The True Church in Times of Apostasy
As Christians we should never be adverse to the church being visible, organized, and owning buildings. However, we also should never be so foolish as Roman Catholics to think that our being visible, organized, and meeting in a dedicated building for worship has the least to do with our being a true church. To miss this point is to commit a grave and fatal error.
The difference between the church being more or less visible and invisible often lies in God’s providence. There are times when the church flourishes, and therefore it is more visible, publicly accepted, and wealthy enough to own property. This is what the church in Europe enjoyed prior to the days of the Reformation, and this is what the church has enjoyed in America in our own day. However, just as the visible church slowly became more and more corrupt prior to the Protestant Reformation, even so the Evangelical church has become increasingly corrupt.
Furthermore, just as Rome sharply criticized the Reformers, saying that they were the true church because they were the instituted, established, visible church—even so, in our day professing Evangelicals will sharply criticize any one who dares to leave the walls of their instituted Zion. We are seeing a strange sort of “Evangelical Romanism” in our day.
Along these same lines, Hebrews 11:35-40 has been on my mind a lot lately as I daily observe the sad state of things both in the church and in the world. It says,
“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
If you read the earlier part of Hebrews 11, you will see how some conquered kingdoms and shut the mouth of lions. However, those here who were equally commended for their genuine faith were destitute, afflicted, and alone in the world. Such is the condition of the true church in times of apostasy, and given the current spiritual decline and rebellion against God all around us, it is past time we once again considered the nature of the true church so that our faith may not fail when we find ourselves once again wondering about destitute in caves, even being persecuted by the established visible church.
John Calvin on the True Church
When I first began going through Calvin’s “Institutes,” I was blown away by what I heard John Calvin say in his, “Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France.” Most of us in the Reformed tradition today emphasize the organization of the visible church, but Calvin, under persecution from Rome, had to defend the nature of the true church since at that time it was much less visible.
Indeed, the early Reformers often preached in the open-air because they were not accepted anywhere else. Likewise, even in our own day those who firmly hold to Scripture alone as the supreme and final authority regarding all matters of faith and practice—we must once again be ready to “go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.” (Hebrews 13:13)
Therefore, let us hear what the magisterial Reformer had to say to King Francis about the nature of the true church. What follows is simply an extended quote from that prefatory address without any comment or interjection from me. John Calvin wrote:
6. Errors About the Nature of the Church
By their double-horned argument they do not press us so hard that we are forced to admit either that the church has been lifeless for some time or that we are now in conflict with it. Surely the church of Christ has lived and will live so long as Christ reigns at the right hand of his Father. It is sustained by his hand; defended by his protection; and is kept safe through his power. For he will surely accomplish what he once promised: that he will be present with his own even to the end of the world [Matt. 28:20]. Against this church we now have no quarrel. For, of one accord with all believing folk, we worship and adore one God, and Christ the Lord [1 Cor. 8:6], as he has always been adored by all godly men. But they stray very far from the truth when they do not recognize the church unless they see it with their very eyes, and try to keep it within limits to which it cannot at all be confined.
Our controversy turns on these hinges: first, they contend that the form of the church is always apparent and observable. Secondly, they set this form in the see of the Roman Church and its hierarchy. We, on the contrary, affirm that the church can exist without any visible appearance, and that its appearance is not contained within that outward magnificence which they foolishly admire. Rather, it has quite another mark: namely, the pure preaching of God’s Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments. They rage if the church cannot always be pointed to with the finger. But among the Jewish people how often was it so deformed that no semblance of it remained? What form do we think it displayed when Elijah complained that he alone was left [1 Kings 19:10, or 14]? How long after Christ’s coming was it hidden without form? How often has it since that time been so oppressed by wars, seditions, and heresies that it did not shine forth at all? If they had lived at that time, would they have believed that any church existed? But Elijah heard that there still remained seven thousand men who had not bowed the knee before Baal. And we must not doubt that Christ has reigned on earth ever since he ascended into heaven. But if believers had then required some visible form, would they not have straightway lost courage? Indeed, Hilary considered it a great vice in his day that, being occupied with foolish reverence for the episcopal dignity, men did not realize what a deadly hydra lurked under such a mask. For he speaks in this way: “One thing I admonish you, beware of Antichrist. It is wrong that a love of walls has seized you; wrong that you venerate the church of God in roofs and buildings; wrong that beneath these you introduce the name of peace. Is there any doubt that Antichrist will have his seat in them? To my mind, mountains, woods, lakes, prisons, and chasms are safer. For, either abiding in or cast into them, the prophets prophesied.”
Yet what does the world today venerate in its horned bishops but to imagine those whom it sees presiding over renowned cities to be holy prelates of religion? Away, therefore, with such a foolish appraisement! Rather, since the Lord alone “knows who are his” [2 Tim. 2:19], let us leave to him the fact that he sometimes removes from men’s sight the external signs by which the church is known. That is, I confess, a dreadful visitation of God upon the earth. But if men’s impiety deserves it, why do we strive to oppose God’s just vengeance? In such a way the Lord of old punished men’s ingratitude. For, because they had refused to obey his truth and had extinguished his light, he allowed their blinded senses to be both deluded by foolish lies and plunged into profound darkness, so that no form of the true church remained. Meanwhile, he preserved his own children from extinction, though they are scattered and hidden in the midst of these errors and darkness. And this is no marvel: for he knew how to preserve them in the confusion of Babylon, and in the flame of the fiery furnace [Dan., ch. 3].
Now I shall point out how dangerous is their desire to have the form of the church judged by some sort of vain pomp. This I shall sketch rather than explain at length lest I endlessly prolong my discourse. The pontiff of Rome, they say, who occupies the Apostolic See, and those who have been anointed and consecrated bishops by him, provided they are distinguished by miters and crosiers, represent the church, and must be taken for the church; therefore they cannot err. Why so? Because, they reply, they are pastors of the church and have been consecrated by the Lord. Were not Aaron and the other leaders of the people of Israel also pastors? Indeed, Aaron and his sons, though designated priests, still erred when they fashioned the calf [Ex. 32:4]. Why, according to this reasoning, would not those four hundred prophets who deceived Ahab [1 Kings 22:12] have represented the church? But the church was on the side of Micaiah, a single contemptible man, yet one who spoke the truth. Did not the prophets who rose up against Jeremiah, boasting that “the law could not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet” [Jer. 18:18 p.], bear the name and face of the church? Against the whole tribe of the prophets, Jeremiah alone is sent from the Lord to announce that “the law was going to perish from the priest, counsel from the wise, the word from the prophet” [Jer. 18:18; cf. ch. 4:9]. Was not such pomp manifested in that council where the priests, scribes, and Pharisees assembled to deliberate concerning the execution of Christ [John 11:47 ff.]? Now let them go and cling to this outward mask—making Christ and all the prophets of God schismatics; Satan’s ministers, conversely, the organs of the Holy Spirit!
But if they speak from the heart, let them answer me in good faith: in what region or among what people do they think the church resided after Eugenius, by decree of the Council of Basel, was deposed from the pontificate and replaced by Amadeus? If they were to burst, they could not deny that the council was lawful as to its outward arrangements, and was summoned not only by one pope but by two. Eugenius was there condemned for schism, rebellion, and obstinacy, with the whole company of cardinals and bishops who had plotted the dissolution of the council with him. Nevertheless, subsequently supported by the favor of princes, he recovered his papal office unscathed. That election of Amadeus, duly solemnized by the authority of a general and holy council, went up in smoke, except that the aforesaid Amadeus was appeased by a cardinal’s hat, as a barking dog by a morsel. From these rebellious and obstinate heretics have come forth all future popes, cardinals, bishops, abbots, and priests. Here they must be stopped and held fast. For on which side will they bestow the name of church? Will they deny that the council was general, which lacked nothing of outward majesty, was solemnly convoked by two bulls, consecrated by the presiding legate of the Roman see, well ordered in every respect, and preserving the same dignity to the end? Will they admit that Eugenius and all his company, by whom they were consecrated, were schismatic? Let them, therefore, either define the form of the church in other terms, or we will adjudge them—however numerous they are—who knowingly and willingly have been ordained by heretics, to be schismatic. But if it had never been discovered before, they who under that fine title “church” have for so long superciliously hawked themselves to the world, even though they have been deadly plagues upon the church, can furnish us with abundant proof that the church is not bound up with outward pomp. I speak not concerning their morals and tragic misdeeds, with which their whole life swarms, since they speak of themselves as the Pharisees, who are to be heard but not imitated [Matt. 23:3]. If you will devote a little of your leisure to the reading of our words, you will unmistakably recognize that this, this very doctrine itself whereby they claim to be the church, is a deadly butchery of souls, a firebrand, a ruin, and a destruction of the church.
Calvin, J. (2011). Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2. (J. T. McNeill, Ed., F. L. Battles, Trans.) (Vol. 1, pp. 24–27). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.