Tag Archives: social justice

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)

stpierres03
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.

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

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Calvin on the Injustice of Oppression by Those in Power

But there is still more; that is, that the image of God is engraved in all people. Therefore not only do I despise my [own] flesh whenever I oppress anyone, but to my fullest capacity I violate the image of God. Therefore let us carefully  note that God willed in this passage to point out to those who are in authority and who receive esteem, who are richer than others and who enjoy some degree of honor, that they must not abuse those who are under their hand; they must not torment them beyond measure. They must always reflect on the fact that we are all descended from Adam’s race, that we possess a common nature and even that the image of God is engraved on us…

(John Calvin: Writings On Pastoral Piety, trans. Elsie Anne McKee, 260-1.)

The Gospel According to Levi’s (or Dockers)

Levis vs. Dockers. This is a tale of two pairs of pants. Or better yet two kinds of Christians who tend to wear two kinds of pants. In one corner you have the skinny jean wearing, tattoo flaunting, hipster eye-glassed, latte sipping Christians who think that “the Kingdom deeds good deeds done by good people in the public sector for the common good” (4). In other words the Kingdom mission means working for social justice and peace. In the other corner you have the pleated pants crew – the Docker wearing Christians who have focused all of their kingdom theorizing on two questions – “When does the Kingdom arrive?” and “Where is the Kingdom?”

A typical Christian hipster... This guy is probably a pastor too.
A typical Christian hipster… This guy is probably a pastor too.

Their answer to these questions is generally “The kingdom is both present and future, and the kingdom is both a rule and a realm over which God governs” (9). We might summarize their position as “kingdom = God’s redemptive rule and power at work in the world.”

In Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church Scot McKnight offers an Anabaptist interpretation of what scripture means by Kingdom of God & how that will affect the mission of the church. He concludes that kingdom means “a people governed by a king.” (66) Kingdom does not refer to rule, or a redemptive dynamic, it specifically refers to a people governed by a king. This leads to the surprising conclusion that “kingdom is a people and the church is a people, then it follows that the church people are the kingdom people… there is no kingdom outside of the church.”

This claim goes up against the evangelical consensus which has in general followed George Ladd who claims that:

The Kingdom is primarily the dynamic reign or kingly rule of God, and derivatively the sphere in which the rule is experienced. In biblical idiom, the Kingdom is not identified with its subjects. They are the people of God’s rule who enter it, live in it, and are governed by it. The church is the community of the Kingdom but never the Kingdom itself… the Kingdom is the rule of God; the church is a society of men and women.

The upshot of McKnight’s position is that kingdom mission is church mission, church mission is kingdom mission, and there is no kingdom mission that is not church mission. Or we might say that the criteria for deciding whether something is “mission” or not is whether it forms or enhances local churches. Something is only mission if it is about Jesus. This will certainly ruffle the feathers of the Skinny Jeans crowd.

Kingdom mission is church mission is gospeling about Jesus in the context of a church witness and loving life. Anyone who calls what they are doing “kingdom work” but does not present Jesus to others or summon others to surrender themselves to King Jesus as Lord and Savior is simply not doing kingdom mission or Kingdom work. They are probably doing good work and doing social justice, but until Jesus is made known, it is not kingdom mission. (142)

I believe that this last paragraph is the heart of this book – if its not pointing people to Jesus & if its not carried out by Jesus’ people then its not really kingdom work.

Just because you are a part of the dockers (i.e. pleated pants) crowd that doesn’t mean you can’t rock them with style!

Review

There are so many great things about this book. I love the fact that he makes a case for why all social justice isn’t necessarily kingdom work. I love the fact that he centers mission around the proclamation of King Jesus. I love the fact that he grounds his arguments in thorough readings of scripture. However despite the fact that I agree with his vision for who King Jesus is and what mission is, I can’t buy into what he sees as the implications of the gospel and mission. Before I push back on a bunch of things, let me just say that I ate up this book, I loved McKnight’s heart for the church and for proclaiming Jesus as the one and only king. In fact, I agree with Publisher’s Weekly who said that “This is must reading for church leaders today.” I really believe that this is a book that many people in my own generation, those who are drawn to a Skinny Jeans gospel, need to read. Having said that, here is where I want to push back:

  1. The Kingdom Story is All Mixed-Up: Most evangelicals hold to a Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation story of the bible. Some have ignored some key parts of this story (Abraham, Israel, Exile, etc) but in the last few years we have been improving our understanding of this big picture story. McKnight however suggests a different story. He suggests an A-B-A’ story. The Story goes: Plan A: God rules the world through is elected people but God is the one and only King. Plan B: God accommodates to Israel’s selfish desires and lets David or an Israelite king rule. Plan A’: Plan B failed, Plan A takes on a new form, with God ruling in the God-man Jesus. What is wrong with this Kingdom Story? It makes it seem as though God’s plan failed and he had to come up with a brand new plan. It makes it seem as though Jesus was not the point the whole time, as though Jesus was God’s backup. I just can’t go there.
  2. McKnight’s Theology of Mission Needs to be Nuanced: McKnight is absolutely right, anyone who calls what they are doing “kingdom work” but does not present Jesus to others or summon others to surrender themselves to King Jesus as Lord and Savior is simply not doing kingdom mission or Kingdom work. However this position needs to be nuanced. He doesn’t do this, so I will try to offer a nuanced position for him ( I think he will agree). Here is my revision of his position: Kingdom work is work that proclaims King Jesus as Lord and Savior. Any work which proclaims the reality of Jesus’ universal reign as King – and is done by kingdom people is kingdom work. We need to remember though that proclamation need not be verbal at all times. Ultimately it will lead to verbal proclamation, but one can testify to the reality that Jesus is king without a verbal proclamation. Practically this means, that a Christian who works for an organization like Living Water International can do kingdom work because her work is done in the name of Jesus and proclaims the fact that under Jesus’ rule it is unthinkable that people would suffer from a lack of clean water. This means that a church who serves their community by opening their doors for recovery programs is doing Kingdom work because it is done in the name of Jesus by Christians. This means that the lone Christian who works in a secular non-profit that does public health education is doing Kingdom work because he is bringing God’s reign to bear (people’s health flourishing) and is doing so in an effort to proclaim “this is what life is like when Jesus reigns,” even though they might not be doing so explicitly with their words on a daily basis.
  3. The Kingdom is Not the Church: In an effort to make his case that Kingdom = Church he quotes D.A. Carson who says that “In no instance is Kingdom to be identified with church, as if the two words can occasion become tight synonyms. Even when there is a referential overlap, the domain of ‘kingdom’ is reign, and the domain of ‘church’ is people.” I agree with Carson. McKnight believes that one day Christ will reign over all of creation, but right now Christ’s reign is only over the church. Again I have to disagree – for there is no square inch of creation over which Christ does not say “mine.” How is that reign expressed? And to what extent do we experience that reign? That is a question for another place and another day. Nevertheless we can say with Richard Mouw that:

The Kingdom is the broad range of reality over which Christ rules… Kingdom covers all those areas of reality where Christ’s rule is acknowledged by those who work to make that rule visible…The institutional church is certainly an important part of Christ’s kingdom, but the church is only one part of the Kingdom…You don’t have to go into a church to do something related to the kingdom…Wherever followers of Christ are attempting to glorify God in one or another sphere of cultural interaction, they are engaged in kingdom activity.” (Abraham Kuyper: A Short and Person Introduction)

McKnight’s Anabaptist theology will not allow him to buy into this Kuperian-Reformed view of Kingdom and culture. I believe that contrasting Mouw’s/Kuyper’s vision with McKnight’s vision of the Kingdom reveals the core of McKnight’s kingdom theology – ultimately McKnight’s kingdom theology is Anabaptist – it is one in which the Church is radically separate from the world. This means that the church does its own thing and can only stand against culture. The church and its mission cannot begin from within the system. This is exactly what McKnight sees happening with the Skinny Jeans Christians and the Pleated Pants Christians. And according to McKnight this is a big problem. Even though I do have a few problems with this book – I certainly don’t want it to come off as though I don’t recommend this book. I highly recommend this book, I honestly believe that every person in ministry should read it, primarily because it will challenge your assumptions about what “Kingdom” means, and hopefully that will lead you to come to your own conclusions.

Kramer obviously prefers to roll with the skinny jeans Christians - he needs to read McKnight's book.
Kramer obviously prefers to roll with the skinny jeans Christians – he needs to read Kingdom Conspiracy. George Castanza clearly rolls with the pleated pants crew, he needs a new wardrobe.

Kuyper the Liberation Theologian?

No. He was not a liberation theologian, far from it, however some of the things he says certainly latches on to the same type of issues that liberation theologians have attempted to address.

Must not the spirit of the Compassionate One be poured out over our whole government administration? We are not a pagan but a Christian nation, a nation that has to take account of the human heart, also it its dread and nameless suffering… The Antirevolutionary party accordingly asks that a new spirit may control our public administration; that our legislation may show a heart and officialdom some sympathy for suffering citizens; that powerless labor may be protected from coolly calculating capital; and that even the poorest citizen may count of the prospect of swift and sound justice. – “Maranatha,” May 12, 1891

He was definitely not a liberationist but he sure was concerned about the “little people” and making sure that God’s justice was present in society, especially in the area of economics.

Love the Local Church!

In a few weeks Scot McKnight’s new book, The Kingdom Conspiracy, will come out. I got my hands on it a bit early and I really want to recommend it to you. I really think it will speak loudly to a generation who is more enamored with doing “kingdom” work  than “church” work. Here is a brief excerpt:

All true kingdom mission is church mission. For many today it is far easier to be committed to social justice in South Africa, to the restoration of communities on the Gulf Shore following Katrina, to cleaning up form the devastating tornadoes of the Plains, or to fighting sexual trafficking in  any country than it is to be committed to building community and establishing fellowship in one’s local church… It is more glamorous to do social activism because building a local church is hard. It involves people who struggle with one another, it involves persuading others of the desires of your heart to help the homeless, it means caring for people where they are and not where you want them to be, it involves daily routines, and it only rarely leads to the highs of “short-term  mission” experiences. But local church is what Jesus came to build, so the local church’s mission shapes kingdom mission.

Having said all that – Love your local church!

What do Kids Really Want?

This last week I made my way through Kara Powell’s new book The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family – a book that contains a lot of research on creating sticky faith and even more practical tips on building lasting faith into kids. One chapter that really caught my attention was her chapter on “Service that Sticks.”

Dr. Powell interviewed five hundred youth group graduates and asked them the question: “what do you wish you would have had more of in youth group?” This was these student’s opportunity to openly and honestly share what they would have really wanted to do at Church. Its sort of scary question, because it can make a youth pastor/leader feel like the students didn’t actually like what the ministry was doing.

What do you think students really want from their youth groups?

Well Dr. Powell and her team at Fuller seminary compiled all of their research and discovered that youth group graduates wanted the following four things from their youth group:

  1. Time for deep conversation
  2. Mission Trips
  3. Service Projects
  4. Games

Who would have imagined that students didn’t place games and fun activities at the top of their list!??! Your pastors and leaders would do well to listen to what these students really want. If our students want to go on mission trips – give them mission trips! If they want to serve others, let them serve others! We need to be intentional about creating missional opportunities for our youth groups – hopefully those experiences carry over into adulthood!

High School Students on a Mission Trip
High School Students on a Mission Trip