Worshipping the Institute

In regard to the question under discussion, “Where must I join myself as church member?” there are others who assume an attitude of implicit trust in the particular church of which they are members. They take the position that the particular church to which they belong cannot make a mistake, and they simply take their stand without question on whatever happens to be the position of that church. They trust in a certain institution. They were born in that church; their parents and grandparents before them were members of the same church. They could not possibly think of leaving that church. Their church is right and that is the end of the argument.

Of course, if you put the matter in that language, you probably would not find so many that admit that to be their position, that is, outside of the Romish Church. We all recognize at once that this is essentially the position of the Romish Church, in which the pope is infallible in matters of doctrine, and in which many other sources are recognized as infallible for faith and practice besides Holy Scripture. But although you might find few who would bluntly state that their particular church is infallible, yet in actual practice there are many who take that position, or tend to take it. They are more or less ignorant of their church’s doctrinal stand. They don’t take the time, or they lack the ambition or—what is more to the point—the interest to investigate any issue. They assume that their leaders, their minister, their theologians, must certainly know. And especially if a minority takes a different position, they simply conclude that when so many important leaders, scholars, theological giants say something, it must be true, and the minority can’t be right. The minority is castigated as troublesome, schismatic, and what have you. And the church is to all practical intents and purposes upheld as infallible. Sometimes you will find people who drift along with their church so lifelessly that they have not the slightest acquaintance even with controversial issues.

Add a little sentiment to this position, and the woeful picture is complete. “I was born and reared in this church. Here I was baptized. Here I had all my catechism. Here I made confession of faith. And I have been member here, lo, these many years. Besides, all my family is here. They have grown up in this church, intermarried with its members, and are well established here. It would be so hard for me to leave. They wouldn’t come along with me. Even my wife wants to stay here. So I had better stay too.” By such one is almost moved to tears of pity, and would well-nigh advise the poor man to stay.

Now, we certainly must not be imbued with a revolutionary and anarchistic spirit in this matter of church membership. It certainly must be admitted and emphasized that there is enough lack of respect for the church institute in our day without adding to it. There is already too much of the spirit of “What right has the church to tell me what to do?” There is far too much rust collected on the keys of the kingdom, on the one hand; and on the other, there is too much scorn for the power of those keys.

But our respect for the church institute must be a wholesome one. If in our subjection to the institute we cannot say that essentially we are being subject to Christ, as He is revealed in His Word, then we become guilty of idol worship. Whoever assumes the attitude that their particular church is infallible, is guilty of putting his trust in men, in an institution, in a certain church organization. And to put our trust in anyone or anything next to or beside the one true God as He has revealed Himself in His Word is idolatry. Hence, while those who freely and thoughtlessly and carnally work schism in the church or jump denominational boundaries without a care are certainly to be censured, those who refuse to admit that their particular church could err are equally guilty of lack of respect for the church institute.

For all of history teaches us, from the time of the apostles onward, how easy it is for a certain church in the world to err, to apostatize from the faith, and even to become wholly corrupt. Was it not Jerusalem already in the time of our Savior’s sojourn that had become Babylon, and had denied the Son of God Himself, nailing Him to the accursed tree? The whole doctrine of an infallible institute is brought to ruin at Golgotha. And one needs but to consult the various epistles to find numerous examples of churches, particularly local congregations that erred and apostatized. It is Jerusalem especially, as she is on earth, represented by a local church or denomination, that becomes Babylon, and that then denies the truth, persecutes the faithful, and gives rise to the Antichrist. That Jerusalem, and her children with her, shall perish!


Closely allied to the above attitude is that of those who are members of a church tradition. These too are usually ignorant of the stand of the church to which they belong. They were not interested in being instructed in their youth, perhaps; and they grew up ignorant. Or they came into the church from the outside, possibly for the sake of family peace when they were married. They cared not for the truth ever. But they “went along”. Or else they belong because it is the fashion to belong to some church or other. Or possibly they don’t want to be ostracized by their own family. Or there may be other reasons, a hundred and one.

But such are traditionally indifferent. They don’t want to investigate. They don’t care whether they belong here or there. They don’t even assume that their church is right,—or wrong, as the case may be. They don’t put their trust in anything, not even in God. They are simply church members. Maybe the church can serve them at the time of baptism, marriage and death. It’s a convenient thing to be a church member.

The spirit is more rampant than we are aware sometimes. And to mention it is to criticize it. For the trouble with this type is that there is not the question of my title, “Where?”

They are traditionally indifferent.

Pious Indifference

There is another type of indifference, however, which sometimes appears to be more insidious, because it is more alluring. It is the attitude of those who recognize the question, “Where”? but who belittle its importance. To them it really makes no difference to what church one belongs. They simply want to believe in Christ, and do not want to limit salvation to a peculiar church denomination. People from every church will be saved. And we certainly, so they often speak, do not want to condemn everyone to hell who does not belong to our church. And so: “What’s the difference?”

One very obvious difficulty presents itself when this position is applied to those who belong to a church that denies the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. And if, in the light of this difficulty, the position is nevertheless maintained that also in such a church people are saved, then the whole doctrine of the church lies in ruin, is at loose ends. Then there is no need of a church at all anymore.

But a more serious and less understood objection to this view is that the question of salvation is after all not the primary question in this whole matter of the church. There is far too much of that utilitarianism with regard to salvation. Everything is viewed from the standpoint of the question: “How, in last instance, can I avoid hell-fire?” It is this that we shall have to see, as we proceed, that this question of the church is not first of all one that concerns your and my individual salvation, but one that concerns the church itself, And that is, as we shall see, one of the main lines of our Reformed confessions on the score of the church.

But even now we may note with regard to these various wrong attitudes and criterions of church membership, that we are not always free of them ourselves. O, no, we would not jump the denominational boundaries easily. But within us lurk some of these same thoughts. Thoughts they are that stand in conflict with Scripture and the Confessions. Thoughts they are that are not in harmony with the fear of the Lord. And thoughts they are which do not stand in the service of the church of Christ, but which oppose His cause. Thoughts they are, which, under the strain and stress of various circumstances (marriage, worldly aggrandizement, persecution) might very well be translated into sinful actions, the actions of working in the direction of the false church.