Multipart Series on the Church

Through the years I’ve realized how sickly my theology of the church was. I’ve invested more time and energy on studying and thinking about the church than almost any other topic. This series was born out of the study and teaching at ECC.

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Redux, and On Baptism & Mother Kirk

Part One

Really, what is the church?

If you take your cues from the contemporary evangelical world, it’s a voluntary society – like the Kiwanis or Rotary club, like the Gideons or YMCA. Apparently we’ve learned our ecclessiology from John Locke. Locke wrote,

“A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls. I say it is a free and voluntary society. Nobody is born a member of any church; …everyone joins himself voluntarily to that society in which he believes he has found that profession and worship which is truly acceptable to God. The hope of salvation, as it was the only cause of his entrance into that communion, so it can be the only reason of his stay there. For if afterwards he discover anything either erroneous in the doctrine or incongruous in the worship of that society to which he has joined himself, why should it not be as free for him to go out as it was to enter? A church, then, is a society of members voluntarily uniting to that end” (emphasis added).

That’s different than another John I know. Calvin wrote,

“When we say that the pure ministry of the word and pure celebration of the sacraments is a fit pledge and earnest, so that we may safely recognize a church in every society in which both exist, our meaning is, that we are never to discard it so long as these remain, though it may otherwise teem with numerous faults. Nay, even in the administration of word and sacraments defects may creep in which ought not to alienate us from its communion…we are not on account of every minute difference to abandon a church, provided it retain sound and unimpaired that doctrine in which the safety of piety consists, and keep the use of the sacraments instituted by the Lord” (Institutes, 4.1.11).

Calvin has spoken. It’s not a voluntary association to be thrown away lightly on account of any little disagreement. But what does Scripture say? What is the church?

It is not a simple question, or not a question that one can answer simply. The Bible piles up the metaphors to describe the church: body, building, bride, temple, family, etc. Sometimes the Scriptures seem to speak of the church in its ideal state, other times in the very real, impure state we experience it in now.  The distinction between the invisible church and the visible church is incredibly important and helpful when held together.

Calvin acknowledges both aspects, writing, “I have observed that the Scriptures speak of the church in two ways. Sometimes when they speak of the the Church they mean the Church as it really is before God – the Church into which none are admitted but those who by the gift of adoption are sons of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit true members of Christ”

In this case, the church is comprised of all the elect scattered across the globe and all the saints who have ever lived. This is the invisible church. But Calvin recognizes the visible church and it’s indispensability too,

“Often, too, by the name of Church is designated the whole body of mankind scattered throughout the world, who profess to worship one God and Christ, who by baptism are initiated into the faith; by partaking of the Lord’s Supper profess unity in true doctrine and charity, agree in holding the word of the Lord and observe the ministry which Christ has appointed for the preaching of it”

Before jumping all over the part about baptism, notice the very visible nature of it. This isn’t a subjective thing, but very objective. Do you confess the faith of the Church? Have you been baptized? Do you partake? Do you go to church? Then you are a part of the church.

Calvin could be mistakenly taken to mean here that the church is the simply the collection of individual believers. It is that, but it’s more – it’s the Mother and her children, the institution and the members of it. He speaks of the Church “into whose bosom God is pleased to collect his children, not only that by her aid and ministry they may be nourished so long as they are babes and children, but also be guided by her maternal care until they grow up into manhood, and finally attain to the perfection of faith”

Interestingly, Calvin felt he needed to qualify his statement, saying that when he speaks of the church, he doesn’t JUST mean the visible church, but all the elect. Today, I think he’d qualify in the opposite way – I don’t JUST mean the invisible church.

Again, the emphasis is on the objective, not our subjective evaluation of our (or someone else’s) faith. When speaking of the invisible church, it’s based on the objective decree of God in election. When speaking of the visible church, it’s based on the objective confession, baptism, and participation in the church.

Well, long post and not a single verse of Scripture. We shall have to remedy that next post.

Part Two

In the last post I contended that the church isn’t a voluntary society like the Rotary Club. I also introduced the taxonomy of “invisible church” and “the visible church”.  Here I want to offer biblical support for these categories.

Before that though, a short definition of ‘church’ may be helpful. The word church (or Kirk or Kirche) come from the Greek word κυριακός (kuriakos) meaning “belonging to the Lord”. The word only shows up twice in Scripture: once in 1 Cor. 11:20 where it refers to the Lord’s Supper and once in Rev. 1:10 where it refers to the Lord’s Day. The word became the customary word to designate the place where Christians worshiped as they conceived of themselves as the spiritual house belonging to the Lord. This word church eventually became the translators preference when translating the Greek word ἐκκλησία (ekklessia), which literally means ‘gathering’ and need not carry religious overtones. Robert Reymond asserts, “Because of this, English translations have lost a rich nuance of Scripture regarding the people of God.” (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 805).

What does he mean? The best, simplest definition of ‘the church’ is the community of God’s people through all time. This includes the OT people of God who were redeemed by grace through faith. It includes the living and the dead who have been saved by the cross work of Christ.  This fact is obscured somewhat by the [necessary]  translation process.

The word ekklessia is used in several places in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT) to refer to “the assembly of the Lord” in the OT. For example, Deuteronomy 23:1-3 lists people who shall not enter “the assembly of the Lord”. In the Septuagint, the Hebrew is translated ekklesia, the same word we now translate church (similarly, see Deut 4:10, Josh 8:35, 1 Chron 29:10, etc.).  In Acts 7:38 Stephen uses the word ekklessia to refer to the assembly of Israel in the wilderness.

The point of this word study is to emphasize the unity of the covenant people of God, the church, through the ages. (See also James’ defense of the mission to the Gentiles in Acts 15 where he connects the building of the church & the incorporation of Gentiles with the promise recorded by Amos that God would “rebuild the tents of David that have fallen”).

But what of the distinction between the visible and the invisible church? First a clarification. The visible and invisible churches are not two separate churches, but the same church considered differently – one from God’s perspective, the other from our earthly one.

References to the visible church are everywhere in the NT.Many uses demand to be taken in reference to the visible church. I think Matthew 18:17 is certainly one – you tell the visible church of your brothers sin against you. Virtually all the uses in Acts refer to the visible church (Acts 8:1, 11:22, 14:23,27, etc). Its obvious that references throughout the NT to the ‘church that meets in’ so-and-so’s house is the visible church (Rom 16:5, Philemon 2, Col 4:15). Moreover, the passages that speak of sin not being tolerated or church discipline in the church must be references tot he visible church (1 Cor 5:12, 6:4, etc.). I’m sure there’s more. But, I think its clear that in these visible communities there were unbelievers as well as believers. Both make up the visible church, only the true believers comprise the invisible church.

Does Scripture make this distinction?

Yes, I think it does, often within the context of apostasy (which we’ll consider in depth later). So, for example, Jesus can warn or wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15-16, see also Matt 7:21-23, 1 John 2:19-20, 2 Peter 2:20-22). They come into the church, are a part of the visible church, but seek to destroy it, proving they aren’t a part of the invisible church (as God sees it). Likewise, Paul warns that there will be those who swerve from the faith, but reminds Timothy that while he may not be able to tell in advance who those will be, “The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Tim 2:19).

More positively, you can look to John 17. Here Jesus is praying for the invisible church – the elect who are presently in the world and those elect yet to be born. Also, when the author of Hebrews speaks of “the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven” he is speaking of the invisible church (Hebrews 13:23).

So which matters most? Both! Both are essential. The visible church, not just the invisible church “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXV.2).

We’ll explore that more in the next post.

Part Three

I concluded the last post in this series quoting from the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states, “The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (Chapter XXV, Article 2).

I want to follow up on that, arguing that fellowship in the visible church is absolutely necessary for the believer. I’ll let Calvin articulate what I plan to defend, “But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is…Beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for” (Institutes 4.1.4).

How can the Westminster Divines claim that outside the church there no hope of salvation? Is Calvin on crack?

Saying you can’t be saved outside the church is like a sailor in a lifeboat shouting to a person treading water in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean – “Get in the lifeboat. Out there in the water there’s no hope you’ll survive.”  God, knowing how weak we are, how frail our faith is, and how Satan prowls around like a lion hellbent on destroying has given us the ministry of the church to preserve us in our faith. Because of our weakness, we need the external helps which God has seen fit to deposit in the Church, in “accommodation to our infirmity.”

Consider Ephesians 4:11-14:

“And he [Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

Calvin comments on this passage, “God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by the education of the Church” (Institutes 4.1.5).

Consider for a moment what neglecting the ministry of the church says about God. It says, “God, you went to the trouble of establishing the church and instituting her ministries. You think I need to hear the word preached by your ministers. You think I need the sacraments. I disagree. I think I can do it alone, without the helps you have given me in the church.” Bold. Foolhardy.

What Paul says in Ephesians 4 is reflected in his words to Timothy as well. In Ephesians 4 Paul says the through the ministry of the church brings us to maturity so that we won’t be tossed about by every wind of doctrine, human cunning, or deceit. In 1 Timothy Paul says, “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth ” (1 Tim 3:15). The church is a pillar and buttress of the truth. It’s to keep us from being blown around.

If we do not take advantage of these helps, we have no chance of persevering. Calvin again writes, “For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars.” And, “The paternal favor of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar people, and hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal.” One more, “All who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the Church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine.”

Consider two other passages similar to one another. In 1 Timothy 1:20 Paul says that, “By rejecting this [faith and good conscience], some have made shipwreck of their faith, 20 among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.”  Similarly, to the church at Corinth Paul says, “For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing [slept with his fathers wife]. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 5:5).

The 1 Corinthians passage makes clear that the person was to be excommunicated – put outside the church. This Paul equates with handing over to Satan.  The world is Satan’s kingdom. The church is the outpost of the Kingdom of God. The immoral person is put outside as a remedial action, so his carnal/fleshly self may be destroyed through the ordeal of being put out and likely by physical suffering. Having been chastised he will ultimately find salvation and after suffering be restored to the church (2 Cor 2:5-8 – though this person restored is probably the leader of the anti-Paul movement and not the sexual immoral person, the same principle holds).

I will continue this stream of thought in the next post, picking up a slightly different tributary and thinking through the ramifications for those who willingly leave the visible church. Fun, fun.

Part Four

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.


Maybe I should quite posting and just embed his videos. Great teaching, if it a bit hyper.

Baptism into Mother Kirk

I’ve written four posts now on the church, making the case that the visible church is far more important to the Christian’s life, even their salvation, than most evangelicals assume. But who is in the visible church? Those who go through a membership class? Those who attend on Sunday? What serves to connect someone to the visible church?

I believe it is baptism that inducts us into membership in the church visible and thereby connects us to the visible body of Christ.

I’ll make a case for this over the next few posts, but let me start here quoting several important confessions of faith on baptism, union with Christ, and membership in the church.

Scottish Confession of Faith: We assuredly believe that by baptism we are engrafted in Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his justice, by the which our sins are covered and remitted; and also, that in the supper, rightly used, Christ Jesus is so joined with us, that he becomes the very nourishment and food of our souls

Westminster Confession of Faith, 28.1: Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible Church; but also to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life.Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in His Church until the end of the world.
39 Articles, Article XXVII: Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or New-Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed, Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.

Heidelberg Catechsim Question 74: Are infants also to be baptized? Answer: Yes: for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult; they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the christian church; and be distinguished from the children of unbelievers as was done in the old covenant or testament by circumcision, instead of which baptism is instituted in the new covenant.

And from a couple theologians I appreciate:
Edmond Clowney: “Baptism is recognized as the mark of membership in Christ’s church by those outside it…in baptism we are numbered amongst the children of God, receiving the name of our Father, written, as it were, on our foreheads. To be sure, the washing of God’s regenerating grace is accomplished by the water of the Spirit, no that of the font, but the outward sign functions precisely because it is outward; it is the Lord’s visible seal of his invisible grace.”

John Frame: “It is baptism that gives us the right to be recognized as Christians, unless or until we are excommunicated. Thus, it gives us the right to be part of the great work God is doing through his church.”