THE CATHOLIC CHRISTIAN CHURCH
The article concerning the Church is as much an article of faith as any other article of the Belgic Confession. The fact that we can see churches around us tempts us to define the church on the basis of what we see instead of on the basis of God's revelation. Sunday by Sunday, though, we confess that we believe a holy catholic Church, and so whatever we say about the Church needs to be based on Scripture alone - even if the Lord's revelation about the Church flies in the face of what we see around us.
The articles of the Belgic Confession were not randomly sequenced and hence it is not without significance that the material of Article 27 follows the material of the previous articles. These articles dealt with how God restored the relationship between Himself and His elect after the Fall into sin. God gave His only Son (Article 17) so that through His sacrifice on the cross (Article 21) persons enslaved to sin and Satan might be justified before God (Articles 22 & 23). By the atoning work of the Christ, those from Satan's side who were chosen to life were transferred to God's side. These elect persons, justified through the blood of Christ, were also sanctified by the Spirit of Christ - sanctification (Article 24). The bond with God, once broken by the fall into sin, was restored so that, through the intercessory work of Christ, redeemed sinners may come again into the presence of holy God in prayer (Article 26). All this material is summarised in Article 27, when deBres speaks of "the true Christian believers, who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by His blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit."
These redeemed persons, washed by the blood of Christ and sanctified by His Spirit, deBres continues, form the objects of the Church (see Figure 1). The Church does not pertain to those persons still left on Satan's side (the reprobate). The Church pertains to those persons who have been brought from Satan's side back to God's side (the elect). (This, of course, is not to say that there are no reprobate in the Church; see first paragraph of Article 29). You cannot separate the doctrine of the Church from the doctrine of God's election. At the same time, as will be explained below, one cannot equate the Church with the elect.
THE CHURCH IS THE WORK OF THE TRIUNE GOD
God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are each involved with the Church. 1) God the Father elected to life certain persons from the whole of fallen mankind. These elect God gave to His Son, for whom the Son in turn shed His blood. 2) From amongst those given to Him by the Father, God the Son gathers the Church. The Son is still busy gathering His Church today, and will continue to do so until the Last Day. Therefore we cannot say today that the Church is complete. The Church can be compared to a building under construction, with the final building looking totally different from its very initial stage. Christ's church gathering work spans the centuries. Not a single generation has seen both the Church's foundation AND its completion. All that one sees of Christ's work of building His Church in the span of a lifetime is but a small segment of the total project. For that reason I cannot make a confession concerning the Church on the basis of what I see of the Church today. 3) God the Holy Spirit changes the hearts of the elect, regenerating them so that among the elect there is ongoing renewal, growth, and an increase in holiness so that in the Church there may indeed be the holiness there ought to be.
The confessions speak of this work of the Triune God as follows: in Lord's Day 21.54 we read, "What do you believe concerning the holy catholic church of Christ? I believe that the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends and preserves for Himself, by His Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church chosen (that is the work of the Father) to everlasting life." The elect, chosen by the Father, are gathered by the Son into His Church, by means of His Holy Spirit (who sanctifies the elect) and by His Word. Article 27 also speaks of the work of Triune God with respect to the Church. "We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers (ie, chosen, set apart by the Father), who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by His blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit."
These persons elected by the Father, justified by the Son, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit, have all been transferred from Satan's side to God's side. This body of the saved -elected, justified, sanctified- is not itself the Church. Though the general Christian world around us conceives of the church as the totality of the elect (all those restored to God's side), the Scripture does not permit this understanding. (If the Church were all the elect, the mandate of Article 28 would loose its punch.)
ORIGIN OF THE TERM CHURCH
The English word 'Church' is derived from the Greek word 'kuriake,' meaning 'belonging to the Lord'. This word characterises well the fact that the Church was bought by the blood of the Lord, and so belongs to Him. However, the word 'kuriake' does not appear in the Bible as a word for church. Instead, the Bible uses the word 'ecclesia.' This word was well known to the Greeks of the early New Testament era to describe an assembly. We come across the word in Acts 19, in the context of the riot instigated by Demetrius the silversmith in Ephesus. In verse 32 we read, "Some therefore cried one thing and some another, for the assembly was confused, and most of them did not know why they had come together." The city clerk challenged the crowd that "if you have any other inquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful assembly" (vs 39). Having said that, he "dismissed the assembly," (vs 41). In each of these cases the Greek uses here the word 'ecclesia'. This was the common Greek word for a meeting, a get-together, a gathering, an assembly. Inherent to the word 'ecclesia' is the notion of gathering.
Further, God's NT revelation is based on His Old Testament revelation. As it turns out, the word 'ecclesia' appeared frequently in the Greek translation of the OT - as translation of a Hebrew word that again means 'gathering', 'assembly'. This term occurs for example in Deuteronomy 5:22, where Moses recalls the time when God made His covenant with Israel at Mt Sinai, and gave His ten commandments. That meeting at the foot of Mt Sinai is circumscribed like this: "These words the LORD spoke to all your assembly..." Since both the OT and the Greek speaking world of Paul's day used the word 'ecclesia' to describe an assembly of people, it is not correct for us to read the word 'ecclesia' in the New Testament as if it describes all the elect.
DEFINITION OF THE TERM CHURCH
When speaking of the Church, a distinction must be made between the people of God, the elect, on the one hand and the gathering of the people of God on the other. The Church is not the equivalent of the people of God. One cannot say that 'the elect' and 'the Church' are the same thing. Rather, the Church is the gathering of the people of God, of the elect. DeBres makes this distinction in Article 27. He writes, "We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers" (Article 27). That is: the Church is not (all of) the true Christian believers, but is the gathering of the true Christian believers. (Again, the practical consequences of this distinction will be drawn out in Article 28.)
When Jesus, then, in Matthew 16:18 used the word 'ecclesia', His hearers on the road to Caesarea Philippi knew what Jesus was speaking about. He told Peter that "I will build My church," and His hearers understood Jesus to speak not of an invisible, global entity comprising all the elect; they understood Jesus to mean an assembly, a gathering - for that's what the word 'ecclesia' meant. Moreover, this gathering of Christ's would be distinctive from other gatherings in that He speaks of My Church; My assembly.
Paul addressed a letter "to the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thessalonians 1:1). The mailman who had to deliver this letter to Thessalonica did not think in terms of an invisible entity of the elect of Thessalonica that could not be located. Rather, the common use of the word 'ecclesia' prompted the mailman to think of a gathering, an assembly of the Thessalonians, something real, something identifiable, something visible. As to which assembly of Thessalonians was to receive the letter, the mailman could discover that by the addition of the words "in God the Father." That is: this letter was not addressed to an assembly of, say, all the citizens of the city of Thessalonica; this letter was addressed to a gathering of persons united "in God the Father". Nor was this letter addressed to the assembly in the Jewish synagogue (the words "in God the Father" could apply to them); this letter was addressed to "the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." The mailman had to deliver the letter to the gathering of Christians, the Christian church. Yet Paul knew that this particular gathering did not include all the Christians of town, for he added at the end of his letter the instruction that "this epistle be read to all the holy brethren" (5:27). Here is evidence for the distinction between the sum total of believers versus the gathering of the believers. Paul addressed his epistle to the church of the Thessalonians, ie, the gathering, the assembly of the believers in Thessalonica, and charges this assembly to insure that this epistle was read to all the holy brethren, ie, those believers not gathered there with them in that assembly.
What then is the Church? The Church is not all the elect but the gathering of the elect. The implication of this reality is that there are elect persons outside the Church, persons who -for whatever reason- keep separate from the assembly of true believers. This is what Jesus also said when He spoke of the Church as a sheepfold: "And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd" (John 10:16). See Figure 2. We should then not be surprised to find other believers in town, be it that they meet together in a place of their own choosing or that they wander on their own. (It's precisely this reality that makes possible -and necessary- the call of Article 28 to join the church. You cannot join something to which you already belong.)
Jesus' use of the future tense in Jn 10:16 ("there will be one flock") points up the goal of His Church gathering work. Today the Church is still under construction. Today the Lord is still busy gathering His own into His Church. One day, though, (the Last Day) all the elect will be gathered into one. This is what John was shown in the vision he saw on Patmos. In Revelation 14:1 we read, "Then I (John) looked, and behold, a Lamb (Christ) standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty four thousand, having his Father's name written on their foreheads." The 144,000 is not to be taken literally, but, as with much of the book of Revelation, is to be understood symbolically. The 144,000 is symbolic of all the elect: the totality of Christ's Church (see Revelation 14:4). When Christ's church-gathering work is complete, then the "gathering of the people of God" will constitute the same group as "the people of God."
THE FOUR CHARACTERISTICS OF THE CHURCH
The Church revealed by God in Scripture has various characteristics. In the course of church history, four have commonly been confessed. The Nicene Creed, for example, mentions the following attributes: "I believe one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church." With this creed dating back to the year 325 A.D., believers have for almost 1700 years already confessed, on the basis of Scripture, 1) the Church's unity, 2) the Church's holiness, 3) the Church's catholicity, and 4) the Church's apostolicity. This too is a confession based not on what man sees of the Church but on what Scripture says concerning the Church. These attributes characterise the church today (whether we see them or not), and will characterise the church forever. These attributes are God's gifts to the Church and at the same time are a mandate to the Church. On the one hand the Church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic; on the other hand God calls the Church to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
1) The Church is One
GIFT: that the Church is one is certainly not a confession made as a result of what man sees of the Church. Unity is hardly evident at all. The fact, then, that Scripture speak of the one-ness of the Church has led many to believe that the Church is a large, invisible entity comprised of all the elect. That one big invisible body would then be the real Church. That makes each local church, each local gathering or assembly, a manifestation of the big thing, the real thing. (This was taught by Abraham Kuyper). This, however, is not what the Lord means when He reveals the Church as one.
Scripture teach that there is but one way to be saved. The angel announced that the coming baby was to be called "JESUS, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21). The disciples insisted that "there is no other name under heaven [than Jesus Christ] given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). As Jesus said, "I am the way… No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). Yet this same Jesus spoke not of gathering numerous churches, but just one church, "My Church" (one reads in Matthew 16:18), not 'My churches.' Since there is salvation only through Christ alone can there be only one Church.
Jesus prayed to the Father concerning the Church, "I do not pray for these alone, (ie, the disciples) but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one; I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one ..." (John 17: 20-23). The answer to this prayer of Jesus can be read in Acts 2:44, "Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common," and also in Acts 4:32, "Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common." There was no division in the early Christian Church, but rather, it was characterised by unity, because there was one Gospel. So we read in Ephesians 4:4, "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling."
Revelation 14 speaks of the perfect unity which the Church shall enjoy at its completion. "And they sang as it were a new song before the throne, before the four living creatures, and the elders; and no one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who were redeemed from the earth" (Revelation 14:3). Not only do they sing in unison, but they also confess in unison and together enjoy the Lamb's supper, "And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, "Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! ... Let us be glad and rejoice and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his wife has made herself ready. ... Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!" (Revelation 19: 6,7,9).
We experience the reality of this gift in the fact that we assemble together in Church on Sundays, singing together, praying together, listening together to the Word, eating together from one bread and drinking from one cup at the Lord's Supper. The communion of saints also gives local expression to the unity of the church. On a broader level, one may think of the bond of churches, as well as sister relations with churches far away. In the closing words of Article 27, "it is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith."
MANDATE: If God has made the Church one, it is the Church's calling to be one. The unity we experience in Church on Sundays, be it by listening together to the one word of life, by praying together or by eating from one bread and drinking from one cup at the Lord's Supper needs constant growth and encouragement. The gift of the communion of saints needs cultivation so that more and more we become an active, living communion, where the one reaches out to the other so that together all members become increasingly unified. On a broader level, the unity of the Church is to be expressed amongst sister churches nationally (synods) and internationally. This is not to be limited to those assemblies that we already know, for the Son of God is continuously at work gathering His Church. Therefore we are to examine whether there are other churches which are true, faithful churches of Christ which we should recognise as such and with whom we should unify.
2) The Church is holy
GIFT: the closing paragraph of Article 27 speaks of "this holy Church". This designation comes from passages of Scripture as 1 Peter 2:9 where we read, "But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light." To be holy means to be set apart, to be regenerated. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Church is characterised by holiness because the people gathered into the Church are justified by the blood of Christ and sanctified by the Spirit of Christ. The Church is a gathering of holy people, different, unable to identify with the people on Satan's side.
Paul also speaks of the Church's holiness in his letter to the Ephesians, to whom he writes, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5: 25-27).
MANDATE: The Church is holy. Yet, there is much sin within the Church. I know this by just looking at myself. I am holy, not because of what I do, but because of what the Lord has been pleased to work in me. If God has made me holy, then I am to be holy. This is equally true of the church. This gathering of the believers is to make a point of being holy; we all must make a point of increasingly separating ourselves from sin. God's promise to us then is that we shall increasingly become holy. Ephesians 5:27 speaks of the goal of the pursuit of holiness, namely, that Christ "might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish." The reference here is to the future. Though by God's work in Jesus Christ the Church is today characterised by holiness, we today are at the same time to work towards that holiness. The Church's holiness is a gift, a reality, and therefore we have a mandate to pursue it.
3) The Church is catholic
GIFT: 'Catholic' means universal, worldwide. In Article 27 we read, "... this Church is not confined or limited to one particular place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world." That the Church is worldwide is only one notion captured by the word catholic. A second notion this word captures is, as Article 27 states, that the "Church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end..." To confess that the Church is catholic is to confess also that the Church is of all times.
We see the evidence of this in Genesis 22:18 where God says to Abraham, "In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice." The Church is not exclusively for the Jew, the Greek, or the Dutch, but for all nations. See Psalm 87. The Church is for everybody, regardless of race, language, gender, age, social status, etc. In the Revelation to John we read repeatedly, "... a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues..." (Revelation 7:9; see 5:9; 15:4). Hence there is no room for discrimination in the Church. "For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body -whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free- and have all been made to drink into one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:13).
The Church's catholicity is a reality. Christ is king over the whole world. However, that does not automatically mean that the Church is to be found everywhere today. For example, prior to the arrival of the Gospel, there was no Church in Australia. A Church was established in Australia after the gospel arrived with the first white people to settle in the country. Hence, if one were to go to the Amazon today, one may or may not find the Church there. To confess that the Church is catholic is to confess that the Church can be everywhere, anywhere. However, that does not mean that today I definitely will find the Church everywhere, anywhere. In fact, it may even happen from time to time that the Church appears to be totally nonexistent - as in the days of "the perilous reign of Ahab." But the catholicity of the Church means that the Church will always be somewhere, be it small, simply because Christ is an eternal King.
MANDATE: If it is a reality that the Church is catholic, that the Church can be anywhere and everywhere in the world, then this reality, this gift implies a mandate to be involved in mission work. If it is a gift of Christ that He has died for all, then the Gospel must also go out to all. A confession of the Church's catholicity implies a duty to take the Gospel to those who have not heard it as yet. The Free Reformed Church may not seek to remain of Dutch extraction. The Church at Kelmscott too is catholic. On a personal level it implies a duty for me to live a holy life, imaging who my God is to those around me. I am to live, speak and demonstrate in my life who my God is so that in turn many of whatever heritage may be joined to the church. Abraham was called out to be a blessing for all nations.
4) The Church is apostolic
GIFT: In his letter to the Ephesians Paul wrote, "Now therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:19,20). Likewise, concerning the new Jerusalem, we read in Revelation 21:14, "Now the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb." The twelve disciples had seen and heard what Jesus had done and said during His ministry on earth (Acts 1:22; 2:32). They were also equipped by the Holy Spirit to speak the Word of God (John 16:13). They were inspired to do so, but not others.
The Church is built on the foundation of the apostles. That is: it is characteristic of the Church to embrace whatever the apostles taught. God reveals that the Church holds on to the whole Word of God (see also Article 29: the Church "governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it…).
MANDATE: If the Church is built upon the foundation of the apostles, the Church must also believe what the apostles said, and not teach anything at variance with their teachings. Because embracing the doctrine of the apostles is characteristic of the Church, Paul tells Timothy to "hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me" (II Timothy 1:13). Timothy must "commit" this truth "to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (II Timothy 2:2). Jude tells his readers to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (vs 3). Were the Church to add to or to subtract from the Gospel as preached by the apostles, it would no longer be the Church. The gift of apostolicity implies the mandate to remain apostolic, fully faithful to God's whole revelation. So the Church must be ever busy with Scripture, always ensuring that she is faithful, reforming.
These attributes are part and parcel of what the Church is. In the brokenness
of this sinful life, one does not see much of the Church's unity or holiness
or catholicity or apostolicity. Yes, the Lord allows us to observe something
of it. But even the little we see is marred by sin. It is for the child
of God to believe what the Lord has said concerning His Church.
As we look at the ecclesiastical map today, it is for us to recall what
the Lord has said about the Church. Then the sinfulness of this present
life jumps at us so clearly, but we remain of good courage. We know: the
gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church of Jesus Christ. In the
midst of the sinfulness of this life, the Head of the Church continues
to gather, defend and preserve His own, till the great day of the marriage
feast of the Lamb.