Last week I said I’d continue this stream on the church and the importance of the visible church. This will be the last post in this till I round the bend and begin to think about how baptism relates to the visible church and how all this connects to the issue of apostasy.
Two main points became clear in my last post (at least to me). First, God has given us the church, the visible church, and all her ministries because we absolutely need them. We need preaching. We need discipline. We need the church as an anchor for our doctrine. We need the spiritual food we receive at the Table. Without them, there is little hope we’ll survive in the faith. Second, Paul threatens those who persist in error – whether teaching lies or living in persistent sin – with excommunication. This is cutting off from the people of God, the visible church, is tantamount to ‘handing them over to Satan’. The Church is Christ’s spiritual kingdom. For the time being, the world outside is Satan’s realm.
I want to push this discussion in a slightly different direction – a more Christocentric one. So far, I’ve argued the church is necessary for us. But I think there’s more to it.
Nevin approaches the necessity of the visible church differently. He writes, “The life of Christ in the Church, is in the first place inward and invisible. But to be real, it must also become outward…the Church must be visible as well as invisible. In no other way can the idea become real.” He draws a parallel between man and the church: a man’s body is not the sum total of the man – there is a soul to be considered also; yet, without a body there is no real man. “Humanity,” writes Nevin, “is not a corpse on the one hand, nor a phantom on the other.” So, the inward life of the church and the outward form must go hand in hand – “Religion must have forms, as well as an inward living force.” Nevin contends that the church outwardly manifests the inward life of Christ which animates her, and apart from this outward manifestation, no life can truly be said to exist. The invisible church, argued Nevin, can have no proper existence apart from the visible. DG Hart explains, The church, in other words, was the manifestation in the natural world of the resurrected Christ, literally and supernaturally the body of Christ.”
Our first, knee-jerk response may be that Nevin is pushing the body image too far. I don’t think so. Schweitzer writes, “Thy Mystical Body of Christ is for Paul not a pictorial expression nor a conception which has arisen out of symbolical and ethical reflections, but an actual entity.” Certainly the body image with all its members is metaphor, but it’s metaphor based on an ontological reality – Christ’s life manifested outwardly in the church.
What does this mean to us practically?
First, to cut oneself off from the visible church is to cut oneself off from the church, from the people of God. As members of the body, we are connected to the life that flows from our head ONLY by being connected to the body. Self amputation is not a good idea.
Second, we ought to consider carefully the easy abandonment of one body in favor of another. Calvin writes convincingly (and convictingly – is that a word?), “there is no excuse for him who spontaneously abandons the external communion of a church in which the Word is preached and the sacraments are administered.” Among these non-excuses he included minor doctrinal differences (though, when the gospel is destroyed a church ceases to exist), hypocrisy, and sin in the church (even by large portions of the church). Those things don’t mean the church ceases to exist or isn’t still worthy of our reverence. Only when those doctrines that are central to the gospel are perverted. How radical does this sound to us who live in a church culture where people leave because they were offended by a joke, don’t like the song selection, find a better kids thing somewhere, etc.
In summary, the visible church matters – on so many levels, for so many reasons, it matters. But who belongs to the visible church? That’s where we’re going next in the upcoming posts about baptism.