John Calvin on Diversity of Opinion
and Conduct in the Church

Before we get into Calvin's really quite modern and articulate, even impassioned, plea to dwell rather on what makes us Christian and a church than on opinions of what makes some not Christian or not a church, let me present a moving historical vignette that I found in a talk on the Auburn Affirmation by Barbara G. Wheeler, the President of Auburn Seminary:

Last operating principle: The Gospel has real power. Of course our human efforts matter. As I've suggested, those of us who want change have to be as well-prepared, energetic, strategically clever, and exemplary as our predecessors [near] the beginning of this century. But finally it is the truth, even more than our best efforts, that will set the Presbyterian Church free. After Clarence Macartney's final attempt to defeat the report of the Special Commission of 1925, the debate was closed by his older brother Albert, who spoke the truth of the Gospel as follows:

Mr. Moderator, fathers and brethren, and brother Clarence. Clarence is all right, friends. The only trouble is, he isn't married. If that old bachelor would marry, he would have less time to worry over other people's theology. I'm for this report from cover to cover--not so much for what it says as the spirit that pervades it. We were brought up together, Clarence and I, and our mother sang the same hymns to us--"Rock of Ages" for me and "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood" for him. We didn't know what those words meant then, but it was the same Christianity we both profest.

I know that if Mother could come back, there would be room for him and for me to say our prayers in the same words on her knee at that old home of ours in Western Pennsylvania. I believe that there is room for him, and for you and me, to say our prayers in identical language in the Presbyterian Church.

From the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book Fourth, Of the Holy Catholic Church

Chapter 1. Of the true Church. Duty of cultivating unity with her, as the mother of all the godly.

11. ...How perilous, then, nay, how fatal the temptation, when we even entertain a thought of separating ourselves from that assembly in which are beheld the signs and badges which the Lord has deemed sufficient to characterise his Church! We see how great caution should be employed in both respects. That we may not be imposed upon by the name of Church, every congregation which claims the name must be brought to that test as to a Lydian stone. If it holds the order instituted by the Lord in word and sacraments there will be no deception; we may safely pay it the honour due to a church; on the other hand, if it exhibit itself without word and sacraments we must in this case be no less careful to avoid the imposture than we were to shun pride and presumption in the other.

12. When we say that the pure ministry of the word and pure celebration of the sacraments is a fit pledge and earnest, so that we may safely recognise a church in every society in which both exists, our meaning is that we are never to discard it so long as these remain, though it may otherwise teem with numerous faults. Nay, even in the administration of word and sacraments defects may creep in which ought not to alienate us from its communion. For all the heads of true doctrine are not in the same position. Some are so necessary to be known, that all must hold them to be fixed and undoubted as the proper essentials of religion: for instance, that God is one, that Christ is God, and the Son of God, that our salvation depends on the mercy of God, and the like.

Others, again, which are the subject of controversy among the churches, do not destroy the unity of the faith; for why should it be regarded as a ground of dissension between churches, if one, without any spirit of contention or perverseness in dogmatising, hold that the soul on quitting the body flies to heaven, and another, without venturing to speak positively as to the abode, holds it for certain that it lives with the Lord? The words of the apostle are, "Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you," (Phil. 3:15.) Does he not sufficiently intimate that a difference of opinion as to these matters which are not absolutely necessary, ought not to be a ground of dissension among Christians? The best thing, indeed, is to be perfectly agreed, but seeing there is no man who is not involved in some mist of ignorance, we must either have no church at all or pardon delusion in those things of which one may be ignorant, without violating the substance of religion and forfeiting salvation.

Here, however, I have no wish to patronise even the minutest errors, as if I thought it right to foster them by flattery or connivance; what I say is, that we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists, and keep the use of the sacraments instituted by the Lord. Meanwhile, if we strive to reform what is offensive, we act in the discharge of duty. To this effect are the words of Paul, "If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace," (1 Cor. 14: 30.) From this it is evident that to each member of the Church, according to his measure of grace, the study of public edification has been assigned, provided it be done decently and in order. In other words, we must neither renounce the communion of the Church, nor, continuing in it, disturb peace and discipline when duly arranged.

13. Our indulgence ought to extend much farther in tolerating imperfection of conduct. Here there is great danger of falling, and Satan employs all his machinations to ensnare us. For there always have been persons who, imbued with a false persuasion of absolute holiness, as if they had already become a kind of aerial spirits, spurn the society of all in whom they see that something human still remains. Such of old were the Cathari and the Donatists, who were similarly infatuated. Such in the present day are some of the Anabaptists, who would be thought to have made superior progress. Others, again, sin in this respect, not so much from that insane pride as from inconsiderate zeal.

Seeing that among those to whom the gospel is preached, the fruit produced is not in accordance with the doctrine, they forthwith conclude that there no church exists. The offence is indeed well founded, and it is one to which in this most unhappy age we give far too much occasion. It is impossible to excuse our accursed sluggishness, which the Lord will not leave unpunished, as he is already beginning sharply to chastise us. Woe then to us who, by our dissolute license of wickedness, cause weak consciences to be wounded!

Still those of whom we have spoken sin in their turn, by not knowing how to set bounds to their offence. For where the Lord requires mercy they omit it, and give themselves up to immoderate severity. Thinking there is no church where there is not complete purity and integrity of conduct, they, through hatred of wickedness, withdraw from a genuine church, while they think they are shunning the company of the ungodly. They allege that the Church of God is holy. But that they may at the same time understand that it contains a mixture of good and bad, let them hear from the lips of our Saviour that parable in which he compares the Church to a net in which all kinds of fishes are taken, but not separated until they are brought ashore. Let them hear it compared to a field which planted with good seed, is by the fraud of an enemy mingled with tares, and is not freed of them until the harvest is brought into the barn. Let them hear, in fine, that it is a thrashing floor in which the collected wheat lies concealed under the chaff, until, cleansed by the fanners and the sieve, it is at length laid up in the granary. If the Lord declares that the Church will labour under the defect of being burdened with a multitude of wicked until the day of judgement, it is in vain to look for a church altogether free from blemish. (Matth. 13.)

For more Calvin, see the resources at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library from which this excerpt was taken (translation by Henry Beveridge, Esq., Edinburgh: printed for the Calvin Translation Society, 1845-46). Some more Calvin including the Institutes (in smaller segments), along with a number of works by other Christian authors are also available at the Institute of Practical Bible-education and The Hall of Church History.

The Cathedral of Hope 

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