The Consistory. The five pastors in Geneva and the twelve elders were organized into a Consistory. In some respects it was like the session in a modern Presbyterian church; in other respects it was somewhat like presbytery. It was the duty of the Consistory to govern the church and to administer discipline. It is well to keep in mind that Calvin was not able to put into practice his ideal for the free election of elders by the people, as the City Council insisted on having a part in their selection. So in the Consistory we see a mixing of the church and the civil government in a way that would be repugnant to Presbyterians today. But that was four hundred years ago.
The Consistory placed great emphasis upon discipline. Detailed rules for Christian living were drawn up, and it was the duty of the Consistory to see that the people observed these rules. The records show that people were disciplined for various offenses, including these: cursing and swearing, adultery, attempting to commit suicide, for spending their time in taverns, for playing cards on Sunday evenings, for arranging a marriage between a woman of seventy and a man of twenty-five, for singing obscene songs, for wife-beating, for betrothing a daughter to a Papist, and so forth. Thus they were disciplined for gross sins and for some that did not seem so gross.
Church attendance was made compulsory. Excuses given for non-attendance are interesting and some of them sound very modern. One man had to stay at home with a three-year-old child; another was too deaf to hear; another had to work on Sunday; still another had to stay at home and look after the house and cattle.
The Confession of Faith. Calvin and Farel had prepared a Confession of Faith and a Catechism before they were banished. These were revised and enlarged and adopted by the church. In the Confession of Faith and Catechism we have set forth in clear and fairly simple form the Calvinistic system of doctrine. This Confession of Faith was to have a marked influence upon Confessions and Creeds that were formulated later in France, the Netherlands, Scotland and England. While the Presbyterian Church gets its name from its form of government, it also stands for a system of doctrine. Presbyterianism and Calvinism usually go hand in hand.
Reforming Geneva. John Calvin, armed with the Bible as the word of God, the Confession of Faith, and the Form of Government and Discipline, with the Consistory behind him, set out upon the great task of reforming Geneva. In so doing, he started a movement which has profoundly influenced the whole of Christendom.
No man ever worked harder at a task than did John Calvin. He preached several times each week, taught theology, wrote commentaries, superintended a whole system of schools, wrote books and pamphlets, carried on an extensive correspondence with Reformation leaders all over Europe, and took oversight of the Reform movement in Geneva. He was interested in everything that affected the lives and welfare of the people. He believed that Christianity should be carried into every relationship of life. A distinguished historian states it this way:
“The material prosperity of the city was not neglected. Greater cleanliness was introduced, which is next to Godliness, and promotes it. Calvin insisted upon the removal of filth from houses and the narrow and crowded streets. He induced the magistrates to superintend the markets, and to prevent the sale of unhealthy food, which was to be cast into the Rhone. Low taverns and drinking shops were abolished, and intemperance diminished. Mendicancy in the streets was prohibited. A hospital and poor-house were provided and well-conducted. Efforts were made to give useful employment to every man who could work. Altogether Geneva owes her moral and temporal prosperity, her intellectual and literary activity, her social refinement, and her world-wide fame very largely to the reformation and the discipline of Calvin. He set a high and noble example of a model community.”
John Knox, the great Scottish reformer, was a refugee in Geneva during the years 1554-1559. He afterwards gave this testimony concerning the work of Calvin in Geneva:
“It is the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles. In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion to be so seriously reformed, I have not yet seen in any place besides.”