Why Should I Go to This Church - 1
A Bit to Read
Which Church Should I Go To? - 1
Some weeks ago the consistory had the following announcement come from the pulpit:
Consistory advises the congregation that [name] has informed the consistory that she, in connection with her intended marriage, wishes to withdraw from the Church of Jesus Christ, and join a church with which we have no relations.
Over the past months Consistory has attempted to convince [name] that withdrawing is not an option. Her letter shows that consistory’s efforts have not had their desired effect.
Since withdrawing is contrary to God’s ordinance, consistory did not feel free simply to acquiesce to [name]’s intention. Instead, consistory wants to involve the congregation first, urging you to pray for her and speak with her, in an effort to bring her to repentance.
The wording of this announcement reveals a particular understanding of what the church is, and what that understanding means for our conduct. Consistory has asked me to devote some attention to this subject in A Bit to Read on its behalf. The Consistory has read this Bit to Read (and the subsequent ones on this topic) before these articles went to the printer, and is comfortable with the content. What’s printed on this topic, then, is not so much from me as from consistory. Secondly, the pastoral details that generated the announcement are hereby not opened up for discussion.
As Consistory considered how to respond to the letter mentioned in the announcement, we reminded ourselves of Article 28 of the Belgic Confession:
We believe, since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his status or standing may be. But all and everyone are obliged to join it and unite with it, maintaining the unity of the church. They must submit themselves to its instruction and discipline, bend their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and serve the edification of the brothers and sisters, according to the talents which God has given them as members of the same body.
This, we confess, is an accurate summary of the will of the Lord in Holy Scripture in relation to withdrawing from the church. You’ll recognize in Consistory’s announcement particular elements of this Article. Yet that’s where the questions arise. Is our confession saying that members of other churches cannot be saved? Is our confession saying that everybody must be Canadian Reformed to be within the will of God? We look around us at churches very similar to us in doctrine and practice, and we become very uncomfortable with such conclusions. How then, we wonder, do we square the confession with reality, and reality with the confession?
The first thing that needs to be said in answer to such questions is that the material of Article 28 is not a description of what people see about the church. The article begins with the phrase “We believe,” and that’s to say that the material in this article is our response to God’s instruction in Scripture. We’ve listened to God’s revelation in the Bible about the Church, and in this article now repeat after God in our own words what we’ve heard Him say. Because we live in a broken and sinful world, the reality as we see it is somewhat different from the way God wants things to be. That’s not surprising; in Lord’s Day 39, for example, we repeat in our own words how God wants things to be in our homes, with children showing “all honour, love, and faithfulness to my father and mother…,” but reality is not exactly that way. We realize we need to do our best to make home life agree with God’s revelation, and we’re certainly not about to change the confession to reflect broken reality instead of God’s revelation. The same is true in relation to the church.
As we read Article 28, then, we need to take a step back from the reality as we see it, and try to understand what God’s will is in relation to the church. Why did Guido deBres formulate Article 28 as he did? What exactly did he hear God say in Scripture that prompted him to summarize this revelation in this manner? Similarly, what did the fathers in the span of 400 years since deBres wrote Article 28 understand God to say about the church that they were content not to change this article, but to consider it an accurate summary of God’s revelation – even though the reality they saw around them in the course of centuries drew such a different picture?
To do justice to Consistory’s request, we need answers to questions as these. And that, it turns out, needs more space than is available in a single issue of A Bit to Read. So I propose to devote three more articles to this subject, that will take us through the three articles of the Belgic Confession on the Church. Next time I hope to write about what the church is (that’ll make us focus on Article 27), the time thereafter I want to examine why there’s no salvation outside of it (and that’ll make us read Article 28 carefully), and in the final instalment I hope to write about where one is to go to church (which brings us to Article 29).
Meanwhile, I’ve got space in this Bit to Read to clear up another preliminary question, and that is whether people outside the church in fact shall be saved. Or (as I’ve heard it put), will only Canadian Reformed people go to heaven?
Only Canadian Reformed?
To state the obvious very plainly: not only Canadian Reformed people will be saved. Consider the following arguments:
- God is mighty to raise children for Abraham from the stones of the earth (Matthew 3:9). The word of God is not bound (2 Timothy 2:9). Scripture passages as these teach us not to restrict the work of the Holy Spirit. He is able and free to work faith wherever He wills.
- The apostle Paul wrote a letter “to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:1). He concluded his letter with the instruction “to have this letter read to all the brothers” (I Thessalonians 5:27). The implication of this instruction is that there were more believers in town than were gathered together in the church of the Thessalonians when his letter was read there. That in itself suggests that there definitely can be believers, elect persons, outside the church.
- Jesus spoke of the Church as a sheepfold, and then gave this detail: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Jesus’ use of the future tense in this verse (“there shall be one flock”) points up the goal of Christ’s Church gathering work. Today the Church is still under construction. Today the Lord is still busy gathering His own into His Church. We should then not be surprised to find other believers in town, be it that they meet together in a place of their own choosing or that they don’t go a ‘church’ at all. So there was in the Old Testament a Rahab who had learned to fear God (Joshua 2:11f), and God at His time joined her to His Old Testament church. And there was a Ruth in the land of Moab who came to love God, and so made it her business (by God’s sovereign leading) to join herself to God’s church (Ruth 1:16).
- Not until the Last Day will all the elect be gathered into one. John was shown in the vision this sum-total of the elect: “Then I looked, and there before me was the Lamb (ie, Christ) standing on Mount Zion, and with Him 144,000 who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads” (Revelation 14:1). The 144,000 is symbolic of all the elect: the totality of Christ’s Church (see Revelation 14:4). When Christ’s church-gathering work is complete on the last day, then –and not before–the “gathering of the people of God” will constitute the same group as “the people of God.” As long as this broken life remains, the circle representing the elect and the circle representing the church will not overlap perfectly.
- The teaching of Scripture that there are elect persons outside the church is echoed in the Belgic Confession: “To observe this more effectively, it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate from those who do not belong to the Church and to join this assembly wherever God has established it.” Note: it is believers who must “join this assembly”, this church. This sentence in our Confession implies nothing less than that there distinctly can be, and are, believers outside of the church of Jesus Christ, outside of the gathering of God’s people.
- The phrase of Article 28 of the Belgic Confession, that “there is no salvation outside of it”, needs to be carefully read. This sentence fragment does not say that outside the church (“this holy assembly and congregation”) none are saved; this sentence fragment says that outside the church (“this holy assembly and congregation”) there is no salvation. To point up the difference between ‘salvation’ and ‘the saved’, one may say that ‘salvation’ is a ‘commodity’ (forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ) while ‘the saved’ are those who have this ‘commodity’. To be among ‘the saved’ one needs to find ‘salvation’, and God has ordained that there be a specific address where this salvation can be obtained.
This is the point the confession wants to make. With the words “there is no salvation outside of it”, the church makes confession of where it is that salvation is available. Allow me an illustration. If one wished to buy a bike, the place to go is the local bicycle shop. Certainly you don’t go to the local bakery to buy a bike. So too: if one wants salvation, there is a place where one is guaranteed to find it, namely, the church. Since God has made salvation available to people in His church, it is our responsibility to seek salvation where God has made it available, namely, in His church. Granted: it is possible that one will one day find a bike for sale in a bakery. Yet that possibility does not mean that you pass by the bike shop and instead visit all the bakeries to find a bike. So too with salvation: it is possible (and it happens!) that one receives the gift of salvation outside the church of Jesus Christ. For the Holy Spirit is sovereign, almighty, able to work faith wherever and however He pleases. But we who seek salvation need to know where God has made salvation available, and act according to that norm.
Does this mean that where we or our fellow Canadians go to church makes no difference? No, that’s not the implication. In the next Bit to Read, I hope to consider in greater detail what the Lord has taught us in His word about where salvation is available, and why.
November 21, 2008