The story is familiar: A bright young theologian agrees to pastor a church torn by factions and needing reform. Before long, he is plunged into controversy and conflict as he seeks to implement change. The congregation appreciates his preaching at times, but his call to discipleship seems too zealous, even extreme. His attempts to re-organize the church for better pastoral care are met with opposition. Theological controversy arises as he responds to false teaching harshly, raising concern from the other leaders. In the second year, the young pastor pushes for the right to practice church discipline and this proves to be too much for the church. The young pastor is fired, and the church is left worse off than before.
Is this the story of some young, restless, and reformed pastor? Perhaps a fresh seminary graduate who came across some 9Marks materials and sought to implement them in his church?
Actually, this is the story of John Calvin.[i]
Persuaded by the fiery Farel to remain in Geneva, Calvin began lecturing and preaching there in September 1536. We know little about his activities during his first stay at Geneva, but his teaching from that time shows his zeal against unReformed teaching (73) and uncompromising call for all Christians to leave the Roman Catholic Church (78). In February 1538, Calvin and Farel appeared before the Genevan council to push for the right to practice excommunication and their request was rejected. Disappointed, Calvin wrote to Bullinger, “We have not been able to ensure that the faithful and holy exercise of ecclesiastical excommunication is rescued from the oblivion into which it has fallen.” (79)
Not long afterwards, Calvin’s relationship with the council had so deteriorated that he denounced them from the pulpit as the “council of the devil.” (80). Rejecting the liturgy of the council, Calvin would refuse to administer communion to the whole city. By April 1538, Calvin (not Farel) was identified as the chief troublemaker, deprived of his ministry, and ordered to leave Geneva.
Calvin’s reputation was shot. His friend du Tillet, who originally had recommended Calvin to Farel, wrote to him in September 1538, “I doubt that you have had your vocation from God, having been called there only by men… who have driven you away from there, just as they received you by their sole authority.” (93)
These and many other accusations wounded Calvin deeply. His confidence in his calling had been shaken and he wandered for a period without a clear sense of direction of purpose. (84) Would he ever pastor again?
Yet in God’s kind providence, by the summer of 1538, Calvin arrived in Strasbourg and there he found a mentor in Martin Bucer. Bucer immediately recognized what had gone wrong: “his uncompromising conduct had created needless discord. To declare the absolute demands of the Gospel was imperative, on that there was no disagreement, but the seasoned reformers also understood something further that Calvin had yet to grasp: building a church required flexibility and patience.” (92) Though Calvin was not really needed in Strasbourg, Bucer immediately took him under his wing to teach him how to be a pastor (86). Under Bucer’s discipleship, Calvin agreed to pastor a congregation of French refugees, and there he implemented Bucer’s liturgy, preached and taught, and learned from Bucer’s example as he interacted with the magistrates. Under Bucer’s influence, Calvin’s theology deepened and broadened, and he embraced Bucer’s understanding of the early church as a model for the organization of the church (89).
But Bucer’s discipleship of Calvin was not merely intellectual or academic but involved his entire life. “Bucer put himself out for Calvin in every respect: he provided accommodation in his own home, introduced him to his circle of friends, and finally found a house with a shared garden where they might easily meet and converse… Bucer was truly a father figure.” (89) Bucer would even encourage Calvin to get married and he helped find him a wife! (87) In that friendship, Calvin learned not only how to be a better pastor, but he grew as a Christian in his patience and humility. God would use those three years in Strasbourg to change Calvin and prepare him for what was to come.
In 1541, the council in Geneva voted to call Calvin back to be their pastor, and though Calvin was mortified at the thought, he listened to Bucer’s encouragement and agreed to return. For the next 23 years, Calvin gave himself to the church in Geneva, and in spite of constant opposition and suffering, his faithful ministry would go on to shape Protestantism down to our present day.
Calvin’s relationship with Bucer is instructive for us today as we think about pastoral formation. The classroom is not sufficient to train up pastors! If you are a young man aspiring to the ministry, more important than choosing a seminary is finding a church where you can serve under a pastor who will invest in you. Before jumping straight into a lead pastorate straight out of seminary, look for an assistant or associate pastor position under a more experienced pastor who will teach you how to be a pastor. Consider a pastoral residency or internship that is rooted in the local church to supplement your theological training.
And if you are an experienced pastor, Bucer should be a model for us. Are there other young pastors in your city that you can begin mentoring and encourage as they start out in the ministry? Are you looking for gifted and aspiring young men to bring under your wing, to shape them and equip them for ministry? How can we use our experience to serve other pastors in order that the wider church of Jesus Christ may be blessed? Training up pastors is not something we can relegate to seminaries, but according to the NT, it is built into to the pastoral job description (2 Tim. 2:1-2).
Calvin never forgot Bucer’s impact on his life. In 1551, in hearing of Bucer’s death in England, Calvin wrote to Farel, “I have received pious Bucer’s last letter. What a heart! What a man has gone! We must rejoice in our sorrow that a man so fond of us has journeyed to God.” (89-90) May that be said of all pastors who give of themselves to equipping the next generation of pastors.
[i] All references are taken from Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).