Lessons from Geneva: The Centrality of the Scriptures

Pulpit BibleHere is Scott Manetsch’s third lesson from his study of the pastors in Geneva from 1536-1609. The first lesson was pastoral ministry is hard. The second lesson was the need for pastors to learn from and be accountable to other pastors.

Third, this study has shown the leading role that the Scriptures played in Calvin’s Reformation, suggesting the central importance of God’s Word for Christian renewal in our own day.  In one of his first Protestant writings, Calvin summarized his central religious purpose with this concise statement: “I demand only this, that faithful people be allowed to hear their God speaking and to learn from his teaching.” Calvin devoted most of his career to making this religious vision a reality. As we have seen, between 1536 and 1609 the language and message of the Bible was nearly omnipresent in Geneva’s religious life as it was proclaimed in sermons recited in catechism, sung in the Psalter, studied in the Congregation, discussed in the marketplace, and read devotionally in households. At the same time, Geneva’s pastors produced a virtual tsunami of Bible translations, Psalters, commentaries, exegetical aids, and devotional writings that equipped preachers for the pulpit ministries and provided instruction and spiritual comfort for their parishioners. 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. Spiritual reformation and scriptural proclamation went hand in hand. It seems plausible that Geneva’s distinctive religious culture in the sixteenth century-described by one English visitor as a “model of true religion and true piety”-was in large part the result of this extensive engagement with Scripture. So too, one suspects that the path to spiritual renewal for moribund churches and tired saints in the twenty-first century involves, at least in part, recovering the central place of Scripture in the church’s ministry.

Christians today are woefully ignorant of the Scriptures. They may know a verse here or there. But they rarely know the scope of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Aside from this, pastors are not very good at applying Scripture wisely and pointedly. We are afraid of being accused of legalism so we leave the Scriptures impotent. One of the great needs of the hour in order to bring reformation is to believe that the Bible is sufficient for the needs of the God’s people.  The Scriptures must not be just a band-aid we slap on when there is a cut. It must be the lifeblood of God’s people. Pastors must be devoted to it. They must preach, read it, sing it, pray it, memorize it, and above all believe it and obey it. And they must teach their people to do the same. Until the Scriptures are once again placed at the center of the church and once again proclaimed with power from the pulpits reformation is an impossibility.

Lessons from Geneva: Pastors Need Other Pastors

calvin-in-genevaHere is the second lesson Scott Manetsch gleaned from his study of the pastors in Geneva from 1536-1609. The first lesson is in this post.

Second, my study of Calvin and the Company of Pastors has highlighted the importance of accountability and collegiality in pastoral work. Woven into the DNA of Geneva’s reformed church were Calvin’s convictions that ministers of the gosple stood beneath the authority of Christ, that no Christian minister should hold preeminence in the church, and that ministers must be held accountable to the collective judgment of their colleagues. As we have seen, the Company of Pastors-to which each minister belonged as an equal partner-supervised the pastoral work and monitored the personal conduct of all of Geneva’s pastors. Likewise, in the weekly meetings of the Congregation, ministers studied Scripture together, evaluated one another’s sermons, and forged a common theological outlook. Christian understanding, Calvin believed, was achieved in community. The Ordinary Censure also promoted collegiality in providing a regular venue for Geneva’s ministers to air doctrinal disagreements and address interpersonal conflicts behind closed doors. Finally, when members of the Company committed serious moral failure, they were subject to the judgment and correction of their peers on the Consistory. Though this 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 subject to one another, and forgave one another. Contemporary Protestantism, with its infatuation for robust individualism, celebrity preachers, and ministry empires, has much to learn from the example of Geneva’s church.

Of the four lessons Manetsch draws from his study, this one might the most neglected and hardest to implement in our current cultural climate, especially for small church pastors. What Geneva had was several ordained pastors who had weekly interaction, critiqued one another’s sermons, kept each other accountable, and learned from each other. Even in a church with multiple staff members often these men are not all ordained pastors. In other words, I know of very few situations where this type of weekly pastoral interaction is a reality.

I think most pastors would love to have this type of collegial relationship with other pastors. I know I would. But how can we do it in a culture where there is so much going on at our individual churches, there are not only denominational differences, but differences of vision and ministry style, and we are often so spread out? For now we will have to use the tools at our disposal, such as the Internet, as well pastoral prayer meetings and other face to fact meetings to fill the void. But it seems we need more work in this area so that pastors have regular face to face relationships with other pastors where they are learning from and accountable to one another.

Lessons from Geneva: Pastoring is Hard Work

Farmer 1

At the conclusion of Scott Manetsch’s excellent book Calvin’s Company of Pastors he lists four lessons we can learn from his study of the pastors in Geneva from 1536-1609.  Each of these four lessons is worthy of careful meditation by those seeking to enter the ministry or those already there. Here is the first lesson.

First, this study of the Company of Pastors has shown that the vocation of Christian ministry is a difficult one. As we have seen, Geneva’s pastors faced heavy workloads and encountered many hardships in their pastoral careers, including financial deprivation, incessant public criticism, congregational apathy, and sometimes even physical danger. Far more than “agents of the state” Calvin and his colleagues served as biblical interpreters, spiritual counselors, social prophets, and moral watchdogs that regularly challenged popular beliefs and social conventions, and sometimes thundered against Geneva’s political authorities. The ministers occupied a crucial, yet awkward, position in early modern society as they sought to translate gospel truths into a vernacular that provided hope, meaning, and forgiveness to men and women who sometimes struggled to believe- and frequently struggled to behave themselves. Too often the ministers’ moral indignation and spiritual blind spots only increased the difficulties they encountered in applying Scripture to the needs of their parishioners. Pastoral effectiveness in Geneva required courage, a clear sense of vocation, thick skin, a generous dose of humility, and solid Christian faith. Pastoral virtues like these are still required of Christian workers today even if their congregational contexts are centuries removed from Calvin’s.

When I entered ministry this was not my perspective. As a young man I saw many free hours perusing my books with coffee. I saw sermons that soared to heights unknown.  I do read a lot and of course preach, but the ministry is difficult work, filled with anxious moments, mistakes, weariness of body and soul, disappointment, and hardships. Of course, there are joys as well. But I knew that. I expected the mountain tops. But I did not know how deep, dark, and cold the valleys could be. I should have of course.  It was prophesied of Christ that he would be ” rejected by men, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Can I follow Christ and preach Christ and expect ease and comfort? Paul told Timothy:

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. 2 Timothy 2:3-6

Can I be a soldier and yet live in luxury? Can I be a hard working farmer without long nights and tired muscles? One of the most important lessons young pastors need to learn and seminary students need to be told is that the ministry when it is done right is bone-wearying work. It always has been and always will be.

Gender is a Cage

Prison Bars

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2015.

George Gilder wrote the following paragraphs in 1986.

To the sexual liberal, gender is a cage. Behind cruel bars of custom and tradition, men and women for centuries have looked longingly across forbidden spaces at one another and yearned to be free of sexual roles. The men dream of nurturing and consoling; the women want to be tough and child free. Today it is widely believed that the dream of escape can come at last.

This belief leads to a program of mixing the sexes in every possible way, at every stage of life. In nurseries and schools, in athletics and home economics, in sex education and social life, the sexes are thrown together in the continuing effort to create a unisex society. But the results are rarely as expected, and the policies are mostly founded on confusion.

Some of the confusions arise in the schools, where the androgynous agenda has made the greatest apparent headway and its effects can best be studied. It turns out what seems elemental to many expert educationists is actually bizarre from the long perspective of history and anthropology.

Until recent years, for example, most American parochial schools have kept strict sexual segregation. The boys and girls joined chiefly on ceremonial occasions-assemblies and graduations. Even the playground was divided into male and female territories. The restrictions were lifted only during carefully supervised dances, when young couples made their way chastely around the floor of the gym under the watchful eyes of nuns. Any unseemly body contact brought a swift reprimand: “Leave six inches for the Holy Ghost.”

There is no room for the Holy Ghost any longer at most of our schools. The bodies and minds rub together from kindergarten to graduate study. The result is perfectly predictable. Sexual activity occurs at an increasingly younger age. In communities where the family cannot  impose discipline, illegitimate children are common. Classrooms become an intensely sexual arena, where girls and boys perform for the attention of the other sex and where unintellectual males quickly come to view schoolbooks as a menace to manhood.

He closes the chapter with these words: Continue reading

The Glory & Goodness of Clerical Marriage


Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 1Timothy 4:1-3

A quote from Scott Manetsch on one of the most enduring legacies of the Protestant Reformation:

Few theological convictions of the sixteenth-century Protestant reformers had greater impact on the structure of early modern European society than that regarding the goodness of clerical marriage. The pastor’s household as an institution was birthed in the 1520s and 1530s, as evangelical church leaders in Germany and Switzerland began to defy canon law and Catholic tradition by renouncing vows of celibacy and taking wives. In their sermons and published writings, but also in their own marriages, reformers like Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther, and (somewhat later) John Calvin challenged the medieval church’s teaching that the celibate, contemplative life was superior to the active life of marriage and family. The magisterial reformers argued that the medieval church’s requirement of clerical celibacy was a human invention that tyrannized the consciences of priests and distorted the Bible’s teaching on the value and proper function of marriage. As Calvin saw it, marriage was a “good and holy ordinance” which God had created and offered to men and women from all walks of life for the purpose of procreating children, restraining fornication, and promoting love between husband and wife. Guillaume Farel concurred, crying out in his Summary and Brief Declaration (c. 1529): “O holy estate of marriage, you who are sullied and dishonored [by the priests]. O brutal world, devoid of all sense and understanding, do you not have eyes? Are you so blind that you grope about at noontime as if you were in utter darkness? Do you think that in our day this holy estate should be prohibited, that it is sin to fulfill the commandment of God?” The construction of clerical marriage brought with it a new identity and new responsibilities for the Protestant minister: his spiritual calling as a “shepherd of souls”  now extended beyond the parish church to his family and household, where he served as husband, father, son-in-law, and paterfamilias. It was expected that the pastor’s household, including his wife and children, should serve as an example to the surrounding community, a model of Christian piety and domestic tranquility for neighbors to emulate. Susan Karant-Nunn has rightly observed, “The home of the pastor and his wife became a symbol of active spirituality second only to the church itself.” Although the magisterial reformers did not mandate marriage for young ministerial candidates, they did anticipate that the majority of evangelical ministers would marry, raise children, and participate in the life of the local community.

As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation marriage is under attack again though from a different enemy. Fornication, adultery, abortion, sodomy, rampant divorce, purposely fruitless marriages, love of money, love of freedom, love of pleasure, pornography, feminism, and sexual molestation, have all taken a toll on the church’s witness about the goodness of marriage.  We like to blame the world, but in the end the church’s refusal to deal with sexual sin in the pews and the pulpit has been one the greatest factors in the disintegration of marriage in America and Europe. Who is to blame for the carnage? The church. Who leads the church? Her ministers. How can we once again recover the glory of marriage? Ministers should be men and marry, raise children, and participate in the life of the local community. Also ministers should teach, shepherd, counsel, and model sexual faithfulness and the goodness of marriage, as well as correct, rebuke, and if necessary excommunicate those who are sexually immoral. Just like in the 1500s if we want another reformation of marriage it will occur through the faithful teaching and lives of ministers.