Why Christ Made the Institutional Church For His Sheep
There is probably no other doctrine which is more under attack, either directly or by apathy than what the Bible teaches about the Church. Yet, while we remain on this mortal coil there is no institution that we should more deeply care for than the universal (or as the Apostles’ Creed calls it catholic) body of believers. The Church’s significance is immense and in today’s look at the Catechism we are going to talk about why. It’s form, purpose, and definition cannot be forsaken or forgotten by individual believers. All of it matters and hopefully when we are done today you’ll have a greater appreciation for why it does.
Here’s the Q/A’s to get us going:
Q. 62: What is the visible church?
A. The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children.
Q. 63: What are the special privileges of the visible church?
A. The visible church hath the privilege of being under God’s special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages, notwithstanding the opposition of all enemies; and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation, and offers of grace by Christ to all the members of it in the ministry of the gospel, testifying, that whosoever believes in him shall be saved, and excluding none that will come unto him.
Q. 64: What is the invisible church?
A. The invisible church is the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.
Q. 65: What special benefits do the members of the invisible church enjoy by Christ?
A. The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory.
The first thing that needs to be dealt with is the visible/invisible distinction which is addressed above. When we speak about the covenant of grace we understand that just as “not all Israel is of Israel” so to Church membership is not a salvific act in and of itself. Belonging to a local Church is a necessary part of the Christian life, but it is not a component of the finished work of our Lord at the cross, made for your justification, granting one access to the kingdom of Heaven. The promise of the gospel contains within it an assurance of salvation wholly based on what God does for us, in us, and how He maintains us in the category of the just, both now and forever. That’s what it means to be a member of the invisible church. Yet, the visible church is just as vital for the keeping of our eternal citizenship.
In Jesus’ conversation with Peter about the keys of the kingdom in Matthew 16 there are vows made about what the future will look like after Christ’s ascension. Included in that we are to note that just as in the old covenant where there were means of entrance, confirmation of membership, and procedures for one’s being excised from the covenant family (circumcision, Passover, exile, etc…) which operated in a visible, organized fashion in the days of Moses, David, and Jesus so to would it be the case that Christ’s Church would be similar to ancient Israel in this regard. Unlike ancient Israel, however, the Bride would be made up of all nations under heaven and the visible signs of entrance into the new covenant Church (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) would be available to both men and women. Same existence, different methods and mission. Beware of anyone who tells you that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. To quote a wise man, this isn’t ‘Nam, there are rules.
The Church was established by the king of kings, to use a Latin phrase de jure, which means by His divine right. Christ has formed the Church to be the means of His rule as He reigns at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. As Presbyterians we believe that the form that the Lord’s Church is to take is a Presbyterian one. Our name is in reference to a governmental structure whereby the visible Church is led by Elders (coming from the Greek word Presbuteros, defined as “rule by elders”). Passages like 1 Tim. 5:17, Eph. 4:11, 1 Cor. 12:28, Phil. 1:1, Matt. 18:15-18, and many, many others give evidence of these truths. The Church is only to preach, teach, and do that which the author of her commission has granted to her, no more, no less. The Bible must be the sourcebook for all of what is taught, expounded, and applied to those under the authority of Christ alone.
Speaking a little bit more on the nature of the visible Church let’s use our situation to more fully explain what we mean here. The question is what is the difference, in our case, between Bethany ARP Church and the ARP Church in general. Our answer would be, in one sense, there is no difference. The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church is one body. Each local congregation is to be understood as the local expression of the wider communion of the faithful. We see that in the New Testament (and in the Old with the synagogues) with the way Paul talks about Colosse or Thessalonica or Berea. Why does he implore Rome to give money to Jerusalem? While they may be separated by distance the people at the “First ARP Church of Rome” are united by faith to the “First ARP Church of Jerusalem”. There is no distinction really between them. That is why we do not see our Presbytery or our Synod as being above us in some type of heirarchy. Rather these gatherings are horizontally related to the local Church, a wider expression if you will.
Why does all that matter to what the Catechism has for us this week? Because the Church is not an accidental part of the Lord’s plan for your life. She is central to your feeding on Him in His word and His sacraments, through His worship, and to rightly receive His shepherding care. We are not free agents who just happen to join a Church for the sake of it. Real spiritual benefit comes from the gathered body of believers. To refuse to be with the Church as she gathers on the Lord’s Day, to not want to identify with the Church by joining the local body, is to sin against Jesus Christ, who established her as His. That’s not to say obviously that everyone has to be ARP to be a Christian, but membership in the visible church is a necessary and ordinary condition for entrance into the invisible church.
The invisible church, as Q. 64 and 65 make clear, unlike the visible church, does not contain within it hypocrites, unbelievers, and apostates, but those who truly, and really are wholly united to Christ by faith alone by His sovereign election and predestinating love. Only God knows the true members of the invisible church. Our spiritual life comes through this membership. More could be said on this, but we’ve reached our limit.
Here’s more on the institutional Church and why it matters:
Blessings in Christ,
Rev. Benjamin Glaser
Pastor, Bethany ARP Church