The important question that is before us, as we have seen, is: what does it mean that I am guided by the fear of the Lord, both as objective standard and as subjective principle, in my church affiliation?
That question is not an easy one to answer for many reasons, chief of which is the undeniable fact that we are surrounded in our day by a multitude of churches, so that the believer is forced to answer the question: where is the church? Time was, of course, when in an outward sense, at least, the believer did not have to face that question. Principally, of course, the question was always present, even when for centuries there was only one existent church communion. In fact, it is exactly because of the fact that in faith believers in past time faced that question that today we face the question in its modern garb, as it is placed upon the background of the fact that there are many churches and church communications in our time. Also that truth should become plain as we proceed. However, there was a time when in the outward sense, at least, the church was one, a long time. For centuries,—until the time, first of all, of the split between the eastern and western branches of the church, the Greek and the Romish,—one did not face the concrete question as we face it today: from among all these churches which one must I choose? There was only one church to join.
But especially after the Reformation in the sixteenth century the question took on new meaning. And more especially in protestant circles does the question have significance. The Romish Church, of course, blithely continues to claim the sole right to the name catholic only for itself. And we may as well admit too, that she makes a pretty good showing,—so good that even protestants make the mistake of granting her the honor of the virtue of catholicity by commonly referring to the Romish Church as the Catholic Church, a mistake which every right thinking protestant should studiously avoid. But among all churches the Romish Church succeeds in pretending that she is catholic and has maintained its world-wide dominion and communion where all others have failed. The fact is, however, that the Romish Churches now also stands historically as a church among churches, though it refuses to face this historical reality and to a large extent also keeps its membership in this straight-jacket.
In protestant circles, however, history has taken a different turn. It was not long after the first spark of the Reformation was kindled that the rend toward division and secession began. And that trend has continued down to the present time. History teaches us that the leaders of the Reformation were not themselves agreed by any means. And among the different branches of the movement of the Reformation divisions soon multiplied. Not only were there divisions along national, linguistic, and racial lines; but churches multiplied their confessions, confessions that often contradict one another on cardinal points. There seem to be many Lords, many faiths, many baptisms, instead of one Lord, one faith, one baptism. And whether they actually have the nerve to do this or not, the fact remains that each different church, by virtue of its separate existence as a church, calls to us: Here is the church; here you should belong; here the gospel is preached!
And we in America are right in the midst of the stream. Just as America has become the melting pot of the nations, so she has become the melting pot of the churches,—only the melting process has not produced the unity of a mixture up to this time. It would be better perhaps simply to call it a boiling pot, boiling with a mixture of some 250 different religious groups, all clamoring loudly for your allegiance. Even the modern movement for church union is but one more aspect of the denominational trend, one more raucous voice in the bedlam of ecclesiastical confusion.
Nor have the Reformed churches been immune, as we well know who are at all acquainted with Reformed church history. Even in the Dutch branch of the Reformed churches denominations have multiplied. We, as Protestant Reformed Churches, have been caught in that stream only 25 years ago, and in our own peculiar time and circumstances stand as church among churches. And in the Netherlands during the last decade again we have witnessed another split.
Add to this the fact that most churches have their own church extension activities, often well-oiled propaganda machines; and we would almost give up hope of coming to any well-grounded conclusion as to where we must affiliate.
What attitude must be assumed over against all these churches? How must one choose? Where must one affiliate? In what direction does the fear of the Lord lead us?
Certainly, the very first principle from which we must proceed is expressed in the confession: “I believe an holy catholic church/’ In the midst of all this confusion of churches that faith must be the shelter of God’s children.
But not in a wrong way. Often that faith concerning the holy catholic church is used as a shield, but in such a way that we shirk our duty in regard to church affiliation. You know the reasoning perhaps, for it is frequently followed. After all, they say, we cannot take the attitude that we are the church. God has His people in every nation and clime and tongue, not only, but also in every denomination. And it is presumptuous to take the narrow and intolerant attitude that the Protestant Reformed Churches are the true Church. Often to that line of reasoning is added rather piously that other people are going to heaven too, and that you cannot simply damn all the rest to hell. I believe simply the holy catholic church. Ergo, it doesn’t make too much difference where I am member or where I attend church.
Now we will not immediately draw any conclusions as to this line of reasoning, although we hope to point out its fallacies in the course of this series. Rather is it necessary before all else that we clearly understand what is meant by the holy catholic church.
The confession that the church is catholic and that she is holy must be based upon the Word of God only. It certainly cannot be based upon experience. Experience contradicts both. As we have had opportunity to notice above, all our experience contradicts the confession that the church is one and universal. That unity is beyond our sensibilities. But also the holiness of the church s contradicted by the appearance of the church in the world. All her history and dealings in the world stand in contrast with the confession of her holiness. Often the church appears more corrupt than the world from which she is called. Struggle and partisanship, hatred, bloody persecutions, power-madness and fleshly lust, the stoning of the prophets and the crucifixion of the Lord of glory,—all these have blotted her record and do blot her record in history.
Yet the believer confesses that there is “one body” and that this one body is “an holy nation”. And he makes and can make that confession only on the basis of the Word of God and by faith. What does it mean?
We do not intend,—and it would not be proper in this rubric,—to go into a thorough exposition of the idea of the church. We would simply briefly state this truth and its fundamental elements. And then we must notice:
1. That ideally the church is the body of Christ as she exists eternally in the counsel of God, that all the elect are members of that church, whether they be those who have already died and gone on to glory, whether they be gathered into the church. All together comprise the church as it stands eternally in the divine thoughts and as it shall in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ dwell perfectly in His everlasting tabernacle.
2. That church is an organic unity. In the first place, the church is one harmonious whole. It consists of a certain definite number of redeemed saints, and will not be fully realized until every last one of those elect is gathered in. Nor can it be added to at all. Not one more, nor one less could possibly belong to the church of Christ than has been eternally determined by God Himself. In the second place, that definite, elect number of redeemed is not a mere multitude of saints, but a perfect and harmonious unity in the sense that each saint occupies his own position and serves his own particular God-appointed purpose in the church. In the third place, the church is an organism, not a mechanism. Perhaps we often stumble over those terms organism, and organic. We shouldn’t do that; rather should we understand them and try to understand them. An organism is characterized by two elements: a common principle of life, and growth from that common principle of life. To distinguish between an organism and a mechanism, we may use the examples of a man and an automobile, the former being an organic being and the latter being a mechanism or machine. Now, then, the church is a spiritual organism. All her life and all her growth is from Christ, her head. It is only by the entrance of Christ, through His Word and Spirit, into the hearts of His elect that men become alive and living members of His Church. And it is only from Him as their head that the members of the Church continue to receive all their life and to live as His Church. All this is beautifully taught us in the figures which Scripture employs to picture Christ’s Church to us, the figure of the Head and the body, of the vine and the branches, the figure of the olive tree, and even the figure of the temple and its foundation.
3. That church is holy, first of all, objectively in Christ her Head, with whom she is eternally united as one plant, and in whom her holiness is realized at the cross. But she is holy also subjectively through the principle of regeneration and sanctification in her members, so that these members are called “saints”.
4. And that church is catholic in the sense that she is gathered in all ages, from the beginning to the end of time, and from all nations and tongues and tribes, not in the sense that in this present time upon earth she is realized and comes to manifestation in one institute completely and exclusively.
5. Finally, we also must mention the attribute of apostolicity, which means that the church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. This apostolicity of the church, therefore, is a succession of doctrine, not a succession of persons.
Really, if one wants to say all this in one word, he says “Christ”. The church is His body, is the manifestation of His glory, His grace, His righteousness, His holiness, His everlasting beauty! She exists for Him, and out of Him, and through Him. And all that we have said above concerning the church flows from the fact that Christ is her head.
And it is this fact which we must bear constantly before our mind when we deal with the subject at hand. Really there are not many churches but only one church in the sense in which we have described it above. Nor must we make the mistake of multiplying churches when we begin to make distinctions and speak of a visible church and an invisible church, a militant church and a triumphant church, an instituted church and an organic church. We may certainly make distinctions, and we shall have to upon the basis of Scripture. But we must bear in mind: there is one body, the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, His church. And our distinctions must be only distinctions.
And then the question must next be asked: what is the relation between the holy catholic church and the church as she exists in the midst of the world and comes to manifestation in the midst of the world?