Well, here we are again discussing the nature of the Church. Again, there is debate in my circles between those who insist that formal membership in a local church is mandatory for Christians, and those who believe that this is a mistaken notions, at least as it is often presented. I have written elsewhere about how important it is to specify what we mean by mandatory, so I won’t dive into that here.
The debate has entered into all different realms of ecclesiology, soteriology, etc. And rightly so. This is an important topic that stretches across the full spectrum of theology and practice. My focus on this post, however, is to focus on the nature of the Church, specifically from Calvin’s “Prefatory Address to Francis I, King of France (1536)” of his Institutes. When I, (and Calvin) speak of its nature what is meant is how the Church exists. What is essential to its being. Calvin spills a lot of ink over this topic in his Institutes, ink that we don’t have time to cover. But I believe his below description of the problem with Rome is very helpful to our conversion.
Calvin’s main point is this: the Church need not have any external form to exist. The external form of government, and even preaching and sacraments is not necessary to the being of the Church. Thus, I propose that the idea that, in order to be a Christian, one must partake in visible forms (government, sacraments, etc.) is a severe error.
Before we get to Calvin let me note that I believe it entirely mandatory for Christians to partake of the externals of government, sacraments, fellowship. But this is out of obedience of God and is not what makes one a Christian. Likewise, these externals must be in a true church. Said differently, just because someone does not partake in formal and observable elements does not therefore mean that they are lost. We are justified by faith alone not by a visible connection to a local body, as necessary as this is to our Christian health and growth.
This brings me to my final thought which I have spoken of elsewhere. I believe that the real crux of this debate lies in what we believe to be the marks of true and false local churches. It is my understanding that the bible requires of obedient Christians that they seek unity and work with other Christians (the Church).
What I mean is this: if you are a Christian in a city where you know of no other true Christians or local congregations, than you have no duty to seek unity with anybody because you are alone. However, if you are in a city of professing Christians and churches, than it is your duty to seek to discover whether or not they are true. If they are, it is then your duty to seek unity with them and to work with them towards the advancement of the Kingdom of God. Visible unity and striving together does not make one a Christian, but it is a good visible indicator. And so, again, we need a healthy understanding of what a true church is and who it is we should unite and work with in Kingdom work. This is a topic I hope to cover in the future.
Now to Calvin. All emphases are mine.
“6. ERRORS ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH
By their double-horned argument they do not press us so hard that we are forced to admit either that the church has been lifeless for some time or that we are now in conflict with it. Surely the church of Christ has lived and will live so long as Christ reigns at the right hand of his Father. It is sustained by his hand; defended by his protection; and is kept safe through his power. For he will surely accomplish what he once promised: that he will be present with his own even to the end of the world [Matthew 28:20]. Against this church we now have no quarrel. For, of one accord with all believing folk, we worship and adore one God, and Christ the Lord [1 Corinthians 8:6], as he has always been adored by all godly men. But they stray very far from the truth when they do not recognize the church unless they see it with their very eyes, and try to keep it within limits to which it cannot at all be confined.
Our controversy turns on these hinges: first, they contend that the form of the church is always apparent and observable. Secondly, they set this form in the see of the Roman Church and its hierarchy. We, on the contrary, affirm that the church can exist without any visible appearance, and that its appearance is not contained within that outward magnificence which they foolishly admire. Rather, it has quite another mark: namely, the pure preaching of God’s Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments.¹ They rage if the church cannot always be pointed to with the finger. But among the Jewish people how often was it so deformed that no semblance of it remained? What form do we think it displayed when Elijah complained that he alone was left [1 Kings 19:10,14]? How long after Christ’s coming was it hidden without form? How often has it since that time been so oppressed by wars, seditions, and heresies that it did not shine forth at all? If they had lived at that time, would they have believed that any church existed? But Elijah heard that there still remained seven thousand men who had not bowed the knee before Baal. And we must not doubt that Christ has reigned on earth ever since he ascended into heaven. But if believers had then required some visible form, would they not have straightway lost courage? Indeed, Hilary considered it a great vice in his day that, being occupied with foolish reverence for the episcopal dignity, men did not realize what a deadly hydra lurked under such a mask. For he speaks in this way: “One thing I admonish you, beware of Antichrist. It is wrong that a love of walls has seized you; wrong that you venerate the church of God in roofs and buildings; wrong that beneath these you introduce the name of peace. Is there any doubt that Antichrist will have his seat in them? To my mind, mountains, woods, lakes, prisons, and chasms are safer. For, either abiding in or cast into them, the prophets prophesied.” (Ambrose)
Yet what does the world today venerate in its horned bishops but to imagine those whom it sees presiding over renowned cities to be holy prelates of religion? Away, therefore, with such a foolish appraisement! Rather, since the Lord alone “knows who are his” [2 Timothy 2:19], let us leave to him the fact that he sometimes removes from men’s sight the external signs by which the church is known. That is, I confess, a dreadful visitation of God upon the earth.”
- Note that Calvin here does not say that the Church cannot exist without these marks (Word and Sacrament). Calvin’s point, I believe, is that these are given for our own ability to distinguish between true and false churches. Just because these marks are not present does not therefore mean that the Church is not present.