Sunday, April 3, 2016

25. True Church

Sharon Rees

Calvin starts off this section of the Institutes by answering the question - why do we need the church anyway? "God, therefore, in his wonderful providence accommodating himself to our capacity, has prescribed a way for us, though still far off, to draw near to him." (4.1.1) The church is the way we get closer to God, and care for the body of Christ entrusted to us. Furthermore, the church is a mother - nurturing (4.1.2), a teacher - preaching the Word of God (4.1.3), and a gardener - planting and watering for God who gives the growth (1 Cor 3:7). Toward the end of this section, Calvin admits that the church is never perfect, but why would we forsake a mixture of good and evil for total imperfection?

What is the distinction between the invisible and the visible church? The invisible church, according to Calvin, are those already elected into God's presence (4.1.7). Members of the invisible church are dead, living, and arguably, not yet among us. We worship with the visible church each Lord's Day. The catch is that God knows the difference and we don't. So instead of trying to separate the sheep from the wolves ourselves, we should take care of everyone in front of us so that we might not accidentally harm the sheep (4.1.8). (Calvin does allow later for some corporate sorting [4.1.15], but that shouldn't destroy the main principle.)



What are the marks of the true church? Calvin has only two marks, "Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ's institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists." (4.1.9) As Lane notes - not discipline, not fellowship (p. 141). If a church promotes Word and Sacrament, it will bear fruit, either now or in the future.

May we ever leave a church to form another church? No. If Calvin tells us once, he tells us a hundred times - stop it! Then follows a list of invalid reasons to leave a church:

* Arguments over non-essential doctrine - Who is supposed to arrange the lilies? Should the worship service extend past 60 minutes?
* Scandal in the church - Is there a divorced person on the Session? Is the Christian Education Director a former felon?
* Members who keep sinning - I saw Steve at the bar again! (Hmm, what were you doing there?)

As I have attempted to show by my own modern examples, I worry that this section of Calvin's teaching might almost be more relevant today than it was in Calvin's time - or at least as relevant. Church leaving and church hopping are all too prevalent. Here are some articles regarding church hopping: some statistics, for, against. What are your thoughts about addressing church hoppers using Calvin and/or the Bible?

15 comments:

  1. I am reminded of Jesus conversation with the woman at the well in John 4:21, "Woman,Jesus replied, believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem." If a person "church hops" there is no mark against their own spiritual journey. We are worshiping God in spirit and truth as Jesus goes on to tell the woman. It is up for that individual to come to a place where they feel they want to take root and be devoted. And for some people they may never find that place, but it doesn't discredit their faith or love of God. Their relationship with Jesus will be worked out through the Holy Spirit, and it's the church's job to love them the same.

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  2. Calvin makes it pretty clear that we must give the church and our fellow members within the church quite a bit of leeway. In 4.1.12 Calvin says, "...we must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions." Then later, and more strongly, "Even if the church be slack in its duty, still each and every individual has not the right at once to take upon himself the decision to separate." (4.1.14)

    But does this mean that we should not change congregations or even denominations? If we are members of the church invisible, and there are invisible members among most or all denominations, does this imply that if we attend a Methodist church one week and a Presbyterian on others that this is okay?

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    1. Bill, funny you should mention that. We once lived in a small town and divided our Sundays between my husband's small country church where he grew up and a large Methodist congregation in the nearby town so that the kids could grow with other children in faith. I didn't consider this a problem because we were not trying to decide which one was more comfortable, but we were willing to give ourselves fully to both congregations. I think there are some valid reasons to leave a church or denomination, and then some adiaphorous ones (another great word we learned from Calvin!). I worry about trends where roots do not seem to be deep enough in churches to withstand the non-essential disputes.

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  3. Hi Sharon,
    Thank you for this wonderful summary regarding Calvin's description of "being" church. When I think of church hopping I wonder what exactly they are looking for? Are they seeking to worship God or are they simply looking for a place to match their own beliefs. I agree with Jeff's comment that we are to worship God in Spirit! As the church, the particular representation of the Body of Christ in a given time and place, we are called to welcome, and to encourage those whom God has brought into our midst. If we reflect back to Calvin's doctrine of predestination, we cannot ignore those whom God has brought into our worshiping communities because it may be God's will that they come into a relationship with God through this particular community. It may also be God's will that the particular community be influenced by this new individual.

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  4. Thank you very much Sharon, for your summary of this topic from the Institutes!
    Calvin suggests (4.1.13)that barring any heretical situation it is better to bear the imperfections within a church congregation rather than to be a further disruption and move to another local church. I see this as a protective maneuver by Calvin, he seems to want to block the ability of evil from breaking up the Body of Christ through local church disagreements & scandals. In our day the scandals are more prevalent and the number of reasons one might want or have to change congregations has increased mightily!
    Your question is how to address church hoppers. My thought is to be welcoming,to inquire about their situation and offer support. When we begin to label those who visit our church service as 'church-hopper', I think we begin or add to the divisions within a congregation and buy into the enemy. I do not think Visitors/Hoppers place any significant additional stress on the congregations & Leadership they visit. And, I do believe there is an increase in church hopping for a few different reasons: There has been an increase in the transient nature of our culture (American), which naturally increases those who are finding new places to worship. Also the American culture today (including worship/Christian Thought) has become individualized, which might account for the difficulty in finding 'just the right home church' and therefore helps to create a church hopping trend. There are other more personal reasons for church shopping or hopping (divorce/abuse/discrimination) and because worship should be touching people emotionally, spiritually, and even psychologically, it is very important to be in a place that feel safe.
    My other thought is that there are a number of folks who see church as a country club, which is why I do not like the term "Member" of a church, it just sounds like a country club and feeds a thought process I would rather discourage.

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    1. Claire, very good thoughts. You bring up excellent ways to address those coming into your congregation from others. I also wonder about how to address those leaving your congregation. Have you heard of successful discussions by pastors to those that are disgruntled?

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    2. Do you mean some kind of 'exit interview'?
      That might something you could discuss doing. I haven't but, it might be a 'suggestion card' or survey. Our church creates online surveys which goes out to the membership. I think they may even send them to visitors (email listings)these are anonymous, and there are many ways to conduct this kind of questionnaire.

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  5. I think it a stretch to compare church hopping to what Calvin is speaking about. The Reformation opened the door for everyone to sit in judgement of the doctrine of their church. Was it Holy enough? Was it Faithful enough? Was its leadership pure enough?

    Today people shop around for kid friendly congregations, non-boring sermons, types of music, hour of the service and all kinds of self-serving needs. To make matters worse, we all cater to these folks hoping to please them.

    This is what Calvin would say to all of that hand-wringing about appealing to church-shopper-hoppers. "For it is clear that every member of the church is charged with the responsibility of public edification according to the measure of (their) grace, provided it decently and in order. That is, we are neither to renounce the communion of the church nor, remaining in it, to disturb its peace and duly ordered discipline." 4.1.12

    Go about the work of the church as God has called us to it. We're feeding the Lord's sheep, not serving customers.

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  6. Tim I definitely agree with your idea of feeding the sheep not serving customers. Far to many churches keep trying to satisfy customers. The shopper hoppers are never happy with the music here and over there they painted the kitchen the wrong color it's usually never about the doctrine but some personal need that can never be meet for some people.

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    1. I agree with this especially in a modern context.

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  7. This is a fun discussion. Sorry, I’m so late in coming to the party, I had a sermon to prepare and deliver today, so my time was limited this week with Calvin. Sharon, I appreciate your summary and the extra articles on Church Hopping!
    I think I’m a bit of an outlier on this one. Americans value choices. If you want to experience this, just walk down the shampoo and conditioner aisle at Walmart. Unlike Calvin’s time, we have a plethora of good choices for churches that are delivering sound theology:” the Word of God is purely preached and heard and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution.” (Lane, p. 140) Calvin would like our church to be more like Hotel California, where you can “check in, but you can never leave!”
    I think people should find the place where they can flourish as Christ followers. Relationships help to bind a body of Christ together and to weather the storms that arise. But as leaders of a church, we have to stay in touch with our flock and their needs, as well as trends that influence attendance. We won’t be very effective in reaching others with the Word of God, if no one shows up to listen. The message is timeless, but the mode of delivery often needs to change. An example I heard at an Orange Conference was how music has stayed the same throughout the years, but think of the evolution of the delivery methods: 45 records, albums, 8 track tapes, cassette tapes, CDs and now streaming. Are we doing the hard work of evaluating our effectiveness at reaching people for Christ?

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  8. Not sure it matters if the people are church-hopping among true churches - one where "..we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ's institution..." Unlike our "blood" families, we can choose the family with which we choose to worship God. I do believe people and circumstances change in lives and as long as people are worshiping in a true church, that is fine. I think Calvin is more concerned with people who leave the church.

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  9. Thank you for summarizing Sharon. Thank you also for the thought-provoking question for us to answer. As someone who has moved every three to four years for his entire adult life (until I recently retired from service), I have done a fair amount of “church shopping”. Some of the things that I (although it is really we, including my wife) looked for were the same things that were mentioned earlier: Christian Education, programs for our children, and different worship programs as we matured in faith. I think I may bring a little different aspect to the conversation. However, at the end of the day, we worshipped where the Word was proclaimed and the Sacraments were administered. Although the time has come that I have been called to lead worship. I usually don’t worry too much about style, music, and programs (there are plenty of other people who do that). I usually just give my attention to the Word and Sacraments (although there is fair amount of visitation and pastoral care too).

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  10. I can't help think about the historical context of Calvin's Institutes here. Remember that the city was in charge of confession, worship practices, and discipline. There was no "Pentecostal" church on 1st avenue, "Presbyterian church" on 2nd and Roman Catholic Church on 3rd. No, everyone in Geneva was Reformed under the rules of the council. In territories such as the German Palatinate, the religion of the territory corresponded to the religion of the prince and in the Palatinate, in particular, the confession changed from Roman Catholicism, to Reformed to Lutheranism. I think what is important here is in those who are leaving one town to enter the church in a different town which, if all were Calvinist, should not happen if the the Word was clearly preached and the sacraments performed.

    Transposing Calvin to today is very difficult, as modern church-hopping does not offer a direct translation to Calvin's time. While Calvin would recognize the preaching of his Swiss colleagues, he would not recognize the Roman Catholic Church or any "church" crafted around the Anabaptist practices ( which are all over the place in the modern context). In other words, there is a narrow view of correct preaching of the Word, and the tolerance we are expected to have of our brothers and sisters in Christ in different denominations is considerably diminished.

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