Stuart R. Jones
Norman Rockwell produced a painting that brings back childhood memories of the peculiar relationship that existed between my family and church. A mother in her Sunday best, with children in tow, sets out for church while Dad sits in pajamas reading the Sunday paper. Subtle facial expressions tell a story. A tinge of judgmentalism is seen on the faces of Mom and her two daughters. The youngest child, a boy, has the look of a slightly quizzical spectator. Dad is slouched down in his easy chair, almost hiding from the rest.
I still remember wishing I could stay home like Dad and not have to get all dressed up. This was particularly true on those Sundays when I was pressured to be in the children’s choir and had to wear a sissy costume that made me look like a dwarf Episcopalian priest.
I had ambivalent feelings about church in those days. We did not speak of “the” church. Church was an indefinite thing—a vague culture that was roughly equivalent to “religion.” I was not comfortable with it. I did not want to be told to be a good boy or to be in a society where fine manners were routinely expected. Yet the thought of learning about that mysterious entity called God was intriguing. Church seemed to offer the best hope of learning something about God since it was one place where talk about such things did not seem too weird. My interest in God took a major step forward when the church’s venerated Scottish minister held a communicants class for the seventh graders. He spoke like God was truly real—not just an idea. He seemed to know God personally. But then, he was a minister. Ministers seemed kind of mysterious too—especially Scottish Presbyterians.
I remained ambivalent about church after my spiritual pilgrimage became more earnest. In college, a campus evangelistic organization shared the gospel with me, and I came to know God through the saving work of his Son, Jesus. I began to reflect. Was my church a help or a hindrance in coming to know Christ? I was unsure. I did not give up on my church.
My new spiritual interest caused the elders to sponsor my attendance at the United Presbyterian Men’s Convention. At a nicely catered affair at the Palmer House in Chicago, I heard criticism of evangelism that did nothing to alleviate the plight of the poor. Evangelism was defined differently for this group. Amid the glittering chandeliers, I wondered what these people were up to. It was the beginning of my search for another church. I was vulnerable to those who spoke of an invisible church or regarded the campus Bible study as a type of church. But even if the campus fellowship seemed more relevant, it would not always be there for me. Only the church has cradle-to-grave ministry and is authorized to dispense both the Word of God and those unique ordinances we call sacraments.
My pilgrimage may differ from yours in certain details. Yet every true believer needs to have a relationship to a true church as part of his or her relationship to Christ. Church without Christ is noxious churchianity, but life in Christ without a real church is a gross anomaly. Our Confession of Faith says this:
The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. (WCF, 25.2, emphasis added)
This severe-sounding statement, containing the echo of a church father named Cyprian, does not compromise our essential need of Christ any more than the Bible’s demand for faith compromises the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement. Church membership is not a good work that earns God’s favor. The church is a redeemed community where God’s Spirit works in a special way. Part of that working includes sorting out who truly belongs to Christ (1 Cor. 11:18–19). A major part of that working is God’s special nurture and protection of his community. The book of Revelation describes the church as a walled city with gates that open only to those written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev. 21:27). This image, though taken from the end of history, has an element of current application. God is a wall for his church when Jerusalem’s visible defenses are in ruin or when an ordinary wall would hinder the number of people God wants in his city:
Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of men and livestock in it. And I myself will be a wall of fire around it, declares the Lord, and I will be its glory within. (Zech. 2:4b–5)
God presently has a Zion in the wilderness, which he protects (and nourishes), not only from the world, but from the Serpent (Rev. 12:14). To be handed over to Satan is to be placed beyond the normal protective wall that God has around his church (1 Cor. 5:4–5). Such figurative-sounding images from the Bible reveal a very substantial truth. To be outside the church is to be exposed to a wrathful enemy. When Paul delivers an unrepentant sinner to Satan, he does so in the context of a real community of believers who assemble and have responsibility for their members (1 Cor. 5:4). This is not an invisible church, even if the transaction involves an invisible enemy and unseen walls or hedges (cf. Job 1:10).
When John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, he focused on the pilgrimage of Christian to the Celestial City. There is no denying we each have a pilgrimage in this life. But there is a sense in which our pilgrimage is part of a great caravan. We are a Celestial City on the way to the Celestial City. Each Christian has a special interest in the community because it is the place of our defense and a community we are to defend. When defense ceases and the gates are opened to the enemy, the community we once called church ceases to nurture and protect. Strange teachings enter and the vibrant life of the Holy Spirit leaves. The names “Church” or “Presbyterian” remain printed on signs outside buildings, but they might just as well say “Ichabod”—“the glory has departed” (1 Sam. 4:21).
My spiritual pilgrimage has not yet ended, but I have been led to a city of like-minded pilgrims with which to travel. I have gone back to see the buildings where I was baptized and attended my communicants class. I have no doubt that however flawed those churches were when I was in them, God afforded me blessing there. God’s covenant sign of baptism does not depend on the goodness of the baptizer or the people who happen to be present on the day it is given. I look back now and am thankful. I am also less quick to judge particular congregations as false because they retain connections to an unfaithful denomination. God used such a congregation to give me my first taste of truth. But their caravan has still been invaded and hijacked. I believe I am in a safer caravan now.
I still remember the old church with some nostalgia. Every Sunday the choir would march in to the same processional hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation.” I appreciate more now the sad words in that hymn, “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” I get a little concerned that newer pilgrims in the caravan I am with may not fully appreciate the biblical mandate for true ecumenicity set forth in the Orthodox Presbyterian statement on that important subject (www.opc.org/relations/unity.html, “Biblical Principles of the Unity of the Church”). Still, I am comforted that Christ’s word is still honored in my church. His word is the foundation of true unity. We remain small in numbers and the world is not any friendlier, but size was not what kept Gideon safe (Judg. 7). Even Gideon’s faith was not so great. The glory belongs to God. The church is the glorious Body of Christ because the glory of Christ indwells her. Without that, there is nothing.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus made his last pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He was taken outside the gates and delivered to Satan so we might eventually come to a lasting city (Heb. 13:14). The caravan to the celestial city is sometimes found outside the gates of organizations that call themselves church. Yet as long as there are pilgrims, there will be a caravan. Theologians call this the indefectibility of the church, and the Confession of Faith expresses it this way:
The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will. (WCF 25.5, emphasis added)
A big caravan looks safe. But when it comes time to find a safe caravan to join, it is more important to know who is in it and which direction it is traveling. Thank God that such a community is available!
The author is a retired OP minister. He quotes the NIV. New Horizons, December 2013.