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Churchianity or Christianity part 4: What is the Church?

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In 'Churchianity' Dr Joseph Boot has argued the need for Christians to develop a cultural theology grounded in the Bible addressing  common faults in evangelicals' approaches to culture. In this fourth installment Boot asks- and seeks to answer - a fundamental question: "what is the church?"

An important question that arises from all this is, what is the Church? And with reference to the question of cultural theology and philosophy, what philosophy is at work in the thinking of those who limit the kingdom of God and direct rule of Christ to the church institute and its activities – who advocate churchianity?

In the scriptures the people of God are identified as those who are called out by the Spirit, gathered together as a body and appointed to a task. With the dispersion of the Jews, the synagogue became the centre for worship and instruction for the covenant people – a pattern that was carried over into the Christian era with the local church pattern. In the newer testament the people of God are called the ekklesia; a called-out and renewed people likewise appointed to go and bear fruit (John 15:16). Biblically then, the Church is clearly a people whose lives in their totality are oriented toward the gospel of the kingdom – this life is evidently much more than the buildings, liturgies and structures of the church institute.

In late-medieval Roman Catholic, or what is often called scholastic theology, the church institute and kingdom of God basically coincide. The church cathedral was called a basilica (from the New Testament Greek term for ‘royal’ or ‘king’) and was thought to be the realm of Christ, where the church hierarchy was regarded as the means by which Christ exercised his rule and authority. In this line of thinking, one that is still very much with us, no clear distinction is made between the church as organism and the church as an institute. This results in the ecclesiasticising of the entire life of the Christian community, clericalism and the spiritual ideal of ‘holy orders’ and asceticism, which were common phenomena in the medieval world. It was not until the Reformation era that a clear distinction was again made between the  church functioning as organism and as institute. Abraham Kuyper crystallises that distinction:

"The conception of the instituted church is much narrower than the church…when taken as the body of Christ, for [the latter] includes all the powers and workings that arise from re-creation.… The instituted church finds her province bounded by her offices, and these offices are limited to the ministry of the Word, the sacraments, benevolence and church government.… All other expressions of the Christian life do not work by the organs of the special offices, but by the organs of the re-created natural life; the Christian family by the believing father and mother, Christian art by the believing artist, and Christian schools by the believing magister."[1]

In fact, the boundaries and limitations placed by God upon the church institute reflect the outward-facing purposes that the Sabbath church service serves. Because Christ Jesus in his resurrection life and power is the head of a new race and the founder of re-creation (renewal of creation), the day of rest (resurrection Sunday), opens up the new week so that Sabbath teaching and worship is directed toward the kingdom work of the six days ahead. The word ‘liturgy’ literally means ‘public work.’ Public worship prepares us for the very public cultural task ahead. The worshipping community on a Sunday is not directed only toward personal piety and getting the faithful to heaven. Rather it is the place where God’s people are prepared for the liturgy of life in all creation (Rom. 12:1). As such the church institute is established so that the church as organism can live out its kingdom life in the world.

The church institute is service to this purpose, it is not to be a power centre existing to serve, expand and enrich itself. Consider that in the older testament the tithe was paid to the Levites, who had a varied social and educational function in the cultural life of the Hebrews (cf. Num. 18:21-26), rather than to the priests. This biblical scenario reveals that the institutional worship of the people received a tithe of the tithe, restricting both the size and power of the priestly office. The church institute is not an end in itself and does not exhaust the scriptural understanding of the kingdom.

The church therefore has two clear modes of existence. The church is manifest in temporal reality as both institute and organism. It is a worshiping community – an institute with various offices and ministries – and it is an organism – a living body of believers engaged daily in the non-ecclesiastical areas of life in service to Christ. We can certainly say that the church is a unique body, instituted by Christ, of which he is head. The Lord himself gave it an organisational expression in the apostolic office and sacrament.

This body of Christ is first the invisible church. Then it is also the visible church, which is the historical manifestation of the invisible body, seen organically in every area of life. Finally, the institutional church is the local organisation and expression of that body of believers in a worshipping community with its functioning offices. The visible church thus embraces more than any particular church denomination; it is found wherever God’s people are living faithful Christian lives in each area of life. Moreover, and critically for the purposes of this discussion, the body of Christ is manifest across the full range of societal relationships, of which the local church institute is but one.

Although the institutional church is of a special character, the kingdom of God and the visible church are clearly not identical. In fact, Christ and his disciples were found preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and people were entering into it, long before any local churches were established and before there was any institutional expression of it in terms of church government. Nor are the invisible church and kingdom of God identical, because the rule and reign of Christ, the ruler of the kings of the earth (Ps. 2; Rev. 1:5), is not limited to those who love and obey him. That rule cannot be restricted to Christian people in their personal relationships, but extends to the entirety of created reality and all that believers do and form within God’s world. Kuyper famously said that “there is not a single square inch of the entire universe of which Christ the sovereign Lord of all does not say ‘This is mine!’” In view of this and over against Mark Dever’s truncated view of discipleship, Gordon Spykman writes, “it is our obligation to honor this claim [i.e. of Christ’s total Lordship and sovereignty] and to press it whenever and wherever possible. This calls for political discipleship, academic discipleship – in short, for all sorts of cultural discipleships. This constitutes a truly staggering agenda.”[2]

Such an agenda for discipleship seems startling to modern evangelicals nurtured on churchianity. The notion that the Christians confrontation with systematic unbelief in culture should be responded to with systematic and comprehensive belief is simply foreign. This is in large measure due to a fundamental doubt in the evangelical mind that a specifically Christian view or approach to anything in culture in general is really necessary. After all isn’t ‘common grace’ enough?  This idea is usually vague enough to mean that the vast majority of things in life, from education to politics and art, can be dealt with in abstraction from the Christian world-and-life view – that is in a neutral way.

On the one hand, men and women, believers or not, cannot think themselves loose from God’s world. By virtue of creation and being made in God’s image, human beings are compelled to deal with the real world as God has made it, even in their apostasy, and this does mean we may often find ourselves in broad agreement with non-Christians in a variety of areas. Common Grace, or better Creation Grace, simply means that even after the Fall, the creational structures in which we continue to live and find meaning remain valid in order to maintain creatural existence. Laws which govern motion, growth, thought, sexual distinctions and so forth persisted despite sin. The entrance of sin, however, struck at the direction of lives – sexual acts, thought acts, acts of motion and so forth. So the Christian response to the radical misdirection of the Fall must be a comprehensive Christianity – Christ’s saving grace, into every area of life. Just because unbelievers do not all suppress the truth to the same degree and, acting in orderly ways graciously preserved within the creation ordinances, often stumble upon many wonderful secrets of the creation, does not mean we are excused as Christians from systematically manifesting the saving grace of Christ in each area of life. But the conserving gift of Common Grace is all too often made into a complete dis-grace by Christians who refuse to obey the gospel of God by bringing all of life into subjection to the Word of God. Seerveld has said it well:

"[God’s conserving work] does not permit the newborn Christian to be satisfied with a common grace culture Christianised. For then the Christian would be denying that the good news has the power to set radically right what sin has misdirected and unbelievers are prostituting, however honorably. The Christian would then be selling the peculiar birthright we share as children of Christ, the right to be the proper lords of creation’s development, if the gospel was not allowed to shed its full light for time-bound re-creation as well as for eternal salvation…; it is a regrettable mistake to think that because our gracious God’s cosmonomic theatre allows all humanity to act coherently that this absolves the Christian community from our special calling to praise God ourselves, wholly, unreservedly, in the bonds-bursting power of the Holy Spirit."[3]

What Seerveld is rightly resisting here is the synthesising motive of churchianity which wants to use robbery from anti-Christian culture as a synthetic solution to the Christian life – to regard the church institute as the only distinctly Christian sphere of life and simply adopt the world’s way of doing politics, medicine, law, art, education and much else besides in the name of Common Grace with the saving grace of Christ perhaps sprinkled here and there as a condiment. This is indeed a dis-grace. But it appears acceptable when we do not recognise that all “societal relations are required to express in this temporal life the fullness of our religious principle of life…, all the spheres in which we function must be permeated with the Christian life principle.”[4]  The body of Christ, the universal and organic covenant people of God, can only reject this requirement to make all things holy to the Lord if we view the earth as completely destitute after the Fall and simply a stage for the church institute to battle through its ‘spiritual’ life as pilgrims on the way to somewhere else. But this is surely not the biblical picture. As Kuyper wrote:

"The world after the fall is no lost planet, only destined now to afford the Church a place in which to continue her combats; and humanity is no aimless mass of people which only serves the purpose of giving birth to the elect. On the contrary, the world now, as well as in the beginning, is the theatre for the mighty works of God, and humanity remains a creation of His hand, which, apart from salvation, completes under this present dispensation, here on earth, a mighty process, and in its historical development is to glorify the name of Almighty God."[5]

If this is the scriptural position regarding God’s sovereignty over all men and all of history, and I believe it is, what is the fountainhead of the idea that the church institute and its work is essentially identical with the kingdom of God, reducing the Christian calling to the sole task of ‘witnessing,’ and providing discipleship for believers’ ‘personal spiritual life?’  What led to the view that planting more churches practically exhausts the mandate of God’s people?  In short, what is the religious root of churchianity?

Go back to Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3, or read on in Part 5.


[1]Abraham Kuyper, Principles of Sacred Theology, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898), 587-88, 590.

[2]Gordon J. Spykman, Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) 474.

[3]Seerveld, A Christian Critique, 18-19

[4]H. Evan Runner, Walking in the Way of the Word: The Collected Writings of H. Evan Runner Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Paideia Press, 2016), 105.

[5]Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 162.