The following quotations are taken from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 1. Each section is preceded by an editorial question. Other editorial comments are in brackets [ ]. Stephen P. Crawford compiled these quotes for our old website The Fundamentalism Help File. All Rights Reserved.
What doctrine is ground for separation?
“When we say that the pure ministry of the word and pure celebration of the sacraments is a fit pledge and earnest so that we may safely recognize a church in every society in which both exist, our meaning is that we ought never to discard [such a church] so long as these remain, though it may otherwise teem with numerous faults. Nay, even in the administration of word and sacraments defects may creep in which ought not to alienate us from [the church’s] communion.
“For all the heads of true doctrine are not in the same position. Some are so necessary to be known, that all must hold them to be fixed and undoubted as the proper essentials of religion, for instance, that God is one, that Christ is God, and the Son of God, that our salvation depends on the mercy of God, and the like. Others, again, which are the subject of controversy among the churches do not destroy the unity of the faith. For why should it be regarded as a ground of dissension between churches if one, without any spirit of contention or perverseness in dogmatizing, holds that the soul on quitting the body flies to heaven and another, without venturing to speak positively as to the abode, [does not think] it for certain that [the soul] lives with the Lord?
“The words of the Apostle are, 'Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you' (Philippians 3:15). Does he not sufficiently intimate that a difference of opinion as to these matters which are not absolutely necessary ought not to be a ground of dissension among Christians? The best thing, indeed, is to be perfectly agreed but seeing there is no man who is not involved in some mist of ignorance, we must either have no church at all or pardon delusion in those things of which one may be ignorant, without violating the substance of religion and forfeiting salvation.
“Here, however, I have no wish to patronize even the minutest errors, as if I thought it right to foster them by flattery or connivance. What I say is, that we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists and keep the use of the sacraments instituted by the Lord.” [Section 12]
What conduct is ground for separation?
“Our indulgence ought to extend much farther in tolerating imperfection of conduct. Here there is great danger of falling, and Satan employs all his machinations to ensnare us. For there always have been persons who, imbued with a false persuasion of absolute holiness as if they had already become a kind of aerial spirits, spurn the society of all in whom they see that something human still remains.
“Such of old were the Cathari and the Donatists who were similarly infatuated. Such in the present day are some of the Anabaptists who would be thought to have made superior progress. Others, again, sin in this respect not so much from that insane pride as from inconsiderate zeal. Seeing that among those to whom the gospel is preached the fruit produced is not in accordance with the doctrine, they forthwith conclude that there no church exists.
“The offense is indeed well-founded, and it is one to which in this most unhappy age we give far too much occasion. It is impossible to excuse our accursed sluggishness which the Lord will not leave unpunished, as he is already beginning sharply to chastise us. Woe then to us who, by our dissolute license of wickedness, cause weak consciences to be wounded!
“Still those of whom we have spoken sin in their [own] turn by not knowing how to set bounds to their offense. For where the Lord requires mercy they omit it and give themselves up to immoderate severity. Thinking there is no church where there is not complete purity and integrity of conduct, they through hatred of wickedness withdraw from a genuine church [when] they think they are shunning the company of the ungodly.
“They allege that the Church of God is holy. But that they may at the same time understand that it contains a mixture of good and bad, let them hear from the lips of our Savior that parable in which he compares the Church to a net in which all kinds of fishes are taken but not separated until they are brought ashore. Let them hear [the Church] compared to a field which, planted with good seed, is by the fraud of an enemy mingled with tares and is not freed of them until the harvest is brought into the barn. Let them hear, in fine, that [the Church] is a thrashing floor in which the collected wheat lies concealed under the chaff until, cleansed by the fanners and the sieve, it is at length laid up in the granary. If the Lord declares that the Church will labor under the defect of being burdened with a multitude of wicked until the day of judgment, it is in vain to look for a church altogether free from blemish (Matthew 13).” [Section 13]
What about when whole churches have gone bad?
“They exclaim that it is impossible to tolerate the vice which everywhere stalks abroad like a pestilence. What if the apostle's sentiment applies here also? Among the Corinthians it was not a few that erred but almost the whole body had become tainted. There was not one species of sin merely but a multitude, and those not trivial errors but some of them execrable crimes. There was not only corruption in manners but also in doctrine.
“What course was taken by the holy apostle, in other words, by the organ of the heavenly Spirit by whose testimony the Church stands and falls? Does he seek separation from them? Does he discard them from the kingdom of Christ? Does he strike them with the thunder of a final anathema? He not only does none of these things, but he acknowledges and heralds them as a Church of Christ and a society of saints.
“If the Church remains among the Corinthians where envying, divisions, and contentions rage, where quarrels, lawsuits, and avarice prevail, where a crime which even the Gentiles would execrate is openly approved, where the name of Paul, whom they ought to have honored as a father, is petulantly assailed, where some hold the resurrection of the dead in derision though with it the whole gospel must fall, where the gifts of God are made subservient to ambition, not to charity, where many things are done neither decently nor in order -- if there the Church still remains simply because the ministration of word and sacrament is not rejected, who will presume to deny the title of “church” to those to whom a tenth part of these crimes cannot be imputed? How, I ask, would those who act so morosely against present churches have acted to the Galatians who had done all but abandon the gospel (Galatians 1:6) and yet among them the same apostle found churches?” [Section 14]
What about those who would separate under such conditions?
“Still, however, even the good are sometimes affected by this inconsiderate zeal for righteousness, though we shall find that this excessive moroseness is more the result of pride and a false idea of sanctity than genuine sanctity itself and true zeal for it. Accordingly, those who are the most forward and, as it were, leaders in producing revolt from the Church have, for the most part, no other motive than to display their own superiority by despising all other men.
“Well and wisely therefore does Augustine say, 'Seeing that pious reason and the mode of ecclesiastical discipline ought specially to regard the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, which the Apostle enjoins us to keep by bearing with one another ..., those bad sons who, not from hatred of other men’s iniquities but zeal for their own contentions, attempt altogether to draw away or at least to divide weak brethren ensnared by the glare of their name, while swollen with pride, stuffed with petulance, insidiously calumnious, and turbulently seditious, use the cloak of a rigorous severity that they may not seem devoid of the light of truth and pervert to sacrilegious schism and purposes of excision those things which are enjoined in the Holy Scriptures ... to correct a brother's faults by the appliance of a moderate cure' (August. Cont. Parmen. cap. i.).
“To the pious and placid [Augustine’s] advice is, mercifully to correct what they can and to bear patiently with what thou cannot correct in love lamenting and mourning until God either reform or correct or at the harvest root up the tares and scatter the chaff (Ibid. cap. ii.).
“Let all the godly study to provide themselves with these weapons, lest while they deem themselves strenuous and ardent defenders of righteousness they revolt from the kingdom of heaven which is the only kingdom of righteousness. For as God has been pleased that the communion of his Church shall be maintained in this external society, anyone who from hatred of the ungodly violates the bond of this society enters on a downward course, in which he incurs great danger of cutting himself off from the communion of saints.” [Section 16]
But isn’t the Church supposed to be holy?
“Since they also argue that there is good reason for the Church [to be] called holy, it is necessary to consider what the holiness is in which it excels lest by refusing to acknowledge any church, save one that is completely perfect, we leave no church at all.
“It is true indeed, as Paul says, that Christ 'loved the church, and gave himself for it that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church not having spot, or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish' (Ephesians 5:25-27). Nevertheless, it is true, that the Lord is daily smoothing its wrinkles and wiping away its spots. Hence it follows that its holiness is not yet perfect. Such, then, is the holiness of the Church. It makes daily progress but is not yet perfect. It daily advances but as yet has not reached the goal ...” [Section 17]
Do the Scriptures give precedent for these ideas on separation?
“On this head Christ himself, his apostles, and almost all the prophets have furnished us with examples. Fearful are the descriptions in which Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Habakkuk, and others deplore the diseases of the Church of Jerusalem. In the people, the rulers, and the priests corruption prevailed to such a degree that Isaiah hesitates not to liken Jerusalem to Sodom and Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:10). Religion was partly despised, partly adulterated, while in regard to morals we everywhere meet with accounts of theft, robbery, perfidy, murder, and similar crimes.
“The prophets, however, did not therefore either form new churches for themselves or erect new altars on which they might have separate sacrifices but, whatever their countrymen might be [and] reflecting that the Lord had deposited his word with them and instituted the ceremonies by which he was then worshipped, they stretched out pure hands to him though amid the company of the ungodly. Certainly had they thought that they thereby contracted any pollution, they would have died a hundred deaths sooner than suffered themselves to be dragged thither. Nothing, therefore, prevented them from separating themselves but a desire of preserving unity. But if the holy prophets felt no obligation to withdraw from the Church on account of the very numerous and heinous crimes, not of one or two individuals but almost of the whole people, we arrogate too much to ourselves if we presume forthwith to withdraw from the communion of the Church because the lives of all accord not with our judgment or even with the Christian profession.” [Section 18]
“Then what kind of age was that of Christ and the apostles? Yet neither could the desperate impiety of the Pharisees nor the dissolute licentiousness of manners which everywhere prevailed prevent them from using the same sacred rites with the people and meeting in one common temple for the public exercises of religion. And why so but just because they knew that those who joined in these sacred rites with a pure conscience were not at all polluted by the society of the wicked? If anyone is little moved by prophets and apostles, let him at least defer to the authority of Christ.” [Section 19]