Volume 47 - Issue 2

The Standard-Bearer: Pastoral Suffering in the Theology of John Calvin

By Leland Brown


This article examines John Calvin’s theology of pastoral suffering, an overlooked but relevant aspect of his theology for pastors struggling with the trials and difficulties of ministry. Calvin pictured the pastor as the chief agent of edification for God’s people, and therefore, the primary target for the assaults of Satan. Pastors will therefore suffer in the ways that all believers suffer but also suffer peculiarly as pastors–especially from opposition in their churches, criticism, slander, and possibly martyrdom. Calvin encouraged pastors to prepare themselves for sufferings, to set their eyes on Christ, and to patiently and gently deal with those causing their sufferings.

While many pastors might turn to John Calvin for faithful exposition and solid reformed theology, he may be the last resource they consider when the elders are about to vote for their termination or when the all-caps email comes hours after Sunday’s sermon. Even to Calvin’s theological friends and fans, he is often merely a great theologian–most of us do not see him as a resource for the struggles and sufferings of ministry. My purpose in this article is to offer Calvin as a profound resource to those suffering both the mundane and more intense trials of pastoral ministry.

Recent scholarship has retrieved Calvin as a more beleaguered and suffering pastor than the typical portrayals of him as the victorious reformer of Geneva. Elsie McKee has attempted to “reintroduce” pastor John Calvin as “a religious exile whose wife and infant child die prematurely, while he himself suffered increasingly ill health, in a lifelong ministry to other religious refugees, the resident alien-pastor to a people of a beleaguered city-state, precariously situated between large, hungry neighbors.”1 McKee argues that even the most unsympathetic reading of the biographical details of Calvin’s life demonstrates that he was far from a privileged religious dictator and much more than a systematizing theologian who believed in double-predestination and participated in Michael Servetus’ trial. When we consider that Calvin’s ministry was opposed for most of his time in Geneva and that he was not even made a citizen of Geneva until five years before his death, we see that in addition to being a great theologian, Calvin was an opposed pastor who suffered much at the hands of his own people and spent the lion’s share of his ministry not getting his way.

With that in mind, it should be no surprise that Calvin wrote a great deal about the peculiar sufferings that attend pastoral ministry. For Calvin, the pastor was edifier-in-chief—the key agent in God’s work of building up the church. But as edifier-in-chief, the pastor was also sufferer-in-chief because he bore the brunt of Satan’s opposition to the church’s spiritual well-being. What follows is Calvin’s general sketch of the pastor, with a focus on edification as the essential pastoral task. Coupled with this picture is Calvin’s articulation of pastoral ministry as spiritual warfare against Satan, who assaults ministers above and beyond the way he attacks all believers. Finally, I will show the peculiar sufferings Calvin said pastors would bear—opposition from their own people, slander and its resulting public disgrace, and potentially even martyrdom—and the counsel he gave pastors on how to bear these things well. We will see Calvin as a profound resource both for the work of modern pastoral ministry and for various trials that attend ministry.

1. Calvin’s Picture of the Pastor

Calvin described the pastor as the most important officer of the church, a gifted and called man whose Word-centered ministry built up the church. For Calvin, the pastorate was essential for the spiritual health of the church and focused on what he called edification—the spiritual growth and well-being of God’s people.

1.1. Pastors Are Gifted and Called to Edify

With Ephesians 4:1–16 as his key text, Calvin placed the office of pastor within an order of offices with which God gifts the church for its spiritual maturity and growth. There were four post-apostolic offices according to Calvin: doctor, elder, deacon, and pastor.2 Doctors were the teachers of the church who taught the Scriptures and trained other ministers to do so. Elders oversaw the moral and spiritual discipline of the congregation, while deacons cared for the poor. Pastors were charged with preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments, and overseeing the spiritual care of a particular congregation.3 These four offices formed the “quadriform ministry, providing a symphony for unity of the church.”4 Important for understanding his view of pastoral suffering is how Calvin focused on the gifts given to pastors for the church’s health. Though the other offices were important, it was the pastor who chiefly pursued and (under God’s blessing) produced the edification of the church.5 Calvin did not ignore the role and gifts of other believers, but he emphasized above all else that it was pastors who built up the church.6

Calvin emphasized that it was God himself who ordained and empowered pastors to build up the church. Commenting on 1 Corinthians 3:1, Calvin said, “‘What else,’ says he, ‘are all ministers appointed for, but to bring you to faith through means of their preaching?’”7 Ministers are sovereignly appointed by God for the faith of God’s people. For Calvin, faith was at the center of Christian experience.8 This faith came by hearing the gospel preached, and since pastors were those chiefly charged with preaching, they were God’s gift to the church—their preaching was the primary means of the church’s good.9 Calvin found this choice of God to use humans in his work to be an occasion for joy and wonder, writing, “Here we have an admirable commendation of the ministry—that while God could accomplish the work entirely himself, he calls us, puny mortals, to be as it were his coadjutors, and makes use of us as instruments.”10 The primary wonder was that God would stoop so low as to use men as his means for building the church. Another wonder from this truth that God works through the preaching and labor of pastors was that he is glorified regardless of the results of a pastor’s preaching. God is honored and pleased by faithful pastoral ministry whether he chooses to save individuals through it or not.11

Calvin regularly articulated the weight of the pastoral calling and argued that men who would take on such a weighty office must be called by God and have this call demonstrated through outward evidence of giftedness for the work. Calvin understood there to be two callings on a pastor’s life: the internal calling and the external calling. In the internal call, a man was conscious before God that he was called by him to preach the gospel; the distinctive feature of the internal call was that it was not and could not be tested by the church.12 On the other hand, the external call could and must be tested by the church in four categories: the giftedness of the candidate, the possession of sound doctrine, a holy life, and necessary ministry skills.13 This conception of the external call demonstrates that Calvin thought it necessary for prospective pastors to be shown able to edify the church in order to be called to edify the church. Regarding ordination, Calvin said, “We must always take care that [prospective pastors] are not unfit for or unequal to the burden imposed upon them; in other words, that they are provided with the means which will be necessary to fulfill their office.”14 The burden of a pastor is to edify God’s church; therefore, prospective pastors must demonstrate the skills necessary for this work before taking it up.

1.2. Edification as Pastoral Motivation

Pastors must not only be skilled to edify the church; they must also be motivated solely by this goal. Pastoral motivation was a consistent theme in Calvin’s comments on pastoral ministry; the number of passages in which he speaks of it is remarkable.15 A particularly revealing example is Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 4:2, which according to Calvin mitigated against any ministers who “have any other object in view than the glory of Christ and the edification of the church.”16 True ministers exclusively desire “from the heart” to serve Christ and advance the kingdom. Otherwise, they are what Augustine called “hirelings,” those teachers that serve a middle place between true shepherds and wicked false teachers.17 Edification to the glory of God is a pastor’s role in the church; it must also be his sole motivation.

1.3. Pastors Edify through Preaching

Pastors edify their people through faithful and wise preaching. For Calvin, “The basic and fundamental character of the pastoral ministry is the proclamation of the gospel, both publicly and privately. In so doing the pastor is exercising the cure of souls.”18 The public preaching of a pastor ought to be faithful to the whole counsel of God, understandable to hearers, and directed at application—in other words, his preaching must be suited for edification. Calvin emphasized wisdom in directing one’s preaching to the most important and useful doctrines, encouraging pastors to focus their preaching on the doctrines and truths that are “chiefly necessary” for their people’s benefit and to “dwell” on these doctrines regularly.19 The manner, content, and frequency of preaching must be aimed at the spiritual benefit of the hearers. Calvin had harsh words for those that would bring irrelevant speculations into the pulpit: “God does not wish to indulge our curiosity, but to instruct us in a useful manner. Away with all speculations, therefore, which produce no edifications!”20 (Today we might hear Calvin say, “Away with your 7-minute sermon illustrations that produce no edifications!”) A pastor must discipline and focus his preaching for the spiritual maturity of his people.

A pastor preaches both publicly and privately. Calvin admonished pastors to not merely engage in edifying public preaching but to also imitate the apostolic model of going “house to house” (Acts 20:20), giving private instruction and admonition to his people.21 Calvin remarked that

Christ hath not appointed pastors upon this condition, that they may only teach the Church in general in the open pulpit; but that they may take charge of every particular sheep, that they may bring back to the sheepfold those which wander and go astray, that they may strengthen those which are discouraged and weak, that they may cure the sick…. Wherefore the negligence of those men is inexcusable, who, having made one sermon, as if they had done their task, live all the rest of their time idly.22

According to Calvin, Scripture’s use of the terms “shepherd” and “overseer” for pastors implied the personal and personalized care for individual people in the congregation. He also reasoned that pastors must admonish and instruct privately because “common doctrine” can “wax cold.”23 This expression means that doctrine preached to all can easily be misunderstood or left unapplied in hearers’ hearts. Therefore, pastors must bring personal admonition and application of the gospel suited to the condition of the individuals he ministers to: the various wandering, discouraged, or sick sheep. As we will see, this call to admonish and instruct people individually is one of the reasons pastors suffer.

1.4. Implications

In a day where pastors are often loaded with administrative tasks and expected to be vision casters/organizational leaders/relational gurus/pundits on every cultural issue, Calvin’s focus on the one main thing ministry is about is a refreshing and much-needed reminder. Pastors are gifted and called by God for one thing: the spiritual maturity of God’s people through the public and private teaching and preaching of the gospel. When pastors give themselves to this one thing, they have the awe-inspiring honor of participating in God’s work and being the instruments of God’s sovereign and efficacious grace. If ministers are to be effective, they must arrange their days, examine their hearts, and give themselves most to this central task God has entrusted to them, whatever the costs may be. As will be shown, Calvin argued the costs would be high.

2. Pastoral Ministry as Spiritual Warfare

In C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, Aslan describes a good king at war as the one who is the “first in the charge and the last in the retreat.”24 For Calvin, Christians were constantly at war with the spiritual forces of darkness, and pastors were to be the first in the charge and last in the retreat: as the edifiers-in-chief, they were therefore the sufferers-in-chief. Two primary images relate Calvin’s picture of spiritual warfare in the ministry: first, that of pastors being “armed” by Christ in their gifts for their office; second, pastors are “standard-bearers” in the army of God—those who lead God’s people and therefore suffer the fiercest assaults of the devil.

2.1. Pastoral Gifting as “Arming”

Calvin portrayed the gifting of pastors for ministry as their arming for battle. Calvin reasoned that a pastor’s giftedness and sound doctrine must be tested before he is ordained because “those whom the Lord has destined for such high office, he first supplies with the arms required to fulfill it, that they may not come empty-handed and unprepared.”25 A pastor’s spiritual gifts are weapons in his hands; his preparation for ministry is preparation for war. Therefore, no candidate should be ordained for ministry unless he already has these weapons available. After describing pastoral gifting as arming, Calvin noted that this was the pattern of the Lord Himself, who, “when about to send his apostles, provided them with the arms and instruments which were indispensably requisite.”26 Three of the passages that Calvin cited in support of this statement refer to the gifts of speech given by the Spirit.27 In other words, when pastors exercise their gifts and preach the gospel to edify the church, they engage in acts of war and must be armed by the Spirit to do so. Moreover, these armaments are “indispensably requisite” for anyone who would engage in pastoral ministry.

2.2. Pastors as “Standard-Bearers”

Pastors must be armed because they contend with Satan himself, who rages against the advance of the gospel. Calvin’s commentary on 2 Corinthians 10:3–4 brings together the themes of edification, ministry as warfare, and pastoral suffering together, showing why pastors necessarily suffer in their work. Calvin’s comments on the phrase “the weapons of our warfare” are worth quoting at length:

In comparing the ministry of the gospel to a warfare, he uses a most apt similitude. The life of a Christian, it is true, is a perpetual warfare, for whoever gives himself to the service of God will have no truce from Satan at any time, but will be harassed with incessant disquietude. It becomes, however, ministers of the word and pastors to be standard-bearers, going before the others; and, certainly, there are none that Satan harasses more, that are more severely assaulted, or that sustain more numerous or more dreadful onsets … For we must take this into account, that the gospel is like a fire, by which the fury of Satan is en-kindled. Hence it cannot but be that he will arm himself for a contest, whenever he sees that it is advanced.28

Calvin described the ministry of the gospel as warfare; war is an “apt similitude” for ministry. At the end of the passage, he reasoned why gospel ministry is warfare: the gospel is a fire that “en-kindles” (that is, sets on fire) the fury of Satan. Calvin wrote often of Satan’s work against individual Christians, but here he specifically articulated Satan’s fury against the general advance of the gospel through its faithful ministers.29 The edifying ministry of the gospel, at the heart of pastoral calling, infuriates Satan, who “arms himself for a contest” whenever he sees the work of the gospel advanced— that is, whenever he sees a faithful pastor exercising his office.

So, although all Christians will suffer the onslaughts of Satan, ministers are special targets of his assaults because they are the “standard-bearers” of the church. In medieval and premodern warfare, standard-bearers were the soldiers who carried the distinctive flag of a military unit and led the unit to battle. Evidently, Calvin understood the standard-bearer as both the leader of the unit and the best target for an enemy’s attacks. He was especially exposed to the enemy’s sight because he carried the unit’s standard. Additionally, capturing an enemy’s standard was one of the best ways to demoralize and dishonor an opposing force, making the standard-bearer a particularly good target for attack.30 Using this image, Calvin designated pastors as the distinctive leaders who bear the gospel as the banner of the church and advance the cause of the gospel by their faithful ministry to the church. This weighty privilege makes pastors the most frequent targets for Satan’s assaults, because he knows that the best way to disrupt and dishonor the church is to destroy its leaders.

2.3. Clarifications

I will make two clarifications before moving on to Calvin’s picture of a pastor’s peculiar sufferings. First, though Calvin pictured pastors as incessantly at war, he did not picture them as at war against their people or any other people and did not advocate for the kind of domineering leadership that is today often associated with warfare images of ministry and the Christian life. With podcasts like “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” and various leadership scandals gripping the evangelical world, it is important to emphasize that when Calvin speaks of war he means war against the devil in the bold and gracious proclamation of the Gospel to all and the tender care and admonishment of God’s people.31 Pastors do not wage war against people; they wage war against the spiritual forces that harm and trap people. Second, Calvin’s warfare imagery is balanced by both his counsel to pastors and his personal pastoral care. Calvin encouraged pastors to be patient and tender with their people, especially when their people opposed and slandered them. He specifically cautioned pastors to subject themselves to the judgement of the church when they were in conflict, to use moderation in their reproofs so as not to wound the minds of their people, and never give even the appearance of delight over their critics if they prevailed in church conflicts.32 Calvin’s own pastoral care, demonstrated especially in his letters, also shows remarkable sensitivity and patient care even in the instances when he admonished those to whom he wrote.33

3. How Pastors Will Suffer

3.1. Peculiar Pastoral Sufferings

Pastors will not only suffer chiefly in the life of the church, they will also suffer peculiarly. In Calvin’s picture of the Christian life, all believers would suffer a variety of temptations and trials from Satan, ranging from health afflictions and physical enemies to a wide variety of spiritual temptations.34 He also argued that Satan was under God’s government and that God used the afflictions of Satan for the “exercise” of the saints, for their growth and spiritual maturity.35 Calvin’s general counsel to sufferers was to submissively entrust themselves to God’s providential care and to content themselves with God’s promises in their sufferings.36 Pastors would bear these various trials but also face peculiar pastoral suffering: opposition from their own people, slander, public disgrace and martyrdom. Pastors are to deal with these sufferings by exercising courage and fixing their eyes on the Lord.37 Calvin derived each of these particular pastoral sufferings from his exegesis of biblical texts and, in some cases, his own ministry experience.

3.2. General Opposition

Because of the work of Satan, faithful pastors will experience opposition from people within their own congregations. Calvin’s experiences of opposition in Geneva come out in his commentary on 1 Timothy 6:4, where he goes beyond Paul’s admonition to “keep the commandment unstained” to describe why this command is so hard to fulfill. Besides all the external sufferings pastors face, such as the prospect of martyrdom, slander and other vexations, “How many things there are within that are far worse! Ambitious men openly attack us … impudent men insult us, hypocrites rage against us, those who are wise after the flesh do us harm, and we are harassed in many different ways on every side.”38 The worst aspect of pastoral suffering in Calvin’s thought—worse than death in this passage—was the opposition of ungodly men from within a pastor’s own congregation. Opposition from the ambitious, impudent, and hypocritical within the church are the “far worse” sufferings of ministry.

3.3. Slander and Criticism

This opposition often manifested itself in slander, criticism, and their resulting public disgrace, which Calvin conceived of as a tactic of Satan to draw away the hearts of people from faithful gospel ministers.39 Calvin explained that Paul’s command in 1 Timothy 5:9 to verify charges brought against an elder by witnesses was necessary because of the universal reality that “none are more liable to slanders and calumnies than godly teachers.”40 Ministers may stagger and blunder under the weight of their office, and the ungodly will gladly rise to censure them for those legitimate, though small, faults. But even if pastors “perform their duty correctly, so as not to commit any error whatever, they never escape a thousand censures.”41 While Calvin’s words here may sound cynical, they appear to explain, in part, his own historical legacy (many Christians only know his name with “–ism” at the end) and the unceasing barrage of criticism that modern pastors have faced in the last two years over decidedly secondary and tertiary issues.

Calvin explicitly connected the pastoral duty of personal admonishment to these verbal attacks against him. A pastor who is opposed to the sins of his people and who speaks plainly to them about their sins will have many enemies, who presumably speak against him in repayment for his admonitions because they resist what God requires of them through the words of their pastor.42 (Again, this comment of Calvin’s is balanced by his example of tender admonishment.) This slander against the pastor’s person results in public disgrace. Calvin keenly felt the difficulty of public disgrace in his own ministry and wrote, “This is no slight test for subjecting a man to trial, for to a man of a noble spirit nothing is more unpleasant, than to incur disgrace.”43 Calvin went on in this passage to say that the disgrace that comes from verbal attacks is a test from the Lord to see if a minister’s heart is wholly set on pleasing God.

3.3. Martyrdom

Though any believer may suffer martyrdom, ministers especially must prepare themselves for it. Calvin took Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s death in John 20:18 as indicative of what some pastors would suffer and what all must be ready for: “as Satan continually makes new and various attacks, all who undertake the office of feeding must be prepared for death … the doctrine of which he was a minister must be at length ratified by his own blood.”44 As in previous passages, Satan initiates the attacks that particularly fall upon those who undertake the “office of feeding,” that is, the pastorate. In the same way in which ministers should expect slander and opposition, they should actively prepare themselves for death. Additionally, the idea in this passage that a pastor’s death for his ministry ratifies his doctrine furthers the picture of Calvin’s understanding of suffering as an essential feature of pastoral ministry. The faithful death of a pastor validates the fact he actually believed the doctrine he preached and truly was a servant of the Lord; it was the final test and best indicator of a minister’s faithfulness.

4. How Pastors Should Handle Suffering

Calvin did not only warn pastors that they would suffer, he also counseled them in how to prepare for and handle suffering in ministry. Interestingly, this counsel was distinctive from the counsel he gave believers for handling the normal trials of the Christian life.

4.1. Courage and Preparation

While Calvin counseled suffering believers to entrust themselves submissively to God’s providence when suffering, he admonished pastors to proactively prepare themselves to suffer and consider whether they had the courage and bravery necessary to fulfill their office.45 Calvin gave “unwavering firmness of courage” to hold to one’s doctrine unto death as a prerequisite for elders.46 The previously quoted passage from Calvin’s commentary on 2 Corinthians 10:3–4 also averred that a pastor must be “furnished with courage and bravery for contending; for he is not exercised otherwise than in fighting.”47 Since unceasing spiritual battle is the reality of ministry, all who would be pastors “should carefully consider with themselves, whether or not they were able to bear so heavy a burden.”48 Because ministry will always be filled with difficulties and sufferings, the frank assessment of one’s ability to bear those difficulties is an essential part of examining one’s call to ministry.

4.2. Setting the Heart on Christ

Considering the sufferings attendant to faithful ministry, pastors must set their hearts and minds wholly on Christ’s future return and present love. In his commentary on 1 Peter 5:4, Calvin listed the wide variety of discouragements and difficulties of ministry, many of which have been outlined thus far, and said, “Lest, then, the faithful servant of Christ should be broken down, there is for him one and only one remedy—to turn his eyes to the coming of Christ.”49 The return of Christ will bring the pastor his great reward and now motivates his faithful labors in the midst of many difficulties. Though he said setting one’s eyes on the return of Christ was the “one and only remedy,” Calvin also encouraged pastors to set their eyes on the love of Christ. In his commentary on John 20, after demonstrating that no pastor can serve faithfully if he only looks to the approval of men, Calvin asserted that “no man, therefore, will steadily persevere in the discharge of this office, unless the love of Christ shall reign in his heart, in such a manner that, forgetful of himself and devoting himself entirely to Christ, he overcomes every obstacle.”50 Pastors who look to the love of Christ will be enabled to forget their comforts and reputations and be able to persevere in a work which so often costs them those comforts and reputations.

5. Conclusion

In summary, Calvin’s thought consistently connects the central work of pastoral ministry with the experience of pastoral suffering. As edifier-in-chief, a pastor is sufferer-in-chief, the first in the charge and the last in the retreat. Ministers are attacked by the forces of darkness more than other believers because the good of the church through a pastor’s faithful ministry most infuriates the devil. Far from expecting the podcast, book deal, and universal admiration of his people, Calvin would tell pastors today to expect opposition, slander, public disgrace, vexations on every side, and perhaps death. He would also remind ministers that one willing to bear these things humbly will share particularly in his Lord’s ministry and reward, who suffered for a rebellious people and was glorified because of his suffering (Phil 2:8–11). In conclusion, I will suggest an evaluation of Calvin’s teaching on pastoral suffering and commend two ways in which Calvin can be a helpful resource to all pastors and especially those presently suffering.

How should we evaluate Calvin’s teaching on the prevalence and nature of pastoral suffering? At a first glance, it appears that his experience of opposition in Geneva colors some of his reading of biblical texts about pastoral ministry. There seems to be an overemphasis on suffering and a few instances of outright reading pastoral suffering into biblical texts in a few passages in Calvin’s commentaries.51 However, the general thrust of Calvin’s teaching on pastoral suffering actually reveals a close reading of Scripture; Calvin evidently allowed the Scriptures to shape his understanding of ministry in profound ways. For example, the Pastoral Epistles devote substantial space to instructing pastors about how to deal with opposition, rebellious congregations, or slanderous false teachers. Second Timothy is taken almost entirely up with these issues, and the following passages all have them at the forefront: 1 Timothy 4:1–4, 5:17–24; 6:3–10; Titus 1:10–16; 3:9–10. Aside from those passages, one could argue that the entirety of 1 and 2 Corinthians is an extended saga of a pastor patiently admonishing the rebellious flock he loves and dealing with the slanderous false teachers who oppose his authority. All this being said, the Scriptures seem to attest to Calvin’s view of both profound and peculiar pastoral suffering, specifically that dealing with opposition and verbal attacks are central trials that are part of any pastor’s job description.52

That is the first way Calvin can be a resource for struggling pastors: he encourages them to see suffering as an essential feature of pastoral ministry. If suffering comes with the vocation, pastors can prepare for and have theological categories for difficult seasons and people in ministry. Put another way, Calvin’s theology of ministry will help pastors be less shocked when they receive a biting piece of criticism, experience a family or health crisis, or discover that a powerful elder is after their job. If ministers will follow Calvin in seeing these sorts of things as a part of the pastoral job description (and also as under God’s sovereign goodness, working for their good and storing up for them their reward), they will bear them better. If present statistics on pastoral longevity and mental health are any indication, pastors need Calvin’s help and counsel. Calvin also gives pastors a category for how the seemingly minor relational sufferings of ministry can wreck them emotionally. In a century full of horrors like the plague and the stake, Calvin said that opposition from one’s own church was the worst way a pastor could suffer. That is a striking assertion in its historical context and, though you may not agree with Calvin wholeheartedly, it probably means that if Calvin heard you were up all night languishing over the words of that angry email you received from a church member, he would suspend judgement, offer you sympathy, and encourage you to re-fix your eyes on your Lord.

That brings us to the second way Calvin is a resource to struggling ministers: he offers them a path forward, not out of their sufferings, but through them with patience. Present evangelical leadership culture tends to assume that unpopular and opposed leaders are either doing something wrong or need to go look for a better position; Calvin assumes they are doing something right and that they need to stay. He is that rare voice that commends patiently staying the faithful, difficult and unpopular course in ministry. Additionally, Calvin commends a much-needed balance between personal tenderness and convictional courage in the way pastors remain faithful. If heeded, Calvin’s admonition to exercise courage but to also be tender with and willing to suffer for one’s people would cure a thousand ministry leadership ills. With the present challenges and looming future evangelical leaders face, Calvin’s balanced counsel to courageously and tenderly stay the suffering course could not come at a better time.

The irony could hardly be greater: the theologian most frequently caricatured as a cold, ivory-tower systematizer may be the beleaguered and discouraged pastor’s best dead friend and counselor. Allow Calvin to be more than a great theological resource for you: let him be the sympathetic help and guide when you are seeking to be faithful but are pressed and vexed on every side.

[1] Elsie McKee, “(Re)Introducing Pastor John Calvin,” Journal of Presbyterian History 87.2 (2009): 53.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeil, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 4.3.5.

[3] William Reid, “John Calvin, Pastoral Theologian,” RTR 41.3 (1982): 68.

[4] Reid, “John Calvin, Pastoral Theologian,” 66.

[5] John Calvin, The Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians, trans. William Pringle, reprint ed., Calvin’s Commentaries 21 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1979), 281 (Eph 4:12).

[6] Calvin, The Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians, 281 (Eph 4:12).

[7] John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. William Pringle, reprint ed., Calvin’s Commentaries 20 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1979), 125 (1 Cor 3:5).

[8] Shawn D. Wright, “John Calvin as Pastor,” SBJT 13.4 (2009): 8.

[9] Reid, “John Calvin, Pastoral Theologian,” 67.

[10] Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 131 (1 Cor 3:9).

[11] Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 160 (2 Cor 2:15).

[12] Craig Tucker, “Calvin and the Call to Ministry,” RTR 76.2 (2017): 106.

[13] Tucker, “Calvin and the Call to Ministry,” 107.

[14] Calvin, Institutes 4.3.12.

[15] For a sample of passages that speak of pastoral motivation in these terms, see Calvin’s Commentaries on John 20:15–20; Acts 20; 1 Cor 3:8–9; 2 Cor 5:13; 12:14–16; 1 Thess 2; 3:8.

[16] Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 151 (1 Cor 4:2).

[17] Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 151 (1 Cor 4:2).

[18] Reid, “John Calvin, Pastoral Theologian,” 68.

[19] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. William Pringle, reprint ed., Calvin’s Commentaries 21 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1979), 133 (1 Tim 4:11).

[20] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 221 (2 Tim 2:14).

[21] Reid, “John Calvin, Pastoral Theologian,” 68.

[22] Calvin, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, Vol. 2, trans. William Pringle, reprint ed., Calvin’s Commentaries 18 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1979), 244 (Acts 20:20).

[23] Calvin, Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, Vol. 2, 244 (Acts 20:20).

[24] C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew, reprint ed. (New York: HarperCollins: 2001), 83.

[25] Calvin, Institutes 4.4.11.

[26] Calvin, Institutes 4.4.11.

[27] The three passages are Luke 21:15; 24:49; and Acts 1:8. It appears that the other passages Calvin cites here (Mark 6:15 and 1 Tim 5:22) are supporting the requirement of sound doctrine for ministry and not being hasty in ordaining men for ministry.

[28] Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 321–22 (2 Cor 2:13).

[29] See Adrian Hallett, “The Theology of John Calvin. Part Three: the Christian’s Conflict with the Devil,” Churchman 105.4 (1991): 10, for the ways in which Calvin speaks of the devil’s assaults on Christians in general.

[30] Jim Bradberry, The Routledge Companion to Medieval Warfare (London: Routledge, 2004), 288–89.

[31] “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” is a podcast that details various leadership abuses in the ministry of Mark Driscoll.

[32] Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 152–53, 168 (1 Cor 4:2; 4:14).

[33] For Calvin’s pastoral care in his letters, see Raymond Potgieter, “Discerning Calvin’s Pastoral Care from His Letters,” In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi 48.1 (2014),

[34] Hallett, “The Theology of John Calvin,” 16. See also Calvin’s commentary on John 9:3, which Hallett cites.

[35] Hallett, “The Theology of John Calvin,” 9–10.

[36] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “If God Is Good and Sovereign, Why Lament?,” CTJ 36 (2001): 48–49.

[37] Reid, “John Calvin, Pastoral Theologian,” 67. Courage is a regular theme in scholarly writings about Calvin’s conception of the pastor. However, in this literature, the courage required of pastors is not explicitly connected to the kinds of sufferings pastors would experience.

[38] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 166 (1 Tim 6:14).

[39] Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 140 (1 Tim 5:9).

[40] Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 140 (1 Tim 5:9).

[41] Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 140 (1 Tim 5:9).

[42] Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 140 (1 Tim 5:9). Calvin specifically says, “we need not wonder, therefore, if they whose duty it is to reprove the faults of all, to oppose the wicked desires of all, and to restrain by their severity every person whom they see going astray, have many enemies”

[43] Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 252 (2 Cor 6:8).

[44] Calvin, Commentary upon the Gospel according to John, Vol. 2, ed. Henry Beveridge, trans. Christopher Fetherstone, reprint ed., Calvin’s Commentaries 19 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1979), 292.

[45] For Calvin’s general encouragement for believers suffering, see Wolterstorff, “If God Is Good and Sovereign, Why Lament?,” 48–49.

[46] Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 295 (Titus 1:9).

[47] Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 321 (2 Cor 10:3–4).

[48] Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 73–74 (1 Tim 3:1). Calvin’s preoccupation with the difficulty and suffering of ministry is especially prevalent in this passage, because he was commenting on 1 Tim 3:1, which speaks of the excellence and nobility of the pastoral office. Calvin was so concerned with articulating the difficulty of ministry he assumed Paul was alluding to a Greek proverb that connected the excellence of a task to its difficulty. Normally a careful Bible expositor, this appears to be an instance where Calvin was reading the difficulty of ministry into a text where it is not explicit, revealing how central suffering was to his picture of pastoral ministry.

[49] Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, trans. John Owen, reprint ed., Calvin’s Commentaries 22 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1979), 146.

[50] Calvin, Commentary upon the Gospel according to John, Vol. 2, 288 (John 20:15).

[51] See footnote 48 for my comments about Calvin’s interpretation of 1 Tim 3:1.

[52] For readers interested in studying more of what Calvin had to say about ministerial trials and sufferings (there is much more than the space of this article allows), Calvin’s commentaries on the Pastoral Epistles and 1 and 2 Corinthians are the best places to start.

Leland Brown

Leland Brown is a pastor at East Cooper Baptist Church in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina and a PhD student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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