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The most effective way to discourage your pastor is to be a source of discord in your church. Watching as the cracks of division slowly open is like watching a natural disaster from afar; there’s nothing anyone can do about it but wince.

In Reformed circles, we pride theological orthodoxy and are quick to blow Knox’s proverbial trumpet at the slightest theological (or political!) provocation. Heresy is, rightly, seen as disastrous for the soul, but we forget that in the early church schism was as bad as heresy. To be a schismatic was akin to being an Arian.

This is why the Donatist controversy was as important for Augustine as the Pelagian. To divide the church was to rent Christ’s body asunder. In a sense, we might as well be Nestorians if we want to divide Christ.

Evangelicals especially have forgotten our forebears’ hatred for division and so we love to divide. It seems to me that one reason for this quickness to divide has to do with a low view of the church. Even those of us who place a high premium on the forms of corporate worship tend to have a low view of the church body itself.

We have hastened to “be ye separate,” and forget that the church is worth fighting for, not running from. Influenced by an affluent culture, we take a smorgasbord approach, picking and choosing according to taste.

We think that our current church doesn’t add up: the preaching is too long, or too emotive, or not emotive enough, or too short. Nobody talks to us, or people talk to us too much. The Eucharist is too infrequent or too frequent, or it’s called the Eucharist and not Communion.

The list of justifications we have for leaving a church can go on and on. Divisive people are not satisfied and they never will be.

Calvin on the Nature of the Church

Of all people to notice the lack of satisfaction in the divisive spirit was John Calvin, the notorious Ayatollah of Geneva himself. Yes, Calvin, the great heresy hunter, who, as legend has it, was responsible for the death of poor, innocent Unitarian Michael Servetus.

Divisive people are not satisfied and they never will be.

I must say, I felt a surge of satisfaction when I recently read—and subsequently assigned to my students—Calvin’s section on the unity of the church that opens Book Four of the Institutes.

There Calvin makes a number of surprising statements about the church in its opening chapter, including his description of the church as our Mother and that there is no forgiveness or salvation found outside of the church. None may be so surprising, however, as his extended description of the divisive person.

It is curious to observe the way Calvin, that ecclesiastical disciplinarian, describes the nature of the church as consisting of the faithful preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. What’s noticeably missing is the oft-believed third mark of the church, namely church discipline.

This is not to say that Calvin didn’t believe in church discipline, much of this section actually deals with it at length, he just did not seem to place it on a level with preaching and the sacraments.

After rehearsing the two marks, Calvin turns to describe the unity of the church (that he incidentally grounds in the creeds), and does so in the strongest possible terms. The Lord, Calvin says, so esteems the unity of the church that He considers anyone “who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments” as a “traitor and apostate.”[1] Strong words indeed!

The Lord, Calvin says, so esteems the unity of the church that He considers anyone ‘who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments’ as a ‘traitor and apostate.’

Effectively, if a church is truly constituted around the two marks of Word and sacrament, Christians have no good reason to leave it. Calvin notes Paul’s descriptions of the church as the pillar and ground of truth (1 Tim. 3:15), the place of spiritual nourishment, and a bride “without spot or wrinkle” (Eph. 5:27), the last of which he will return to later in the chapter.

Because Paul’s descriptions are true of the church, Calvin says that separation from her is essentially “the denial of God and Christ,” thus “wicked separation” that should be avoided at all costs.[2]

The two marks are so essential in Calvin’s mind that he describes them as a “sufficient pledge and guarantee that we may safely embrace as church any society in which both these marks exist.” In this “safe space” of the church we must remain, “even if it otherwise swarms with many faults.”

Notice that? Even if it swarms with many faults.

Such faults may even creep in to the preaching or the sacraments, “but this ought not to estrange us from communion with the church.” We have all heard boring preachers, and we have witnessed mumbled prayers “for the cup.” None of this is grounds to leave a church.

So long as your church confesses that God is one, that Christ is God, that salvation is found in God’s mercy alone, and other such creedal verities, Christians have no reason to leave it. We must not quibble over non-essential matters of the faith, but must remain united. “Does this not sufficiently indicate that a difference of opinion over these nonessential matters should in no wise be the basis of schism among Christians?” Calvin asks. Of course it does.

Calvin goes on to say, “We must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions,” instead, he urges the members of a church to publicly work for its encouragement and unity, and argues that “we are neither to renounce the communion of the church, nor remaining in it, to disturb its peace and duly ordered discipline.”[3]

That means that as Christians we are to actively engage in practices that will foster unity, and if we have problems with certain aspects of our churches, we should not disturb peace and order in expressing them.

Calvin the Psychologist

What’s particularly helpful with Calvin’s discussion on church unity is the way he gets into the mind of the divisive person. One gets the sense that he had more than his fair share of schism within the churches he ministered to in Geneva, and thus had plenty of time to consider the psychology of the schismatic.

Linking such ones to their ancient church replicas like the Novatians and the Donatists, along with his contemporaries the Anabaptists, Calvin says, “There have always been those who, imbued with a false conviction of their own perfect sanctity, as if they had already become a sort of airy spirits, spurned association with all men in whom they discern any remnant of human nature.”[4]

I italicized his statement about the schismatic’s sense of their own perfection, because Calvin will go on to explain what he means, but I also appreciate his observation that to err is human, and to demand perfection is somehow inhumane.

Calvin’s important observation in this whole discussion is that the schismatic’s standards of holiness are too high. Yes, you read that right, the great Calvin himself is disparaging someone for having standards that are too high. This might seem incongruous for a minister of the gospel to say, but hear him out.

Calvin says that, “When they do not see a quality of life corresponding to the doctrine of the gospel among those to whom it is announced, they immediately judge that no church exists in that place.” This is not to say that we should countenance sin in our churches—Calvin recognises that much.

Rather, the holier-than-thou schismatic sins “in that they do not know how to restrain their disfavor.” They neglect kindness and are given over to “immoderate severity.” For them, if there is “not perfect purity,” there is no church, and so they depart, fancying themselves to have left “the faction of the wicked.”

Such people are “vainly seeking a church besmirched with no blemish.”[5] Calvin, it turns out, is something of a realist when it comes to the church’s imperfections, and so should we be.

I often tell my students that I’m glad that the church is “full of hypocrites,” as our culture is quick to remind us. If it wasn’t, where would I go to church? We all have standards, for ourselves and for the community of faith, but when those standards are unrealistic and uncharitably expressed, we have the potential to divide the body of Christ.

I often tell my students that I’m glad that the church is “full of hypocrites,” as our culture is quick to remind us. If it wasn’t, where would I go to church?

Calvin points to Paul’s way of dealing with the Corinthian church as an example of how to treat a “besmirched” congregation. The Corinthians were rife with sin such that “the whole body was infected” with “no light errors.”

Paul did not seek to separate himself from them, nor did he cast a “thunderbolt of anathema.” Rather, he acknowledged the Corinthians as a true church of Christ, a true communio sanctorum. Why? Because Paul recognized that they had the two marks of the church.[6]

Morosely Divisive People

How many pastors have faced that awful feeling, when the divisive person brings to them their list of grievances? The typical response is likely a sinking in the stomach, a turn of the eye inward, and a tacit self-realization that what they have long known about themselves has become apparent to all: they are a failure in ministry.

Such pastors would do well to remember Calvin’s words that the person with the “ill-advised zeal for righteousness” suffers from “overscrupulousness,” literally Morositatem; they are morose or ill-tempered.

Their moroseness is born from pride and a “false opinion of holiness than of true holiness and true zeal for it.” Their only motivation is “to show they are better than the others.”[7] Such pride leads to death. Reformed Christians, please listen.

As if to make matters worse for the overscrupulous, Calvin enlists one of his favourite authors to help make his point, namely Augustine of Hippo. Any summary of my own will not do what comes next with any justice, so it is worth reading Calvin and Augustine to feel the full brunt of their argument:

Augustine, then, speaks wisely and well: ‘The godly manner and measure of church discipline ought at all times to be concerned with “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” This precept of mutual forbearance the apostle ordered to be kept. When it is unkept, punishment as a remedy proves not only superfluous but even dangerous, and on that account no remedy at all.

Not because of their hatred of others’ iniquities but because of hankering after their own conventions, these sons of evil strive to drag along or at least to divide all the weak common folk who are entangled in boasting of their own name. Puffed up with pride, mad with obstinacy, deceitful in their slanders, troublesome in their seditions, these evil persons feign a rigid severity so they cannot be shown to lack the light of truth.

Holy Scripture bids us correct our brothers’ vices with more moderate care, while preserving sincerity of love and unity of peace. This principle they prostitute to the sacrilege of schism and the occasion for cutting off the brethren from the fellowship.

Augustine’s great insight is that the critical, divisive person actually doesn’t care about their brethren’s sin. They are only in it for their “own conventions.” What is also particularly striking is how Augustine describes the schismatics as drawing away “all the weak common folk” who easily get entangled in their gossip.

It is the weak common folk who are the means for a true schism: they provide the bodies and they further the schismatics in their justifications. Look at the words Augustine uses to describe them and their actions: sons of evil, pride, madness, deceitful, slanderous, sedition, fake.

It is the weak common folk who are the means for a true schism: they provide the bodies and they further the schismatics in their justifications.

Now we see where Calvin gets his strong words from! The elders of a church, and those who remain, are called not to disparage the divisive among them, that would be stooping to their level, rather the “remainers” are to use “moderate care” in their correction.

Without Spot or Wrinkle

To return to Calvin, he does not want Christians to spurn the church’s holiness. What he wants is for us to have a biblical view of it. Appealing to the church as bride in Ephesians 5, he highlights Paul’s description of the church as being “without spot or wrinkle” (Eph. 5:25-27).

Here, he makes a remarkably helpful distinction. The schismatic wants the church to be entirely perfect, and its failure to be perfect means it is no true bride. Calvin takes a more measured, and quite frankly more beautiful, approach. He says that “it is also no less true that the Lord is daily at work in smoothing out wrinkles and cleansing spots.”[8] Therefore the church’s holiness is currently incomplete.

It is holy, positionally we might say, but it is also being made holy, progressively. Or, in Calvin’s words, the church “is daily advancing and is not yet perfect.” The perfection comes when the long-prophesied New Jerusalem makes its final descent in the eschaton.

In the meantime, the church is to “aspire to holiness and perfect purity, the cleanness that they have not yet fully attained is granted them by God’s kindness.”[9] Later Calvin will stress the need for constant, mutual forgiveness amongst members of a congregation in order to preserve unity. Augustine, in the same quote Calvin gave us above, explains that the remedy for the schismatic’s pride is threefold: loving correction, patience, and understanding. If these are not in place on all sides, division is sure to happen.

While we Reformed Christians pillage Calvin’s Institutes for the juicy bits about predestination, let’s not stop reading until we get all the way through. Let’s especially take note of how Calvin absolutely loves the church and will do anything to preserve both her doctrinal purity and her unity.

Calvin’s predestinarian theology is not new—he inherited from the early and medieval church—nor is his love for the bride of Christ. Love for the church, in spite of her current imperfections, has been a long-held virtue of Christians of all eras.

Love for the church, in spite of her current imperfections, has been a long-held virtue of Christians of all eras.

If you are that divisive person, allow Calvin’s words to have their force. To wrongfully divide a church is evil, it is sin. But as we have been reminded, there is forgiveness. Seek it while it may be found.

If you’re a pastor reading this, take some comfort that Calvin knows what you’re going through, and he empathises. Don’t beat yourself up over uncharitable criticism, but take heart that this is the nature of Christian ministry, sadly.

Finally, if you’re a regular church member, strive for unity, seek forgiveness, and be forgiving. With that, the world will know us by our love.



[1] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeil (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 4.1.10.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.12.

[4] Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.13.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.14.

[7] Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.16.

[8] Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.17.

[9] Ibid.