The Church, Our Mother

Week of Monday, May 7, 2001

When it comes to church attendance, around my house my kids call me The Enforcer, which is to say that I make them go to church. It's true. We go every Sunday and, preferably, sit way up front on the left. When they complain, I explain that they don't have to enjoy themselves, or even to believe what they hear (although I pray they do). I try not to put on a false front, and it is not uncommon for them to hear me criticize a sermon or some aspect of the church I don't like. But we go, every Sunday, way up front on the left.

I am amazed how casual some Christians are about their relationship to the church and its role in their salvation. For many believers, I think, church is almost inconsequential. There are many reasons for this, some good and some bad. The sermons are boring. It's just a social club. The people are hypocrites. In the movie Chocolat (2000) the village church is portrayed as a moralistic, intolerant, hair-splitting bunch of repressed people who never have any fun and who (in the book version) really don't even believe much of what they say they do. In his book What's So Amazing About Grace?, Phil Yancey tells the story of a prostitute who, when she was encouraged to go to church for help, responded, “Church! Why would I ever go there? I already feel terrible about myself. They would just make me feel worse.” Lurking beneath all these excuses—some of which are legitimate—is our Protestant individualism that leads us to be church hoppers and church shoppers, as if choosing a church was just one more consumer option—finding the best place, at the greatest personal convenience, that provides the most personal pleasure, at the lowest possible cost.

One could muster responses to these excuses, but I think there is really only one ultimate reason to go to church, and that is because it is a God-ordained institution that is necessary for our salvation. As John Calvin (1509–1564) put it, “as Author of this order, God would have people recognize Him as present in His institution.”1 That is, church is the primary arena of God's saving activity. The most famous expressions of this truth come from Cyprian (200–258), bishop of Carthage in North Africa. In his treatise On the Unity of the Church, he wrote that “outside of the church there is no salvation,” and similarly, “you cannot have God for your Father unless you have the Church for your Mother.”2

Most Protestants recoil at such language; it sounds way too Catholic. In fact, both Calvin and Martin Luther (1483–1546), founders of Protestantism, affirmed these truths, and even quoted Cyprian. I remember when I was in grad school taking a seminar on Calvin and how shocked I was to read these words of his for the first time:

“Because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title ‘mother’ how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation...By these words God's fatherly favor and the special witness of spiritual life are limited to his flock, so that it is always disastrous to leave the church.”3
Luther uses similar language in his Large Catechism: “Outside the Christian Church, that is, where the Gospel is not, there is no forgiveness, and hence no holiness...The church is the mother that begets and bears every Christian through the word of God.”4

Calvin and Luther were not ignorant. They had experienced their fair share of boring sermons, marginal pastors, horrible singing, moral failures, economic swindles, church splits, fanatics, hypocrites and the like. Calvin acknowledges that at times the church “swarms with many faults.” But still, he says, we should not therefore be guilty of what he calls an “immoderate severity” toward her.

But does not God work outside of the church, at times maybe even in spite of the church? Yes, He can and does, for “the Spirit blows where He wills” (John 3:7–9). Calvin also reminds us that only God knows those who are truly His. We should not be rash but limit our judgments, for it is clear that “there are many sheep without, and many wolves within”—a phrase that he borrows from Augustine.5 I like to think of the church as a centered set rather than as a bound set. In the latter, one is either in or out, much as the early church compared the church to Noah's ark; but in a centered set one has a solid center with people moving toward or away from the center. Instead of patrolling the border of a bound set, declaring people in or out, we affirm our non-negotiable center and call people to it.6

My parents took us to our Presbyterian church every Sunday, and I have no doubt that this was perhaps the most important factor in my later, personal affirmation of the Gospel when I was 17. My subsequent church homes have been varied: a Southern Baptist Church in college, an independent Bible church for a year, a small Evangelical Free Church in grad school, a mainline church of about 200 people from 25 countries (mainly African) for the four years we lived in Moscow, and now a super-wealthy, Presbyterian megachurch of 5,000 people. I have also been employed at three different churches. All of these churches had their blemishes and bright spots, and all of them were places that pushed me down the road on the journey with Jesus.

One of our earliest Christian Creeds is the Old Roman Creed, dated late in the second century. One of the fragments that predates it simply reads, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord. And in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, the resurrection of the flesh.” These early creeds served as baptismal confessions, the basic instructional material used for teaching, as a summary of our faith, and as affirmations used in worship. The centrality of the church in such a succinct expression of Christian faith is no small matter.

I remember watching Billy Graham on television a long time ago, and if I remember correctly, he would always end his broadcasts with these final words, or something to their effect: go to church on Sunday. Excellent advice.7

  1. John Calvin, Institutes, IV.I.5.
  2. Cyprian, Epistles, 73.21 and On the Unity of the Catholic Church, vi.
  3. Calvin, Institutes, IV.I.4.
  4. Luther, Large Catechism, part 2, The Creed, third article.
  5. Augustine, John's Gospel, xlv.12.
  6. Paul Hiebert, “The Category ‘Christian’ in the Mission Task”, International Review of Mission 72 (July 1983):424.
  7. For a nice little book on this subject see Phil Yancey, Church: Why Bother? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.