Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan.
We now move on to the fifth section of Reformed dogmatics, known as ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is the study of the church. It includes a study of what the church is and of how she grows and is governed. It can be distinguished from soteriology, which we have just considered. Soteriology is the study of how God saves an individual believer; ecclesiology is the study of how God saves the church as a whole.
The church is an object of faith. We confess that we “believe an holy, catholic church.” The Roman Catholics, and others, confess that we believe in a holy catholic church. The Romish church desires the confession to read “in” the church because they insist that everyone must believe, not in God, but in their corrupt institution. It is important, therefore, that we understand that we confess “an” holy catholic church, just as we confess that we believe the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. When we say this we are confessing that we believe that there really is a holy, catholic church, a communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, etc. Although there are times in which it does not clearly appear that there really is one holy church that is being gathered out of all the nations of the world, we believe, on the basis of Scripture, that there really is such a body of believers, with Christ as her Head.
We grow in our understanding of what the church is and does when we consider what the Scriptures teach over against the many false views that have arisen over the centuries, and that are still maintained today. Roman Catholics and Baptists, postmillennialists and premillennialists, are just some of those who have a very wrong view of what the church of Jesus Christ is and of what she is called to do. Some give the instituted church an authority greater than that of Scripture. Others consider the instituted church to be of little or no importance and reject the idea that the preaching of the gospel by the instituted church is the chief means by which faith is worked in the hearts of His people.
In this section of dogmatics, as with all the others, we will need to set forth the truth distinctively, so that it can be clearly contrasted with that which is not true. We begin with a consideration of what Scripture tells us the church is.
The Church: the Body of Christ, not the Body of God
The main term used for the church in the New Testament is a word that means literally “that which is called out.” In the Old Testament, one of the main terms for the church has as its meaning “that which is called together.” Putting these ideas together, we can say that the church is a group of people whom God has called out of this world and has gathered together into a new body. By nature we are one with the ungodly world. So for us to be brought into the church we must be called out of this world and called together into the body of Christ.
The church is referred to in Scripture as the body of Christ (Eph. 1:22, 23) and the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:23-32;Rev. 21:9, 10). The church is very really the body of the One who is God in the flesh. His life is her life. His mind is her mind (I Cor. 2:16). His will is her will. His Spirit is poured out into her, so that, although He is in heaven and many members of the church are on earth, Christ and His body are governed by the same Spirit.
There are many who try to pervert this truth by claiming that the human race and the entire creation is the body of God. By applying the theory of evolution to God Himself, they teach that God and the world are evolving together, with God being the soul of this world, and the world being the body of God. God, however, is Spirit, and He is absolutely distinct from His creation. The church is the body of the Son of God in human flesh. Because the Son of God has become a real man, we, the church, can be united to Him as His body.
A true church shows she believes herself to be the body and bride of Christ by the way she lives in devotion to her Husband, and by the way her members commune and live together as one body.
The Universal Church and the Church Institute
A biblical distinction that the Scriptures make is that between the church universal and the instituted church. The church universal consists of all the elect, including those who have not yet been born. A church institute is a group of believers and their children, who have organized into a church with properly called and installed elders and deacons. A true instituted church is a manifestation upon this earth of the universal body of Christ.
When distinctions are made it is very important that we prove that the Bible makes such a distinction. This distinction between the universal body of Christ and the church institute is a biblical distinction. A passage such as Revelation 21:9 speaks of the universal church, the bride of Christ, descending out of heaven from God. This passage is clearly referring to the complete universal church, consisting of all the elect, and only the elect. But there are other passages of Scripture that undoubtedly refer to the church institute. Christ, through the inspired apostle Paul, said to the congregation of believers in Corinth, “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (I Cor. 12:27). He did not tell this congregation that she was part of the body of Christ, but that she was the body of Christ. This is understood to mean that the instituted church in Corinth was a complete picture of the universal church of Christ.
The instituted church that pictures the universal body of Christ is not the man-made institution known as the Roman Catholic Church. The institute that pictures the universal body must have the same characteristics as the universal body. It must be an institute in which the members are united by a common belief in the truth, since Christ is the truth. Only those instituted churches that preach the truth, and that properly administer and explain the truth concerning the sacraments, and that discipline those who refuse to confess the truth and to walk in the truth, are true churches of Jesus Christ. Only these churches are manifestations on this earth of the universal body of Christ.
There are many today who reject the truth concerning the church institute. On the Lord’s Day they may be found worshiping in their home, claiming that they do not need to join themselves to an instituted church on this earth. I am not, now, talking about those people who, for a time, are having difficulty finding a true church to which they can, with a clear conscience, join themselves. I am talking about those people who see no importance in joining with like-minded believers in the instituted church. Such people claim that they have their Bibles, they can read, sing, and pray on their own, so they do not need to gather for worship with the members of an instituted church. They are members of the universal body, they say, and that is the only church membership that is important.
Sometimes the reason for this attitude is an ignorance concerning what the instituted church is. The instituted church is called the house of God (I Tim. 3:15). This statement makes known the significance of the instituted church, and points out the relationship between the instituted church and the universal body of Christ.
The Church: the House of God
I Timothy 3:15 is clearly referring to the instituted church. Paul is writing to Timothy, who was the pastor of the instituted church at Ephesus. In the middle of the epistle, he states his purpose for writing,
14) These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly:
15) But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.
That Paul is referring to the instituted church when he writes these words is evident from the fact that the letter contains instruction about life in the church as institute. It begins with an exhortation to make sure that no false doctrine is taught in the church (I Tim. 1:3). It gives instruction concerning prayer in the official worship services of the church (I Tim. 2:1-8). The qualifications for special officebearers are set forth in detail (I Tim. 3:1-13). Thus it is clearly evident that it is the instituted church that Paul is referring to as the house of God.
Obviously the universal body of Christ, consisting of the total number of elect, is the house of God. God is everywhere present; but it is with His people alone that He is present in His grace, causing them to enter into covenant communion with Him. There is an application of this truth, however, also to the church as institute. The instituted church is the one place upon this earth where God dwells with His people, and causes them to enter into close fellowship with Him. If one wants to dwell with God, and to experience covenant friendship with Him, it is of utmost importance that he be a member of a true instituted church. Only there will he find the chief means of grace, the preaching of the gospel, which is the means that God uses to work conscious faith in His people and to draw them into fellowship with Him.
The reference to the instituted church as the house of God clearly shows the importance of the church institute, and also indicates the relationship between the universal body of Christ and the manifestation of that body upon this earth. In studying the church, it is good to start with considering the truth concerning the universal body of Christ, and then to go on to see how this truth applies to the instituted church on this earth. I plan to do that in the articles that follow.