One of the stories my much older brother tells me about the old days recounts the day when the family had just moved to a Los Angeles suburb. I should say, another L.A. suburb, since, all told, we moved about thirty times over the course of my childhood. No, my father was not in the military, nor was he on the lam. He just had wanderlust. The grass was always greener just up over that hill up yonder. So here we were (according to my brother, who is not always a reliable source), driving through the new neighborhood. Passing the elementary school, my dad said, "Look, that's where Mike will be starting kindergarten," to which my brother replied, "No offense, Dad, but who are you kidding? Mike will never see the inside of that place." He was right: I never did set foot on the property before we packed up and moved again. Yet no matter where we moved, the family was a constant. There are plenty of kids who grow up in the same place, but their parents are a million miles away in actual practice. Some, in fact, are so disappointed or even scarred from their childhood that when they leave home, it's for good.
We call the church a family-the family of God. And like any family, it has its pluses and minuses. We know that there is an ideal church consisting of all the elect-the so-called invisible church-but precisely because it is invisible, affirming its existence does not mean that we can point to it and say, "There it is." The only church we know is the visible church, by whatever form of church government we call it (local, regional, national, international, or all of the above). And we have to admit that if seeing is believing, we might be hard-pressed at times to identify the church we know with the uncompromised church in glory.
Jesus promised that when he left, he would send the Spirit to testify concerning him, bringing conviction and forgiveness through the gospel proclaimed. In the meantime, our Lord went "to prepare a place" for us to be together forever (John 14:3). It will be a permanent address at last. At its best, the church below is the staging area for the things to come: a kingdom of grace, not yet a kingdom of glory; a church militant, not yet the church triumphant. So the wheat and the weeds grow together until the Son returns to gather and make the final separation (Matt. 13:24-30). Until then, there is no pure church, but only churches more or less pure. For now, it is a "mixed body," with no doubt some sheep outside it and some wolves within.
Augustine, one of the key sources for this invisible-visible church distinction, can be improved on by reference to eschatology. In other words, the proper distinction is not between two types of churches, one "inner" and another "outer," but rather two eras of the one church's existence: "this present age" and "the age to come." This is the import of the parable of the wheat and weeds: Jesus will sort things out in the end. But for now, the visible church is a garden of wheat and weeds and sometimes we cannot tell them apart. In this age, the church is compromised; in the next, it is glorified-completely purged of being, as we lament in the hymn, "by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed." The distinction between the present and the future condition of the church is the corporate analogue to the paradoxical life of the individual believer as "simultaneously justified and sinful." But just as we are definitively new creatures in Christ, despite our continuing battle with sin, the church really is the site of God's covenantal grace. Like any family, it has its problems, but because it is Christ's family, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). To this church Christ has entrusted the keys of the kingdom, so that "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (v. 19). Just as the individual believer is a work in progress, so corporately the church even in its weakness is the place where the age to come breaks in on this present evil age. It is not because of anything intrinsic to the church itself, but because the ministry of the keys has been entrusted to her. It is through its ministry of Word and Sacrament, as well as discipline, that the Spirit makes us taste the heavenly reality of God's sabbath rest. Even the nonelect in the visible church experience through this ministry some measure of the kingdom reality, as they have been "enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:4-5).
It is difficult to identify the church in its present state with the bride of Christ, but the gospel says that this is in fact the case (see Rev. 21:2, 9; 22:17), so it must be whether we see that reality or not. The church is our permanent address, despite appearances to the contrary. It is not a vague, abstract, invisible reality, but a tangible, concrete, visible one-amid all the counterevidence. If we are inclined to break bruised reeds and smoldering candles in our self-righteous zeal to create an absolutely pure church, it is comforting to know that the King of the church is not. If ever there were examples of corrupt churches, Corinth, Galatia, and the churches addressed in the Apocalypse would come pretty close to it. And yet they are all addressed as "the church," warts and all (see 1 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:2: Rev. 2 and 3). As an eschatological reality, the church-yes, even the one to which you belong-is an "already-not yet" form of God's saving presence in the world in Jesus Christ and by his Spirit.
If this is so, is there ever a point at which a church ceases to be a church? In the examples just cited, warnings are given suggesting that these churches came awfully close to crossing that line. As Paul's stern warning to the Galatians shows, the most serious crisis comes when a church preaches a different gospel than the one proclaimed by the apostles. Confusion and distortion are bad enough, but when a church actually anathematizes the gospel, Christ anathematizes that church. Local churches and whole denominations have crossed that line down through the ages, and perhaps most widely in our own time.
So the reformers seem entirely justified in their consensus that "wherever the Word is rightly preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered, there we have no doubt is a true church." "Rightly preached" and "rightly administered" did not mean for them that there could be no doctrinal confusion or error in biblical interpretation or that the Sacraments had to be administered in exactly the same manner in order to qualify as a true church. But it did mean that to the degree that the gospel is compromised and the Sacraments are abused, a church is threatened with excommunication.
Within these parameters, then, no Christian can live without the church-in fact, the church is not just what you get when you have a lot of individual Christians, but vice versa. In Cyprian's memorable words that Calvin echoed (see Institutes 4.1.4), "He cannot have God as his Father who takes not the church for his mother." The Belgic Confession adds,
We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition. But all people are obliged to join and unite with it, keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, according to the gifts God has given them as members of each other in the same body.... And so, all who withdraw from the church or do not join it act contrary to God's ordinance. (Article 28)In other words, against all inclinations of a mobile society, where we often seem to be in not only one but several transitions at any given period in our lives, we are called to belong. The church is not like a house that we think we've outgrown or a neighborhood that has lost its charm, much less a mall that offers consumers a panoply of choices, so that if we are not completely satisfied we can simply take our business elsewhere. If we find a church that truly preaches Christ and faithfully administers the Sacraments, treating God's Word as the rule for life and doctrine, we should count ourselves "lucky" and bear the weaknesses that we will inevitably see once we get to really know the place. Since the church is a body of people who are justified yet sinful, definitively new creatures in Christ and yet making only partial progress in sanctification, not to mention a garden of wheat and weeds growing together, we do not yet have the luxury of a permanent address on earth, but we must be content with the next best thing for now.
Many of us have come from rather free-wheeling backgrounds in which church membership was regarded as secondary. The important thing was that we belonged to the invisible church, not to "some denomination." In fact, many of these churches bend over backwards to assert that they are not part of a denomination, even though each of their local churches bears the same name and (in some cases) are ultimately led by the vision and sometimes discipline of one gifted and charismatic figure. Thus, a denomination emerges, all right, but one that has separated itself at least in practical terms from the wider body of Christ in the name of escaping sectarian denominationalism. For example, Alexander Campbell, who defected from the Presbyterian Church because of his Arminian sympathies, announced that he was forming a restored body of Christ that was no longer part of the "sectarian" world of Protestant denominationalism. But, ironically, his followers came to be called "Campbellites" and his nondenominational denomination-the Church of Christ (Disciples)-is now just as much a part of the mainline Protestant denominational landscape as the church he abandoned. The restorationist movements of the nineteenth century are alive and well in the twenty-first.
All of this is to make the point that if in this world we wait until we find a permanent address, we will never find a home where we can grow and raise our children as part of the intergenerational succession of the covenant of grace. For my father, the grass was always greener on the other side. I think he was pretty typical of our national character and industry. It is what keeps us looking up over the hill, in the hope that tomorrow will be better than today. But when it comes to the church, wanderlust is disastrous, both personally and corporately. After all, we are described in Scripture as pilgrims. Neither vagrants (the "low-church" temptation) nor those who have arrived (the "high-church" tendency), pilgrims are on their way to a specific destination. They have provisions for the journey and they expect to arrive safely, not because of utopianism or itchy feet, but because they have been promised it, and that pledge is routinely proclaimed and sealed for them each week. If the danger in a Roman Catholic ecclesiology is to see the visible church as already Christ's spouse, the opposite danger rife in evangelical circles is to see it as a collection of individual people who have been truly born again and get together each week or so. The "already-not yet" character of the church's present existence maintains, however, that the church is not yet Christ's wife, but is certainly his bride-the beloved who is soon to be presented in royal splendor at the wedding feast for the world to behold. She's not much to look at now, but she will "clean up nice," as my grandfather used to say. The often unreliable fiance will be glorified.
This already-not yet way of looking at the church and her imperfections is implied in Hebrews. After spending ten chapters developing the superiority of the new covenant, the writer says,
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:19-25)None of the author's confidence is lodged in the empirical condition of the church, but in the objective, completed, unrepeatable work of Christ her living Head. And yet, just as Jerusalem was not the final resting place of God's Spirit, so the church is only identified with heavenly Zion herself in this already-not yet manner. Abraham and the patriarchs,
all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they have been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Heb. 11:13-16)It was easy to give somebody directions to where God lived in the old days: Temple Square in Jerusalem, behind the curtain. But that curtain was torn top to bottom when the only truly satisfying sacrifice was offered to the Father once and for all, and the temple was itself destroyed in a.d. 70, just as the prophets and Jesus had predicted beforehand. God sent his "address correction" in the form of his Son, who declared of himself, "One greater than the temple is among you" (Matt. 12:6). Neither the temple in Jerusalem, nor the one in Samaria, is the true temple now that Jesus has come: Christ is God's address (John 4:19-26). If God's address is no longer One Temple Square, it is certainly not Riverside Drive in New York City, Wheaton, Costa Mesa, Canterbury, Anaheim, Orlando, Toronto, Grand Rapids, St. Louis, Geneva, Wittenberg, Vatican City, or Antioch.
Although the true Temple has come in flesh and has given us his Spirit as a down payment, but, as expressed in a memorable line from the band U2, "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Our permanent address is in heaven, at the Father's right hand. Yet we need a pretty constant temporary address now where Christ really and truly is present for us in preaching and Sacrament, fellowship, and discipline. The city without foundations, whose builder and maker is God, cannot be wholly identified with any of our churches, and yet to the extent that our churches are genuine sites of "the age to come," through faithful exercise of the keys, they are, whatever evidence to the contrary, already in part what they shall yet fully become at last.
Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.
Issue: "A Good Church is Hard to Find" May/June 2004 Vol. 13 No. 3 Page number(s): 17-21
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