So Matt and Brad have asked the question that is lurking behind a good bit of this discussion, and that has to do with the nature of authority.
When must Christians submit to authority? At what point is a Christian justified in fleeing that authority, rejecting authority, etc?
I just want to start the conversation by answering two points from the comments of the Who Do You Trust? post.
First, as to Matt’s last assertion that Calvin always had the option of submitting, this is just not the case. The historical circumstances were incredibly topsy-turvy not to mention the fact that he was a wanted man from time to time. When they’re killing all your friends and chasing you with swords, that’s not exactly an invitation to dialogue. Perhaps you’ve heard of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre? Christ establishes families and says what God has joined together let no man put asunder, and yet when a husband begins beating his wife and children, the wife has a biblical obligation to run. Authority is not absolute, automatic, or irrevocable, sacrament or no sacrament. And when the family has a long tradition of beating wives and children, the wife has an even greater obligation to break that tradition.
I put up a post a while ago here which covered some of the exact same points focusing on the idea of unity, but the same point holds for the concept of authority as well. It is simply not true that the foundation of ecclesiastical authority is found in people. God certainly bestows authority on particular people as he wishes and normally it should be orderly and predictable, but the foundation of ecclesiastical authority is Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible Triune God. This is why when Paul is speaking about unity and humility he grounds it in the person of the “One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4:6).
Second, as to Brad’s question in the comments regarding the reformers’ willingness to reform within, I would again appeal to the analogy of the brow-beaten wife. Of course a wife is biblically required to submit to her husband in the Lord. But when that husband abuses her and her children and for many years, she is not under the obligation to stay and suck it up. And it won’t do to tisk-tisk that same wife when she objects to moving home after only a year or two of slightly better behavior. And it is simply not true that this refusal to trust an abusive husband somehow throws Paul’s injunctions to Christian wives out the window. It is not a threat to authority to tell an abused wife to run. Neither is it a threat to the church authority to flee the bishop who wants your head on a pike. And when he chuckles and invites you to talk things over a few weeks later, I wouldn’t blame anyone for staying far away (in fact I would advise it). Several centuries of high-handed abuse doesn’t qualify the abuser for leniency when he calls for a Church Council. At the same time, surely you are aware that there were continuing talks between Geneva and RCC bishops. At least one conference resulted in a united statement on justification. But the Magisterium required those bishops to repudiate their attempted peace. Likewise, there were Protestants at the Council of Trent and a number Protestant-minded Catholics as well. Bucer, for one, is famous (or infamous) for his attempts at reconciliation throughout his life. But for all the progress that the RCC has made, modern day Catholics that do not recognize the gross failings of the established church leading up to the Protestant Reformation are simply blind. This does not mean it was not the church of Jesus Christ, but God is not bound by human tradition. As lovely as an unbroken chain of bishops might be, God was pleased to go beyond that, and it has still pleased him to do so. I’m sure there were a number of Israelites none too pleased with the Reformation of Samson in the era of the Judges either, but it was still the work of the Holy Spirit delivering the people of God from her enemies. The work of Calvin, Luther, Wycliff, Huss, Bucer, and Zwingli was no less heroic.
Lurking beneath questions of ecclesiastical authority is the question of what Jesus actually commanded his apostles and therefore what we are required to follow, and this gets at Brad’s assertion that Presbyterianism was/is an historically novel notion. But again, that’s simply not the case. The early church was a gloriously messy place, and it is simply not true that all the orders of bishops, presbyters, and deacons had shiny little job descriptions. The way Christian authority works and has always worked is through the way of service. If you want to be great in the Kingdom of God you must become like a little child and a slave of all. Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius, Tertullian, Origen, and even Cyprian in the middle of the third century are not working with fully developed Episcopal forms of church government. It does not prove anything to quote them saying they have bishops. We do too even if we don’t call our pastors by that name. Ambrose of Milan (376) and even Augustine later on refer to the fact that their customs of church government where not the law of the church by divine fiat but rather rested on the wisdom of the church to build unity and order. And this does not mean that I don’t think we have anything to learn from the fact that through most of the church’s history it has been organized in an Episcopalian fashion. Nor am I defending every last thing the reformers did or said. I am saying they are/were heroes of the faith, judges like Samson and Gideon who delivered God’s people from hirelings that had broken into the sheepfold. And it doesn’t matter if hands were laid on their head, they spoke in tongues at their ordination, or they were dressed exactly like shepherds. You can always tell a tree by its fruit, and you can always tell a hireling by his way with the sheep.