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. 

John Witte and Robert Kingdon note that before Geneva “most early Protestant regimes…refused to give their churches a general power of excommunication.” Calvin and other pastors fought for this right and eventually obtained it. Here is the authors’ comment on the power of the Consistory:

A crucial new weapon won in this political battle was the Consistory’s unequivocal power to enforce its spiritual discipline by using either the ban (temporary preclusion from communion) or excommunication (exclusion from the church altogether, which often also entailed banishment from the city as well). An important statute of 1560 confirmed victory by urging the use of admonition and simple bans in routine cases, and the use of excommunication in serious cases. The ban became a regular tool of discipline hereafter, but excommunication remained rare. Between 1560 and 1564 the Consistory banned nearly forty persons for every one it excommunicated. The Consistory had no further spiritual powers-and no formal legal power. If it decided that a case needed further investigation and further punishment, it had to refer it to the Small Council [a civil court].

Being banned from the Lord’s Supper does not sound serious to 21st century Christians. However:

If the Consistory found someone guilty of particularly offensive behavior or particularly stubborn in resisting correction, it could ban the accused sinner from communion in the next one of the four communion services offered to the entire population each year. The ban from communion was a far more serious punishment then than it is now. People saw it as preventing them from receiving a sacrament that was sign of God’s grace and formerly, in Catholic times, a necessity for salvation. It was also a social humiliation that could interrupt normal social routines and business. Banned sinners could not act as godparents, an important honor, or marry, or be assured of poor relief and access to the hospital.

Here are a couple of other notes from Witte and Kingdon on the Consistory. When a person came before the Consistory they,

Were not allowed to bring a lawyer or adviser, but had to handle questions entirely on their own. Sometimes they submitted affidavits, petitions, contracts, certificates, or other documents for the Consistory’s review. The Consistory often questioned the parties about these documents, and summoned witnesses to validate their authenticity. The Consistory also had wide subpoena power to compel witnesses to appear.

You could get in trouble for failing to appear when called. The most common “punishment” the Consistory gave was an “admonition,” which was an exhortation to the person to stop sinning. Besides addressing more grievous sins, such as adultery, they would exhort former Catholics to stop praying to Mary, encourage a man to attend the sermon, order someone to pay an agreed upon price for marriage, or tell someone to stop gambling. The Consistory would often set a date for the individual to check back in. They would also work to bring reconciliation between two estranged parties, such as husband and wife who were fighting or two business partners who were at odds. This could lead to a private “ceremony of reconciliation” and if the case had “achieved general notoriety, a public ceremony of reconciliation might be held in a parish church.” (This book is a chronicle of Consistory’s records from 1542-1544.)

The Consistory could also order individuals to perform a public reparation. People so sentenced had to appear at a main Sunday sermon, get down on their knees, confess the errors of their ways, and beg for forgiveness.

The Consistory was a remarkably intrusive institution. Six to seven percent of the entire adult population was called before it every year. The Consistory was also a remarkably effective institution. The combination of scoldings, public reparations, bans, excommunications, and referrals to the legal system seems to have worked. John Knox remarked that while they had found true doctrine rightly preached in other communities, they had never before found Christian life so rightly lived as in Geneva. If people did not like this lifestyle or the Consistory’s presence or pressure, they could always leave Geneva.

Finally,

The Consistory did not limit itself to sex, marriage, and family life. In its early years, it spent a good deal of time trying to root out surviving Catholic religious practices. In later years years it spent time in trying to root out sharp business practices and disrespect for the leaders of government and church. But a clear majority of the Consistory’s cases involved sexual and marital issues (emphasis mine).

Some things never change.