“Gathering a Church”: Calvin’s Terminology for Church-Planting

The Reformers have often been criticized for a lack of missionary vision and effort. I recently had the opportunity to evaluate such criticisms and to research the actual teachings and activities of Luther and Calvin concerning what we now call “missions,” whether foreign missions or home missions (the Bible makes no distinction between the two). I reached the conclusions that critics of the Reformers on this matter are laboring under several false assumptions: 1) the assumption that the absence of the term “missions” indicates an absence of the concept of missions; 2) the assumption of a modern and very narrow definition of what constitutes “missions”; and 3) the assumption of missiology as a theological discipline separate from ecclesiology (whereas it should be considered a subset of ecclesiology).

In reality, the Reformers taught and practiced much with regard to missions. As Michael Horton concludes, “If one maintains that it was the greatest recovery of the biblical faith since the first century, the Reformation constitutes the most remarkable missionary movement in post-apostolic church history.”[1] Calvin, in particular, was extremely missionary-minded and missions-engaged.[2] Under his leadership, the church in Geneva sent hundreds of church-planters and missionaries (though they simply considered them as ministers or pastors) throughout Europe, especially to Catholic France, and even to Brazil when given a singular opportunity.[3] Many of those sent out from Geneva were martyred, so many that the graduates of the Genevan Academy frequently referred to their diplomas as death sentences.[4]

When one surveys the writings of Calvin, he will find much concerning the duty of missions, of both the “home” and “foreign” varieties. Calvin may not use the term “church-planting,” but the concept is indeed present. The language that Calvin does use in several places is that of “gathering” or “collecting” a church.[5] As I conducted my research, this terminology arrested me. The language of “planting” a church is certainly Biblical (cf. 1 Cor. 3:6-9); yet Calvin’s language has much to commend it and perhaps can supplement our own conceptions of this endeavor.

In particular, this phrase “gathering a church” is helpful in keeping a God-oriented perspective in the task of home missions. Perhaps we can be tempted at times to think of church-planting like we think of planting a garden: there is nothing there until we come in and introduce something that never existed there before in any form. But Calvin’s language reminds us that, wherever a church is planted, God has already been at work in that place and already has his elect there, in a sense, just waiting to be “gathered.” This idea is present in Christ’s words to Paul concerning Corinth in Acts 18:9-10: “Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” The same truth is assumed throughout the book of Acts: wherever the gospel comes, God already has His people, elect though not yet converted. The task of the missionary or church-planter is simply to “gather” them through the faithful proclamation of the gospel.

This God-oriented perspective is then both encouraging to us and glorifying to God. It is encouraging to us (as it was to Paul in Corinth) as it reminds us that our efforts to plant a church are not purely dependent on our own strength, wisdom, charisma, persuasiveness, etc. The success of our endeavors, if they be according to God’s will, is secured by His purpose and providence.[6] Likewise, it is also glorifying to God: as Paul asserts in 1 Cor. 3:7, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” Calvin’s language reminds us that God not only gives the growth after man plants and waters but that God also has been at work preparing the soil long before the first man plants. From beginning to end – indeed from before the foundation of the world and the whole way through – God is active to make our efforts to “gather a church” effective. May He continue to do so through our associational labors and to His eternal glory.


[1] Michael Horton, “Was the Reformation Missions-Minded,” Modern Reformation 4, no. 3 (May/June 1995): 27-29.

[2] See such studies as W. Stanford Reid, “Calvin’s Geneva: A Missionary Centre,” The Reformed Theological Review XLII, no. 3 (September-December 1983):  65-74; David B. Calhoun, “John Calvin: Missionary Hero or Missionary Failure?” Presbyterion 5, no. 1 (Spring 1979): 16-33; Joel R. Beeke, “Calvin’s Evagelism,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 15 (2004): 67-86; Michael A.G. Haykin, “Calvin and the Missionary Endeavor of the Church,” in Calvin for Today, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009): 169-179.

[3] The account of this remarkable endeavor was recorded by one of its Genevan survivors Jean de Léry. A summary of his account can be found in R. Peirce Beaver, “The Genevan Mission to Brazil,” Reformed Journal 17, no. 6 (July-August 1967): 14-20. An English translation of de Léry’s journal is available in Jean de Léry, History of a Journey to the Land of Brazil, tr. Janet Whatley (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990).

[4] W. Robert Godfrey, John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 136.

[5] See, for instance, Calvin’s Institutes III.20.42 and his commentary on Isaiah 2:3.

[6] Of course, this does not imply that human agency is unnecessary or deemphasized: as Calvin himself states in his comments on Isaiah 2:3, “This points out to us also the ordinary method of collecting a Church, which is, by the outward voice of men; for though God might bring each person to himself by a secret influence, yet he employs the agency of men, that he may awaken in them an anxiety about the salvation of each other.” John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, vol. 1, tr. William Pringle (reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003), 94.

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