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Lecture XV: The Form of the Church

(Art. 18a)


Because that Sathan from the beginning hes laboured to deck his pestilent Synagoge with the title of the Kirk of God, and hes inflamed the hertes of cruell murtherers to persecute, trouble, and molest the trewe Kirk and members thereof, as Cain did Abell, Ismael Isaac, Esau Jacob, and the haill Priesthead of the Jewes Christ Jesus himselfe, and his Apostles after him. It is ane thing maist requisite, that the true Kirk be decerned fra the filthie Synagogues, be cleare and perfite notes, least we being deceived, receive and imbrace, to our awin condemnatioun, the ane for the uther. The notes, signes, and assured takens whereby the immaculate Spouse of Christ Jesus is knawen fra the horrible harlot, the Kirk malignant, we aflirme, are nouther Antiquitie, Title usurpit, lineal Descence, Place appointed, nor multitude of men approving ane error. For Cain, in age and title, was preferred to Abel and Seth: Jerusalem had prerogative above all places of the eird, where alswa were the Priests lineally descended fra Aaron, and greater number followed the Scribes, Pharisies, and Priestes, then unfainedly beleeved and approved Christ Jesus and his doctrine: And zit, as we suppose, no man of sound judgement will grant, that ony of the forenamed were the Kirk of God. The notes therefore of the trew Kirk of God we beleeve, confesse, and avow to be, first, the trew preaching of the Worde of God, into the quhilk God hes revealed himselfe unto us, as the writings of the Prophets and Apostles dois declair. Secundly, the right administration of the Sacraments of Christ Jesus, quhilk man be annexed unto the word and promise of God, to seale and confirme the same in our hearts. Last, Ecclesiastical discipline uprightlie ministred, as Goddis Worde prescribes, whereby vice is repressed, and vertew nurished. Wheresoever then thir former notes are seene, and of ony time continue (be the number never so fewe, about two or three), there, without all doubt, is the trew Kirk of Christ: Who, according unto his promise, is in the middis of them. Not that universall, of quhilk we have before spoken, bot particular, sik as wes in Corinthus, Galatia, Ephesus, and uther places, in quhilk the ministrie wes planted be Paull, and were of himselfe named the kirks of God.


We have seen in our last lecture that the divine mystery of the church is not identical with her human form, but we must seek the divine mystery of the church in her human form; otherwise we shall never find it. This form is, however, decisively conditioned by the fact that churches are individual and therefore many in number. The one holy church exists as a form only in such individuality and plurality. Only when sought in these, can she be found. For this reason the New Testament itself speaks of the Church, in speaking of the churches, and in speaking of the churches speaks of course immediately and directly of the Church also. The Church in the New Testament is the church in Ephesus, the church in Corinth, the church in Rome side by side. Conversely the church in Ephesus, in Corinth and in Rome side by side are in each case the Church. What on the other hand is utterly foreign to the New Testament is the conception only too familiar to us of an all inclusive church, whether already organised, or to be organised, or merely as an ideal to which the individual churches would stand in the relation of component churches. And this conception, only too common among us, could hardly be justified from the nature of the thing itself. Jesus Christ is one and does not exist in component parts. And if the church is the form of His earthly human existence during the time between His Ascension and His Second Coming she too cannot exist in parts, but must exist as a whole wherever she exists. She is in that case always the church as a whole in this place and in that, but not the sum of these churches, as though the individual churches were individual numbers, nor is she the harmony of them as if they were individual notes or instruments forming an orchestra. Wherever a church considers herself as a part of the church alongside other parts and is not conscious in all seriousness of being in her individuality the whole church, she has not yet understood herself or taken herself seriously as the church, that is, as an assembly of people under one head Jesus Christ. An association, in view of the idea underlying it and in view of its task, can share with other associations, possessing the same idea and task, in the carrying out of these, so that one association gives more prominence and attention to one side of their common cause, while another attends similarly to another side. For example, a Young Men's Christian Association may have various sections for sport or reading or politics. The church, however, cannot share in Jesus Christ in her faith or in her work. Wherever she is the church she cannot but will and do everything, or else be no church at all.

The legitimate differences between churches can only be of a technical nature. They are conditioned by differences of time and place, by the fact that we, as children of our time, can in the nature of the case no longer worship God and hear His Word in outward fellowship with the Christians of the fourth century, conditioned too by the fact that the Christians in Aberdeen, for example, cannot in the nature of the case meet together in outward fellowship, as a rule, with those of Edinburgh, much less with those of Basel. But the assembly itself, as an assembly of Christians, is one and undivided, then as to-day, there as here, and is always the same and complete both there and here, then and now. If individual churches unite with one another for joint deliberation, joint speech and action, that, whether it occurs in the narrower confines of a district or country or in œcumenical dimensions, does not mean that the church should or could be created thereby for the first time. If the individual churches in their individuality are not already the church, then all the churches of the world could unite as closely as they please to form a great union without thereby becoming the church. All that can happen at such a union, be it great or small, is simply that the churches bear witness to the church before the world and among themselves, just so far as they are really the church in their own individual existence, i.e. just so far as each of them in her technical difference from the others is at the same time the church, and wishes to be nothing but the one complete church in her faith, in her own work and in her relation to other churches. All conferences and all unions—and there are many of them to-day—which do not take place on this basis are so much idle chatter and ado about nothing, which had far better be omitted, because it can only obscure the question of the true nature of the church. This question is put in all seriousness to every individual church and congregation as such and must always be answered by her as an individual church or congregation.


Because the church exists in a form manifest to men and therefore in time and in this world, she is nowhere exempted at any time from the possibility of a complete or partial falling away from her head, Jesus Christ, and consequently she is nowhere exempted at any time from the danger of losing her character as the church. She can be and can remain what she is as the church—the assembly founded, sustained and ordered by Jesus Christ. She can be held together and continue so through “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, one body, one spirit, one hope based on the calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father” (Eph. 4, 3), and this unity, thus described, means that she is the one church of Jesus Christ. But she can also lose this unity of hers in Jesus Christ wholly or in part. She can become a society, an institution, set up, protected and utilised by men on their own authority, a piece of work in which, under the title of the service of God, man is openly or secretly concerned with his own glory. This will probably show itself at once in tension and division within the church and in deviation of doctrine and life from the promise and the command, to which a church will hold, if she is the church. But this will not always show itself immediately. A church may maintain the external fellowship and tradition and orthodoxy in their entirety and yet cease to be a church. I do not know whether the fathers of the Scottish Confession saw this as clearly as we must see it. But we must see and assert clearly, that the church is always threatened by the question whether she is the true or the false church, and that perhaps most of all when she thinks most confidently that she is the true church.

This fact brings a necessary unrest into the life of the church and of each church and also into the relation of individual churches to one another. Both the true and the false church exist. No church is ever exempted from the question, “Am I the true church?” And no church is exempted from submitting herself to the enquiry of the other churches, “Art thou the true church?” This distinction and this question is one which causes unrest and pain, but which may not be suppressed even for the sake of love or peace. We can have no peace with one another or only a hollow peace, where such peace is not our peace in Jesus Christ. Between the true and the false church there can be agreements of one kind or another, tolerance and the like, but not the peace which is our peace in Jesus Christ. It is therefore not merely folly, but downright treason—and this has shown itself more than once in the œcumenical movement—to designate the true and the false church (e.g. the Evangelical Church and the Roman Catholic Church) as parts of the one church of Jesus Christ, as discords which quite well admit of being united in one all-embracing concord to form a harmony. This may hold good when it is a matter of discords on both sides; false churches may meet together very well in such a higher unity, for all false churches do belong together and could form an excellent unity—and it is a point worthy of consideration, whether many a church conference and union has not prospered so well simply because it was a case of a false church that was able to reach a happy understanding and union with another false church. But discord and concord can only disturb and cancel each other. The true and the false church as such admit of no uniting, but are as incompatible as fire and water and woe to him who would deny that. He would thereby only prove that what he considers to be the true church and believes he could unite with other churches is itself the false church, or that he treats the true church as if it too were the false church—and it is just this which is treasonable in such a proceeding. For the true church lives on the truth and in the truth, and truth will not admit of fusion with its contrary, error. The antithesis between the true and the false church is therefore one which must not be ignored, but must be honestly recognised, and that precisely for the sake of love and peace properly understood. The antithesis must be overcome not through the victory of one party over another in a church, or through the victory of one church over another, but through the victory of the truth, through the restoration of the lordship of Jesus Christ in the church. This overcoming of error through the truth is the problem which is raised and must be answered in every age in every church and in the relation of every church to every other. Where this problem did not exist, the church would be eo ipso the false church.


The church is engaged in a struggle for her true nature as the church. Each church is always faced with the question, does the one, true, holy church exist in her? Does she herself exist as the true church, or is she not perhaps something quite different? May she not be just a piece of venerable tradition fostered by certain families or circles and belonging to the place or land in which she exists? Or is she perhaps just one of the instruments of power of society or of the ruling class in society? The socialists and communists have said so at times. Or is she perhaps just a harmless association to satisfy certain religious needs? Or may she be actually just a shop, in which well-meant morality and “Weltanschauung” of all kinds is offered for sale and disposed of? One feels at times that she is just such a shop, where the wares are cheap and are therefore not held in much honour.

No church exists that has not always to be facing the question whether she is indeed the true church. This holds good both of a great national church or even a world church (even though, like the Roman Church, it were ever so strongly entrenched in its doctrine and orders) and of a sectarian church (even if its life were ever so deep and animated). There is no church therefore which has not to fight for her existence as the true church. The true church exists in human form, in time, in the course of history, and therefore subject to the temptation to give up her true nature, a temptation which can threaten her at every moment from without or within (or from without and within) and which means for the church the danger of becoming a false church. This temptation has to be resisted, and woe to the church which will not resist.

But everything here depends on the resistance being the right resistance (2 Tim. 2, 5). Where and when does that take place? Clearly we must answer, in accordance with all that we have said about the real Christian life, the ordinance governing it and the true Christian life and about the mystery of the church, that this takes place wherever the Holy Spirit is at work in the church. The work of the Holy Spirit is the founding, forming and sustaining of faith in Jesus Christ—a faith which consists in thankfulness and penitence, and which fulfils the law of God by love to God and one's neighbour, and in which we are comforted by the fact that the Son of God has intervened on our behalf. It is God's grace and God's work when men are awakened and called to this faith and are sustained in it. The true church exists where this takes place and only there. Stated in terms of general principles, the church's struggle for her existence can consist simply in the existence of faith and the working of the Holy Spirit in her. The true church exists at the place where this happens. Anything else which might be asserted here is beside the point. The Scottish Confession has enumerated some of the things which at the time of its composition were usually cited as evidence of the true church, and has affixed the necessary question marks. Here it is again speaking in opposition to Roman Catholicism. But there are also non-Catholic churches which would do well to pay attention at this point. In settling this question about the true church, the decisive factor is not the antiquity of the church, as the Confession says (e.g. Cain was older than Abel), nor is it the place (Jerusalem was the city of God and Christ was crucified in it), nor is it succession (for such a succession was to be found in the family of Aaron, which contained ultimately an Annas and a Caiaphas), nor are numbers decisive (the Scribes and Pharisees were more numerous than the disciples of Jesus). And we could continue ourselves—the decisive factor is not the intensity of the piety prevalent in the church (the Pharisees did not fall short in that respect and were Pharisees for all that), nor the beauty of the service (there was no lack of that in Bethel and yet God rejected it through the mouth of Amos), nor her works and sacrifice, nor her morality (it was precisely zeal for that which brought Christ to the Cross), nor the best theology (it never flourished so well as at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem). Why is all this not decisive? Why can a church possess all these advantages and still be a false church? Because all these are advantages according to our own standards, which themselves rest on estimates and valuations of such magnitudes and values as underlie our human judgement. But what makes a church true has nothing to do with any of these magnitudes and values. The true church is distinguished from the false only by the fact that in her Jesus Christ is present in power. The true church exists, shines out, fights against temptation and escapes the danger of becoming a false church only where, through the power of Jesus Christ Himself, men enquire about Him, i.e. where they do not care about anything else—success or outward safeguards or about expansion or virtues and wisdom, but about Him and Him alone. Where this question is a burning one, bringing unrest and longing and anger and love, there the true church lives. And there alone; for this alone is the question asked by faith.


The distinction of the true from the false church is thus always a spiritual distinction, and only as such can it become manifest. This does not mean that the distinction remains invisible. But it does mean that it can only be made by God, and also can only be made visible by Him. It means that this distinction cannot be drawn by us, but can only be recognised by us in faith as one already made by God Himself. The Scottish Confession, like most Reformed Confessions, specifies three points at which this distinction made by God can be seen. Let a man ask, it says, where there is to be found true preaching of the Word of God as witnessed to by the prophets and apostles. Secondly, where are the sacraments as instituted by Jesus Christ rightly administered? Thirdly, where is to be found the ordinance of the church, which is required of us by the Word of God and which means the necessary crisis also among individual men within the church? Note that all these three points—these notae ecclesiae—are of a spiritual nature. All three say, the true church is to be seen where the Holy Spirit of God wills it. For God's Holy Spirit decides where there is true preaching, right administration of the sacraments and faithful accomplishment of this discipline and crisis. And in what way God's Holy Spirit decides in these matters, will be seen and known and recognised through faith and so through the Holy Spirit Himself. But God's Holy Spirit speaks and may be heard at the place where He has his dwelling and from which He comes to us, namely, in Jesus Christ as the Word of God. The Holy Spirit is not some unknown fluid which can mean different things at different times, nor is He a magic charm. He is the Spirit of Jesus Christ. What the Reformed Confession means by specifying these three points is that, when we enquire about the true church and consider preaching, the sacraments and the ordinance of the church, it is Jesus Christ Himself as the Word of God, who has to be the subject of our enquiry. We can enquire after Him, for He exists in concrete form, as witnessed to in the Bible, in the written word of prophets and apostles. And if we enquire after Him, we shall not remain unanswered. If we measure the life of the church by this standard, it will become clear to us what He has founded and sustained as His church and therefore as the true church. And it will also become clear what is the other church, the one that is not His, the false church or the “filthie synagogue” as the Confession calls it. It will become clear, that is, at these three points, whether the church, after whose true nature we are enquiring, is or is not a church reformed by Him, that is, a church which He has made subject to Himself. The true church, i.e. the reformed church, is always undergoing this reformation, the reformation, that is, of her preaching, her sacraments and her ordinance by the Word of God. The false church, that is always the unreformed church, was perhaps reformed four hundred years ago, only now to reveal the fact that she is afraid of allowing herself to be further reformed. Faith is necessary, that the church may again and again undergo this reformation by the Word of God, and thus let herself be distinguished as the true church from the false. And faith is necessary in order to see this distinction. What is divine will be done only by God. And that God does what is divine will only be known through God revealing it. But when we have faith like a grain of mustard seed, then the church is undergoing reformation, and when we have faith like a grain of mustard seed we can see this reformation too, and with it the distinction of the true church from the false.