John Calvin Was a Social Justice Warrior

John Calvin recalled his impression when he first arrived in Geneva. “When I first arrived in this church there was almost nothing. They were preaching and that’s all. They were good at seeking out idols and burning them, but there was no Reformation. Everything was in turmoil.” One of the objectives Geneva’s senators had in calling Calvin back was to improve the management of the city’s care for orphans, widows and other poor. This was something that Calvin was also zealous for. In his commentary on Psalm 82 he wrote “A just and well-regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.” Rulers are “accounted guilty before God of negligence if they do not, of their own accord, assist those who stand in need of their interference.”

1. Reforming Welfare

The primary institution for accomplishing this obligation was Geneva’s General Hospital. The Hospital was not principally an infirmary, but rather a place of hospital-ity. It provided public housing and care for widows, orphans and other poor and destitute. Since medieval cities were periodically ravaged by the plague, caring for orphans was the largest need. The hospital provided public schooling for both boys and girls. When the young men came of age the hospital would put up the apprenticeship fee. Likewise, the hospital payed the dowry for young women who desired to marry.

Hospital residents were expected to work as they were able. They farmed the garden, prepared meals, cooked and cleaned. They often raised a surplus of oats that were sold on the open market to help fund the hospital’s operation. Calvin was instrumental in implementing a fabric-weaving program as a way to reduce unemployment. As a result Genevan textiles soon became a major export and an economic boon for the city.

In addition to providing for the Hospital residents, the Hospital also distributed bread and wine on a weekly basis to poor families that were having trouble making ends meet. They gave out short-term, interest free loans to those who needed help purchasing essential items.

Due to these innovative measures the Hospital was not expensive to run, yet it provided far more social value than the hospital systems in other cities. Also, because Geneva was committed to a policy of full-employment, everyone who was able to work was able to find work to do.

2. Reforming Immigration

John Calvin was a French immigrant living in Geneva, and was not granted citizenship until shortly before his death. He had great compassion for his fellow exiles. He also regarded such compassion as a duty required in God’s Law. “Let us learn from this passage [Isa 16:3-4] to be kind and dutiful to fugitives and exiles.” “When God recommends guests and sojourners to them [Lev 19:33-34], just as if they had been their own kindred, they thence understand that equity is to be cultivated constantly and toward all men.”

The first major wave of French refugees arrived in Geneva in 1545. Geneva was neither large nor rich. Land was restrictive. Employment opportunities and food were limited. This influx was more than the General Hospital system could handle, and so the city councils ordered the caravan to make plans to leave town. In response, Calvin and twenty eight other individuals generously contributed to establish the French Refuge (Bourse) to extend the work of the hospital to the refugees.

The inflow of immigrants from France, Italy and elsewhere stoked nationalist and anti-immigrant feelings in Geneva. Ami Perrin led the anti-immigrant party, the “Children of Geneva.” Gangs of young people harassed and assaulted immigrants on the streets. They would bear their swords with shouts of “at the traitors!” “French devils!” and “kill them and their supporters!”

In spite of fierce opposition, refugees continued to arrive in Geneva from 1550-1560. By 1555 it became apparent to most that immigration would not spell the end for Geneva. Immigrants brought an entrepreneurial spirit, different skills, and new capital to the city. The new economy in Geneva focused on exports to France and the rest of Europe. Exports of books, textiles, pewter pots, jewelry, gold work, clock and watch-work became the new economic backbone of the city. Although Geneva was the principal city of refuge in Europe, it was not the only one and its corresponding benefits were not unique.

3. Reforming Capital

The practice of usury was widespread in sixteenth-century Europe. At the same time, church theologians condemned all interest taking. Calvin had a more keen understanding of economics than Scholastic theologians. He understood that industry demanded some sort of credit and interest in order to function. Capital is key to establishing new businesses and thus creating new jobs and new wealth. If capital is directed to the common good, then it cannot be contrary to God’s law, which is the law of love.

Lending to private individuals, however, opens the door for loan-sharking. Therefore Calvin made a sharp distinction between lending in business and lending to private individuals struggling to afford basic necessities (compare Ex 22:25, Ne 5:1-10; Pr 28:8, etc., with Matt 25:27, Lk 19:23). Calvin understood the Bible’s condemnation of usury to refer to those whose lending preys on the poor. For example, wealthy speculators might drive up the cost of wheat, and then turn around and lend money to the poor [at 16-18%] in order to buy bread. In his commentary on Amos, Calvin writes, “He [Amos] speaks here again of the greed for riches, which in times of scarcity is held like a foot on the throat of the poor, and makes them slaves to it.”

Geneva thus adopted a two-tiered interest rate: an annual 5% rate for businesses, while private loans were interest free and administered through the General Hospital. Economic conditions drove these rates up to 6 2/3% in 1557, but Geneva retained the two tiered system.

4. Reforming Consumer Protection

Geneva’s sumptuary laws were aimed at promoting equality, unity and the common good. The law (1549) required that both boys and girls receive a free primary school education; partially to create an educated labor supply and partially to promote informed Christians. Also, trade guilds were encouraged as an efficient way for industries to self-regulate. Businesses were regulated both for quality control and to prohibit profiteering on essential items. No merchant should be permitted to cheat in the marketplace. The city councils considered it their duty to shield the vulnerable from financial exploitation, especially where basic commodities were concerned.

Geneva did not have ample land for farming. Keeping Geneva in foodstuffs was always a difficult affair. The price of wheat was especially volatile and regularly subject to 500% price fluctuations. This required a comprehensive wheat policy. One aspect of this policy has been badly mis-represented. A sumptuary law against selling fancy pastries in time of grain shortage was not introduced because it was supposedly immoral to enjoy desserts. Instead, it was a means of protecting the poor during times of scarcity. Pastries provided bakers with a higher profit margin, which only the wealthy could afford. The misuse of scarce flour would have resulted in a lack of basic bread for the poor.

The Protestant Reformation was about more than reforming the preaching and worship of the Church. It was also about pursuing the ideal of a just society where Christians fulfill their individual callings in the world with excellence and for God’s glory. 

For further reading see: Social Concern in Calvin’s Geneva, by William C. Innes.

The Free Market Family

When Christian churches first faced the threat of disestablishment, ministers were understandably worried. “A Divine and sacred institution shouldn’t be left up to the wiles of a free market,” they argued. In retrospect, most recognized that some positive things came from Churches existing as voluntary organizations. For one, ministers became more concerned with how their people received their ministry. Also, church members had to support their churches with voluntary donations, which gave them a stake in its ministry. This practical focus was likely a deterrent to the spread of Unitarianism and Deism in America.

Other outcomes were mixed. Disestablished churches spelled the end of the parish system, where your church membership is based on your neighborhood.

There are also negative aspects to a spiritual marketplace. It encourages religious entrepreneurialism, which gives rise to novel ideas, new sects, and movements. False teachers tickle the ears of the people and sell them lies that they are eager to buy. Christians flit about from church to church, never committing and never putting down roots.

As Christians we want to emphasize the fraternity we have with one another. All true churches around the world are part of the one true Church of Jesus Christ. Yet individual churches in a given city, whether they like it or not, are locked in a competition for market share. The Church Growth Movement embraced this uncomfortable fact and weaponized it. They viewed the smaller neighborhood churches as “feeder” churches, and they sought to attract large crowds with a battery of programs for all ages. Pastor-shepherds were recast as “ranchers,” and worship services became spectator events.

The community, intimacy and accountability that is natural to a smaller church is necessarily lost in the big-box church. This need, however, can be met through the mid-week small groups. This solution may work for those who have time to spare.

I think it is important for us to identify and acknowledge the ways that our consumerist culture has influenced our approach to church. It is natural for Christians to think of their church like a consumer product. They ask themselves (in more ‘spiritual’ language) “what is the value added to my life?” They evaluate the teaching – and I imagine most ministers hope that people will choose their church based primarily on its teaching. But people also evaluate the music program, the nursery, the youth group and other age-appropriate programs, building aesthetics and more. If things ever become uncomfortable, it shouldn’t be too hard to find another church that will fit their needs.

Such a view of things is based entirely on a selfish perspective. “What do I get out of this?” Entirely absent is the question, “how can I contribute?”

It is key that we reframe our view of what the church is. It is not a market commodity. It is a family.

This perspective is especially important if we ever encounter inter-personal conflict. Instead of retreating from conflict, view it as an opportunity for reconciliation. Rejoice that the Holy Spirit has given you an opportunity to grow in holiness. “Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (Js 3:18).

Similarly, if a potential or actual area of ministry is lacking, then ask yourself whether this is an opportunity for you to serve others.“As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet 4:10). Maybe you don’t feel that you need your current local congregation. But consider whether that local church needs you.

Billy Graham and Our Mission to the World

This past week, Billy Graham passed away at age 99. He was probably the most effective evangelist in all of church history. Over his long career he shared the gospel with over 215 million people. He was not a perfect man, but he was an example to Christians and Churches on what it means to have the heart of an evangelist and to be singleminded in our Great Commission to the world.

When Billy Graham first burst on the scene, many ministers struggled to understand his popularity. As a preacher his gifts were average, more or less. Yet his simple “John 3:16” message was drawing crowds by the tens of thousands. Naturally, Graham’s career was made possible by the labors of effective promoters, but there was much more to it than this. Graham’s career followed in the wake of the modernist/fundamentalist controversies, in which modernists solidified their place in the Northern Baptist and Presbyterian denominations. This resulted in an exodus of separatists groups from the mainline churches. This exodus gave birth to a handful of denominations, but also a large amount of congregations resolved to remain independent.

As a generalization, separatist groups fit into two categories. The first category were those that gracefully embraced their outsider status and focused on doctrinal purity (our denomination, the OPC, fit in here). The tendency for doctrinal purists is to talk amongst each other. The danger is that we loose sight of the “world” that remains uninitiated in our parochial concerns.

The second category were those that focused on “reclaiming America for Christ.” Former cultural insiders resented their loss of cultural influence. They nursed this bitterness and allowed it to grow. Some began to be influenced by other outside movements. Some of the loudest voices identified with various fringe conspiracy theories. At times these conspiracy theories were racist, anti immigrant, and anti-Semitic. Some were convinced that FDR’s blue eagle insignia was the Mark of the Beast and that progressives were part of a Communist plot to take over the world and destroy the Christian Church.

Against this backdrop we begin to understand why Graham’s “John 3:16” preaching was refreshing to so many. As a theologically conservative Southern Baptist, Graham demonstrated to doctrinal purists that the supernatural message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is still “the power of God unto salvation.” Graham’s example challenged them to lift up their heads and look out on the world to see that the fields are ripe for harvest. God’s desire is for his gospel to be offered to the wide world. At the same time, Graham’s example was a challenge to the culture warriors. Graham demonstrated that preaching the love of Christ was a more excellent way to influence culture. This way resolutely eschews fear and hatred.

Segregation grieved the evangelist. He sought to desegregate his crusades in 1952 or 1953. But it also grieved him that his audiences were overwhelmingly white. How could he build a bridge into minority communities? Graham invited Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to offer the opening prayer at Maddison Square Garden crusade on July 18, 1957. Billy Graham introduced King to the crowd, saying, “A great social revolution is going on in the United States today. Dr. King is one of its leaders, and we appreciate his taking time out of his busy schedule to come and share this service with us tonight.” Although Graham strived to be non-partisan, this was a provocative, political act. It was also a stand made necessary by the Great Commission. Graham was standing up for the theological truth that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek.”

Graham’s personal politics leaned conservative. Graham acknowledged with regret that he allowed his social views to become an unnecessary stumbling block for the gospel. This is the lesson he learned after being burned by his close relationship with president Nixon. Graham confessed, “I came close to identifying the American way of life with the kingdom of God, then I realized that God had called me to a higher kingdom than America. I have tried to be faithful to my calling as a minister of the Gospel.” (2007). In the same interview Graham elaborated, “I’m all for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice. We as clergy know so very little to speak with authority on the Panama Canal or superiority of armaments. Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person. We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left. I haven’t been faithful to my own advice in the past. I will be in the future.”

“We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people.” It reminds me of the words of another evangelist, the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22-23).