The Proper Formation of the Church
(After having laid down some general principles, Kuyper now turns to the subject of the proper form which the church of Christ in the world must take. His argument is that it is necessary to understand the church in her proper form before one can understand how the church loses this proper form and becomes ripe for church reformation.)
13. In What Way the Formation of a Church is Brought About.
When we speak of the formation of the church we refer exclusively to its perceptible manifestation, i.e., to her visible appearance; and thus not to her inner, mystical, and spiritual existence. To the question, who fashions this visible form of the church, it must be answered, God. Or, to be more specific, Christ does this through the believers by means of the leadership of the office.
God does this: 1) through His counsel in which is to be found the decree concerning the mystical essence of the church; 2) through His miracles and revelations by which the foundation is laid upon which the church shall be built according to the decree; 3) through His word and Spirit working the calling and the gathering of His elect; 4) through the impulse toward establishing a church which He works in His elect through the fellowship of the saints; and 5) through the demand for a confession of the word with which He comes to each believer.
Without the counsel of God there could be no people of God and thus no church could make its appearance.
In the same way, this impulse towards the communion of the saints and this demand for a confession become perceptible first if the saints reveal themselves by attempting to associate together in obedience to the word. And it is by this that God the Lord has bound Himself to the use of the means of the active manifestation of the believers in the forming of His visible church.
A certain number of believers, living in the same village or in the same town, but without the ministry of the word and orderly fellowship, does not yet form a visible church because then that function of the life of believers which forms a church remains inactive. The church reveals herself as a visible body only when the impulse towards the fellowship of the saints begins to work in the company of the believers and in obedience to the word. Then the result of this activity of faith in the believers is that they walk in mutual fellowship, join hands, form a visible church, and by this formation bring into existence a church which is formed in personal and communal obedience to the Word of God. Only God and His Christ know whether this forming work of the activity of faith in the company of believers is genuine and pure, i.e., comes forth from an impulse of the person of the Holy Spirit in a part of the mystical body of Christ. But this is something which men can never know, at least in the absolute sense. He who does not know the heart can be misled by appearance and pious show, and as greatly as the gift of discerning the spirits is present in God’s elect, sometimes in large measure, this gift is always exceptional and never perfect. This is the reason why the rule must always be applied that every judgment concerning the hidden life of the heart, (iudicium de intimis) must be avoided, and every judgment in the church must be made only concerning what men confess with their mouths and show in their visible walk.
By believers as instruments of church formation, we understand, therefore, such persons who by their pure confession of the truth of God and their virtuous walk, proclaim themselves openly as believers. This is a rule which includes the idea that seldom will a church be established which, already in its origin, has not hypocrites who slip into the gathering of God’s saints.
For such an establishment of the church through the instrumentality of believers the following are necessary: 1) freedom to come together, to deliberate and decide; 2) a desire and declaration to join together in a common bond; 3) agreement with the demands of the Word of God in their formative activity; and 4) the duty and freedom to untie personally this bond when such a bond would make obedience to the Word of God impossible. Out of that principle each ecclesiastical bond is always dissoluble; or better yet, it falls apart of itself as soon as what was established as the church of Christ degenerates into a church of Antichrist.
Finally, this formation of churches through the instrumentality of believers never comes into being apart from the leadership of the office.
A church is no society, gathering, or association which regulates its interests according to its own choice and insight and is represented through certain functionaries who form it according to their own ideas and who determine its membership. If the church in her visible form were such a society, then it would be no more the true, spiritual, mystical church, i.e., a real church, and would thus forfeit the name of church. It would not then be formed principally by God Himself and only instrumentally by the believers. It would, apart from God, be simply a human creation. So as not to be this, but rather to be, by God’s work, an essential and actual church, it must conform itself to that form ordained by God. Not the will of believers, but God’s will; not human choice but God’s word must be the formative power which controls its origin. Hence, already in its beginning and origin, a church is tied to the office. This indicates that the assembled believers who proceed to form a church do not have the least power over themselves and out of themselves, nor out of or over each other; but they must together kneel before the only One Who alone has power over them, i.e., before the Lord their God. They therefore possess no power of their own. Thus they cannot take up or take over any power; and therefore they have no other obligation than, in obedience to God, to designate men who are clothed with power. This power comes not through them but through God and for God’s sake.
The church receives officebearers and in this way reveals herself as an organism only through t-he divinely instituted office of believers. The body which they form actually becomes and manifests itself as the church in the fullest sense only by the guidance of these officebearers.
This office can come into being either from without or from within.
It comes from without when overseers from other churches help in the formation of such a church. Or it originates from within when such a body which has freely withdrawn from all fellowship with neighboring churches designates, through the office of believers, persons concerning whom they ask God to place them in office.
There are thus three requirements for church formation. First, the operation of the Triune God in the fellowship of the saints. Secondly, a determination of believers to associate together in submission to God’s word. Finally, the establishment of the office to distinguish the church of God from all other societies.
14. What Constitutes the Essence of an Established Church Which Proceeds Towards Church Formation.
In connection with an established church, it is necessary to make a sharp distinction between the form of the institute as such and the essence of the church which manifests itself in that institute. The essence of a visible church is and always remains the invisible church, provided that one includes with this the increated inclination to manifest itself externally. The invisible church is the body of Christ, i.e., the organic union of all the elect through the Holy Spirit under Christ as its Head. Thus if there are living in a certain city or village a number of living members of this body of Christ, then the essence of the church is there. And this essence comes to consciousness as soon as these members, even though in a defective way, exercise the communion of the saints and have the mind and will to bring this communion to fuller and surer ecclesiastical manifestation as soon as this is possible. Societies such as are established by nonecclesiastical sects or antichristian groups are excluded from this. They are excluded not because no living members of Christ are included in these groups, nor because men do not attempt to exercise the fellowship of the saints in these groups, but because the mind and the will is lacking to manifest ecclesiastical formation when that becomes possible. A newly engrafted branch, even though for the moment it does not possess leaf or cluster, yet possesses the essence of the grapevine. It possesses the essence of the grapevine because it is certain that it develops out of itself towards the budding of leaf and blossom and thus towards the formation of clusters of grapes. So also a gathering possesses the essence of a church, even though its officers do not yet function, as soon as it is definite that it, growing and further expanding, shall acquire these officers who function in their office. On the other hand, a wild vineyard is no vineyard and lacks the essence of the vineyard even though its trunk shoots up very high and it is covered with the most luxuriant foliage, simply because it, though growing, never can produce a single cluster of the noble grape.
The essence of the church, therefore, does not lie in the means of grace nor in the institution which these means of grace help to introduce. No vine certainly, to keep the same figure, can live, much less thrive, without moisture and light, earth and warmth. But who would ever look for the essence of the vine in moisture and warmth? In the same way, no church can live without the means of grace. But the essence of the church must never be thought to lie in the means of grace, of whatever kind that may be. And the same even applies to those institutions which these means of grace serve. To keep a peach tree alive it must be fed with manure, irrigated with water, and covered with leaves to protect it from the frost. But neither the nourishing of the root nor the watering nor the reeds with which the gardener cared for it belongs to its essence. So also the means of grace cannot be suitably administered to the church without ecclesiastical regulation; without a church building, without a baptism font, without bread and wine. But this in no way implies that this regulation and that which proceeds from it belongs to the real essence of the church.
The essence of the church always lies exclusively in her church-forming power. And this power rests, for the invisible church, directly in God, and for the visible church, in the members of the body of Christ.
It follows from this that a gathering in which there are no longer many members of the body of Christ has Post the essence of the church and retains nothing but a mocking image of the church even though it may continue formally pure in its institution. And on the other hand, each church still retains the essence of a church as long as it still bears in its bosom a group of living members of Christ even though all her institutions are corrupted. Even a tree entirely cut down still retains the essence of a tree as long as there is still life in its roots.
Naturally, we do not mean by this that each church, no matter how corrupt, shall remain a church as long as there still are a few children of God inactively remaining in it. But, on the other hand, these children of God or this group of members of Christ always maintain the ability in themselves either to reform the church of God or to form it anew. As long as acorns remain at one’s disposal, the essence of the oak is not lost; but it can, though hidden, manifest itself again. However, the further treatment of this point will come in its proper place.
At this point it is sufficient to note that one ought not to be too hasty in his judgment concerning the church. Without doubt a group of elect is necessary for the first manifestation of the essence of the church, a group of people who are mature and resolute confessors. Young children, or people who have not yet made confession, even though they belong to God’s elect, are incapable of church formation. In an existing church on the other hand, the seed of the church is indeed reckoned a part of it, and the essence of the church has not been lost even though the last of the adult elect have died out and no elect among the youth have come to conversion. David’s house remained the house of the Messiah even though an Ahaz and a Manasseh and an Amon raged in horrible worship of idols, because a Hezekiah had to be born from Ahaz and a Josiah from Amon.
On the other hand, a church which in earlier times blossomed can go so far that all living members die out and no seed of the Lord is recorded there any longer. As a result of this, the means of grace disappear and the institutions are corrupted. It is then possible for a church to reappear in that same town, but only by forming a new church, and no longer by means of a shoot out of the trunk which is not only cut down but has died within. We need therefore neither add to nor subtract from the description of Christ given by our fathers: “That it is a holy gathering of true believers in Christ who expect all their salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by his blood, sancitified, and sealed by the Holy Spirit.” This description applies equally well to the invisible and to the visible church, and thus applies just as well for each local as for the church in general.
However, in this connection, one ought to keep before his eye the fact that the essence of a church can be considered from a double viewpoint. The church can be considered from the viewpoint of her essence according to her ability (potential) or her essence according to her operation (actu). Dynamite is dynamite even though it has not yet exploded, because it carries in itself the potential to explode. And so a gathering possesses the essence of a church even though it may lack every office, because it continues to have the ability to establish the office.
According to this ability, or as some said in years gone by, reckoned according to potential, nothing else is necessary for the essence of the church except the gathering of believers in Christ, because this gathering has in itself the ability to establish and use the office and the means of grace. On the other hand, according to its operation, or actu, as men used to say, the office as well as the means of grace cannot be separated from the essence of the church. And whereas the essence almost always appears actu(actively) in the visible church, our fathers have correctly placed the essence of the church in “the gathering of the believers.” And yet they referred to the word and sacraments protected by the discipline of the church as the earmarks of the true church.