[This is the last part of a four part series from Mike Horton on some of the misunderstandings that are prevalent within American evangelicalism about the “nature, marks, and mission of the church.” Earlier installments can be found here.]
Misunderstanding #4: “We can’t go to church because we are the church”
We’ve heard this one a lot lately, but again, it’s not really new. Many of us were raised with this idea in old-style conservative evangelicalism. In one sense, there is much to commend this view. The church is certainly not a building. In fact, there is no holy place on earth except for the temple consisting of living stones built up into Christ (1 Pet 2:4-10). However, the way it is often argued goes beyond this insight. Some who invoke this phrase today tell us that the Reformation was wrong when it defined the church by the marks of preaching, sacrament, and discipline. This put the focus on the church as a place where certain things happen instead of a people who do certain things. How should we respond?
First, notice where the emphasis is placed in this construction. Whereas the marks of the church identified by the reformers focus on the church as a place where God is active in serving his people with saving benefits and then sending them out into the world as renewed neighbors, the new phrase makes the church (or at least individual Christians) the active agent. In other words, the emphasis falls on our doing instead of receiving that which God has done and is doing for us. Not surprisingly, this emphasis picks up a lot of collateral confusions along the way, like the call to “living the gospel” or “being the gospel.” Have we forgotten that the gospel is the Good News about God’s redeeming work in Jesus Christ? It is for us, but it is not about us. The gospel is concentrated entirely on Christ’s doing, dying, and rising, not on our experience, piety, or acts of service. The gospel creates faith and obedience, but only because it the gospel itself is the announcement of Christ’s obedience, death, resurrection, ascension, and return. Of course, the public service includes the response of the covenant partner in spoken word, prayer, and song. Nevertheless, it’s always just that: a response to God’s act of judging and promising, through Word and sacrament.
Second, besides confusing our work with Christ’s, this formula confuses the church-as-gathered with the church-as-scattered. The church has to be a place where God does certain things (such as judge and absolve sinners) before we can be a people who do certain things. Our obedience is “the reasonable service” that we render “in view of God’s mercies” (Rom 12:1-2). The church as an official institution is Christ’s embassy on earth, with his ministerial authority to exercise the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Mat 16:19).
However, the church is not only made up of officers—pastors, elders, and deacons. Gifts have been given to every member for the good of all. Furthermore, common gifts have been given to believers and unbelievers to fulfill their creation callings. So the church as gathered is visible in the so-called “marks” of preaching of the Word, administration of the sacraments, and discipline, while the church as scattered refers to individual believers engaged in their ordinary callings throughout the week as parents, friends, co-workers, employers, employees, citizens, and volunteers. The church, then, is both a place where the Covenant Lord speaks a new creation into being and a people who spill out into the world as heirs of that new creation.
The church as an official embassy of Christ’s kingdom does not have the authority to issue public pronouncements on every conceivable topic or to order the world’s affairs. However, Christians may work together, or alongside non-Christian neighbors, to love and serve their neighbors, to engage in political action, and to pursue particular programs for community improvement. Again, it’s a matter of respecting the “common” without trying to make it “holy.” The commission of the church-as-institution is limited to the ministry of Word, sacrament, and discipline (which includes the physical as well as spiritual care of its members). The activity of Christians, however, is much broader as they engage in their myriad vocations in the world. And where God has not clearly directed our steps, believers have the Christian liberty to use their own sanctified common sense in the way that they raise their kids, vote, entertain themselves, and volunteer their time and talents.
The rediscovery of the doctrines of grace, nicknamed by TIME and Christianity Today as “the New Calvinism,” promises to reinvigorate Reformed and Presbyterian churches that too often take this treasure for granted. At the same time, having been reared in individualistic evangelicalism, I have been regularly overwhelmed with the godly wisdom in churches that have been baptizing, teaching, and caring for the flock in body and soul from womb to tomb. That’s where evangelicalism is weak.
At Pentecost, Peter declared, “The promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Ac 2:39). Focusing on covenant nurture across the generations, older Reformed churches help us to understand what it means to deliver God’s promise to “you and your children.” “New Calvinists” can help us become more intentional in our mission “to those who are far off,” reaching those outside the covenant community. Let’s do this together! As the movement matures, my hope is that it will draw more deeply and broadly from the Reformation’s wells. If “Reformed” simply identifies someone who believes in God’s electing grace, then Thomas Aquinas was Reformed. However, just as Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, and other traditions are defined by their confessions, Reformed Christians confess their faith together through carefully considered statements. Under the normative authority of God’s Word, the Three Forms of Unity (consisting of the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dort) and the Westminster Confession and Catechisms summarize this consensus.
Ecclesiology is a significant part of the churches that emerged from the Reformation. Anglican theologian Paul Avis has observed, “Reformation theology is largely dominated by two questions: ‘How can I obtain a gracious God?’ and ‘Where can I find the true Church?’ The two questions are inseparably related…” According to the churches of the Reformation, the true church is found “wherever the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments are properly administered.” Our challenge today is to move from a Reformed movement to Reformed churches. We must question not only the human-centered doctrine that dominates so much of American religion but the methods and form of life that arise naturally from such doctrine. There is a particular kind of piety and conception of mission that is generated by the doctrines of Scripture. At least since the Second Great Awakening, the Reformation and its confessional distinctives have played a less discernable role than pietist and revivalistic emphases. In fact, at the end of his US tour, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could summarize his observations concerning American religion generally as “Protestantism without the Reformation.” So let’s have a new Reformation that recovers the God-exalting, Christ-centered, grace-proclaiming faith and practice that will bring renewal not only to Reformed churches but, we pray, to the wider body of Christ around the world!