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New Horizons

The Reformation of Church Polity

John Muether

Reformation historians commonly distinguish between first- and second-generation Reformers. Those in the first generation (most notably Luther and Zwingli) were pioneers in their proclamation of the formal and material principles of the Reformation, namely, the authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone. Building on this foundation, the second generation consolidated theological insights into confessional statements and often focused their attention on the order and discipline that should characterize churches of the Protestant faith. The innovations of Roman Catholics, on the one hand, and the anarchy of Anabaptists and other radical Reformers, on the other hand, provided ample evidence of the dangers of a disordered church.

The Reformed wing of the Reformation sought especially to honor Christ as the only head of the church and thus came to express what can be called the regulative principle of church government: Christ’s Word clearly reveals the structure of the church, and so the government of the church must find its basis in apostolic teaching and practice.

Developments in Strasbourg

This fine-tuning of church polity was a particular focus of Martin Bucer during his labors to reform the church in Strasbourg. In drawing up church ordinances for the city, a particular insight he drew from the New Testament was the importance of the role of the ruling elder in the administration of church discipline.

In addition, Bucer argued that church councils must submit to Christ through the rule he has established in his Word. Delegates to councils must be chosen with prayer and fasting, and with careful examination, in order that their spiritual gifts would be displayed. Once commissioned, councils had to hear these delegates, lest they silence the voice of the Spirit. (Here is a point worth pondering at Presbyterian assemblies, when commissioners are tempted to end lengthy debate by means of the parliamentary device known as “calling the question.”)

Meanwhile, as John Calvin was independently coming to many similar conclusions in Geneva, he was personally experiencing the effects of disorderly polity during his first tenure in that city. The question of who had authority to excommunicate provoked a dispute between Calvin and the political authorities. He and other ministers were banished in 1538 by the city council, which held, in Calvin’s judgment, excessive control over the discipline of the church. When Calvin sojourned in Strasbourg from 1538 to 1541, the role of the older Bucer was formative, especially in the development of Calvin’s understanding of biblical church polity. From his vantage point in Strasbourg, Calvin also witnessed a negative example. In nearby Lutheran territories, the state was dominating the churches, and the pattern that developed was one of ecclesiastical subordination to civil magistrates.

It is important to underscore that Bucer, Calvin, and other reformers were not engaged in the art of invention. Rather, the reformation of polity was an exercise of rediscovery. Discipline through the office of the elder and a system of graded assemblies was not an innovation, but was found in Scripture and multiple patristic sources. Under Bucer’s influence, Calvin grew more confident that the eldership was an institution ordained by Christ.

Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances

Geneva’s request in 1541 that Calvin return met with his great reluctance. He recoiled at the prospect of returning to a place of torture, where he would “die a thousand times each day.” But willing to “bring my heart as a sacrifice and offering to the Lord,” he returned to the city where he would spend the rest of his life. Immediately, he set out to order the church through his Ecclesiastical Ordinances, which the council quickly adopted as law, with only a few modifications.

Biographer Alister McGrath observes that “if the Institutes were the muscles of Calvin’s reformation, his ecclesiastical organization was its backbone” (A Life of John Calvin, p. 111). The preface to the Ordinances explained that “the spiritual government of the kind which our Lord demonstrated and instituted in his Word should be set out in good order so that it might be established and observed among us.” A key feature of the Ordinances was the independent jurisdiction of an ecclesiastical court. Calvin wanted to protect the church’s right to excommunicate from interference by the civil authorities. The preface to the work assured the magistrate that the church could not usurp the state in its exercise of civil jurisdiction. These are two ordained powers; one is given the spiritual sword, and the other the secular sword. (To be sure, Calvin would experience ongoing resistance to this principle in Geneva, and it would take more than a decade to establish the city’s consistent practice.)

As with Bucer, Calvin outlined four offices in the church: pastors, doctors, elders, and deacons. The duty of the elder entailed “oversight of the life of everyone, to admonish amicably those whom they see to be erring or to be living a disordered life, and, where it required, to enjoin fraternal corrections.”

At the heart of Calvin’s ecclesiology was the consistory, meeting weekly, and composed both of lay elders and members of the Company of Pastors. Eschewing any notions of prelacy, he underscored the parity of elders in the exercise of discipline. The deliberations of the consistory were the acts of the living Christ, working through his servants who ministered only on the basis of his Word.

Contrary to the popular image of Calvin as a grim tyrant, care is expressed throughout the Ordinances that its regulations be applied with compassion and forbearance. For example, in addressing ministerial indiscretions, the church must distinguish between “crimes which are intolerable” and “faults which on the other hand may be endured while direct fraternal admonitions are offered.” And in its conclusion the Ordinances note: “Yet all this should be done with such moderation, that there be no rigor by which anyone may be injured; for even the corrections are only medicines for bringing back sinners to our Lord.”

Calvin’s interests in polity, in turn, would serve to shape the growth and development of his Institutes through several editions. References to ruling elders, absent from the first edition in 1536, appeared first in the 1541 edition (after his Strasbourg experience) and were greatly augmented by 1559. Indeed, the fourth book of that final edition, “The External Means or Aims Whereby God Invites Us into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein,” is a sustained reflection on the church and its proper order. So vital was this order to the unity and harmony of the church that Calvin warned, “Whoever discounts it as not necessary, is striving for the undoing, or rather, the ruin and destruction of the church” (4.3.3).

Genevan church government came to characterize many Reformed churches through its missionary activities. The Scottish church implemented Genevan practice in its Second Book of Discipline (1578), with a Presbyterian structure of graded courts, from local sessions to presbyteries for regional churches and synods/assemblies for provincial and national levels. This eliminated bishops and superintendents. The strength and flexibility of such polity accounts for the remarkable spread of Calvinism beyond Europe, into the New World, Asia, and Africa. These churches were generally without reliance on supporting princes and often took root in seemingly hostile fields.

Contemporary Church Disorder

Late in his tenure at Geneva as John Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza commented in a sermon that church polity is the particular object of Satan’s attacks, because it is easier to overturn a church’s government than its doctrine. His warning could well have been describing the evangelical church today. The “regulative principle of polity” is the minority position in contemporary American Protestantism, which is dominated by disordered churches, many of which have no formal polity (including some that aspire to be “New Calvinist”). Of course, doctrine without order does not do away with conflict in the church; rather, it puts conflict resolution in the hands of tyrants.

Independent, celebrity pastors mock deliberative Presbyterian polity for its inefficient authority structures. One popular preacher rather colorfully suggested that Paul’s teaching on church discipline could be summarized in this way: a church planter must weed from his membership those who would stand in the way of his vision for the church. After all, “sometimes Paul had to put people into the wood chipper.” One might well imagine Calvin assessing that strategy as he did Roman Catholic discipline in his reply to Cardinal Sadoleto: “Among pirates and robbers there is apparently more justice and regular government, more effect given to law, than by all your order.”

The seeming precision of Reformed polity is no small part of the common charge that Reformed churches consist of the “frozen chosen,” so obsessed with decency and order that their growth is restricted. But concern for order is not a Spirit-quenching institutionalism. In Edmund Clowney’s memorable words, the Spirit of ardor is also the Spirit of order (The Church, p. 115). The Reformed tradition has understood that church polity is the vital tool whereby God “invites us” and “holds us.” It is the means by which we come to express our submission to the Lord and Head of the church, and to one another.

The author, an OP ruling elder, teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary. New Horizons, April 2017.

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