In preparation for a recent conference at which I was speaking, I rediscovered a well-known quote by John Calvin in which he talks about the necessity of the church in terms that might surprise many Protestants today. Sounding perhaps more Roman Catholic than Protestant, Calvin says that “there is no other way to enter life unless [the visible church acting as our mother] conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly unless she keeps us under her care and guidance.” Such is the importance of the visible church for Calvin that we cannot be saved apart from it.
I am conscious that Calvin’s comments may not be fully appreciated by all of my readers. We typically have a much lower view of the church in the twenty-first century than John Calvin did in the sixteenth. We tend to see the church as optional, salvation as private, and worship as personal and individualistic. If I’ve heard it once as a pastor, I’ve heard it a thousand times: “Why do I need to go to church? I can be a Christian without going to church. I can worship God on the golf course, in the deer stand, or by listening to podcasts.”
The Reformation had a far different view of the church than we tend to have today. It recognized the importance of the visible church—despite the fact that this church was imperfect in its decisions, its policies, and its stewardship of resources. These imperfections did not jade the Reformers or turn them off of the church. They realized that the church is the body of Christ and, as such, it is indispensable in God’s plan of salvation. The Reformers saw this clearly propounded in the Bible in passages such as Romans 12:5; Ephesians 1:22–23; and Colossians 1:18, 24. But perhaps the clearest and most helpful passage in demonstrating the necessity of the church is 1 Corinthians 12:12–27.
In this passage, Paul unambiguously refers to the local visible church in Corinth as the body of Christ (note the plural “you” in v. 27) and to the individuals within the church as the members of this body. And because of this, we know that Paul’s metaphor of the human body and its parts (see vv. 12–24) applies to the Corinthian church and, by application and extension, to every local visible church of the Lord Jesus in every age. It is this metaphor that really helps to demonstrate the necessity of the church in God’s plan of salvation.
Can you imagine if one part of the human body didn’t want to associate with the other parts or with the body as a whole? What would happen? Take the eyes, for instance. What if the eyes thought they were better off on their own and chose not to associate with the rest of the body? What would that be like? Or, what if the ears thought that they could still be a part of the body without ever being together with the rest of the body? What if the hands or the fingers thought that uniting with the rest of the body was optional? What would happen then? Obviously, the body as a whole would suffer in each of these cases because the body would be functioning without eyes, ears, hands, or fingers. We know that the human body can still function without these individual parts. We know that because we have seen it. Blind people can get along quite well in the world without being able to see their surroundings. And deaf people can get along quite well without being able to hear. But, in each of these cases, the body would be limited or, we might say, disabled. It would not be functioning at its fullest capacity.
If we apply this to the church, the body of Christ, we see that the church as a whole suffers when any one member of the body chooses not to be a part of the body. To be sure, the church can still function, but it cannot function at its fullest capacity. It is disabled. It is like a human body trying to function without eyes or ears or hands or fingers.