Historic Perspectives – Mother Church

Historic Perspectives

“Mother Church”

Terry L. Johnson

This is the fifteenth of 18 articles in a series entitled “Who Needs the Church?”


Years ago I watched a series of interviews on the television of inmates at the state prison. They were asked about their background, their family life, their parents. Several of them mentioned what losers their fathers were: harsh, cruel, negligent, philandering, drunks, etc. Yet without exception they warmly commended their mothers. “She was a good woman,” they’d say. Or, “She had a good heart.” William Fox (1879-1952), founder of Fox Film, which eventually would merge into movie giant Twentieth Century Fox, according to his recent biographer hated his father, who was an adulterer and indifferent to his children. When his father died he cursed his corpse and spit on his coffin. Yet he adored his mother.1 Why the contrast? Because with few exceptions mother-love prevails. Those who bear, birth and nurture children establish a bond with those children that perseveres. Even hardened criminals, calloused to all that is good and worthwhile, recognize the depth and beauty of maternal love and appreciate it. The unparalleled strength of it lies behind the rhetorical question of Isaiah 49:15:

“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
    that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.

​​ The Reformers enthusiastically employed ​​ the metaphor of motherhood found in Galatians 4:6 (“the Jerusalem above… is our mother”). The church, says Luther in his Large Catechism, “is the mother that brings to birth and sustains every Christian through the Word of God.”2 Calvin entitles Book IV of the Institutes, “The true Church, and the Necessity of our Union with Her, Being the Mother of all the Faithful.”3 Calvin said of the visible (not the invisible) church,

[L]et us learn even from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know [the church]. For there is no other way to enter life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation.4


“Note that the church, here called ‘Mother,’ is the visible church,” says John McNeil in his footnotes accompanying the standard translation of the Institutes, “and that the mother function of the church, bearing and nourishing believers, is necessary to salvation.”5 “The church,” says Calvin in his commentary on Ephesians 4:11-13, “is the common mother of all the godly, which bears, nourishes, and governs in the Lord both kings and commoners; and this is done by the ministry.”6 Calvin endorsed another of Cyprian’s sayings, “that he who would have God as his father must have the church as his mother.”

Puritan authors regularly utilized the nourishing metaphor of motherhood, portraying the believer as a child nursing at the breasts of mother church, those breasts representing the means of grace. “Lie sucking at this breast,” says William Gurnall (1617-1679) of the ordinances of the church in his classic, The Christian in Complete Armour, “and that often.” 7​​ John Cotton (1584-1652), minister of First Church, Boston, published in 1646 a catechism for children entitled Milk for Babes: Drawn Out of the Breasts of Both Testaments, a work which remained in print for over 200 years.8 This is typical of Reformation Protestantism. The Apostle Paul himself utilizes this metaphor in describing his own ministry.

But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. (1 Thess 2:7)

He refers to the church as the “Jerusalem above” who “is our mother” (Gal 4:26).

Believers are likened to “newborn infants” who “long for pure spiritual milk” which, of course, newborns access from their mothers (1 Peter 2:2). The metaphor of mother church, from which believers draw their vital sustenance, is fully justified from Scripture. Mother church conceives and carries us, and bears us in her womb and feeds us at her breasts. Her love for us, our dependence upon her, and our indebtedness to her demands our loving affection in return. What we owe to our natural mothers we owe to our spiritual mother as well. This means not merely an annual “Mother’s Day” card. It means a consistent pattern of gratitude, care, provision, and service. A higher doctrine of the visible church, lest it be the overwrought Roman Catholic one, is hardly imaginable. D. G. Hart, in his book Recovering Mother Kirk, rightly urges Presbyterians “to abandon the notion of the church as personal trainer” and to recover “Calvin’s idea of the church as mother.”9


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.


TAGS: mother church; Calvin on mother church; Luther on mother church; Cyprian on the church; William Gurnall on mother church; John Cotton on mother church; 1 Thessalonians 2:7; Galatians 4:26; 1 Peter 2:2; D. G. Hart, Recovering Mother Kirk


See Scott Eyman, “A Pioneer and Overreacher,” review article of Vanda Krefft, The Man Who Made the Movies (2017), Wall Street Journal, Dec. 9-10, 2017, C-6.


Luther, Large Catechism, 122.


This is the wording of the Allen edition of the Institutes (1844; Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education, 1949), 269 (my emphasis), which is obscured in the McNeill edition.


John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.1.4.


Ibid., p.1016, note 10 (my emphasis).


John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, ed. David W. and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), 181; ​​ For Calvin, Ephesians 4:11-12 “was perhaps the critical text for the biblical doctrine of ministry,” says Calvin scholar Elsie Anne McKee (cited in John W. Tweeddale, “The Church as Mother,” in Derek W. H. Thomas and John W. Tweeddale, (eds.), John Calvin: For a New Reformation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019), 475. Similar statements by Calvin can be found in his commentaries at Galatians 4:26 and 1 Timothy 3:15.


William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, (1662 and 1665; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1964), II:56.


Electronic Texts in American Studies. Paper 18.


D. G. Hart, Recovering Mother Kirk: The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 39.