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New Horizons

Lessons from Genevan Presbyterianism

Mark J. Larson

In 1542, John Calvin wrote concerning the church in Geneva: "We at length possess a Presbyterial Court ... and a form of discipline" (Letters of John Calvin, vol. 1, p. 316).

Calvin believed that the establishment of Presbyterianism in Geneva was nothing less than the implementation of biblical church government. He affirmed in the Ecclesiastical Ordinances that it was "the kind which our Lord demonstrated and instituted by His Word" (The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin, translated by Philip E. Hughes, p. 35).

Calvin rejected Episcopalianism (which places authority in a higher clergy, the bishops) and Congregationalism (which gives governing authority to the local congregation, where decisions are made democratically by the laity). The church in Geneva was ruled by an assembly called the Consistoire (essentially, a presbytery), which was made up of pastors and elders. They had ecclesiastical authority over the several congregations in the republic of Geneva. The ministers were equal, without a superior bishop over them. When the Consistoire began operating in 1542, there were nine pastors. At the time of Calvin's death in 1564, the number of ministers had increased to nineteen. During this same period, the number of elders remained fairly constant at twelve.

What can we, as American Presbyterians, learn from John Calvin and Genevan Presbyterianism? The Reformation in Geneva teaches us that the vitality and prosperity of Christ's church depends upon competent ministers, capable elders, and biblical church discipline.

Gifted Pastors

A major element in Calvin's reform program was the establishment of a suitable ministry. When Calvin arrived in Geneva, he discovered that most of the pastors were rude, ignorant, and untrustworthy. He immediately took steps to upgrade the quality of Geneva's ministry. The church constitution which he wrote, the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, stipulated that a man must not only be called by God, but must also endure an intense examination by the Company of Pastors. The men who were approved by this body were judged to be sound in doctrine, able to teach, and blameless in conduct. The educational requirements for a Genevan pastor were so high that all the congregations in the Genevan republic were pastored by foreigners.

We dare not lose sight of the importance of a highly trained ministry. Indeed, one of the big problems of the medieval church was an ignorant ministry, which was incompetent in the areas of biblical exegesis and preaching. The spiritual consequences for God's people were devastating. We must resist watering down the high educational requirements traditionally maintained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. May we affirm the classic Old School insistence upon both a university and a seminary education, and reject the fundamentalist notion that a Bible college diploma is quite sufficient.

Prudent Elders

A second fundamental ingredient in the Genevan Reformation was Calvin's effort to provide fit elders to rule the church. The Ecclesiastical Ordinances affirmed that elders must be "good-living and honourable men, without reproach and beyond all suspicion, above all who fear God and possess the gift of spiritual prudence" (Register, 41-42). Calvin desired "the most suitable and competent men that can be found" (Register, 42). The elders had to be men with a proven ability to govern. Specifically, a candidate for the eldership had to be one of the civil magistrates who governed the city-state of Geneva. Each of the lay elders who served on the Consistoire sat on one of the three councils that ruled the Genevan republic. In a very real sense, the governors of the church had to meet higher standards than the governors of the state. Only two men out of the twenty-five who made up the Small Council were to be elected elders, while only four were to come from the Council of Sixty and six from the Council of Two Hundred. Calvin recognized that not every man who ruled the state was necessarily qualified to rule the church of Jesus Christ.

Geneva's eldership provides several lessons for contemporary Presbyterians. We are reminded, first, that we must use great caution in ordaining elders. If we would have "honourable men, without reproach" to occupy this office, we must take heed to the apostolic mandate: "Do not lay hands on anyone hastily" (1 Tim. 5:22). Second, Geneva's structure forcefully demonstrates that our elders must have a proven ability to govern before we make them governors of the church. This, in fact, is the scriptural requirement. 1 Timothy 3:4-5 asserts that the overseer must be "one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)." Third, while much of the church capitulates to the feminists, Geneva reminds us that the elders of the church must be men. As 1 Timothy 3:2 declares, "A bishop then must be ... the husband of one wife" (literally, "a man of one woman").

Church Discipline

A third significant feature of Genevan Presbyterianism was its commitment to biblical church discipline. The power of the Consistoire to excommunicate was something on which Calvin refused to compromise. He threatened to leave Geneva if the government dared to tamper with this power. Calvin had a passion for good order in Christ's church: "If churches are well ordered, they will not bear the wicked in their bosom" (Institutes 4.1.15). When he discussed the moral debauchery of the Papacy, he took the bishops of Rome to task because they refused to exercise discipline, merely winking at sin (Institutes 4.7.29). The purpose of Genevan discipline was redemptive: "The disciplines imposed should act as medicines to bring sinners back to the Lord" (Register, 49).

This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the Genevan order to practice faithfully. Often there is a price to be paid in seeking to follow even the rudiments of the biblical teaching. A pastor must be prepared to suffer even as Calvin and the other Genevan pastors did. Calvin had to contend with open letters of dissent, sermons being interrupted by unruly protesters, public declarations that he was not a good man, and the undying slander that he was an autocrat, the mean-spirited dictator of Geneva.

And yet, we as pastors and elders ought to be encouraged that our attempts to obey the Lord may well be powerfully used by God in the life of the church. In Geneva, the implementation of ecclesiastical discipline even led to the purification of society itself. Pre-Reformation Geneva was known for its moral laxity. By means of faithful preaching and discipline, Post-Reformation Geneva presented a dramatic moral change. God blessed the republic with a profound movement in the direction of societal righteousness.

Learning from the Past

We are thankful that God was pleased to bless his church with the reestablishment of biblical church government in Genevan Presbyterianism. The form of ecclesiastical government which Calvin established in Geneva spread throughout the world—going to France, Scotland, England, Holland, Hungary, the United States, and elsewhere. Genevan church polity served as a model for the Calvinistic churches of the world. May we continue to learn valuable lessons of biblical Christianity from the Presbyterianism of sixteenth-century Geneva.

Mr. Larson, a Ph.D. student, is an OP minister. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 1998.

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