From Kairos Journal
Care for the Poor: The Privilege of Churches
On his return to Geneva in September 1541, John Calvin, aided by a committee of pastors and city councilors, raced against time to produce his “Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances.”1 It was a momentous moment for Geneva: on November 20, 1541, they became law, revolutionizing the city’s social welfare and modeling it along biblical lines.2
Social welfare was a pressing concern for the Protestant Reformers. The medieval Catholic Church funded charitable organizations through its parishes staffed by priests and nuns. But when a region became Protestant, workers vacated and institutions often passed from the Catholic Church to the civil government. Yet in Geneva, Calvin sought to keep the Church at the center of welfare administration.3
Indeed, he hated poverty and believed Christians should defend the poor. His anger could grow particularly fierce when greedy collectors took away peasants’ furniture to ensure repayment of loans and even literally stripped them of their clothes. Furthermore, Calvin was known to remind Geneva’s cultural elite that “Jesus Christ was not a tailor,” chastising them for the selfishness of buying the latest French fashions when poor wrecks crawled through the streets in rags.4
Through the diaconate, he established ministry to Geneva’s poor. The deacons’ work centered on the general hospital, where they cared for the sick. Additionally, the hospital’s budget provided for the impoverished, and its ovens baked bread for those who could not feed themselves.
The Genovese raised the money for such work through charitable giving. Calvin himself contributed generously and expected others to do the same. Thus, his church never took up a “collection,” but rather “gathered gifts.” The difference, in Calvin’s mind, was that a collection implied the need to ask for money whereas a gathering supposed eagerness to contribute. He believed that everyone who benefitted from Christ’s sacrifice should be quick to sacrifice for the wellbeing of others.5 At Calvin’s instigation, the deacons also sought to equip paupers with a trade, so they could eventually support themselves.
In the mid-1540s, a new occasion for mercy arose as an influx of destitute Protestant refugees fled Catholic persecution. Faced with these masses, a typical sixteenth-century city likely would have expelled the impoverished foreigners, and Geneva prepared to do just that. However, the city’s French-speaking church, led by Calvin, set up a fund for French refugees. Later, the Italian-, German-, and English-speaking churches followed suit for their own migrants.
Deacons found homes for them, cared for the sick, provided wet nurses for infants and foster homes for orphans, donated clothing and bedding, and gave or lent money—especially to those requiring tools or setting up a business. Refugee funds also provided for the spread of the gospel: some of the French fund supplied books and pastors to return to France.
Over time, Calvin’s model of church-led poverty relief spread throughout
the world. Clearly, Geneva’s social, political, historical, and ecclesiastical
context influenced this model, and it will require modification in different
contexts. Nevertheless, Geneva’s example demonstrates that, by applying biblical
principles, it is possible for the Church to take the lead in care for the
1 John Calvin, “Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541),” in Calvin: Theological Treatises, ed. J. K. S. Reid (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954): 56-72.
2 Ibid., 64-66; cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.3.9.
3 Much of this article relies on Jeannine E. Olson, “Calvin and Social-Ethical Issues,” in The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, ed. Donald K. McKim (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 153-172. See also Ronald S. Wallace, Calvin, Geneva and the Reformation – a Study of Calvin as Social Reformer, Churchman, Pastor, and Theologian (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990); William C. Innes, Social Concern in Calvin’s Geneva (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick, 1983).
4 Herman J Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, trans. Albert Gootjes (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 226.
Friday, April 02, 2010
Another Reason to Love Calvin
Not only did Calvin get the apostle Paul's theology right on the issues of atonement, justification, righteousness, et al, but he got ortho-praxis right on the issue of care for the poor. Got love that guy.