(Kuyper, in this paragraph, is discussing the marks of the true and the false church. He does this so that the child of God who is called to engage in church reformation may be able to distinguish the two from each other.)
The church of Christ, without losing her essence as church, can be both mutilated and impure and even, as Calvin says, infected in part by corruption. This mutilation usually is first recognized in a cessation of discipline. This impurity manifests itself in imperfections which creep into the preaching and the administration of the sacraments. And this corruption in turn becomes manifest in false doctrine which accompanies the faithful preaching of the Word.
Further, where this illness and mutilation continues, the church soon loses her essence as church and fades away into a lifeless society.
And finally, where poisonous gases accumulate in this dead body, this lifeless church soon becomes the false church when it, under Satan’s influences, persecutes the truth and those who confess it.
Following the directives of Calvin, we earnestly warn anyone to be sure that the church, which he intends to leave, has so completely been forsaken of God that not only its well-being, but also its essence as church is lost.
Just because your church is sick or crippled, you may not withhold from her your love. Just because she is sick, she has a greater claim on your compassion.
Only when she is dead and has ceased to be your church and when the poisonous gases of the false church threaten to kill you, do you flee from her touch and withdraw your love from her.
Above all, one must pay attention to the fact that the question is never whether you shall leave a certainchurch fellowship, but only whether you shall leaveyour church. A church fellowship consists of churches, in the sense in which the term is now used, and the church consists of members. (This usage is not historical. Originally, church fellowship meant a certain local church.) Thus you are a member of yourchurch, and your church is a member of your church fellowship. Your church can leave the fellowship, butyou can only leave your church. We do know that there are churches who have accepted members into the “fellowship,” who do not become members of a congregation. But this inconsistency need not detain us. For you, for me, for each one, the question is only: Must I, may I, leave the church of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht?
I have absolutely nothing to do with what happens elsewhere; only with my own church. The communal responsibility for what happens elsewhere is the responsibility of the consistory, not of the individualmember. This can result in severing the bond between my church and those other churches, but it can never deprive my church of the essence of church.
In the seven letters to the congregations of Asia Minor, the Lord Christ never pointed out a responsibility of members towards the church federation.
Just as our fathers did not leave the church of Amsterdam because that church was affiliated with the churches of Rome, and did this because they judged that the essence of the church still belonged to her, so also we may not give up our churches even though they are in an impossible church fellowship, because this does not deprive her of the essence of the church.¹
And as far as the churches themselves are concerned, I only ask: Does that church in which I live (my church) still offer me the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments in such purity that the essence of both these means of grace is still present?
The fact that idolatry exists along with the tolerably pure administration of the means of grace does not take away the essence of the church, but it does place the consistory before the obligation to cut out this abomination. Nevertheless, it does not require of the individual member that he leave that church. The organization of my church is indeed sick, mutilated, and partly committed to corruption, but not to the extent that it no longer offers me with tolerable purity the means of grace, and therefore has not yet lost her essence and her life.
In this same way the prophets stayed in the church of Jerusalem even though idolatry had crept in. And our fathers continued to live in the Romish Church for many years before they came to Reformation.
This last remark should lead to a still more serious warning.
Some act as if the obligation and calling of God’s children is to break every connection with their church without delay, as if on the same day.
But this seems to us to be contrary to Scripture and history.
If a coma accompanies a human sickness, sometimes even like the appearance of death, the church experiences the same phenomenon. It seemed as if all too often in Israel the whole church was lost. And yet, the imperishable church always flourished again. In the dark night of the Middle Ages, it often seemed as if the church was dead. And yet, once again it raised its head. Also in the days of the Reformation not all the church was immediately restored. It was from 1517 to 1570 that the work of church reformation developed through all the churches.
This should warn us to be careful in our own day. He who considers the church from an external and regimented perspective, without piety or sincere love, immediately packs his suitcase and is ready at any moment to travel. But he who seriously and conscientiously puts himself before the question: Am I trying to escape judgment? Am I throwing away that which is still alive? Am I burying what only seems to be dead? O, he hesitates and tarries. He always still hopes and seeks new remedies to stimulate the spirit of life. And when others mock him, asking: How long will that trifling with your corpse continue? Then he reverently puts his finger on his lips and whispers: It is my mother!
¹ While there is an element of truth to what Kuyper says here, it must not be forgotten that there is a corporate responsibility between the individual member and his denomination as a whole even though that corporate responsibility is actually a reality through the consistory of the local congregation.