Three Important Pastoral Lessons from Calvin’s Geneva, by Scott Manetsch

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As Christians, there are two extremes that we should avoid when considering the history of the church. On one hand, we must be careful not to glamorize the past, assuming that “older is better” and thus seek uncritically to transplant ancient ideas or practices into our modern church contexts. On the other hand, we must beware of an attitude that equates the “modern” with the “good,” and thus turns a blind eye to wisdom gleaned from the lives and lessons of people in the past (C. S. Lewis called this attitude ‘chronological snobbery’). Mature Christians are receptive to all that God wants to teach them from his Word and world, whether that be from the sermon of a minister, the advice of a neighbor, or the pen of a fourth-century monk.

In the conclusion of my recent book Calvin’s Company of Pastors (Oxford, 2013), I suggest a number of ways that pastoral theory and practice in sixteenth-century Geneva might inform and enrich our view of the pastoral office today. Here, I briefly mention three insights that I found particularly relevant.

(1) In Calvin’s Geneva, ministry was profoundly Word-centered. At the heart of Calvin’s sense of vocation was the conviction that Christians “needed to hear their God speaking and learn from his teaching.” Consequently, when Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541, he drafted a church constitution that placed Scripture at the forefront of religious life in the city. Each week, Calvin and his colleagues preached more than thirty sermons in the three parish churches. (This included three sermons on Sundays as well as weekday sermons that began at 4:30 a.m. for maids and household servants!) Children were required to learn the Catechism, which involved memorizing biblical doctrine and scriptural passages such as the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments. Geneva’s liturgy was rich in the language and prayers of Scripture, and included regular congregational singing from the French Psalter. Finally, owing much to Calvin’s influence, Geneva in the sixteenth century became the printing center for French Bibles in Europe, with more than eighty editions produced from 1550-1600. (During this period, Genevan printers also produced Bibles in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, and English.) Evidently, Calvin and his reformed colleagues believed that where God’s Word was faithfully proclaimed and gladly received, there the Holy Spirit was at work in power to effect moral transformation in the lives of men and women. The case of Calvin’s Geneva reminds us today that spiritual reformation and scriptural proclamation go hand in hand.

2.) For Calvin, pastoral ministry involved intensive personal care. Having grown up in the reformed tradition, I was sometimes exposed to a portrait of Calvin that focused on his theological genius at the expense of his pastoral concerns and commitments. When one studies the documents of the Genevan church, it becomes clear that this depiction misses the mark.  Calvin once stated:  “the office of a true and faithful minister is not only to teach the people in public, which he is appointed to do as pastor, but also, as much as he is able, to admonish, exhort, warn, and console each person individually.” In Calvin’s Geneva, all of the ministers were expected to preach multiple times each week. They were required to visit sick people at bedside. Along with the city’s lay elders, they conducted pastoral visitations of all the households in their parish each year before Easter. Furthermore, every Thursday at noon the pastors and elders met in Consistory to interview, reprove, and offer spiritual advice to men and women guilty of a whole variety of sins, from adultery to drunkenness to spousal abuse. Although consistorial discipline could be confrontational and was always intrusive, it constituted a form of spiritual counsel and pastoral care as the pastors and elders engaged people at their point of greatest brokenness and need, seeking to guide them to repentance and spiritual healing. On many occasions, the Consistory also intervened on behalf of the neglected and abused, seeking to protect the weak and poor as well as mediate conflicts between spouses and within households. I came away from my study of Geneva’s Consistory with a deep sense of admiration for the amount of time and effort that Geneva’s pastors and elders devoted to this painful, yet important, aspect of spiritual care. In our modern world where men and women so often struggle with spiritual dislocation, fractured relationships, and deep-seated loneliness, Calvin’s vision for pastoral oversight that includes gospel proclamation and intense relational ministry appears especially relevant and important.

3.) Calvin was committed to accountability and collegiality in pastoral work. Geneva’s ministers had a deep aversion to forms of church government that were hierarchical and autocratic. They believed Scripture taught that, though pastors’ roles might vary from parish to parish, the pastoral office was a single office, and all pastors were equally servants of Christ and ministers of the Word of God. Calvin formalized this commitment by creating a number of institutions that constituted the DNA of pastoral ministry in Geneva. All of the city’s ministers belonged to the Company of Pastors, a church council that met every Friday morning to address concerns of the church. The Company examined students for ministry, filled local ministerial posts (with the approval of the city magistrates), discussed contested points of doctrine, corresponded with foreign churches, and recruited and deployed missionary pastors for France. A second institution was the weekly Congregation, a body created by Calvin (patterned after Zurich’s Prophetzei) where the city’s pastors met to study Scripture together and evaluate one another’s exposition of biblical texts. Calvin insisted that the formation of ministers and the preservation of right doctrine depended on the pastors studying Scripture in community. “The fewer discussions of doctrine we have together,” Calvin once observed, “the greater the danger of pernicious opinions… for solitude leads to great abuse.” One additional church institution that reflected Calvin’s commitment to accountability and collegiality was the Quarterly Censure. Four times a year, before the quarterly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Geneva’s ministers met behind closed doors to air their differences, to address colleagues suspected of immorality or teaching wrong doctrine, and to promote mutual trust and common vision. After the meeting, Calvin and his colleagues shared a lunch of soup together. Though Calvin’s collegial model of ministry did not foster bold innovation, nor allow for strong dissent, it did create a pastoral culture in Geneva where ministers depended on one another, learned from one another, were accountable to one another, and sometimes forgave one another. One suspects that contemporary Protestantism, with its infatuation for robust individualism, celebrity preachers, and ministry empires, has much to learn from the example of Geneva’s church.

Dr. Scott Manetsch is Professor of Church History at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

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