A churchless Christian is an oxymoron. As John Calvin famously said, echoing the church father Cyprian, “For those to whom God is Father the church may also be Mother.” While the notion of “mother church” may jolt some readers, a moment’s reflection will demonstrate the biblical rationale behind it. Under the new covenant established by Christ, the church is critical for the Christian life; without it, exhortations to worship, discipleship, missions, and fellowship would be meaningless. Indeed, an individual would be hard pressed to accommodate the gaggle of “one another” passages that populate the pages of the New Testament apart from participation in a local church.
Most importantly, the church is central to the work of Christ. The great mystery of the gospel is that the Son of God left His Father in heaven in order to take for Himself an unworthy bride here on earth. He shed His blood for her. The church is not on the margin of God’s plan of redemption but at the center of it.
Given the importance of the church to the Christian life and the work of Christ, we need to think carefully about the question of who comprises the church. One helpful answer is found in the Westminster Larger Catechism, which states, “The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children” (Q&A 62). At least three aspects of this definition deserve our consideration.
First, the visible church is the outward manifestation of God’s people on earth. The Westminster Divines (pastors and theologians) make a helpful distinction between the visible church as we see it and the invisible church as God sees it. These are not fundamentally two different churches, but one church seen from two vantage points. The visible church is known by those who claim the name of the triune God in baptism, who call themselves Christians by profession of faith, who sit under the preaching of God’s Word, who gather around the Lord’s Supper, who receive pastoral oversight from godly elders, who engage together in the grand work of the Great Commission, and so on.
The invisible church, however, is not defined by those who simply profess faith in Christ but by those who actually possess it: those who have been elected, regenerated, justified, adopted, sanctified, and ultimately glorified in Christ. Not everyone who joins the ranks of the visible church belongs to the invisible church. The principle reflects Paul’s assertion that not all Israel is true Israel.This side of heaven, the visible church will always consist of wheat and tares.
Second, the visible church is a universal society. In the New Testament, the most common word for church (Greek ekklesia) is never used to refer to a physical place, like the tabernacle or temple. Rather, the emphasis is on a company of people whom God has called out of the world and into a covenant relationship with Himself.
The church is not like other social, professional, or even religious societies. It is not owned by any college, corporation, or commune, nor does it take its marching orders from any tribe or tradition. Ultimately, the church is not yours, theirs, or mine, but Christ’s. The church, therefore, is not a building made with brick and mortar, but a charter comprising a people from every tongue, tribe, and nation—a worldwide society of sinners who “profess the true religion” of one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God (Eph. 4:4–6).
Finally, the visible church comprises believers and their children. While few, if any, would object to the visible church consisting of believers, some may hesitate to include children. However, throughout the Bible, children have always been an integral part of the covenant community.
Think of the development of Scripture’s plotline along the coordinates of God’s covenant of grace with His people. At each juncture, there is a clear emphasis on their children: Adam’s seed, Noah’s family, Abraham’s descendants, Israel’s offspring, and David’s dynasty. At no point were covenant children excluded. But that was the old covenant, you might say. What about the new covenant? Hasn’t the pattern of including children changed with the inauguration of Christ’s church? The short answer: no.
Jesus adamantly declared that little ones were not to be hindered from the kingdom of God. At Pentecost, Peter continued a practice that stretches back to Abraham of applying the sign of the covenant to believers, their children, and anyone else who joins the covenant community. Likewise, Paul, who describes children in households with at least one believing parent as federally holy (1 Cor. 7:14), deliberately directs instruction to children in the churches of Ephesus and Colossae. To suggest that children have been excluded from the new covenant church is not only a misreading of the biblical narrative but, even worse, is to take away a privilege that was granted to them under the old covenant.
The Westminster divines offer a compelling definition of “church” based upon cogent biblical evidence: the visible church in the new covenant, whether universal or local, is a society of God’s people, consisting of those who profess faith in Christ and their children.