In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr., accused the white American church of compromising the gospel. The most painful compromise, he argued, was not some churches’ obviously heretical defense of racism and segregation. The most painful compromise came from those moderate white pastors who refused to let the church be the church:

I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,” and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.

Numerous theologians have since picked up on Dr. King’s critique. From the careful Willie Jennings, who maintains that Christian theology has never truly come to grips with its own complicity in colonialism, to the radical James Cone, who famously described the mainstream church’s witness as “white theology,” critics have argued that when it comes to the kingdom and its righteousness, the Western church has lost its way.

It seems easy to dismiss these theologians out of hand. Too many of them appear too willing to jettison orthodox Christian teaching for increasingly radical forms of liberation theology that have little to do with the gospel. And yet, to do so would be to miss an opportunity. The reality is that many of these criticisms of traditional Christianity are far more on target than we’d like to admit.

Jesus and Social Justice

I came to grips with this reality in seminary when I studied Jesus’s preaching in Matthew 5 and Luke 4. The standard evangelical interpretation of Jesus’s proclamation that he came to “proclaim good news to the poor” and “set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18)—at least in the respected commentaries I was reading—was that Jesus was using metaphors to describe salvation from spiritual poverty and oppression. And there seemed to be a general consensus that when Jesus described those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—and are persecuted for it—he was talking about those who yearn for justification and sanctification (Matt. 5:6, 10).

So I was surprised when I turned to John Calvin, only to find that, at least with respect to these passages, his interpretation was closer to that of the liberation theologians than to much of contemporary evangelical theology. For example, on Jesus blessing those who suffer for righteousness’ sake:

I say that not only they who labor for the defense of the gospel but they who in any way maintain the cause of righteousness suffer persecution for righteousness. Therefore, whether in declaring God’s truth against Satan’s falsehoods or in taking up the protection of the good and innocent against the wrongs of the wicked, we must undergo the offenses and hatred of the world, which may imperil either our life, our fortunes, or our honor. (Calvin, Institutes 3.8.7)

I wondered if Calvin’s theology might help the church recover a more faithful gospel witness in the area of social justice. I wasn’t disappointed.

Calvin and the Church

John Calvin. “Portrait of a Man.” 1550s

Calvin’s theology of the church deserves our renewed attention for several reasons. First, perhaps more than any other reformer, Calvin viewed his primary task as properly interpreting and teaching Scripture in service to the church. Second, Calvin was deeply aware of the danger that the church’s politicization would compromise its calling to be the “spiritual kingdom of Christ” in the world.

As far as Calvin was concerned, this danger lay in three directions. Most obvious was the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin believed Christ had empowered his church to fulfill specific spiritual functions of ministry: to preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, exercise church discipline, and care for the poor. The church was only the church insofar as it faithfully practiced these functions.

I wondered if Calvin’s theology might help the church recover a more faithful gospel witness in the area of social justice. I wasn’t disappointed.

In Calvin’s view, the Roman hierarchy—from the pope down to the priests—had exchanged this vocation of ministry for a vocation of magistracy. Rome had assumed the right to rule in the place of Christ. It claimed what amounted to magisterial power to create doctrine, invent sacraments, bind consciences, and sacrifice the interests of the poor for its own pomp and prestige. The church had become a political institution—and a tyrannical one at that—rather than the spiritual presence of Christ’s kingdom.

A second danger stemmed from the magisterial Reformation itself. The leading reformers—including Luther, Zwingli, and Bullinger—agreed that the medieval church had overreached, and they reacted by assigning nearly all the functions of the church to the civil magistrate. Pastors were called to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments, they agreed, but everything else—including church discipline and care for the poor—was turned over to the state. The state-run church thus became an institution for teaching and worship that was unable to control its own membership or give material expression to Christ’s kingdom. It was easily reduced to a tool of the state.

A third danger came from the Anabaptists. The early Anabaptists were followers of Luther and Zwingli who became disenchanted with the compromises of the state church. To avoid the confusion of citizenship with church membership, they rejected infant baptism and insisted on the rigorous practice of discipline and excommunication. In order to separate the church from society, they required Christians to refuse to take up the sword or serve in government and they called for the sharing of material goods. The church became a political institution—albeit of a radically new sort—that was more focused on maintaining its separation from the world than on witnessing to gospel grace.

Spirituality of the Church

The alternative, for Calvin, was to emphasize the spirituality of the church. “[T]he church is Christ’s kingdom,” Calvin maintained (Institutes, 4.2.4), by which he meant that the church is the body of humans among whom the realities of the kingdom take form through the Holy Spirit. Thus the “marks” of the kingdom’s presence, for Calvin, are the marks of the church: the preaching of the gospel, the Lord’s Supper, and baptism. And these marks have their necessary expression in church discipline, without which no church can be healthy (which is why Calvin refused to serve in Geneva without it), and the diaconate, without which no church could claim to be genuinely reformed.

What made Calvin’s theology of the church different from the Lutherans and the Swiss reformers’ was that Calvin maintained that God’s kingdom must find social and material expression in the church distinct from political society. The kingdom of the age to come must break into the present evil age even though it will not be consummated until Jesus returns. Thus Calvin embraced the logic of the “already-but-not-yet.”

Calvin maintained that the kingdom of God must take social and material expression in the church distinct from political society.

Calvin taught that all of creation would one day be restored and transformed in the coming kingdom of Christ. Until then, God graciously preserves the present age through various means, including government and the orders of civil society. The ascended Christ pours out the spoils of his kingdom on the church through the gifts of the Spirit (Eph. 4:7–16). As Christians serve one another through the works of ministry, the church is built up into the body of Christ, anticipating the coming kingdom in which all things will be restored.

Sinfulness of Society

At the same time, Christians continue to serve in the social structures of temporal society, even though these structures are deeply corrupted by sin. They do so not because their circumstances as men or women, rich or poor are necessarily just, but because as disciples of Christ they’re called to demonstrate their freedom by taking up the form of servants. One day all Christians will be free and equal in the kingdom of God, but during the present age Christians should expect suffering and persecution. Christians who fail to acknowledge this reality, pressing on triumphantly for the full realization of God’s kingdom now, not only politicize the church, but they inevitably fall into bitterness and disappointment.

Calvin cautioned Christians against imagining that political and civil society can be somehow transformed into God’s kingdom this side of Christ’s return. He protected against this misconception by articulating an important distinction between spiritual righteousness (or justice) and civil righteousness.

Calvin cautioned Christians against imagining that political and civil society can be somehow transformed into God’s kingdom this side of Christ’s return.

Spiritual righteousness, Calvin argued, comes through the work of the Holy Spirit through the gospel. The church’s calling is to seek this sort of righteousness through its ministry. Civil righteousness, on the other hand, is merely outward righteousness. Civil government has no power to establish spiritual righteousness, because spiritual righteousness can’t be coerced, but it is called to establish civil righteousness. Calvin shared Augustine’s conviction that civil righteousness shouldn’t be despised by Christians. It’s a gift of God’s grace, crucial for the preservation of society.

In his commentaries Calvin repeatedly noted that the civil laws of the Mosaic code had to tolerate much evil due to human depravity. He based this claim on Jesus’s declaration in Matthew 19 that the Mosaic law permitted divorce due to the hardness of human hearts. Calvin pointed out many other forms of sin and injustice that the Mosaic law permitted (but, to be clear, didn’t endorse): polygamy, murder of prisoners in war, forced marriage of women captured in war, and so on. If the revealed civil law of God’s chosen people had to tolerate such evil, he points out, how much more the civil laws of contemporary governments?

Calvin drew two implications from this point. First, he insisted that Christian societies aren’t bound to follow the civil Mosaic law. Rather, they’re bound by the norms of natural law, which Calvin identified with the law of love, the rule of equity, and the moral law of God represented by the Ten Commandments. How this is worked out in practice will vary according to time, place, and circumstances.

Second, while Christians should seek as much justice as is possible through the civil law, they must be realistic about what is possible for sinful human beings. Spiritual righteousness and justice can’t be enforced at the point of the sword. Christians are called to practice the virtues of humility, reasonableness, and compassion in their public engagement, recognizing that the law must often permit actions and circumstances that are immoral or unjust.

Christian Zeal for Justice

Does this mean Christians should resign themselves to evil and injustice in society? Calvin decisively rejected such reasoning. Realism about life in the present evil age shouldn’t lead Christians to be any less zealous for justice.

For instance, Calvin consistently held government to the highest of standards with respect to its care for the poor. “God takes a more special care of the poor than of others, since they are most exposed to injuries and violence,” he wrote in his commentary on Psalm 72:4. Or as he wrote on Psalm 82:3–4, “A just and well-regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.” Magistrates are “accounted guilty before God of negligence, if they do not, of their own accord, assist those who stand in need of their interference.” They’re to do so not only by defending the poor from exploitation, but by establishing or mandating poorhouses, hospitals, and schools.

John Calvin’s death 1564 in Geneva. Joseph Hornung (1792–1870)

At the same time, Calvin believed that the church’s primary witness to the righteousness of the kingdom should be present in the ministry of the church that establishes spiritual justice. Through the preaching of the gospel, the sacraments, church discipline, and the diaconate—and through the organic life of the church that flows from these practices—the spiritual justice of the kingdom appears.

For Calvin, when Jesus proclaimed that he had come to preach good news to the poor and liberty for the oppressed, he was calling the church to do the same.

For pastors, that meant preaching the whole gospel. It meant proclaiming individual repentance and regeneration as well as the kingdom of God and all of its righteousness. Calvin believed that pastors should avoid specifics of policy and partisanship from the pulpit both because such matters were necessarily matters of wisdom and discretion and also because the authority of the church “is not infinite but subject to the Lord’s word and, as it were, enclosed within it” (Institutes, 4.8.4).

Pastors are servants of Christ and his Word, not masters. But although pastors should not go beyond the Word in their preaching, neither do they have the right to preach anything less than the righteousness of the Word. Pastors are to proclaim the basic principles of righteousness that should inform Christian involvement in politics, in matters as wide-ranging as sexual morality, justice for the poor, hospitality for refugees and immigrants, and the sanctity of life.

Marks of the Church

Calvin likewise argued that the Lord’s Supper and baptism communicate what it means to be the church. The Lord’s Supper calls Christians to koinonia, “to mutual society and fellowship, to alms, and to other duties of brotherly fellowship” (commentary on Acts 2:42). Baptism commits all Christians to lives of repentance and sanctification. This was why Calvin believed discipline and the diaconate are so necessary. They preserve the church from a ceremonial hypocrisy that celebrates the gospel of the kingdom while failing to practice its righteousness.

Discipline serves this role by calling to account those who claim to be Christians but whose lives evidence the contrary. Of course, Calvin was aware of the Roman church’s pervasive abuse of discipline. He emphasized that discipline isn’t a coercive power exercised at the discretion of the church. Nor is it to function as a punishment. Rather, its purpose is to preserve the integrity of the Lord’s Supper and to graciously restore Christians who fall into the hypocrisy of cheap grace. It ensures that the justice of the kingdom will indeed find expression in the social life of the church.

In Geneva, the pastors and elders took seriously their obligation to exercise discipline with regard to all manner of sin and injustice explicitly condemned in Scripture. In addition to idolatry, blasphemy, and sexual immorality, they disciplined fathers who abused their wives and children, children who refused to care for their parents, landlords who exploited their tenants, doctors who took advantage of the sick or were incompetent, merchants guilty of price gouging or restraining fair competition, employers who oppressed or failed to pay their workers, and neighbors who refused to be reconciled to one another.

The diaconate, according to Calvin, ensures the church’s witness to social justice by securing the rights of the poor. He believed that material solidarity with the poor is a demand of justice, not simply charity. When humans fail to do what they can to provide for the poor, they rob them of their rights. The diaconate is responsible to ensure that the church exemplifies what a just society should look like. It preserves the church from the hypocrisy of practicing an otherworldly gospel.

The diaconate is responsible to ensure that the church exemplifies what a just society should look like. It preserves the church from the hypocrisy of practicing an otherworldly gospel.

The Genevan church had two diaconates—one that cooperated closely with (and was funded by) the state, and the other that operated independently from the state and focused on serving refugees and immigrants. The deacons of Geneva didn’t merely react to needs as they arose, nor did they exclusively serve members of the church. On the contrary, they were aggressive and proactive. They provided medical care for the sick, temporary support and job training for the unemployed, long-term support for widows, hospitality to travelers, and much more.

For Calvin, when Jesus proclaimed that he had come to preach good news to the poor and liberty for the oppressed, he was calling the church to do the same. To let the church be the church is to equip the church for Spirit-empowered witness, in word and in deed, to the justice and righteousness of the coming kingdom of God.