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Mary is a deeply committed evangelical Christian who is eager to work for the transformation of culture. A homeschooling mother of three teenagers, she serves on the board of a crisis pregnancy center, and she devotes Saturday mornings to leading a local campaign for a state constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages.

But a funny thing happens on Sunday. Mary awakens with uncertainty about where or even whether to go to church. Her family began attending a new church six months ago because it offered a better youth program, but her husband is not pleased with the pastor, and he prefers the message at a church he has begun to attend on Saturday nights. She is still attached to her small group at her former church, which is planning to launch a home church group. Still undecided, she brews a pot of coffee, turns on a local Christian radio station, and opens her study Bible.

What Mary fails to recognize is that the moral subjectivism and cultural relativism that she combats for six days a week is the very phenomenon to which she succumbs on the Lord’s Day. Zealous to defend moral order and transcendent authority in the home and society, she struggles to submit to the authority of the church.

Mary’s dilemma is all too familiar for American evangelicals. A child without a family is an orphan to be pitied. A man without a country is a refugee to be welcomed. A Christian without a church is, well, a typical American evangelical.

Mary’s religion is the churchless Christianity of American individualism. Modern American religion is a personal relationship with God. To vest an institution with oversight for one’s spiritual life is to rob it of its “authenticity” (a popular word that is always left undefined). While most Americans believe in God, fewer than half are members or regular attendees of any church, and those that attend do so with increasingly tenuous commitments, switching churches like brands of laundry detergent. A recent Gallup poll revealed that a majority of churched Americans believe that they “should arrive at their religious beliefs independent of any church.”

Ironically, evangelicals like Mary are denying authority where God is most eager to ordain it. Contrary to contemporary wisdom, the Bible teaches that one cannot yield to the authority of the Word without submitting to the authority of the church. Our Lord made this clear when He granted to His apostles the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19). This authority is extended to all the apostles (Matt. 18:18), and it is passed on to the teaching and ruling offices of the church. This authority is exercised whenever the church declares and ministers the Word of God. So closely does Christ link church authority with His very own that He insists that those who reject the apostolic message reject Him as well (Matt. 10:14–15).

Church officers must exercise this authority with a theology of the cross. As servants of Christ, they are servants of Christ’s people, and their power is for the building up of the church. That power is limited to what the Word of God commands, and temptations to add to or subtract from it must be resisted. The church has no right to bind consciences of its members without warrant from the Word. To be sure, this power is all too often abused in the church. But even when the church fails to exercise its authority properly, Calvin insisted that “each and every individual has not the right at once to take upon himself the decision to separate.”

The popular claim that the Protestant Reformation unleashed individualism in Western culture is a false charge. The Reformers all affirmed the necessity of the church (while stripping it of a sacerdotal meaning). “Those who disrupt from the body of Christ and split its unity into schisms,” Calvin wrote, “are quite excluded from the hope of salvation, so long as they remain in dissidence of this kind.” In stressing its necessity, the Reformers often employed the metaphor of the motherhood of the church: one could not have God for a Father without the church as a mother. Calvin’s recognition of human weakness and frailty especially led him to underscore the need for an enduring and all-embracing mother through whom we are nurtured. This challenges the popular impression today that we can strike our own relationship with God, a designer spirituality that we can create and sustain on our own. Such brazen self-confidence is as foolish as the Israelites who rejected God’s manna and sought their own form of sustenance in the wilderness.

The Reformers never suggested that the visible church was of little or no importance. As the manifestation of the invisible church to the world in time and place, the visible church, though imperfect, remains the true church, because it displays the marks of the church: the Word, sacraments, and discipline. And it is the only church that we can see and fellowship with; we have no gnostic recourse to any other church than the visible church. It is from the church that we feast on the Word, sacraments, and prayer, what the Westminster divines called the “outward and ordinary means” of salvation. They are “ordinary” in the sense that this is how God is pleased to work in His elect. They are the Christian’s regular diet, the diligent pursuit of which God has promised to bless. While God is free to save some of His people by extraordinary means, we are not free to pursue other means of salvation but must content ourselves with the means of God’s appointment, distributed through His church. The church is the ark of salvation and thus an essential instrument for the salvation of God’s people. A.A. Hodge comments, “God requires every one who loves Christ to confess him in the regular way of joining the community of his people and taking the sacramental badges of discipleship.” As the Westminster Confession summarized, outside of the visible church there is no “ordinary possibility of salvation.”

“Outward and ordinary means” — there is the rub for many Christians today. We crave the inward and the extraordinary. The institutional church is too stiflingly bland and routine. There is just not enough pizzazz. The parachurch and even the Internet offer more dazzling forms of spirituality, and the keys of the kingdom have a hard time competing with such high-octane alternatives.

William Willimon has observed that fundamentalists and liberals both share an embarrassment over the visible church, and he labels this impulse as docetic. In ancient form, docetism claimed that Christ did not take on a fully human nature, but He only appeared human. Modern practitioners deny that the church is really the body of Christ, and so they claim to love Christ all the while despising the church. The Bible allows us to imagine no other Christian life than an ecclesial life. If we refuse to submit to its doctrine and discipline, we simply have no assurance of our salvation.

And so the stakes are higher for Mary than she realizes. But let’s be fair to her and her ecclesiastical ambivalence. Mary’s dilemma is a by-product of churches tailoring their work to meet individual needs. Much of the blame for her confusion must be placed at the church itself and the ministers and elders she has listened to in the past. Preachers today betray their calling when they work an audience like a late night comedian, rather than summon the people of God to heed the Word of God, having lost their confidence in God’s appointed means. We have converted the church to a commodity that solicits the patronage of customers, offering therapeutic sanctuaries of relaxation and relevance. The churches are shed of whatever seems unappealing to the greatest number of potential believers, including their history, denominational distinctiveness, and especially their duty to exercise discipline.

Individuals who come to churches after comparison shopping are not catechicized into habits that enable them to submit to the authority of the church. Rather, they are conditioned to bail once the church fails to meet their needs. Thus, Christians today can no more imagine the church usurping their sovereignty as consumers than they can imagine the same of Wal-Mart.

This is precisely where the church has failed in our age. We have sought to reinvent what God has ordained. Recent best-selling books are calling evangelicals to “reimagine” or “revolutionize” the church or let a new form of the church emerge from the postmodern ooze. We must resist these solutions and return to the ordinances of the church that God has clearly revealed in His Word. Judgment begins at the household of God. The officers of Christ’s church must recover and exercise the keys of the kingdom, along with the courage to believe in their efficacy. And countercultural Christians who yearn for a transformation of their world would do well to begin by submitting to the authority of the church.

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From the March 2009 Issue
Mar 2009 Issue