In part 1 we looked at the some of the challenges Millennials face relative to marriage. According to the recent Pew Study, Millennials identify with organized religion at a lower rate than previous generations. To quote Billy Joel, they “didn’t start the fire,” as it were, but they have added to it. Millennial suspicion of the visible church is a part of the pattern we noted previously: suspicion of existing institutions generally.
Why should Millennials (and everyone else) value the visible church? Because God values the visible, institutional church. The prima facie biblical evidence is overwhelming. Our Lord Jesus said, in Matthew 18, “tell it to the church.” That instruction only makes sense relative to a visible covenant community. It was not possible to “tell it to” all believers everywhere. It is possible to make an announcement about church discipline to a congregation, an expression of the church catholic (universal).
We know that God values the visible, assembled church because he gathered Israel, whom, by his sovereign grace, he had saved from bondage in Egypt, at the foot of Sinai. Deuteronomy 9:10 says,
Yahweh gave to me the two tablets of stone written by the finger of God. On them were all the commandments Yahweh proclaimed to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the day of Ha Qahal (i.e., the assembly, See Deut 10:4; 18:16).
Ha Qahal is Hebrew for “the covenant assembly.” These were the people whom God had baptized, as it were, in the Red Sea, when he brought them through on dry ground (Ex 14:22). These were they whom Yahweh fed with quail (1Cor 10). In other words, the visible church is ancient. Sacraments are ancient. We could look at the church under Abraham, Noah, and even Adam before and after the fall. In other words, there has always been a visible people, assembled by the Lord himself, organized by God’s Word, with appointed visible signs and seals (sacraments).
Though it is widely thought that the early church was unstructured and purely spontaneous, that such is definition of “spiritual” is much more the product of assumption. When our Lord Jesus spoke of the ecclesia he was picking up on an ancient thread in Scripture. The New Testament speaks repeatedly to and about the visible, organized assembly where the Word is read, preached, and administered in the sacraments. I’ve summarized that data here. The church is a body but it is also organized and disciplined. Our Lord commissioned his disciples to represent him in official functions (Matt 28:18–20). At Pentecost, those disciples became apostles, with a special, unique endowment of the Holy Spirit and with the authority of Christ they established the offices of minister, elder, and deacon.
Americans are independent by inclination. Church growth experts tell new congregations to downplay their denominational identity in order to appeal to Americans, who tend to be suspicious of denominations. The corollary for individuals is the tendency of Americans to identify themselves as “spiritual” but to say that they are not interested in organized religion. American Christians like to be free agents but that isn’t the biblical view and it isn’t the historic Christian view.
When, in the Apostles’ Creed, Christians confess,
I believe the holy catholic church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins…
we are saying that the same Holy Spirit who hovered over the face of the deep, who hovers over the church (1 Peter 4) is still creating or re-creating a community of the redeemed. In the Heidelberg Catechism Reformed Christians confess:
That, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, the Son of God, by His Spirit and Word, gathers, defends and preserves for Himself to everlasting life a chosen communion in the unity of the true faith; and that I am and forever shall remain a living member of the same.
In other words, in Scripture and in Christian theology there is no dichotomy between the Spiritual and the material (and the organized). Spontaneity might be fun and exciting but it isn’t inherently spiritual. It isn’t necessarily biblical. It is in these assemblies that we find the communion of the saints. Again, in the Heidelberg Catechism we confess:
What do you understand by the ‘communion of saints’?
First, that believers, one and all, as members of the Lord Jesus Christ, are partakers with Him in all His treasures and gifts; secondly, that each one must feel himself bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and welfare of other members.
Honesty compels us to admit that the visible churches have made great mistakes. Ministers have sinned. The assemblies are composed of sinners, of broken people. There are hypocrites in the visible church but Jesus spent considerable time with one of the greatest and most notorious hypocrites in human history: Judas Iscariot. We should not seek to be more holy than God the Son incarnate.
Are there grounds for being disappointed with the visible, organized church? Yes. Is there a reason to be connected to it anyway? Yes. We go back to our understanding of eschatology. Last time we saw that we’re in the in-between, penultimate time. The visible church is part of that in-between existence. Christ intends for us Christians to spend that time together, in congregations, hearing the Word read and preached, in praying and singing his Word in response, and in celebrating his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return in his appointed signs and seals.
Next time: Ora et labora.