Swelling with pride, a mother was all too glad to tell me recently how well her daughter is faring in her graduate studies at a prestigious university. Only one thing could have been better: “Her father and I wish that she’d find a church to attend.” And then, with an “Oh well, nothing’s perfect” shrug of her shoulders, the woman added: “Lisa tells us that for her it’s ‘Jesus, yes; church, no.’”
I can’t count the number of times I heard that refrain from young people during my years as their pastor. And whenever I did, I tried to slip a word in edgewise from John Calvin. I wanted them to know that Calvin, who had more bones to pick with the established church than they’ll ever think of having, never dreamed of leaving that church for no church at all. Despite the church’s obvious flaws, Calvin cherished it and gave his life’s energies to it. He called the church “the society of Christ.”
The church is God’s gift to God’s people, a concession to their weakness. As Calvin wrote, “In our ignorance and sloth (to which I add fickleness of disposition) to beget and increase faith within us we need outward helps. And in order that the preaching of the gospel might flourish, he deposited this treasure in the church” (Institutes IV.1.1).
But not just any church will do. Calvin says a faithful church nourishes its members through reliable Scripture teaching and careful serving of the sacraments. “Wherever we see the Word of God purposely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered, there it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists” (IV.i.8).
Nor will any church that’s worthy of its salt—and of its high calling—ever chart its course by anything other than God’s Word. It will never merely do what’s popular. The test of a “successful” church is not whether people find its music, liturgy, and preaching fitting to their taste and flock to it in droves. Only one thing finally matters: “where it rests upon God’s Word [the church] will not waver with any distrust or doubting, but will repose in great assurance and firm constancy.” Accordingly, a faithful church “will distrust all the devising of its own reason” (IV.8.13).
Because the church is vitally necessary to his children’s welfare, God has been preserving the community of the faithful from age to age, often amid heavy opposition. “Although the melancholy desolation which confronts us on every side may cry that no remnant of the church is left, let us know that . . . God miraculously keeps his church as in hiding places” (IV.1.2).
God the Father intends the church to serve as both mother and teacher to his children. “For there is no other way to enter into 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” (IV.1.4).
Calvin is emphatic: God cannot—cannot—be Father to his children unless they honor the church as their Mother/Teacher. He writes, “Away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation. . . . From this it follows that separation from the church is the denial of God and Christ” (IV.1.4).
Calvin’s final appeal to (young) people about the church today is this: “Never leave home without it. If you do, you’ll become tired and famished—you’ll starve to death.”FOR DISCUSSION:
- What "bones" did Calvin have "to pick" with the church of his day? What bones do you have to pick with yours?
- How is belonging to the church different than belonging to a club or an organization? (Hint: what's the difference between an institution and an organization?)
- What makes a church "faithful" according to Calvin? Do you agree with his answer? Why (not)?
- Do you agree that the church is our Mother? Which church would that be? And are moms still moms even if they aren't perfect?
- Why is it so important to be an active participant in the established church? How might you convince someone of that?