“Slighting the Church”
Terry L. Johnson
This is the seventeenth of 18 articles in a series entitled “Who Needs the Church?”
What does the Bible have to say to those who purposefully remove themselves from the fellowship of the visible church, perhaps claiming of orthodox churches their insufficient purity or some other inadequacy? What Reformed Protestants have taught about neglecting what they would call “public ordinances” is sobering. Those today who absent themselves from the assembly, who content themselves with the electronic “church,” or with a coffee-shop Bible study, or home-church, or no church, take heed.
Let’s let Calvin be our guide. He warns that “God’s fatherly favor and especial witness of spiritual life are limited to his flock.” Looking for God’s blessing outside of the church? Don’t. “It is always disastrous to leave the (visible) church.”1 He expounds Ephesians 4:11ff, noting that God has entrusted both the means of grace and gifted individuals to equip and mature the saints and build up the body of Christ. Calvin acknowledges that God could “perfect his own” immediately without means. “Nevertheless (He) desires them to grow up into manhood solely under the direction of the church.”2 Consequently, “It follows that all those who spurn the spiritual food, divinely extended to them through the hand of the church, deserve to perish in famine and hunger.” “Recognize,” he urges us, “it is his will to teach us through human means.”3 He laments the “unholy separation” of those who “are led either by pride, dislike, or rivalry to the conviction that they can profit enough from private reading and meditation; hence they despise public assemblies and deem preaching superfluous.”4
Slighting the church, we see, is not a new problem! “Woe to their pride,” Calvin warns those “who think that for them the private reading is enough, and that they have no need of the common ministry of the Church.”5 Realize, he urges, “Believers have no greater help than public worship.”6 Whenever the true gospel is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered, there the true church exists, “even if it otherwise swarms with many faults.”7 Where it exists, “No one is permitted to spurn its authority, flout its warnings, resist its counsels, or make light of its chastisements – much less to desert it and break its unity.”
For the Lord esteems the communion of his church so highly that he counts as traitor and apostate from Christianity anyone who arrogantly leaves any Christian society, provided it cherishes the true ministry of Word and sacraments.8
Stronger still: “Separation from the church is the denial of Christ and God.”9 More simply from the Apostle John: “They went out from us… that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 Jn 2:19). The visible church is given pastors and teachers called and gifted by God for ministry (Eph 4:11ff). These gifted men are tasked with administering the means of grace (word, sacraments and prayer), likewise given to the visible church, whereby sinners are saved and saints are sanctified. Outside this realm of ministers and ministry, this realm of salvation, is another realm, the realm of Satan and destruction (1 Cor 5:5; cf Mt 18:17). Given our “collapsing ecclesiology” today, is it not vital that this message of the indispensability of the church be broadcast far and wide?
Terry L. Johnson is the senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA. He is author of various books including Leading in Worship, Worshipping with Calvin, Serving with Calvin, and The Identity and Attributes of God.
Calvin, Institutes, IV.i.4.
Calvin, Commentary on Ephesians, 181.
Calvin, Institutes, IV.i.5.
Ibid., (my emphasis). Similarly, see above Second Helvetic Confession (1562) and the Belgic Confession (1561) which warns, “no person… ought to draw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it” (Schaff, Creeds, III:418).