Calvin’s church | Herman Selderhuis

There was already quite some literature available on the theology and biography of John Calvin, but the Calvin year 2009 has added tremendously to that and has also given a boost to Calvin research. One of the topics that has profited from this jubilee-year is the ecclesiology of the Genevan reformer. Here I will just briefly point out some of the central points in his view of the church. (1)

Church as Mother

During his time in Strasbourg (1538-1541) Calvin rediscovered the church. He had broken with Rome because he thought it was not a church after God’s will, but found no answer as to how the church should be instead until his arrival in Strasbourg. There he experienced how Martin Bucer organized the church and there he saw the importance of the local congregation as central part of the universal church.

For Calvin, the church was so important that he consistently referred to it as ‘mother’. For Calvinism, with its emphasis not only on the independence of the local congregation but also of the individual member of the church, Calvin’s view of the church sometimes sounds a little too Catholic, but he did not give up this old metaphor and fully agrees with the church father Cyprian who said that one can not have God as Father unless you have God as mother.

For Calvin the church is the place of rebirth. There, through Word and Spirit a person is born again. So the church as mother gives birth to children. But the church then also nourishes these children and teaches them. The image of the church as school is also often used by Calvin and this image is directed linked to that of the mother. Believers as children of God need protection, need training, need a solid education and it is the task of the church to give that to them.

Church Structure

Active involvement of the church member characterized the structure. A member of the congregation did not just hear the word, or receive the sacrament, but was active in church work and the passing on of the message of salvation. Calvin’s doctrine of the triple ministry (pastors, deacons and elders) mirrors the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest and king, and necessitates the inclusion of non-theologically trained community members, thus strengthening the lay element in the composition of the church.

This principle of collegiality, which is a salient characteristic of the Presbyterian church-model, operated not only for the individual believer, but also for the synodal grouping of individual churches. This accounts for the conviction of individual Calvinist believers that they should actively take part in politics and the world of learning, and in general maintain a higher profile in society than Lutherans or Catholics. Combined with Calvin’s notion of “vocation”, namely, that disciples of Christ could be called anywhere at any time, the principle of collegiality ensured a wide geographical, as well as social and cultural impact of Calvin’s thought.

Also essential was the idea of a free church, that is, a church that determined its own organization independently of civil authorities while remaining aware of the their authorities’ sovereignty in public matters. This made it a mobile church, and meant that Calvinist ideas on church organization could be easily transposed into different social, political and indeed cultural contexts.

Offices in church

Calvin’s church order listed four offices: deacon, elder, pastor and doctor. Calvin thought these four were all found in Scripture and were fully directed to the holiness of the congregation, the salvation of the people and the glory of God. The pastor was to function as the mouth of God and his responsibility was so immense that Calvin wrote it would be better for him to break his neck falling down the stairs of the pulpit than going up the pulpit without solid sermon preparation. If the church brings forth children through the Word, pastors must bring this Word well-prepared.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature was the office of the elder. They were according to Calvin the real shepherds since they oversaw the flock, brought comfort in adversity, pointed out the way of faith, and dealt out blows with the rod of discipline to those who wandered too far from God’s flock in doctrine or manner of life.

Calvin described two, or actually three types of deacons. The first two were official, and consisted first f those who looked after the financial matters of the church, and second of a group entrusted with the task of visiting the sick and the poor. The third type of deacon was the congregation itself, which was also to be active in the care of the sick and the poor.

The doctors existed to ensure that the preachers were well instructed in doctrine and were intended especially to prevent the pure gospel from being obscured by human opinions.


Calvin’s view of the church with its flexibility, mobility and it’s democratic approach has appeared to be an attractive model for those Christian communities that wanted or needed to be organized independently from political circumstances.

(1) For further reading: Josef Bohatec, Calvins Lehre von Staat und Kirche (Breslau 1937; reprint, Aalen: Scientia Verlag 1968); Herman J. Selderhuis (ed.), Calvin Handbook, Grand Rapids 2009.

Herman Johan Selderhuis – Professor of Church History and Church Polity at the Theological University in Apeldoorn, Director of Refo500, President of the International Calvin Congress, President of the Reformation Research Consortium, Research Curator of the John A Lasco Library (Emden, Germany)

Numer 1(1) 2013, 11.02.2013