The ecclesiastical ordinances (1541)

In the ecclesiastical ordinances Jean Calvin defines the organisation of the Church and the relations between the reformed Church and the political power in Geneva.

The organisation of the Church

  • Calvin presiding over a conference in Geneva in 1549 © S.H.P.F.

The ordinances define four church ministries.

  • The Pastors preach God’s word and perform sacraments. However, they cannot implement civil jurisdiction and must take a civil oath to make the people respect the city’s authority.
  • The Doctors teach the holy doctrine.
  • The Elders keep watch over the morality of the believers. They are lay people chosen by the city councils.
  • The Deacons are in charge of the poor and the sick.

The ordinances define two bodies, namely the company of pastors and the Consistory.

The company of pastors holds a weekly meeting and ensures doctrinal coherence among pastors. It studies the applications of new pastors.

The Consistory comprises the ancients and pastors of the Church in Geneva (lay people are a majority). They attack « superstitions », i.e. traces of catholicism, and denounce scandalous behavior.

Distribution of power

Geneva never was a theocracy (total submission of the State to the Church) and Calvin never favoured that. He rather had to fight against the reverse, the control of the State over the Church.

Back in Geneva in 1541, Calvin drafted the text to be later discussed with the city’s councils, in which he clearly defined the power of the Church and the power of the City. The purpose was not an early separation of the Church from the State, but the sharing of the tasks.

The question of excommunication was central to the debate between the magistrate (civil authority) and the company of pastors. Was the excommunication (interdiction to take part in the Eucharist) a religious or a civil decision ?

Calvin defended the first interpretation. The city councils wanted to keep the privilege of excommunicating. The company of pastors had to wage a long and difficult battle before winning the case.

The civil authority also intervened in the nomination of pastors, once they had been co-opted by their peers, in the rebuking of undeserving pastors, following the guild’s advice.

The power of the Consistory is restricted by the magistrate’s appeal ability in many cases.

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Associated notes