The Visible Body of Christ

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.

 

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.

But what is more significant is that the individual member who separates from the body will suffer as well—and in a greater way. Eyes cannot function when they are disconnected from the body. They need the muscles of the body to hold them in place and to help them move. They need the nerve endings of the body and the brain to help them process what they see and make it intelligible. Without any of these things, the eyes are dead instruments. They are like a camera lens disconnected from the camera. The same is true of the ear. Without a head to hold the ear in the correct position and a brain to interpret the sounds and make them intelligible, the ear cannot do anything.

So it is with the church as well. When individual members choose to go it alone and to forsake the church, they are hurting themselves. When they isolate themselves from the body, they are guaranteeing their own destruction. For the eyes, ears, hands, and fingers of the body of Christ cannot function apart from the body, at least not the way in which they were intended.

Could it be that one of the reasons why the church is becoming less and less effective at reaching the world is because we are going out into the world disabled? We are engaging the world around us with many of our members missing. We are not functioning at our fullest capacity. I really do wonder what the impact would be upon the world if the body of Christ was able to operate at full—or even near-full—capacity. Would we see revival, renewal, and a reformation in our day?

Could it also be that one of the reasons we have so much dysfunction today is because we have so many people who are hurting themselves by trying to go it alone and not operating as part of the body of Christ? When I was in seminary, I asked a friend who was serving as a Christian counselor why there seemed to be a greater need for counseling today than ever before. His answer surprised me. He said that our society is losing its sense of community, and the lack of community has created a new problem: profound loneliness. In the past, community helped people process their problems and get outside of themselves. But now, this new loneliness is wreaking havoc in people’s lives. Could it be that one of the reasons for this loneliness and the resulting dysfunction is because we have separated ourselves from the church?

What we do know with certainty is that God has ordained specific means—or channels—by which He communicates grace to His people. Things such as the Bible, prayer, the sacraments, and Christian fellowship are all means by which God imparts grace to us and grows us to be more like Christ. I find it quite telling that the only place where all these means of grace are present together is in the church. And at least two of them are found only in the church. Given this fact, together with the analogy of the human body, it is not hard to see how Calvin could say that “there is no other way to enter life” than through the church. Eyes, ears, hands, and fingers must be a part of the body. And so it is with you and me.

© 2018 Ligonier Ministries