(Note: Kuyper is still talking in this paragraph of the proper formation of the church. In this connection he has talked about the relationship between the church as organism and the church as institute, the relationship between the office of believers and the special offices in the church, and how the institute of the church is actually formed. It is, in Kuyper’s judgment, necessary to understand the true nature of the church in order to understand how the church can deteriorate and degenerate and why the church is in need of church reformation. He continues his discussion of what the church is and ought to be in the following paragraph.)
15. How the Church is Divided and is Yet One.
The mystical body of Christ is one, and all the parts of it belong together. Therefore the church of Christ shall only come to complete manifestation when it, after it has completely triumphed, shall sit with Christ on the throne. Every temporal manifestation of the church is partial and imperfect. The church is divided throughout time because the elect who live today cannot exercise the communion of the saints with the elect from Augustine’s time any more than with the elect of the past three or more centuries. But the church is also divided geographically because the believers, according to the limitations of their natures can exercise continuous communion of the saints only with those who live in the same place with them. God governs this temporal division directly, through the appointed time of each man’s birth and death, “and hath determined the times before appointed” (Acts 17:26). But geographical division is by the choice of the individual believers. This does not mean that the believers can split from each other or join together at will, but it is understood that they are bound both to the limitations of their dwelling as God has fixed them and to the urge for unity which is an integral part of the body of Christ.
God has fixed the boundary of each man’s habitation and it is through His providential rule that the boundaries of lands are fixed and that there are divisions of cities and towns. Thus it is one and the same God Who on the one hand guides the lives of lands and peoples, of cities and towns, and Who on the other hand forms His church and maintains it. Both aspects of life arise out of this principle and are related to each other, although they never merge. And to the Mediator is given both kingship over the church and all power over lands and nations, cities and boroughs.
The believer must indeed reckon in the matter of church formation with the distinction of people and people, land and land, region and region, town and town. The one body of Christ manifests itself independently in different lands, in different ways, in different regions and districts, and also in towns and cities which lie alongside of each other. The unique character of each local church must not be lost from sight by believers in the formation of the church. Nor must be lost from sight the bond which binds her together with churches from the same district or again with churches from the same region or again with churches from the same land. God’s providential decree and rule divide the church into local and regional and national churches, but also the unity of the body of Christ holds these separate parts together in organic communion.
This is so true that the church of one land must retain the consciousness that she is the church of Christ only along with churches of other lands. This is the reason why our fathers at the Synod at Dordt also invited the foreign churches.
However, this short description is not adequate.
The presentation given here that the local church is the primary manifestation of the church of Jesus Christ and that the classes and regional church come into existence secondarily through the federation of these local churches is an idea not generally maintained.
We are not now going to speak of the Congregationalists and Independentists any more than we will speak of the Romish idea of the church. To suppose, as Independentists do, that each group, each congregation, is an organic church unity, or as Rome, that the organic church unity is manifested chiefly in a world church, is an error which is advocated by none among us.
But we ought to examine the opinion of those who judge that our national church forms the organic unity and the classes and local churches exist only as parts or cells in this organic unity.
As was said before, we readily grant: 1) that we reject the Independentistic notion, that each congregation or such parish can express organic church unity; 2) that the bond of unity among churches of the same nation is not arbitrary but is arranged and allotted by the ‘divine determination of homes and cities, by the union of a common past, by the urge towards love and fellowship, and above all by the unity of the Body of Christ of which all local churches are the manifestation; and 3) even though all confederative church union may be disturbed for a long time, nevertheless the local churches of the same nation, though they are without a visible bond of unity, actually belong together and ought to come together, the sooner the better.
On the other hand, it is asserted: 1) that each local church possesses in itself the essence of a church; 2) that the external bond comes to expression with other churches properly in no other way than in the way of confederation; and 3) that organic unity is only formed by the invisible church since in this invisible church the local churches are the organic parts and the classes and national church are only the organic groups.
To be convinced of this one need only ask himself: what constitutes the essence of a church? To answer: the essence of a church consists on the one hand in the sphere of believers and on the other hand in the administration of the means of grace. It is certain therefore that one neither adds to nor subtracts from the essence of a church if a local church temporarily isolates itself and then remains separate. This would undoubtedly have influence on the outward form of the church but not on her essence. As soon as a gathering is simply a manifestation of the body of Christ, her essence as church is assured.
Moreover, the word “organism” ought to be understood in the right sense. But this sense is varied. In the fullest sense, the organism of the church is not completely expressed except in the entire mystical body of Christ. To the full organism of the church belong all her parts: those already present, as well as those which are still to come. On the other hand, it is possible to speak of a partial organic manifestation of this complete organism, for, just as the nature of the whole organism is outlined in each living cell, so is a church organism present where the church is perceptible in an unmistakable way according to her ecclesiastical essence, i.e., in every local church. And finally I can take the word “organism” in yet a third sense to express the natural living bond by which the separate organic manifestations of local churches stand related to each other. But then I get nothing else but a relative and elastic idea which can, to a greater or lesser extent, be expanded, and which can never, for this reason, take the place of the organic idea of ecclesiastical unity which is already present in the local church.
It is not true to say that this latter idea was held in the beginning of the reformation but changed during the history of the last three centuries. When our Reformers rose in this land, the local church had already existed for many centuries, and so the local churches had a church bond for many ages and had aimed already at that time at national boundaries. On the other hand, our fathers never hesitated a moment to return immediately to the local church and to restore out of this local church the church bonds of land and nation. But Holy Scripture settles everything by its decisive testimony. It does this in a two-fold way.
In the first place, the holy apostles always referred to a local church with the singular:ekkleesia, or church. They used the pluralekkleesiai for churches. They never used the singular, ekkleesia, or church, to refer to the external organic ecclesiastical unity of the churches. They addressed themselves to the church of Rome, to the church of Corinth, but they write: tais ekkleesiais tees Galatias, i.e., to the churches of Galatia. Even the churches of this one province Paul does not regard as an external organic unity, but as organic entities with their own individual existence.
Secondly, one will never find in the writings of the apostles even a trace of the idea that the apostles considered the merging of local congregations into a national unity a condition for the preservation and essence of the church.
And what is even more emphatic, when the Lord Jesus Himself gives in Revelation 2 and Revelation 3 the seven letters to the holy apostle John for the seven ekkleesiai, i.e., the churches in Asia Minor, the Lord showed the organic unity of the seven churches in the unity of the seven candles on one candlestick. But the churches themselves were addressed as existing individually. Their essence as church is not in any way defined as being dependent upon an external connection with the other churches. Each local church is expressly recognized as ekkleesia tou kuriou, i.e., a church of the Lord.
For this reason, therefore, we maintain that Scripture, history, and precision of terminology all agree with the idea that the local church is the essence of the church. And if this is true, then it cannot be denied that the church unity from which we must proceed is not in a world church, nor in a national church, nor in classes, but exclusively in the local church.