Can a church be properly called a church if it contains none of the elect?

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ERK

Puritan Board Freshman
Some see a church as the church because of the preaching of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and discipline.
Others see it as an assembly of the elect.
If the ministry of the church was present and properly practiced but there was not a single regenerate person in their midst would that church still be properly called a church? Does a church need elect people in order to exist?
 

arapahoepark

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
Some see a church as the church because of the preaching of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and discipline.
Others see it as an assembly of the elect.
If the ministry of the church was present and properly practiced but there was not a single regenerate person in their midst would that church still be properly called a church? Does a church need elect people in order to exist?
There are probably a great many of those who claim the name of Christ yet deny him in virtually everything in the mainline.
It depends on the definition of Church, visible or not as well as the proper administration of those. But we aren't Donatists either.
 

Joshua

Administrator
Staff member
First, one would have to be omniscient in order to ascertain such things, which renders the point moot.
 

ERK

Puritan Board Freshman
I don't mean to ask whether this hypothetical is possible. I am just wanting to know what is essentially necessary for a church to rightly be called a church. Does the ministry of the word make a church even without elect people? or do elect people make the church and then practice the ministry of the word?
 

ERK

Puritan Board Freshman
I realize that they ordinarily go together. But at what point does a church become a church or cease from being a church? Is it when elect people are present or when the ministry of the word is settled?
 

Joshua

Administrator
Staff member
I don't mean to ask whether this hypothetical is possible. I am just wanting to know what is essentially necessary for a church to rightly be called a church. Does the ministry of the word make a church even without elect people? or do elect people make the church and then practice the ministry of the word?
The regeneration of a people -known only to God Himself- does not render a congregation a church or not a church. The preaching of the gospel always is a savor to God, though to some it a savor of death unto death, and others a savor of life unto life.
 

A.Joseph

Puritan Board Junior
Some see a church as the church because of the preaching of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and discipline.
Others see it as an assembly of the elect.
If the ministry of the church was present and properly practiced but there was not a single regenerate person in their midst would that church still be properly called a church? Does a church need elect people in order to exist?
Yes.
No.
1 Corinthians 3
 

VictorBravo

Administrator
Staff member
Sounds like a baptist problem
Heh. And not really.

The term "church" first is applied to the "catholic or universal church", aka "invisible church" in the LBCF ch. 26. That is made up 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."

Gatherings of professing believers are called congregations. If there aren't any professing believers, well, there isn't a congregation.

But if they are all false professors, it's a congregation, but composed of people who also need God's grace. One hopes there would be preaching.
 

ERK

Puritan Board Freshman
What if there were many who professed faith but none of which actually had faith? Would that congregation be a church as long as they had the preaching of the word (though no true conversions yet)?


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VictorBravo

Administrator
Staff member
What if there were many who professed faith but none of which actually had faith? Would that congregation be a church as long as they had the preaching of the word (though no true conversions yet)?


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Yes. Even if the preacher himself were an unbeliever, if he preaches Christ soundly, God is glorified.

Php 1:18 What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
It is hypothetically possible to have a local church with 100% unsaved people in it.

I have seen congregations in the jungle who are going through the motions of a liturgy and even parroting what a city preacher said and, externally, it is all passable as Christian, and yet none understand the content.
 

jwithnell

Moderator
Staff member
If you have the marks of the church, will the Holy Spirit not illuminate his word? Will the sacraments not continue to be a mercy to the elect and a severe warning to all others? Wouldn't the pews be empty if they had been filled by those who refuse to bow to Christ and who had been reasonably disciplined?

The reality is that when the word ceases to be preached, the sacraments become a superstition, and all types of perversions are tolerated, then a gathering ceases to be a church.
 

Pergamum

Ordinary Guy (TM)
In the case of many jungle congregations in Papua, we have seen later converts from these haphazard beginnings. They start by going through the motions and parroting others, and yet lives are later changed. In many remote, illiterate, and uneducated places in the world, we might see a similar phenomena.
 

retroGRAD3

Puritan Board Sophomore
I think a more relevant question at the moment might be, is a church a true church if it never meets and never administers the sacraments in person anymore.
 

KMK

Administrator
Staff member
But when is a church a 'fellowship', or an 'assembly', or a 'ministry'?
 

A.Joseph

Puritan Board Junior
What if there were many who professed faith but none of which actually had faith? Would that congregation be a church as long as they had the preaching of the word (though no true conversions yet)?


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No true conversions? Hmmm. Are we sure the Word is being handled properly? That may be an area that is lacking. A failure of election may be any easy scapegoat. To me that is like pointing the finger at God. So why not first place the blame on proper administration/s. Start there rather than a strange hypothetical.
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Is a widget machine really a widget machine, if its not cranking our widgets (assuming that's what a widget machine does/is for)?

This is an analogous question, and therefore useful for analyzing the original proposal. Does a machine have substantive existence, if it's ostensible purpose isn't being fulfilled? The answer, of course, is "that depends."

Suppose the machine has been rotting away for a while, it's not been producing any widgets for a long time. Important parts have gone missing. It isn't hooked up to power. It is fair to say it's not a widget machine? For some reasonable person, there's no superior description even if there's much to be desired. For someone more fixated on results, there could be reason to deny the description's accuracy.

Suppose the machine appears to be in perfect working order, but it still isn't cranking out the widgets. How many different possible explanations could there be?

Of course the analogy breaks down at some point. The visible church is an "institution" not a machine. But I would like to propose that simple "composition" is a rough and imperfect metric. Is a particular congregation in view separate from its ministry? Is this church considered as possessing an unregenerate set of officers besides the spiritually dead members? A Presbyterian pastor is not a member of a particular congregation. Obviously, if a believing pastor is called to this charge, he will discover it is a "mission field" of a church.

There's a story of the 54yr vicarage of Charles Simeon at Trinity Church, Cambridge. Upon his installation, "the congregation at Holy Trinity so completely rejected him that seat-holders locked their pews and did not attend." Attendees had to stand in the aisles. Was this place a gathering of the church?

It is the preaching of the gospel that gathers the church, and the same instrument of the Spirit that creates a believer out of an unbeliever. As Simeon's experience proves, it can take considerable time and effort to create or restore a congregation to a proper state.

I think Jesus' words, "where two or three [believers] are gathered," there you have the essential material for a church. Give that assembly the least bit of organization, and you have the church in some sense, though not fully constituted. Lacking shared faith, I don't think there's the necessary material to be organized. What if there is "residual organization," the leftovers of a past assembly of believers congregated around the gospel?

It is an uncertain task for mere men to discern how far sunk a gathering of professing Christians is in truth. Have they "degenerated so far as to become synagogues of Satan," a point to which we confess it is possible to come? All that one can truly do is what Simeon did, and put one's hand to the plow until the Lord of the church put an end to the work. "Preach the gospel, in season and out."
 

ERK

Puritan Board Freshman
Part of the reason I ask the question is because I have some baptist friends who say that a church is a gathering of the regenerate. The ministry of the word is a thing that regenerate people have. Because of this, a church is only a church if regenerate people are there. This essentially negates the idea of a visible institutional church in that the visible church becomes merely an expression of the invisible church. Therefore membership in a church is only considered in the invisible aspect. A real church member can’t be someone who merely professes the faith; they must also posses it.

The distinction is essentially flattened and the visible church becomes identical to the invisible. So one could look at a gathering of professing believers and say “there is a group of people within which is the church”. And “not everyone who is present is the church”.

Does that make sense?


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SolaScriptura

Puritanboard Brimstone
I recently read a headline - written provocatively - in which a religious group was referred to as a church... but this religious group was a bunch of people who adhere to some form of pre-Christian Germanic paganism. In this case - I would agree with the OP that using the term "church" to describe such a group is disingenuous.

I'm also fine with someone objecting to the use of the word "church" to describe a group of people who, while claiming to be Christian, deny the core tenets of the faith... so, for instance, I don't think LDS churches are properly regarded as "churches."

I could go on - but the essential point is that I'm making my determinations on the basis of professed faith and practice on the part of the adherents of that "church" - I think that trying to peer into the decree to make judgments on the basis of election is the height of human hubris.
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
Part of the reason I ask the question is because I have some baptist friends who say that a church is a gathering of the regenerate. The ministry of the word is a thing that regenerate people have. Because of this, a church is only a church if regenerate people are there. This essentially negates the idea of a visible institutional church in that the visible church becomes merely an expression of the invisible church. Therefore membership in a church is only considered in the invisible aspect. A real church member can’t be someone who merely professes the faith; they must also posses it.

The distinction is essentially flattened and the visible church becomes identical to the invisible. So one could look at a gathering of professing believers and say “there is a group of people within which is the church”. And “not everyone who is present is the church”.

Does that make sense?


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Understood. And yes, this issue reveals some significant differences in the original conception of the church between one side or another. If the church is *only* an emanation or manifestation of the spiritual (invisible) company, then there is no true and substantial institution of the church that simply exists distinct from that emanation; just as there is no more external or outward administration of the covenant (of grace) between God and his people--the position maintained by the Baptist who argues that the New is of pure Spirit administration.
 

ERK

Puritan Board Freshman
So does the answer to the problem lie in the continuity of the church from Old Testament to New? I know that it is a baptist distinctive for some to say that the church is an entirely New Testament thing. The people of Israel being merely a type of a new spiritual people without borders. Must one go back to the OT in order to establish that the church isn’t merely an invisible institution that manifests itself visibly wherever it actually is? Where can I go specifically in the NT to show that the church isn’t merely defined by the presence of the regenerate? Or should I even do that?


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My Pilgrim Way

Puritan Board Freshman
I don't mean to ask whether this hypothetical is possible. I am just wanting to know what is essentially necessary for a church to rightly be called a church. Does the ministry of the word make a church even without elect people? or do elect people make the church and then practice the ministry of the word?
It needs to contain all the elements set forth in scripture regarding doctrine, full gospel presentation, qualified overseers, prayer, preaching, church discipline, etc to name a few.
 

VictorBravo

Administrator
Staff member
I know that it is a baptist distinctive for some to say that the church is an entirely New Testament thing.
I'm not really sure where that comes from. It's not a baptist distinctive under our confession.

We hold that the invisible church includes all the elect. So, Abraham et al. are part of the church, too.

Because of this, a church is only a church if regenerate people are there.
Again, this mystifies me as a Baptist. The objective criteria include "professing believers" who have not "destroyed their profession...."

I will grant that if everyone has destroyed their profession, then the assembly is no church at all, a synagogue of Satan.

Also granted, if everyone denies their profession, same thing, no church.

But, as Bruce noted, if two or more profess faith and gather in his name, who is any of us to say Christ is not with them?
 

Contra_Mundum

Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
So does the answer to the problem lie in the continuity of the church from Old Testament to New? I know that it is a baptist distinctive for some to say that the church is an entirely New Testament thing. The people of Israel being merely a type of a new spiritual people without borders. Must one go back to the OT in order to establish that the church isn’t merely an invisible institution that manifests itself visibly wherever it actually is? Where can I go specifically in the NT to show that the church isn’t merely defined by the presence of the regenerate? Or should I even do that?
Sorry, I'd say the issue is deeper than "finding the right text." We all use the same (NT) texts when we're debating about baptism; the issue is the manner in which they are read and addressed, what presuppositions control how the language is understood.

The very same conditions apply if the subject is ecclesiology in general. The same text that I might interpret as clear enough description of the church as institution, and not as an emanation of an invisible society; the Baptist brother reads through his own spectacles as affirmative of his convictions. The words are the same, but they mean different things.

For my part, I might want to determine at the outset if I think a certain text has more of a inward and spiritual, or outward and institutional cast to it. That could be a Baptist concern too, but he may be predisposed to read all (or most) NT church-texts in a primary manner with reference to spiritual reality; and only subsequently with a secondary application to an inevitable and unavoidable (though temporary) "institutional" requirement. I always want to be careful about representing what "the Baptists" as a class may/do/ought assume.

I don't feel the need to "go back" to the OT to establish my understanding of the church as an institution. The NT church isn't what it is because the OT church was what it was. It's simply the case (on my principles) that the NT church can't help being what it is; and what it is now is in various respects antedated and anticipated by what went before.
 
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