Thursday, April 28, 2011

John Calvin on the church and the poor in Institutes, Book IV

Just as I was pondering the relationship between social concern and the church, I came across the following passages in my reading of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (translated by Ford Lewis Battles, PA: Westminster Press. 1960):

Book IV, Chapter 4, Section 7 Fourfold division of revenues
...Gregory speaks even more clearly: “It is the custom of the apostolic see to command the bishop, once ordained, to divide into four portions all the revenue that comes in: that is, one for the bishop and his household, for hospitality and maintenance; another for the clergy; a third for the poor; and a fourth for the repair of churches.” Therefore, the bishop was not allowed to take anything for his own use, except what was sufficient for moderate and frugal food and clothing…

[Note: Clergy here refers to all other employed staff in the church.]

Section 8 Church treasure distributed to the poor
… Acacius, bishop of Amida, when a great multitude of Persians was well-nigh dying from famine, calling together his clergy, delivered this famous speech: “Our God needs neither plates nor cups, for he neither eats nor drinks.” Then he melted the vessels to obtain both food and the price of ransom for the pitiable folk… Ambrose states about himself, for when the Arians reproached him for having broken the sacred vessels to ransom prisoners, he used this wonderful excuse: “He who sent out the apostles without gold also gathered churches without gold. The church has gold not to keep but to pay out, and to relieve distress. What need to keep what helps not? Or are we ignorant of how much gold and silver the Assyrians carted off from the Temple of the Lord [2 Kings 18:15-16]? Would it not be better for the priest to melt it to sustain the poor, if other aid is lacking, than for a sacrilegious enemy to bear it away? Will not the Lord say, ‘Why have you allowed so many needy to die of hunger? Surely you had gold with which to minister sustenance. Why were so many prisoners carried off and not ransomed? Why were so many killed by the enemy? It were better for you to preserve vessels of living men than of metals.’ To these you cannot give reply, for what would you say? ‘I was afraid lest the temple of God lack ornament.’ He would reply: ‘The sacraments do not require gold, nor do those things please with gold that are not bought with gold. The ornament of the sacraments is the ransom of prisoners.’” To sum up, what the same man said in another place we see to be very true: “Whatever, then, the church had was for the support of the needy.” Likewise: “The bishop had nothing that did not belong to the poor."

[Note: Ambrose was bishop of Milan, the capital city of Western Roman Empire, from 374-397 C.E.]

Calvin points out two kinds of deacons, "one to serve the church in administering the affairs of the poor; the other, in caring for the poor themselves" (Calvin, Institutes, 4.3.9, p. 1061).

Calvin reiterates "the care of the poor and the distribution of alms were committed to the deacons" (Calvin, Institutes, 4.4.1, p. 1069).

It looks like the early church and at least the Geneva church during Calvin's time were concerned about the less privileged and there were structures to ensure the church does not neglect the poor. This made me ponder why spirituality in most churches today is concerned only about spiritual growth and evangelism, and even if there were call for additional pledges, these were earmarked for church expansion project or overseas missionary trips. How about additional pledges for the poor in the church and in the society?

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