“The Sense of the Church as an article of faith, shows what power it carries with it for the interior life of the soul.” – John Williamson Nevin “On the Church” 1857.
Jonathan David Faulkner
Authors note: This piece was written March 1st and scheduled before the substantial spread of COVID-19. Many churches, including First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center are livestreaming or streaming prerecorded services. Readers are encouraged to plug into those online resources.
Cyril of Jerusalem is famous for the quote that would be handed down to the reformation through Luther and Calvin in their respected works; “You cannot have God as your father, if you do not have the church as your mother.” The problem that arises when we consider the meaning of this quote in its original context and its reformation context is the essential definition of the church that is being used to make the assessment of church parentage. Cyril wrote in the fourth century, he received his ideas of the church directly from Irenaeus of Lyons who had received them from Polycarp who had received them from John. This was when the church still operated on an Acts 2-4 model of family worship. Yes, there was a certain amount of organization that was necessary but show me a family without some structure and I will show you their dysfunction. Catechism had already, begun, we know because the quote from Cyril above is from his first Catechetical Lectures and was the means by which the family passed on the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles to the next generation. It was within the Church that the teachings of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection were passed down. Hence the Roman Catholic Idea that gets adopted by Luther in the Reformation that “Salvation is from the Church.” The church is meant to be the means by which those who are unsaved experience Christ and come to salvation through Him. It is not meant to happen outside the family structure of the Church, and until the rise of Revivalism and Sect and Schism, it did not. Still, Jesus gives the power of the keys to the Church, salvation is not meant to be outside the Church, salvation is Sola Ecclesio (the church alone).
However, by the time this teaching reached the reformation another understanding of the church had developed. St. Augustine, whose name Martin Luther’s order of Monks bore and from which Calvin took much of his theology had, in looking around and noticing unsaved sinners in the pews of the churches, developed the idea of the visible and invisible church. Essentially, Augustine took his Manichean and Platonic philosophical training and applied the idea of forms to the Church. The Church on Earth was a corrupt shadow of the Church in the transcendent. There were sinners among us because the Visible Church was the imperfect shadow of the Invisible Church. This is when the line “Communion of Saints” was added to the Creed. It was this communion that all Holy Spirit Baptized believers, past, present and future, were a part of through Christ, yet while on Earth, the Church was nothing more than an organization made up of sinful men and women and not in its perfect “form.” This became the dominant form of the church in the West until Philip Schaff’s “The Principle of Protestantism” as first preached and then published in 1844 at Mercersburg Seminary in Pennsylvania and sparked a debate over the nature of the Church between the Swiss born and German trained Schaff, his American accomplice John Williamson Nevin and their opponent, the distinguished Calvinist Charles Hodge of Princeton. Schaff understood structure and organization only as a “necessary evil” not as a means and end of the church. That is, our pastor/CEO business model of church which has become the primary model of the church in North America was not to be primary or secondary to the nature of the Church, but the final concern after all other concerns were addressed and questions answered.
Schaff and Nevin scoured the scriptures and the Church Father’s available to them to come up with their definition of the Church as Organism and not organization. In Acts they observed that it was not until it was necessary that structure developed such as in Acts 6. That the natural “Structure” could be found in Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 where the Church is living organically as a family in Christ. They also looked at passages like John 17 and 20 where Jesus prays for the unity of his Brothers, not as a loosely associated group of people, but as a people sent into the world as He was sent into the world, except for us the divine nature that dwells or is incarnate inside of us is the Holy Spirit and we do not share the same Hypostatic Union as Jesus did. We can only be drawn up into the divine life through the Holy Spirit, Jesus was and is always part of the divine life of the Godhead. Jesus is fully God and fully man, we are fully man and the person of the Holy Spirit comes and dwells inside us. All this feels like theological gobbledygook to one who has not been to seminary, but I promise it is important for the average person to understand this because it is essential to the definition of the church as Organism not as organization.
If the Church is an organism than it is a symbiotic one. We are joined to Christ, it is Christ who gives us our Oneness, not doctrine, not Creeds, those serve as reminders and reflections of scripture and its Truths, but our oneness is eternally bound to Christ. All the “One” phrases in Ephesians 4:1-5 point to Christ, none of the “one” in that passage would be possible without Christ. Unity apart from Christ is a myth and a dangerous one. The Church is an organism that is totally dependent on Christ for its very life and existence. We are the: “Continuation of Christ’s presence here on Earth” through the Holy Spirit.
Notice what this means the church is not, a building where people gather on Sunday and then do not think about the rest of the week. The Church is not a business where we seek the best marketing slogan, the church is not a place to drop the kids on Wednesday Night. None of that constitutes the Church, in fact, none of those should have anything to do with the church or be used in the same sentence with the Church because the Church is not a building. I write this because I have seen an increasing number of articles about how “going to church” is better for family health and development. Or the articles that tell people they need to go to church to be good Christians. I am tired of these articles, Church Leaders and The Gospel Coalition alike because they are ignorant of both the biblical definition of the Church and the cultural exegesis that tells us this mentality is why young people have left the church. Because Christianity, when reduced to going to a building, once a week to be told about a brand named Jesus who doesn’t actually remind or resemble the Jesus of the Bible. With 93% of young people who are still engaged in the church saying that, according to Barna: “A Personal relationship with Jesus is extremely important to my faith and my Church life” it seems we should be working to get better at fostering relationships with Christ, not trying to sell a brand. It seems we should return to an idea of the church where that relationship between God and Man through Christ is the very essence of how we understand the church. This would also give younger members the agency and ownership within the local body that they so often feel they are lacking or told frankly that they are not allowed to have.
But what about the buildings we call Churches? We can still call them that, though it might be more advantageous to call them “Meeting houses” as our puritan ancestors did. They should also be repurposed or reimagined with the goal of fostering intergenerational organic relationships by the Holy Spirit. That is, we can keep the sanctuary, but if should not be open one hour, one day a week but multiple days a week and not just for worship, but for prayer and for meals together and for distributing to the needy. Yes, even in a small town. The Church buildings we have can become bases of operation and training for God’s children to be prepared to go and care in the world. But we should do this not merely because Jesus and scripture tells us too, but because God has made us a family through adoption and out of that love, we should live in a gratitude that follows the example set for us by Christ and the Early Christians.
This kind of living includes the sacraments because the efficacy of the sacraments are in Christ whose Spirit pervades them. “Whether men chose to know it,” writes John Williamson Nevin “and lay it to heart, or not, the view that is taken of the Holy Sacraments, as conditioning the view taken by the Holy Catholic Church, and, through this again the view that is taken of the whole mystery of the incarnation, must ever be of radical and primary account in all true Christian Theology. Especially must this be the case with the Sacrament of the Eucharist.” Whatever is happening in the Eucharist, however Christ is present, the manner of which is divine mystery and we should avoid certainty on, are possible because Christ is still Incarnate. The same is true of Baptism where we are literally Baptized into and through Christ by participating in His death and resurrection. Nevin’s Colleague Emmanuel Gerhardt writes: “A Sacrament is a sign and seal of divine grace. The outward element is both the sign and the seal. As sign it represents grace- a spiritual good. As a seas it gives the assurance of a real and present grace.” Sacraments are given for life, for drawing us into deeper relationship with Christ, to partake of the body and blood of Christ in their mystical presence. The incarnation pervades everything: Again Nevin writes: “We become sons of God by union with him in a supernatural way. Let Christ be apprehended as the central bearer of the new creation whose universal fullness is made to reach over in the form of grace and truth (not law but life) into the souls of people, and the subline representation of St. John is simple and clear. Resolve the Christian salvation into an outward image only of Christ, wrought either with our without God’s help, and the representation is blind as chaos.”
Like with all things, instead of glorying in the awesome majesty and power of God we have oversimplified and done exactly what Nevin has warned us against. We have made the Christian Life about how good or moral someone is, how many times they attend Church each year or how many bibles verses they have memorized. These things are all well and good, but the speak to an institutionalized, outward model, not an inward transformative change by Jesus Christ within the heart. We are not called Moralists, we are called Christians, an insult which meant “Little Christs.” We got that name because we believed the Holy Spirit dwelled with us and made us like Christ, because we were committed to the “renewing of our minds and transformation of our hearts” (Rom 12:10). Because we did our best to have the “Same mind as Christ” (Phil 2:5) and because we were known for our radical care for everyone (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37). Millennial’s like myself do not want over simplistic ideas or to be told not to question the way the church has always done things. Sometimes questioning is essential for sustained health and our current way of “doing church” (I hate that phrase) is a hindrance to us being the Church. Our scriptures are deep, our God even deeper and our understanding of him in the modern context is substantially lessoned by our anti-intellectualism and “thou shalt not question” rigorism and both have led to biblical illiteracy of the highest and worst order.
The bottom line is this: our buildings are just buildings and we are the church, the buildings are just the meetinghouse of the church, God’s house is you and I (Gal 2:20, 1 Cor 6:19). As Downhere sings: “We are a Cathedral, made of people, in a kingdom that the eye cannot see.” We are the visible representatives of Christ on Earth who Christ dwells within and maintains His presence through. So while the Church is not a building, you should not forsake meeting together with your local body (Heb 10:25). Salvation comes from the Church because the Church is bound up in union with Christ first and foremost. The building does not dull out salvation, God does, though the church. Thus, the church should be an entrance into a deep relationship with God defined by love, thankfulness and transformation through Discipleship in the Holy Spirit.
So, if you are a believer, go to the place where the Church meets, the building, and be part of the Church which your Union with Christ means you belong to. The visible and organic church defined in relationship to the Holy Spirit and not to its sinfulness/perfection. You are the church and you are one part of the greater whole and the other parts of the greater whole, members one of another (1 Cor 14:12-26) need you to function fully. We all are called to work together for the gospel, not as isolated individuals, and we should do so with great anticipation of what God can and will do through us as a whole body where He has planted us.
Gerhart, Emanuel V. 2016. The Efficacy of Baptism . Vol. VI, in The Mercersburg Theology Study Series: Born of Water and Spirit Essays on the Sacraments and Christian Formation , by Philip Schaff, Emanuel V. Gerhart John Williamson Nevin, edited by David W. Laymen, location 4743-5729. Eugene , OR: WIFP & Stock.
Hoffecker, W. Andrew. 2011. Charles Hodge, THe Prince of Princeton, . Philidelphia : P&R Publishing .
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Nevin, John Williamson. 2016. Wilburforce on the Eucharist. Vol. VI , in The Mercersburg Theology Study Series: Born of Water And Spirit Essays on the Sacraments and Christian Formation, by Philip Schaff, Emanuel V. Gerhart John Williamson Nevin, edited by William B. Evans, Location 3989-4743. Eugene, OR: WIFP & Stock.
Philip Schaff, . 1964. “The Principle of Protestantism .” In The Lancaster Theology Series on the Mercersburg Theology V: VI , by J.W. Nevin, Ed Bard Thompson Philip Schaff, 48-219. Philidelphia : United Church Press.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.