The leading sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers were concerned to reconfigure the shape of the church only because they had a high view of it. For John Calvin, the internal work of the Spirit in the hearts of believers requires the external help of the church, not in the sense that the Spirit is dependent on the church (which is the medieval theology with which Calvin was taking issue), but because we ourselves are weak. According to Calvin, God has given us His church to nurture faith while we are in the world. Famously, memorably, and arrestingly, Calvin said, echoing early church fathers, “to those to whom God is a Father, the Church must also be a mother” (Institutes 4.1.1).
The first part of Calvin’s Institutes is designed to teach us what our Father looks like; the latter part to show us what our mother looks like. Although God alone knows who are truly His people, the church is always conspicuous. Calvin insists:
Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence. (4.1.9)
For Reformed theology, therefore, these two “marks” distinguish the church: the right preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. But Calvin goes on in the next section of his Institutes to insist that because she is Christ’s church, “no man may with impunity spurn her authority, or reject her admonitions, or resist her counsels, or make sport of her censures, far less revolt from her, and violate her unity.” So highly does God hold the authority of the church, says Calvin, “that when it is violated he considers that his own authority is impaired” (4.1.10).
This pregnant statement highlights that there are actually three distinguishing characteristics of the church. The first is the right preaching of the Word. It is by means of the Word that the Holy Spirit does His work in the human heart, convicting us of our sin and pointing us to the Savior in the preaching of the gospel. It is that Word, in the hand of the Spirit, that gives birth and life to the church. We are nurtured at her breast, but she was formed in the womb of Scripture. We are dependent on the ministry of the church as the means by which the Word of God is channeled to us, for our education, our direction, our counseling, and our growth in holiness.
The second characteristic of the church is the right administration of the sacraments. The Roman church has seven of these, all of which are held to be indispensable for our salvation. Grace can only be ours at the hands of the church officials who administer them.
But the Reformers found warrant in the Word for only two sacraments, which Calvin viewed as seals and appendices to the promise of the gospel: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These, he says, are “evidences of divine grace, and, as it were, seals of the good-will which God entertains toward us” (4.14.7). They are exhibitions of Christ, and, when used by faith and exercised to trust afresh in the promises of the gospel, they lead us deeper into Christ.
The right administration of these marks requires a third: a biblically ordered discipline. Calvin himself had been at the receiving end of a tyrannical church discipline. But he recovered in Scripture a view of discipline as rooted in God’s concern for the edification and purity of His church, under the government of men fitted for such functions. Our subjection to these shepherds of the church is the test of whether we regard it as highly as God Himself does.
This, then, is what mother church looks like. In her, the Word is preached, and in heavenly accents she speaks the Father’s words to us. In her, the sacraments are shared, and with gentle hands she presents the confirmations of our Father’s love to us. In her, there is a delegated authority, and under her watchful eye we are encouraged to do the Father’s will. By this ordering, the purpose of the Father will be realized through the work of the Spirit: that we should be conformed to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29) and so carry the family likeness in a fallen world.
Only to the extent to which our individual churches mirror these noble aims will they be places where God will have glory in all generations (Eph. 3:21).