Choosing the Right Spouse in Geneva

Courtship

This post is a revision of a post titled “Courtship in Geneva” based on John Witte Jr and Robert Kingdon’s book Sex, Marriage and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva: Volume 1, Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage.  

Marriage was done differently 500 years ago than it is today. Today many, if not most marriages are arranged by the two parties with little consideration of what their parents or other adults might think of the proposed spouse. Often the path that leads to marriage is taken by the two parties alone. There is very little parental instruction to the young people on how to proceed. From the youngest years dating dominates our interaction with the opposite sex and usually our closest advisers are peers. This usually means that the choice of a marriage partner is driven by a fluttering heart or an excited body instead of reason, discretion, and prudence.

But it has not always been so.  In John Calvin’s time romantic interaction with the opposite sex was supposed to be reserved for when a person could physically and financially marry. When a couple began to seriously consider marriage they were usually overseen by their parents or guardians. In the third chapter of Witte and Kingdon’s book they explore this process of courtship in Geneva.

In Geneva, courtship did not take an exact shape. Calvin gave a few courtship rules such as no sexy dressing, unsupervised trips, overnight stays, dancing, “ribald letters,” and premarital sex. But as to the exact way a courtship worked out there were no strict rules. The parents were involved. There had to be free consent of both parties. There parties were to be honest about their financial state. But the details of courtship were a matter of wisdom. “While the Bible said a great deal about the sins of fornication, it said little about the ethics of courtship.” Since Scripture is largely silent on the specifics of courtship, so was Calvin. This is an important point for modern courtship advocates. I believe courtship is the model most rooted in Scriptural principles. There are general guidelines, which should govern courtship. However, the specifics should be left up to the parents, couple, and church. Those specifics will flex from family to family, community to community, and age to age. To say, “This is how courtship must be done” is to go further than Scripture.

While how a couple courted was left vague, who they courted was not. There were two issues. First, who could they legally and biblically marry. There were “conditions, experiences, or relationships past or present [that] disqualified [certain parties] from courtship and marriage.” It was forbidden for certain people to marry certain other people and in some cases people could not get married at all. This idea is explored in later chapters of the book.

Second, a potential spouse’s moral, physical, and socio-economic status were to be evaluated.  Christians were expected to think through these factors before pursuing marriage. A potential spouse’s moral character was most important when determining whether or not to marry. A person with moral failings, such as laziness, a bad reputation, or sexual immorality should not be pursued. Someone of a different class should not be pursued either. An educated man should not pursue an uneducated woman. A rich woman should not consent to marry a poor man. The elders at Geneva would not have necessarily forbidden such a marriage, but they would have strongly counselled against it. They felt marrying in the same class would give the couple the greatest chance of success. Reformers were especially wary of young men marrying rich widows. All of this backs up what Steven Ozment says about the Reformation approach to marriage.

While moral and class issues played a large role in courtship, Calvin did not ignore the physical side of it either.

Physical beauty was thus properly part of the natural calculus of courtship and marriage, Calvin believed. It was not ‘wrong for women to look at men.” Nor was it ‘ wrong for men to regard beauty in their choice of wives’…It was thus essential to Calvin that couples spend some time together before considering marriage…If there was no natural and mutual attraction, there was no use for a couple to go forward toward marriage. Accordingly, Calvin opposed the late medieval tradition of arranged or child marriages, sight unseen.

The authors conclude the chapter with this,

A strong pro-marriage ethic and culture was the new norm of Reformation Geneva…One key to a strong marriage, Calvin insisted, was picking the right mate-a person of ample piety, modesty, and virtue especially, of comparable social, economic, and educational status as well. A mate’s physical beauty could play a part…but spiritual beauty was the salient issue.

There is one funny anecdote in the chapter. Calvin was a bachelor for quite some time. In fact, he had all but given up getting married when someone suggested an Anabaptist widow named Idellette, whom he eventually married. Calvin’s good friend Farel wrote to him saying that she was an excellent wife, filled with all godly virtue and to his surprise she was pretty as well. Was Farel surprised that such a godly woman could be so pretty? Or was he surprised that a man like Calvin could land such a pretty woman? I am betting on the latter, but unfortunately we do not know.

Is the Church Supposed to be a Persecuted Minority?

Different Person

The idea of Jesus as a persecuted minority and therefore the founder of a persecuted minority group, i.e. the Church, has become common currency in theological circles. The basic idea has been around in different forms for a long time in ideas such as the remnant, some Reformation era Anabaptists, and die-hard dispensationalists. But recently minority groups have used this idea to put themselves in the same category as Christ and to defend their particular cause.  We are told that if we care about the Gospel and follow in Christ’s footsteps then we will have compassion on and help minorities. Therefore I found this section of Andrew Fulford’s book, Jesus and Pacifism, helpful.  He is talking about the command in Matthew 16:24 to take up our crosses and follow Jesus. First he says,

Dr. Yoder [a pacifist] argued that this command was essentially a command to be a faithful minority community under persecution. [Fulford footnotes Yoder’s The Original Revolution and The Politics of Jesus]

Yoder does not mean what many current social justice warriors mean. But his perspective fits in nicely with SJW thinking. Yoder views the command through a political lens. Taking up your cross means you are willing to be associated with those on the edges and fringes of society,  those currently defined as weak, maligned, and persecuted. Fulford goes on to explain the command differently using Jesus’ own words and the context. He then says this:

In sum, this command requires nothing more of us than the Greatest Commandment does. To be commanded to serve God with everything one has, means being willing to obey him even to  the point of death…And this was not merely a teaching on this part; Jesus practiced what he preached. The cross was of course the means by the Lord himself would choose to lay down his life in order to obey his Father…When the Lord commands us to not just to pick up a cross, but to follow him while doing so, we can see what he means. He calls us to make the exact same choice he did: to accept death from the hands of God if providence gives us no choice between it and sin. It means, in essence, to be willing to give up everything and to endure anything rather than disobey God. His command goes to the very heart of the problem with the human condition. From the first sin, human beings have been choosing sin for the sake of some lesser good rather than obedience to their Creator. Jesus calls us to finally do what we were made to do, serve God above all things.

Fulford then discusses II Corinthians 4:5-18 and Paul’s description of his own sufferings. Here is the concluding paragraph.

Paul’s reflections on these themes are profound, and warrant many books dedicated to them entirely. But the important point for our purposes here is to note: for the apostle joining in the sufferings of Christ was not simply about being a persecuted minority in society. It was about enduring the effects of the curse; it was about accepting death in all its forms (literal and figurative) from the hand of God, and living in a certain hope that one day we will be redeemed from it, just as Christ has been. Refusing to take up the cross is not essentially about the minority’s temptation to take political and social power; refusing the cross is essentially repeating the sin of the Garden. Rejecting one’s cross is an action rooted in distrust of God’s goodness, leading to an attempt to minimize our pain and maximize our happiness by making moral compromises and breaking God’s commands.

Taking up our cross is not about whatever particular social justice cause we are currently pushing. It is not about a refusal to take up positions of power, as Anabaptists often interpret it. It is not even about our daily struggles with life in general. It is about belief in God and obedience to his commands no matter the cost. Most days that will look normal. On a few days it will be extraordinary.

One might argue that this is just one passage. There are other passages that make it clear Christians should care about minorities. Certainly there are passages to debate and discuss, but in the end we would probably end up at the same place. Minority status, however that is defined, is not a virtue in the Christian faith. Trust in God and obedience is.

A Husband Must Maintain His Authority

Family 1

In my last post from William Gouge I quoted him on how a husband’s love for his wife is the foundation for all his duties. We are not surprised to find this emphasis in Gouge. Modern evangelical husbands are frequently exhorted to love their wives, which of course is good and right. However, Gouge’s next section might come as a bit of a surprise. If you remember the title of this chapter is, “A Husband’s Affectionate Authority over His Wife.” The affection part we get. The authority over part we have a harder time with. But for Gouge love is expressed through a husband’s authority. A husband cannot properly love his wife if he is not maintaining and exercising authority.

All the branches which grow out of this root of love as they cover the husband’s duties, may be drawn to two heads

  1. A wise maintaining of his authority.
  2. A right managing of the same.

That these two are branches of a husband’s love, is evident by the place in which God has set him, which is a place of authority; for the best good that any can do, are those which are done in his own proper  position, and by virtue of it.  If then a husband relinquishes his authority, he takes away his ability to do that good, and show those fruits of love which he otherwise might. If he abuses his authority, he turns the edge and point of his sword in the wrong direction. Instead of holding it over his wife for her protection, he stabs her body to her destruction, and so show by it more hatred than love.

We all get Gouge’s last two sentences. We frequently hear about how husbands are not to use their authority to abuse their wives. This was a problem in Gouge’s day as well and he rebukes it soundly throughout the book.  Continue reading

The Power of the Consistory in John Calvin’s Geneva

Here is the latest post in a series I am doing on John Witte and Robert Kingdon’s excellent book Sex, Marriage and Family Life in John Calvin’s Geneva. This post more than others is simply historical, giving a basic outline of what the Consistory was and how it worked. If you want further explanation you can read chapter 7 in Calvin’s Company of Pastors. 

In 1538 John Calvin was exiled from Geneva. For the next few years he lived in Strasbourg where he learned from Martin Bucer and preached. In 1541 the city of Geneva asked him to return. One of the demands he made if they wanted him back was the creation of a institution to oversee the Christian discipline of the population of Geneva. Calvin’s request led to the creation of the Consistory, a church court that oversaw the discipline of the citizens of Geneva. The Consistory became the primary ecclesiastical tool to deal with the sins of the people.

The Consistory was made up of around 2 dozen men, which included pastors, elected officials, and Calvin,the moderator. It met every week on Thursday with sessions that could last for several hours. The Consistory had spiritual authority, but no civil authority. It could and often did recommend that the civil authorities look into a situation. Some situations, such as murder and rape, never came to the Consistory, but went directly to the civil magistrate.  Continue reading

A Husband’s Love for His Wife in All Things

husbands

Can love and authority be combined? For many today the answer is no. Authority is about power and control, not love. Love is about giving people the freedom to do what they want and be who they want to be. But in Scripture authority and love are not enemies. William Gouge, in the first chapter of his book where he addresses husbands, does a wonderful job of weaving together love and authority.  In this post I want to look at his description of a husband’s love for his wife. He begins the chapter by explaining that because the husband has authority he is more accountable.

As a wife is to know her duty, so the husband much more his…The higher his position the more knowledge he ought to have in how to walk worthy of it. Neglect of duty in him is more dishonorable to God, because by virtue of his position he is “the image and glory of God” (I Cor. 11:7), and more destructive not only to his wife, but also to the whole family because of that power and authority he has.

A basic principle of Scripture is that authority brings greater responsibility and therefore greater judgment should it be misused. But the assumption here is that there is such a thing as authority. Without authority there cannot be greater responsibility. Gouge then moves to the principle command to husbands, that of love.

The head of the rest [of his duties], love, is plainly set down and alone mentioned in this [Ephesians 5:25] and many other places in Scripture, whereby it is evident that all other duties are included under it…in this place love  is expressed four times beside that it is implied under many other terms and phrases. Whoever therefore takes a wife, must…love her. Many good reasons for this may be given:

  1. Because no duty on the husband’s part can be rightly performed except it be seasoned by love. The apostle exhorts all Christians to do all things in love (I Cor. 16:14, much more ought husbands. Though in position they are above their wives, love may not be forgotten.
  2. Because of all persons on earth a wife is the most proper object of love. Neither friend, nor child, nor parent ought to be so loved as his wife. She is termed, “the wife of thy bosom” (Deut 13:6), to show that she ought to be as his heart in his bosom.
  3. Because his high position and power of authority may soon puff him up, and make him abuse his wife and trample her under his feet, if an entire love of her is not planted in his heart. To keep him from abusing his authority, love is so much pressed upon him.
  4. Because wives through weakness of their sex (for they are the weaker vessels) are much more prone to provoke their husbands. So as if love is not ruling the husband there is likely to be but little peace between husband and wife. Love covers a multitude of imperfections.
  5. Because as Christ by showing first His love stirs up the church to love Him, so a husband by loving his wife should stir up her to love in return.

Here are a few other quotes from this section on a husband loving his wife.

Their position is a position of authority, which without love will soon turn into tyranny. Their responsibility is especially and above all, to seek the good of their wives. Because wives are the most important and greatest responsibility of husbands, so their most vigorous and greatest care must be for them.

This affection of love is a distinct duty in itself, especially belonging to the husband, and also a common condition which must be joined to every other duty of a husband, to season and sweeten them. His look, his speech, his conduct, and all his actions, in which he has to do with his wife, must be seasoned with love. Love must show itself in his commandments, in his reproofs, in his instructions, in his admonitions, in his authority, in his familiarity, when they are alone together, when they are in company before others, in civil affairs, in religious matters, at all times, in all things.

Neither is it sufficient for a husband to not hate his wife for even the lack of love, though it be only the absence of good is a great vice and contrary also to the duty of love.

For how can he who does not love his wife (whom God has given to him as a token of His favor, and as a help meet for him, to be in his bosom and ever in his sight, even to be no longer two, but one flesh), love God whom he has not seen (I John 4:20)? If any many says he loves God and hates his wife, he is a liar.

In short a man must love his wife.  Without love for his wife all deeds will rot. Without love his kisses are hypocrisy. What does Gouge mean by love? A good window into his meaning is the title of this chapter, “A Husband’s Affectionate Authority over His Wife.” I am not sure if the chapter titles are original, but it hits the bulls-eye.  Love is affection for your wife that is like yeast, which works its way through the entire relationship.  Every interaction and deed is flavored with love. Gouge compares it to salt, which makes all things taste good.

But can love coexist with power and authority? You will notice that Gouge frequently refers to the husband’s authority throughout the post.  To our modern ears this will sound strange. Authority and tyranny are virtual synonyms that are opposed by love and freedom. However, in our next post Gouge will not only say love and authority go together, but he will argue that to love his wife a husband must exercise his authority. His love does not result in him stepping back and letting his household go. Rather the fruit of love is the wise exercise of his authority.

The Necessity of Force

When one reads pacifists it is easy to assume they have forgotten about sin. Pacifists tend to downplay sin and how ugly the world gets. They assume that all men are reasonable and therefore violence is never necessary. Andrew Fulford responds to this at the end of his book, Jesus and Pacifism.  In this section he is critiquing Stanley Hauerwas’ critique of C.S. Lewis.

What I will note is a false assumption…the idea that all people ultimately have a good will. That is, some pacifism assumes that all violent individuals can ultimately be reasoned with, and therefore force is never really necessary. But this is simply not true, or at least we have no evidence to think it is. Violent sociopaths are people who violate this stricture: they are aware they hurt people and that what they are doing is wrong, but they do it anyway. And Scripture testifies that our experience is correct, that such rebellious people do exist…So in fact there is no good reason to assume we can always talk violent people out of their behavior, and that deep down they are all just folks like us. Sometimes they not.

Force is necessary at times because some men are so wicked that they will not listen to reason. For most of us this is as plain as the sun rising. But some pacifists cannot see this at all. I wonder if the Anabaptistic view of sin is one reason why they lean towards pacifism? That question will need to be answered another day. For now, it is clear that violent force is at times necessary.

How a Husband Loses His Authority

drunkardAfter William Gouge finishes explaining how a husband should exercise his authority, he lists the different ways a man loses his authority. Gouge here means his functional authority. The husband still has official authority as the head of his home, but people do not listen to him and in extreme cases there can be divorce where the husband loses his primary authority. He lists three different ways husbands can lose authority: undisciplined living, cruelty/tyranny, and refusing to lead the family but allowing them freedom to do as they please.

[Men] who by their irreverence, partying, drunkenness, immorality, failure to take life seriously, wasting money, and other dishonorable conduct, make themselves contemptible, and so lose their authority. Though a wife should not take these occasions to despise her husband, yet it is a just judgment on him to be despised, seeing he makes himself contemptible.

A man who lacks discipline and self-control loses his authority and deserves contempt.

Contrary also to the directions I just gave [how to wisely exercise authority] is the stern, rough, and cruel conduct of husbands, who by violence and tyranny go about to maintain their authority. Force may indeed cause fear, but the fear of slaves, such a fear produces more hatred than love, causes more inward contempt than outward respect.

A husband who leads with tyranny and violence loses the heart of his household. A wife or children may follow, but it is only to prevent themselves harm, not out of love or respect for the husband.

And contrary [to wise governing] is their groveling disposition, who against their own judgment yield to their wife’s inclination in such things as are unlawful; they will lose their authority rather than make their wife unhappy…some husbands allow this by reason of their fearful and foolish disposition, lacking courage and wisdom to maintain the honor of their positions against the pride of their wives. Others upon a subtle, covetous, wicked mind, that by the means of their wives there may be more freedom for receiving bribes. Among these I may reckon those who against their own mind, to satisfy their wife’s mind, allow both their wife and children to follow the latest fashion, to dress themselves in a way inappropriate to their positions, to frequently be with foolish friends, and so on…Husbands may listen to their wives’ suggesting good things, but they may not obey them in evil things.

Husbands lose their authority when they refuse to stand up to their wives or when they believe one path is correct, but instead go with what their wife says. When they flatter their wives and bend to all their wishes they lose authority. They can do this through cowardice or through manipulation (“receiving bribes”).

Often we husbands get irritated when we are not being heard and our authority is not honored. This is good. A husband and father should expect to be heard. But when this happens the first place we should look is our own lives. Are we lazy and undisciplined ? Do we expect our wife and children to work hard, but we are soft? Are we mean and cruel? Do we rule by threats, yelling, and violence? Finally, can we say no to our wives? Can we go against their will and bear their anger when necessary? If not we lose authority. It is hard to respect a man with no backbone.