The Pragmatic Polity of the French Reformed Churches

In continuity with orthodox Christians since the third century, Reformed Protestants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries confessed the centrality of the church: “Outside the church there is no salvation.”1 Despite this lofty view, Reformed churches never reached a common consensus on the doctrine of ecclesiology. The main questions centered on what is the essence of the church, and how is the church governed.

Reformed churches possessed a nearly universal confession of faith—the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566. The Swiss, French, Scots, Dutch, Polish, Hungarians, Transylvanians, and Palatinate Germans adopted Heinrich Bullinger’s masterpiece.2 The confession offered detailed doctrinal descriptions of predestination, aspects of worship, and the Lord’s Supper; however, it delivered a more generalized treatment of ecclesiology. Although the Second Helvetic affirmed that the ‘one and an equal power or function is given to all ministers in the Church’, it also recognized that bishops had governed the Ancient Church. Chapter XVIII of the confession states, ‘No one can rightly forbid a return to the ancient constitution of the Church of God, and to have recourse to it before human custom.’3 Bullinger avoided a divine right (jure divino) case for polity, established a modified episcopacy in Zurich with superintendents instead of bishops, and deferred to the civil magistrate in cases of moral discipline.4

By 1566, Geneva was solidifying a detailed doctrine of the church and was offering something of an alternative model to that of Zurich. Although Calvin had hesitated to offer a jure divino case for a particular polity, his successor, Theodore Beza, became one of the early advocates of divine right presbyterianism.5 Beza progressed from a moderate position in Confession de la foy Chrestienne (1558) to jure divino presbyterianism in De triplici episcopatus (1576). He followed Calvin on the number and function of the ministerial offices as well as the role of the civil magistrate in church discipline.6

The 1559 Confession of Faith of the French Reformed Churches affirmed the parity of all pastors but also called for the election of superintendents.7 The superintendents were to consult amongst themselves ‘by what means the whole Body may conveniently be ruled. . . .  This doth not hinder but that in some Churches there may be those particular Constitutions, which will be more convenient for them than for others.’8 The 1603 Synod at Gap specified that ‘the word superintendent in article 32 is not to be understood of any superiority of some pastors over others, but only in general of all those who have such a commission in the church.’9 The confession evidences the pragmatic approach to ecclesiastical government adopted by the French Reformed, despite the significant influence of Beza.10 Patrick Collinson concluded that the middle of the sixteenth century was a ‘distinctive historical period which, with hindsight, appears to have been transitional—transitional in many continental churches to the emergence of presbyterian polities, less dependent on the quasi-episcopal rule of a single person.11 The French Reformed churches exemplified this transition toward a synodical form of government without adopting jure divino presbyterianism as official doctrine. Pierre du Moulin, one of the most prominent French Reformed pastors of the era, serves as a case study. 

The context of France in the second half of the sixteenth century contributed to the pragmatic polity of the French Reformed churches. Unlike Swiss or Scottish Reformed churches, which worked closely with the civil magistrate, the French Reformed churches could not collaborate with Catholic authorities, neither the crown nor local officials. Churches in the few Huguenot cities and towns did cooperate with the local governments to some degree. Even after the issuing of the Edict of Nantes in 1598, when Reformed Protestants were granted some degree of religious freedom, tensions remained between the crown and the Reformed churches. In 1623, King Louis XIII ordered that one of his officials be present at every colloquy and synod of the Reformed churches.12 Due to the lack of collaboration with the civic rulers, the French Reformed adapted a synodical government by rotating the moderator of the consistory among the pastors. Other Reformed churches typically appointed a member of the civil magistrate, rather than a pastor, as permanent moderator.13

The pragmatic approach to polity by the French Reformed churches is revealed in Article 32 of their Confession: ‘We believe that it is good and useful for all who are elected church officers to determine together the form of governance for the whole body, although they must not depart from anything ordained by our Lord Jesus Christ. This does not rule out distinctive local regulations required by particular circumstances.’ The housechurches of noble families fell under the provision of the ‘local regulations required by particular circumstances.’ French Reformed ministers who served the housechurches rarely established consistories, despite the mandate in the confession and the book of discipline, and neglected to attend synods.14 Nevertheless, they remained in good standing in the church.

The ecumenical practices of the French Reformed churches also reveal their pragmatic approach to polity. Synodical government worked well in their context, but they did not view alternative polities as barriers to ecumenism. They pursued formal ecclesiastical cooperation and union with non-synodical Reformed churches in Europe and even with Lutherans, despite their significant differences in polity.

The French Reformed churches had been pursuing unity amongst Protestants since their 1578 national Synod at Sainte-Foy.15 Nearly every subsequent national synod until 1612 approved activity related to Protestant ecumenism, including the adoption of other churches’ confessions, the proposal of a general synod of Reformed churches, and the call for collaboration on a joint confession.16 Philippe du Plessis-Mornay, the grand statesman of the Huguenots, oversaw the political aspects of Protestant union for the French Reformed.17 He wrote to the French ambassador to Denmark in 1580 and expressed his hope for a general synod of Reformed and Lutheran churches.18 Mornay continued to trumpet the cause of Protestant unity through his correspondence with political and theological leaders such as Henri of Navarre; William, Prince of Orange; Theodore Beza; and Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s secretary of state.

In March 1604, Mornay wrote to Robert Le Maçon, pastor of the congregation of French refugees in London, and related the activity of the recent Synod at Gap. Six days prior, King James I of England in a speech to Parliament expressed his desire for an ecclesiastical reunion of Catholics and Protestants.19 Mornay reported to Le Maçon that many of the delegates to the synod were delighted to see James ascend the throne of England and that they hoped his rule would produce a great advancement in the church of Christ, particularly the union of all the Reformed churches of Europe. Ironically, in the same letter, Mornay attempted to answer a request that James had issued through Le Maçon. The king desired an explanation of the synod’s ruling on a matter of church government. Mornay alleviated the king’s suspicions that the synod had undermined episcopal government.20 For the next ten years, Mornay and Pierre du Moulin attempted to support King James in his efforts to lead a movement to unite Protestantism.

The French Reformed minister who perhaps most exemplified the pragmatic approach to theology was Pierre du Moulin, pastor of the Charenton congregation (just outside Paris) until 1621 and then professor at the Reformed Academy in Sedan.

In a March 1613 letter to King James, Pierre du Moulin listed twenty articles outlining the means for uniting Protestantism, including the writing of a joint confession at an international synod.21 The unified confession would not address matters beyond those necessary to salvation, for example, Jacob Arminius’s teaching on predestination. Du Moulin believed that formulating a new confession would not cause much difficulty because the churches already agreed on the essential faith, with the only differences confined to polity and ceremony. To prevent any discord in these areas, each delegate to the international synod would declare that his church would not condemn the other churches over these differences.22

In the final point of his proposal to King James, du Moulin expressed the goal of the unified Protestants holding an ecumenical council in order to reconcile with Rome. Brown Patterson describes this hope for reconciliation as ‘breathtaking in its boldness and its apparent disregard of a century of bitterness and conflict that had followed Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses of 1517.’23 An alternative interpretation is that du Moulin had experienced much of that bitterness and conflict, having survived St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the French Wars of Religion, and sought to achieve peace between Protestants and Catholics, however unlikely.

In an advisement to du Moulin’s proposal, Philippe Duplessis-Mornay suggested that King James declare his intention that the churches represented at the pro-synod support fraternally the polity and discipline of one another for the sake of peace and concord. The statesman explained that this declaration would calm suspicions that James would seek to alter the polity of other reformed churches at the international synod (i.e., press for episcopalianism).

Du Moulin’s plan for Protestant union got lost in the controversy in the Low Countries involving Arminius. The international Synod at Dordrecht was called in November 1618 to address the theology of the Remonstrants, Arminius’s followers. Du Moulin hoped that this synod would provide an opportunity for the presentation of his plan of union. He and his committee planned to attend until King Louis XIII barred them from leaving the country.24 Du Moulin submitted a proposal for the synod to implement portions of his plan for union, namely the formulation of a joint confession and an invitation to Lutherans for dialogue. Unfortunately for King James and du Moulin, the synod quietly dropped the matter. The hopes of a Protestant union were dashed.

© Dan Borvan. All Rights Reserved.


1. Calvin’s Catechism of Geneva (Q. 104 and 105); Belgic Confession (Article 28); Scots Confession (Chapter 16); Second Helvetic Confession (Chapter 17).
2. The Church of England remained the only major Reformed church in Europe that did not officially adopt the Second Helvetic Confession.
4. For Bullinger’s ecclesiology, see Heinrich Bullinger, Decades (Zurich: 1858), particularly book five; Bruce
Gordon, Clerical Discipline and the Rural Reformation: The Synod in Zurich (Bern: Peter Lang, 1992).
5. For Calvin’s doctrine of the church, see Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.i–xii; Harro Höpfl, The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).
6. For a full treatment of Beza’s ecclesiology, see Tadataka Maruyama, The Ecclesiology of Theodore Beza: the Reform of the True Church (Geneva: Droz, 1978). Maruyama explains the importance of polity to Beza, “It can be said without it being an overstatement that for Beza the success or failure of the reform of the true church depends on the establishment of true government in the church,” 228.
7. The synods at Gap (1603) and La Rochelle (1607) affirmed the parity of ministers and the permanency of superintendents. Quick, Synodicon, i. xiii, 227, 266; J. Aymon, ed., Tous Les Synodes, 2 vols (The Hague, 1710), i. 259, 303.
8. Quick, Synodicon, i. xiii.
9. Quick, Synodicon, i. 259.
10. Cameron suggested a similar pragmatism in the creation of Scottish superintendents: ‘If there were doctrinal, theological, or ecclesiological reasons then they are not expressed in the First Book of Discipline. The problem was the practical one’. Cameron, ‘Office of Superintendent’, 243.
11. Collinson, ‘Episcopacy and Quasi-Episcopacy’, 232.
12. Quick, Synodicon, ii. 273–8.
13. Sunshine, Reforming French Protestantism, 60.
14. Sunshine, Reforming French Protestantism, 144–7.
15. Aymon, Tous Les Synodes, i. 131–3, 157, 170, 201, 227, 246, 274; Quick, Synodicon, i. 120–2, 143–4, 153, 180, 200, 218, 239.
16. Aymon, Synodes, i. 131–3, 157, 170; Quick, Synodicon, i. 120–1, 143, 153.
17. For a full treatment of Mornay’s ecumenical activity, see R. Linder, ‘The French Calvinist Response to the Formula of Concord’, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 19 (Winter 1982), 25–7.
18. Mornay, Mémoires et Correspondence, ii. 86.
19. James declared that he longed to be ‘one of the members of such a generall Christian union in Religion, as laying wilfulnesse aside on both hands, wee might meete in the middest, which is the Center and perfection of all things.’ Sommerville, Political Writings, 140.
20. Mornay, Mémoires et Correspondence (Paris, 1824), ix. 544.
21. Philippe Duplessis-Mornay wrote in October 1613 that he strongly approved the plan. In subsequent versions, he added a second meeting at which the unified Reformed would dialogue with Lutherans..
22. Following the union of the Reformed churches, the delegates would attempt to meet with representatives of Lutheran churches for the purpose of achieving broad doctrinal unity.
23. Patterson, James VI and I, 179.
24. See D. Sinnema, ‘French Reformed Churches, Arminianism, and the Synod of Dort’, in M. Klauber, ed., The Theology of the French Reformed Churches (Grand Rapids, 2014), 98–136.


    Post authored by:

  • Dan Borvan
    Author Image

    Dan was educated at Westminster Seminary California and Oxford University. He wrote an MA thesis on Faustus Socinus (2011) and a DPhil. thesis (Oxford, 2019) on Pierre Du Moulin, “Fighting For The Faith: Pierre Du Moulin’s Polemical Quest.” Dan is chairman of the Heidelberg Reformation Association and pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, CA.

    More by Dan Borvan ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!