Soon after John Calvin was appointed as a pastor of the Genevan church, having only recently arrived as a refugee fleeing persecution in his native France, one of his first actions was to petition the city government for the establishment of church discipline. It was a hard sell. In no other Reformed city had the civil magistrates given clergy such authority. The reformers Zwingli and Bullinger maintained that overseeing the moral lives of Christians was a task for the civil magistrate. Most Reformed theologians and magistrates associated ecclesiastical discipline with papal tyranny.
Calvin acknowledged that the Roman church had grievously abused discipline by wielding it tyrannically to accomplish all manner of church goals. To prevent this evil, he called the magistrates “to ordain and elect certain persons of good life and witness from among the faithful” to shepherd the people on behalf of the church as a whole. These elders, along with the pastors, would bind themselves to the procedure laid out by Jesus in Matthew 18, by which professing Christians were to be held accountable to one another in the life of Christian discipleship.
While the city council granted the pastors’ request in principle, it soon became evident that there was little agreement in practice. Calvin found himself banished from the city. Within three years, however, the city asked him to come back. Though he was reluctant, he agreed to return under the condition that church discipline be established. The city relented, though nearly 15 years of conflict remained before the consistory—the body of pastors and elders charged with the ministry of church discipline—could rest secure from political interference.
Calvin’s consistory disciplined members of the Genevan church for a wide range of sins including idolatry, violence, sexual immorality, marital problems, and interpersonal conflict. They disciplined men who abused their wives and children, sons who refused to care for their aging parents, landowners who exploited their tenants, doctors who failed to care properly for the sick, merchants who practiced price gouging or sought to prevent economic competition, and employers who exploited or mistreated their workers. While many people were brought before the consistory, temporarily barred from the Lord’s Supper, and required to express public repentance or reconciliation, very few were permanently excommunicated (i.e., banished from participation in the sacraments).
Calvin viewed discipline as a necessary extension of the church’s ministry of word and sacrament. While he did not identify it as a mark of the church, he did insist that discipline is essential to the spiritual health of a church, without which a church cannot long endure.
In his comments on the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” John Calvin writes, “The purport of this commandment is that since the Lord has bound the whole human race by a kind of unity, the safety of all ought to be considered as entrusted to each.” As creatures made in God’s image, we are called to do whatever is required to “defend the life of our neighbor; to promote whatever tends to his tranquility, to be vigilant in warding off harm, and, when danger comes, to assist in removing it” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.8.39).
Calvin’s explanation highlights what the Christian tradition has often referred to as the commitment of “solidarity.” The sixth commandment, according to Christian teaching, does not merely prohibit outright violence. It calls us to do everything in our power to protect and preserve human life. Calvin puts it quite strongly: “if you do not according to your means and opportunity study to defend his safety, by that inhumanity you violate the law” (2.8.40). Note Calvin’s use of the word study. This is not simply a casual obligation. Unless we study and work, as individuals and collectively, to do all that we can to ensure the safety of our neighbors, we are guilty of inhumanity.
The Heidelberg Catechism teaches the same interpretation of the sixth commandment in Lord’s Day 40. The prohibition of murder not only means that I am not to “belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor – not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds.” It also requires that I love my neighbor as myself, being “patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to him,” and that I “protect him from harm as much as [I] can.” I am neither to harm or “recklessly endanger” a person made in the image of God.
In short, the catechism calls us not merely to be reactive against threats to the sanctity of life. We must be proactive in fostering the conditions necessary for life. We do this only when we stand in solidarity with one another in love, mercy, and friendship.
The Heidelberg Catechism makes it quite clear that these obligations do not merely fall upon human beings as individuals. On the contrary, government is armed with the sword for this very purpose: “Prevention of murder.” It is striking that the catechism does not merely say – as some Christians have said – that government is given the sword to punish those guilty of murder. It calls the government to use its power to prevent murder from happening in the first place. Government, too, is called to be proactive, not merely reactive. Indeed, protecting and promoting the sanctity of human life is the primary reason why we have coercive government at all.
Catholic theologians have described Christian teaching as protecting the sanctity of life as a “seamless garment” from conception to the grave. Protestant ethicists have emphasized the need for Christians to hold to a “consistent ethic of life.” This has several important implications.
Read the rest of this article here.
Christians have sometimes claimed that the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” forbids government from ever mandating the redistribution of wealth for the sake of the poor. According to this interpretation, the status quo is the result of God’s providence and must be respected. It is up to individuals, not society collectively, to assist the poor through charity.
Does the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the eighth commandment in Lord’s Day 42 support this interpretation?
The catechism describes three levels of theft that are forbidden by God. First are “outright theft and robbery, punishable by law.” Second are “all scheming and swindling in order to get our neighbor’s goods for ourselves, whether by force or means that appear legitimate, such as inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume; fraudulent merchandising; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God.” This category includes actions that are illegal, but it also includes practices that may be legal.
Third is “greed” and the “pointless squandering of [God’s] gifts,” as well as the failure to do “whatever I can for my neighbor’s good” and to “work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.”
Taken seriously, as Abraham Kuyper points out in his commentary on Lord’s Day 42, this thorough description of the various forms of theft is anything but a sanction of the distribution of wealth according to the status quo. On the contrary, it speaks sharply to the human conscience, convicting human beings of the myriad of ways in which we steal from our fellow image-bearers.
If property owners “try to deduce from the eighth commandment that all they have is their lawful property and that God has given them the freedom to do with it as they please,” Kuyper writes, “Christian ethics has the duty and call to break down all such false notions.” Indeed, when our responsibility to the poor is taken seriously, “it is immediately clear that the eighth commandment’s transgressors are largely found precisely among the owners, and that their number is greater outside of the prison walls than inside of them.”
The socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s famous claim that all property is theft was an exaggeration, Kuyper admits, but its basic insight was anticipated in this sixteenth century Reformed catechism. “On closer examination … it is true that a very large part of the belongings in this world are stolen property – yet it was not Proudhon who discovered this, for as early as 1563 this awareness could already be found in the catechism.”
In fact, the Christian conviction that excess wealth belongs to the poor far predates the Heidelberg Catechism. Most theologians from the early church to the Reformation maintained that God has given the earth to human beings in common and that property ownership is but a secondary right, one qualified by the obligations of stewardship and justice and subject to the regulation of government. It is inherently unjust when the poor do not have what they need.
Thus the church father Ambrose famously insisted that the wealth of the church belongs to the poor. Thomas Aquinas maintained that for a person in dire need to take what he or she needs from a person who has excess is not theft at all. John Calvin insisted that those who can share with the poor must share with the poor, not as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice and right. He argued that it is the spiritual responsibility of the church to care for the poor through the diaconate and the political responsibility of the community to care for the poor through civil government. In Geneva the diaconate worked closely with the city government to provide sustenance, health care, education, and even job training for the poor.
The catechism clearly supports this classic Christian perspective. Theft consists not merely in outright theft or even in cheating or swindling; it includes “all greed and pointless squandering of his gifts.” It requires the constant and continual redistribution of wealth.
Does the catechism tell us that government has a role in enforcing this requirement of justice? Given the consistent practice of Christian societies through the centuries (including the sixteenth century), it would have been shocking if the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism assumed anything else. The insistence of some Christians that government has no business caring for the poor is a modern phenomenon, alien to the Christian tradition.
Our confessions wisely leave the practical questions of political economy to the collective wisdom of human beings in their various times and places. But they should not leave us in doubt as to the basic principle: It is a responsibility of all people, Christians and non-Christians, as individuals and collectively, in the church and through the state, to secure economic justice for the poor.
This article was originally posted at Do Justice, the blog of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue and the Office of Social Justice.
What happened in Charlottesville last month horrified many people in this country: Nazis marching alongside the KKK on the streets of America; street-fighting; terrorism. There was an outpouring of righteous indignation, much as there was after the shooting of nine black people by Dylan Roof in a Charleston church.
Debates raged over whether or not President Trump was right to draw attention to violence on the part of “both sides.” Are soviet-flag-waving, anti-fascist activists worthy of the same denunciation as Nazi-flag-waving, white supremacists? Is it legitimate to respond to violence with violence?
But now we have moved on. After all, we have been here before. This is the stuff of which PBS documentaries are made, though in the past they have usually been in black and white.
To be sure, much has changed. I am glad that overt racism receives such sharp denunciation by the media and by many Christians today. And yet, what bothers me is how eagerly we as a nation denounce overt white supremacy, even as we blissfully ignore the more subtle racism that permeates our cities, courts, and prisons. This has far more destructive consequences for black people than a hundred rallies similar to Charlottesville’s.
The sheer vitriol of our denunciation belies our own complicity in racial injustice for which we are so desperate to atone. We forget that even during the 50s and 60s many respectable white Christians, even in the South, abhorred violence and disorder.
Many white moderates love to signal our virtue by condemning violence and calling for the removal of Confederate monuments. Meanwhile, we go back to our comfortable white suburbs, built with help from federal, state, and local governments during waves of white flight. We go back to our good jobs, our safe schools, and our stable investments. All the while we forget how racial discrimination systemically prevented African Americans from building the same sorts of lives, leaving millions trapped in poverty to this day.
Read the rest of this article at the Reformed African American Network.
What does the gospel have to do with racism?
This evening, from 6:45-8:00pm I will be gathering online with Rev. Shiao Chong of The Banner Magazine, Dr. Michelle Loyd-Paige of Calvin College, and Rev. Reggie Smith of the Office of Race Relations and the CRC Office of Social Justice to discuss this question. You’ll be able to listen in on the conversation and comment through the Office of Race Relations Facebook page (www.facebook.com/crcracerelations/).
The Westminster shorter catechism famously begins with the question, “What is the chief end of man?” Its answer is pithy and to the point: “To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” My parents taught me this truth when they told me that I could do whatever I wanted in life, just so long as I did it for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:13).
This concern for the glory of God lay at the heart of the Reformation. To be sure, the Roman church did not deny the principle of Soli Deo Gloria in any explicit sense. But its teachings often undermined the principle in practice by shifting Christians’ attention away from the sovereign grace of God given in Christ toward all manner of human efforts at securing or mediating salvation.
For example, the church encouraged believers to pray to saints rather than directly to God in time of need. It called them to seek salvation through acts of penitence, pilgrimage, or patronage, or through participation in the sacraments of the church, rather than by trusting in the cross of Christ. And it insisted that sinners could prepare themselves to receive God’s grace and had to cooperate with that grace if it were to be effective in their lives. On top of all that, the Roman church claimed for the papacy and the church hierarchy a glory that should have been reserved for Christ himself.
The net effect of all of this was to rob God of the sole credit and glory for salvation. It was to distract human beings from the God on whom we depend for every good thing.
To be sure, the reformers recognized that Jesus shares his glory with believers by inviting us into the Trinitarian communion of love (John 17:22-24). Indeed, they affirmed, the whole creation will be brought into the liberty and glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21). And those whom God justifies and sanctifies, he also glorifies (Romans 8:30).
Still, they insisted that because all of this is God’s work, from start to finish, they insisted that all the glory for it ultimately belongs to God, from start to finish. As the Apostle Paul memorably concluded, “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay them? For from him and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:35-36).
We live in a time when men and women believe their ultimate duty is to be true to themselves above all as they seek happiness and fulfillment in life. Indeed, a body no less august than the Supreme Court of the United States has declared a person’s right to determine ultimate meaning for him or herself a most basic and inalienable human right. Never has God’s claim to glory been more suspect in the eyes of his own creatures.
And yet, the more we trumpet our own inviolable dignity and glory as human beings, the more we struggle to explain where that dignity and glory comes from in the first place, or why it even matters. Though science gives us greater and greater knowledge of the glory of creation, we neither glorify God nor give him thanks (Romans 1:21). We continue to exchange the glory of the immortal God for idols of our own making.
Still, as has always been the case, our sin merely serves to advance God’s glory as our judge and as our savior (Romans 3:7; 10:22-23). And it does so in mind-boggling fashion. As Jesus taught his confused disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds… And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:23-24, 32).
God’s character is most clearly revealed – and his glory must be most clearly proclaimed by the church – in the willingness of his son to set his glory aside in order to become a suffering servant on our behalf, even to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:9-11). In the final analysis, the glory of God redounds to our benefit and then back to him, as Paul reminded the Corinthians, “so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:15).
This article originally appeared in The Forum, the faculty publication of Calvin Theological Seminary, as part of an issue devoted to the five solas of the Reformation. The articles on the other solas are written by Jeff Weima, John Cooper, Karin Maag, and Lyle Bierma, and can be found here.
It just so happens that as Congress considers dismantling Medicaid as we know it – as well as an end to the law that requires health insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions – I am preparing to explore the theme of “Good News for the Poor” with my seminary ethics class. One of the things I do with my students is to walk through the New Testament to show them just how continuously and emphatically Christ and the apostles call Christians to take responsibility for the poor. Care for the poor is so central to the kingdom and its justice that it became the basis for an entire office of the church: the diaconate.
I also point my students to the history of theological reflection on poverty in the Christian tradition. In particular, we discuss the general Christian consensus that God gave the earth and its resources to human beings in common and that property rights are always subject to the rights of all human beings to the basic resources necessary for life.
Thus the church father Ambrose argued that the possessions of the church belong to the poor. Thomas Aquinas argued that it is not theft when a starving person takes what she needs from a rich person because every person has a right to have her basic needs met. And John Calvin argued that those who do not share with the poor when they are in need are guilty of theft – and potentially of murder. Basic provisions are not owed to the poor as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice. Indeed, Calvin regularly stated that the poor have a “right” to such resources.
That’s why Calvin took the work of Geneva’s General Hospital so seriously. He believed it was the responsibility of government to provide funds for poor relief and medical care, and that it was the responsibility of the church to care for the poor through the diaconate.
I’ve written a fair bit on Calvin’s views of poor relief, here on my blog (including on Calvin’s view of the distinct responsibility of government with respect to the poor), for the Gospel Coalition, and for the Calvin Theological Journal.
I realize that Christians differ on just how it is that government should most effectively secure justice for the poor – whether with respect to poverty in general or health care in particular. Neither the church nor its clergy have any authority – let alone expertise – to dictate health care policy to the state. But where I think Christians ought not disagree is that we owe the poor their rights – to basic sustenance and to basic health care – as a matter of justice.
That’s why, for instance, the catechisms of the Reformation (Heidelberg, Westminster) declare that the commandments You shall not murder and You shall not steal require us to care for the needs of the poor. To put it in classic theological terms, it is a requirement of the moral law of God. It is part of the natural law written on our hearts as image-bearers. We are, scripture teaches us, our brothers’ keepers.
If we believe that failing to secure the poor their rights constitutes theft – or even murder – then it goes without saying that it is well within the responsibility of government to protect the poor from such injustice. Indeed, if government can be best evaluated based on how well it protects the poor from injustice – as Calvin thought – than how proposed health laws will affect the poor should be the primary concern of legislators and citizens alike.
Whatever conclusions we come to with respect to particular policy approaches (and we should be humble here), we should be agreed that health care for the poor is not merely a matter of charity. It is a matter of justice. Our representatives should know that this is where the Christian tradition stands.