Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Calvin on Church Government: Part Four

Note: This is part four in this series of excerpts from Calvin's Institutes (Book IV; Chapter III) in which the great Refomer lays out his views on Biblical church government and offices.

Those who preside over the government of the Church, according to the institution of Christ, are named by Paul, first, Apostles; secondly, Prophets; thirdly, Evangelists; fourthly, Pastors; and, lastly, Teachers (Eph 4:11). Of these, only the two last have an ordinary office in the Church. The Lord raised up the other three at the beginning of his kingdom, and still occasionally raises them up when the necessity of the times requires.

The nature of the apostolic function is clear from the command, "Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). No fixed limits are given them, but the whole world is assigned to be reduced under the obedience of Christ, that by spreading the Gospel as widely as they could, they might everywhere erect his kingdom. Accordingly, Paul, when he would approve his apostleship, does not say that he had acquired some one city for Christ, but had propagated the Gospel far and wide—had not built on another man’s foundation, but planted churches where the name of his Lord was unheard. The apostles, therefore, were sent forth to bring back the world from its revolt to the true obedience of God, and everywhere establish his kingdom by the preaching of the Gospel; or, if you choose, they were like the first architects of the Church, to lay its foundations throughout the world.

By Prophets, he means not all interpreters of the divine will, but those who excelled by special revelation; none such now exist, or they are less manifest.

By Evangelists, I mean those who, while inferior in rank to the apostles, were next them in office, and even acted as their substitutes. Such were Luke, Timothy, Titus, and the like; perhaps, also, the seventy disciples whom our Saviour appointed in the second place to the apostles (Luke 10:1).

According to this interpretation, which appears to me consonant both to the words and the meaning of Paul, those three functions were not instituted in the Church to be perpetual, but only to endure so long as churches were to be formed where none previously existed, or at least where churches were to be transferred from Moses to Christ; although I deny not, that afterward God occasionally raised up Apostles, or at least Evangelists, in their stead, as has been done in our time. For such were needed to bring back the Church from the revolt of Antichrist. The office I nevertheless call extraordinary, because it has no place in churches duly constituted.

Next come Pastors and Teachers, with whom the Church never can dispense, and between whom, I think, there is this difference, that teachers preside not over discipline, or the administration of the sacraments, or admonitions, or exhortations, but the interpretation of Scripture only, in order that pure and sound doctrine may be maintained among believers. But all these are embraced in the pastoral office.

Analysis: Here Calvin discusses five Biblical offices: Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers. Of these, the first three were foundational and extraordinary while only the last two are an "ordinary office in the Church."

Though he generally believes the first three offices have ceased, Calvin notes that the Lord "still occasionally raises them up when the necessity of the times requires." Later he adds, "God occasionally raised up Apostles, or at least Evangelists, in their stead, as has been done in our time. For such were needed to bring back the Church from the revolt of Antichrist. The office I nevertheless call extraordinary, because it has no place in churches duly constituted." He apparently, then, views those used to initiate the Protestant Reformation (McNeill adds here that Calvin is "referring chiefly to Luther whom he elsewhere often praises.") as modern day "Evangelists." Calvin does not fit neatly here into the non-cessationist mode.

The Apostles were "the first Architects of the Church" who laid its foundation.

The Prophets were those who received "special revelation."

The Evangelists were apostolic associates like Luke, Timothy, and Titus.

Teachers are those who hold the key of doctrine but not rule; whereas, Pastors hold both the keys of doctrine and rule. With these offices the church "can never dispense."



Anonymous said...

Does Calvin talk about how many pastors a church should have?

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


In answer to your question:

Calvin offers a four fold view of office: Pastors (Ministers of the Word), Teachers, Elders, and Deacons.

From the Institutes it appears that he believed there would be one Pastor (Minister of the Word) in each congregation.

In the Institutes, Book IV, Chapter III, Calvin says things like:

“one is appointed pastor to teach the rest, and those bidden to be pupils receive the common teaching from one mouth”;

“Yet pastors (except that they each govern the several churches assigned to them) have the same charge as the apostles”;

“what the apostles performed for the whole world, each pastor ought to perform for his own flock, to which he is assigned.”

In a large congregation there may well be need for more than one pastor (Minister of the Word). We should note that Calvin sees the office of the Elder (who is not a Minister of the Word) as distinct from that of Pastor. Thus, Calvin does not seem to teach the modern construal of “parity” of elders. Of the pastors, he says, “in the office of the pastors also there are these two particular functions: to proclaim the gospel and to administer the sacraments.” These duties of the pastor(s) are distinct from those of elders. We might say that Calvin teaches that although all pastors (Ministers of the Word) are elders, not all elders are pastors (Ministers of the Word).

Calvin’s views are carried over into the Continental Reformation creeds which present a three-fold view of office (they combine pastor and teacher into one office and place alongside the pastor-teacher, the offices of elder and deacon). The Belgic Confession (1561), for example, lays out this threefold view in Article 30:

We believe that this true church ought to be governed according to the spiritual order that our Lord has taught us in his Word. There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments. There should also be elders and deacons, along with the pastors, to make up the council of the church.

These views are carried over into many contemporary Reformed Churches that distinguish between the Teaching Elder (usually a single Pastor) and Ruling Elders (non-vocational elders who are not ordained to the Ministry of the Word but who assist the Teaching Elder in government).


Anonymous said...

Obviously, quoting Calvin, you must be reformed, and therefore believe in total depravity. That being said, when one man holds an office that elevates him above others, whether it be a king or a pastor, there is a danger of abusing that power (because all men are depraved). What should be done to hold the pastor accountable? If he holds an office that elevates him above the other elders, it seems that accountability within his local church is not possible. It sounds like he must look outside his church to another pastor for accountability. That doesn't seem like good Baptist ecclesiology.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


No doubt authority can be abused. It can be abused by a husband/father as head of his family. An ungoldy man might beat his wife and mistreat his children. The fact that all husbands and fathers are sinners and that some grossly abuse their authority, however, hardly leads us to believe that we should do away with the role of husband/father or encourage families to be led by an egalitarian committee. The same can be said for those who serve as pastors. Just because men are sinners and some might abuse authority does not mean we do away with the role, particularly if it is a Biblically mandated one.

In addition, just as one man might abuse his power, so might a group of men, or even an entire congregation. Rebellion against proper authority is as grave a shortcoming as is abuse of power. Indeed, none are free from the impact of radical depravity.

To whom are pastors accountable? First, to God Himself (1 Cor 3:12-15; Heb 13:17; James 3:1; 1 Pet 5:4). Next, to the local church and her officers (Math 18:15-17; Eph 5:21; 1 Tim 5:19-20).

The Presbyterian model would call for a presbytery to which the Ministers of the Word are accountable. For Baptists it would come within the church itself (the elders and congregation). The old Baptists, however, did seem to rely on gatherings of ministers from various churches to form a presbytery for things like ordination and for circular letters that addressed controversial issues. It would probably be good to revive this practice.

Nick D. Swanstrom said...

JTR: thank you kindly for the aforesaid explanation regarding Calvin’s ‘four-fold governance concept: pastor, teacher, elders, and deacons’. Especially the distinction between pastors and teacher. For example, in the earlier years of the Baptists at Middletown, Monmouth, NJ, by 1707, when presented before the Court of Sessions by 4 members of the church, John Bray was identified as “minister of the Baptists of the county of Monmouth.” In 1712 when members from fellow churches (Philadelphia Association) heard details related to a schism apparently a few years in the making, close reading indicates one issue involved John Okison referred to as a teacher. Collectively, these two men were sometimes referred to as Elders—presumably, one the pastor (minister), Bray, and Okison as teacher. Your explanation gives me better insight into, perhaps, which one did what. Morgan Edwards opined, because both were silenced, they were the cause of the schism. I have read Garrett’s Baptist Theology and Sacks’ Philadelphia Baptist Tradition (among others) looking for a bright line (or at least how the use has varied over time, Particular verses General Baptists, etc.). Yours made it all come together and so succinctly one can similarly convey the concept while keeping folk’s attention (hahaha)! So, again, from this layman my sincere thanks.