Making sense of Calvin on church unity
When the going gets tough, the tough quote Calvin. It’s interesting that as soon as a congregation begins to consider seeking dismissal from the Presbyterian Church (USA), Calvin becomes everyone’s best friend. If you can’t have the Bible one your side, the next best thing is to have Calvin at your back. The problem arises when Calvin–sort of like the Bible–becomes simply a tool to be used to buttress an argument arrived at prior to consulting him. And to be honest, much of what we do is appeal to authorities that we believe support our received view rather than affirmatively creating our own perspective. It’s not to say this is wrong so much as that it is inevitable.
So, let me ask the question: when is it okay to depart the visible church (the visible church being the institution of the church marked by a common way of ordering life and belief?
In order to justify leaving a church (or denomination for our purposes), Calvin required that you be able to answer each of these questions in the affirmative:
- Is there an error of doctrine or practice in the visible church?
- Is that error significant in nature (i.e., touching on an important, primary belief or practice of the church—Calvin’s examples focus on the person and work of Christ)?
- Is that error promulgated by a higher authority and more pervasive than a single pastor, session, or congregation (i.e., it cannot be a local peculiarity)?
- Does the error in question necessarily involve, affect, or compromise one’s own ministry or the ministry of the local church (Calvin argues that if 1-3 are true it will necessarily mean 4 is also true)?
If the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” Calvin asserts that church or denomination in question has so compromised its belief and practice that it may be characterized as a false church. As such, individual believers or member congregations may seek dismissal with a clear conscience.
It’s important to note that, for Calvin, a true church may have numerous errors, notorious sinners, unfaithful ministers, and yet be a true church (this point is often made by those arguing against departing from the PC (USA)). Likewise, a false church may have pockets of faithful ministers, flourishing congregations, and lively saints (perhaps something that needs to be pointed out by more evangelicals).
Drilling down in The Institutes (IV.1-2), we can follow the development of Calvin’s thought:
A church exists where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered. Calvin argues that one cannot choose to leave such a properly ordered church simply because of some doctrinal defect or practical error.
For example, arguments that appeal to solely or primarily to efficiency of church structure don’t, I believe, fall within the scope of Calvin’s argument. So while appealing to the ‘flatness of ECO’ is nice and even compelling, Calvin would likely not accept it as an exclusive or even primary argument for leaving the PCUSA.
Likewise the argument that “what they do in Louisville doesn’t affect me” or “they can’t make us do something we don’t want to do” aren’t necessarily recognized by Calvin either. He makes clear in IV.2 that any substantial error on a core doctrine necessarily affects the whole church.
The visible church, for Calvin, is analogous to the Old Testament people of God. He anticipates that there will always be people in the (visible) church who are not truly converted and there will always be some measure of doctrinal impurity just as there was within Israel.
In this he is responding to the Anabaptists who placed a high emphasis on “regenerate church membership,” in distinction from the reformed church and its emphasis on baptism of infants as the entryway to church membership.
In order to leave a church, it’s necessary that a serious doctrinal or practical error has occurred that has actually moved the church from the category of “true” church to “false” church. A serious doctrinal or practical error includes such cardinal or core beliefs as those expressed in the Ecumenical Creeds.
For Calvin this error(s) had to be more than an isolated occurrence(s). Instead, it had to be a doctrinal or practical problem rooted in the structure, belief, and practice of the whole visible church itself.
Calvin deals with this corruption in terms of his own interaction with medieval Catholicism, which he asserts has been compromised by the institution of the papacy. Here our closest analog is actions of the General Assembly, which are binding upon all teaching elders, councils, and churches.
In our current context, it is necessary to point to some doctrinal (belief) or practical error (practice) that is promulgated by an authority higher than a single pastor or congregation in order to determine whether or not a church is true.
Calvin himself acknowledges that though the Catholic Church is a “false” church—and thus he is free to depart from it—there are many congregations of faithful people within it.
We may look around the Presbyterian Church (USA) and see many faithful congregations and pastors, yet this alone is not sufficient ground to declare that the denomination is a true church.
We must determine whether there is a significant theological error that is substantial in nature, touches upon an essential doctrine of the faith, and that materially affects the integrity of our ministry in the local context.
Late this week we’ll delve deeper into the sort of issues that meet this criterion.
 Inst. IV.ii.1.