Decades ago, a young couple of my acquaintance who had been attracted to the neocalvinist vision of the comprehensive lordship of Jesus Christ over the whole of life, confessed to me that they were no longer attending church. If all of life is encompassed in principle by the kingdom of God, they reasoned, what is the point of affiliating with a particular institution labelled “the Church”? They were not alone. I knew of others who took a similar position.
They were unaware that neocalvinism boasts a robust ecclesiology, one in which the church institution has a central, though not all-encompassing, place.
To understand this we must begin by distinguishing two meanings of the word church, which we cannot afford to confuse if we are to properly discern the norms God has given for human society. Abraham Kuyper distinguishes between church as organism and church as institution, which roughly, but not precisely, corresponds to Calvin’s distinction between invisible and visible church. (While Calvin’s distinction relates to the numbers of people in each, Kuyper’s addresses the range of activities encompassed by each.)
The church as organism is basically the corpus Christi—the body of Christ. Those who are in Christ are members of his body, with its diversity of gifts contributing to its unity of faith in its Lord and Saviour (Romans 12:4-8; 1 Corinthians 12). As Christians, our membership in this body is not limited to what we do on Sunday in the formal liturgical setting. Rather, it takes in our whole lives in all of our activities (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17). We live out our marriages, families, employment, and political lives as members of Christ’s church. In this sense the church is all-embracing, not simply one community among many.
The church as institution, by contrast, is a differentiated community with its own specific task, internal organization and office-bearers. Thus understood, the church is not the same as the state, the family, the school, or any other community found in a mature, differentiated society. Accordingly church office-bearers should not attempt to dictate to political leaders, business executives, and university administrators, all of whom have a divinely-mandated responsibility for stewardship over their own particular spheres. The notion that, say, bishops or church elders should appoint prime ministers or preside over labour unions is a non-starter for the simple reason that the former would thereby exceed the proper limits of their own offices.
The institutional church has a central role to play in the lives of believers for which there can be no substitute. Indeed Calvin devotes most of the fourth volume of his Institutes of the Christian Religion to the “Holy Catholic Church” and its ordinary means of grace. For Calvin, the church is found wherever the true ministry of word and sacraments is present. This ministry is conducted by office-holders ordained for the purpose. So central is this institution to the life of faith that Calvin argues that moral flaws, and even minor doctrinal differences, in the visible church can never constitute sufficient reason for separating ourselves from its communion. Calvin calls those wilfully withdrawing from the church traitors and apostates.
Although I spent my first years in a church with a strong institutional ecclesiology based on the Westminster standards, it was not until I read Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd that I gained a renewed appreciation for the place of the institutional church. In the third volume of his New Critique of Theoretical Thought, Dooyeweerd makes an important distinction between institutional communities and voluntary associations. Institutional communities are those that embrace their members in an intensive way, often for life, and apart from their individual wills. One is born to membership in a particular family; one does not choose one’s parents or siblings. Similarly, one is a citizen of a particular state by birth, although one might, of course, assume another citizenship later in life. In our society we enter marriage voluntarily, but once we have done so, we are said to have entered the estate or institution of matrimony, which makes claims on our lives and affections that we cannot simply bring to an end at will.
What about the church? According to Dooyeweerd, the gathered congregation is indeed an institution and cannot be recast as a mere voluntary association. A voluntary association is one whose members freely enter and quit at their pleasure. Their obligations toward the association last for only as long as they are willing to accept them. I may be a member of a bird-watching society for a time. I have joined at some point in the past, paid my dues, accepted its bylaws, attended its meetings and participated in its activities, especially its jaunts into the forest to observe a colourful panoply of feathered species. At some point, however, I tire of birdwatching, preferring chess instead. When I quit the bird-watching society, there are no hard feelings. I have in no way endangered the group or myself. No one begrudges me the right to leave and go elsewhere. Similarly, if I leave my place of employment and take a job elsewhere, no one would deny me the right to do so. People do this everyday, with no harm to the larger society.
It is not so with the church. Under the predominant influence of liberalism in our society, we are often inclined to reduce the array of communal formations to mere voluntary associations. Accordingly we tend to view the local church congregation similarly: as a mere association of converted individuals. This attitude is bolstered by an advertisement frequently appearing on the church pages of newspapers and phone books: “Attend the church of your choice.” We are implicitly invited to look at the church listings as a kind of ecclesiastical smorgasbord in which we are free to “shop” for a church home that best fits our own priorities, proclivities and lifestyles. The churches tend to position themselves in such a way as to appeal to a specific “market share,” scheduling, say, traditional and contemporary liturgies to try to bring in specific demographics. A thriving church is one which has picked up a large share of the ecclesiastical “market” and has thus successfully positioned itself as a powerful player in what is now seen as a kind of competitive game. Numbers are everything, as these enable large budgets, big buildings, and flourishing programs.
By contrast, Dooyeweerd argues that the gathered church is an institution which we cannot simply quit at will without doing potentially irreparable spiritual damage to ourselves and to the other communities of which we are part. Such a church is “an institutionally organized community of Christian believers in the administration of the Word and the sacraments.” It is called into being by the divine covenant and is built on the historical power of the incarnate Word. The gathered church is above all a confessional church and not a national church. A church that undertakes to unite all members of a nation can only be a deformation of the church type. Similarly, efforts at ecumenical co-operation that ignore basic differences in confession risk suppressing the very nature of the church institution. Any claimed unity that comes of these efforts will inevitably be illusory. The church’s confession is precisely in the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. Apart from this there can be no church.
Following Calvin, Dooyeweerd affirms that the church institution has its own organization and offices, which are fundamentally different from those of other organizations, including the state. The internal organization of the church is not an indifferent matter but is grounded in God’s wordrevelation, namely, Scripture. While Luther is content to leave this matter in the hands of the civil magistrate, Calvin and Dooyeweerd are not. “All the communicant members have been invested with the general office (διακονíα) to cooperate in the work of formation and reformation of the Church-institution, in the election of the special office-bearers, etc.” The specific offices are not simply up to the discretion of individual congregations or church members along ostensibly democratic lines; they must accord with the structural principle of the institutional church itself as a community of faith rooted in scripture.
This raises the difficult and historically divisive issue of baptism, which Dooyeweerd touches on in his discussion of the church. According to Dooyeweerd, the church’s institutional character is intimately bound up with the baptism of its youngest members: “The institutional community of the Church receives the children of Christian parents as its members by baptism and as such they continue to belong to this community through a bond independent of their will, until they reach their years of discretion.” This stands in marked contrast to those church communities “based on the personal qualities of converted individuals.” Because the church is not a mere association, it can never be anchored in the shifting whims of individual persons, however good and holy they might be. It can only be anchored in the divine covenant of grace and in the rock of our salvation, Jesus Christ. With Calvin once again, Dooyeweerd accepts that children of believers are heirs of the covenant and thus members of the visible church. As such, parents are mandated to raise their children in the faith.
Dooyeweerd makes two more affirmations to complete his ecclesiology. First, the institutional church is fully present in the gathered congregation, something we have already hinted at above. The reformers recognized “that the local congregation is the primary institutional manifestation of the Church of Jesus Christ.” This Dooyeweerd affirms against those who would find the starting point of the church at the pinnacle of an ecclesiastical hierarchy distinct from and presiding over the congregations. In this he believes he follows apostolic usage, which speaks of the local church in the singular and several local churches in the plural, “but never of a Church in the sense of the fusion of all local congregations into a more comprehensive organization.” It is by no means incidental that Dooyeweerd’s own denomination, the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, had a plural name and refrained from assuming the singular label of church.
Second, while the institutional church is central in that it carries the life-giving word and sacraments to the believer, it does not possess innate superiority over other societal communities and relationships. All of these have their worth and find their meaning only in their radical dependence on the creating and redeeming God, and not in their relationship to the institutional church. This is a key implication of Kuyper’s notion of sphere sovereignty: there is no human community that presides in an absolute sense over all others. The institutional church has its own mandate, as do state, marriage, family, and the plethora of voluntary associations making up the fabric of an ordinary human society. These communities are dependent in a direct and ultimate sense on the grace of God rather than on some other supposed overarching and allembracing human community.
How might Dooyeweerd’s ecclesiology change the way we approach the gathered local church? To begin with, we are not simply taking out membership in an ethnic or social club. We are not joining an association of like-minded people for our own chosen ends. We are in fact submitting ourselves to an institution which Calvin, following the early church fathers, goes so far as to call our mother. From the outset of our life in Christ we are subject to her authority and discipline as well as receiving from her bosom the word and sacraments that nourish us to eternal life in the coming new heaven and new earth. We dare not neglect the institutional church and the means of grace which offer such nourishment.