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Why Should I Go to This Church - 2

Why Should I Go to This Church? - 2.doc


A Bit to Read


Why Should I Go to This Church? - 2

The previous Bit to Read laid the background to why this topic is being discussed in this column.  An announcement was made to the congregation that strove to echo the church’s confession in Article 28:

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.

To get a handle on the instruction of this quote, we need to clarify what the church is.  To put the question in terms of Article 28: what is “this holy assembly and congregation” we’re not to withdraw from?  As with anything we read, this sentence too needs to be read in its context, and that means specifically the material written before it.  “This holy assembly and congregation” no is to withdraw from is the one introduced to us in Article 27:

We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers, who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by His blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.


One Catholic or Universal Church

Here’s where the questions arise.  What is the “one catholic or universal Church”?  Is this the total body of the elect as only God knows it, an ‘invisible church’?  It has been so claimed, in our history especially by Abraham Kuyper.  Then the instruction of Article 28 becomes that we’re never allowed to depart from the faith to become unbelievers….

It is of course true that one is never to deny the faith.  Yet that’s not the point of the article under discussion, for the “one catholic or universal Church” is not some ‘invisible church’ to which you belong by virtue of your faith (so that you leave this church when you deny the faith); rather, the ‘one catholic or universal church’ is found locally, is easy to see, and can be found anywhere and at any time.  Consider the following material:

  1. The word used in the Bible for ‘church’ is the word ‘ecclesia.’  This word was commonly used by the Greeks of the early New Testament era to describe an assembly.  We come across the word in Acts 19, in the context of the riot instigated by Demetrius the silversmith in Ephesus.  In verse 32 we read, “The assembly was in confusion….  Most of the people did not even know why they were there.”  The city clerk therefore challenged the crowd that “if there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly” (vs 39), and then he “dismissed the assembly” (vs 41).  Each time our translation has the word ‘assembly’, the Greek text uses the word ‘ecclesia’ – the identical word translated elsewhere in the New Testament as ‘church’.  The point then is: when you think ‘church’ you have to think of a meeting, a get-together, a gathering, an assembly.  By definition, that’s very visible and very local.
  2. God’s New Testament revelation is based on His Old Testament revelation.  The words the Holy Spirit was pleased to use in the Greek New Testament received their loading, then, not just from the culture of Paul’s day but also from the meaning those words had in the Old Testament.  As it turns out, the word ‘ecclesia’ appeared frequently in the Greek translation of the Old Testament as translation of the Hebrew word qahal, a term that also denotes a real, physical ‘gathering’, ‘assembly’.  This term occurs for example in Deuteronomy 5:22, where Moses recalls the time when God made His covenant with Israel at Mt Sinai, and gave His Ten Commandments.  That meeting at the foot of Mt Sinai is circumscribed like this: “These are the commandments  the LORD proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly....”1  That assembly was real, physical, visible.
  3. Paul addressed a letter “to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:1).  The mailman who had to deliver this letter to Thessalonica could use the common understanding of the word ‘ecclesia’ in his efforts to find the addressees.  The use of the word ‘ecclesia’ (‘church’ in our translation) would prompt the mailman to think of a gathering, an assembly of the Thessalonians, something real, something identifiable, something visible at a certain address.  As to which assembly of Thessalonians the mailman was to deliver the letter, he could discover that by the addition of the words “in God the Father.”  That is: this letter was not addressed to an assembly of, say, all the citizens of the city of Thessalonica; this letter was addressed to a gathering of persons united “in God the Father”.  Nor was this letter addressed to the assembly in the Jewish synagogue (the words “in God the Father” could apply to them); this letter was addressed to “the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  The mailman had to deliver the letter to the gathering of Christians, the Christian church.  That gathering of Christians was the ‘church’ in Thessalonica.

Since both the Old Testament and the Greek speaking world of Paul’s day used the word ‘ecclesia’ to describe an assembly of people, it is not correct for us to read the word ‘ecclesia’ in the New Testament as if it describes all the elect scattered throughout the world.2   Instead, in the words of Article 27: “We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers.”  As we think, then, of ‘church’, we’re to think of the gathering of God’s people, and so of the people who habitually gather.

1  I’ve written more on this matter in A Bit to Read, Issue 3, September 17, 2006, under the title “’Church’ in Bible and Confessions”.
2  Or, as Dr Faber would say it, the church is not “the people of God”, but rather the “gathering of the people of God.  See J Faber,
Lectures on the Church (Kelmscott: Pro Ecclesia, 1990), pg 3ff.  Also J. Faber, Essays in Reformed Dogmatics (Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 1990), pg 125ff.

Catholic

This Church-which-is-a-holy-congregation-and-assembly-of-the-true-Christian-believers is catholic in character.  The addition of the adjective ‘catholic’ –the term means ‘universal’ or ‘worldwide’– to the noun ‘church’ almost automatically awakens in our minds a picture of the church-as-God-sees-it, namely, all the elect from all over the globe, wherever or whenever they may live, in all their diversity in doctrine and unity in Christ.  That is: in our minds the addition of the adjective ‘catholic’ affects the meaning of the noun ‘church’.  The minute we add the adjective ‘catholic’, we no longer conceive of the church as a visible, local gathering-that-one-can-attend-and-join, but instead as all the elect, the church-as-God-sees-it.

That we let the adjective ‘catholic’ alter the meaning of the noun ‘church’ is neither scripturally nor confessionally correct.  The church is and remains a gathering, local, real, visible, ‘join-able’.  This local, real, visible, join-able gathering, though, is not restricted to one community on this earth, or to one race of people, or to one era in world history.  The term ‘catholic’ reflects what God said to Abraham: “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18), and through Isaiah: “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6), and through Paul to the Greek Christians of Ephesus: “…you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (Ephesians 2:19).  The Church is not made up exclusively of Jews or Greeks or Dutch; God’s church is made up of people of every tribe and tongue and nation, regardless of race, language, gender, age, social status, etc.  See also Psalm 87 and 1 Corinthians 12:13.  To say it with the Belgic Confession: “... this Church is not confined or limited to one particular place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world.”

No one today may be surprised, then, to find the church anywhere on the face of the earth.  That is: we should be prepared to find, anywhere on the face of the earth, a gathering, an assembly of true Christian believers.  For Christ is king over the whole world.  With this I do not wish to say that one will invariably find the church everywhere. For example, prior to the arrival of the Gospel, there was no church in Canada.  I do not know either whether there is today a church in, say, Uruguay.  First there needs to be believers (as a result of the preaching of the gospel).  And second, these believers need to come together (as opposed to remaining isolated from each other) around the preaching of the gospel.  This is what Article 27 of the Belgic Confession says:

We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers, who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by His blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.


Analogy

At this point I want to quote a section from Rev deWolff’s booklet on The Church.3  To my mind Rev deWolff gives a fitting analogy of how we need to draw a picture in our minds of how the catholic church is local and the local church is catholic.  He writes:

The confession knows nothing of a conceptual shifting or transition from an (undefined) ‘universal’ to a local-institutional Church….  The Church is in heaven, the Church is on the earth.  The Church is in a country or region, and the Church is in a small village.  The Church is all over the whole world, and the Church is local; not because the Church is omnipresent, but because Christ, according to His Godhead, grace, majesty and Spirit is everywhere, and in this manner the fulness of Christ, with all His works of grace, is in the world church as well as in the smallest Church in a remote corner of the most insignificant country.  In the same way (to use an example), it was said at the time of the last world war that ‘the allied army’ was operating in Western and Southern Europe, but also that ‘the allied army’ was occupying Rome, tried to push through to Arnhem, or that ‘the allied army’ crossed the Rhine; and in all these cases one might speak of ‘the allied army’ because the same central leadership and the same complete armament and the same strength were found everywhere.

Rev I deWolff, The Church: Notes on Articles 27-29 of the Belgic Confession (Winnipeg: Premier Printing, n.d.), pg 5f.

Conclusion

Article 28 had said that “no one ought to withdraw from” “this holy assembly and congregation,” but are instead to join it.  What one needs to join is not the body of the elect, some invisible ‘church’ seen only by the eye of God.  To receive salvation one needs to join –and not withdraw from– a very real, local, physical assembly, the church of Jesus Christ in that community.  Since the church is catholic, one should be prepared to find it in your local community too.

Just why, though, is it so necessary to join this church, and why is it so wrong to withdraw from it?  That, the Lord willing, is the material for the next instalment.

C Bouwman
November 28, 2008