To the congregation of Philadelphia,
We shall have to get on with our discussion of this increasingly common tendency on the part of many in today’s church world to separate from the church institute to form independent Bible study groups. Last time we discussed primarily the whole matter of “Bible Discussion Groups” and saw some of the dangers which participation in these groups can lead to. But we have not yet touched upon the heart of the problem. At the very basis of all these tendencies lies a certain despising of the Church as institute. And to this we must now turn our attention.
I want to write you about these things because of the serious threat which this movement constitutes for you. The danger is very real, and I would not have you be tempted by it. The danger is great for various reasons. In the first place, people who have followed this trend and have turned their backs on the church institute often speak in glowing terms of the tremendous blessings which they receive from such study of God’s Word. They speak of the edification which they receive as they come to know the Scriptures better. They speak of the closeness among the members of the small group of believers and the rich experiences of the communion of saints when a few gather together for a common purpose. They speak of rich joys of assurance which they never knew before. This all sounds very tempting—especially if you have a certain notion that your own spiritual life lacks warmth and vibrancy. In the second place, people who attend such groups often speak disparagingly of the Church which they once attended or still attend. They point out that the preaching is dry, unscriptural, doctrinal, without any real spiritual power. And they contrast their own rich experiences in their Bible study groups with the spiritual drought in the congregations where they were wont to attend. You may sometimes feel this way yourself, and may begin to think that these people really have something which you lack; and you may be tempted to follow their course of action.
But you must never do this. The dangers are great. The dangers are indeed dangers which involve the very salvation of your soul. Whatever may be the reasons for doing what you do, they can never make right a forsaking of the church institute.
This lies at the heart of the matter. The real question is whether the church institute is the God-given institution for the salvation of our souls. Is there any other institution, or is there any other way in which we can be saved than through the means of the church institute? The answer is emphatically, No!
This position is sometimes said to be the position of Roman Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Church for many centuries laid claim to the fact that there was no salvation outside the church institute. And it could, no doubt, be pointed out that the Reformers of the Sixteenth Century inveighed against this notion and condemned it as a corrupt interpretation of Scripture. But the mistake of Rome was not in teaching that there was no salvation outside the church institute. The mistake was rather that Rome identified the church institute with the Roman Catholic Church only. This corrupt and depraved Church did not bear the marks of the true Church of Christ. Furthermore, Rome had an altogether wrong conception of what the institute really was. In Romish thought, the church institute was limited to the clergy arranged carefully in tiers: at the bottom of the pyramid was the priesthood; above the priests stood the bishops; above them the archbishops; above them the cardinals; and it all reached its pinnacle in the pope. But the point is that the people did not really belong to the church institute at all. The church was themagesterium—the teaching clergy. Against this the Reformers protested.
Beginning already with Huss in Bohemia and Wycliffe in England, the Reformers made a distinction between the Church as institute and the Church as the Body of Christ. These reformers defined the Church as the Body of Christ as being the full number of the elect in every place and in every time. Only membership in the Body of Christ meant salvation.
It is this idea which many have latched on to in support of their separation from the church institute. They claim that they are members of the body of Christ, and, therefore, their membership in the church institute is not necessary and can indeed be detrimental. I have met people like this. Perhaps you have, too. I recall meeting one such man in Yosemite National Park during a summer long ago. He was wandering around the campground with a Bible under his arm. He came to our picnic table and began to discuss with us his views. He called himself a cosmopolitan Bible student. He prided himself that he belonged to no Church, adopted no one’s creed, was an independent Bible scholar, and enjoyed his membership in the Church as a member of the Body of Christ which was universal and catholic in the true sense of the word.
I also recall in my ministry a man who regularly attended worship services, but who would not join the Church because he believed that membership in the universal and catholic Body of Christ was sufficient for him. He traveled widely and felt perfectly at home in all kinds of different congregations because his fellowship was with the Body of Christ, a body which transcended the narrow and confining local institutions of the Church and denominational distinctions. He was very offended when he could not celebrate the sacrament of communion with us as he had done in so many different churches.
This idea is really the doctrinal justification for the movements which we are discussing. Such people who participate in these movements justify their conduct: by claiming that membership in the Body of Christ is the all-important thing. Membership in the church institute is only relatively important, something perhaps which is nice if the circumstances are right, but by no means crucial.
Now I do not want to go into the historical question in detail, for this would take us too far away from our discussion, But it is necessary to mention that while the Reformers indeed stressed the importance of the truth that the Church is the Body of Christ, they never once so much as hinted that this truth made the institute unimportant. Not only does the whole history of the Reformation contradict this assertion, but their own writings and the creeds produced during this period show how strongly they believed in the necessity of the institute of the Church.
The point that needs emphasis here is this: the Body of Christ which indeed includes the full number of the elect from every time and in every place comes to manifestation in this world in the church institute. The apostles did not merely gather the body of Christ when they performed their missionary labors; they established congregations. And in these congregations they ordained officebearers. They did so in such a way that those who were saved through the preaching of the apostles were brought into membership with the local congregations which were established in every place. Membership in the Body of Christ was expressed visibly by membership in the local congregations.
The emphasis here falls upon the local congregations. That is, each local congregation is a complete manifestation of the body of Christ. We can almost say that the local congregation is a kind of microcosm of the whole of the body. What is true of the Body of Christ as a whole is also true of each congregation. Nothing can be said concerning the Body as a whole which cannot also be said of the local congregation.
This is true especially from the viewpoint of theoffices in the Church. We have not the time, nor is it necessary, to trace this idea through in detail. But the point is that Christ, the Head of the Church, is her chief and only Officebearer. Christ is the Prophet of the Church, for in Christ is all the fulness of the revelation of the truth of God. Christ is the Priest of the Church because only in Christ is that perfect consecration of holiness which made it possible for Christ to make the perfect sacrifice for sin and to make, on the basis of His blood, perfect intercession to the Father for us. Christ is the King of His Church because Christ has defeated all the enemies of God, has established the everlasting kingdom of heaven, and rules over His people as citizens of that kingdom by His Spirit and grace.
But Christ, as the chief and only Officebearer of the Church, gives all His people the Spirit whereby they also become prophets, priests, and kings. Lord’s Day XII puts it very beautifully when it says: “But why art thou called a Christian? Because I am a member of Christ by faith, and thus am partaker of his anointing; that so I may confess his name, and present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him: and also that with a free and good conscience I may fight against sin and Satan in this life: and afterwards reign with him eternally, over all creatures.” That is a description of the three-fold office as held by every believer.
Christ has also ordained that this three-fold office which is held by every believer should come to expression in the offices which Christ ordained in the Church. The office of prophet comes to expression in the office of minister; the office of priest comes to expression in the office of deacon; and the office of king comes to expression in the office of elder. That this is true is apparent from the fact that the apostles ordained these offices in the Churches which they established.
But why is this? Very briefly, the answer is that Christ is pleased to exercise the office which He alone holds through the offices which He ordains in His Church. He exercises His office of Prophet through the ministry of the Word. He exercises His office of Priest through the office of the deacons. He exercises His office of King through the office of elders. In this way Christ is the Shepherd of His Sheep, the Head of His Church, the fullness of the salvation of His people. There is no other way. This is the rule of Christ.
We shall have to wait with further discussion of this matter till our next letter. May the grace of Christ the Head of His Church be your possession.
Fraternally in Christ,