermon this past weekend did not use Scripture so faithfully. By his own admission, the speaker’s key text was used out of context, with key words being interpreted differently than what they actually meant. This text was used to structure the speaker’s entire sermon. In this way, the speaker brought an aura of Scriptural authority to his own ideas, using God’s word to make his own words sound more convincing. This is very dangerous indeed. Ironically, the real meaning of the speaker’s text, when read in context, actually undermines (in my estimation) one of the speaker’s main claims!
  9. Do invite others to critique your Bible teaching. This is another strength of AIC. After each talk there is a brief Q and A session. The Overholt brothers do a good job as moderators, allowing and encouraging honest feedback and questioning. The speakers also welcome this, evidencing grace and humility. Mutual critique is also built into the roster of speakers, since they represent a variety of backgrounds. It would be good to see more of this feedback encouraged in our regular church meetings!
  10. Don’t pit the Scriptures against Christ. Several times at AIC 2015 there was an evident tension between the Written Word and the Living Word. Several times questioners felt a need to ask a speaker to clarify himself on this point. But it is irrational to try to know a person while downplaying his words. The liberal modernists of a century ago claimed that we could follow the Christ of faith even if it was impossible to gain certainty about the Jesus of history. They believed that the Scriptural accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection could not be trusted, yet they tried to salvage a mystical Christian faith. Today we can see where “Christ” without Scripture has led the churches that embraced this liberal modernism. I think all the AIC speakers would eagerly affirm the trustworthiness of Scripture. But true trust involves more than affirming that Scripture is true; it also involves drawing our own conceptions of Christ and his kingdom from the full Scriptural witness. Some of the AIC speakers do this very well. Others didn’t always display as much functional reliance on Scripture as I would have liked.
  11. Do call each other to passionately follow Jesus. Okay, this is a repeat of my first point, but worth repeating. This is AIC’s greatest strength, and it is the very best way that you can use the Bible in your own preaching and teaching.

I came away from AIC 2015 with multiple blessings, including a renewed desire to live among a body of believers that listens well to the Written Word as a vital witness to the Living Word. I wouldn’t feel at home in every church group represented at AIC. But I am thankful to all the speakers for honestly sharing their hearts and prodding us to better follow Jesus.

Do you have anything to add to this list? What would it look like if you made a similar list based on how the Bible is used in your church pulpit? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (4): John Calvin

John Calvin is not a name that most Anabaptists like. Unfortunately, too many people today assume either that Calvin is the ultimate theological authority or, conversely, that his theology is completely warped. Neither assumption is close to the truth.

Given the traditional Anabaptist bias, perhaps it would be helpful to begin this post with a quote from Jacob Arminius (1560-1609)–the Arminius after whom Arminianism is named. After all, we are Arminians and not Calvinists, right? We don’t believe in “once saved, always saved” or that God elects people against their will to be saved or damned. Well, that may be true enough (although the way I’ve phrased things isn’t fair to Calvin or his adherents). But let’s listen to Arminius to see if we should bother listening to Calvin:

After reading of Scripture, which I vehemently inculcate [“hammer home”] more than anything else,… I encourage the reading of the commentaries of John Calvin, which I extol with greatest praise,… for I say that he is incomparable in the interpretation of Scripture, and his comments are far better than anything which the Fathers give us.1

Yes, you read that correctly. So let’s consider a little of what we can learn from Calvin about ecclesiology (church theology and practice).

This post continues our series on the ecclesiology of the Reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. As George writes, “Calvin wrote more in one lifetime than most people are able to read” (Kindle Location 4193). This means that our observations about Calvin’s ecclesiology here will be even more selective than our past posts about Luther and Zwingli were. (See also the introduction to this series. Stay tuned for Menno Simons, William Tyndale, and my conclusions and questions.)

Calvin was a second generation Reformer:

Calvin’s great achievement was to take the classic insights of the Reformation (sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura) and give them a clear, systematic exposition, which neither Luther nor Zwingli ever did, and to adapt them to the civic setting of Geneva. From Geneva they took on a life of their own and developed into a new international theology… (Kindle Locations 3781-3784)

Calvin was an exceptional student, well-trained in Latin, theology, and law. By the time he graduated from his studies, his first love was studying ancient texts in original languages. Upon Calvin’s conversion to Protestantism, he soon became a natural but reluctant leader. From Calvin himself:

But I was utterly amazed
That before a year had passed
All those who yearned
For pure doctrine
Were coming again and again to me
To learn it.
Even though I had scarcely commenced
To study it myself…
In short, although I always cherished
The goal of living in private, incognito,
God so led me and caused me to turn
By various changes
That he never left me at peace in any place
Until, in spite of my natural disposition
He brought me into the limelight.
(Kindle Locations 3908-3925, emphasis added.)

Calvin was above all a teacher in the Church. Calvin’s teaching has endured largely because of his writing, and none of his writings has been more influential than his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Why did Calvin write (and rewrite, and rewrite) this book? He wrote it as a training manual for the Church:

The primary purpose of the Institutes… was catechetical. From the time of his conversion, Calvin had been pressed to serve as a teacher of those who were hungry for the true faith. One can still see a cave near the city of Poitiers where Calvin was said to have ministered to the needs of a (literally!) underground congregation. He knew firsthand the urgent need for a clearly written manual of instruction that would present the rudiments of a biblical theology and lead young Christians into a deeper understanding of the faith. (Kindle Locations 4002-4006, emphasis added.)

Calvin was “conscripted” (fascinating story) to come to Geneva to lead the Reformation there:

Calvin was genuinely shocked at the idea and protested that he was ill suited for such a task. He could better edify the church by his quiet study and writing. “ The summit of my wishes ,” he later wrote…, “was the enjoyment of literary ease, with something of a free and honorable station.” (Kindle Locations 4028-4031)

From that moment Calvin’s fate was linked to that of Geneva. In his earliest letters after his call, he referred to himself as “Reader in Holy Scripture to the Church in Geneva.” Though he took on many other duties over the years, his primary vocation remained that of pastor and teacher. (Kindle Locations 4048-4050, emphasis added.)

Calvin briefly left Geneva, spending three happy years in Strasbourg, where he continued developing and serving as a church leader before returning to Geneva. His time away was profitable. For example:

He gave serious thought to the role of worship in the church and translated a number of psalms into French meter. Thus began the congregational singing of psalms that became such an integral part of French Reformed worship. (Kindle Locations 4063-4065, emphasis added.)

In 1539 Calvin published his Commentary on Romans, a masterful treatment of what for him no less than for Luther was the most important book in the Bible… Eventually he published commentaries on most of the Old Testament and on every book in the New Testament except Revelation and 2 and 3 John. (Kindle Locations 4083-4086, emphasis added.)

Calvin was a church statesman. [He] participated in a series of conferences aimed at reuniting Protestants and Catholics . Unity still seemed possible in 1540 because the Council of Trent had not yet convened… He traveled to Frankfurt, Hagenau, and Worms as a kind of adviser to the Protestant delegations at these interfaith conferences… The real importance of these meetings for Calvin was the worldwide vision of the church they confirmed for him. He lamented the fragmented character of Christendom: “Amongst the greatest evils of our century must be counted the fact that the churches are so divided one from another and that there is scarcely even a human relationship between us.” Calvin was not willing to compromise essentials for the sake of a false peace, but he sought to call the church back to the true basis of its unity in Jesus Christ. (Kindle Locations 4093-4102, emphasis added.)

These three paragraphs hint at the wide range of Calvin’s ecclesiological interests–worship, biblical studies, church unity, and more. I think his lament about church disunity remains timely today!

Upon his return to Geneva, Calvin resumed his series of expository sermons where he had left off three years before.

Calvin was a master preacher in an age when the pulpit was the primary medium of communication to the entire culture. “When the gospel is preached in the name of God,” Calvin said, “it is as if God himself spoke in person.” Following the pattern Zwingli had instituted in Zurich, Calvin generally preached continuously through the books of the Bible. (Kindle Locations 4183-4186, emphasis added.)

Calvin was a teacher and a preacher in the Church. But how did he define the Church? What was its core? What was its relationship to Scripture?

Calvin , like Luther, affirmed that the Scripture was the womb from which the church was born and not vice versa. Popes, councils, even the early church fathers whom Calvin frequently quoted, could be and often were in error. Through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures authenticated themselves and disclosed their proper interpretation to the diligent believer. (Kindle Locations 4359-4362, emphasis added.)

Significantly, Calvin did not follow Bucer, as did the Reformed tradition generally, in elevating ecclesiastical discipline to the technical status of a nota. For Calvin, as for Luther, the more certain… marks remained the Word purely preached and the sacraments duly administered. However, he did not for that reason disparage the importance of discipline for the well-being of the church. If the saving doctrine of Christ was the soul of the church, then discipline served as its sinews… through which the members of the body were held together, each in its own place. Discipline, then, pertained to the constitution and organization, if not to the definition , of the true congregation. (Kindle Locations 5113-5119, emphasis added.)

So the Church is born from the womb of Scripture and has the saving doctrine of Christ as its soul. But the question of church discipline raises more questions: What is the boundary of the Church? And what is the relationship between the universal (or invisible) Church and the local (or visible) church?

Luther’s predominant concern was with the evangelical center of the church; later reformers took up the difficult task of determining with some precision its circumference. Zwingli, Bucer, and Oecolampadius struggled with this problem; yet it remained for Calvin, the “poor, timid scholar” as he described himself, to exploit fully the theory and practice of the Protestant congregation. Beset by a resurgent Catholicism on the one hand and a proliferating sectarianism on the other, Calvin developed a more formal theory of the relation of the invisible church and the church as an external institution recognizable as true by certain distinguishing marks. (Kindle Locations 5101-5106, emphasis added.)

Calvin’s concern for the order and form of the congregation derived from his emphasis on sanctification as both the process and goal of the Christian life. In contrast to the unilateral accentuation of justification in the Lutheran confessions, Calvin gave precedence to sanctification in his systematic arrangement of the “benefits of Christ.” …In this life the locus of sanctification is the congregation, the visible church, in which the elect participate in the benefits of Christ not as isolated individuals but as members of a body in which “all the blessings which God bestows upon them are mutually communicated to each other” (Inst. 4.1.3). In this way the visible church becomes a “holy community,” an agent of sanctification in the larger society in which every aspect of life is to be brought within the orbit of Christian purposes and Christian regulations. (Kindle Locations 5121-5128, emphasis added.)

If I read only the previous paragraph, I might guess that Calvin was an Anabaptist! (Perhaps this shared concern for sanctification is explained in part by how both Calvin and the Swiss Brethren Anabaptists share Zwinglian roots–Zwingli who was more zealous than Luther both in pruning away extrabiblical practices and in attempting to form good Christian citizens?) How did this concern for sanctification affect Calvin’s thinking about the tension between the visible congregation and the invisible Church?

The two poles of Calvin’s ecclesiology, divine election and the local congregation, are held together in the closest possible connection, frequently in the same sentence. The church is called God’s house, explained Calvin, because “not only has He received us as His sons by the grace of adoption (election), but He Himself dwells in the midst of us” (the congregation)… Only when we realize that Calvin never relaxed the visible/invisible tension can we understand his diverse characterizations of the church. On the one hand, the church appears in mortal danger. If false doctrines are allowed to spread, they will “completely destroy the church.” …At the same time, …human fickleness and unfaithfulness “cannot prevent God from preserving His Church to the end. (Kindle Locations 5142-5150, emphasis added.)

Other than the emphasis on election (perhaps), this still sounds quite Anabaptist. But our next quote sharpens the contrast:

For Calvin the visible church was not a progressive approximation of the invisible. The former was a corpus permixtum, wheat and tares growing in the same field, whereas the latter included elect angels, Old Testament worthies, and assorted predestined souls who find themselves outside the “Lord’s walled orchard.” (Kindle Locations 5151-5153, emphasis added.)

So again, as with Luther and Zwingli but in contrast to the Anabaptists such as Menno Simons, Calvin believed the visible church was a corpus permixtum. And again, perhaps even more clearly than Zwingli (George’s words are a bit vague), Calvin understood the invisible Church to include even beings who have never been part of any NT church. Here, again, is the Zwinglian emphasis on continuity between old and new covenants.

So is it correct to consider the visible church a corpus permixtum? On the one hand I want to say “no,” for in Jesus’ parable the field where the tares grow is the world, not the church (Matt. 13:38). On the other hand I think it is very possible to develop unrealistic, unPauline, and ultimately unbiblical expectations about how pure the Church will be before this present evil age is finally laid to rest (see here). Either way, unbiblical expectations will lead to unbiblical strategies and methods. I would want to push back against the assertion that the visible church is not supposed to be a progressive approximation of the invisible Church, and I would also want to push back against the idea that perfect church order can lead to a perfect match between the two.

I’m not sure this tension was ever fully resolved within Calvin himself–for, as we saw earlier, he, too, was very eager to see the church grow in maturity. He often expressed this by describing the church as a school:

We are conceived in the womb of Mother Church , nourished at her breast, and enrolled as pupils in her school all the days of our lives (Inst. 4.1.4). (Kindle Locations 5159-5160)

The church, of course, is a school from which one never graduates (this side of heaven, if then!), hence the need for continual instruction. The church is also, in the best sense of the term, a “reform school,” complete with specified dress code, censored reading matter, compulsory attendance at chapel, and truant officers to deal with recalcitrant students! (Kindle Locations 5188-5190, emphasis added.)

Okay, that sounds pretty familiar to this modern Mennonite, at least until the truant officers bit. This bit points to another crucial difference between Anabaptists and Calvin–the relationship between church and state:

By rejecting the Anabaptist concept of the congregation as a conventicle sequestered from the environing culture, Calvin rooted his reformation in the “placed Christianity” of the medieval corpus christianum. (Kindle Locations 5268-5270, emphasis added.)

The rule of Christ was to be manifested, ideally, in the institution of a godly magistracy… In the words of Isaiah, Calvin urged the magistrates to be “nursing fathers” to the Reformation. They were to maintain not only civic order but also religious uniformity… The proper relationship of the two [congregation and magistrate] is illustrated by the example of a pertinacious [stubborn] heretic. After thorough examination… and patient admonition, the obstinate heretic may be, must be, expelled from the congregation by excommunication. Beyond this the church cannot go. However, the magistrate was well within his bounden duty in bringing to bear what Calvin called, somewhat euphemistically, “further measures of greater rigor.” (Kindle Locations 5286-5293, emphasis added.)

“Further measures of greater rigor” could include, as Servetus discovered, burning at the stake. It is sad that Calvin did not learn to renounce the sword after his own early experience as a persecuted Protestant minority in France.

I’ll bring this survey of Calvin’s ecclesiology to a close with some quotes about church leadership. Calvin believed that “a fourfold office of pastor, teacher, elder, and deacon… was mandated by Scripture” (Kindle Locations 5194-5199), but he spoke most often and most clearly about pastors.

Calvin believed that the offices of prophet, apostle, and evangelist, so prominent in the New Testament, were temporary in nature and had ceased at the end of the apostolic age. Of the offices that are extant in this dispensation, that of the pastor is clearly the most honorable and the least dispensable for the proper order and well-being of the church. (Kindle Locations 5220-5223, emphasis added.)

What is the role of the pastor?—to represent God’s Son…, to erect and extend God’s kingdom, to care for the salvation of souls, to rule the church that is God’s inheritance. Calvin held that there should be at least one pastor in every town… (Kindle Locations 5227-5230, emphasis added.)

How was a pastor to be chosen? …While it was certainly wrong for an individual to “thrust himself forward” out of self-seeking ambition, it was proper for one moved by a godly desire to prepare for the office. “What are theological schools if not nurseries for pastors?” Yet one had to be publicly called according to the order the church prescribed. (Kindle Locations 5231-5234, emphasis added.)

Ordination… Calvin described as a “solemn rite of institution” into the pastoral office. Calvin elsewhere referred to ordination as a sacrament and admitted that grace was conferred through this outward sign. (Kindle Locations 5236-5237)

But why are pastors so important to the church? “Does not everyone have a chance to read the Scriptures for himself?” asked Calvin. Yes, but pastors had to carve or divide the Word, “like a father dividing the bread into small pieces to feed his children.” Pastors must be thoroughly taught in the Scriptures that they can rightly instruct the congregation in heavenly doctrine. The importance of preaching in Calvin’s thought can hardly be exaggerated. (Kindle Locations 5246-5250, emphasis added.)

The pastor is charged with preaching and governing. “A pastor needs two voices,” said Calvin, “one for gathering the sheep and the other for driving away wolves and thieves.” (Kindle Locations 5261-5262, emphasis added.)

Calvin did not hesitate to advocate a double standard for clergy/laity… Calvin had not here relapsed into the two-tiered morality of medieval Christendom. Rather, he was concerned with the visibility of the church, with the “face” of the church. An unworthy minister can do irreparable harm to the congregation. For this reason he must hold to a stricter accountability. (Kindle Locations 5263-5268, emphasis added.)

I think we conservative Anabaptists could learn from Calvin’s emphasis on the importance of pastors and preaching. I am not entirely comfortable with everything that Calvin and some of his Reformed heirs say about the father-like authority of pastors, and I think a sacramental understanding of ordination sometimes bears bad fruit even in our own churches. I would want to remember Luther’s insistence on the priesthood of all believers and his reminder, spoken in the voice of a godly congregation, that “What we give him today we can take away from him tomorrow,” should the pastor prove unworthy. (And Calvin almost certainly agreed; reread the last quote.)

But, caveats aside, I have been impressed with how much more seriously many Reformed preachers take their duties as teachers and preachers of Scripture than many leaders in our own churches do. Most church members never rise above the level of the biblical understanding and vision cast by their pastors. We could learn, I believe, from Calvin’s emphasis on pastoral training. I know from experience that there is a helpful “third way” between seminary training and no training (and I have also been blessed by leaders in our own church fellowships who have had some formal seminary training). If more local church leaders caught a vision for rigorous training right in their own congregations, we might be surprised at the caliber of our future leaders.

I’ll give the last word to Timothy George:

In the midst of our secular culture, we need to appropriate Calvin’s vision of the church as the special creation of the Holy Spirit, a community that can point men and women beyond itself to the transcendent source of their lives and of life itself. On the other hand, we can only deplore Calvin’s coercive view of society, his intolerance of dissenters, his acquiescence in the death of Servetus, notwithstanding his plea for leniency in the mode of execution. (Kindle Locations 5363-5366. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

(Next up: the ecclesiology of Menno Simons.)

What do you think? Are you surprised by anything in this survey of Calvin’s ecclesiology? What would you add? What do you think we should learn from his example? Gather the sheep and drive off the wolves by sharing your insights in the comments below!


PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)

  1. Jacobus Arminius to Sebastian Egbert, 3 May, 1607, Christiaan Hartsoeker and Philippas van Limborch, eds., Præstantium ac eruditorum visorum epistolæ ecclesiasticæ et theologicæ (Amsterdam Henricum Welstentium, 1660), 236-37. As quoted by Mark A. Ellis, ed., in The Arminian Confession of 1621 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2005), vii. Emphasis added.

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