Somewhere along the line, someone started the rumor that church-going people are decent people, that they’re good and wholesome, that churches are made up of people who have their ethical ducks in a moral row. When non-church goers who believe that rumor go to a church, they often complain that they “got burned” because they found “hypocrisy” there. There is hypocrisy in the church, for sure. And I’ve not yet found a church wherein all the people are good and wholesome. In fact (HT to R.C. Sproul here), should I find a church where there are no hypocrites or sinners, I would stay out lest I ruin it.
Building off of yesterday’s post (here), when we say the Creed, “I believe…the communion of the saints,” we’re saying “I believe the communion of saints who believe in the forgiveness of sins.” Or, in Reformation terms, “I believe in the communion of sinful saints” (the Latin for that sounds cool!). So if you want to find real sin and hypocrisy, go to church. In fact, solid churches have a public confession of sins each Sunday – a time where people beside you will say “Against you, Lord, and you alone I have sinned and done this evil in your sight.” It is like a big sign that says, “we’re not good and perfect!” If you stay out of church you’ll have to deal with sin and hypocrisy on your own, but if you go to a good one, you’ll at least be able to confess it out loud with a bunch of other sinners and hear about forgiveness through faith in Jesus’ blood. You won’t find that at Starbucks (or McCafe, whichever you prefer).
Once we get the proper perspective on the Christian life (saint and sinner at the same time), we understand why God said something like “Let there be a church.” Cyprian (over and over in his epistles) called the church the nourishing mother of Christians. Calvin used that term as well, along with others. The institutional church (with pastors, elders, deacons, preaching, teaching, sacraments, and such) is a tremendous gift of God for his people. Just like a godly Christian mother is one of the “chiefest” blessings in this earthly life, so too is the institutional church. If you’re not too sinful, church might not be for you. But if you’re a bona-fide sinner like me, you need the church like we need our mothers when we’re infants – our mothers who feed us, pray for us, discipline us, and embrace us. Augustine knew a little about Christian mothers and the church. Here’s what he said:
“Those who do not have the church as their mother do not have God as their Father” (On Baptism, VII).
“It [the church] is a gathered company (coetus) but also the mother of believers (mater fidelium). …As it is in the natural world, so it is in the spiritual. Every human being is a product of communion, and the individual believer born from the womb of the believing community. The universal church is anterior to the particular church and to individual believers just as in every organism the whole precedes the parts. The church of Christ is indeed a mother, but she is that not only as institution but also as organism. Believers are simultaneously producer and product…through the church Christ gathers his church.” (Reformed Dogmatics, IV.II.6).
I’ll have to expand on this some other day, but for now the main point is that the Christian life (sanctification, simil iustus et peccator) has to do with the communion of the saints, which is all about church. And the church (pastors, elders, & deacons included) is an amazing gift God has given us to help us stumble upwards on the pilgrim way.