In Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series, we have spoken mostly about definitions- what does it mean to get back to heart of Christian Protestant Evangelicalism? We have seen that to be “Protestant” means to be protesters toward the inclusion of others. We have seen that “Evangelical” means to be people who believe and proclaim the Good News of Jesus. Finally, in Part 3, we discovered that to be “Christian” means to be followers of Jesus.
In the final two posts in this series, we will examine the socio-political aspect of Christian Protestant Evangelicalism through the diverging views of John Calvin and William of Orange.
In Post 3, I mentioned that when Jesus ascended into heaven he gave us, as his followers, two things: his name and his command or his mission. In Acts 1:8 Jesus gives the disciples the command or the mission to be his witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” As followers of Jesus there is an understanding that we will tell others the Good News of the Gospel with the belief that God’s Holy Spirit will show them that the message of Jesus is real and is true.
The question is not whether Christians should or should not be telling others the Good News of Jesus, we know we should. The question becomes- how should Christians tell others and how should our message affect the social and political aspects of our lives?
These two questions are at the forefront of many people’s minds at the moment. Within the current presidential race, people are faced with a decision about which candidate to vote for and one criterion many people use, whether right or wrong, is religious conviction. At the same time a recent Pew Research survey reported that 1 in 5 American adults now profess no religious affiliation and 88% of those who reported their religion as “nothing in particular” noted that they are not looking into any religion. * Another Pew Research study found that 38% of Americans say that religion has an influence on their voting decisions but 60% of “highly committed evangelicals” said that religious beliefs “frequently affect their electoral choices.” **
With those statistics as a framework, let’s look at the second of the two questions previously mentioned with a look at the life of John Calvin.
John Calvin (1509-1564) was one of the first second-generation reformers, being 26 years younger than Martin Luther. Calvin was born and raised in France and while we know that Calvin’s father worked a secretary for the bishop in their town, we do not know much about his conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism. Calvin’s embrace of Protestantism eventually forced him to leave France and settle in Switzerland where he finished Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1535. The wide publishing of this work made Calvin slightly famous and while, literally, on his way to a life of scholarly pursuits he was compelled by an old friend to remain in Geneva (where he had stopped for one night) and aid in the reform movement within the cityDuring these years in Geneva, there was a constant struggle over who would control the religious and political affairs of the city- Catholics, Protestants, the Gevevan Council, other Swiss cities, and Calvin with his friend William Farel- all sought control. In 1538, both Calvin and Farel were forced to leave Geneva in exile.
After several years in exile, Calvin was invited back to Geneva to continue where he left off in his reform efforts. Only this time, he was given the authority that he lacked in his previous time in Geneva.
Calvin took this authority and proceeded to forcefully create an “authentic” Christian community. Calvin created a “not-so-secret ecclesiastical police” who would bring punishment for Genevan citizens who sang indecent songs, danced, played games of chance, insulted French immigrants or missed worship. Calvin’s “ecclesiastical policing” came to a head in the case of Michael Servetus. For several years Servetus and Calvin exchanged letters on theological issues. While Seretus’ positions on many theological issues would still be considered outside Christian orthodoxy, it also appears that Servetus simply enjoyed the rigors of debate and didn’t have a problem with thoroughly insulting an opponent then inviting him over for dinner. However, when Servetus decided to visit Geneva and his “friend” Calvin he was put on trial for heresy and burned at the stake.
For Calvin, a natural expression of his Christianity was moral obedience. This is, of itself, not a wrong expression, how Calvin instituted his obedience should concern every Christian- especially as we approach the upcoming elections. Christians who look to politics to accomplish what the Church should accomplish turn truth into tyranny.
When truth becomes tyranny, Christianity becomes conformity, God becomes government and grace becomes a grave.
Is that the inevitable conclusion? If Christians vote their “Christian values” will the result be “ecclesiastical policing?” How should Christians influence the culture without legislating culture?
The answer is truth but not a truth leading to tyranny but a truth that, as Jesus said, will set you free.
What is the truth that sets us free? Look for the final installment of this series as we explore that question through the example of William of Orange.
© Ryan Vanderland 2012
* ““Nones” on the Rise: One-in-five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation.” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life; October 9, 2012. http://www.pewforum.org
** “Religion and Politics: Contention and Consensus (Part II).” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life; July 24, 2003. http://www.pewforum.org
Biographical information on John Calvin and Michael Servetus in this post taken from The European Reformations: Second Edition by Carter Lindberg; Blackwell Publishing, 2010.