July 12, 2006. Newark, New York. The heavens were opened in a torrential downpour upon the beautiful terrain of upstate, western New York, most certainly an answer to prayer from the smaller, fledgling dairy farmers. It was hot. The ground thirsted — and so did my wife, for the birth of the nascent child occupying her womb.
Lexi Grace Hogaboam appeared. I gave on first names, leveraging for the middle name, and Grace it was. My prayers have been that this girl would be both a recipient of divine grace and a model of it in her life. Eight years later I rejoice at the grace of God at work in her tender years. She loves Jesus, loves His church, and is beloved in His sight. As I reflected joyously at Lexi’s growth in grace these past years, I was moved to a state of thanksgiving for the two churches Lexi’s been a part of: Second Reformed Church and Sovereign Grace Fellowship. While the church is much maligned today, it has been the pillar of truth, dispenser of the sacraments, and caretaker of the soul — all in the economy of God’s grace working in the lives of His saints. I lament the articles that seem to be the rage today about leaving the church and finding Jesus. My testimony, and the testimony of my believing daughter know nothing of this piety apart from the church.
John Calvin commented on the absolute centrality of the church in the Institutes:
4. But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels, (Matth. 22:30.) For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for, as Isaiah and Joel testify, (Isa. 37:32; Joel 2:32.) To their testimony Ezekiel subscribes, when he declares, “They shall not be in the assembly of my people, neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel,” (Ezek. 13:9;) as, on the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true piety are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem. For which reason it is said in the psalm, “Remember me, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation; that I may see the good of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance,” (Ps. 106:4, 5.) By these words the paternal favour of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar people, and hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal.
Calvin, J., & Beveridge, H. (1845). Institutes of the Christian religion (Vol. 3, pp. 13–14). Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society.
Calvin is echoing the sentiment of Cyprian, who said, “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.”
Lexi’s baptism and her ongoing place at the Lord’s table takes place within the gathering of the church, rightly understood as a constituted body with elders, deacons, and all that the pastoral epistles explicitly call for. Church and Christian fellowship are two separate things; the former being the constituted body according to the functions and forms spoken of the in the epistles, the latter being the gathering of Christians for fellowship, breaking of bread, prayers, encouragement, etc.
My emphasis on the role of the church protects against several ditches:
(1) Undue emphasis on the family. There are some who think of the family as both a pre-political and pre-churchly institution, which is fine and good, but err in often asserting its authority over the church. Children are thus only accountable to the family patriarch, not to the church or her officers. Error = viewing the family as absolute in the formation of children and their faith. Home church is sufficient and purer. Church is dispensable because the worshiping family is purer than the church which dares assert pastoral authority over the family.
The other ditch (2) would be those who offer nothing but their fellowship and piety, contending that the institutional church, and often even the sacraments, is dispensable. Their apathy has led them to declare the forms as hindrances to the function. They will soon realize you can’t long maintain the function without the form. In fact, I would questions the validity of the function apart from the form, but that’s just me being a high church guy, which by the way the church has been for her history till rather recent developments with the more enlightened pietists — who are descendants of those sober, churchly Quakers. Error = my kids will grow up with a bunch of cool, like-minded Christians, who are all about being Christian than playing church.
Another ditch (3) would be the complete outsourcing of child-raising to the so-called experts. This technocratic approach send parents into obsession about the latest techniques on childhood development, proper schooling, and a church that will handle the spiritual growth element in the child’s development. This is parenting absentia. “My child is very, very special, and you better meet their needs — or else.” The church is treated as nothing more than another compartment in the development of the well-rounded child. Drop the kids off at Awana, entertain them on Sunday morning, send them on the retreats and camps — and it should all be adequate for my kid’s growth. Now there’s certainly nothing wrong with these functions as supplementary. Supplementary to around-the-clock parental engagement, that is. Error = if I take my kids to the church with the best programs and children/youth pastor, my child will grow up to be a mature Christian.
Much more to be said, but suffice it to say that I’m filled with gratitude over the most precious gift on earth today: the blood-bought body of believers assembled as a visible church with officers and a liturgy informed by the explicit instructions received from biblical/apostolic authority. Because I’m not a perfect parent, Lexi needs the church. Because as tempting as it would be to fill my couch with my friends and legitimize the project as church, Lexi would suffer the loss of being known and loved by the broader the community — and its more catholic representation on the earth. She’d also be spared from vitriolic and obnoxious discussions about the evil of the institutional church. Because we are more than consumers, we won’t merely outsource her spirituality — as if that’s a market-driven consumer niche — to the so-called experts and their programs. Her growth is owing to God’s ordained means of nurture in the Christian family and our joint nurture in the church. It’s impossible to reckon God as Father while rejecting His bride as mother. Many thanks to Second Reformed Church (officers and members) for loving my dear daughter and receiving and blessing her as Jesus did to all the children brought to His care. Many thanks also to Sovereign Grace Fellowship (yes, I know that “fellowship” runs contrary to my emphasis on “church” and is in fact used by some to actually delineate a difference with church, properly understood).
And to Lexi: you are a member of Christ’s church, his blood-bought bride, protected by sanctioned officers, the dispenser of divine grace in Word and sacrament, the house of God that provides a divine bath and meal, endued with gifts from the ascended Christ, and this is a precious thing. You belong to Jesus, to our family, and to His “holy catholic church.” We recite that creed at our dinner table because it frames our identity; apart from Christ and His bride, we are nothing. May your faith in Christ, your talents, your charisms, your submission to the elders, all be known and used for the edification of Christ’s body, the church.
Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. Solid deo Gloria.
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