Geneva was governed by city councils, not by John Calvin.
The councils ran the churches as well, with approval authority over everything from the liturgy to church discipline.
The latter was the first bone of contention between Calvin and the councils.
Calvin wanted the churches to have the right to deny the Lords Supper to unrepentant sinners.
The councils refused .
Calvin made a huge issue of this.
The councils threw him out of town.
So ended John Calvins’ first stay in Geneva.
He took refuge in Strasbourg with Martin Bucer…and there learned from a seasoned Reformer the people skills and methods to reform a city.
The Strasbourg years were the happiest for Calvin…but Geneva beseeched him to return and with great reluctance, he did.
His job was to bring reformation the not only the church, but the city and the daily lives of the citizenry.
American evangelicals would have hated it.
Because the church and state were utterly intertwined, sinning was not only a church issue, but often against the law.
Those caught sinning would appear before the “consistory”, which met on a weekly basis.
It was composed of pastors and councilmen and it would prescribe pastoral counseling or punishments meant to lead people to repentance.
Continued open sin and rebellion could lead to jail or expulsion from the city.
The objective was to create a truly “Christian” and reformed city…and to some measure it was successful, though never to the level hoped.
Despite their wars with each other, Roman Catholics and Protestants agreed on one thing for twenty some years.
Michael Servetus was a damnable heretic.
Servetus denied both the Trinity and the deity of Christ and he did so loudly, profanely, and often.
He was wanted throughout Europe, not for speaking engagements but for the stake.
Servetus was particularly obsessed with Calvin…they exchanged numerous letters and correspondence that ended when Servetus sent a marked up copy of the Institutes to Calvin showing less than polite disagreement.
He was finally captured by the Roman Catholics in Vienne and was held for trial.
The night before the execution he requested to be taken to the outhouse…which he somehow escaped from.
He went straight to Geneva, where he was recognized and arrested while attending church with Calvin preaching.
The council put him on trial for heresy, with Calvin being the chief witness for the prosecution.
He was found guilty, but his sentencing took a couple of months.
The council wanted the input of the other Swiss Reformed cities and even gave Servetus the option of being sentenced in Geneva or Vienne.
In the interim, Calvin visited Servetus in prison on many occasions in an attempt to bring him the Gospel and to persuade him to recant his heresies, but was rudely rebuffed.
Servetus chose Geneva…and the rest of the Reformed cities demanded his execution lest it become known that they (the Reformed) were soft on heresy and give place to Rome.
Calvin asked that Servetus be executed by beheading (which was considered more merciful than the fire), but his request was denied.
Servetus was executed by the state on Oct 27, 1553, the fire started in a pile of his books at his feet.
While it utterly and justifiably offends our modern sensibilities to read of the execution of a heretic, it is an odd and unfair twist of history that Calvin has borne the weight of this matter for 500 years.
In the 16th century, all of Europe, whether Catholic or Protestant believed heresy was a crime against the state as much as the church.
Calvin had no authority to condemn anyone…he wasn’t even given citizenship until a few years before his death.
The lessons to be learned here have little to do with the character of John Calvin…and much to be learned about the proper relationship between church and state.