Most of us probably only have a vague idea of the political structure of Geneva during the time of Calvin. I recently acquired two extremely helpful book from which the following summary has been taken. All references below are to the first book:
Robert M. Kingdon, Adultery and Divorce in Calvin's Geneva (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1995)
Robert Kingdon (General Editor), Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the Time of Calvin Volume 1: 1542-1544 (Grand Rapids:William B. Eerdmans Publishing company, 1996)
1. Calvin arrives in Geneva 1536, only a few months after Geneva formally adopts the Protestant Reformation. Calvin is hired as a public lecturer.
2. Calvin (along with Farel) is dismissed by the city government of Geneva in 1538.
3. 1541: Calvin is invited back to Geneva (Farel is not) to superintend the further reformation of the local church. Calvin drafts "a set of ecclesiastical ordinances that created a constitution for the Reformed church of the city state" (p.11). This includes the creation of an order of ministers called "the elders" who share with pastors "responsibility for controlling the behavior of Genevans" (p.11). This body was the Consistory, and begins meeting shortly thereafter the ecclesiastical ordinances were adopted by the Genevan government.
4. Geneva at this time is governed by a hierarchy of councils:
a) The General Council (of all citizens and bourgeois men, at least twenty years old, with substantial property or honorable professions). This council met once a year to elect the members of the other councils and standing committees.
b) The Council of Two Hundred: This council met on special occasions for important matters. Its duties include occasional appeals for pardon from convictions by the small Council.
c) The Council of Sixty: dealt with problems in relation to other governments.
d) The Small Council: consists of twenty five people who met every day, serving as an executive committee. There were four chosen every year to serve as presiding officers of this council (called "syndics").
5. A number of yearly elected standing committees reported to the small Council. Two of these committees had partially religious functions. The Board of Procurators of the general Hospital supervised the administration of charity (Calvin referred to these members as "deacons"), the other was the Consistory created by Calvin.
6. The presiding officer of the Consistory was one of the four presiding officers from the small Council.
7. The Consistory members (other than the presiding officer) sat on two benches:
a) The Company of Pastors: Between ten and twelve Pastors on the city payroll that were assigned to parishes; Calvin was the permanent moderator, and sat at the head of the bench.
b) The commissioners or "elders" (usually twelve) chosen once a year by election of the General Council from those names recommended by the outgoing Small Council. The elders were paid a small sum of money.
1) The elders were chosen "so that two always represented the Small Council, four represented the Council of Sixty, and six represented the Council of Two Hundred. The different areas of Geneva were also supposed to be considered in the choice of elders, so each area of Geneva was fairly represented.
2) Two officers were employed by the Consistory: a secretary and a summoner who brought people to the Consistory.
8. The Consistory met one a week on Thursday for three to four hours. It cross-examined local residents who had been summoned before it (not open to the general public). It includes the response of the accused and the Consistory's judgment, and what should be done. Certain cases were only allowed to be heard, but without a final decision being made (marital issues, divorce, etc.). In such instances, a report of the case was forwarded to the Small Council.
9. The syndic was technically was always the one in charge of the Consistory. "In point of fact, however, John Calvin often dominated the proceedings. He was always scrupulous about acknowledging that he was but one of a number of members of a collegiate body and that all decisions reached were collective, not his personal decisions. For a variety of reasons, however, the other members of the Consistory, and the members of the governing Small Council when considering appeals from the Consistory, tended to defer to Calvin" (p. 17).
10. The powers of the Consistory were limited, normally only concluding cases by administering "remonstrances" or "admonitions" "ritualized scoldings formulated by one of its members, most commonly one of the ministers, often Calvin himself" (p. 18).
11. The Consistory also had the power to excommunicate or bar someone from quarterly communion. Excommunication was highly controversial because Roman Catholic courts had used it to punish people who failed to pay taxes or failed to fulfill business obligations. Many Genevans feared it would be used as a method to gain "social control over the community by a group of newcomers, mostly from France..." (p.18-19). Excommunication was a feared social penalty because it could ostracize a person from family, friends, and business associates.
12. The Consistory hearing cases of those accused of acts involving crimes or a violation of the law referred such cases to the Small Council.