The Visible Church & the Outer Darkness:
The Carnal Church & the Outer Darkness.
Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
The Church at Corinth was, in Paul's opinion, a carnal church (First Corinthians 3:1-4). Many divisions had arisen in the church, with false doctrine and lax morality. Some church members apparently even ate at the tables of idols (First Corinthians 8:7). A false understanding of the resurrection was so prevalent in the church that it compelled Paul to correct it as a fundamental tenet of the gospel (First Corinthians 15:1-6). The sacrament of the Lord's Supper was defiled to such an extent that Paul said, ye come together not for the better, but for the worse (First Corinthians 11:17). Church discipline was in such a low state that an incestuous fornicator was permitted to continue uncorrected (First Corinthians 5:1, 12-13).
A careful examination of all that was out of order in the Church at Corinth reveals a church defective in its understanding of the gospel, its administration of the sacraments and church discipline. Yet, for all its difficulties, Paul did not hesitate to refer to it as a true church. Though hardly what some would call a genuinely reformed church, the Church at Corinth was made up of them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints (First Corinthians 1:2). The testimony of Christ, according to the inspired apostle, was confirmed in those Corinthian church members.
Paul made no excuse for the Church at Corinth and left them no room to make excuses for themselves, but neither did he counsel any in the church to depart due to the wickedness and corruptions which remained in it. Rather, Paul's godly admonition was for the members of that church to remain in the church and work for its reformation (see, e.g., First Corinthians 5:12-13).
A careful study of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians gains us an insight into Paul's spiritual understanding of the visible church. Membership in a true church even a carnal church such as Corinth is preferable to the outer darkness. Better still is membership in a reforming church. A comparison of the first and second epistles to the Corinthians reveals that they took (at least some of) Paul's admonitions to heart.
The apostle distinguished in First Corinthians 11:22, 34 and elsewhere between the church of God and the home. Churching at home is a contradiction - the primary meaning of the word church is assembly. Thus the writer of Hebrews forbids Christians to forsake synogoging with one another (Hebrews 10:25).
There have been times in the history of God's church when corruptions were such that it became impossible to stay without sinning. But in such instances, we must not flee Babel only to build Jericho (cp. Joshua 6:26 & First Kings 16:34). A Christian may request dismission from a less reformed church to a more reformed church, but he lacks authority as a private member to declare the church to be in extraordinary times and thus run without being sent (Jeremiah 23:21). Those who remove themselves from true churches under such a pretext prophesy without God speaking to them. But if they had stood in my counsel, and had caused my people to hear my words, then they should have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their doing (Jeremiah 23:22).
Those in Zion are those upon whom the Lord has arisen. The glory of the Lord is risen upon Zion, but darkness covers the world outside Zion (Isaiah 60:1-2). Outside the kingdom the house and family of God i.e. the visible church, is the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
In each instance where Isaiah's outer darkness is mentioned in the New Testament, its inhabitants are weeping and gnashing their teeth. The unbelieving Jew (Matthew 8:12), the guest with no wedding garment (Matthew 22:13) and the unprofitable steward (Matthew 25:30) are all cast out of the church. Each has suffered the loss of real blessings and there is weeping. Each also, it seems, angrily gnashes his teeth against the kingdom.
God has placed the means of grace in His church. If we would do His will and receive His blessing, then we must be in the place of blessing.
The visible church, which is also catholick or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
Unto this catholick visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints in this life, to the end of the world; and doth by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.[Confession, XXV:2-3.]
Rejecting this understanding does not necessarily make one an unbeliever, but it certainly prevents one from having a Presbyterian view of the church. Let there be no more talk of Congregationalism or Separatism as though it were actually Presbyterianism. The differences between the Presbyterians and the Separatists were clear 350 years ago and those differences should remain clear today.
There is much amiss in the church at the end of the twentieth century. Many churches have become little more than encounter groups. Ministries multiply, yet one recent survey indicated that 53% of pastors believe the church is having little positive impact on souls and society.["How Effective is the Church?" in National and International Religion Report. January 13, 1992, p. 7.] In fact, the same report maintained that 80% of all church growth in the United States is transfer growth. Lots of people are moving from church to church but relatively few unchurched people are being won.[Ibid.] Significantly, at least seventy-five of the ninety-nine fastest growing churches in this country are independent.[Source: John Vaughn of the International Megachurch Research Center. Reported in Of the 99 fastest growing churches in ibid.]
Much of the recent clamor over church growth may be, when it is finally known, nothing more than church-hopping. And it may very well be that those pastors and sessions most deeply involved in the church growth movement have done little more than undermine the doctrine of the unity of the church.
The solutions to the problems besetting the church will not be found by isolating ourselves from one another even further. Scriptural solutions will be found only as Christians reassert the authority and unity of the Kingdom of Christ, which is His visible church. Private Christians have a right and a duty to maintain private devotions, but such activities must not take the place of assembling for worship. Sessions have a responsibility to preserve pure spiritual worship, but they have no warrant to isolate themselves from the universal church. Pastors must boldly, clearly and fervently declare God's Word, but they may not renounce vows once taken to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace of the church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise . . . on that account.[BCO 21-5(6), cf. Confession XXII:4.]
This book is not a sermon, yet it should speak directly to our hearts. There should be, as Durham said, rivers of tears running down our cheeks. The offenses of division and schism abound in today's church. Along with division has come party spirit and hardness of heart. How can we imagine that Christ, by His Spirit, does not cry out to us, as to the church of Ephesus, Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place (Revelation 2:5).
Paul wrote to the Corinthian church as to a carnal church. Yet he did not accuse them of carnality due to their misunderstanding of the resurrection, their maladministration of the Lord's Supper, nor their laxity in church discipline. The Corinthian church was carnal because it was full of envying, strife and factions (First Corinthians 3:3).
The church today clearly resembles the church at Corinth. We are a carnal church. As in the church at Corinth, there are many defects in the gospel we preach. Like the Corinthian church, the Lord's Supper is subjected to alarming abuse. Similar also to the Corinthians is our low regard for church discipline and authority. But none of those specifics were the occasion for Paul addressing the church at Corinth as carnal. What made that church carnal is the same thing that makes the church carnal today division arising from strife and schism.
The solution that Paul gave the Corinthian church is the solution for today as well. Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment (First Corinthians 1:10). God's way of revealing truth to us is not by setting men at a distance from one another, but by bringing us together in His Son's body. Paul could beseech the Corinthians in the name of Christ, therefore, because our divisions reflect upon Christ's name and reputation. As Principal Rule maintained, Our Presbyterian principle is that a Christian should part with what is dearest to him in the world to redeem the peace and unity of the church; yea, that nothing can warrant or excuse it [division] but the necessity of shunning sin.[Gilbert Rule, Schism in Good Old Way, cited by Walker in op. cit., p. 113.]
Paul further warned the church at Rome, I beseech you brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them (Romans 16:17). That is, turn away from their counsel. Those who attempt to justify Independency and Separatism as though it were Presbyterianism are not shedding new light on our church government they are denying old light. We must turn away from their counsel.
Separatism is not a new error, nor is it an error that will simply go away if we ignore it. It arises, not from a different understanding of the necessity laid upon us to reform and purify the church, but from a difference in what the godly may do and ought to do to rectify abuses in the church. True Presbyterians have ever held that the church should be reformed from all corruptions and that scandalous unrepentant sinners should be cast out or at least prevented from approaching the Lord's table. This is not the difference between Presbyterians and Separatists.
The difference lies in this: Separatists maintain that when there is any corruption in a church that they may separate (yea, are duty-bound to separate) from that church and to make up a church of their own by gathering-out as many as they can. They then think themselves free to make one of their own a minister and others elders. They believe such a minister is free to baptize and administer the Lord's Supper and preach the Word even with no oversight from any but the congregation that called him. This is as different from Presbyterianism as can be.
The Presbyterian view of the visible church, as expressed by Charles Hodge, is this:
God has imposed duties upon His people which render it necessary for them to associate in a visible organized body . . . . He has prescribed the conditions of membership in this body, and taught who are to be excluded from its communion. He has appointed officers, specified their qualifications, their prerogatives, and the mode of their appointment. He has enacted laws for its government. Its rise, progress, and consummation are traced in history and prophecy, from the beginning to the end of the Bible. This is the Kingdom of God of which our Lord discourses in so many of His parables, and which it is predicted is ultimately to include all the nations of the earth.[Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans, 1977), iii, pp. 547-48.]
Hodge further, like all true Presbyterians, maintains, The right to judge of the qualifications of such officers is vested in, or rather belongs to those who by the Holy Ghost have themselves been called to be office bearers.[Ibid., ii, pp. 607-608.] In his volume of Princeton Sermons, Hodge similarly proclaims No one in the church can assume any office of his own will any more than any part of the body can make itself an eye or hand . . . . The body cannot itself confer office, any more than the hands and feet can vote some other portion to be an eye or tongue.[Charles Hodge, Princeton Sermons (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1958 repr. of 1879), p. 310.]
Christ Himself, the apostles, and Presbyterian ministers today, join in calling to Separatist brethren to repent and come in from the darkness. Join in bearing the burdens which providence has placed upon the church. Work for the reform which is so needed in the church today.
To those ministers who take their ease in Zion, the same call goes forth to repent. In many cases, laxity and complacency have become the occasions for our brethren to stumble. Though it was Uzzah who touched the ark of the covenant and died for his transgession, it was David who caused the ark to ride in a cart. When our ministries become the offenses that cause others to sin, we shall answer to the Lord God Almighty for it (James 3:1-2).
Chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Page Last Updated: 01/10/08 12:13:16 PM