John Calvin and the Church

It’s funny that while I’m doing a series on Calvinism, I ran by chance across some statements by John Calvin on the Church. They’re pretty amazing.

I found these in Volume VIII of Philip Schaff’s History of  the Christian Church, an excellent eight-volume history written in the late 19th century. In fact, in the introduction he mentions celebrating the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America “last month.” I felt like I’d been transported in a time machine.

Anyway, he extensively quotes Calvin on the Church. You’ve got to hear this. If I posted this with no name, you would insist a Roman Catholic wrote it.

Our present design is to treat of the visible Church …

There is no other way of entrance into life, unless we are conceived by her, born of her, nourished at her breast, and continually preserved under her care and government …

We must continue under her instruction and discipline to the end of our lives. It is also to be remarked that out of her bosom there can be no hope of remission of sins, or any salvation, according to the testimony of Isaiah (37:32) and Joel (2:32); which is confirmed by Ezekiel (13:9). …

In these words the paternal favor of God, and the peculiar testimony of the spiritual life, are restricted to his flock, to teach us that it is always fatally dangerous (latin: exitialis) to be separated from the Church. (Schaff, vol. VIII, p. 450-1; from Calvin’s Institutes IV, ch. 1, emphasis mine)

Wow. Are stronger words possible?

Is Calvin Unusual?

Nowadays. But let me tell you something: everyone would have agreed with him from the 2nd century down to his time.

What Calvin says here is just not exeptional. It’s perfectly normal.

Augustine is regularly faulted by Protestants for saying there is no salvation outside the church of Rome–which I don’t believe he said; it would be anachronistic except in certain contexts–but you can find the statement that there’s no salvation outside of the church in the writings of Christians from the 2nd century onwards.

In fact, you can find it in 1 John, too, where John tells us that those who go out from us were never of us (2:19).

The Real Question: What Church?

Ah, now we get to the real issue. What does Calvin mean?

After all, Calvin left the Roman Catholic Church.

It was difficult to sort through what he said about this. Apparently, he argues that he’s not leaving the Church, he’s just charging its pope and priests with error. He appeals to the example of Jeremiah (specifically) and the prophets (generally) to justify doing so.

He writes:

We neither dissent from the Church, nor are aliens from her communion.


[We are assailed] with this battering ram, ‘Nothing can excuse withdrawal from the Church.’ We deny out and out that we do so. (ibid., p. 453)

The problem is, he doesn’t say what church he is not withdrawing from.

He could be meaning two things. He could mean that he’s not withdrawing from the Roman Catholic Church, the only church existing (for all practical purposes) in his day. Or, he could mean that he’s not withdrawing from the true Church–which is something different than the Roman Catholic Church.

In fact, he writes:

We are as ready to confess as they are that those who abandon the Church, the common mother of the faithful, the ‘pillar and ground of the truth,’ revolt from Christ also; but we mean a Church which, from incorruptible seed, begets children for immortality, and, when begotten, nourishes them with spiritual food … and which … preserves entire the truth which God deposited in its bosom.

Well, now, that’s convenient, isn’t it? We only have to stay connected–visibly, here on earth–to “the Church” if it’s a Church that “preserves entire the truth.”

Is Calvin Hypocritical?

This isn’t meant to be an attack on John Calvin. If I was going to do that, I’d pick a different subject.

This is meant to address us. Many Christians today have forgotten the importance of the Church. They claim to need the Bible alone, but they must mean they need it to sleep with at night like a teddy bear because they sure don’t mean “pay attention to what it says and do it.” Anyone who says, “All I need is Jesus and my Bible” is ignoring the teachings of their Bible. (Re: Eph. 4:11-16; Heb. 3:13; and a lot of others)

But let’s use Calvin as our example. Obviously, not being Roman Catholic myself, I think it was okay–no, good and necessary–for Calvin to leave the Roman Catholic Church. However, let’s consider some things he said and apply them to ourselves in today’s world.

It is extreme arrogance in us, if we presume immediately to withdraw from the communion of a Church, where the conduct of all its members is not compatible either with our judgment or even with the Christian profession. …

The desperate impiety of the Pharisees, and the dissolute lives everywhere led by the people, could not prevent [Christ and the apostles] from using the same sacrifices, and assembling in the same temple with the others, for the public exercise of religion. … the society of the wicked could not contaminate those who, with pure consciences, united with them in the same solemnity. (ibid., p. 451)

So,  which is it? Do we follow what Calvin says is the example of the apostles and stay in communion with a church even if its leaders are “desperately impious” and its people live dissolute lives?

Or do we follow what Calvin did, and leave a church because it doesn’t “preserve entire the truth which God deposited in its bosom”?

And how do we know  whether it has preserved entire the truth which God gave it unless we take up that “extreme arrogance” of declaring that their truth is not compatible with our judgment?

My Solution:

1. The Church Is Local

The very definition of the work ekklesia, which I believe to be carefully chosen by God (it is, after all, easy for God to be careful about such things), means something local. It was in common use in Greek-speaking areas of 1st century Rome, and it meant the citizens of a town.

The church is the ekklesia of God in a town, in contrast to the already-existing ekklesia of men in that town.

Applying the word church or ekklesia to a hierarchy above the local city or township is a misuse of the word.

2. It’s Relationship That Matters

God is never concerned about your relationship to an organization; he’s concerned about your relationship to people. That’s why Jesus says “wherever two or three are gathered in my name” (Matt. 18:20).

So when Calvin, with the rest of the town of Geneva separated from the Roman Catholic Church, they weren’t separating from anything at all. They didn’t divide anything. What they broke away from might as well not have existed. It was nothing, and it had no authority instituted by God.

We tend to get confused about God, as though there’s some cosmic, eternal rules that he feels subject to or bound to. No, God has reasons for what he does, and those reasons are based in love.

We have to stay together because we need each other, not because there’s some cosmic rule about membership in a church being necessary to salvation. Instead …

  • We need to be exhorted to stay away from sin; otherwise, we will fool ourselves (Heb. 3:13).
  • None of us are sufficient in ourselves to reflect and shine Christ to the world. So God has provided a vehicle for unity, his Spirit, so that together, each with our own gift from God, Christ might still be seen in the world.

He does this so that hurting, lonely people, without answers and without power to overcome the world or themselves, might be gathered into his family, know God, and be filled with joy.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit (and attainment) of happiness; that is the gift given by the Gospel.

This happiness is not based based on worldly success. It’s based on  relationship with God and with God’s people, so that it can’t be taken away under any circumstance.

Keep this faith, for it benefits everyone.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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