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It’s time to rethink Calvin’s definition of “true church”

Presbytery Executive Matthew Skolnik argues that Calvin’s hyper-focus on Word and sacrament does not fit the needs of the modern church. We can no longer be sanctuary-based in our ministry and must follow Jesus’ model.

The International Monument to the Reformation, commonly known as the Reformers' Wall, is located in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by TomTyler/ Pixabay

In our tradition, we owe much to John Calvin and his contemporaries. Their thinking has helped to shape the Reformed Christian community for 500 years. While the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) disagrees with Calvin and the tradition at times, we remain largely committed to Calvin’s thinking when it comes to the trajectory and modality of ministry.

This is specifically true when we consider the PC(USA)’s emphasis on Word and sacrament. In fact, our ordained pastors are even called “ministers of Word and Sacrament.” In this regard, we are in full agreement with Calvin.

While I believe that Word and sacrament are both highly necessary to nourish faith and sustain the church, I’ve also come to understand that this limited definition of church hinders us. For years, Word and sacrament have been our baseline for ministry expectations: You are only a church if you offer sacraments and listen to the Word being preached. I believe the time has come for us to part ways with Calvin — or at least broaden our understanding of what it means to be the church by turning back to the Bible. To paraphrase my colleague and friend Chip Hardwick, Word and sacrament remain more essential than ever, but they do not define the modern church’s call to ministry.

Word and sacrament

John Calvin was the moderator of a collection of pastors from Geneva, Switzerland, who functioned as the forerunners of presbytery life. This group was referred to as the Company of Pastors, the Venerable Company of Pastors, or the Venerable Company. Calvin promoted two basic mandates or expectations for ministry to the company: 1) to rightly preach the Word of God so that it can be heard and received, and 2) to rightly administer the Lord’s Supper and Sacrament of Baptism. In addition, Calvin expected pastors to extend their public preaching through private admonitions, urging people to holiness. These attributes are what make up, in Calvin’s words, a “true church.”

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

These marks of the “true church” – rightly preaching the Word and rightly administering sacraments – made sense during the 16th century as a way for the Reformers to distinguish themselves from Catholic theology and practice, and because Christianity was ubiquitous. During Calvin’s years of ministry, the entire culture was centered around the life of the church. Clergy could afford the luxury of functioning as ministers in a sanctuary — waiting for people to come to them for religious goods and services.

We live in a very different world than Calvin, but we still largely uphold this thinking when it comes to the church. You are a pastor if you preach and if you preside over sacraments. You are a church if you have a sanctuary where people gather to hear the Word and partake in communion and baptism.

This is a struggle for all traditions under the Christian umbrella because we are all limping out of an era where the church and Christianity were central to the culture. Catholic, Orthodox, traditional protestant and non-denominational churches (and others) are still all based in clergy standing up front and offering religious goods in a holy space. Let me be clear: these actions are not the problem. Our particular struggle in the PC(USA) is understanding that the church is called to go beyond Word and sacrament. We must develop a higher bar for ministry expectations of the “true church.” Providing Word and sacrament in the sanctuary is not following Jesus into the world.

Our modern reformation hinges on shedding this old limitation denoted by the word “true” and broadening ministry expectations for congregations and pastors to be more than sanctuary-based Word and sacrament. Our system must bypass the limitations of this tradition and embrace a more robust ministry that is designed for a post-Christian context. Helping pastors and congregations past this hurdle will be challenging, and each will present their unique objections.

Defining ministry expectations

We need to better define ministry expectations for churches and pastors. And we need to help mid councils support local congregations that go beyond providing Reformed worship with a few token actions of outward-focused ministry.

Some may want to define ministry expectations from a PC(USA) pastor’s ordination vows. Unfortunately, I believe these vows also don’t provide helpful ministry expectations. These vows are confessional, collegial and attitudinal, and they ask pastors to serve the institution of the church. While there is some call to action that goes beyond the bounds of sanctuary-based leadership, these phrases are too generic for concise, clear and measurable action.

The next logical place for us to look for ministry expectations is “The Great Ends of the Church.” (See the Book of Order.) Admittedly, we make progress here, but the language is vague. What does it mean to “preserve truth”? How can this be measured? Likewise, verbs like “promote” and “exhibit” leave significant room for interpretation. If we have a food pantry and give away ten cans of soup a week, does this mean that we have exhibited God’s kingdom? Or does God call us towards more systemic healing and wholeness?

Unfortunately, it is human nature to hide behind ambiguous statements or expectations that do not require much from us. The problem, of course, is that the good news of Christ demands much from the church.

So how do we do this? Below, you will find one attempt. But this work is not mine alone, and I encourage you to put your theological muscles to work so that together, we can provide helpful, meaningful and clear expectations for our churches and pastors.

Jesus’ early ministry

Mark 1 is perhaps the most concise and direct exposition of Jesus’ pre-cross ministry that we can embrace. As such, it is a great, concise summary of Jesus’ actions, which can serve as a model for what we expect of one another. Take note that each of these actions is clearly definable and easily measurable.

  • Calling people above their cultural status: Jesus, functioning as a rabbi, was expected to find disciples who were well-educated and well-versed in the Torah. Yet, Jesus surrounded himself with the rabbinical school dropouts. Even when the world says we are not worthy of God’s service, Jesus says otherwise.
  • Proclaiming that God’s reign is at hand: Jesus called us to turn to God’s glory and shalom that is already manifesting itself in God’s reign. It is a simple message. God is not far away. God’s peace and love are right here. According to Jesus, this is the good news.
  • Healing: The centerpiece and overwhelming emphasis of Mark 1 is Jesus’ regular and continual actions of healing. Healing is the sign of God’s reign. How do we know God is near? We participate in Christ’s actions of healing. We can easily tie healing to acts of justice.
  • Sharing life together: Before the modern-day saints of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and Henri Nouwen, Jesus spent life with people. Jesus didn’t stand and preach, and then call it a day. Jesus actively and intentionally built a community.
  • Mobile: Mark 1 reads like a church planter’s dream come true. The crowds were streaming to see, hear, and be healed by Jesus. But Jesus did not stay, hire a praise band and rent space for a formal worship service. Instead, Jesus carried his mission of God’s reign of healing to other people as well.

My beloved PC(USA), the call of God on the church goes beyond Word and sacrament. Much further beyond. It is time to embrace a call to ministry for our churches and pastors that is much harder — one that is also measurable and concise.

How I wish Calvin was alive today, that revolutionary and critical thinker. If he was, we could have a good and healthy fight on this issue. What would he say?