Conversations in Reformed biblical theology

ecclesiology (Main)

Introduction

The Church, Paul affirms, is the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ.

Strong language indeed! But - what Church? It has become increasingly popular to suggest that it is “the invisible Church” which possesses these lofty titles. This, it is thought, is the Reformation antidote against Rome’s exaltation of the institutional Church as the mediator of Christ’s grace.

Surprisingly, however, the earliest Reformed confessions frequently make statements that undercut such a radical dichotomy between the Church as visible or invisible. For example, the Belgic Confession (Article 28) says this: “this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and outside of it there is no salvation.” This almost sounds like the “invisible Church” - except that it is “an assembly.” More significantly, this statement is part of a sentence which says “that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.” This description simply cannot refer to an invisible entity. It is unintelligible to say that one must not withdraw from the invisible Church, “content to be by himself,” or that one must serve for the edification of unknowable brethren belonging to an invisible Church. And this means that the Belgic Confession teaches that outside of the visible Church there is no salvation.

In other words, a tight relationship between Church and salvation is not “Roman Catholic.” It is historic Reformed teaching.

Far from being a remnant of unreformed thought, this is faithful to Scripture. When Paul writes that the Church is the body of Christ, he is not talking about some entity unseen by his readers. To the contrary, it is because these people he is writing to are collectively Christ’s body that they are members one of another, and therefore responsible for mutual care. It is this Church with identifiable people and identifiable gifts (1 Cor 12.4-11) that constitutes the body of Christ (1 Cor 12.12-13), and so are united in Christ and called upon to suffer with one another, serve one another, and honour one another (1 Cor 12.14-26). “You,” Paul says, “are the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12.27).

It is this visible flock, among which elders labour and serve, for whom Christ died (Acts 20:28).

It is no compromise of Christ’s uniqueness to say that salvation is found within the Church, because the Church is the object and aim of Christ’s salvation. If we are to construe “salvation” as something that happens to individual “souls,” we might determine otherwise. But biblical salvation is much greater than this. It is the re-creation of humanity, the renewal of relationships in a new Adam, and therefore it is as nonsensical to speak of salvation outside of the Church as it is to speak of salvation without forgiveness. A salvation that is merely individual is no salvation at all.

Bibliography

Disclaimer: inclusion of material in the bibliography implies neither endorsement of all views expressed in the material, nor that the author of the material endorses (or, if deceased, would have endorsed) the views of this web site. The criterion for inclusion of material in this list is genuine helpfulness to the discussion, not uniformity of viewpoint.

Paul D. L. Avis: The Church in the Theology of the Reformers. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002.)

Michael Scott Horton: “What About Bob? The Meaning of Ministry in the Reformed Tradition.” Modern Reformation (March/April 1997).

Peter J. Leithart: Against Christianity. (Moscow, ID: Canon, 2003.)  Provocately-titled, engagingly-written, and profound.  A defense of Christendom, over against the hyper-subjectivism which marks much modern “Christianity.”

Peter J. Leithart: The Kingdom and the Power: Rediscovering the Centrality of the Church. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1993.)  A timely antidote to the marginalization of the Church, which frequently occurs in Christian fixation upon gaining political power and exercising a non-ecclesiological faith. A must-read.

Rich Lusk: “From Public Church to Private Christian.” Suggests that there is a dangerous Gnosticizing tendency in the privatization and hyper-individualism of modern Christianity.

Rich Lusk: God is Not Enough: The Story of Christian Community.” A fine essay, arguing that God's sufficiency for His people is, in part, by way of the community He creates.

Geddes MacGregor:  Corpus Christi:  The Nature of the Church According to the Reformed Tradition. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004.)

Douglas Wilson:  “The Church:  Visible or Invisble?” (In The Federal Vision, Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, eds. Monroe, LA:  Athanasius Press, 2004, pp. 263-269.) Argues that the valid understanding of this distinction refers primarily to the Church as historical and eschatological, and that we must guard against a notion of two Churches coexisting with one another.

Quotations

But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. . . . Furthermore, away from her bosom, one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation.

- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.1.4