Thursday, June 24, 2010

Calvin's View of Church Offices

My recent study of Calvin has revealed interesting things about his perspective on a host of biblical matters. I'll share some of my findings with you in future posts. It was most edifying to read Calvin's thoughts on church offices.

In The Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin identifies 5 offices in Scripture (Book IV, Chapter 3)- Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Shepherds (pastors), and Teachers. He says only the last two, pastors and teachers, have “ordinary” (perpetual or ongoing) office in the church.

Regarding Apostles, Prophets, and Evangelists, Calvin states-

“The Lord raised up the other three at the beginning of his kingdom, and still occasionally raises them up when the necessity of the times requires.”

Calvin believed the office of Apostle was uniquely tasked with bringing back the world from its revolt to the true obedience of God, and establish His Kingdom the world over by the preaching of the Gospel. To Calvin, Apostleship was uniquely tied to the days of the early church and her supernatural expansion. Regarding the office of Prophet, Calvin meant “those who excelled by special revelation.” Obvious examples of Prophets were those men called to preach to Israel in the Old Testament and also a person like John the Baptist in the New Testament. They spoke the Word of God by His authority, many of the Prophets were writers of Holy Writ. The office of Evangelist to Calvin referred to were deputies of the Apostles like Luke, Titus, Timothy, etc. They functioned alongside the Apostles to fulfil the same goal of reaching the world with the Kingdom of God through the preaching of the Gospel.

What proves interesting is Calvin’s declaration that these three offices are not meant to be perpetual. He states apostles, prophets, and evangelists served an initiatory process in the life of the Church, to establish the Church where it did not already exist. Intriguing is Calvin’s lack of finality about these offices allowing for their improbable, but possible continuation. Calvin’s qualification of these offices reveals his view-

“Those three functions were not instituted in the Church to be perpetual, but only to endure so long as churches were to be formed where none previously existed, or at least where churches were to be transferred from Moses to Christ; although I deny not, that afterward God occasionally raised up Apostles, or at least Evangelists, in their stead, as has been done in our time. For such were needed to bring back the Church from the revolt of Antichrist. The office I nevertheless call extraordinary, because it has no place in churches duly constituted.”

It seems one could rightly conclude that Calvin viewed these offices as unnecessary and non-existent in places where the Church is established, yet possibly existent in new frontiers of the Church still being entered. It would be extraordinary for there to be apostles, prophets, or evangelists in the biblical office sense of these offices today, but not impossible, according to Calvin.

Calvin’s more poignant focus is on the offices of pastor and teacher, both of which were perpetual and ongoing in his view. Very simply, Calvin saw two offices here listed, not one (Pastor-teacher). Pastor is given a manifold task of discipline, the administration of the sacraments, admonitions, and exhortations (all according to Scripture), while the teacher is tasked solely with the “the interpretation of Scripture only, in order that pure and sound doctrine may be maintained among believers.”

Calvin shows a high regard for the office of pastor as he devotes two sections to explaining the purpose and role of the office. From several passages of Scripture Calvin constructs a vivid picture of pastoral ministry. Four chief passages that guide Calvin’s thoughts are as follows:

1 Corinthians 4:1 This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.

Titus 1:9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Acts 20:20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house…

1 Corinthians 9:16 For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!

These passages contain the twofold focus of the office of pastor according to Calvin- preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments. Regarding the preaching of the gospel, the pastor was to do so with public addresses (sermons) and private admonitions (personal warnings and counseling). One might object to Calvin’s use of passages that may seem to be concerning apostles rather than pastors, however he points out the several hats Paul wears as an Apostle, one was certainly that of a pastor. Furthermore, Calvin makes this interesting and noteworthy comparison between apostles and pastors-

“What the apostles did to the whole world, every pastor should do to the flock over which he is appointed.”

While Calvin gives special attention to the office of pastor, he reveals more of his particular view of church offices when he explains the general designation of “presbyter” or elder in section 8 of this chapter. He has already noted two offices- pastor and teacher, he then breaks down the office of elder a bit further. Calvin notes Scripture’s synonymous use of the terms bishop, pastor, and elder. All the designations so far noted by Calvin are to be about the ministry of the Word of God. Calvin however notes another designation or office differing slightly with pastors and teachers. He refers to the presence of presbyters (elders) who are older and possessing special spiritual wisdom. Note Calvin’s description of such presbyters-

“By these governors I understand seniors selected from the people to unite with the bishops in pronouncing censures and exercising discipline. For this is the only meaning which can be given to the passage, 'He that ruleth, with diligence,' From the beginning, therefore, each church had its senate, composed of pious, grave, and venerable men, in whom was lodged the power of correcting faults…and therefore we are to regard the office of government as necessary for all ages.”

So it is that Calvin denotes three distinct offices in the church having to do with the ministry of the Word of God- pastor, teacher, and elder. Pastors have a more complex role than teachers and elders, but all are given to the church for her edification and growth.

I'll give a word on Calvin's view of deacons in a future post.


Woody Woodward said...

Who am I that should dare to offer my thoughts on Calvin’s Views on the offices of the Church? But if I could be so bold, in my careful study of Ephesians 4:11-12, may I propose this idea: The God-breathed ministries the first apostles and prophets established were the very foundation for the early church. Therefore, following the precise and exacting Biblical definitions of the first 2 Vocational Ministry Gifts, that is; Apostles and Prophets, we would have to come to this didactic conclusion.
“At the passing of the last Apostle and with the closing of the canon of Scripture, the first 2 gifts, as Paul described them, have ceased. There is no other truth, or NEW TRUTH, that needs conveyed. Therefore, there is no further need for Apostles or Prophets to minister today, as they did, during the founding of the early Church. Within the body of Christ today, we should reject any claims for the need of ‘New or living Apostles or Prophets”. We should also lovingly rebuke and be very cautious of any group or denominations who would claim their leaders are following a mandate for apostolic succession or direct proclamations from God.”

However, with this being true, I believe there is much to be gained by careful understanding of how the Spiritual characteristics, that once surrounded these two gifts, continue to be crucially important today. Seeing and understanding how Apostles and Prophets once moved and operated in ministry, helps us better comprehend how some of these special qualities can still be beneficial and significant today.

Therefore, it is my belief, that the attributes surrounding these two gifts must not be ignored! For as the Lord leads, these God-breathed characteristics can and will continue to unite and build up the body of Christ.
For sure, the rolls and Biblical descriptions of those called to serve within this ministry capacity have changed. However, one thing will never change…. The responsibility of every believer today, to allow God’s Gifts to carry on the Ministry of Christ, in whatever elect and sovereign, purpose He has ordained.

Bill Burns said...

Pastor Felich, could you be so kind as to cite the passages in Calvin you're referring to here for us? No challenge. Just a simple request.

I read through the Institutes last year with the Ref21 folks for the quincentennial and thoroughly enjoyed them, as I am enjoying your blog posts and ruminations on them now. Good stuff, Maynard!

Grace & Peace!

Reepicheep said...

Bill, no problem. I should have added the references to the quotes..I'll update the post.

The quotes are from Book IV, Chapter 3. Here's a link-

Bill Burns said...

Thanks, Pastor Felich! Just getting back here today. Much obliged.