Part One: Our Mother: The Visible Church of Christ
Chap. 1: Introduction: Biblical Imagery of Our Mother
Christ’s Gift to His People
What if I told you that
Christ had given Christians a very special gift? What if I told you that Christ
has not only given us His Spirit and Word, and other means of grace in order to
become more like him, but he has given us a real visible institution, family,
or school, in order for us to grow up together into maturity, and into the
likeness of our Lord? This institution, family, or school is the visible
Now I have to tell you up
front that this gift has been abused at times. In fact, this gift of a
visible institution, family, or
Because the Church in the past as well as the present has been abused in various ways, and because many in our Christian culture have taken more of an individualistic mindset with regard to Christianity, the Church is not considered as Christ’s special gift anymore by many evangelical Christians. Yet regardless of certain abuses, and being conscious of the “sin that so easily besets” our individualistic culture, we must remember that in Ephesians 4:11-16, the Apostle Paul teaches us that the resurrected-ascended Jesus has given to us the Church so that we will grow up and mature in our most holy faith.
ESV Ephesians 4:11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
We will look at this passage more in detail later, but for now notice that Christ “gave” (v. 11) “apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers” in order to equip the saints for the work of ministry. Even though we will look at this passage in more detail later, we should recognize foundationally that the Church as an institution, family or school (and this will be unpacked more in later chapters) is the ascended Christ’s gift to his people, and the Church as an institution, family, or school is the place or context in which Christ makes his people more like himself.
Evangelicals and the Church’s Abuse
The reason that it is
important to consider this passage in Ephesians 4:11-16 as Christians
foundationally for our study is that in our day there is an imbalance and
seriously mistaken view of the individual Christian’s pursuit of holiness and
maturity through the truth of Scripture, yet apart from Christ's
visible Church. While the pursuit of holiness and maturity in the Word of
God are noble and Biblical goals, the context in which they should be pursued
should be in Christ’s visible Church, His Kingdom on earth. In our
individualistic culture today, Christ’s people must return to appreciating the
importance of Christ’s Church, His Bride, and seek to grow in the Lord by using
the means Christ has provided to us. There is a place for individual
growth, do not get me wrong, but the primary place or context that Christ has
given to grow Christians is the visible
I think part of the
problem with a lack of appreciation of Christ’s gift is simply that some evangelical,
Bible-believing Christians have seen how branches of the visible church have
been abused, and so for many they are afraid to talk about a life in the
Church. There is only one Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. There
are many branches because of sin in this world, but there is in fact only one
Church and we can seek Scripture to better understand how to unite and pursue
unity as one Church in the world. But first, we must start with a
Biblical view and return to a good appreciation of the
Evangelical Christians are
part of the one Church of Jesus Christ. However, they do not hold to as
high a view of the Church as early Christians and those in the Reformation of
the Sixteenth Century. Early Christians in the history of the Church, as
well as those in the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century thought so highly of
But I must remind you that
historically, if you call yourself an evangelical, it means you trace your
roots to the Reformation. Are you a Baptist? Are you a
The fact that all evangelicals come from the Reformation is something that is important to say up front. Whether we like it or not, and no matter how individualistically we think of Christianity, no matter how low our view of Christ’s visible Church is in our estimation, we trace our origins to the Church, which became “churches” of the Reformation. There will be more on this later in the study, but allow me to assert this up front. Our view of the Church can be enhanced as we learn not only from our contemporary brothers and sisters in the faith, but also as we study the Church and the Biblical teaching on the Church with early Christians and as well the Christians of the Reformation.
Are You A Catholic?
Why did I begin to study
this issue and what made me sit down to attempt to write a study on the Biblical
doctrine of the Church for evangelical Christians? As a pastor serving
Christ in the local community, I was often taken back by how little emphasis
was placed on the visible
I remember when I first became confessional. Being confessional simply means that we confess with the Church in our worship service by using a historical creed such as the Apostle’s or Nicene. I started attending with my sweet wife Margaret a confessional Church and we were taught how to confess the Nicene Creed. It goes like this, and particularly notice the third part concerning the Church:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
I remember as one who was new to being confessional, that every time the pastor would begin leading our confession in worship (and sometimes after!), he would tell us that “Catholic” means universal. What he was afraid of was that someone in the congregation confessing that We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church might think that this meant we were “Roman” Catholic, and so he would say that this refers to the Church “universal”, meaning as John says in the Book of Revelation “every tribe, people, language, and nation” (Revelation 13:7).
In other words, ‘catholic’ in the true sense of the term does not mean “error” or something suspiciously raising tradition above Scripture, dead Christianity, or whatever else your mind and experience conjures up, but that it means all Christians from every place on the globe who call upon and believe upon Jesus Christ, and all who both living and dead who have been members of His Kingdom by faith (cf. Hebrews 11).
Even today when I emphasize as a pastor the importance of the visible Church as our mother, and speak of the importance of Christians understanding and honoring the ordained ministry, or if I am caught reading the Word of God with creeds, confessions and councils of the past, some evangelicals hear me being a “closet Catholic”. When I emphasize the importance of the issues I want to address Biblically in this study, some hear me saying that a person is not saved (or can’t be saved!) unless they are part of the visible Church, that the ordained office is authoritative and more important than the ministry of lay people, and that I am making the mistake of Roman Catholicism and others who place tradition or confessions above the teaching of Scripture. You’ve gotten this far- -but keep reading- -this is absolutely NOT what I am doing.
If Christ has given us the Church as a gift, and if Bible-believing evangelicals love Christ and His Word, and if Christ in His Word tells us about the importance of the Church, no matter what our thinking or experience, we ought to allow this to change our thinking if we have a low view of these things.
I think this reaction against the abuses of the Church in the past, the response that I mentioned above with regards to being a “closet Catholic” if one thinks the Church is important, is due to what I call “Radical Romish-Reactionism”. “Radical Romish-Reactionism” means that anything that the Roman Catholic Church has abused, evangelical Christians must distance themselves from it - -even if this means an avoidance of studying theology, church history, confessions, or the Church itself. For instance, if the Roman Catholic Church abused certain privileges of church councils and formulated doctrines contrary to Scripture then all councils and creeds must be mere “words of men” and therefore avoided.
I struggled even in my
title for this book. Using the term “mother” suggests love, nurture,
spiritual nourishment for me, but for others who struggle with “Radical
Romish-Reactionism” (and I sympathize with them), they will be likely to
think that if some of our friends in the Roman Catholic communion use this term
of “mother”, then it must be unbiblical and should be avoided. Other
things like the sacraments we evangelicals also tend to be wary of because of
the abuse and false teaching of
We need to remember as
Bible-believing evangelical Christians that the abuse of something,
particularly the Church, is not a legitimate argument within or without the
I am a Bible-believing evangelical pastor. I have not always appreciated Christ’s visible Church. In fact, when I became a Christian by God’s grace, I was taught that the most important thing in my own life was my personal relationship with Christ. Now don’t get me wrong, this relationship to the risen Christ is extremely important for every individual Christian. But the question is “where does this personal relationship take place, merely one on one with Jesus?” The Bible is written to a people, the Church, and it is as one of the members of Christ’s Church that I have a relationship to Him, as well as to other brothers and sisters.
Because of the abuse of
the visible Church, perhaps because what I termed above as “Radical
Romish-Reactionism”, some evangelicals in our day are seeking to grow in Christ
with alternatives or substitutes for what Christ has given to His people in the
Church. Like Abraham choosing to fulfill God’s promises through another
woman, the slave woman Hagar rather than
Alternatives to the Church
When I hear the term “alternative”, I think of sugar substitutes, “alternative medicine” perhaps (without the witches and gurus), and because I like music, I think of “alternative music”. There are times when alternatives can be legitimate. For instance, we might need an alternative soda that has less sugar because we have a dietary challenge. We might like alternative music because most popular music gets played too much on the radio, is overpriced (and overrated?!), and we want something a bit more unique. Some families choose to home school as a legitimate alternative to seek to train them up in the way of the Lord rather than in the public educational institutions formed by the government.
However, there are times when we should not look for alternatives. Like in our relationship with our spouses; God gave us spouses (if you are married), so that we might seek God’s will together as a couple, then a family. To look for an “alternative wife” would be to sin against God. How would you go about choosing an alternative family? I guess it has been done. But it is the same with the Church. There is no Biblical alternative to Christ’s Church. To seek to try and find an alternative is at best an offense to God, at worst a great sin against his goodness and grace.
Recently, I had one
encounter where a well-meaning Christian man told me that because he home
schooled and alternatively educated his children, so he was also going to seek
an alternative for worship and instruction for his family as well. I told
him that he was making a serious mistake and if he began “home churching” (more
on this in a separate chapter) then he would be sinning against Jesus and His
gift to His people. He asked me what I meant by this. I told him
that while the government of the
In our day there is a
tendency to dismiss or recreate the church altogether in evangelical
circles. Using the prefix “Alt”, meaning “alternative”, we now have in
If there continues to be these so-called “Alt-Churches” what is also going to be changed with regard to historic Christianity is that the preaching of the Word will become the “Alt-Preaching” of the Word, the “Alt-Administration of the Sacraments”, “Alt-Discipline” in order to uphold the first two, and of course you will eventually have “Alt-Creeds, Alt-Confessions, and Alt-Councils”.
In the name of “traditionalism” and “dead religion” these “young evangelicals” are starting “Alt-Churches” that they naively hope will be more faithful to the New Testament teaching. This kind of individualistic thinking that is in reaction perhaps to the last 20 years of what evangelicalism was not able to accomplish, is unbiblical and there is a need to call Christians back to our “mother” who loves us!
Our Family from the Past
I must ask your patience in this study. Bear with me as we explore these important issues together in this book. I have arranged this book in three main parts. In each part, I try to prove something specifically with regard to biblical teaching. In part one, I will try to show that the Church as our “mother” is biblical imagery and lay out a as simply as I can the Biblical teaching on the visible Church, with hopes that this will enlighten us as to the importance of the Church as a gift from Jesus himself.
In part two, I will strive by God’s grace to speak about why there is an institution, and what place does the ordained office of elder and deacon have in the life of Christ’s people. Finally, in part three, I will discuss creeds, confessions, and councils. Now don’t get scared away, remember “Radical Romish-Reactionism”? Just because there has been an abuse of these things, doesn’t mean it is wrong. But allow me to set forth my argument from start to finish, I am only asking you to listen to me and judge for yourself if what I am saying is Biblical. It is between you and the Lord whether it makes a difference in your thinking- -but I must admit this teaching has changed my entire Christian worldview. With a Biblical teaching such as a doctrine of the Church, I think we need to explore the great biblical picture of revelation, as well as consider what has been written in the history of the Church.
For me, those who wrote as faithfully as possible in the past, relying on God’s word to guide them are just members of the Christian family. They may make mistakes in their preserved writings and teachings like you and me, but they help us to guide ourselves in our own study of the Bible, and keep us from being too narrow in our interpretation because we are bound by our own cultural mindset and context.
In this study therefore, I will be using teachers from the early church, as well as John Calvin from the Reformation. But do not allow this to cause you to put the book down and exit the study. Read on, and I think you will see the exegetical and biblical wisdom of some of our family members who went before us, and who were committed to a sound and faithful doctrine of the Holy Bible. In fact, Ephesians 3:18 teaches us to learn the love of God in Christ “together with all the saints”. I interpret that to be both dead and living (cf. Romans 15:4-7; 1 Cor. 10:6, 11; Heb. 11).
The Imagery of “Mother” Historically
So where did this imagery of “mother” come from in Church history? Why did some teachers in the early Church refer to it as “mother”? As early as the 3rd century AD, Cyprian of Carthage wrote:
“You cannot have God as your Father unless you have the church for your Mother.”
This statement has often been misunderstood when read the first time. What Cyprian was trying to communicate was that God has given us the Church “Our Mother” and her ministry in order for the gospel and sacraments to be administered to the people of God under the direction and influence of the Holy Spirit. This was very similar to the passage in Ephesians 4:11-16 above. The point is that Christ has given the world a “mother” to nurture, teach, love and instruct us in the faith. Sometimes you can say something provocatively to get a point across.
Cyprian was striving to
keep unity in the Church and to teach how the Church was one and universal.
In the statement, it sounds as if he is saying that you will not be saved
except in the Church, but I don’t believe this was his intention. I
believe he used provocative language to stress the importance of the ministry
of the Word and sacraments in the Church, and how Jesus has given Word and
sacrament in order to communicate his grace by his Spirit to his people.
In the post-Reformation period, the Westminster Assembly (will discuss
more later) modified Cyprian by saying that there was “no normal salvation
This teaching and
understanding of the
John Calvin begins his discussion of Christ's Church in Book IV, chapter 1 of his 'Institutes of the Christian Religion', which was a theology written by Calvin to help Christians better understand the gospel, by discussing the visible Church using the image of a mother. He writes:
"But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title of "mother" how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her.
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 in heaven (Matt. 22:30). Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives" (IV.1.iv).
Here in this quotation, it is important to notice that Christians begin their spiritual lives through the new birth, are taught and nourished to maturity in the Church, and we benefit from being submissive children, as well as students as we grow in Christ-likeness together. For the early Christians, as well as those faithful Bible-believing Christians of the Reformation, God is our Heavenly Father, and God has granted to us an earthly mother to raise us up to maturity in Jesus Christ (Galatians 4:8-22; Hebrews 5:13-6:1).
Biblical scholar Ronald
Wallace writes to describe why John Calvin used the term “mother” to describe
the Church, especially in the time of the Reformation when true and genuine
Christians who had been deceived the apostate Church of Rome were looking for
"Therefore, the church, as the bride of Christ, is the womb in which the infertile unbeliever encounters the gospel, is impregnated by the Holy Spirit by the preaching of the word. It is she who nurtures us, feeding us at her breasts with the pure milk of the gospel, later giving us the solid food of sound doctrine and discipleship. She guides us with her long wisdom, taught to her by the Holy Spirit from the Word of God, over long ages of her history--the very wisdom of God in Christ, to whom she submits. And her divine-human Bridegroom cares for her, leading her and loving her, teaching us through his Word and by His Spirit--in her church."
Later in Church history, George William Martin, a hymn writer from the 19th century adapted Psalm 45 to speak of Christ in ‘My Heart Does Overflow’. Notice the language of the last stanza:
“Amid your glorious train kings’ daughters waiting stand,
and fairest gems bedeck your bride, the queen at your right hand.
O royal bride, give heed, and to my words attend;
For Christ, the King, forsake the world and ev’ry former friend.”
The Imagery of “Mother” Biblically
It is obvious that our family in Christ before our time in history thought that “mother” was a proper title, but is this biblical imagery that is inspired by God the Holy Spirit? This is what really matters. Teachers in the Church have made mistakes, but often if there was a common understanding about a Biblical teaching that we might not fully understand today, it is at least worth our time to consider how they supported this biblically. Again, as I stated above, we don’t want to miss an important teaching because of “Radical Romish-Reactionism”.
Ultimately, as Bible-believing Christians, in order to accept "mother" as referring to the Church, you have to be persuaded that it is Biblical imagery. I believe the Bible gives us enough scriptural evidence to think of the Church as “woman-mother”. If it is a biblical image, then it is as good as saying a Christian is a "light", a "fisherman", or the "Bride of Christ". I think there is enough room for the imagery for the Christian for the Church to be both "bride" (female) as well as "mother-teacher". In fact, our Lord himself used the imagery of "hen-mother" for himself to stress the care and love he had for his covenant people:
ESV Matthew "O
I realize that this is just imagery, but if God had not wanted us to learn under the inspiration of the Holy through imagery, Jesus would not have called himself a shepherd, or the door, or the vine (John 10; 15). Imagery is obviously important to God and I think the beautiful and nurturing imagery of “mother” for the Church communicates God’s constant care and nurture of His people in a visible institution, family or school, against which the gates of hell will never prevail!
We can also appreciate the imagery of the Bride of Christ as the Church as well from Ephesians 5:21-32 and the mysterious “woman” of Revelation 12:
Revelation 12:17: Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.
In Revelation 12, the Apostle John as the master of images, uses a woman to “exegete visually” the cosmic battle between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). If we look at the woman in Revelation 12 from one angle, the woman is Eve (the “mother of all the living” and the one the dragon opposed from the very beginning in Genesis 3). From another angle, the woman is Mary, the mother of our Lord, who was opposed by the forces of the dragon-devil at the birth of Jesus. Yet from another angle the woman is clearly the Church. For Revelation says that the dragon-devil went to make war with the rest of her offspring/seed, and who are these? “Those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus”. In other words, those who are given the new birth through the Church of Jesus Christ.
What identifies the Church as a “woman-mother” here is that John’s imagery causes us to think about the woman who has “offspring” or a “seed” who are those who believe in Jesus and are part of his Church-Bride. Now we can’t take imagery too far, but one of the purposes of the Book of Revelation is giving pictures to us that are clearly explained in other portions of Scripture. You could say with the image from Revelation 12 that the woman Eve eventually gave birth to Mary (that is Mary was one of her descendants as every other person in the human race). The One whom Mary gave birth to, the Lord Jesus, was the Seed of the Woman (see Galatians 3:15-18), who then as resurrected-ascended Lord gave a woman to His people, the Church, who would have “offspring” or descendants or “seed” that were born not through regular child birth, but through the new birth of hearing and believing the gospel (John 3:3-11; Galatians 3:15-29).
This “birthing” or mother language was used in the Old Testament as well to describe the spiritual descendants of Abraham, who believed God’s promises. We hear this language in Isaiah’s prophecy:
66:7-13: "Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon
her she delivered a son. 8 Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such
things? Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one
moment? For as soon as
In fact, the
Apostle Paul even uses the childbirth imagery of Christ being formed in the
4:19-31: My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of
childbirth until Christ is formed in you! 20 I wish I could be present
with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you. 21 Tell me, you
who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is
written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free
woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the
son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted
allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from
It was the Biblical
teaching of the Church being the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:21-32) that
influenced this historical understanding of the Church as our “mother”, as well
as the Apostle Paul’s teaching in Galatians 4 concerning the “Jerusalem above”
when he explains the difference between children of promise or grace, and the
children of works. Additionally, it is the God-inspired imagery that God
wanted to use to communicate the new birth, love, nurture, and grace found
within the context of the
Yes, some who do not believe the gospel use this term “mother” today; it is true. However, it is a legitimate and Biblical image that God has given to us as His people. I think it is the beautiful imagery of a mother that should better inform our understanding of the gift of Christ’s Church as institution, family, or school, and that will enrich our walk with Christ knowing that he did not leave us, but left us with the Spirit of God to indwell us and the Church of God to nurture and grow us as Ephesians 4:11-16 teaches.
Chapter 2: “Is Our Mother Visible or Invisible to Her Children?”