“It is always disastrous to leave the church.” The words are from John Calvin. The strong ecclesiology of John Calvin is hard to find in much of contemporary evangelical ecclesiology. It is more fashionable to hear that one hates the church but loves Jesus. “Who needs church?” is the question of the day. Here’s what Calvin said,
“Fanatical men, refusing to hold fast to it, entangle themselves in many deadly snares. Many are either led either by pride, dislike, or rivalry to the conviction that they can profit enough from private reading and meditation; hence they despise public assemblies and deem preaching superfluous.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.1.5)
Clearly, Calvin knew churches had problems. But he warns against leaving simply because there are problems.
“The pure ministry of the Word and pure mode of celebrating the sacraments are, as we say, sufficient pledge and guarantee that we may safely embrace as church any society I which both these marks exist. The principle extends to the point that we must not reject it so long as it retains them, even if it otherwise swarms with many faults. . . . But I say we must not thoughtlessly forsake the church because of any petty dissensions.” (4.1.12) He plainly says those who seek a church “besmirched with no blemish” are looking in vain (4.1.13) but we must remember that it “is no less true that the Lord is daily at work in smoothing out wrinkles and cleansing spots” and from this “it follows that the church’s holiness is not yet complete.” (4.1.17)
It is true many evangelicals do not trace their heritage to Calvin directly but they are related to the Reformation in general as Protestants. I sometimes wonder what some Protestants believe are the necessary elements to a worship service. Indeed, are there any at all? For Calvin it was the preaching of the word and the proper distribution of the sacraments. Catholics have established guidelines in order for a Mass to be valid or invalid. (This is an interesting feature about Catholic liturgy. It is common to hear a Protestant say they were not being “fed” by a service/pastor/sermon but I’ve never heard one say their service wasn’t valid. The difference lies in the sacramental nature of the Catholic Church. Can Protestants learn something from this? Could it be said of a Protestant service that it is “proper” or “improper”?) I’ve been to numerous Protestant services where the sermon was omitted to allow for more singing or for prayer or for a special event. I’ve never been to a Protestant service where singing was omitted so maybe that’s the essential feature for some—there must be sung praise. The omission of the sermon is an intriguing phenomenon given the importance Protestants place on the Bible in general and preaching in particular. I’ve not seen the sermon omitted from a church that observes a liturgy. (Those churches include Presbyterian, Christian Reformed Church, Lutheran and Catholic.) Granted, it may happen but I’ve not seen it. Most of my experience has been with Baptist, Independent, Nondenominational, CRC, Evangelical Free, Charismatic, and Catholic churches.
This post is not intended to be a critique of any denomination. It is rather to stimulate thought on what constitutes the essential features of an evangelical church service. Are there any? Is it right to expect any?
But more important is the drift we’ve seen from the thought of someone like Calvin to what we see today. I think Calvin would be horrified at the sentiment expressed by “I love Jesus but hate the church.” What do you think?