The church, not Scripture, was the issue that sparked that Reformation.

Sometimes we wonder what the fuss was all about. The fires of religious dissension that burned so brightly in the sixteenth century are not only out of place in our secular culture but they are also incomprehensible. To us, the Reformation often looks like a horrible aberration, a savage interruption before the West was again able to resume a measure of civility in matters of faith.

Undoubtedly blood was spilled unnecessarily. And what made it worse was that the killing was done in the name of religion. By comparison, our genteel dialogues seem infinitely preferable! But with all of our civility we have often lost the sense that religious issues really matter. It is not easy, therefore, to wrench ourselves free from this habit of mind and realize how right the Protestant Reformers were in caring deeply about their faith. They have something to teach us in this regard. Let us focus on their concern for the church as a case study.

We do not commonly think of the Reformation as being interested in the church. We tend to cast the Reformers in roles which we twentieth-century evangelicals most easily understand. We define Luther as a man who believed the Bible, who stood on the promises of God and defied ecclesiastical power and tradition, and who championed the gospel at peril of his own life. This is all true—but it leaves the proposition that the Reformers were concerned about the church.

It is easy for us today to dissociate the preaching of the gospel from the functioning of the church; it was impossible for the Reformers to do so—to preach, propagate, and expound independent of any local church. The church in Luther’s day was the womb in which the gospel was borne. Thus he said without flinching that there was no salvation outside the church: today, there is plenty of salvation outside the church. Indeed, statistics show there is more salvation outside the church than in it. This explosion of gospel preaching, witnessing, and believing is a great thing. But I suspect it has extracted from us a certain price. As evangelicals, we care supremely about the gospel; since this is so often unrelated to the church, our care for the church is relatively small. As a matter of fact, we may even consider the church to be relatively unimportant, something clearly to be treated under the rubric of benign civility. But if the Reformers were right in their concern at this point, we are wrong in the tepidity of our approach.

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The first generation Reformers arrived at their view of the church by a rather slow process. Luther’s initial concern was not with the church at all, but with salvation. The doctrine of the church, he said at the first, would be “humbly conceded to the pope” because he wanted to concentrate on issues of grace and faith. But this was a false distinction and Luther reversed himself, later declaring that the doctrine of the church he had allowed to slip by contained “the worst blasphemies and abomination.”

What offended Luther was the Catholic argument that the natural person—one who is in a state of fallenness—is able to cooperate with the grace that is sacramentally infused. In his Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, Luther asserted that this idea really came from Aristotle, whom he castigated at various times as being a damned, rascally, wily, conceited heathen. In our vernacular the theory came down to this: each person is endowed with muscles; those who want to look like Mr. Universe simply have to exercise and develop their muscles. The difference between an ordinary and a muscled person is explained by the effort and training which the latter undertakes. The difference between an ordinary and a justified life, the Catholic church said, is the cooperation with grace that some conscientious people exercise.

The problem clearly lay in a faulty view of sin, which imagined that fallen people, whose natures were at war with the claims of God, could or would want to cooperate with grace. But equally, the problem lay in a faulty view of the church, which imagined that as an institution it could interpose itself between God and the sinner as the pipeline of grace. Thomas Cranmer assailed this latter aspect in particular. To view the sacraments as means of grace was, he said, “the roots” and everything else represented “leaves and branches.” Unless the view taken of the sacraments was changed, he said, and especially that of Christ’s bodily presence in the Eucharistic elements, the church would continue as it had been before. Lopping off parts of a tree is useless if the root system is able to put forth new growth.

In other words, both Luther and Cranmer saw that the institutional church had become an end instead of a means: the church ought to be a means to making the knowledge of God known; it is not itself an end. It has no reason for existence other than as a servant of Christ and as a context in which his Word is made known in the power of the Spirit. Outward behavioral patterns of churchgoing, confession, ecclesiastical obedience, and sacrament taking do not make a Christian. Where the church has become the end, these are the means of becoming a Christian. Where the church is a means, these actions are never an end because they are not saving. But for these Reformers, the alternative to a faulty view of the church was a correct view; it was not, as it sometimes is for us, no view at all.

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To articulate this rearrangement of ends and means, the Reformers reverted to a distinction that is rooted in Scripture, affirmed by Augustine in his City of God, but roundly castigated by the Catholic church. It is the distinction between the invisible and visible church. The former is constituted by all who are joined to Christ by faith and the latter by those who congregate at a local place of worship. The membership of the invisible church is pure; that of the visible church may be mixed. Are we then to judge whether the spiritual reality of the invisible church is being served by the functions of the visible?

To answer this, the Reformers developed a series of tests. Luther, at times, settled on only one such test or “mark.” If the proper preaching of the Word is going on in a church, he said, there you have Christ, for he is cradled in the Bible’s pages, and there you have the Spirit, who administers this Word. But in 1539 and 1540 he added other objective signs such as the sacraments, what he calls the “Keys” (the exercise of instruction and discipline), the experience of God in worship, and the “Holy Cross” (the presence of suffering in the church brought about by the world, the flesh, and the devil). John Calvin simplified this a little in the next generation by saying that the presence of the invisible church in the visible will be revealed and served where the sacraments are rightly administered, discipline is carefully instituted, and the Word of God is appropriately preached.

This last element probably was the most difficult to implement. The Reformers faced a problem with both a theoretical and a practical aspect. On the one hand, the Bible, as Luther put it, had been gagged. Its message had been stifled by layers of ecclesiastical tradition. As is commonly supposed, the Reformers were not opposed to tradition; what they opposed was a church that had arrogated to itself an authority for its teachings that placed them beyond the correction of Scripture. The church had ceased to be a means of inculcating the knowledge of God and had become an end under whose teachings everyone was subject.

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On the other hand, putting Scripture back into the church was easier said than done. German priests were far more adept at brewing beer (not to mention drinking it) than they were at exegeting Scripture! The same problem was everywhere evident. The Elizabethan Book of Homilies declared that while the Word of God, our only food and light, should be preached, “all they which are appointed ministers have not the gift of preaching.” The proposed solution, which was also adopted elsewhere, was to have someone else compose homilies that could be read from the pulpit. But it was not a happy solution. The English Puritans despised the practice and an influential group of them declared in 1571 that despite these homilies, “an infinite number” of her majesty’s subjects had plunged to their destruction—which might have been averted had there been genuine preaching in the church.

The Reformers’ ideal, which saw the local church functioning as the context, occasion, and means for the dissemination of God’s truth by the preaching of his Word with exegetical accuracy and cultural sensitivity, was only partially realized. Before it could be implemented, an entire generation of pastors had to be trained. While the Reformers went a long way to laying educational foundations for this achievement, the task was left unfinished, to be handed on to succeeding generations. As recipients of this legacy, it is worth pondering how well we ourselves have grasped their vision and responded to this challenge.

The distinction between the invisible and visible church was made in the interest of securing a proper view of the latter. If the Catholic church overvalued the functioning of the institutional church, we evangelicals may have a tendency to undervalue it. This will always be the case where Christian conversion is preached to the neglect or detriment of Christian discipleship. And we are supremely interested in Christian conversion. As a consequence, membership in the invisible church through acceptance of the gospel is the predominant focus of our concern; the subsequent development of that faith within the church tends to fall by the wayside. This suggests unnaturally severing conversion from discipleship; it also has serious consequences for the future.

This break in linkage between the invisible and visible churches, between conversion and Christian growth, is evident in many ways. It is seen, for example, in the way viewers sometimes use preaching on television. Statistical studies have shown there is a significant group of people who only attend “church” in front of their TV screens. But what kind of church is this? Certainly, conversion is preached; but the viewer is asked for no involvement other than financial. There are no opportunities for Christian service. The “pastor” assumes no responsibility for the viewers’ spiritual health. He offers few means of growth, provides no occasion for fellowship, and is responsible only to a hand-picked board.

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The same phenomenon is also evident in some of our evangelistic efforts; the 1976 “Here’s Life” campaign is an example. Undoubtedly, there were many beneficial results from this massive campaign. Over six million people were contacted personally about Christ, the gospel was given national visibility, some people who had never witnessed began to do so, and some revitalized churches continued their evangelistic work after the campaign was over. The disquieting thing about it, however, was that in a typical study only 3 percent of those who made decisions for Christ ever joined a church. Reduced to cold statistics, that meant that in the “Here’s Life” campaign it took I worker and 6 presentations of the gospel to secure one “decision,” but it took 22 workers and 212 presentations to secure both a “decision” for Christ and a desire to join a church. Either this meant that conversion and discipleship were virtually sundered apart or, if they were understood by the convert as belonging together, he or she imagined that discipleship could take place outside the church. That view would have astounded the apostles.

This phenomenon is, of course, a by-product of the staggering growth in our communications media. We face issues that were unknown to Luther and Calvin. For them, the preaching of the gospel and the functioning of the church were correlates to one another. They were experienced together. The only question to be solved was what should be their relationship. For us, these are more commonly experienced separately and the cause of the gospel has a way of becoming separated entirely from the concerns and controls of the local church. The Reformers’ view, therefore, had to be rethought in our context and evaluated accordingly.

But even with this complication, I remain persuaded that their essential insight is right. If the church is disengaged from its task of making known the knowledge of God in its completeness, both the church and the gospel suffer. The gospel degenerates rapidly into an experience that is an end in itself, rather than being the point of entry to a life of discipleship. By the same token, the church begins to find reasons for being other than its God-given function. It may thus come to be a haven—for those who need a sense of protection in a dangerous and shifting world, or for those who need confirmation from fellow travelers of like mind and like pay in a time of serious social questioning. The church then lives for itself as an end, rather than living for Christ as a means. Whatever comfort and confirmation the church has to offer, it is not that comfort and confirmation that may be falsely created by shielding our values and style of life from the searching light of God’s truth.

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In this matter, it is our civility that betrays us. Our relative indifference to the church, which seems so much like a virtue when it is yoked to zeal for the gospel, declares that our interest in discipleship is more tepid than is appropriate. Our enthusiasm for the gospel cannot be a surrogate for our involvement in the church, and the church cannot become a haven for those who have little enthusiasm for following Christ down the hard route that he would lead us. Though the Reformers lived a long time ago, they saw these things with striking clarity. It seems to me that where we have grasped them more vaguely because of our modernity, we have some unlearning to do. Perhaps the place to begin is to stop being so civil about the church.

So much has been given to me, I have no time to ponder over that which has been denied.

—Helen Keller

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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