Book 4 Chapter 1 Section 1-29
If there is one issue that divides modern evangelicalism then it is our ecclesiology – our doctrine of the church. Whether we are denominational, independent or emerging there is a wide disagreement over what the church is. So why did God establish the church and what advice does Calvin have for our 21st century predicament? Well, after nine months of plumbing the depths of our vertical relationship with our maker, in the early chapters of book 4 Calvin switches the focus to our horizontal relationship with our fellow believer. This first chapter considers the nature and characteristics of the true church.
Why the church?
Why did God institute the church? For two principal reasons says Calvin, firstly to aid believers in their faith and secondly to secure the effectual preaching of the gospel throughout the generations. How does the church strengthen our faith? Well, through the teaching and example we receive from his appointed leaders and through the experiential instruction of the sacraments. Rightly applied, these means will enable us to grow in maturity. But why does it take so long? As Calvin points out “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” and “all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed for this purpose.” Calvin sees an important lesson in the fact that we must seek our instruction from our fellow man, for having to submit ourselves to the instruction from our equal’s tests our obedience and humility.
But this means of growth is not an optional extra for the believer. For Calvin, the church is the source of God’s forgiveness and salvation and he has little sympathy for those who separate themselves from the church. In a very strong statement he says “all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the church, desire to perish of hunger and famine.” If this sounds harsh to modern ears perhaps we have become too blasé about living as lone-ranger Christians. But surely Calvin would not have us remain in any church no matter how bad it is? No, we must discern the faithfulness of our church to the standards of scripture.
What are the marks of a true church?
So how can we know the marks of a true church? Calvin states that the two essential features of a genuine church is one where the word is preached and the sacraments are administered. “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence.” Calvin says that these two things should be the yardstick by which we determine whether a church is a true church, “for these cannot anywhere exist without producing fruit and prospering by the blessing of God.” This is a surprisingly short list for us, and Calvin is quick to point out that even if there are many things wrong with a church, if these two things are there then it is a true church.
So when can we call it a day with a church and move on? Not without much soul searching, for “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.” Calvin uses the example of the church in Corinth where he points out that “it was not a few that erred, but almost the whole body had become tainted; there was not one species of sin merely, but a multitude, and those not trivial errors but some of them execrable crimes.” And what was Paul’s response to this situation, does he separate from them? “Does he discard them from the kingdom of Christ? Does he strike them with the thunder of a final anathema? He not only does none of these things, but he acknowledges and heralds them as a church of Christ, and a society of saints.” If Paul will not separate himself from one of the most corrupt churches of the New Testament era, then, providing the pure ministry of the word and sacrament are still present, we should follow his example in our present-day churches and work for reformation from within, rather than separation and division.
The fact is that we need each other. Despite all the pain that many of us hold in our hearts from our fellow brothers and sisters we cannot live without each other. Yes, there is a time to breakaway from the mainstream church, as Calvin, Luther and many others did during the Reformation. Yes, there are times when new works must be started in order for renewal and revival to take place. But how cautious we should be in separating ourselves from our brothers and sisters. I confess I was impressed with Calvin’s generous response to imperfect churches in this chapter – he warns us to make sure we have the strongest grounds before considering leaving a church. Is it really essential that we start a new church with our own personal brand of Christianity down the road from the established one? Are the differences so great that we can no longer fellowship together? Are the wounds so deep that forgiveness and restoration are impossible? The grace of God is greater than our expectations and deeper than our disappointments.
But we are only human, and we will let each other down and continue to hurt each other. Oh that God would raise up a people who are so passionate for the gospel and are in such unity that other secondary issues remain just that, secondary. Oh that he would raise up leaders of deep conviction and godliness that could lead his people with justice and compassion. For how wonderful it is when brothers and sisters live together in unity, as the Psalmist says, it is like the warm, comforting feeling of the anointing oil running down Aaron’s beard. There is something in the make up of a child of God that makes them crave for genuine fellowship and the opportunity to hear the voice of God expounded from the scriptures. And although it may mean that we get ourselves a bit dirty looking, when we find a family with this kind of genuine warmth we know that it is as precious as finding a diamond in the dust.
“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.” Psalm 133