This article is about Calvin's view on church government. The different offices in the church are also discussed.

Source: New Horizons, 1990. 4 pages.

Calvin's Primer on Presbyterianism

Perhaps you have noticed that many of the historic churches in the English-speaking world take their names from their form of government: Congregational Episcopal, Independent, and Presbyterian. These names are the telltale reminders of the great debates that raged in the middle decades of seventeenth-century England over the proper form of church government. One study has claimed that in Britain more than 30,000 different discourses on the theme of church government were published in the years 1640-1660!1

Although the seventeenth century was the era for the English-speaking world’s debate over church government, the actual debate began earlier. In fact, the first Reformers were already hard at work on the reformation of the government of the church. This is particularly true in the ministry of John Calvin. Calvin's associate, Theodore Beza, for example, writes in his Life of Calvin concerning Calvin's return to Geneva after his exile in Strasburg,

Calvin being thus restored at the urgent entreaty of his church, proceeded to set it in order … At that time, therefore … laws for the election of a presbytery, and for the due maintenance of that order, were passed, agreeably to the Word of God, and with the consent of the citizens themselves.2

In arguing for this Presbyterian government, Beza says Calvin was consciously building upon the foundation of other Reformers who had preceded him.

He demonstrated that not only doctrines, but also the form of church government, must be sought for in Scripture, and appealed, in support of his views, to the expressed opinion of the most distinguished men of the age, as Oecolampadius, Zwinglius, Zuichius, Philip, Bucer, Capito and Myconius.3

When one consults Calvin's Institutes of The Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapters i through xii, he is actually reading a primer on Presbyterianism. For in this section of Calvin's classic work, all of the central tenets of Presbyterianism are present. Although space will not allow an in-depth consideration of Calvin's Presbyterianism, a concise survey of his thought will reveal the carefully developed Presbyterian polity taught by the reformer of Geneva.

The Standard of Government🔗

In iii. 1, Calvin writes,

Now we must speak of the order by which the Lord willed his church to be governed. He alone should rule and reign in the church as well as have authority or preeminence in it, and this authority should be exercised and administered by his Word alone.

God's Word is the standard of church government.

The Necessity of Ministry🔗

Paul shows by these words that this human ministry which God uses to govern the church is the chief sinew by which believers are held together in one body. Whoever, therefore, either is trying to abolish this order of which we speak and this kind of government, or discounts it as not necessary, is striving for the undoing or rather the ruin and destruction of the church (iii. 2).

The Offices of the Church🔗

Calvin holds that God has provided for five different types of officers who constitute the government of the church. These are "extraordinary" offices such as apostles, prophets and evangelists, and "ordinary" offices of pastors and teachers.

Interestingly, Calvin maintains that "the Lord raised up the first three at the beginning of his kingdom, and now and again revives them as the need of the times demands"(iii. 4).

This explains why Calvin called Luther "a distinguished apostle of Christ by whose ministry the light of the gospel has shone."4

In fact, Calvin is willing to affirm, "Now, by the meaning and derivation of the word all ministers of the church can properly be called 'apostles,' because all are sent by the Lord and are his messengers"(iii. 5).

But Calvin goes on to clarify that the apostles of Scripture have a higher standing than these ministerial "apostles." At this point, Calvin's views have received mixed reviews by subsequent generations of Presbyterians. Some believe he was too free with his use of the word "apostle" and his willingness to affirm a periodical revival by God of the extraordinary offices. Others believe Calvin was mistaken to place the evangelist in the extraordinary category, since missionaries are an ongoing necessity for the advance of the church in any age. Still others have claimed that it is improper to divide the pastor and teacher into two distinct offices. Those who argue thusly claim the pastor is really a "pastor-teacher." Almost all Presbyterians, however, have been willing to accept his distinction between the "ordinary" and "extraordinary" offices.

Calvin's Three-Office View🔗

Presbyterians have debated whether there are only two offices (elder and deacon) or three offices (teaching elder, ruling elder, deacon) in the ongoing life of the church. Calvin specifies his view as follows,

We have stated that Scripture sets before us three kinds of ministers. Similarly, whatever ministers the ancient church had, it divided into three orders. For from the order of presbyters,

(1) part were chosen pastors and teachers;

(2) the remaining part were charged with the censure and correction of morals;

(3) the care of the poor and the distribution of alms were committed to the deacons  (iv. 1).

Calvin makes it clear that the Scriptures do not distinguish the terms presbyter, bishop, pastor and minister into four different offices.

But in indiscriminately calling those who rule the church ‘bishops,' 'presbyters,' 'pastors,' and 'ministers,' I did so according to Scriptural usage, which interchanges these terms (iii. 8).

The Plurality of Elders🔗

Governors (1 Corinthians 12:28) were, I believe, elders chosen from the people, who were charged with the censure of morals and the exercise of discipline along with the bishops … Each church, therefore, had from its beginning a senate, chosen from godly, grave, and holy men, which had jurisdiction over the correcting of faults (iii. 8).

The duties of the elders beyond governing in general are given by Calvin as "dispensing Word and sacraments" (iv. 3), discipline (xii. 2), as well as anointing with oil when appropriate (xix. 21).

The Office and Task of Deacon🔗

The care of the poor was entrusted to the deacons. However, two kinds are mentioned in the letter to the Romans: 'He that gives, let him do it with simplicity; he that shows mercy, with cheerfulness' (Romans 12:8). Unless my judgment deceives me, in the first clause he designates the deacons who distribute the alms. But the second refers to those who had devoted themselves to the care of the poor and sick (iii. 9).

Calvin goes on to claim that women can serve in the office of deacon, but only in this second category. He writes,

Of this sort were the widows whom Paul mentions to Timothy (1 Timothy 5:9, 10). Women could fill no other public office than to devote themselves to the care of the poor. If we accept this (as it must be accepted), there will be two kinds of deacons: one to serve the church in administering the affairs of the poor; the other, in caring for the poor themselves.

Needless to say, this understanding of a two-fold category of deacons and the view of women in the office of deacon have been sharply debated by Calvin's Presbyterian descendents!

The Necessity of Order🔗

But while 'all things should be done decently and in order' (1 Corinthians 14:40) in the holy assembly, there is nothing in which order should be more diligently observed than in establishing government; for nowhere is there greater peril if anything be done irregularly (iii. 10).

Thus Calvin approves of church constitutions, but "only those human constitutions which are founded upon God's authority, drawn from Scripture, and, therefore, wholly divine" (x. 30).

In chapters 27-32, Calvin presents three principles for the right ordering of the church's government and worship where Scripture does not give express instruction. These principles are: decency, love, and a free conscience.

The Call of the Minister🔗

The minister is to have the inner call of God, and the outer call of the church (iii. 11.). He is to meet the qualifications of Scripture. And, he is to be elected by the people before he begins his ministry (iii. 15, iv. 11 and v. 5).


Calvin sees no direct command to ordain by the laying on of hands, but he believes that apostolic example ought to be followed (iii. 16). Ordination is a biblical ceremony, but it is not a sacrament (xix. 29). The proper procedure is: vote of people, presence of other elders to moderate meeting, examination of the candidate, and the laying on of the hands of the presbyters (iv. 14).

Presbytery, not the Bishop🔗

Calvin speaks of the collective body of the presbytery in iii. 16., iv. 2. and xi. 6. Since all presbyters are bishops, the task of ordination belongs to the presbytery, not an individual bishop.

But they say that the right to create presbyters belongs to them alone. In this they very wickedly corrupt the ancient institution (v. 4).

Calvin recognizes that someone must lead the presbyters when they are assembled. This is not a bishop over presbyters, but a moderator elected for good order.

Just as the presbyters, therefore, know that they are, according to the custom of the church, subject to him who presides, so the bishops recognize that they are superior to the presbyters more according to the custom of the church than by the Lord's actual arrangement (iv. 2).5

Valuable but not Infallible🔗

We indeed willingly concede, if any discussion arises over doctrine, that the best and surest remedy is for a synod of true bishops to be convened, where the doctrine at issue may be examined … But I deny it to be always the case that an interpretation of Scripture adopted by vote of a council is true and certain (ix. 13).

In a nutshell, such are the leading themes of Calvin's ideas concerning the government of the church. His views had and continue to have a worldwide impact.6 In our day of well-developed and time-tested forms of government, it is easy to fail to appreciate just how much we are indebted to Calvin's primer on Presbyterianism!


  1. ^ Cf. Thomas Smyth, Presbytery and Not Prelacy: The Scriptural and Primitive Polity, Vol. II (Boston: Cracker and Brewster, 1843), 561 note.
  2. ^ Theodore Beza, "The Life of John Calvin," Selected Works of John Calvin, ed. and trans. Henry Beveridge, xxxviii.
  3. ^ Ibid, xli.
  4. ^ All citations of the Institutes are from the Battles' translation. This quotation is mentioned on Battles, p. 1057, n. 4.
  5. ^ For a discussion of Calvin's view of "moderator" compare his commentaries on Philippians 1:1 and Titus. 1:5.
  6. ^ Cf. my article, "The Reformers' Rediscovery of Presbyterian Polity" in Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, (Philadelphia: Committee for the Historian of The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986, 63-81).

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