Tag Archives: poor

How John Calvin Dealt with Refugees and the Poor

In the 1550’s Geneva witnessed an influx of French refugees into the city. William Naphy has argued that this influx, and the growing influence of these French religious refugees was the single most common complaint in Geneva during this period. (Naphy, 121) Prior to the influx of politically powerful French refugees, there was an influx of poor refugees. For example, in October 1538-1539 Geneva’s city hospital assisted 10,657 poor strangers as they passed through the city. Naphy notes that this number does not even include Genevans who would have been attended to by the hospital. (Naphy, 122)

Regularly the hospital would have been charged with the city’s poor. The hospital would be john-calvin-9235788-1-402expected to take care of the sick in the hospital, deal with outpatients as well as people who were housed in the hospital, including orphans. In addition to these ministrations , the hospital had a bread baking ministry in which bread cooked in the hospital ovens was weekly distributed to the poor at their homes. (Olson, 164)

Naphy also notes that by the close of 1543 a clear pattern began to emerge between the city and these refugees. Geneva was willing to help strangers when able to do so, but when resources were strained the city itself pulled back on giving direct help. It seems as though this lack of resources, which were provided by the city hospital, were filled  by several Bourses or funds specifically created by the foreign residents of Geneva in order to take care of the poorer refugees entering the city. These funds were formed by French, Italian, and German ethnic groups and — as Olson writes with respect to the French Fund — it seems as though Calvin “had a direct hand in its formation (the French Bourse)….[being] regularly involved through his contributions and recommendations to poor people to seek out the fund for help.” (Olson 165)[1]

Calvin’s work with the French Bourse reveals something about the role that the church ought to play in social concerns. It has been said that for Calvin, care for the poor was practically the fourth mark of the church. This claim especially comes to light when Calvin and the company of pastors make the administrators of the French Bourse deacons. The fact that these administrators were made deacons is important because it reveals Calvin’s dissatisfaction with the current diaconate. According to Calvin, deacons are those whom the church has appointed to distribute alms and take care of the poor, and serve as stewards of the common chest of the poor. (Tuininga, 239) Prior to the growth of the Bourse system the term deacon primarily applied to the procureurs and hospitalliers of the city hospital, however applying the term deacon to these roles was fairly complicated because the hospital was responsible to the city council.  In the 1543 edition of the Institutes Calvin argues that the work of deacons is not to be understood as a part of civil government: ‘it was not secular management that they were undertaking but a spiritual function dedicated to God’” (Tuininga, 242). The Hospital, in the 1540’s, was run by “deacons” but  reported to the city councils, and leadership was designated by the councils. This arrangement was not in line with Calvin’s vision of the diaconate. On the other hand, the Bourses were operated solely by the deacons under the oversight of the church without any involvement from the civil magistrates, and were considered ministers of the church. (Tuininga, 243)

How exactly did these deacons address social concerns? They provided hospitality to travelers, medical care for the sick, temporary support for the unemployed, long term support for widows, and job training for orphans. The work of the Bourse “presents a clear example of the type of work that Calvin believed the church was called to do for the needy, without any cooperation with civil government.” (Tuininga, 244)

St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Geneva

What exactly does Calvin’s preference for working alongside of the Bourse as opposed to the procureurs and hospitalliers reveal about his understanding of “care for the poor as a fourth mark of the church?” It shows that Calvin believed that the ministry of the diaconate, which was to care for the poor, properly belonged to the church as opposed to being “outsourced” to some other entity. Care for the poor was a responsibility that the church itself had, and could not and should not simply and over to some other body. Although other entities ought to be commended for taking care of the poor, the church has failed if it does not do something to relieve the plight of the poor. This is why Calvin says “we must begin at the end, that is to say, there must be ministers to preach the doctrine of salvation purely, there must be deacons to have care for the poor.” Does this mean that Calvin saw care for the poor as a fourth mark of the church? Probably not, however what it does mean is that the church is somehow deficient (as opposed to not the church at all) if it lacks a means for taking care of the poor.

Calvin’s understanding of how the poor ought to be cared for extends beyond discussion of the city hospital or even the distribution of the Bourse funds in Geneva. Calvin was under the impression that care for the poor is actually a requirement of natural law. Tuininga argues that Calvin interprets relief for the poor as a requirement of nature’s law of equity in other words, this law of equity is not grounded in the gospel but in the order of creation. (Tuininga, 227-8) Thus Calvin can say “this is the dictate of common sense, that the hungry are deprived of their just right, if their hunger is not relieved.” How does Calvin believe that this law of equity is enforced? It is enforced by rulers and authorities. Thus he argues that “a just and well regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.” (Tuininga, 230) Governments are charged with taking care of the poor and needy. They ought to build poorhouses, hospitals, and schools, they ought to prohibit laws that harm the poor and hinder them from making their way out of their condition. If a government fails to perform their obligations to the poor they are liable to God’s judgement. Not only this, but they are worthy of criticism from the church, in fact Calvin was known for harshly criticizing specific governments for failing to perform their obligations to the poor.

The fact that Calvin was willing to criticize not only local magistrates but also kings and foreign governments illustrates Heiko Oberman’s thesis in Europa Afflicta. There Oberman shows that Calvin’s reformation moves beyond merely city reformation, aiming at a larger reformation that takes all of Europe into account. According to Oberman Calvin did not serve a parish, a territory, or a country. (Oberman, 103) He saw himself as being called to minister by God, and not by any city council or King. Thus he had the authority and responsibility to seek the welfare  of all Christians even if that brought him into conflict with those in power. This international awareness is why Calvin can warn against the territorial hunger of the German emperor and the expansionism of the French King. (Oberman, 105) Calvin explicitly warned that as kings become more powerful, the poor would suffer more. However, kings are not above the law, “If a king wants to be regarded as legitimate and as a servant of God he has to show that he is a true father for his people.” (Oberman quoting Calvin, 107) Calvin was concerned  for the welfare of the poor, especially poor Christians, not only in Geneva, but in Europe as a whole.

From what we have seen above — namely, Calvin’s concern that the church fulfills its role in taking care of the poor and that civil governments fulfill natural law in taking care of the poor — we see that for Calvin social concern is a topic that the church not only involves itself in but also speaks up about. Contemporary evangelicals, especially in the United States, ought to take notice that John Calvin himself (not a mainline liberal) believes that the church is not fully the church when it is not taking care of the poor. It ought to take notice that Calvin himself believed that the church had the responsibility of speaking truth to power, because the church lives as refugees in this world. Thus if evangelical churches are going to be true to their reformation heritage they would do well to reexamine how Calvin approached social concerns.


[1] Tuininga notes that in the earlier years Calvin was the most generous single contributor the the French Bourse.


John Calvin and the Poor

If God gives a man wealth, it is to put his charity to the test. We are to give an account of what God has placed in our hands. But if our neighbors endure hardship because of our detail-of-john-calvin-by-oliver-crisp-cover-of-his-deviant-calvinismlack of mercy, it is certain that it will not go unpunished. . . . We see how our Lord banishes from his kingdom all those who don’t share their goods liberally when seeing their neighbors need and offer no aid or assistance. If we do not show our gratitude for his benefits when faced with those who are destitute of this world’s goods, our action is not against a mortal being, but against the Son of God. . . . We have a general rule laid down for us by Paul, who not only shows us what the apostles did but also what all Christians must do if they want Jesus Christ to rule and have order in the church. The poor must be cared for.

-John Calvin (Sermon on Acts 6:1-3)

Spiritual Depression (Pt. 2)

Its pretty much guranteed – if you are a Christian you will experience “spiritual depression” at some point.  Much like other forms of depression, “spiritual depression” is marked by an absence of feeling. You don’t feel like pursuing God and you don’t feel like pursuing community. Most importantly, you don’t “feel” God’s presence. Instead you “feel” his absence. I think that most Christians don’t want to admit it when they enter into this state – they feel like they are wrong to have these sorts of feelings. But the truth is, its normal. Almost everybody will feel that way at some point in their life. In fact, even Mother Teresa felt this way. Apparently she spent the last 50 years of her life in this state, yet she told nobody….

Here is how she felt, in her own words:

I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me — When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven — there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

Lets be honest and open with one another. You can’t face “spiritual depression” on your own. It needs to be done in the context of community – even when you don’t feel like bringing it before the people you do life with.


Missiology: Urban Mission Part 7 – Confronting Poverty

Over the next few days I will be posting some thoughts on an issue facing the future of the church, namely the explosion of urban populations. I will start by taking a look at some of the issues brought up by the urban explosion, and I will conclude by reflecting upon how the Gospel addresses these issues.

Today we will look look at how the Church might begin to confront poverty.


V-Mission Action: Confronting Poverty and Cultural Heterogeneity


            The city has the capability of becoming “the land of the left behind-the poor, the underemployed, the ethnic outsider.”[1] How will the church address the issue of poverty? First we must begin by recognizing the cause of urban poverty. Conn points out the fact that the “cause of poverty is largely injustice…injustices, oppression and oppressive structures cause poverty.”[2] The fact that urban poverty is largely due to injustice means that the church must work to bring God’s justice.

According to Stassen and Gushee justice has four dimensions: 1) deliverance of the poor and powerless from the injustice that they regularly experience; 2) lifting the foot of domineering power off the neck of the dominated and oppressed; 3) stopping the violence and establishing peace; and 4) restoring the outcasts. [3] Bringing God’s justice to the city will involve enacting these four components. However to enact these four components of holistic justice the church must take several steps. First the church must be willing and able to recognize and name injustice when it sees it. In doing this the church will be fulfilling its prophetic role to the cities. Here we must look to the work of Jesus, who in “cleansing the temple” acted out a “prophetic and symbolic attack to the whole temple system for practicing a cover up of injustice.”[4] In the city, this will mean confronting companies who keep profit margins high by paying their workers low wages. When workers are reduced to objects or resources based upon their economic value, they end up being exploited.[5] The church must confront exploitative practices. How will churches do this? Usually it will involve bringing these practices out into the light. In the city of Dhaka the projected 9th largest city in the world in 2015,[6] there was a case involving unjust work practices. Lisa Rahman was a 19 year old girl working in a garment factory assembling “Whinnie the Pooh” shirts. She was paid an equivalent of five cents for shirts that were sold at approximately twenty dollars. In 2002 the workers complained publicly about their poor working conditions. Due to the complaints, Disney cancelled all future work orders, leaving Lisa without a job.[7] This true story hardly made a dent in western news sources. What if the church had brought this urban injustice to light? Could the church have prevented these poor working conditions or the loss of Lisa’s only source of survival?

In addition to bringing injustice to the light it must act to end injustice. This means that the church will seek to change oppressive social arrangements and institutions. This will take direct involvement among poor communities, individual development, community development, racial reconciliation, and social reform.[8]

In addition to bringing injustice to light the church must learn to partner with the poor. It must create partnership that recognizes and maintains the poor’s dignity. “Partnership with the poor will change the face of the city.”[9] Yet the church must be not merely be a partner to the poor, it must come alongside the poor and live in solidarity with them. The church must take Christ as its model of solidarity. Christ was beaten and oppressed by the unjust oppressive systems of his day. Yet he endured this injustice in order to bring about justice. If the church can learn to suffer alongside the poor, like Christ suffered for his people, then the Church’s efforts at bringing about justice will be effective and credible.

[1] Conn and Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, and the People of God, 70.

[2] Conn and Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, and the People of God, 327.

[3] Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2003),  349

[4] Stassen and Gushee, Kingdom Ethics, 348.

[5] Miguel De La Torre, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2004), 84.

[6] Jenkins, Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, 93.

[7] De La Torre, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins, 98.

[8] Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, (New York: Dutton, 2010), 130.

[9] Randy White, Journey to the Center of the City: Making a Difference in an Urban Neighborhood, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 61.