Fencing the Table: Calvin’s Defense of the Lord’s Supper

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” – 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 (ESV)

Profile Portrait of John Calvin 16th centuryWho possesses the authority to admit a person to the Lord’s Supper or to ban the unrepentant sinner from it—the civil magistrates or the officers of Christ’s Church? This central question plagued the city of Geneva for several decades during the time of the Reformation. The Ecclesiastical Ordinances, written by John Calvin in 1541 and received by the Small Council of Geneva in that same year (November 20th), clearly specifies that the Church retains the right to properly order the Lord’s Supper. This would include who is admitted to the Table and who is banned from the Table. Many of Calvin’s biographers have commented on these controversial events, but what original documents can be found to show exactly what happened? Two sources are notable (1) The Register of the Company of Pastors in Geneva in the time of Calvin: 1546-1564, translated and edited by Philip E. Hughes (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966), and (2) Life of John Calvin, written by Theodore Beza in 1564 immediately following Calvin’s death (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983).

The citizens of Geneva formally decided for the Reformation, against Roman Catholicism, on May 21, 1536. With right hands raised, they swore to live by the Word of God and to reject Romanist idolatries. This initial effort was led by two missionary evangelists, William Farel (1489-1565) and Pierre Viret (1511-1571). Shortly after this, John Calvin was also added to the team of Reformers working in Geneva. These ministers of the gospel envisioned a reformation that would not only bring about the adoption of a newProtestant Statement of Faith, which was presented to the Small Council in January 1537, but also a complete reformation of the morals of the town. They rightly reasoned that for any reform effort to be successful a change in doctrine (orthodoxy) must always be accompanied by a change in behavior (orthopraxy). Geneva had been long known for its loose morals. Dr. John T. McNeill, a highly-regarded Reformation historian, comments,

Moral conditions were, indeed, such as to invite drastic reform. Medieval Geneva, by common consent of historians, abounded in centers of dissolute pleasure. Even contemporary opponents of the Reformation freely accuse the pre-Reformation clergy and friars of appalling misbehavior; and while this was resented by the people, it was also imitated by them. Genevese gaiety was often associated with intemperance, obscenity, and licentiousness.(McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism, 166)

Calvin drafted a plan for the reformation of the church and society of Geneva and he called it theEcclesiastical Ordinances (1541). It was composed by Calvin right after his return to Geneva. His basic plan was to establish four offices within the church—pastors, doctors, elders, and deacons. These men had the spiritual responsibility to advance the teaching of biblical doctrine and behavior. Violations of these biblical standards would be enforced by the Genevan Consistory; which was made up of representatives from both the church and civil government. If the violations were of a serious nature and recurrent then a person could be suspended from the Lord’s Table. What breaches might lead to suspension from the Lord’s Table? Here are seven stipulations listed in the Ecclesiastical Ordinances,

(1) “If anyone speaks critically against the received doctrine”, (2) “If anyone is negligent to come to church in such a way that a serious contempt of Christians is apparent”, (3) “if any one shows himself to be scornful of the ecclesiastical order”, (4) “those who mock at the specific admonitions of their neighbor”, (5) “for those notorious and public vices which the Church cannot condone”, (6) “for those crimes which deserve not only verbal rebuke but correction with punishment”, (7) “If through contumacy or rebelliousness such a person attempts to intrude himself contrary to the prohibition”. (Hughes ed., The Register, 48-49)

The length of the suspension, whether it was temporary or permanent, would depend upon the offending person’s repentance. Accordingly, the pastor who was responsible for administering the Lord’s Supper was also responsible to “fence the Table” so that those who were “unworthy” partakers would not be able to receive the Lord’s Supper. The Reformers insisted that the “three marks of a church” are these: (1) the true preaching of the Word of God; (2) the right administration of the Sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper); and (3) the faithful exercise of church discipline (cf. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 576-578). Calvin strongly resolved that upon these three foundational marks the Church of Jesus Christ in Geneva would be built.

During the fourteen years that followed the approval of the Ecclesiastical Ordinances by the City Council(November 20, 1541) wide-ranging conflicts raged throughout Geneva. It proved far easier to reform the doctrine of the people than to reform their behavior. As a result an opposition party was formed by some of the key families of Geneva (the Perrins, Favres, Vandels, Bertheliers, etc.). They called themselves the Libertines (also known as the Enfants de Geneva). Here is an example from The Register of the Company of Pastors (December 23, 1552) where a certain individual complained to the Small Council (referred to as the Messieurs or Senate) about being suspended from the Lord’s Table.

On the same day and at the same hour Messieurs proposed to us that some reconciliation should be made in the case of those who had been banned from the supper by the Consistory. Monsieur Calvin replied at once in the name of all the brethren, making two requests on our behalf: firstly, that they should not give the ministers the authority which belonged to the whole Consistory, of which each was a member, since it was not for us as individuals to deprive anyone of the supper, nor did we have authority, apart from the decision of the Consistory, to readmit those who had been deprived; and, secondly, that they should exhibit the same impartiality to all. Philibert Berthelier was then sent into our presence. He showed the same or even greater rebelliousness than before, saying that it was not his understanding that the Consistory possessed such authority nor that the people were bound by its decisions. Messieurs therefore confirmed the sentence of the Consistory and pronounced him unworthy of the supper. (Hughes ed., The Register, 205)

Who exactly was Philibert Berthelier? Dr. Philip E. Hughes, a capable and well-known Calvin scholar, writes,

Philibert Berthelier, son of the hero and martyr for Genevan freedom, was one of Calvin’s most intransigent adversaries in Geneva. Communion was forbidden him in 1551 because he had publicly declared that he was “just as good a man as Calvin,” and despite his repeated protestations, this ban was regularly renewed. In defiance of the authority of the Consistory, Berthelier appealed to the Council, and the latter attempted to set aside this ban, to the great offence of Calvin’s followers. (Hughes ed., The Register, note #39, 205)

The decision of the Small Council to uphold the Berthelier’s suspension from the Lord’s Table became a focal point of controversy. The Libertines argued that suspension from the Lord’s Table was an “individual matter”, and at other times they argued that it should be decided by the Small Council and not by the Genevan Consistory.

Ten months later in the midst of the heresy trial for Michael Servetus (August 17, 1553 through October 26, 1553), the determined Philibert Berthelier once again requested permission from the Small Council to be readmitted to the Lord’s Supper (September 1, 1553). It should be pointed out that the excommunicate Berthelier was also serving as the defense attorney for Servetus. This stormy trial was utilized by the Libertines as a means for undermining the authority of the Reformers. Bringing up once again the issue of Berthelier’s ban from the Lord’s Supper was simply a way of increasing the pressure on Calvin and the other Reformers. Beza writes,

At the beginning of September 1553 this church was greatly troubled since Philibert Berthelier, who had been excommunicated and forbidden the Sacraments because of his rebellion against the Consistory, had been granted absolution by Messieurs, without the Consistory being given a hearing. This action was opposed by the ministers, who unanimously declared that they could not admit this man, or others like him, to the supper until the Consistory had evidence of repentance, and had absolved him. It was objected, moreover, that the order of the Church laid down that authority to forbid or admit to the Lord’s supper belonged to the Consistory, and not Messieurs. Maitre Jean Calvin protested publicly from the pulpit, in the same sermon when the supper was administered, that under no circumstances would he receive such a rebel at the supper, and that it was not for men to compel him to do what was scandalous, but that Messieurs rather should be urged to prevent Berthelier from presenting himself at the sacrament. (Hughes ed., The Register, 285-286)

Why, then, was this precise moment the opportune time to push the point of Berthelier’s excommunication? Several citizens who were members of the Libertine party had recently secured key positions on the Small Council and in the Council of the Two Hundred. With Ami Perrin, one of their own, now in charge as the First Syndic, they reasoned that they could overthrow the power and authority of the Church (and Calvin) at this crucial moment. There had also been several small victories in the Servetus trial for the defense and it was theoretically possible that he could be set free and Calvin held liable for bringing false charges against an innocent man. This political scheme could very well have worked, but they did not reckon with the steel-like resolve of Calvin. Beza comments,

So far this year seems to have been divided between hope and fear, the former, however, prevailing in the end. But while the cause of Servetus was under discussion, one of the factious, Berthelier by name, a man of the most consummate impudence, whom the Presbytery, for his many iniquities, excluded from the Lord’s Table, comes before the Senate, and prays to be absolved by their authority. Had this been done, there cannot be a doubt that the bond of ecclesiastical discipline being forthwith dissolved, everything would instantly have gone to wreck. Therefore Calvin, in name of the Presbytery, made strenuous and unremitting opposition, showing that magistrates ought to be the vindicators, not the destroyers, of sacred laws. In short, he omitted nothing which a contest of so much moment demanded. However, the false clamors of those who said that the Presbytery were in some things arrogating to themselves the authority of the magistrates prevailed, and it was, accordingly resolved, in the Council of the Two Hundred, that, in excommunication, the ultimate right belonged to the Senate, who were entitled to absolve whom they pleased. In consequence of this resolution having been passed by the Senate, who had then given little attention to the subject, Berthelier surreptitiously obtained letters of absolution under the seal of the Republic. Perrin, with his followers, hoped that one of two consequences would follow—that if Calvin refused to obey the Senate, he would be able to overwhelm him by means of a mob; that if Calvin obeyed, he would have no difficulty in depriving the Presbytery of all authority, in other words, in removing every restraint upon wickedness.(Beza, Life of John Calvin, lxii)

Regardless of Calvin’s appeals, the Small Council upheld the decision to restore Berthelier to the Lord’s Table. However, several members of the Small Council began to waver in their convictions—they became afraid that if they defied Calvin and the Genevan Consistory there would be a general uprising leading to a complete collapse of law and order. Therefore, Berthelier was privately ordered by his friends to notpartake of the Lord’s Supper; but Calvin knew nothing of this secret decision.

When the day for worship arrived two days later St. Pierre’s Cathedral was unusually crowded (September 3, 1553). All of the Libertines swaggered in with their hands placed on the hilts of their swords, and took their seats near the Lord’s Table. Calvin boldly preached his sermon, and after descending from the pulpit he firmly placed himself behind the Lord’s Table refusing to serve any “despisers of sacred mysteries”. He said, “These hands you may crush; these arms you may lop off; my life you may take; my blood is yours, you may shed it; but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profane, and dishonor the table of my God.” (Wiley, The History of Protestantism, Vol. 2, 327) These words hit the Libertines like a thunder-clap, and those who had entered the church so proudly now left it very ashamed of themselves. Beza reports,

But Calvin, though he had been informed of what was done only two days before the usual period of celebrating the Lord’s Supper, raising his voice and his hand in the course of his sermon, after he had spoken at some length of the despisers of sacred mysteries, exclaimed, in the words of Chrysostom, “I will die sooner than this hand shall stretch forth the sacred things of the Lord to those who have been judged despisers.” These words, strange to say, had such an effect upon these men, however lawless, that Perrin secretly advised Berthelier not to come forward to the Table. The sacrament was celebrated with extraordinary silence, not without some degree of trembling, as if the Deity himself were actually present. (Beza, Life of John Calvin, lxii-lxiii)

Later that afternoon Calvin prepared to preach what he thought would be his final sermon in Geneva. It was his firm expectation that he would once again be banished from the tumultuous city as had previously happened in 1538. Thus, he chose for his text Acts 20:17-38, where Paul gives his farewell address to the Ephesian Elders. Beza writes,

In the afternoon Calvin, taking for his text the celebrated passage in the Acts of the Apostles, in which Paul bids farewell to the Church of Ephesus, declared that he was not a man who knew or taught others to fight against magistrates; and after exhorting his audience at great length to persevere in the doctrine which they had heard, as if it was the last sermon he was to deliver at Geneva, concluded thus:—”Since these things are so, allow me also, brethren, to use these words of the Apostle, ‘I commend you to the Lord, and to the Word of his grace’.” These words made a wonderful impression even on the most abandoned, while they, at the same time, seriously warned good men what their duty was. (Beza, Life of John Calvin, lxiii)

But, in God’s gracious providence, Calvin was not removed as he feared from his position as head pastor of the Genevan Church. Instead, the Small Council did nothing and the Libertines retreated into their parlors to make further strategies of how they could defeat the Reformers, especially Calvin. This extraordinary standoff at the Lord’s Supper surely can be compared with Martin Luther’s dramatic declaration of faith at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Whereas Luther defied the edict of Charles 5th and the assembled Roman Catholic priests in a great doctrinal battle, Calvin defied the schemes of Berthelier and the Libertines in agreat moral battle. Dr. James A. Wylie, the preeminent Scottish historian of the Reformation, summarizes,

We know nothing more truly sublime in the whole history of the Reformation, that epoch of heroic men and grand events. The only thing we can compare with it is Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms. If we abstract the dramatic accompaniments of the latter scene—the gorgeous hall; the majesty of the emperor; the blaze of princely and knightly rank gathered around him; the glitter of stars and decorations; the men-at-arms; the lackeys and other attendants—and look only at the principle at stake, and the wide and lasting good achieved by the prompt vindication of the principle, the act of Calvin in the Cathedral of St. Peter’s, in 1553, stands side by side, its equal in spiritual sublimity and heroism, with the act of Luther in the Hall of Worms, in 1521. “I cannot,” said Luther. “I will not,” said Calvin. The one repelled the tyrant, the other flung back the mob; the one stemmed the haughtiness of power, the other bridled the raging fury of ungodliness; in both the danger was equal, in both the faith and fortitude were equal, and each saved the Reformation at a great crisis. (Wylie, The History of Protestantism, Vol. 2, 328)

Even though this one battle was narrowly won by Calvin and the Reformers it was only a few weeks later that the Libertines launched a fresh attack (November 7, 1553). This time Berthelier and the Libertines sought to influence the more malleable Council of the Two Hundred.

On Tuesday 7 November the Council of the Two Hundred was convened in connection with the question of the authority of the Consistory and to consider the problem of respecting to whom it belongs to excommunicate and to absolve. Before the Two Hundred had entered, however, Messieurs declared that it was their intention to reserve to themselves the power of absolving those who had been banned from the supper. Thereupon the Consistory asked to be allowed to consult among themselves and, having withdrawn, resolved that they could not possibly consent to the pretensions of Messieurs, which were contrary to the order of the church, and they requested to be heard before the Council of the Two Hundred. In the presence of the Council Maitre Jean Calvin, speaking for the Consistory, stated the case most adequately and explained why it was impossible to acquiesce in the pretensions of Messieurs; and then the declaration which had previously been presented in writing to Messieurs by the ministers was read before all. On the following Thursday, after hearing the decision of the Council of Two Hundred that the whole right of forbidding from and readmitting to the supper should be taken away from the Consistory, the ministers presented themselves before Messieurs and unanimously declared that they were unable to consent to this ruling, and that to compel obedience would be to drive them from their charge, for they would choose death rather than consent to the abandonment of so holy and sacred an order, which had so long been preserved in this church. The ministers—and especially M. Jean Calvin, in accordance with the written promises he had received from Messieurs—requested to be heard before the Council of Two Hundred and the General Council. This was not granted, but they were told the request would receive attention. (Hughes ed., The Register, 291)

This apparent defeat suffered by Calvin and the Reformers shows that they did not, in fact, dominate the political affairs of Geneva as some have wrongly asserted. The ongoing struggle shows that there was a lively dissent against the reformation of morals in Geneva, and that the Libertines had every possibility of defeating the Reformers.

A few weeks later on December 21, 1553 the controversy continued on, but this time within the chambers of the Small Council. The Genevan Consistory was summoned to defend themselves against charges of intolerance and spiritual tyranny.

On Thursday 21 December the Consistory was summoned before Messieurs in connection with the case of Philibert Berthelier, who insisted on being admitted to the supper. The Consistory opposed this until such a time as Berthelier should give evidence of repentance and humble himself before the Consistory, against whom he had been rebellious. Immediately Francois Berthelier, who had accompanied his brother, burst out, in the presence of Messieurs, with outrageous accusations against the ministers, asserting that they wished to tyrannize and dominate and were disobedient to the Seigneurie. Because of these harmful and monstrous accusations Messieurs commanded him to leave. As for Philibert, no further ruling was given, except that he could continue to abstain from the supper. (Hughes ed., The Register, 293)

The Genevan Consistory responded to this angry outburst with their own summons for Francois Berthelier to appear before them.

On the same day Francois Berthelier was summoned before the Consistory and asked how he could conscientiously partake of the Lord’s Supper in view of the outrageous things he had uttered that morning in the presence of Messieurs. He, however, continued his calumnies, declaring that so far as the Consistory was concerned he was addressing himself only to the ministers, whose treatment of his brother had been satanical, in holding him to be excommunicated and reprobate, without being able to produce any reason for doing so. He claimed, further, that he had power to give absolution just as much as they had to excommunicate, with a number of outrageous utterances. Thereupon he too was banned from the supper, and it was resolved that on the following Thursday all the members of the Consistory should present themselves before Messieurs to complain of the outrageous charges which had been made by Francois. (Hughes ed., The Register, 293)

In time, the Genevan Consistory was successful in thwarting the attack of the Berthelier brothers and the Libertines; this later led to Francois Berthelier’s repentance on March 8, 1554.

On Thursday 8 March, by order of Messieurs, Francois Berthelier attended the Consistory where he declared that he had been carried away by affection for his brother, with the result that he had said things against the ministers which should not have been said, and that he was sorry for having said them. He requested that he should be readmitted to the supper, which had been forbidden him. After various exhortations this was granted. (Hughes ed., The Register, 294)

His brother, though, was unrepentant when he appeared a few weeks later,

On Thursday 22 March Philibert Berthelier also attended the Consistory by order of the Messieurs. He was sent out and recalled three or four times, but refused to acknowledge his fault and his rebelliousness, despite the fact that a number of good and godly admonitions were addressed to him. Accordingly, the ban against his partaking of the supper of our Lord remained in force. (Hughes ed., The Register, 294)

The controversy surrounding the Lord’s Supper see-sawed back and forth for several months until the elections of January 1555 changed the political mix of the Small Council and the Council of the Two Hundred in favor of the Reformers. With renewed vigor Calvin and the other ministers persuaded the Small Council to formally adopt the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, and they did so on January 24, 1555. A comprehensive victory for the Reformers was finally achieved!

On Thursday 24 January the Council of 60 and the Council of Two Hundred assemble in connection with the question of the authority of the Consistory and excommunication, and at both Councils M. Jean Calvin, in the name of the Consistory, the ministers of the city also being present with him, very adequately refuted the arguments which had been advanced for the diminution or rather the demolition of the Consistory’s authority, and demonstrated from passages of Holy Scripture and from the practice always found in the Church when it was in a state of purity what was the true use of excommunication, and to whom it belonged to excommunicate and to admit to communion. Thereupon, despite every effort of Satan to overthrow so godly and useful an order, Sr. Amblard Corne, the first Syndic, announced to the ministers in full Council that God had been victorious, and that both the Council of 60 and the Council of 200 had resolved that the Consistory should retain its status and exercise its accustomed authority, in accordance with the Word of God and the ordinances previously passed. (Hughes ed., The Register, 305)

Following the election and the success of the Reformers, the Libertines became desperate to bring about a change—and they sought to do this through anarchy and revolution. Their fractious spirit culminated in a not-too-secretive plot to foment a public riot (May 16, 1555). It was their hope was to kill Calvin and several other church officers in one swift blow. Thankfully, these murderous plans were discovered and the riot turned out to be a small affair carried out by an inebriated rabble. The rioters were quickly apprehended, yet Perrin and Berthelier fled the city and later were tried in absentia. The Libertines were finally defeated.

Who, then, possesses the authority to admit a person to the Lord’s Supper or to ban the unrepentant sinner from it—the civil magistrates or the officers of Christ’s Church? In answer to this question it is helpful to remember that God has given each one of the separate jurisdictions an implement to accomplish its mission:

  • the civil magistrate is given the “sword” to enforce the laws of the land (Romans 13:4)
  • the family is given the “rod” to enforce the laws of the home (Proverbs 13:24)
  • the church is given the “keys” to enforce the laws of the Bible (Matthew 16:19)

Specifically, the Lord Jesus said to his Apostles, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19). A few chapters later our Lord powerfully states the doctrine of excommunication that his Church should always follow. He gives precise instructions about how to treat an unrepentant sinner,

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:17-18)

It is clear, then, that our Lord gave authority to the Apostles to admit the believer to the Lord’s Table or to ban the unrepentant sinner from it—these men and their fellow church officers are given authority from the Lord both to “bind” and to “loose”. In this way they are using the “keys of the kingdom”. It is also helpful to recall what Calvin wrote that is based upon these biblical principles. He says,

The church does not assume what is proper to the magistrate; nor can the magistrate execute what is carried out by the church . . . Their functions ought to be so joined that each serves to help, not hinder, the other. (Institutes 4:11:3)

And so in conclusion, who possesses the authority to admit a person to the Lord’s Supper or to ban the unrepentant sinner from it—the civil magistrates or the officers of Christ’s Church? It is not the civil magistrate, nor the family, but the officers of Christ’s Church who have the sole authority from God to admit to the Lord’s Supper or to ban the unrepentant sinner from it. 

Resources for Further Study:
Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Fourth Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1939.

Beza, Theodore. Life of John Calvin. Edited and translated by Henry Beveridge, included in the Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters. Volume 1. Originally published in Edinburgh by the Calvin Translation Society, 1844. Reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Library of Christian Classics, vol. XXI. Edited by John T. McNeill and translated by Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1960.

Hughes, Philip E. ed. and trans., The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin, Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1966.

McKim, Donald ed. Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992.

  • “Authority”, W. Stanford Reid
  • “Beza, Theodore”, Philip C. Holtrop
  • “Calvin, John”, Hughes O. Old
  • “Calvinism”, W. Stanford Reid
  • “Confirmation/Admission to the Lord’s Supper”, James A. Whyte
  • “Church”, Jack L. Scotts
  • “Discipline, Church”, J. Wayne Baker
  • “Ecclesiastical Ordinances”, Robert D. Linder
  • “Elders”, Elsie Anne McKee
  • “Farel, William”, Charles Partee
  • “Geneva Company of Pastors”, Robert M. Kingdon
  • “Geneva Consistory”, Robert M. Kingdon
  • “Genevan Reformation”, Robert M. Kingdon
  • “Liturgy, Reformed”, David G. Buttrick
  • “Lord’s Supper”, Geoffrey W. Bromiley
  • “Sacraments”, M. Eugene Osterhaven
  • “Servetus, Michael”, Nathan P. Feldmeth
  • “Theology, Reformed”, John H. Leith
  • “Viret, Pierre”, Robert D. Linder
  • “Worship”, Hughes O. Olds

McNeill, John T. The History and Character of Calvinism. London: Oxford University Press, 1954.

Wylie, James A. The History of Protestantism. 3 Volumes. Kilkeel, N. Ireland: Mourne Missionary Trust, 1990.

Copyright May 2009. Rev. Marcus Serven, Th. M.
Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved.

Following is a table from the study that provides a summary overview of the student groups that contributor participated