John Calvin’s Pastoral Concern for the Church
In Book IV of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin addresses the following themes: the true church and its offices, the sacraments, and civil government.
Calvin’s concern in Book IV was the relationship between the invisible church and the church as an institution that can be recognized as true through certain distinctive marks.
For Calvin, the marks of a true visible church are the correct preaching of the Word and the faithful ministry of the sacraments.“Calvin’s concern for the order and form of the church resulted from his emphasis on sanctification as the process and goal of the Christian life.”
Although he did not include ecclesiastical discipline among the marks of the church, he certainly valued it.
Calvin’s concern for the order and form of the church resulted from his emphasis on sanctification as the process and goal of the Christian life.
Timothy George in his book, “Theology of the Reformers,” claims that Calvin gave precedence to sanctification.
The context of sanctification is the visible church, in which the elect participates in the benefits of Christ not as isolated individuals, but as members of Christ’s body. Thus, the visible church becomes a holy community.
Being a holy community, the Church’s honor implies that everything must be done with decency and order, and for this reason, Calvin thinks, the Christian people must elect officers among themselves who maintain good discipline.
Calvin will point out the structure that the visible Church must have in chapter 3 of Book IV.“Calvin found in the Scriptures the fourfold office of pastor, teacher, elder and deacon, which is the basis of the form of government incorporated in the Ecclesiastical Ordinances.”
Calvin considers two types of ministries found in the New Testament: the temporary ministries and the permanent ministries.
Temporary are those of apostle, prophet and evangelist, which the Lord gave to lay the foundations of the Church, and which ended at the end of the apostolic era (Inst. 4.3.5). Permanent are those ministries that are still valid today.
Calvin found in the Scriptures the fourfold office of pastor, teacher, elder and deacon, which is the basis of the form of government incorporated in the Ecclesiastical Ordinances.
And according to Calvin, among the offices that still remained, that of pastor is the most honorable and the most necessary for the order and well-being of the church.
In the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of the Genevan Church, the functions of the four offices are described as follows:
- The Pastors preach God’s word and perform sacraments. However, they cannot implement civil jurisdiction and must take a civil oath to make the people respect the city’s authority.
- The Doctors teach the holy doctrine.
- The Elders keep watch over the morality of the believers. They are lay people chosen by the city councils.
- The Deacons are in charge of the poor and the sick.
For Calvin, the main roles of a pastor are teaching, preaching, church government, and discipline. Calvin writes,
Neither yet belongeth it to my purpose at this present to express all the qualities of a good pastor, but onely to point out what they profess that call themselves pastors: that is, that they are to made rulers of the Church, not that they should have an idle dignity, but that they should with the doctrine of Christ instruct the people to true godliness, minister the holy mysteries, and preserve and exercise upright discipline.” (Inst. 4.3.6).
Therefore, says Calvin, whoever assumes the government and the care of a church, must know that he is morally obligated to serve it according to the divine call.“By reading Calvin in light of this pastoral care, one can understand that each line of his work is intended to create a more just society, where Christians are examples for society, living under God’s Word.”
Lastly, the care for the poor in the church was given to the deacons. According to Calvin, although the term deacon has a much broader meaning, Scripture calls deacons especially those who were charged with dispensing alms and caring for the poor.
The origin, institution and function of diaconate are described in Acts 6.3 (Inst. 4.3.9).
Calvin rightly affirms that “whereas in the holy assemblies all things are to be done in order and comely, there is nothing wherein that ought to be more diligently observed, than in establishing the order of government: because there is nowhere greater peril if anything be done unorderly” (Inst. 4.3.10).
In sum, Calvin shows his pastoral concern, a concern that today should be carried out by all the Reformed churches.
By reading Calvin in light of this pastoral care, one can understand that each line of his work is intended to create a more just society, where Christians are examples for society, living under God’s Word.
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Portret van Johannes Calvijn by Franz Burchard Dörbeck, 1809-1835. The Rijksmuseum. RP-P-1908-2818.
 The Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541)