By the Rev. Thomas M. Huston, D.D.
Published in 1929
What is here proposed is to take “a walk about Zion,” which it is hoped may not be so long as to become tiresome nor to such little purpose as not to lead to a wish to go farther and look closer. If it is true, as T. H. Darlow has said, that “the church is not only a great thought which every man ought to study, but also a mighty fact which every man is bound to measure,” then this obligation rests primarily upon the members and particularly upon the officers of the Church. If one’s loyal attachment to the Church of Christ is to remain unshaken in these days when everything is being questioned, it must be rooted in clear convictions of its supreme importance and worth. If those who stand aloof from the Church are to have their eyes opened to their loss, the members of the Church will need to feel and manifest a real appreciation of it. One who does not himself see the beauty and strength of Zion cannot point them out to others. There is need for all to attempt to find the right answer to such fundamental inquiries as, “What is the Church? How did it come to be what it is today? What constitutes a true Church? For what purpose does the Church exist? Is it adequately equipped for carrying on and accomplishing its work? What does it claim of men? Of its members? What does it offer in return?”
- What is meant by “The Church?”
It is well to begin our study with some attempt to reach at least a general definition. We are not helped here by the Westminster Shorter Catechism which, perhaps with reasons, passed by the subject. The Larger Catechism complicates the subject by the division of the Church into “visible and invisible,” with a definition for each. This may be passed by for the present in the attempt to find a simple comprehensive idea of the Church. This is to be found in the Bible. The Church is “the House of the Lord.” This is not a mere synonym for “Church.” It describes the nature, origin, ownership, and purpose of the institution. The Church is of divine origin; it is a meeting-place provided for men with God and with His people. It is a divine idea embodied in a human organization. It rests, like every other permanent institution, upon an eternal truth. It is a “Word made flesh.” The truth upon which the Church rests is that man is capable of fellowship with God and that God’s purpose is to make this possibility a reality. Through the Church this divine purpose is being worked out in humanity.
Our Lord’s definition of the Church is to be found in that much-misquoted verse, Matt. 18:20: “Where two or three” – the minimum – “are gathered together” – a human fellowship – “in My Name” – the purpose and nature of the fellowship – “there am I” – the divine presence and power manifested – “in the midst of them” – the fellowship of Christ with His followers. This is not a promise but a declaration of a permanent truth. Given these conditions and there is a church.
The Church is not a social evolution but a divine institution. It is a human fellowship of which Christ is the Head. It exists to fulfill a divine purpose; it is animated by the divine life and operated by divine power.
“The Church of the Living God is constituted by His own will, not by the will or consent of beliefs of men. Of this Church God is the Creator, Jesus Christ is its Head, the Holy Spirit is the Source of its continuous life.” This is the statement of the Lausanne Conference.
There can be little serious criticism of the ideal and aim of the Church as found in the Scriptures. The plans and specifications of “God’s House” invite the closest inspection. The critics of the Church, however, have much fault to find with the way these are being carried out in the building; but it must not be forgotten that the building is unfinished. The Church owns to the imperfection of all unfinished work. The present stands related to the Church of the future as the boy is related to the man. Indeed, since the Church never has been completed, it is not yet apparent what the future Church shall be. The fair way to judge an institution is by its spirit and goal as well as by its present status. In this the critics of the Church are not always consistent. Sometimes they point to the imperfection of the Church as evidence that a house of God among men is an impossible dream, and again they use it as an argument to prove that church people are hypocrites, professing to believe in ideals which they fail to practice. Now it is plain that both these charges cannot be true; Christians cannot at once be sincere visionaries aiming at the impossible and rank hypocrites professing to follow aims perfectly practical without trying to live up them. The more the Church is blamed for failure, the more it is conceded that its aims are practical, not visionary.
Is the Church as found today an honest and measurably successful embodiment of the divine pattern of a House of God among men?
The effort to visualize and appraise the Church as a present concrete entity is not easy. In the course of history the Church has taken so many forms, and presents such variety, as to lead one to ask whether all of these organizations or only some of them are “The Church,” – like the traditional traveler among the trees inquiring for the forest. Some of these Churches are recognizable copies of the divine model, some show apparent deviations, while others are so little recognizable as to give grounds to suspect that they are not Churches of Christ at all, but rather “synagogues of Satan,” as the old Confession bluntly calls them. The temple of God has its inner sanctuary and its outer courts, and there are courts “round about” which are to be left out in measuring it. But it is the coins of most value that suffer most from counterfeits. The imitations of the Church attest its value. It is not at all surprising that organized, non-Christian propaganda should be camouflaged to appear like Churches. False prophets and prophetesses have dared to parallel their writings with the words of Jesus, to organize their followers under the honorable name of the Church of Christ, and to preach a gospel without a Saviour, a theology without a personal God, and a redemption from pain instead of from sin.
Those who pose as critics of the Church should at least be able to tell the genuine from the counterfeit, but much current criticism discredits itself by lack of this discrimination. It would be just as unreasonable to classify skilled and trained physicians with quacks and medicine men in order to discredit the healing art as it is to include false Churches with the true in a sweeping arraignment of the divine institution. The term “Church” is broad enough to include varying Christian organizations, without trying to stretch it to take in others. The limits of the Church are set forth in scriptural terms by the Lausanne Conference. “The Church as the communion of true believers in Christ Jesus is, according to the New Testament, the people of the New Covenant, the Body of Christ, the temple of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief Corner Stone.”
II. Marks of the genuine Church.
A measuring rod was given to the author of the Apocalypse to use in measuring the temple of God. There can only be confusion where each one insists in measuring the Church with his own “rod.” There has long been general agreement among New Testament students as to the four measurements to which the true Church conforms. It is founded by Christ and the Apostles, it is one, it is holy, and it is catholic. It is by these marks that a true Church is recognized.
1. The Christian Church is built upon the foundation of Christ and the Apostles. It had a definite beginning and has had historic continuity. Every true branch of it has a Christian pedigree and antecedents. It also possesses the Spirit of Christ and holds to the teachings of the Apostles. It is not necessary for a Church to be able to prove that its ministry has been ordained by those who can trace their ordination in direct unbroken succession from those upon whom the Apostles laid their hands. Such a claim is difficult to prove, and it is insufficient in itself, even if proved, to validate a Church as apostolic. The Pharisees sat in “Moses’ seat,” but were hypocrites for all that. The apostolic Church is not recognized by external tests so much as by its doctrinal and spiritual succession. Without this no Church is a true Church of Christ.
2. There can be but one true Church since Christ is the only Head of the Body. Every branch and member of it shares in its unity.
But how can there be oneness when there is so little uniformity? The light of inquiry and the fire of criticism are being increasingly directed toward the divisions of the Church. Many are seriously inquiring whether these divisions are necessary and an increasing number are roundly condemning them.
It is pretty generally conceded that the Church ought not to be so much divided. The present condition is not the ideal and purpose of Christ. At the same time it is but fair to consider that the present membership of these Churches did not create these divisions but inherited them. If they are to blame, it is for tolerating a condition, not for causing it. The denominations today are not, as is sometimes represented, hostile camps arrayed against each day. All know, or ought to know, that there is a growing spirit of fellowship between the great Protestant Churches, manifested in increasing cooperation, and even in the advocating of organic union. If our ecclesiastical forbears have sinned through division, their successors do not show a divisive spirit. If it is granted that the division in the Church came about through sin, the question remains, “Who did sin?” We have not been accustomed to look on the fathers of the Reformation as troublers of Israel any more than Elijah. The better the conditions under which the great Protestant Churches were formed is understood the less disposition there is to charge their leaders with the since of schism. They have rather been honored as sufferers for their fidelity to the truth. They laid the sin of dividing the Church at the door of corrupt officials in the Church who brought about intolerable conditions. Those who are so severe in censuring the Church for its divided state might do well to study the unedifying spectacle presented by the undivided Roman Church previous to the Reformation, and even those accustomed to think of the unity of the early Church as ideal might be disillusioned by reading the volumes of Harnack on “The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries.”
It should not be forgotten that real unity cannot be affected by outward organization where there is no oneness of spirit, and that, on the other hand, there may be a spirit of unity in the Church under varied forms of organization. If there is no difficulty in looking on the forty-eight separate states of our Republic as constituting one United Nation, ought it not be possible to think of the different Christian denominations as constituting one Church under the Headship of Christ? “I am the vine and ye are the branches,” He said. A vinestock with its branches is a more Christian figure of Christ’s Church than an array of hostile camps.
Nevertheless Christ’s prayer that His followers all might be one is certainly not realized in the present condition of His Church. The problem of bringing about true unity is a great one, but where there is the will and desire there can be found some way to affect it. When the Churches come to see the need of a united testimony for Christ, and to realize the ineffectiveness of isolated work in accomplishing the world’s salvation, and to long and pray for the unity Christ desired for His disciples, the prayer will find an answer. Meanwhile let it not be denied that there is a real though imperfect unity of all branches of the one true vine.
3. The Church of Christ in all its branches is holy.
This term as at first used in the Bible did not have its present ethical sense. It was applied to things or to persons set apart for the service of God. It was their separation to God that made them “holy.” But since persons standing in special nearness to God should reflect something of the divine character, the word as applied to persons, individually or collectively, came to have its present ethical significance. When the New Testament writers speak of all the members of the Church as saints, and of all the Churches as holy, they mean that they stand in special relation to God, that they are set apart from the common, and are destined to ethical holiness. Holiness is the goal of the Church and its members are partakers of the divine nature. They are therefore exhorted to cultivate holiness of life.
The holiness of the Church in this ethical sense has always been imperfect. The habit of speaking of all church members as holy soon fell out of use. The term was restricted to select individuals, – church officials, chosen because of their blameless lives, hermits, and professional holy men. Thus a double standard of character was introduced into the Church. The rank and file of church members, no longer being called saints, felt free to relax the effort to be holy. The line of separation from the world became less marked. Worldliness in the Church had become widespread when the counter movement of Montanism arose, aiming to bring the Church to a higher standard of living. The Reformation, too, received much of its impulse from the desire for a higher standard of holiness in the Church. The Reformers were scandalized by the prevailing corruption and felt unable to continue longer in fellowship with it. Unable to call the Church as they saw it “holy,” and yet believing that holiness is an indispensable mark of Christ’s Church, they fell back on the idea of an invisible Church, known only to God, the members of which are all holy. The Church as they saw it, the visible Church, could not be called holy, but the invisible was holy. These terms, visible and invisible, have been incorporated in our church creeds, though they are not the most happily chosen and are not found in the New Testament. They stand for a real distinction, however, because, strictly speaking, a corrupt Church is not holy. But the difference is not to be emphasized so as to leave the impression that there are two Churches, side by side. The Church invisible is rather to be thought of as the Church within the Church, as the pure, wheat in the unwinnowed heap. True, some of it has been winnowed out and garnered, and some of it not as yet gathered into the floor, but much of the grain is in the visible heap.
The position in which the Reformers found themselves probably tended to obscure somewhat the importance of the visible Church. It is to the invisible what the body is to the spirit. With all its imperfections it is a prime necessity in this present world. Nevertheless the doctrine of a Church invisible, a true people of God who are all known to Him, all destined to holiness, and in process of being sanctified, was a great source of comfort to those whose loyalty to Christ caused them to be ostracized by the organized Church. This doctrine, too, is a sufficient answer to the scoffer who denies the reality of a holy Church among men.
The Church is not called on, however, to apologize for the unholy lives of its members. There is no excuse for an unholy life in the Church or out of it. An evil life is a matter for sorrow and shame, especially in a professed follower of Christ. Yet it is as certain that there are saints in the Church as that there are sinners outside of it. Christ’s Church is the best available help to a holy life, for, as is well said, “The Church of Christ is the only great school of virtue existing.” If some fail of a good life even in the Church, the danger of failure outside of it is far greater.
How shall the standard of holiness be raised? The Church has always faced this question. The Montanists sought to solve it by a rigid exercise of discipline, but Montanism was eventually repudiated by the Church. It does not appear that the maintenance of strict oversight of the conduct of its members has ever been regarded generally as the chief business of the Church, nor is this view widely held today. Effort is directed to increasing the membership rather than to purifying it. Numbers are held in more esteem than quality. This may be all wrong, but it cannot be denied. There may be difference of opinion as to the quality of the Church’s membership today, but there can be no doubt that the Church ought to be holy. Laxness here is weakness; the old story of Gideon and his army is in point. There is need of care in admitting members and need of training and caring for them when admitted.
It is especially important that all who want to see the Church kept holy take care to live blameless lives themselves. Example is more effective than exhortation, and kindness than censure. The best discipline is that which reclaims the erring; the most effective reproofs are spoken in love.
4. The Church of Christ is catholic.
It should be needless to explain that the “holy catholic Church” of the Apostles’ Creed is not the Roman Church but the Church universal in all its branches. Catholicity is comprehensiveness. Christ’s Church is not only holy but comprehensive, not only exclusive but inclusive. It keeps open doors for all of Christ’s followers, excluding none who belong to Him. This follows because the Church is one and Christ is its only Head. It does not make terms of admission which exclude any who belong to the body of Christ.
The Jewish Church was exclusive rather than catholic in spirit. To enter it one had first to become a Jew. The Christian Church, arising within Judaism, had to emancipate itself from hereditary narrowness. It came only gradually to realize its universal character and to open its doors to those not of the Jewish race and religion. Now this Jewish exclusiveness doubtless served a purpose. It kept the people of God from being absorbed in the nations around them. With the Jew it was a question of being a separate people or not being a people at all. But the Christian Church with its clearer light and more abundant life was sent out into the world to make disciples from all nations. It was taught to look on the world as its field to cultivate, not as its foe to avoid. All men were to be looked on as possible recruits for Christ’s kingdom.
It was not easy for the Church, with its Jewish antecedents, to make this transition to the universal. Former Jews found it hard to welcome as equals and brothers those who had once been unclean idolaters. Nor is this remarkable when modern race and color prejudices are considered. The Church has a good deal yet to learn from catholicity. Some members of the Church have no occasion to reproach the old Jewish Christians with narrowness in face of their own want of cordiality to fellow-disciples of another color or race or social status. The weak conscience is not much respected, nor is the spirit of fellowship in evidence as it ought to be in our age of the world. We are not free as we ought to be of the Master’s reproach, “I was a stranger and ye took me not in.” The Church of the future, as even a Jewish prophet foresaw, keeps open door, – “Thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night.” It will make no impossible terms of communion, nor establish tests which Jesus has not authorized. It will harbor no unbrotherly suspicions of the sincerity of others. Its motto will be, “Whosoever will, let him come and take of the water of life freely.”
It is probably true that in becoming more catholic the early Church lost something of its holiness. The gospel not gathered bad as well as good. As the Church increased it numbers, the tendency was to more laxity in faith and practice. The Pastoral Epistles and the Apocalypse witness to the evils that had crept into the brotherhood. The Church was no longer generally spoken of as holy. Montanism had so strong a case in the need of the purifying of the Churches that it almost won the day.
But Montanism was finally repudiated by the deliberate action of the Church as a heresy. It is thus apparent that catholicity was counted more essential than purity. The work of winning the world to Christ was made second to none. The fathers of the Reformation, despairing of purifying the Church of their day, felt constrained to withdraw from it and form a more holy brotherhood. But while they succeeded in this, the emphasis they naturally put upon purity of doctrine and life tended somewhat to the neglect of the catholic spirit. The result was an overemphasis of distinctives and differences and a needless multiplication of denominations. The missionary spirit was also for a time in abeyance.
The modern movements for church unity come as a natural reaction from this condition. The Church is again emphasizing the importance of catholicity. Breadth and tolerance are stressed rather than purity of doctrine and life. Some have caught a vision of a great united Church, tolerant of all varieties of Christian faith and of large freedom in conduct. But there is the natural fear on the part of others that purity would be sacrificed to breadth and holiness to catholicity. This fear has good historical basis.
But there is no real antagonism between holiness and catholicity. Holiness is not synonymous with narrowness, nor comprehensiveness with laxity. The Great Head of the Church intended it to be both exclusive and inclusive. “There shall in no wise enter into it anything that defileth” may be set over against “He that is not against us is for us,” in order to a complete view of its spirit. The fine motto of “The Christian World,” – “In things essential, unity; in things doubtful, liberty; in all things, charity,” might serve as a motto for a Church at once holy and catholic. Intolerance has discredited the cause of Christ as much as unholiness. Both are wrong and unworthy of Jesus Christ. Unity, holiness, and catholicity are the beautiful attributes of the Church of Christ. When it is completed it will be indeed a glorious Church, yet something of this glory already attaches to every true branch of it.
III. The work of the Church.
The Church is a divine institution, but is built among men and for men. It is not only the embodiment of a permanent truth, but also an agency for meeting a permanent need and accomplishing a divine purpose. It is not only an ideal fellowship but an active force. So any adequate view must include the aim and work of the Church.
What is the work of the Church? Is it doing its work? Is it efficient? It is known by its works as well as by its character and constitution. Jesus keeps reminding her, – “I know thy works.”
There is of course a close relation between the character and the work of a Church. A divided, corrupt, or self-centered Church is not a fit agency for God’s use. It is the healthy branch which bears fruit. The essential characteristics of a true Church are also qualifications for its work. The branch which is truly united to the vine is the only one which bears fruit.
In a general way, the work of the Church is to bring men into fellowship with God and thus to establish His Kingdom on earth. In particular, it is to use all the appointed and necessary means to this end. The Confessional Statement of the United Presbyterian Church may be quoted here as a concise and inclusive account of the particulars included in the work of the Church: – “the confession of His Name, the public worship of God, the preaching and teaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, the nurture and fellowship of the children of God, the propagation of the gospel, and the promotion of social righteousness.” An examination of these items shows that there are three main objectives in the work of the Church – the development of Christian character, the conversion of the unsaved, and the Christianizing of society, or social service so-called.
1. Bunyan’s familiar picture of the palace beautiful, maintained for the refreshment of pilgrims on the way to the Celestial City, presents one aspect of the Church’s mission. To maintain a model fellowship, an ideal society, a model Kingdom of Heaven in this world, is no small undertaking. There is needed for its success careful training and cultivation of Christian character. Teaching has always held a foremost place in the activities of the Church. It is explicitly enjoined by our Lord in His great commission. A revival of interest in the training of the children of the Church is in evidence today. There is a general feeling that this work has been poorly done. But it may be asked, Why stop with the children. If many have grown up in the church homes without proper instruction, is there not the more reason for giving instruction from the pulpit? Adults are certainly capable of learning as well as children. The revived interest in religious education is to be welcomed, but why is it tacitly understood that it is only for children? The great essential truth of the Christian religion need to be more studied and taught in the churches today. Is it not sometimes forgotten that in our Presbyterian churches the minister’s official status is that of a “teaching elder?” Not exhortation but the truth of God is the proper diet for the flock of God. There need be no relaxation of the effort to make disciples, but there needs to be more attention given to caring for them.
2. The work of the Church is to make disciples of Christ as well as to train those who are Christians. Christianity has always been a missionary religion. The Church has been from the first, and still is, a great missionary agency. Its growth has been through missionary effort. It has the world for its field. The mighty task of winning the world to Christ has been assigned to it. Evangelism and missions are departments of one work. The missionary spirit knows no boundaries.
There are those who wonder why this work is so far from being completed. Perhaps they might find the answer in their own attitude to it. It is only a part of the Church that is engaged in this work. In every congregation are those who do absolutely nothing toward the salvation of the world. While few have the hardihood to own that they do not believe in mission work, yet there are many who have the hardiness of heart to refuse it any assistance. It has to be confessed that one great cause of delay in completing the task of winning the world to Christ is to be found in the Church itself – in the indifference of many of its members.
3. It is the work of the Church to promote social righteousness.
By social righteousness is meant right relations between men and right moral standards of life in the community. It is at this point that the work of the Church comes closest to that of the State. Indeed some are much concerned lest the Church should meddle in the matters that belong to the State. They object to the Church taking an active part in moral reforms or taking a stand for public righteousness. But matters which concern the morals of a community or a State are not matters of indifference to the Church. It is a witness for the truth and has the right and duty to speak.
On the other hand, the Church is severely criticized today for failure to do its duty in this respect. How often has it been affirmed that if the Christian Church had done its duty, the World War would have been impossible. Lloyd George, who is no unfriendly critic, recently said, “As one who was a minister at the time the Great Wall was declared, I say that if all the Churches of Christendom had suddenly come out and said ‘Halt; this murder must not begin,’ there is not a minister or a monarch that would have dared to have done it.” We are familiar with the charge that the Church is afraid to speak out against such evils as militarism and industrial greed and social injustice. There is no need to apologize for any such failures in the past. It can be said, however, that there is a growing interest in such matters on the part of the Churches today. Social service is on the program of most Protestant denominations now. These Churches are credited even by their foes with writing Prohibition into the Constitution of our Nation. The voice of the Church is being raised against the war evil and other evils of the political world. Is it too much to hope that in time politics will be Christianized and industry humanized and armaments scrapped? Some Churches are even stressing social service more than the salvation of sinners, but the efforts to save society need not interfere with the work of saving souls. The Kingdom of God is needed in the world as well as in the individual life.
Those who charge the Church with inefficiency in doing its work should not lose sight of what it has done, nor of the greatness of its task. Partial success in the stupendous undertaking of establishing the Kingdom of God in the whole world is more creditable than completing some lesser enterprise. In all these past centuries the Kingdom of God has been coming progressively, if slowly. The expectation of God will suddenly intervene and complete the unfinished task seems unwarranted. If Christ had not been spiritually present with the Church all the time, it could have accomplished nothing. But far more rapid progress is possible when all the resources and energy and equipment of the church are enlisted in its work.
IV. The equipment of the Church for its work.
The greatest work ever undertaken in this world is that assigned to the Church of Christ. When that little company of Christ’s followers in Jerusalem was directed to go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations, it might well have asked “How is this to be done?” “What equipment have we for this stupendous task?” Our Lord, however, anticipated this question by telling them in substance that He had given them a gospel to preach and that they would have Him spiritually present, working with them. They were to go to men with a message from God and in the power of God summon them to repent and enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Their equipment was the gospel message and the power of the Spirit.
1. The Church is equipped with a gospel to preach.
The significance and importance of this fact are not always appreciated. Let us imagine, if we can, the Church attempting to win the world to God without a gospel to preach. What would it have to say to men? How persuade them to leave off their sins and turn to God?
Could it win men by good advice instead of good news? The world is not famishing for want of good advice. Seneca’s words have been compared with St. Paul’s. Both spoke words of wisdom, but Seneca had no gospel and his teachings started nothing. Paul, however, with the gospel he preached, set forward a movement that transformed the Roman Empire. The power was in the message, not in the man. Peter did not come in response to the invitation of the devout Cornelius preaching moral platitudes, but “words whereby he and his household should be saved.” What impression could the little company of believing Jews in Jerusalem have made upon the world without “the gospel of God” to preach? God knew what the world needed when He sent His Son to bring it the gospel. Without that message the Church would have been powerless.
Or suppose the Church had attempted to bring in the Kingdom of God among men by education and culture instead of by preaching the gospel. True, it was enjoined to teach, but it had to win men before it could teach them, and its teaching was limited to the commands Christ enjoined upon His disciples. After the tragedy of the World War there is no reason to expect any sane person to credit the scrapped theory that the world can be brought to God by giving it culture.
The Jewish Church offered men an approach to God through a mediating priesthood and animal sacrifices, but the Christian Church proclaimed the glad tidings of free access for all to God through Jesus Christ. This was indeed news, not hypothesis. It was proclaimed on the authority of God, not of the Rabbis.
Equipped with this gospel of God, Paul went out as the agent of the Church to summon men to repent and believe the good news. No one had a better opportunity than he to observe and test the efficacy of the gospel. His testimony to it is unqualified – “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto everyone who believeth.” This is not an apostolic dogma, but the verdict of experience.
The gospel has the power of the sword, the power of penetration and conviction, the power of slaying falsehoods and severing error from truth. It has the power of light, the power or revealing to a man the hidden things in his own heart, the power of revealing the unseen things of God. It has the power of life; it quickens the dead conscience to life; it awakens the better nature, makes the soul alive to God, makes the life fruitful in good works.
There may be some in the Church who do not credit the power of the gospel and its sufficiency as the equipment of the Church for its work. Destructive Biblical criticism may have weakened the faith of some in the divine origin and authority of the Church’s message to the world. If the writings of Matthew, John, Paul and the rest of them were of no more authority than the plays of Shakespeare and the poems of Shelley and the hypothesis of Darwin, then the Church would be wholly unequipped for its great task. But the Church at large has confidence has confidence in the gospel message. The recent Lausanne Conference has given this fresh statement of the faith of the historic Church in its message: – “The message of the Church to the world is and must always remain the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the joyous message of eternal redemption, which is the gift of God to sinful man in Jesus Christ. – The gospel is the prophetic call to sinful man to turn to God, the joyful tidings of justification to those who believe in Jesus Christ, – The gospel is the sure source of power for social regeneration.”
The International Missionary Conference in Jerusalem adopted this as its own statement and added: “The gospel is the answer to the world’s greatest need. It is not our discovery or achievement; it rests on what we recognize as an act of God. It is first and foremost ‘good news.’ It announces glorious truth. Its very nature forbids us to say that it may be the right belief for some but not for others. Either it is true for all or it is not true at all.”
The pertinence of thus enlarging on the gospel as the divinely furnished equipment of the Church for its work lies in the fact of its importance. If the equipment is adequate, the work will not fail, and it can never be said of the Church that it “began to build but was not able to finish.” It goes into the world not only with good intentions but with good news from God. It offers men not good advice but glad tidings of salvation. It speaks not in its own name but in the name of the Lord.
2. The Church is equipped for its work by the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In fulfillment of Christ’s promise the Church was endured with power on the day of Pentecost. Although it had a complete gospel before that day, it was commanded to wait for the promised power before beginning to preach it. When the Apostles began to preach in the power of the Spirit, things began to happen. Many of their hearers were convicted of sin and turned to the Lord. It may not be easy to explain the exact nature of this gift of Pentecost, but there can be no question of the reality of it.
One cannot give the Book of Acts a thoughtful reading without noting the prominence given to the presence and work of the Spirit in the early Church. This was recognized as the fulfillment of the promise of Christ’s continued presence with His disciples, a manifestation of His divine power accompanying the preaching of the gospel. The Lord was “working with them.” Their tongues were touched with divine fire; the minds of their hearers were filled with divine light. They might have preached the gospel without the power of the Spirit, as is too often done, but the results would not have followed. The enduement of the Spirit is as permanent a part of the Church’s equipment as the gospel, but it is possible for a church to fail to avail itself of either. The message preached may be something else than the gospel and the reliance be on human efforts and resources, instead of on power from above.
The work of the Spirit in connection with the preaching of the gospel may be linked to the action of the sun’s rays upon the seed sown in the soil. In the seed are the germs of life and in the soil is the possibility of producing growth and fruitage, but without the quickening touch of the rays of the sun there is no result. As the seed and the sunshine are the equipment with which God has furnished the husbandman, so the gospel and the Spirit are the equipment with which He has furnished His Church for its work. It is as effective today as it ever was, when men provide the conditions necessary for its operation. There have been great advances made in agriculture, but seed and sunshine are just as necessary as they ever were for the farmer. They are just as effective also under right conditions. While there is room for new resourcefulness, wisdom, energy and zeal in the work of the Church, its labor will never be successful without the divine equipment of the Word and the Spirit. But these never fail of effectiveness under right conditions.
V. The claims of the Church.
The Church of Christ being what it is, it has the right to claim the respect and confidence of every one. Since Jesus is Lord of all, the Body through which He manifests His presence and working among men is worthy of something of the faith and love due to Him. Those whose creed is “I believe in God the Father – and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord” ought consistently to go on and affirm as confidently “I believe in the holy catholic Church.” This faith in the Church need not be blind and unreasoning. One may believe in the divine institution without believing in all that is done under its name. The Church makes no claim to infallibility or immunity from criticism. One may be helpful to the cause of Christ by calling attention to manifest inconsistencies and faults in the conduct of a church. But a good deal of the current criticism is not discriminating and leaves the impression that the Church of today is not worthy of respect or confidence. Take this, for instance, from the report of a sermon by a prominent London preacher on the text “I saw no temple therein;” – “That is the worst of churches and temples; they shut out more than they take in. There are multitudes of souls whom we could reach more effectively if we were not hampered by our mistaken devotion to the forms of the Church.” This is characteristic of some of the things said about the Church from its own pulpits. One may pass over as unworthy of serious notice those pygmy mushroom sects whose efforts are directed primarily to the discrediting the larger denominations and proselyting among our members. Their unchristian spirit excludes them from the Church universal, and their ignorance from the Church of the Apostles. There are itinerant evangelists also who use the pulpits that are opened to them to find fault with the churches whose guests they are. They feel themselves free to criticize the Church, in terms which pastors are supposed to be afraid to employ, to the satisfaction of those outside. These, however, are rather abnormal cases; but there are able and honest churchmen who sometimes by their rash and unguarded statements discredit the organized Church, which is unfortunate. The foes of the Church borrow too much of their ammunition from its wavering friends. A minister or a member of the church who feels moved to offer his criticisms of things that seem amiss in it ought to preface what he has to say by reaffirming his faith in the institution.
While every loyal member deplores the faults of the Church, and longs to see it doing more effective service, he also recognizes that it is the only organization working for the world’s salvation. It has therefore a claim on the services of all who long for the Kingdom of God.
If devotion to the forms of the Church is a hindrance to reaching the multitudes with the gospel, why are those who are not so hampered not reaching them more effectively? Some modern Churches are very little hampered in this respect, yet one does not hear of the multitudes flocking to them. It is the church that has unshaken faith in its Head and in His appointed means for bringing in His Kingdom that is most effectively working for this end.
A study of St. Paul’s attitude toward the Church is instructive. It was his habit to treat individual congregations as authentic human copies of the divine pattern. He addressed their members as saints and brothers, not as hypocrites. He prefaced his reproofs with generous recognition of their merits and earnest prayers that his high expectations of them might be realized. He hoped much of them, nor were his hopes disappointed. His confidence in, and devotion to, the Body of Christ were only second to his faith in Christ Himself.
The Church claims of men more than their confidence; it claims their enrolment and loyal services. There are those today who profess adherence to Christ but yet do not unite with His Church. They would own that He has a claim upon them, but they do not acknowledge the claims of the Church of which He is the Head. This position is as common as it is illogical and indefensible. It shows a false individualism which cannot be justified, for the individual is part of the social order. “No man liveth to himself.” The Church is the organized Christian society. The Spirit of Christ in the world requires a Body through which to manifest Himself and His working. Our Lord never contemplated a religion without a Church. The religion of Christ never spread nor flourished, nor even existed in this world, without the Church. It has a corporate life in which the individual has a share. The branch cannot bear fruit of itself, nor even maintain life apart from the vine. If the Church has no claim on the individual, it would have no claim on society. It would then be a useless appendage to Christianity instead of its Body. The individual would be a better Christian out of it than in it. Christianity in the world would exist only in individuals and there would be no bond uniting one to the other. Each would lead his own life in his own way, like the trees in the wood instead of the branches in the vine.
The Church has a claim on the help of all Christ’s followers in the work of advancing His Kingdom in the world. In this day of organization it would be strange if Christianity were the one exception – if it flourished best without organization. The forces of evil are organized; to attempt to overthrow them by independent individual effort would be as futile as to attempt to destroy a fortress with bean-shooters. The Church is the declared foe of the evils that destroy men. It claims the help of all lovers of the right.
For one to ask whether it is not possible to live a Christian life without uniting with the Church shows a lack of understanding of the nature of the Church and a failure to weigh its claim. It indicates a self-centered way of viewing this important matter. If all would stand aloof from the Church, what would be the future of God’s Kingdom on earth?
Discipleship to Christ normally expresses itself in fellowship with believers. There is something abnormal in a type of Christianity which does not. Those who willingly take the yoke of Christ and submit to His Lordship do not find it burdensome to take the obligations of church-membership nor to subscribe to a creedal statement of the common Christian faith.
One can readily understand why those who do not believe in Christ nor own His authority stand aloof from the Church, but it is not easy to see why a true disciple should decline to confess Christ by joining the Church. This position looks like an assertion of self-will and “personal liberty” incompatible with the Christian spirit of obedience to Christ and love to the brotherhood. If the reason for this position is, as so often claimed, the lowness of the standard of life or teaching in the Church, then this lofty and sweeping condemnation of fellow-believers is hardly in keeping with the humility Christ enjoins. One qualified to judge his fellow Christians ought himself to excel in the primary Christian graces of humility and love. “Though I have all knowledge … but have not love, I am nothing.”
But it may be asked whether Christ gives any follower of His the option between a Christianity with the Church or one without a Church. He requires all His disciples to confess Him before men. Do we find any churchless Christianity in the New Testament? Christ gave men but one religion, and that the religion of the New Testament, which functions through a Body of which He is the Head. The option He opens to men is between that or none.
Of course, it is assumed that those who acknowledge the claims of the Church by uniting with it will not repudiate them in practice. It is assumed that they will take their share in the work and responsibilities of church members. They will not only call Jesus Lord, but will do what He commands them. One does the Church no service who adds to it nothing but his name. If that proves to be the name of a shirker or a cypher, it is more of a liability than an asset. A roll of church membership made up wholly of such names would be a disgrace to the institution. It would constitute a veritable “synagogue of Satan.” One who acknowledges the claims of the Church on him should do so deliberately and without reservations.
VI. Benefits of Church Membership.
While the Church makes large claims on men, it offers great benefits in return. No one should refuse to acknowledge these demands of the Church without first considering what he thereby forfeits. The Church is a gracious provision of God to meet the needs of men. God has built His house on earth for the good of mankind, and no one can ignore its claims except to his own loss. Even many of those outside recognize the benefit of the Church to the community and the State. All upon whom its shadow falls, even though they may be indifferent or hostile to the Church, have shared in these benefits of a Christian civilization.
Now while people need not be urged to join the Church merely for what they can get out of it, nevertheless it is the part of wisdom for all to consider what is for their own highest good. There is no doubt but that the sincere follower of Christ is greatly benefited by the fellowship of the Church. The promised blessings of this fellowship are uniformly realized in Christian experience. One who thinks himself able to live a Christian life apart from the Church may be compared to a voyager attempting to cross the ocean in his own canoe. Most people prefer an ocean liner. The voyage of life is too rough for taking needless risks. The divine plan for life’s voyage, tried and approved by centuries of Christian experience, is good enough for common folks. The safest way is the wisest and best. The Church is a divinely planned and approved help for the Christian life.
Membership in God’s house is not only a help but a privilege. It affords the believer the opportunity and privilege of meeting with God. There God manifests Himself to those who seek Him and fulfils His promise of fellowship. One need not think that this is the only place where God can be met, and is met by all who sincerely seek Him. He who would have blessed vision of God cannot afford to ignore the house where He maintains Himself. “The Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.” Those who belong in God’s house will see more of its Owner than those who take a chance of meeting Him by the way.
Not only may God be met in His house, but there He promises to manifest Himself in blessing His people. God’s invited guests are richly entertained. He is the “certain man” of Jesus’ parable who made “a great supper” and invited his guests. None who come to His house remain ragged or hungry. The devout partakers of the Lord’s Supper can bear their testimony to the presence of the Master of the house and to the richness of His provision for His guests, but none of those who refuse to come are permitted to “taste” of His supper.
The members of Christ’s Church have also the benefit of goodly fellowship. Man was not made to be alone, nor can he find blessedness in isolation from his kind. He is ever seeking kindred spirits to rejoice with him or to share his sorrows and burdens. Those who have the spirit of Christ find the most congenial fellowship in His Church.
The Church will always be indebted to John Bunyan for his charming sketch of the house Beautiful “built by the Lord of the hill for the relief and security of pilgrims,” where Christian was so delightfully entertained by Discretion, Piety, Charity, and Prudence. This shows what church fellowship meant to Bunyan, and many of us set more store by his view, the result of a long experience of its benefits, than by a clever arraignment of “organized religion” written for a modern magazine under some such heading as “What’s the matter with the Church?”
But we need not go back to Bunyan for an appreciation of the fellowship of the Church. Many are finding it satisfying today also. A modern poet gives a more realistic and not less appreciative account of it than Bunyan’s:
“A little church; the settlers come for miles. Some few, unhearing, sit in selfish dreams; but here the most are really worshippers, seeking in fellowship a sympathy with God. Their simple faces plainly show what feelings stir the heart, for hard looks melt. And thin, worn wretchedness in garb grotesque is eased of ugliness while it feeds on love and hope. The meager hour may lift some groveling face to see the blessed sky, master a soul, and yield it back to life tempered against the evil days to be. A little thing, this church? Remove its roots, Ossa upon Pelion would not fill the pit.”
Yes, it is a large place which the Church fills in many lives and in the world itself. Yet it should not be forgotten how it came to be what it is in this world, where good and evil are so mingled. Near three hundred years ago Pascal wrote, “Notwithstanding the birth of so many schisms and heresies, so many revolutions in government, such great changes in all things, this Church, adoring Him Who has ever been adored, has subsisted without a break. It is a wonderful, incomparable, and wholly divine fact, that this religion, which has ever endured, has ever been assailed. A thousand times it has been on the eve of a universal ruin, and whenever it has been in that state God has restored it by extraordinary manifestations of His power.”
If some are disturbed by the formidable obstacles which confront the Church today, let them remember that its Founder was put to death and His Apostles persecuted. Even in Rome when Paul first came there, he found that the defamers of the Church had been there before him. Those of whom he hoped an unprejudiced hearing told him, “as concerning this sect, we know that everywhere it is spoken against.” When was it ever otherwise? “The whirlwind blows no stronger now than it has done before.” Yet not only has the Church held its own, but it has won signal triumphs. The reason is manifest: “God is in the midst of her.” The future belongs to the Church, not to its critics and foes.
Whether one acknowledges the claims of the Church upon him and avails himself of its benefits, or ignores them, matters most to himself. There is no more important decision for anyone to make than that of his relation to the Church of Christ. One may pass its open door from week to week without heeding its invitation, but a day may come for him to “begin to stand without, and to knock at the door” which has been shut. He may find out when it is too late that those who were accustomed to “steel their hearts against the summons of their souls and hasten past the portal” of God’s house have no claim to a seat among the guests. For us, today is the accepted time, while the door stands open and the Spirit and the Bride say “Come.” Only by a present acceptance of this invitation can one stay his soul on that highest and farthest reaching of all man’s hopes, – “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”