Of the Power of the Church
by Dr. Jung-Sook Lee

In this chapter Calvin focused on the power of the church. This follows his exposition of Christian freedom and the insistence that consciences can be bound only by God and God's will, and thus Calvin maintained a strong polemical tone against the errors of the Roman Catholic Church which he believes had usurped God's prerogatives. In so doing, Rome has perverted the power of the church and their misuse and abuse became detrimental to its health and the health of the people. Most of this chapter comes from 1536 and is shaped by reaction against what Protestants rejected in the traditional church; Calvin's positive construction of church order would be added in 1543 and more in 1559.

Calvin began by articulating that the Roman Catholic Church built its foundations on faulty grounds. The power of the church should lie on nothing but the Word of God embodied in Jesus Christ, king and liberator. Instead, the Catholics allege their church laws as foundational. However, Calvin stated that their laws are a mere pretence of God's laws devised to satisfy their own interests and to secure their personal profits (628). Catholic laws are necessary to achieve eternal life. On the basis of such a feigned idea, their priests' authority is elevated beyond its worth and worse, it is placed over the merits of Jesus Christ. Therefore, Calvin repudiated their practice strongly by saying that it is a simple lie; the highest authority is found in Jesus Christ whom God entrusted with absolute power in regard to human salvation and happiness.  

In contrast to these human traditions which Calvin rejected, he defined what proper ecclesiastical power is: it has a clear purpose and it functions naturally if it is based on the Word of God. The church's power is given and granted to be edifying for those who believe in the Lord; it is beneficial as long as it administers the Word of God for our edification (629). Calvin supported his understanding from the biblical passages in 2 Corinthians 10:8 and 13:10. The proper administration of the Word of God requires an agent who carries out the practice. Thus, church offices such as apostles, prophets as well as doctors and pastors are necessary. Unlike his last edition of the Institutes (1559), we do not find, from this first edition, his careful description of the church offices from the New Testament or his differentiation of the perpetual office from a temporary one. However, it seems essential to know that his foremost concern at this juncture was no more than the unchangeable origin of the authority on which church order has to stand firm: the Word of God. Any church office listed in scripture should handle its authority out of the total dependence on the Word of the Lord. Calvin said, "But when their mouths began to be organs of the Holy Spirit, they were pure and holy. […] What does it mean "to proclaim in the name of the Lord," except that he should speak in such a way that he dares boldly to boast that the word which he brings is not his own but from the Lord" (630)?

After he declared the Word of God as the sole authority for the church, he further discussed a clearly prescribed boundary which church ministers should not attempt to infringe; Calvin indicated that the Word of God itself prohibits ministers from establishing any laws which are necessary for salvation. To legislate is to create one's own kingdom instead of promoting God's kingdom; it breaks the fundamental rule which forbids either addition or deduction of the Word of God.

Furthermore, church councils should not replace the authority of the church because councils can err and do not represent apostolic succession contrary to their argument. Calvin said without scruple, "These theologians make believe that a great part of these constitutions came down from the apostles: things such as the prayers for the dead and practically all the discipline of their ceremonies" (635). Catholic theologians capitalize on their privilege of reading and interpreting verses in the Bible in order to justify their authority (for example, see John 16:12). So he boldly judges that they are raving and frivolous serving their own profits by every possible way (635). Pastors do have the power to put the church in danger when they do not speak or act accordingly from the Word. He continued to say, "Do you see how he warns that the danger will not come from the ignorant among the populace but those who proudly hold the title of doctors and pastors?" (642).

Calvin's intentions were not to diminish the authority of the pastor but rather to empower their role by articulating the dangers from the outset. Pastors or doctors can become polluted by their own agenda which is why the selection process to distinguish a true pastor from a false one became important. The screening process reached their height in "Calvin's Geneva" (1541-1564) under the Company of Pastors. According to the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541, pastoral candidates were tested for their knowledge of the Scripture, sound doctrine, and ability to communicate with people in preaching the Word because the office is "limited to the administration of God's word, their whole wisdom to the knowledge of that word, and their whole eloquence to the preaching of that word" (642).

Calvin separated the authority of the church from the state because the power of the church is a spiritual power which is governed by and governs with God's Word in the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in regard to Christian obedience to conflicting state and ecclesiastical laws, Calvin insisted that the Christian must obey God above all other laws and Christian liberty works within the framework of obeying God's law.

Having clearly stated and reiterated the vital importance of distinguishing between God's Word and human laws (polemic against the Roman church), Calvin also addressed the question of the appropriate form of church regulations (against radical claims that no laws are needed). He admitted that it is difficult to tell the difference between two kinds of laws, but goes on to explain the kind of "rules which are set up to keep order in the church" (652). These Calvin placed under the heading of adiaphora, that is, indifferent matters, things which may be used or not, as they serve the purpose of promoting peace and harmony among people, in order for them to serve each other by mutual love. He provides two wonderful examples to explain his position. The first example is taken from biblical passages that concern the covering of women's hair (1 Cor. 14:34; 11:6; 1 Tim 2:12). He states, "For if her neighbor's need is so pressing that a woman does not have time to cover her hair, she does not sin at all if she runs with bare head to help her neighbor" (654). The work of compassion and assistance outweighs the fact that a woman did not cover her hair. He also says, "Nevertheless, to rule ourselves well in these matters, we ought to follow the custom and the laws of the land where we live, and a certain rule of moderation which shows us what to follow and what to avoid" (654). Therefore, the heart of the message in the context of law is to understand how human beings are conditioned to their time and place.

The second example further discusses the flexibility about time and place regarding church matters such as worship, prayers, singing hymns, excommunication, and building. His principle is rather simple and clear. One should have flexibility as long as the practices and decisions encourage people to worship better and do not corrupt ecclesiastical integrity (654). This attitude is certainly different from the previous period when time and place appointed for worship and other religious matters were unduly sanctified so as to breed superstitious practices of faith. Now the unnecessary fear and burden regarding worship has been removed, and the Christian liberty of individuals is respected without breaking the corporate nature of the church.

In conclusion, Calvin effectively demonstrated himself as a biblical and practical theologian. The Word of God was declared once again as the sole authority for the power of the church and for the authority of pastors. In order to truly administer the Word of God, pastors are to obey God's Word without adding or subtracting from it. It is the only foundation that can be used as a rule and means for Christians to have salvation and to enjoy the benefits of their salvation.

Dr. Jung-Sook Lee
Torch Trinity Graduate School of Theology (Seoul, Korea)