Of the Church: The Westminster Confession on the Body of Christ

I am increasingly interested in the Church Christ established, that is, in Christ’s body, His bride.  But the more I know the more I am at a loss. I grew up a Baptist, which meant that going to church was important because one was already “saved” and needs now to “plug into” a local body of believers for encouragement and teaching. I now think the Baptist idea of the Church (as I understand it), with its own idea of being the Church, may be (surprising to me) partially and perhaps fundamentally un-biblical, though my thinking is only preliminary at this point. A more-or-less Reformed perspective, with which I’ve been somewhat engaged for about 25 years, seems a little better, but I also think it may be fatally flawed. For a host of reasons I find my fingers loosening their grip on my Protestant/Reformed assumptions. I don’t know yet where I stand or where God is leading me.

Below I take a look at the Westminster Confession’s theology of the Church. For what it’s worth I have added my thoughts after each section−and I realize many already have answers to my questions that are, for them, as solid as Mount Zion. I still may not be convinced, but I welcome dialog.

Three caveats:

  1. I know very little of classic Reformed theology. So take everything I write with a grain of salt.
  2. I know almost nothing of the Westminster Confession, and I am only looking at this one chapter.
  3. I have some tough questions and harsh musings about the Protestant and Reformed positions, but I am being tough and harsh for myself, to force me to be less complacent in my thinking.

The Westminster Confession of Faith: Chapter XXV

Of the Church

I. The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all.[1]

My thoughts: The word “catholic” can be understood to mean universal, but it also means “throughout the whole.” The emphasis can be on the idea of “everywhere” or “for everyone,” but the emphasis should fall more strongly on the ideas “completeness” and “wholeness” of the Church. This can only be, however, if the Church is not an establishment of man but of God. Do we truly believe Christ founded a Church, that the Holy Spirit has always been active in maintaining that Church, and that the Church−though an expression of faith−is fundamentally and essentially visible? By claiming that the Catholic Church of the 16th century was merely an establishment of men, did the reformers provide for themselves the self-justification to create another man-made church? Or was the Catholic Church established by God but maintained by both the Holy Spirit and by sinful men (doing what sinful men do)? Was it the Church that needed reform (even to the point of schism) or the men in the Church? If the men, then did not the reformers need to be reformed as well−as we all do? History tells us they did. The evidence just might be devastating. These are critical questions.

Considering that the Church is made up of both those who are living (in this life) and those who have died (more fully alive in the next life), it makes sense to see the Church as both visible and invisible. However, does not the statement of invisibility, standing, as it does, as the first statement made in this chapter about the Church, imply that invisibility is the first characteristic which makes the Church catholic or universal? I grew up with the idea of an invisible church, and that invisibility “allowed” me (us Baptists-for that’s the “expression” in which I grew up) to downplay the disunity of the visible Church. Both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox emphasize the visibility of the Church over its invisibility, though ironically they also place greater emphasis (in various ways) upon the living saints who have died than do Protestants. But to be alive in this life and to be in the Church is to be visibly in the Church. Therefore there is no invisible Church, not really, though many have gone to Heaven. Does this make sense?

To emphasize the Church’s invisibility seems to be a “requirement” in order to defend the Reformed/Protestant (schismatic) perspectives−for a body, a bride, cannot actually be divided without dying, and neither is a body or bride invisible.  Emphasizing the invisibility of the Church, supposing the invisible church to be the true Church, is to be able to maintain the idea that the Church is not really divided, that to be Presbyterian (or any other splinter) is not fundamental. But if not fundamental why maintain (often vigorously) division? On the other hand, to emphasize the Church’s visibility seems to be a “requirement” in order defend the Catholic & Orthodox perspectives. Of course we have to determine what visibility means. Which perspective is best?

II. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion;[2] and of their children:[3] and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ,[4] the house and family of God,[5] out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.[6]

My thoughts: “The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal…” Is this true? In practice it is not true; the Church is divided and there is not one universally accepted baptism, or liturgy, or even understanding of salvation. However, it is true that the Gospel is for all, but then we have to make the shift and talk of the invisible Church if we are to maintain the idea of “catholic.” But again I think the emphasis here is on the meaning of “catholic” being “universal” rather than on the ideas of “completeness” and “wholeness.” It’s much easier to like the idea of universality−Christianity is for everyone−than to bring up the specter of disunity. And one must not fall into the all-to-human behavior of being schismatic and then blaming the other of schism (which is the unfortunate way of Protestantism). But, of course, there is nothing so predictably human as to be taken captive by Babylon and then arguing it’s really the other who has, instead, become Babylon’s captive.

As with all the various creeds, confessions, statements of faith, etc., one must take statements like “…that profess the true religion” as balancing upon provisional grounds. Who is to say this confession clearly defines what is true religion? Who is to arbitrate between the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Confession, the Augsburg Confession, and a plethora of catechisms? Many claim to provide adequate arbitration, but do they really? On what authority? There are those who have “stepped up” and become champions of different positions, but their authority rests upon the strength of their interpretations of scripture (and perhaps the force of their personality and the inertia of their “status”). The struggle becomes about who can win the argument. This is the continuing problem with Protestantism, and with the apostolic succession claims (and split) between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. I am convinced there is truth and that it can be known, so I’m disinclined to throw my hands up and say “oh well,” though I know much we may not know until the other side of this life. But at least what is critical must be able to be known in human terms.

I find the statement “out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” interesting since my own upbringing would say there is no need to be part of the visible Church to be saved. This statement, however, implies at least that one must be part of the visible Church in order to be saved (or at least saved in an “ordinary” sense−whatever that means). Still, if one cannot be saved outside of the Church, then the Church’s visibility or invisibility makes a big difference in how one behaves as a Christian, what steps one goes through to become a Christian (and member of the Church), and which confession one adheres to.

III. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.[7]

My thoughts: But which catholic visible Church? As I understand it, by the time Martin Luther died there were over 60 splits within his new founded church, and in his later years he said he wish he had never started down that path. (true?) The Westminster Confession represents additional divisions of the visible Church. Today the splits continue and division and disunity are so rampant that few shed tears over the tragedy of our Christian witness or seriously pursue genuine unity (rather than a merely emotional and bland ecumenism) with the kind of humility fit for a follower of Christ. If Protestantism implies “go do what you want” then America was tailor made for Protestantism. But which of the 35,000 denominations in the U.S. has the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God? Can one actually hold to this confession and still claim to stand with those saints who are being gathered and perfected in this life, to the end of the world? Perhaps, and God is gracious and merciful and in charge, but what do we do with this tension? I am full of questions about this section.

As I look at the history and implications of the Protestant Reformation I see much that is far worse in terms of both theology and practice than the problems of the Catholic Church. In fact, the issues that fomented the Reformation look rather small compared to the ravages produced by the Reformation. I now see that I have been trained to see the problems of the Catholic Church as huge failures and the problems of the Protestant churches as far less important.  I hate to say it, but I think I’ve been brainwashed, and because I’m a sinner I bought it. The Catholic Church over the centuries seems to mirror the nature of a flawed, sinful person who struggles with faith and right action, often doing bad things, being prideful and hurtful at times, and giving into bureaucracy, but who, in various and incomplete ways, comes back to God again and again. Outside the Catholic Church (I’m not including the Orthodox Church here) we have division upon division, theological wrangling that makes scholasticism look like a walk in the park, emotionalism, a “man is the measure” attitude, and the ever creeping concessions to the sinful demands of opportunists and wolves. Plus we have gross disunity. And what I frequently find in myself and others is a kind of defense mechanism against all this. We tend to adopt a kind of blasé attitude, acting as though none of this really matters, not thinking at all about it, often finding comfort in just bobbing along in the current of our culture. If we seek more solid ground we will often place our trust in a particular Bible teacher or a pastor, or in a particular method of Biblical interpretation. This does not, however, answer the question of which is the true Church that Christ founded and that His Spirit maintains. What should we do?

IV. This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible.[8] And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.[9]

My thoughts: “…sometimes more, sometimes less visible.” This seems a rather convenient phrase, though it may also be true. “…performed more or less purely…” I am not sure what this means, or how one is to measure it. What is the scale on which an individual church slides between more and less pure? And who measures? And on what authority? Am I to be the judge?

A thought on authority: For a Roman Catholic apologist the question of authority is a big deal. The Catholic will place emphasis on scripture, tradition, the Magisterium, and apostolic succession. In short, the Catholic Church claims authority and places that authority in the context of an historical lineage going back to the apostles. This lineage includes apostolic succession of course, but also includes written scripture and spoken (unwritten) teaching, church practice and structure, and the selection of which writings should be considered scripture. Protestants place emphasis on scripture alone (in theory at least). But scripture requires interpretation, thus scripture alone is not truly scripture alone, but the individual who interprets and the individual who accepts or rejects that interpretation. The history of Protestantism provides enough evidence that the cry of sola scriptura may, in fact, be merely a diversion from the more subversive, unspoken, and fundamental claim of Protestant authority, namely that “man is the measure.” This is not to say that Rome has the truer claim, for I do not know, but the issue is too serious to shrug off.

V. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error;[10] and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.[11] Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.[12]

My thoughts: “…there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.” This can only be claimed if Jesus’ keeps his promises, if the Holy Spirit has continued to be active in establishing and maintaining the Church. But if those promises have always been kept then should we not show more grace towards the Church that existed between the death of the last apostle and the beginning of the Reformation? That historical Church is entirely missing (as though it did not exist) from Baptist teaching, and perhaps from most Protestant/Reformed teaching. This makes sense especially since the Protestant/Reformed churches of today are overwhelmingly willing to grant themselves almost unlimited grace when they confront their disunity and divisions. Time has shown that the Protestant/Reformed churches are experts at finding the specks in each others (and Roman Catholic) eyes and are blind to the logs in their own. (Matthew 7:5) The Protestant Reformation may, in fact, be the visible, historical denial of this critical teaching of Christ.

I have come to believe that one can only and truly be committed to the reformation of something (or someone) that one loves. One sticks with the beloved and works for change or one walks away. Erasmus stayed, Luther left. Erasmus had grace, Luther did not (this is evidenced in their lives and writings). Calvin was a lawyer and most definitely not a saint. Aquinas was a saint (and would probably have made a better lawyer). Can it be that the term “Reformation” is a misnomer? Should it not be “Rebellion” or maybe better, “Revolution,” including the throwing off of authority and the (figuratively) lopping off of heads? Rarely do revolutions bring unity, rather they foment divisions and factions−hence the history of Protestantism. Beware of “isms” for they can quickly become false gods, do they not? I have been wrestling with these questions for some time. I still don’t have an answer.

VI. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ.[13] Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.[14]

My thoughts: Christ is the head of the Church, this is profoundly true. And the apostles were given authority in the name of Christ to take the Gospel to the world, to begin churches, to admonish, to defend the truth, and to establish hierarchies of church structure within the local churches (and perhaps more broadly). It appears that the apostles are to be seen as representatives or vicars (a representative, deputy or substitute; anyone acting “in the person of” or agent for a superior) of Christ, especially in the “visible Church” sense of the term. Could it be that Christ had in mind a hierarchical structure of representation with someone in this life visibly representing Christ at the “head” of the visible Church? That I am not sure, but it makes some sense. But if the Pope is the Vicar of Christ as Catholics claim, then he is not the head of the church as much as he is the visible representative, or deputy, or agent of the true head who physically left this world, sits at the right hand of the Father, sent his Spirit to us, and lets us work it all out with fear and trembling. We should be careful not to fall into ad hominen or tu quoque arguments merely because we don’t like the leaders Christ gave us, including the Pope. Still, we must be cautious not to assume power or authority in individuals on false premises. I still don’t have an answer for this.

“…but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.” If there is any statement I have found thus far in the Westminster Confession that turns me away it is this one. This statement just drips with arrogance and punky, snotty rebellion. I realize there are historical reasons for such strong language, and that there are brilliant and level-headed minds who have defended such wording, and I am even sure many who follow this confession today might turn a blind eye to these particular words, but it smacks of something altogether sinful and suspect which may underlie the confession as a whole and call into question the true nature and heart of the Reformation. The irony is that such wording is exactly the kind that would drive me into the arms of Rome. I have yet to either meet or hear about any man or woman in modern times (as far as I know) who follows this confession (or any Protestant confession) who surpasses Pope John Paul II as an example of Christ to me. Was he the Antichrist, a son of perdition, exalting himself against Christ? No, the opposite. Am I entirely off base here?

As you can see, though I grew up a Protestant, and though I was taught to be anti-Catholic and see the Pope as the Antichrist and see Catholics as not (or barely) Christians, and though I was taught that church history began in the 16th century (even then largely forgotten until the 20th), I now find myself deeply skeptical of the Protestant Reformation. The arguments that once seemed so obvious to me now appear thin and even troubling. I love the Protestant emphasis on scripture and on the evangelical nature of faith, but I see the Protestant Reformation as probably more an expression of “man is the measure” than anything else. I also wonder if the Protestant Reformation was not really about reforming anything, but creating something new−perhaps in some way a new gospel? Or something like the old Gospel but on man’s terms? I’m sure for many it was just this. For others perhaps the motives were and are more pure. And yet the Reformation, as it played out in history, feels not unlike the man who leaves a difficult marriage by divorcing his wife and seeks a new and better life with a new wife. I can have empathy for the struggle but not for the divorce. I can sympathize with the desire for a better life but with not the hardness of heart. These are live issues for me and, I believe, are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, to raise our children properly, and to bow the knee to Christ.

Footnotes

[1] EPH 1:10 That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him. 22 And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, 23 Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all. 5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. 27 That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. 32 This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. COL 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.

[2] 1CO 1:2 Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours. 1CO 12:12 For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. PSA 2:8 Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. REV 7:9 After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands. ROM 15:9 And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name. 10 And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people. 11 And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people. 12 And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust.

[3] 1CO 7:14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. ACT 2:39 For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. EZE 16:20 Moreover thou hast taken thy sons and thy daughters, whom thou hast borne unto me, and these hast thou sacrificed unto them to be devoured. Is this of thy whoredoms a small matter, 21 That thou hast slain my children, and delivered them to cause them to pass through the fire for them? ROM 11:16 For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. GEN 3:15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. 17:7 And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.

[4] MAT 13:47 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind. ISA 9:7 Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

[5] EPH 2:19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God. 3:15 Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.

[6] ACT 2:47 Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

[7] 1CO 12:28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. EPH 4:11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: 13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ. MAT 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. ISA 59:21 As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the Lord; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and for ever.

[8] ROM 11:3 Lord, they have killed thy prophets, and digged down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life. 4 But what saith the answer of God unto him? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal. REV 12:6 And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days. 14 And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.

[9] (REV 2-3 throughout) 1CO 5:6 Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? 7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.

[10] 1CO 13:12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. MAT 13:24-30, 47 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind.

[11] REV 18:2 And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird. ROM 11:18 Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. 19 Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. 20 Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: 21 For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. 22 Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.

[12] MAT 16:18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. PSA 72:17 His name shall endure for ever: his name shall be continued as long as the sun: and men shall be blessed in him: all nations shall call him blessed. 102:28 The children of thy servants shall continue, and their seed shall be established before thee. MAT 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

[13] COL 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. EPH 1:22 And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church.

[14]MAT 23:8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. 9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. 10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. 2TH 2:3 Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; 4 Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. 8 And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming: 9 Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders. REV 13:6 And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven.

4 Comments

Filed under Catholic Church, Church History, Kingdom of God, Protestantism, The Early Church, Theology, Tradition

4 responses to “Of the Church: The Westminster Confession on the Body of Christ

  1. I don’t usually leave comments on blogs, but our own backgrounds are so similar I couldn’t resist. I too grew up Baptist. Soon after college I became Reformed, where I grew, spent many profitable years and eventually began asking some of the same questions you very thoughtfully posed above. As well as many other questions. I eventually came to the difficult decision that I could no longer be Reformed. May God bless you in your search and may you find rest for your mind and heart.

  2. Robert, thanks for your comments. I am curious where you have landed after realizing you could not longer be Reformed.

  3. I am fascinated by your reflections, and agree so completely with almost everything you say. I grew up evangelical, and had little exposure to Reformed theology either — but authority in particular is something I longed for in my quest for God, and I finally found it in the Roman Catholic Church — which I have come to believe is the one, holy, apostolic, and continuous Catholic Church that Christ and the apostles followed. I look forward to continuing to read your reflections.

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