Too many think Christianity is only about “me, my Bible, and Jesus” to the exclusion of the church. But, that attitude betrays an absence of the Bible because the Bible itself points to the importance of the church. Not only that, it betrays an absence of Jesus. He Himself is all about the church. In reality, those who claim Christianity is about “me, my Bible, and Jesus” are typically only about “me” because they don’t know their Bibles and they have a worse than infantile knowledge of Jesus.
In The Institutes of The Christian Religion, Calvin calls the church “mother.” He explains the title and says,
For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like angels [Matthew 22:30]. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives .
The church herself stewards the heavenly deposit of the Gospel. Then, when she faithfully dispenses the deposit through her teaching, sinners are born again (1 Timothy 3:15). We need the truth, which is possessed by the church, for our salvation and sanctification in Christ. Without the church, we are lost. That’s a shocking sentence for us who believe in salvation by Christ alone, but I’ll explain it later. It will all make sense, I promise.
Before I explain more, but, still somewhat related, Calvin comments on the Apostles’ Creed. The phrase, “I believe in… the holy universal church,” is in the Creed, but he argues that the preposition “in” should not be in that phrase.
There is no good reason why many insert the preposition “in.” I admit that it is more usual and is not without the support of antiquity… Still we should at the same time note from the writing of the fathers that in early times it was accepted as beyond controversy that people should say, “I believe the church,” not “in the church.” So spoke Augustine and the ancient writer (whoever he was) whose treatise On the Exposition of the Creed bears Cyprian’s name.
If the Creed is true and if Calvin is right, that means we don’t just believe the church exists, but we also believe what the church says. And why wouldn’t we believe the church?
We should absolutely believe the church. This all makes sense when we return to our original thought: We need the church.
Do we need the church? Absolutely we do! Calvin goes to the point of saying, “…away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or salvation…” Before we cry foul, he’s not saying that the church saves us. That would be heresy. As a Protestant, Calvin, as surely as you’re reading this, believed salvation is through Christ alone. Only through Christ do we have forgiveness and salvation. But through whom or what do we obtain a knowledge of Christ? Where does that knowledge rest? Who possesses the Word of God? The knowledge is in the church. The church has custody of the truth. The deposit of faith has been entrusted to the church, to be guarded by the church, to be contended for by the church (1 Timothy 3:15).
Someone will ask, “Are you saying we should believe all the church says?” Yes and no. Yes, because true churches teach what is true. No, because false churches teach what is false. Not all self-identifying “churches” are actually churches. Some who call themselves “church” are not. Some who were historically churches are no longer churches. Or to put it simply they are no more church than I would be a rabbit if I adorned my head with cute bunny ears. Self-identification does not make a church a church (Ezekiel 13:9). Many “churches” masquerade as churches, but in reality they are synagogues of Satan.
What makes a church? The church is the people who faithfully steward the oracles of God. Where the Bible is taught and obeyed properly there is the church. Where there is a church there is the Bible taught and obeyed properly (Isaiah 56:3-5).
The church is the organized gathering of those who believe and possess the truth. The church are those possessed by the truth.
So yes, I believe the church, and I need the church. And so do you.