Wednesday, April 29, 2009

4/30- Recognizing a True Church

(St. Pierre in Geneva where Calvin preached- side view)
Devotional using scripture, quote from John Calvin and thoughts for the day each day- on the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth.

4/30- How to Tell if the Church is God’s

“Nevertheless I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my people into sexual immorality…So I will cast her on a bed of suffering…Not I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, ‘I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.” (Rev. 2:20-25)

Calvin: Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists [cf. Ephesians 2:20]. For his promise cannot fail: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” [Matthew 18:20]… If it has the ministry of the Word and honors it, if it has the administration of the sacraments, it deserves without doubt to be held and considered a church. For it is certain that such things are not without fruit. In this way we preserve for the universal church its unity, which devilish spirits have always tried to sunder; and we do not defraud of their authority those lawful assemblies which have been set up in accordance with local needs. (IV.1.9)

Why did Calvin talk about the “true marks of the church”? The church was very important to Calvin. The church is how we grow in our faith. There were some false churches and some true churches. It is so today. Calvin knew that these churches were not all Reformed. Unlike some, he did not believe that people had to believe just like him to get to heaven. He recognized Luther and Melanchthon. He recognized the Protestantism of England. He recognized Waldensian and Hussite Christians. In Presbyterian circles we call ministers, “minister of Word and sacrament” in order to show the importance of these two means of grace. The minister is to help safeguard both. Some in the spirit of super Puritanism seek to narrow the “purely preached and heard.” I remember after the Presbyterian split of the 1920’s some of those who broke off split again over views about amillennialism versus premillennialism. I remember once a couple from Bob Jones telling me I was going to hell because my hair was to my shoulders in college. The one side accused the other of not preaching the word “purely” if it disagreed with them- and therefore they weren’t the true church. It is too easy to say that God agrees with me on every point in my theology (including eschatology) and therefore if you do not agree with me you are not a true believer and not a part of the true church. Grace is needed in our beliefs as well as in our justification. The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error.” We need more love and less divisive spirit. If Christians cannot get along, then the world will not believe our message of love. Of course, church itself is an unusual effort to learn to get along. One of the purposes of church is to learn to love and to have the opportunity to love other people. In my own denomination some churches are leaving just because they are tired of debating about the boundaries of ordination—even when we affirm the same boundaries. What happens is the ability of the church to sustain its standards are weakened. It is almost like a soldier leaving their post because they are tired of the war. If enough leave their post the army crumbles. The only reason to leave is if the church is heretical. If it is not, then to leave involves ourselves in the sin of schism- divisiveness- anti-love.
The other mark was the true administration of the sacraments- that is baptism and communion. Turretin (one of Calvin’s successors) said that the marks of word and sacrament assume belief in line with the Apostles’ Creed. Later reformers saw that the right administration means that they should be given by a minister and given only to believers or their offspring. If this is held in the loosest sense, then there should be more recognition of other Christian churches than there is today. But our sinful nature makes us want to draw our circle tighter so that others will be “just like me.” Grace in Word and Sacraments encourages us to draw the circle larger. Jesus did this when he told the disciples to go not only into Jerusalem but also into Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8). In a time in which many churches are corrupt, Jesus' advice is to "hold on to what you have." This is a call not to do be paralyzed, but to be faithful. Holding onto faithfulness on the one hand (to the word, sacraments, and church) and love and grace on the other is so important!

Prayer: Give us wisdom, Lord to see your church at work, so that we can plug into that work. Help us also, Lord, to be loving and gracious to others yet also holding onto our faith with steadfast love for you. Amen.

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