Nature of the Christian Church



THE words "life" and "organism" are the principal terms in the definition of the Christian Church. Without the regenerate life which flows into the world from the truth and spiritual presence of the Redeemer, only the semblance of a Christian Church can exist. On the other hand, this life, apart from an organism, lacks the proper means of its own conservation and dissemination. With life, fellowship and certain bonds of fellowship must be conjoined. The Church is not genuine believers taken individually and disjunctively, but genuine believers united into a brotherhood. The apostolic figure is not that of stones, however beautiful and polished, lying scattered and separate; but of a "building fitly framed together," or, more emphatically still, of a living body with its intimate and sympathetic connection of members.

From the terms of the definition it is speedily apparent how the Christian Church is related to the Jewish. There is at once a resemblance and a contrast. The same factors are combined, but not in the same ratio. The old dispensation was not characterized by such fullness of life as is the new. It beheld only prophetically the day when the Spirit in his plenitude should be outpoured upon all flesh. Life in the Jewish Church was initial and preparatory, like the life of nature before the vernal sun has reached the maximum of his quickening power. Also, in respect of organism, the Christian appears plainly distinguished from the Jewish Church. The latter recognized no separation between civil and religious institutions. The bounds of the nation were at the same time the bounds of the Church (at least, prior to the dispersion). State and Church were one. Far different the position of the former.

The Christian Church, as established by Christ and His apostles, was purely a religious institution. The Church may hold of necessity certain relations to the civil power, it may make alliances therewith more or less intimate; but in its proper character it is a religious organism. This was demanded by the universal office of Christianity. Civil organization is fractional, belongs to nations. Christianity was designed for the whole, for mankind. Hence, released from all shackles of civil and national restrictions, it was left free as a spiritual kingdom to extend its dominion over all souls.

Corresponding to the two elements in the idea of the Church, it has both an invisible and a visible side. As a life, its hidden spring is the spirit of Christ in the hearts of believers. As a fellowship or brotherhood, it has, of practical necessity, certain outward bonds of unity. Christ himself appointed such in the authority of the apostles, in the rite of baptism, and in the Eucharist.

Evidently both of these aspects must be duly regarded in any just and well-balanced view of the Church. Let the first receive the sole emphasis, let it be said that Christian life in the heart of the believer is every thing, and the outward organization is nothing, and you have a false, dismembering independence.

This is the error of an ultra Protestant spirit which tends to convert Christianity into a sandbank of incoherent particles, or at least to apportion the Christian realm into petty, ill-related provinces. On the other hand, let the latter receive an undue emphasis, let the life be absolutely conditioned upon institutions and officers, and you have worship of form and debasing dependence upon human authority. This is the error of Roman Catholicism, going on with continued increase and issuing in a practical deification of the church ceremonial and the hierarchy. Common-sense, as well as history, teaches that either extreme caricatures the true conception of the Church. The Christian Church in its earthly office must have both life and organization, as the individual must have both soul and body. The soul is truly of greater worth than the body; but still the body has claims to consideration.

In a minute definition, much might be said about each of the two factors which enter into the idea of the Church, as well as about their mutual relations. In this connection, however, we will give space to only two or three cardinal points. and first, as respects the life element, while it is not to be made unduly dependent upon dogma, it is not to be regarded as wholly independent of dogma, that is, of doctrine measurably distinct and settled. The test of spiritual life is, no doubt, likeness to Christ. To feel toward God and toward man after the similitude of Christ, is to be spiritually alive. But this life does not spring up and grow without nourishment. Genuine Christian life is no misty sentimentalism which is destitute of nameable antecedents or sources of supply. It has definite causes, and demands substantial food. It needs to be fed with truth; in other words, with dogmas laid hold upon with personal conviction, and armed with authority before the reason and conscience. Life which takes no root in dogma, which is unsustained by a vital apprehension of the great truths of revelation, is likely to be both sickly and transient. Some exception, therefore, must be taken to the language which a sprightly critic has thought fit to use upon this subject. Speaking of a time when the different communions shall be dominated by a spirit of tolerance, he says, "Dogma will become merely a mysterious ark which they will agree never to open; and if the ark be empty, of what importance is it? [Renan, The Apostles, Intro.] Tolerance is indeed to be longed for, so far as it is based upon breadth and enlightenment of mind and heart; but a tolerance which consigns dogma to the place of an empty and unopened ark is more likely to be based upon religious indifference than upon any thing else. In the mind of any man a certain margin of doctrinal views may fitly be held by a slight tenure, but to give over doctrines generally is to leave one's religious life with less than sand for a foundation. In its great doctrinal truths the Church has a perpetual source of inspiration and growth, and it might as well think of burying itself as of burying these truths out of sight. On the other hand, it is not to be overlooked, that doctrines viewed as mere phrases or propositions are of little account. They are of real worth only as they actually serve to keep the image of the spiritual world, the great outlines of the divine kingdom, fresh and distinct before the mind.

As respects the outward organism of the Church, it should be noticed that the question of its importance and the question of its kind are quite distinct. Civil government is of very high importance, --is indeed, in a sense, a divine institution; still, no particular form can claim the divine sanction to the exclusion of other forms. So church government may be in general ordained of God, without either episcopacy, Presbyterianism, congregationalism, or any specific combination of these being the sole valid form. Indeed, there is no Scriptural evidence whatever that any particular form of church government has, by the divine will, been made obligatory for all times and places, to the exclusion of all other forms. Even if it could be proved that one uniform system prevailed in the apostolic age, it would not follow that the Church would be bound for all time to conform to that pattern. Forms of administration, unlike doctrinal truth, admit of change along with change of circumstances, and are most legitimate when most adapted to the circumstances of the age and the people.

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