John Calvin, a Peacemaker in the Church of Christ
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
In our times, more often than not, when we hear someone speak about the character of Calvin, what we usually hear is a caricature of Calvin. We are told that he was harsh, cold, tyrannical, unyielding, intolerant, and unsympathetic. Few today would think of the qualities of a peacemaker with respect to John Calvin – namely the spiritual fruits of humility, gentleness, understanding, patience and a conciliatory spirit. Now to be sure, Calvin had his faults and weaknesses, like all of Adam’s race, and we would be wrong to idolize him as some seem to do. Nevertheless, Calvin’s monumental contributions to the Church of Christ, to us, cannot very easily be overstated, and his life as a peacemaker is in fact one of the areas where he excelled among all the reformers.
Let us recount some details from the life and the words of John Calvin which will illustrate his passion for spiritual unity and charity among all the servants of Christ, and seek to draw from these some practical lessons for our own lives.
When Calvin came into public view in the mid 1530s, the Protestant Reformation had been underway for two decades, and great progress had been made on different fronts by several men, and notably by those two great leaders, Luther in the German states, and Zwingli among the Swiss. But as it often happens in a great conflict, after winning victories against a common enemy, in this case the Roman Catholic Imperium, these 2 generals sadly turned their swords against one another. It ought not to be so in the Church of Christ, at least not over any but the most essential matters, but alas it was. They had quarreled over the nature of the Lord’s Supper, and Luther had refused to give Zwingli the right hand of fellowship at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529.
Calvin was deeply grieved by this infighting among the Protestant churches, as was Luther’s right-hand man, the great theologian Philip Melanchthon. In fact, Calvin and Melanchthon become very close friends over the years, sharing an earnest desire for unity among the brethren throughout the Church of Christ. Throughout his entire ministry, Calvin labored long to bring the various warring factions together, to acknowledge and practice their essential unity in faith and love under the cross of Christ. Though he disagreed with some of the trappings of the Lutheran liturgy, favoring simplicity, he wrote to the Lutheran churches:
“Keep your smaller differences, but let us have no discord on that account, but let us march in one solid column under the banner of the Captain of our salvation.”
As reformed pastor Johan Tangelder wrote: “One of Calvin’s greatest concerns was to heal the serious breaches among the churches of the Reformation. This concern should be ours as well. Martyn Lloyd-Jones lamented this, “Can we deny the charge that we, as evangelical Christians, have been less interested in the question of church unity than anyone else?” He commented, “We are always negative; we are always on the defensive; we are always bringing up objections and difficulties. I do not think we can deny this charge.” We do well to remember Calvin’s movements towards reconciliation and peace not only between the Lutherans and Reformed churches, but among the Reformed themselves. Everywhere and always he tried to bring peace and to avoid dissension and schism. For example, he even thought of the Anglican church. From a letter he wrote to Archbishop Cranmer in April 1552 we can learn of his vision of church unity.”
“Amongst the greatest evils of our century must be counted the fact that the churches are so divided one from another that there is scarcely even a human relationship between us; at all events there is not the shining light of that holy fellowship of the members of Christ, of which many boast in word, but which few seek sincerely indeed. In consequence, because the members are torn apart, the body of the church lies wounded and bleeding. So far as I have it in my power, if I am thought to be of any service, I shall not be afraid to cross ten seas for this purpose, if that should be necessary.”
All efforts at promoting Church unity almost always boil down to reconciling differences between individual believers. If there is dissension within a church, it is usually due to stubbornness and unforgiven offenses between individuals. If there is dissension between churches, it is usually due to stubbornness and unforgiven offenses between the leaders of the respective churches. Our Lord Jesus gives us a clear pattern for resolving conflicts:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. ~ Matthew 18.15
In his commentary on these verses Calvin writes:
Christ enjoins his disciples to forgive one another, but to do so in such a manner as to endeavor to correct their faults. It is necessary that this be wisely observed; for nothing is more difficult than to exercise forbearance towards men, and, at the same time, not to neglect the freedom necessary in reproving them. Almost all lean to the one side or to the other, either to deceive themselves mutually by deadly flatteries, or to pursue with excessive bitterness those whom they ought to cure. But Christ recommends to his disciples a mutual love, which is widely distant from flattery; only he enjoins them to season their admonitions with moderation, lest, by excessive severity and harshness, they discourage the weak.
Calvin practiced this on all fronts: among his own congregation, and with brothers far and wide with whom he cultivated Christian fellowship. His copious correspondence, and the testimony of those who lived near him, shows a man who showed great fortitude in not taking personal offenses. There were some in in Geneva, who did were not sure about submitting to the yoke of Christ, and some of these men detested him. They hurled insults at him, and sometimes other things; they threatened his life; they named their dogs after him. Calvin bore it patiently, and was ever ready to carefully instruct and disciple a wayward brother. He even went so far as to engage the Anabaptist radicals, something which very few of the other reformers did. He preached to them, he expounded the Scripture to them, he convinced them of their errors, and many of them were converted to the reformed faith. Among these were the de Bure family in Strasbourg. Mrs de Bure was later widowed, and afterward she would become Calvin’s beloved wife.
But what motivated Calvin to expend so much time and energy, endure so much abuse, and engage in so much prayer and toil in seeking unity among God’s people? Quite simply, because he cared for God’s glory more than anything else: more than his own personal interests; even more than human friendships. Just as the apostle Paul spoke of Timothy:
I have no one like-minded, who will sincerely care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are of Christ Jesus. ~ Philippians 2.20-21
John Calvin was of such a character. In his 55 years of life, he literally burned himself out in his zeal for serving God and His Church. When we consider his daily pastoral responsibilities, his literary output must be considered little short of miraculous. He wrote commentaries on nearly every book of Holy Scripture, which fill over 20 volumes. His tracts and letters fill seven volumes, and much of this correspondence, to churches and individuals all across Christendom, is filled with his earnest entreaties for unity in the Church of Christ, among churches, and among individual brethren. But Calvin was not so much concerned with the organizational unity of the churches in different countries, but with the unity of Spirit among all the congregations, which Paul enjoins upon all believers:
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. ~ Eph. 4.1-3
In preaching on these verses Calvin taught:
…humility is the first step. This again produces meekness, which disposes us to bear with our brethren, and thus to preserve that unity which would otherwise be broken a hundred times in a day. Let us remember, therefore, that, in cultivating brotherly kindness, we must begin with humility. Whence come rudeness, pride, and disdainful language towards brethren? Whence come quarrels, insults, and reproaches? Come they not from this, that every one carries his love of himself, and his regard to his own interests, to excess? By laying aside haughtiness and a desire of pleasing ourselves, we shall become meek and gentle, and acquire that moderation of temper which will overlook and forgive many things in the conduct of our brethren.
Calvin exemplified this humility in his personal dealings with his own congregation, and in his interactions with the other leaders of the reformation. Though he had differences with both Zwingli and Luther, he was willing to set these aside in the interest of seeing the peace of Christ reign among all the Protestant churches. Would that all the reformers had shown this Christ-like character. After his early death, Zwingli’s successor was Henry Bullinger, and Calvin wrote him scores of letters, showing respect and regard, and earnestly entreating him as a brother. Calvin’s efforts, against all odds, did much to bring unity to the Swiss churches. Yet being a peacemaker does not mean that you sugarcoat everything, and that you don’t face substantial disagreements head on and deal with them. Calvin did this when necessary, even at the risk of endangering long-standing friendships. In June 1545, he writes to Melanchthon regarding Luther:
We all of us do acknowledge that we are much indebted to him. Neither shall I submit myself unwillingly, but be quite content, that he may bear the chief sway, provided that he can manage to conduct himself with moderation. Howbeit, in the Church we must always be upon our guard, lest we pay too great a deference to men. For it is all over with her, when a single individual, be he whosoever you please, has more authority than all the rest, especially where this very person does not scruple to try how far he may go. Where there exists so much division and separation as we now see, it is indeed no easy matter to still the troubled waters and bring about composure. But were we all of that mind we ought to be, some remedy might, perhaps, be discovered; most certainly we convey a mean example to posterity, while we rather prefer, of our own accord, entirely to throw away our liberty, than to irritate a single individual by the slightest offence.
In other words, Calvin was saying that it takes courage to be a peacemaker, even to the point of facing down Luther himself if necessary. Calvin showed this kind of courage on many occasions. Even with his cherished friend Melanchthon whom he dearly loved, he risked their friendship for the sake of true unity. Calvin understood that unity must be based upon God’s truth, or it would amount to nothing. We should know that well in our day. After all we could have “unity” with many other denominations, if we would just acknowledge that homosexuality is a personal preference, not a sin explicitly condemned by God. But Calvin did not make the mistake of promoting “peace at any price.” But sadly, later in his life, the timid and discouraged Melanchthon did. After Luther’s death, he was willing to give away nearly everything the Reformation had gained for the sake of so-called peace. Calvin sternly rebuked his friend, and earnestly entreated him to reconsider.
Calvin’s courage as a peacemaker was also shown in more dramatic ways. On one occasion there was a quarrel between two dissenting groups in the church at Geneva, and a heated argument ensued. It had come to point that the opposing parties were drawing their swords and making dire threats. Calvin had heard of the tumult and ran to the place where it was occurring. He bounded up some steps and literally interposed himself between the opposing parties, and their drawn swords. He commanded them to cease, and then standing where he was, preached to his people on the need for peace and forgiveness among brethren in Christ.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” ~ Matthew 5.9
On this verse Calvin wrote:
By peacemakers he means those who not only seek peace and avoid quarrels, as far as lies in their power, but who also labor to settle differences among others, who advise all men to live at peace, and take away every occasion of hatred and strife.
4 Lessons: Humility, Courage, Faith, and True Motivation
If we truly desire unity in the Church of Christ, to the glory of God, we must humble ourselves. God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. The apostle Paul exhorts us to adopt this attitude of life in his letter to the Philippians:
3 Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. 4 Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus… ~ Phillipians 2.3-5
Calvin exemplified this in his life and in his correspondence.
Calvin did not advocate peace at any price. He knew that true unity could only be based upon the truth of God as He has revealed in Scripture. We must have the guts to pursue true unity, and sometimes that means confrontation.
Faith in the power of the Gospel
Calvin truly believed that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. He was therefore patient with men, and did not write anyone off, acting as if they were beyond the reach of the grace of God. He even reached out to the Anabaptist radicals, and for his labors received many souls, and among them his goodly wife, Idelette de Bure.
Motivation: concern for the glory of God
This is really the bottom line: we must care more for the praise of God, than for the praise of men. This only is what enabled Calvin to patiently endure the scorn and abuse of his neighbors. Calvin sought to imitate our Lord Jesus, who,
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
John Calvin lived his motto: he was “prompt and sincere in the works of God”, and we would do well to imitate his faith and practice as a peacemaker in the church of Christ.