Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

Theology Matters Conference - Oct 8-10th, 2024

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John Calvin on the Unity and Truthfulness of the Church

What needs to be done to correct the theology, faith, and life of the church?

John Calvin wrote a great deal about the unity and truthfulness of the church in his day. We can continue to learn from him not only about these but also about church councils and constitutions, and especially about how all of these can apply to the faith, polity, and life of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in our day.


Returning to Calvin is not without difficulty. No less a teacher than Karl Barth, a German-speaking Swiss theologian of the twentieth century, lamented to his friend Eduard Thurneysen, “Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means … even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately.”[1] Nevertheless, Barth never let that stop him, and in the second sentence after this he added, “I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.” Moreover, Charles Partee, retired professor from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, appears to have done just that, to have spent his life with Calvin, and with that he assures us, “The theology of John Calvin is not only a permanent, but also a present, resource for Christian understanding and faith.”[2] This encourages us to pursue our study.

We approach this task of learning from Calvin with the larger understanding that the Protestant Reformation within which he lived and worked was itself a massive correction in the faith and life of the church. Historical Reformed theology, therefore, was written not for its own sake but in order to serve that larger purpose of the correction of the church. This suggests that any contemporary faithfulness to the Reformed theological tradition on our part would include a similar openness and commitment to being corrected and reformed both in theology and therefore also in the faith and life of the church.

So it was that John Calvin, as the leading theologian of the Reformation, wrote theology not for the joy of theology or for the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity but for the service of the gospel and of the church. And one of the very real and practical problems he faced as a reformer, as a theologian, and as a pastor was the struggle to maintain simultaneously both the unity of the church and the truthfulness of the church. Unity purchased by sacrificing truthfulness was not church unity. Truthfulness attained by forfeiting unity risked not being church truthfulness. How could the oneness of the church and the truthfulness of the church be held together? Even in Calvin’s day it was already an old struggle. Paul wrote about it in his letters to the Corinthians as well as to others. Augustine, who lived from A.D. 354 to 430, who helped guide the church through the fall of the Roman Empire, and who therefore helped guide the Empire itself through its fall, had much to say about it. It is not surprising that Calvin, also, had to deal with concerns about both the unity and the truthfulness of the church.

Calvin wrote about these issues not for the sake of theology as such but instead precisely for the sake of the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and for building up the church of Jesus Christ. My hope here is that we can learn what Calvin had to say about the church then in order to apply it to our own struggles to maintain the unity and truthfulness of the church today, especially within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

I realize that this project is complicated by the change in circumstance from the relative unity of the church in Calvin’s day, before and during the Reformation, to the almost unimaginable disunity of the church today, with tens of thousands of divisions and denominations around the world. That complication is further tinged by the realization that to a great extent the denominational divisions defining the Presbyterian Church trace their origin to Calvin. This could make it difficult for us to hear his counsels to church unity. But lest we retreat from such apparent contradictions, let me invite us to learn from Calvin what we can both about the doctrine of the church and also about the reality of the church and so learn even from these tensions what we can.

As we shall soon see, Calvin had some hard things to say about the church of his day. And at least some of them continue to apply to the church today. I want to hear the hard things that Calvin says not because I take any joy in bashing the church but because I hope to learn from him what we might do yet today to help the church be more faithful. Regardless of where you stand on the presenting issues of the day, surely it cannot be denied that we, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), have gotten ourselves into a profoundly disturbing situation, particularly when viewed through Calvin’s understanding of the unity and truthfulness of the church. What needs to be done to correct the theology, faith, and life of the church?


So, in this study I want to look at Calvin’s major theological work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, especially Book Four, which is about the church, in order to hold up four things that he wrote about the church in his day which can continue to help us in the church today. The four points build on each other, so it will be important for us to hold each of them in mind to see what their implications are when taken together and to see what conclusions we may draw.

It is my intention to examine first (1) what Calvin has to say about the one true church with which we must keep unity as he sets this forth in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book Four, chapter one.[3] We shall then look second (2) at his comparison of this one true church with the false church, which he makes in Book Four, chapter two. The point of holding these two together is that it is not enough to seek or to enforce church unity apart from the question of whether the church in which unity is sought is true. Only truthfulness will lead to the unity of the church, so that unity without truthfulness is no church at all. Thus unity and truthfulness cannot be separated, even though they must be distinguished.

It is also my intention to explore two other points of entry into the question of what Calvin says about the church of his day that can apply to the life of the church in our day. So my third (3) point has to do with provincial councils of the church. Calvin writes mostly about general or universal councils and their authority in Book Four, chapter nine. What he says there about provincial councils, geographically limited expressions of the church, can help us understand today’s denominations. The fourth (4) point has to do with church constitutions, as dealt with in Book Four, chapter ten. Words matter. Threats to the constitutional order of the church threaten the unity, truthfulness, and very existence of the church, and this danger is exacerbated in provincial denominations.

The Unity of the Church

Let us begin with Calvin’s Institutes, Book Four, chapter one. The unity of the church is confessed and affirmed as an article of faith over and against the apparent and all too real disunity of the church. The confessed and actualized unity of the church is threatened by splits within, and by departures from, the church. So it is that much discussion of the unity of the church has to do with questions of leaving the church: Is it possible to leave the church? Is it proper or permissible to leave the church? If so, under what circumstances? If not, why not?

Moreover, might it ever be not only permissible but mandatory to leave the church if the church ceased being the church? Would not the leaving then be not from the church but from what used to be the church? Within the context of these sorts of questions, Calvin’s discussion of church unity in the Institutes might be understood in this way: Book Four, chapter one, says why we cannot leave the church, and Book Four, chapter two, says when we must leave the church. We should not hear the one without the other, but it is in trying to hear both fairly that we encounter tensions.

Let me elaborate upon what Calvin says, offering first a few quotations about the nature and unity of the church from Book Four, chapter one:

Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists….

If it has the ministry of the Word and honors it, if it has the administration of the sacraments, it deserves without doubt to be held and considered a church. For it is certain that such things are not without fruit. (IV.1.9)

That is to say, if a local congregation exhibits these realities—the pure preaching and hearing of the word, and the right administration of the sacraments—Calvin understands and affirms that such a congregation is a true part of the larger true and universal church of Jesus Christ. Because such a congregation is a true part of the true church, unity with and within it is to be maintained, and disunity or departure from it can be regarded in only a profoundly negative way: “The Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as a traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments.” (IV.1.10)

Calvin emphasizes the importance of these marks of the church by indicating that even a host of other negative realities cannot be allowed to count against them:

The pure ministry of the Word and pure mode of celebrating the sacraments are, as we say, sufficient pledge and guarantee that we may safely embrace as church any society in which both these marks exist. The principle extends to the point that we must not reject it so long as it retains them, even if it otherwise swarms with many faults. (IV.1.12)

In fact, even if these marks of the church are marred with error, as so often they are, that would not justify leaving:

Some fault may creep into the administration of either doctrine or sacraments, but this ought not to estrange us from communion with the church. For not all the articles of true doctrine are of the same sort. Some are so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned by all men as the proper principles of religion. Such are: God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like. Among the churches there are other articles of doctrine disputed which do not break the unity of faith…. 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? (IV.1.12)

This passage raises the issue of what is and what is not an essential doctrine and of what is and what is not a nonessential matter. For our discussion, suffice it to say that even arguments about what is essential and what is nonessential are not a sufficient reason to spurn the unity of the church:

We must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions. For in it alone is kept safe and uncorrupted that doctrine in which piety stands sound and the use of the sacraments ordained by the Lord is guarded. In the meantime, if we try to correct what displeases us, we do so out of duty. (IV.1.12)

Turning to the New Testament for an example, Calvin catalogs the vices of the Corinthians and still insists that they are part of the church: “The church abides among them because the ministry of Word and sacraments remains unrepudiated there.” (IV.1.14) After many such declarations, Calvin summarizes his teaching on the unity of and with the true church as follows:

Let the following two points, then, stand firm. First, he who voluntarily deserts the outward communion of the church (where the Word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered) is without excuse. Secondly, neither the vices of the few nor the vices of the many in any way prevent us from duly professing our faith there in ceremonies ordained by God. For a godly conscience is not wounded by the unworthiness of another, whether pastor or layman; nor are the sacraments less pure and salutary for a holy and upright man because they are handled by unclean persons. (IV.1.19)


I observe two things here. On one hand, no amount of simple immorality or even wickedness provides an excuse for leaving the church. There has always been sin in the church, and there always will be sin in the church, and the church is about forgiveness. Calvin has no patience with overly strict or harsh discipline.

On the other hand, however, his definitions of the church are laced with a series of qualifiers: purely, honors, true, pure, uncorrupted, and unrepudiated. These are not rhetorical flourishes. Instead, only when these qualifiers are met is the entity being discussed a church. If and when these qualifiers are not satisfied, it is no longer a church with which we are dealing. This is not merely my conclusion. Calvin himself, in setting forth the true church, explicitly acknowledged the possibility of an entity claiming to be the church not actually being so:

We see what great heed we are to take…. In order that the title “church” may not deceive us, every congregation that claims the name “church” must be tested by this standard…. If, devoid of Word and sacraments, [a congregation] advertises the name of church, we must … scrupulously beware such deceits. (IV.1.11)

Again, Calvin’s definition of what it means to be the church necessarily sets forth at the same time those circumstances under which a group of people is not a church. Moreover, if and when that happens, departure is not only allowed but, we must think, mandated precisely in order to continue to be the church. Calvin, of course, argued strenuously for the unity of the true church. But by that very qualifier, he pointed to the reasons for the departure of the reformers from what was no longer the true church.

The Truthfulness of the Church

This leads to Calvin’s Institutes, Book Four, chapter two, where he expands upon the significance of these qualifiers by contrasting the true church with the false. It is not only the case that the church must be marked by the Word of God but also that the church must be ruled by the Word of God alone: “To sum up, since the church is Christ’s Kingdom, and he reigns by his Word alone, will it not be clear to any man that those are lying words by which the Kingdom of Christ is imagined to exist apart from his scepter (that is, his most holy Word)?” (IV.2.4). If there were a gathering of people with the appearance and perhaps even the intention of being the church, but the Word of God was neither reigning over them nor even present among them—and I, for one, have attended what purported to be Sunday morning services where the Word was neither read nor preached—if people congregate in the form of a church but the Word either is not present or is present but not reigning alone, there, it is not to be doubted, is no church at all.

Calvin saw as much in his day, and for such reasons—despite everything we all know he said about church unity; in fact, precisely because of everything he said about the unity of the true church—those we know as reformers were expelled from, or, as he characterized it, withdrew from, what had been, but what they judged no longer to be, the church:

Now they treat us as persons guilty of schism and heresy because we preach a doctrine unlike theirs, do not obey their laws, and hold our separate assemblies for prayers, baptism and the celebration of the Supper, and other holy activities.

This is indeed a very grave accusation but one that needs no long and labored defense. Those who, by making dissension, break the communion of the church are called heretics and schismatics. Now this communion is held together by two bonds, agreement in sound doctrine and brotherly love. Hence, between heretics and schismatics Augustine makes this sort of distinction: heretics corrupt the sincerity of the faith with false dogmas; but schismatics, while sometimes even of the same faith, break the bond of fellowship.

But it must also be noted that this conjunction of love so depends upon unity of faith that it ought to be its beginning, end, and, in fine, its sole rule…. Apart from the Lord’s Word there is not an agreement of believers but a faction of wicked men. (IV.2.5)

Now let them go and shout that we who have withdrawn from their church are heretics, since the sole cause of our separation is that they could in no way bear the pure profession of truth…. It is enough for me that it behooved us to withdraw from them that we might come to Christ. (IV.2.6)

It is worth noting at this point that Calvin not only protested Rome’s exclusive claim to be the true church but also held up the Greek churches as a counterexample (IV.2.2). And it is fascinating that he felt no compulsion to unite with a Greek church but instead was content to withdraw and to form another part of the one true church. Moreover, not only did Calvin and others withdraw from what they no longer regarded as the church, but also he found it important to say explicitly that what they left was no longer a church:

In the same way if anyone recognized the present congregations—contaminated with idolatry, superstition, and ungodly doctrine—as churches (in full communion of which a Christian man must stand—even to the point of agreeing in doctrine), he will gravely err. For if they are churches, the power of the keys is in their hands; but the keys have an indissoluble bond with the Word, which has been destroyed from among them…. Instead of the ministry of the Word, they have schools of ungodliness and a sink of all kinds of errors. Consequently, by this reckoning either they are not churches or no mark will remain to distinguish the lawful congregation of believers from the assemblies of Turks [that is, Muslims]. (IV.2.10)

If we are not willing to say today that churches bereft of the Word are not churches at all, there will be no way to distinguish true churches from any other human assembly, even those of different faiths. If the reformers had not said as much then, there would not have been a Reformation. Surely Calvin teaches us that if we cannot say it now, there is not, and cannot possibly be, any continuing Reformation. Calvin understood that the medieval Roman mass, characterized as a daily repetition of the sacrifice of Christ on the altar, denied the once and for all character of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and therefore disallowed the preaching of the gospel. The mass is not our problem today. But we do have an even greater problem affecting our preaching of the gospel and therefore interfering with our being the church, and I hope to make that clear with my third and fourth points.


Here with the second point we have come to the heart of the matter: the one true church is tied to the Word of God. If and when that Word and the Christian faith founded upon it are abandoned, there is no Christian church. Calvin has already pointed out that there are nonessential doctrines, on which disagreement should be allowed. Surely, however, the repudiation of the plain content of the Scripture and therefore the rejection of the authority of the Scripture, the Word of God upon which all true doctrine rests, would involve nothing less than the rejection of the foundation of the Christian faith, and therefore the rejection of the Christian faith itself, and therefore indeed the very rejection of the lordship of Jesus Christ himself. It could be difficult to determine whether and when such a repudiation had occurred, and I shall return to that difficulty in a moment. For now, if we can agree that it could occur, my point is that such a rejection of the Scriptures, left unremedied, would form the basis for legitimate and necessary separation.

And let us be clear that such a separation from a body committing such an action would not be schismatic. It would be, instead, an acknowledgment that a body which used to be a part of the church of Jesus Christ was, by its own actions, no longer so. Such a separation from what used to be a part of the church, far from being schismatic, would be, instead, an attempt to reunite with the larger body of the church of Jesus Christ.[4]

Again, simple immorality is not an excuse for leaving the church. If, however, that immorality were to be compounded by the church declaring it not to be immorality, something different would have occurred. Then a line would have been crossed. Decisions would have been made on a basis alien to the faith of the church and therefore alien to the church itself.

If, for example, a church condoned and promoted gambling, which has become so pervasive in our society, that would be out of accord with the Scriptures. If a church winked at and so endorsed fraud, theft, or embezzlement, the extent and devastation of which have become so obvious around the world, that would be out of accord with the Scriptures. And if a church or churches in the context of, and under the influence of, our sexually charged culture became enamored of, and condoned, sex outside of the marriage of one man and one woman, that would be out of accord with the Scriptures.

If, moreover, this church or some portion of the church, such as a denomination in today’s structuring of the church, were to go farther than such condoning to formal approving of the same, such as by knowingly, willingly, and officially removing all barriers to ordination for gamblers, for embezzlers, or for those engaging in sex outside of marriage, that would be an action not only out of accord with the Scriptures but also in flagrant disregard for the Scriptures and in open opposition to the Scriptures. Of course, it is almost certainly the case that the church has always ordained as ministers, elders, and deacons some who gambled, who committed fraud, or who engaged in sex outside of marriage. It is likely that the church always will do so.

That is not the question. The question has to do with official approval of such.

Would it not be the case with Calvin’s doctrine of the church that such an action not by an individual but by the duly constituted decision making body of the church would be a knowing and willing rejection of the authority of the Scriptures, a knowing and willing rejection of the content of the Scriptures, and a knowing and willing rejection of the Lord of the Scriptures, even Christ Jesus himself? Would it not be the case that by such an action a body which had once been part of the church would have rendered itself no longer a part of the church? Would it not be the case that departure from such a body not only would not be disallowed but actually would be mandated?

This would not be a light or inconsequential matter. This would not be a matter of indifference. This would not be a nonessential doctrine. This would be an issue that struck at the foundation of the faith. This would be a matter of what used to be a church becoming no longer the church. Such an action, if in fact it occurred, and if it were left uncorrected, would not only permit but would actually require a separation.

Two Points of Entry

Provincial Councils

Now let us explore two other points of entry into the question of what Calvin has to say about the doctrine of the church that can apply to the life of the church today. One has to do with provincial councils, about which Calvin writes in the context of general councils of the whole church and their authority in his Institutes, Book Four, chapter nine. These provincial councils, geographically limited expressions of the church, can help us understand the nature of denominations in the church today. Of the “ancient councils,” the general ones, Calvin professes, “I venerate them from my heart, and I desire that they be honored by all” (IV.9.1).

And yet, he is willing to be “rather severe” with them. “Here the norm is that nothing of course detract from Christ. Now it is Christ’s right to preside over all councils and to have no man share his dignity. But I say that he presides only when the whole assembly is governed by his word and Spirit” (IV.9.1). That is to say, any teaching even of a general council falls under, and is overruled by, the higher authority of the Scriptures. And while the authority of councils rests in Christ’s promise of his presence where two or three are gathered in his name, this qualifier of “his name” disqualifies all councils which take it upon themselves either to add to, or to take away from, his Word (IV.9.2).

Calvin elaborates for some pages on the problem of councils consisting of evil pastors, and he concludes from this that we certainly must not make the mistake of thinking that the church consists of its councils (IV.9.2–7). And while Calvin willingly embraces and reverences as holy some of the ancient and general councils, such as Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, and Chalcedon, “for they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture” (IV.9.8), he goes on to show how subsequent councils have contradicted each other and were marred by serious human failings—even Nicaea suffered from accusations and “foul recriminations” flying back and forth among its participants and presented in writing to Emperor Constantine—so that Calvin finally infers this: “The Holy Spirit so governed the otherwise godly and holy councils as to allow something human to happen to them, lest we should put too much confidence in men” (IV.9.11).

This critique of general councils leads to Calvin’s observation about provincial councils which is of interest today: “There is now no need to make separate mention of provincial councils, since it is easy to estimate from general councils how much authority they ought to have to frame articles of faith and to receive whatever doctrine pleases them” (IV.9.11). This is downright dismissive! And while it would be anachronistic to ask Calvin questions of our denominations as a way of structuring the life of the church, his lack of regard for provincial councils provides a point of entry for us to explore the question.

If today’s denominations—typically defined by geography as well as by confessions and often limited by language, race, and class—if today’s denominations can be understood to be part of the church of Jesus Christ but not the whole of the church of Jesus Christ, should we not be as cautious of their status and of their decisions in our day as was Calvin of that of provincial councils in his day? What the church as a whole did poorly acting through its representative general councils, provincial churches did even more poorly acting through their provincial councils.

That is to say, those who insist today that the denomination is the true church, as if leaving the denomination would be leaving the true church, miss the mark most widely. Indeed, from what we have read here, those who would most laud the wisdom and authority of denominational so-called “general” assemblies, which are provincial councils of provincial churches, may be the least Calvinist of all.


The other point of entry into the question of what Calvin has to say about the doctrine of the church that can apply to the life of the church today has to do with church constitutions, with which he deals in his Institutes, Book Four, chapter ten. In short, words matter. Threats to the constitutional order of the church threaten the existence of the church, and this danger is exacerbated in provincial denominations. We begin to see the importance of a church being well constituted as early as Book Four, chapter two:

However, when we categorically deny to the papists the title of the church, we do not for this reason impugn the existence of churches among them. Rather, we are only contending about the true and lawful constitution of the church, required in the communion not only of the sacraments (which are the signs of profession) but also especially of doctrine…. We by no means deny that the churches under his [i.e., the Roman pontiff’s] tyranny remain churches…. But on the other hand, because in them those marks have been erased to which we should pay particular regard in this discourse, I say that every one of their congregations and their whole body lack the lawful form of the church. (IV.2.12)

Moreover, Calvin continues, in such churches not properly constituted, “Christ lies hidden, half buried, the gospel overthrown, piety scattered, the worship of God nearly wiped out.” That is to say, if and when the church is not properly constituted, the truth is obscured, and we have already seen the importance of truth to the church.

So it is that Calvin rails against the Roman Church constitutions as nothing more than a heaping up of traditions, ceremonies, observations, laws, and commandments (IV.10.13). These mandates for worship attempted to bind the conscience apart from and even contrary to the Word of God, and Calvin vehemently rejects them. But that does not mean that he wishes to overthrow all constitutions, for he elevates those kinds of agreed upon structures of organization that we use as constitutions today, understanding them to apply to worship, order, and discipline:

We see that some form of organization is necessary in all human society to foster the common peace and maintain concord. We further see that in human transactions some procedure is always in effect, which is to be respected in the interest of public decency, and even of humanity itself. This ought especially to be observed in churches, which are best sustained when all things are under a well-ordered constitution, and which without concord become no churches at all….

Yet since such diversity exists in the customs of men, such variety in their minds, such conflicts in their judgments and dispositions, no organization is sufficiently strong unless constituted with definite laws; nor can any procedure be maintained without some set form. Therefore, we are so far from condemning the laws that conduce to this as to contend that, when churches are deprived of them, their very sinews disintegrate and they are wholly deformed and scattered. (IV.10.27; see also IV.10.29)

Calvin goes on to clarify that such church constitutions must not be regarded as necessary for salvation, cannot bind consciences, and are not to be venerated. Nevertheless, church constitutions are necessary for good order, and good church constitutions are needed for the church to exist.

The Church Today

Of the several things at which we have looked in this study, including what Calvin teaches us about (1) church unity, (2) church truthfulness, and (3) provincial councils, this matter of (4) church constitutions may speak to our situation most directly. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a constitution. This constitution includes two parts: The Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. This constitution “constitutes” the denomination. That is what a constitution does. It names us, it defines us, it forms us, it structures us, it guides us, and, yes, it constricts us. All of these are good and necessary things. Without some constitution, surely we would, as Calvin says, become no church at all.

At this point, I want to explore with you three bizarre examples —if you will be so kind as to bear with me and to look beyond the immediate content to the much farther reaching implications—three bizarre examples of distortions and corruptions so massive that they threaten to dissolve the constitution and therefore to dissolve the denomination it constitutes, and I am afraid they do far more than threaten to do that. The first of these examples is about eight years old and has been at least partially resolved, though I am convinced that lasting damage has been done. The second and third of these examples are more current, still in effect, and still threaten destruction far beyond—at least I hope it is far beyond—what their perpetrators realized or imagined.

First (1), we begin with the observation, again, that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has a constitution. Within an earlier version of this constitution, in Part II, the Book of Order, as recently as 2008, it was indicated that those engaging in sex outside of marriage were not to be ordained.[5] Everyone knew that. Everyone understood what that meant. Not everyone liked it. But even those working hard to overturn it knew what it said and understood what it meant. In fact, their very efforts to change it were proof that they knew what it said and understood what it meant. So, that was part of the constitution at that time. The Book of Order said that those engaging in sex outside of marriage were not to be ordained.

At the same time, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church—which is a council of the church and is not to be confused with the church, but which was acting within its powers granted by the constitution to make decisions for the church—the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in 2008 authoritatively interpreted the Book of Order to mean that those engaging in sex outside of marriage could be ordained, that the ordination of those persons could not be ruled out in advance, that each possible ordination had be considered individually, and that each ordaining body could ordain whomever it wished.[6]

But do you see where this left us? Totally apart from the presenting issue of sex outside of marriage, the real and substantive issue was that the provincial council of our denomination had formally, officially, knowingly, willfully, and authoritatively declared that the constitution of the denomination meant exactly the opposite of what it said. The General Assembly ruled that while the constitution said that those engaging in sex outside of marriage could not be ordained, what the constitution meant was that they could be ordained.

This ruling applied to many things. The constitution said that self-acknowledged gamblers could not be ordained, but the General Assembly ruled that it meant that such gamblers could be ordained. The constitution said that self-acknowledged thieves, frauds, and embezzlers could not be ordained, but it meant that they could be ordained. This list could go on and on. But the application is not the point. The point is the cost of that decision in terms of truth, logic, and the constitution, and that cost is far more serious than any particular application.

By way of background, consider the philosophical rule or law of non-contradiction. The law of non-contradiction states that you cannot simultaneously affirm and deny the same thing in the same regard. Another way of saying this is that you cannot simultaneously affirm both A and not-A. If A is true, not-A is not true. I understand that there are some philosophers today who would argue against this principle, but for the most part this is understood to be part of the foundation of western thought and logic and of how we understand truth and reality. For instance, Barack Obama is not both president of the United States of America and not president of the United States of America. He is either one or the other, but he is not, and cannot be, both at the same time. For him both to be president and not to be president at the same time would violate the law of non-contradiction, and most people understand that such cannot be the case.

Now consider where this law of non-contradiction leaves us in regard to the status of the constitution of the denomination and therefore to the status of the denomination itself. Totally apart from any one of the presenting issues of the day, we have now reached a whole other level of difficulty or impasse. Far beyond any individual act of disobedience or potential immorality, we now have the official declaration of the highest governing body of the Presbyterian Church that words themselves mean the very opposite of what they say. In 2008, the constitution had not been amended. But it had been undone by this single declaration. Language had been utterly debased. A meant not-A, and not-A meant A.

But if and when words mean the opposite of what they say, then they have no meaning at all. And when the constitution means the opposite of what it says, then we have no constitution at all. It is still being printed. It is still available for purchase. But it has no substance. It has no reality. The words swim around on the pages at night, and the letters rearrange themselves when no one is looking. In short, nothing in it can possibly be binding anymore. There is nothing there. In that the words of the constitution have been ruled to mean the opposite of what they say, surely the ordination vows have been rendered null and void, releasing all who have taken them. Structure has been dissolved, discipline has been obliterated, and the confessions of faith are left without content.[7]

We realize, of course, that this earlier situation has been at least partially resolved in that the offending language has been removed from the Book of Order if not from The Book of Confessions, the ordinations in question have been explicitly approved, and the entire Form of Government has been rewritten. And yet, the breathtaking claim of the General Assembly that it can declare the constitution to mean the opposite of what it says continues unabated if not unchallenged—in fact, there have been subsequent authoritative interpretations applying the same declaration to other parts of the constitution— and that claim leads directly to my second and third more current examples.

Second (2), and more briefly, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, in Parnell et al. and Walnut Creek Presbyterian Church vs. the Presbytery of San Francisco, early in 2012, concurred with the decision of the Synod Permanent Judicial Commission, which included this statement:

This vast diversity of interpretation of scripture and the confessions regarding human sexuality evident in the record is also manifest across the churches and members of the denomination. Such thoughtful disagreement among reasonable and faithful Presbyterians is itself an important and faithful part of the Reformed tradition. This range of interpretations reached through thoughtful and prayerful discernment is, in itself, evidence that the candidate’s departure cannot be from an essential of Reformed faith and polity. Disagreements over particular passages of scripture and confessions, and their interpretation in light of scripture and confessions as a whole, preclude designating such passages as somehow uniquely central to determining the fitness and faithfulness of a candidate for office. Rather, such disagreements call for the exercise of mutual forbearance toward one another.[8]

But do you see what that decision means for the confessions, for our constitution, for the Scriptures, and even for language itself? The position of the judicial commission is that the sheer multiplicity of interpretations, by itself, means not only that there is no right interpretation but that there cannot possibly be any right interpretation. This is madness! At the very least, the commission should be honest enough to admit that it has thereby ruled out any possibility of any Permanent Judicial Commission ever again reaching any decision on any case. It should be astute enough to realize that no General Assembly can ever again make an authoritative interpretation of anything.

The commission should at least pause to ponder whether its decision means that we have no constitution and that we are no longer a denomination. In fact, if I were to tell them that my interpretation of their decision is that there is a true and right interpretation of Scripture and that we are required to abide by it, they would, by their own argument, have absolutely no way of telling me that I was wrong about them! Again, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), acting through its General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, has determined that since there are multiple interpretations, nothing is binding on us. Everyone is free to do whatever he or she wishes. And all the rest of us are supposed to do is to be forbearing. But can what remains any longer be, or even possibly be, a duly constituted denomination of the church of Jesus Christ?

Third (3), consider this: the Book of Order acknowledges that The Book of Confessions states the current faith of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), that it does so in a coherent fashion, and that it declares both what the church believes and what the church is to do. Moreover, the Book of Order also stipulates that business shall be conducted according to Robert’s Rules of Order. And Robert’s Rules of Order specifies that any motion that conflicts with an organization’s constitution is out of order.

And yet, on Friday afternoon, July 6, 2012, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) received a motion to amend the Book of Order, and despite a point of order being raised that the proposed motion conflicted with at least three documents in The Book of Confessions, the Assembly nevertheless voted to consider the motion and so violated Robert’s Rules of Order. Three-and-one-half hours later, the proposed amendment being considered failed, but that is not the point here. In fact, two years later, at the General Assembly in 2014, a similar proposed amendment was approved and sent out to the presbyteries, which also approved it. That is not the point here either. The point here is that the vote in 2012 to approve the procedural motion to consider a proposed amendment that conflicted with the constitution was a violation of Robert’s Rules of Order and therefore also a violation of the Book of Order. Moreover, this action knowingly and willingly rejected the confessions as having any say so about the faith, life, or government of the church, thus violating not only the Book of Order but also The Book of Confessions. That is to say, this action set aside both parts of our constitution. But does not this leave the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as both a non-confessional church and also a post-constitutional church? And does not this mean, also, that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is no longer constituted as a denomination? Must not the question also be raised as to whether the non-confessional and post-constitutional Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) remains any part of the true church of Jesus Christ?

Think together with me about what it means that the General Assembly has arrogated unto itself (1) the authority to declare that language means the opposite of what it says, (2) the authority to declare that multiple interpretations of texts mean there is not and cannot be any right interpretation, and also (3) the authority to set aside all parts of the constitution by a simple majority vote so that we are not ruled by shared commitments but by the feelings of the party in ascendancy. This is not good! In fact, I think we can learn from John Calvin that it is very, very bad, evil, destructive, and deadly.

As you may realize, some scholars today may exult in the claim that there is in effect no text but only interpretation thereof—though we would have to ask, of course, whether their own interpretation is not itself yet another text and therefore without meaning—some may exult in such presumed freedom, but we who live in the real world of the church are left with the harrowing realization that when we have no constitution, we have no denomination. There is nothing left. There is nothing by which we are properly constituted. That is what a constitution does: constitutes. The denomination still exists in name. Congregations appear to be members of it. The denominational offices are open. Dues continue to be collected, and salaries continue to be paid. But there is nothing there. Without a constitution, there is no remaining substance or reality to what used to be a provincial church.

Surely even those working for the ordination of those engaging in sex outside of marriage and weddings for same-sex persons did not intend the entire deconstruction of the constitution and the concomitant dissolution of the denomination! And yet, when the ends have been determined to justify any means, so that language, thought, truth, and reality are debased, then chaos ensues.

            Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

            Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

            The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

            The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

            The best lack all conviction, while the worst

            Are full of passionate intensity.[9]

We noted earlier that it could be difficult to determine whether one or another decision of the church rises to the level of repudiating a teaching of the Scriptures. These rulings about language, however, leap over that difficulty in a single bound by rendering language itself meaningless and therefore all of Scripture meaningless. This is not point by point repudiation but is instead repudiation writ large. Again, our problem is not the medieval Roman mass and its concomitant disallowance of the preaching of the gospel. That is one of the problems that Calvin faced. And now we no longer have the problem of determining whether one or another decision repudiates Scripture. Instead, our problem has to do with officially adopted rulings that debase language as a whole, that de-constitute the church, that obliterate the faith, and that therefore make preaching of the gospel impossible, since even the words of the gospel are left not meaning what they say. This is how and why these actions are so insidious. We are in far worse shape than, and standing more in need of reform than, the medieval Roman church which Calvin faced. Lord, help us!


John Calvin wrote a great deal about the unity and truthfulness of the church in his day. It is appropriate that we set ourselves to the task of asking what he has to say about the church that can still be of help to us today. We do so at a time of unprecedented risk in the life of the church. For a council of the church to rule for the church (1) that words mean the opposite of what they say, (2) that there is no right interpretation of texts, and (3) that our confessions of faith have nothing to say about the government and life of the church is not merely to engage in wishfulness or to win political victory but is also to commit falsehood and untruthfulness. But Calvin knew, “No church can exist where lying and falsehood have gained sway” (IV.2.1). It would no longer be a church. Part of what Calvin has to teach us today is that constitutions matter, that words mean what they say, and that provincial councils of provincial churches err grievously, leaving us orphaned and homeless. Would he not admonish us that so long as deficits in these several areas continue in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we are not constituted as a church, and therefore we are not, and cannot be, any part of the one, true church? We have a lot of work ahead of us.

[1] Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence, 1914–1925, trans. James D. Smart (Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1964), 101.

[2] Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008), xiii, emphasis added.

[3]John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. from the 1559 Latin ed. by Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., in Library of Christian Classics, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1960), cited by book, chapter, and section.

[4]Compare Carl E. Braaten, “An Open Letter to Bishop Mark Hanson.”

[5]Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Part II. Book of Order, 20072009 (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, 2007), G-6.0106b.

[6]218th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2008, Item 05-12.

[7]If a subsequent General Assembly had rescinded this authoritative interpretation, the argument in this section would have been abrogated. The constitution and the denomination could have been restored. Instead, the interpretation became the constitution, so that the falsehood that established the interpretation was allowed to stand.


[9]William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1921.


The Rev. James C. Goodloe IV, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Foundation for Reformed Theology and a member of the Board of Directors of Theology Matters. An earlier version of this essay appeared in Theology Today, which has given permission to print this revised and updated version.

James C. Goodloe
James C. Goodloe
James C. Goodloe IV, Ph.D., was formerly Executive Director of the Foundation for Reformed Theology, Richmond, VA, and he is a member of the Board of Directors of Theology Matters.


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