Reformed Church Planting Before And After Christendom

In April 2010, Sebastian Heck conducted the first worship service of a new Reformed congregation in the city of Heidelberg. A German native, the pastor trained for the ministry at a non-denominational seminary in Germany before pursuing doctoral studies in the United States. His work is part of a church-planting effort overseen and subsidized by a congregation in the Presbyterian Church of America (a denomination formed in 1973 from conservative opposition to liberal and ecumenical trends in the Southern Presbyterian Church). In fact, Heck Heck’s ministerial credentials come from a presbytery in the state of Georgia. After a year of conducting services, the Independent Evangelical Reformed Church in Heidelberg is small, dedicated, and working to secure an arrangement with city authorities to allow its members to worship in the historic Church of the Holy Spirit. The start of this congregation is indicative of the enormous changes between the sixteenth-century origins of Calvinism and contemporary prospects for Reformed churches. It also demonstrates an important feature of Calvinism’s global reach and presence.

When Reformed Protestantism emerged in the 1520s, pastors like Ulrich Zwingli could not rent a room in a center-city facility to conduct Protestants worship services. Instead they needed approval from the city council to meet at all, and once they secured the magistrate’s backing they automatically gained access to the city’s church buildings. The same was true for the city of Heidelberg. Some forty Years later, even if the form of government differed from Zurich. When Pierre Boquin teamed up with other Reformed theologians at Heidelberg University and instituted reforms of the cities congregations, they did so at the behest and with the approval of Frederick III. To Zwingli or Boquin, the idea of believers meeting on their own and voluntarily supporting a pastor under the jurisdiction of a foreign church body would have been inconceivable.

In early modern Europe churches were woven into the fabric of the social order, and any change threatened both earthly and heavenly powers. That is why the church reforms introduced by Calvinism could not have survived without the endorsement of civil authorities. But in late modern Europe, churches are simply one of many forms of human organization that citizens and rulers may support or ignore, with no direct bearing on the well-being of communities or residents. This is why starting Reformed churches in cities like Heidelberg is possible, despite the history and traditions of German Reformed Protestantism that haunt the city, and why these churches may survive without the endorsement of contemporary German rulers. That seismic shift in church-state relations and in modern understandings of religion’s importance puts an exclamation point on the challenges that led Calvinists first to deplore the demise of Christendom and then to laud the benefits of differentiating the religious and secular spheres.

D. G. Hart Calvinism: A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 295–96. (For more on Sebastian’s work see Reformation2Germany and this Heidelcast episode.)


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