John Calvin: Pastor or King?

While watching Bill O’Reilly with Jonathan last fall during the presidential election my 9-year-old boy said, “When I grow up, I’m going to be president.”  I was proud of my boy and thankful that I live in a country that this dream is actually possible.  After assuring him that all things are possible in America and with Christ guiding him he could do anything he desired I asked, “Why do you want to be president?”  He responded, “Then I would make everyone believe in Jesus and go to church.”

I suddenly realized I was raising a well-meaning little fascist, a dictator for God.  Yet many Christians may not understand the fallacies of this line of thinking.  Let’s look at John Calvin as an example.

This 16th century theologian who was born in France and studied in Paris had a great loyalty to his father and to his Roman Catholic faith.  However, through study of the Scriptures and early church history Calvin become convinced that he must come out from the Roman church (II Cor. 6:16-17) and join the Protestant movement.   After leaving his priestly post at the age of 25 he moved to Switzerland. Here he spent a great amount of time writing and rewriting his views on theology.  This writing is referred to as The Institutes.  While relocating to his new home in Strasbourg, Calvin arrived in Geneva where he found a newly formed city government that had thrown off the yoke of Roman Imperialism and was attempting to establish a Protestant government.  When the leaders of Geneva met Calvin they begged him to stay and take the lead both spiritually and politically.

I.               The Blending of Church and State

In 1541 the government of Geneva approved Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances that gave political power to the 5 pastors and 12 elders of the city’s church, all led by John Calvin.  He was now the official leader of the governmental state as well as the spiritual state of the church.  Calvin believed this blending to be theologically correct because he thought he saw this outlined in the Scripture.  He organized the city leadership into four orders, pastors gave the Bible, teachers gave the education, elders gave holiness oversight and the deacons were in charge of social services.  Historically, he had seen this done by the Roman Catholic Church for centuries.  In his mind there was no reason the church should not lead both spiritually and politically.

II.             The Tendency of Consolidated Power

Servetus was a fugitive on the run from the Roman Inquisition.  He had been arrested for speaking against the Catholic teachings of the Trinity and Papal authority.  After escaping from prison Servetus was passing through Geneva when recognized and arrested.  Calvin, because he occupied the seat of both spiritual authority and political authority, felt it necessary to place Servetus on trial for heresy.  He was convicted and burned alive at the stake.  After condemning a man to death, Calvin saw no political uprising.  He was Lord supreme.

III.           The Role of the Church in Society

For thousands of years the role of the church in society has been debated by theologians and political leaders alike.  The example of John Calvin and the city of Geneva has served as an example of what is possible when the church and state are blended.  A sincere and devote Christian leader is given complete political power and ends up abusing the authority he had been given.  This is why Baptists in America have always stood for religious liberty and the separation of Church and State..  There should be no state sanctioned church but religious freedom for all to enjoy.  The separation of church and state does not mean Christians ought not get involved in the political process, but that ecclesiastical powers ought be separated from political powers and vice versa.  There should never be an established state religion, likewise there should never be governmental interference in anyone’s religious practices or beliefs.   The role of the church is to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and if individual Christians desire to enter the political arena they ought feel free to do so.  This Christian must walk the fine line of encouraging personal morality without legislating religious beliefs.

What are your thoughts?  Would you tend to be a John Calvin or Jonathan Teis?  In your opinion, what is the responsibly of Christians in our current political system?

(By the way… for those loyal to all things Calvin… I use him only as an example of the importance of Separation of Church and State.  Feel free to remind us of all the contributions to theology that this man brought.  I know some are itching to do so.

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  • Reply
    Aaron Carpenter
    April 11, 2013 at 11:00 am

    I’m not “loyal to all things Calvin,” but what sources are you using to say that Calvin “was Lord supreme?” I only ask because I have read some accounts that were written to take issue with exactly that conclusion.

    • Reply
      Joshua Teis
      April 11, 2013 at 11:44 am

      Thanks Aaron. To what accounts are you referring? I would love to learn more on this issue.

    • Reply
      Joshua Teis
      April 11, 2013 at 11:46 am

      The main resource I am drawing from for this post was “The Story of Christianity” by Justo L. Gonzalez

      • Reply
        Aaron Carpenter
        April 11, 2013 at 12:19 pm

        FWIW, Josh, I agree with you that in civil / ecclesiastical matters, Geneva was not a model to be followed. However, on the question of Calvin being “Lord supreme,” you have used the Servetus trial as an example of Calvin’s authority. According to Schaff, Calvin never occupied an official position of political authority, despite what influence he may have had. (He wasn’t even a citizen of Geneva until 1559.) Also, up through 1555, there was a rather strident conflict between the church authorities (Consistory) and the civil authorities (Council), with the civil authorities hostile to Calvin. Note that this state of affairs continued until 2 years after the Servetus affair. Schaff’s conclusion is this:

        “The final responsibility of the condemnation, therefore, rests with the Council of Geneva, which would probably have acted otherwise, if it had not been strongly influenced by the judgment of the Swiss Churches and the government of Bern. Calvin conducted the theological part of the examination of the trial, but had no direct influence upon the result. His theory was that the Church may convict and denounce the heretic theologically, but that his condemnation and punishment is the exclusive function of the State, and that it is one of its most sacred duties to punish attacks made on the Divine majesty.
        “From the time Servetus was convicted of his heresy,” says Calvin, “I have not uttered a word about his punishment, as all honest men will bear witness; and I challenge even the malignant to deny it if they can.” One thing only he did: he expressed the wish for a mitigation of his punishment.” (8:767)

        Now, that’s not to say that Calvin was completely blameless in the whole affair, especially when judged through the lens of 21st century America. In fact, I don’t know of any historian that has attempted to exonerate him completely. Only blind loyalty would try that.

        T. H. L. Parker’s “Portrait of Calvin” is not what I would call blind loyalty. But he does devote a section to understanding Calvin’s role in the execution of Servetus.

        I’ve not read Gonzalez, but I will make a point to. Also, if Schaff is not a credible source, I’d like to know that, as well. He’s biased, but so is everyone. 🙂

        • Reply
          Joshua Teis
          April 11, 2013 at 1:54 pm

          True – Everyone is biased. You bring up many interesting facts. Thanks.

          I do know that Calvin expressed the wish for a mitigation of his punishment. He offered the less painful execution by beheading if I am not mistaken. Which is something.

          I am not one of these guys who desires to destroy the reputations of the reformers. Of course there are areas in which we would disagree doctrinally from them but I respect much of what they had to say and desire to have the faith, dedication and passion they exhibited.

          The 1st main point of this post was to remind some of our brethren who may have forgotten the dangers of desiring a state sanctioned church and the importance of the baptist belief of separation of church and state and religious liberty.

          The 2nd main reason for this post is that the newer Christians who come to our church will be able to easily be introduced to these topics. This is why some of my posts do not go as deep theologically and historically as some might like.

          You’re a good friend Aaron and a great student of history and the Scriptures. I am thankful for your friendship.

  • Reply
    Chris Armer
    April 11, 2013 at 11:50 am

    Would you consider the Jewish theocracy of the OT a mistake?
    Does Jesus Christ believe in separation of church and state? How will He rule in the kingdom?

    • Reply
      Joshua Teis
      April 11, 2013 at 12:13 pm

      Hey Chris,
      Good to hear from you my friend!
      Obviously Calvin was looking to the Theocracy of the Old Testament as an example to follow. What Calvin seemed to ignore was the fact that we know longer live under the law. I would consider myself a dispensationalist and believe that during the church age and the “dispensation” of grace theocracies are not the most effective way to bring people into genuine faith. I do believe in the Millennial Kingdom and that Christ will be the supreme Lord performing the role of Prophet, Priest and King. However, we would have to agree that Calvin was no Jesus Christ.

      • Reply
        Chris Armer
        April 11, 2013 at 12:46 pm

        Calvin was not Jesus Christ nor did he consider himself to be “Lord Supreme.”
        Most people completely misunderstand the role of John Calvin in the government of Geneva. Calvin was not even a citizen of Geneva. He could not vote much less hold a public office.
        Calvin was limited in his authority by the actual civil government. During the “Servetus affair”, Calvin actually was rebuffed by the actual government, when he plead for some other form of execution (presumably hanging) rather than burning, as more humane.

        Calvin said this in Book 4, chapter 20 of his “Institutes of the Christian Religion.”
        “There is a difference between spiritual and civil government. We ought not to misunderstand the false ideas that are commonly thought about concerning Christian freedom as if this means we are free from the State’s rule. The spiritual kingdom of God is not set at odds with the government of the state, as certain antinomian fanatics believe. Civil government is ordained by God specifically for His glory: to cherish and protect the outward worship of God, to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church, to promote general peace and tranquility and to adjust our life to the society of men.”

      • Reply
        Chris Armer
        April 11, 2013 at 12:57 pm

        Calvin did not lead any government in Geneva. He was only a very influential consultant.

        • Reply
          Joshua Teis
          April 11, 2013 at 2:04 pm


          Thanks for your post. I think we will have to agree to disagree on the role of Calvin in Geneva.

          Personally, I believe it is a bit historically naive to think Calvin was merely a influential consultant.

          I know that some have attempted to exaggerate his role (and perhaps I have fallen into that trap) for the sake of diminishing his doctrine but others have clearly attempted to diminish his political role for the sake protecting his theological legacy. I do not believe that either are necessary. His theology should stand on its own merits. In many many cases, it does just that. In some cases it does not.

          Again, my goal was to use Calvin as an example of the dangers of blending political and religious powers.

          • Chris Armer
            April 11, 2013 at 2:05 pm

            No state run churches. Agreed

          • Joshua Teis
            April 11, 2013 at 3:39 pm

            You’re a good guy Chris. Thanks for your friendship! Hey are you going down to the SLC Conference this year? I’d love to catch up with you.

  • Reply
    Brent George
    April 12, 2013 at 7:28 am

    Relate this (legislating morality) to gay marriage. In other words, should we be fighting to stop legal gay marriage, or should it be allowed as long as Christian pastors are not forced to endorse it?

    • Reply
      James Pfeiffer
      April 12, 2013 at 11:28 am

      From a strictly legal perspective, I don’t know how you can fight it politically without it being considered discrimination. Sexual orientation is a protected class in the work place – businesses offer benefits to the “domestic partners” of their employees the same way they’re offered to spouses. When considering the existence of these types of protections and benefits, I think the government’s recognition of same sex couples under the institution of marriage is inevitable.

      I really don’t know what the answer is but I do believe that the more politically vocal Christains are about this topic the more it would feed the growing mainstream perception that Christians are bigoted, hateful, bible thumpers – which would be hampering to our main objective, which is winning souls. I think the only way to “fight” it is through evangelism. The more people that come to Jesus the less gay marriage remains an issue.

      That’s just my take…

  • Reply
    Alan Ladd
    April 12, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    I assume some will disagree with me and that is all right with me. But I have been in some churches, one my home church when I was young, a Southern Baptist church that use to be on fire for Christ. Then the doctrine of Calvinsim begain to take hold. Many good pastors have been run off that were zealous in winning others to Christ. Today that church is dead, and with what people that are left there are more concern about the cemetery then bringing others to Christ. After saying that there is good and bad to Calvins understanding and in much I disagree with. A Baptist teacher told me once If it is Bible it should be Baptist and if it is Baptist it should be Bible. But when one takes understandings and use it as a excuse not to do Gods great commission, we have missed the understanding.
    As for as the subject of same sex marriage there is no such thang that is Holy before God. So we do discriminate against sin and rebuke it, but not to the piont of closeing the door of light to the Gosple of Christ to sinners.
    And as for as Church and State I pray that I do not become another Barabbas when it comes to politics, I thank that is why God lade on our hearts separation of Church and State were the Holy Spirit can keep a check on us were the freedom of the gosple can always be free for Others. Pardon my spelling, sometimes I forget how.

  • Reply
    James Stevens
    April 16, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    “There should never be an established state religion, likewise there should never be governmental interference in anyone’s religious practices or beliefs.”

    I see more and more government interference in Christianity every day. It seems to me that it is OK to promote freedom of religion except when it comes to Christianity. Our tax dollars are a prime example. Even though I am against abortion based on my religious views I am forced to pay for them through taxes. Gay marriage is also a huge issue. I believe a person has the right to do what he or she wishes and that is called tolerance. I draw the line at acceptance I will not accept that life style as I believe that it is wrong. I believe government needs to get out of the business of marriage all together. Do away with the benefits of being married. Marriage is a religious institution and it should stay that way. Just my .02 cents

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