No Christianity without the Church
Editor’s Note: This post has been adapted from a longer article set to be published in a forthcoming edition of the Puritan Reformed Journal.
It will come as little surprise to many readers on this site that the state of theology in the contemporary North American church is fraught with weakness. This theological anemia is one that prompts serious concern and demands serious attention. In particular, the way in which the modern evangelical populace in North America regards the church and the church’s corporate identity and the necessity of corporate worship is one that is in dire need of correction.
The trend has been observed for some years that a growing number of self-professing evangelical Protestants have been embracing a lower and lower ecclesiology. The tendency to downplay the necessity for corporate worship and corporate discipleship as a covenanted, local community (local church) has increased, parallel with an accompanying tendency to emphasize personal or private prayer and Bible reading either over against corporate worship/gathering, or that such individual habits of piety are fundamentally more important than any such corporate practices of piety. While this social trend has been observed anecdotally for years and has been the subject of ire within many a sermon introduction or popular magazine article, in recent years, there has at last emerged empirical data to substantiate this observation.
In 2020, Ligonier Ministries, in partnership with Lifeway Research, commissioned and performed a survey of three thousand Americans asking a variety of questions about key theological tenets and doctrines: about Jesus Christ, the Bible, truth, ethics, etc. The results are eye-opening. Particular to the concerns of this article, one of the statements to which survey participants were asked to respond was this, “Worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church.” Amongst all respondents, 32% “Somewhat agree” with that statement, and 26% “Strongly agree”—thus, 58% of all respondents viewed that statement favorably. Conversely, some 29% of all respondents disagreed with that statement either “strongly” or “somewhat.” Now, these data reflect the views of Americans writ large, not specifically the views espoused by evangelicals. However, the Ligonier Survey does provide a subset of data regarding evangelical responses to that statement—and it does not portend well for evangelicals’ ecclesiology. When faced with the statement “Worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church,” 20% of self-identified evangelical respondents strongly agreed with that statement—a full fifth!—and 19% agreed somewhat. Nearly 40% of all evangelical respondents viewed the aforementioned statement favorably. Conversely, some 55% of self-identified evangelicals disagreed with that statement—35% disagreeing strongly, and 20% disagreeing somewhat.
While the higher statistic is heartening, it is at the same time disconcerting: barely over half of self-identified evangelicals take issue with an individualistic Christian mindset. Barely over half of self-identified evangelicals, presumably, object to this statement which downplays a corporate sensibility and obligation to the Christian life—and it is only just over a third which disagrees strongly! Meanwhile, a strong minority (39%) find that congregationally-reductionistic attitude regarding Christianity at least somewhat agreeable.
This is a growing trend in North American Christianity and it betrays the low ecclesiology which continues to plague the church. This is something that must be answered with a strong ecclesiology that recognizes and emphasizes the centrality of the corporate life and identity of the institutional church, her people, and their collective ministry. The current moment demands a resounding “Amen!” to Cyprian’s dictum (which sentiment has been perpetuated in Reformed circles by Calvin in Institutes IV.1.1.) that “No one can have God for his Father, who does not have the Church for his mother.”
In recent years there has been something of a happy resurgence of both popular-level writings as well as more scholarly theological work relevant to ecclesiology, such as much of the fine work that has been produced by 9Marks ministries and other connected writers. Much of this scholarship has come from a credobaptist viewpoint and assumes congregationalism as the standard for church governance. Though this factor is at odds with classically Reformed and Presbyterian ecclesiological commitments, these works are nonetheless useful in emphasizing the necessity for the corporate gathering and a corporate Christian self-conception. While there has been useful ecclesiological work coming from Presbyterian and Reformed authors of late, these have tended to be more popular-level works that focus more narrowly on issues surrounding the sacraments or that of pastoral leadership/church officers.
There are works that deserve frequent reference in ecclesiological studies such as the late Edmund Clowney’s work on the church which, while Reformed in its theological orientation, is not exactly a work of recent scholarship, being published in 1995. Of course, the classic 19th-century ecclesiological tome by James Bannerman is both Reformed and eminently worthy of consideration, but hardly recent. There is also the widely popular work by Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the communal/community aspect of the life of the church, but this work is not recent (being published in 1939) and Bonhoeffer’s theological orientation is not of the classical Reformed sort. One happy exception to this is Michael Horton’s People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology, which was published in 2008. There are also forthcoming scholarly works that promise to contribute to a more robust ecclesiology in our day but, at the time of this article’s writing, have not yet been released and are thus unable to be considered.
Hence, the burden of this article is to demonstrate the essentially corporate nature (and therefore, corporate demands of life and ministry) of the Scripture’s conception of the church, offered from both a classically Reformed perspective and from a systematic-theological/ecclesiological perspective.
The ecclesiological minimalism that presently dominates the contemporary North American church—driven by a wider societal proclivity to rampant individualism—is fundamentally unbiblical, and the exegetical data from the Old and New Testaments bear this out. However, for the sake of space, I have left exegetical considerations for another time (see the full-length article in the Puritan Reformed Journal). Rather, my aim in this post and in one following is to show that this trend is also ahistorical, at odds with Reformed theological confessionalism, and spiritually detrimental. The church of centuries past had a far more robust and biblical understanding of the church’s corporate self-conception and the need for corporate discipleship and gathering. We can and ought to recapture and promote this past self-conception and ecclesiastically corporate mentality. A retrieval of this ecclesiastically corporate self-conception will serve to promote the spiritual health and welfare of the church broadly in the present generation.
Historical, Confessional Applications
Previous generations of scholars and theologians have emphasized various characteristics of the church’s identity. Two such characteristics relevant to our purposes here are the emphases on the church’s oneness and the church’s catholicity. Later during the period of the Reformation, the notion of the church as the “communion of saints” was re-emphasized and will be discussed below as the retrieval and prioritization of this emphasis is key to this article’s thesis.
In offering a survey of the ἐκκλησια as it develops in the pages of the New Testament, it is certainly true that, at her genesis, the visible church (as such) was only at Jerusalem. But soon churches had sprung up in places like Antioch, Samaria, and various other locations, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, and these gatherings were also referred to as ἐκκλησια. In Acts 5:11; 11:26; 1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19, 28, 35 the word ἐκκλησια most certainly refers to the gathering or assembly of a specific and local congregation; but elsewhere it refers repeatedly to the church itself, even when she is not formally gathered, and thus Paul often speaks of the ἐκκλησιαι in the plural (Rom. 16:4; 1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:2; 1 Thess. 2:14; etc.). 
In other words, identity precedes action to a certain extent, and one is a part of the church catholic (or church corporate: a widespread, global body) whether or not one is gathered. Scripturally, a sense of corporate identity informs the actions and attitudes of believers and (to use a modern anachronism) informs their “self-identity”: because they are the people of God (Rom. 9:25; 2 Cor. 6:16, 18; Titus 2:14; Heb. 8:10; 13:12; 1 Pet. 2:9–10), therefore they dogather with one another. They are those who have committed themselves to the Lord and have turned to him (Acts 5:14; 14:15), who bear the name of “disciples” and it is this sense of identity and self-understanding to which the writers of the New Testament appeal over and over in order to emphasize their primary allegiances or Christian duties: Scripture refers to them as brothers and sisters, chosen ones, called ones, saints, and believers (Acts 1:15; 6:1; 9:1, 32; Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2). Clearly, for the New Testament authors, this notion of individual believers’ oneness and spiritual unity is a fundamental conception and driving force in determining their Christian ethics and mindset.
It is notable that during the era of the Protestant Reformation and Post-Reformation (a movement which, at its best, was an effort to retrieve and realign the contemporary church’s doctrines and practices with that of the New Testament and Apostolic era) great emphasis was placed on Christian maturity and growth in spirituality through the means of the church’s corporate ministries and ordinances. This was certainly not to the exclusion of individual acts of piety and devotion but nevertheless, in terms of weightier emphasis, primacy of place was given to the church’s corporate work as the central means for Christian growth and discipleship.
As a window into some historical application of this principle, it is useful to see how this emphasis on the essentially corporate nature of Christianity was understood and appropriated in the era of the Reformation and Post-Reformation. In examining the codified, confessional statements adopted as the official doctrinal positions of Reformed churches throughout Europe and the British Isles during this era, we find this emphasis uniformly shared.
In one the earliest confessional statements coming out of the Continental Reformed tradition, the Belgic Confession (composed in 1561 by Guido de Brès) boldly states in chapter 27 (emphasis mine in italics):
We believe and confess
One single catholic or universal church—
a holy congregation and gathering
of true Christian believers,
awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ
being washed by his blood,
and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
This church has existed from the beginning of the world
and will last until the end,
as appears from the fact
that Christ is eternal King
who cannot be without subjects.
Even more pointedly, chapter 28 of the Belgic Confession outlines the duties and obligations that individual Christians have with regard to the church corporate and the necessary element that the church is to a Christian’s salvation. This chapter is often entitled “The Obligations of Church Members” though interestingly (and perhaps provocatively to modern ears) the URCNA website has updated the chapter’s title head as “That every one is bound to join himself to the true Church.” This article states, in part (emphasis mine in italics):
We believe that
since this holy assembly and congregation
is the gathering of those who are saved
and there is no salvation apart from it,
no one ought to withdraw from it,
content to be by himself,
regardless of his status or condition.
But all people are obliged
to join and unite with it,
keeping the unity of the church
by submitting to its instruction and discipline…
and by serving to build up one another,
according to the gifts God has given them
as members of each other
in the same body.
And to preserve this unity more effectively,
it is the duty of all believers,
according to God’s Word…
to join this assembly
wherever God has established it…
all who withdraw from the church
or do not join it
act contrary to God’s ordinance.
Relatedly, the Heidelberg Catechism in its 55th Question likewise affirms this corporate obligation of the individual Christian in the life of wider church (emphasis mine in italics):
Q. What do you understand by the communion of saints?
First, that believers, all and everyone,
as members of Christ
have communion with him
and share in all his treasures and gifts.
Second, that everyone is duty-bound
to use his gifts
readily and cheerfully
for the benefit and well-being
of the other members.
One will note how forcefully the Belgic Confession asserts that church members have an obligation one to another, that Christianity assumes communal duties, and it demands an assembled nature such that “no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself.” In other words, the Confession allows for no kind of solo Christianity, but rather insists that the prime means of spiritual growth and communion with God is to participate in communion with his saints.
The substance of the Begic Confession can likewise be seen in Second Helvetic Confession (1566), which similarly insists on the individual Christian believer’s involvement in the corporate life of God’s people. We will look at this and subsequent Reformed confessions in our next post, and likewise make some contemporary observations and applications.
Sean Morris (@MrSeanGMorris) serves as a minister at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and as the Academic Dean of the Blue Ridge Institute for Theological Education.
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 Wesley Hill, “Why Personal Devotions Aren’t Enough,” Christianity Today, December 2014, 30; Carey Nieuwhof, “Why Attending Church No Longer Makes Sense,” Careyniehof.com, accessed October 7, 2021, https://careynieuwhof.com/why-attending-church-no-longer-makes-sense/.
 More recent survey results have been published by Ligonier which were released in late 2022. At the time of this article’s publication, the author did not have the opportunity to incorporate these more recent findings, but a quick perusal of the 2022 survey shows no unexpected shift in the data between 2020 and 2022 that would warrant a change in this article’s analysis. If anything, the statistics demonstrate that the situation is more dire in the American church two years later and only further underscores this article’s concerns.
 “State of Theology Survey Results 2020,” Ligonier Ministries, accessed October 12, 2021, https://thestateoftheology.com/data-explorer/2020/20?AGE=30&MF=14®ION....
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, trans. F. L. Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1:1012.
 Cyprian of Carthage, On the Unity of the Church. In Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix, eds. A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 5:423.
 See Gregg R. Allison and John S. Feinberg, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2012); Gregg R. Allison, Graham A. Cole, and Oren R. Martin. The Church: An Introduction (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2021); Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, 4th edition (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2021); Bobby Jamieson, Built upon the Rock: The Church (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012); Bobby Jamieson, Committing to One Another: Church Membership (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012); Jonathan Leeman, Don’t Fire Your Church Members: The Case for Congregationalism (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016). Robert Letham’s recently published Systematic Theology has also offered some recent thoughtful and ecclesiologically reformed scholarship: Robert Letham, Systematic Theology (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2019).
 Jonathan Leeman’s One Assembly is one such work which ably makes this case: One Assembly: Rethinking the Multisite and Multiservice Church Models (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020).
 See Jason Helopoulos, Covenantal Baptism (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2021); Peter A. Lillback, Saint Peter’s Principles: Leadership for Those Who Already Know Their Incompetence (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2019); Guy Prentiss Waters, How Jesus Runs the Church (Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Publishing, 2011); Guy P. Waters, The Lord’s Supper as the Sign and Meal of the New Covenant (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2019); Timothy Z. Witmer, The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church (Phillipsburg, N.J: P & R Publishing, 2010).
 Edmund P. Clowney, The Church (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1995).
 James Bannerman, The Church of Christ (1868; reis. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2015).
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community (1939; reis. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009).
 Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and within the Neo-Orthodox theological school of thought. For more on this subject, see Andreas Pangritz, Karl Barth in the Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2018).
 Michael S. Horton, People and Place (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
 Dustin Benge, The Loveliest Place: The Beauty and Glory of the Church (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2022); Brian J. Tabb, After Emmaus: How the Church Fulfills the Mission of Christ (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2021). As well, we should note the forthcoming work from Tom Greggs of the University of Aberdeen, an anticipated three-volume work of Protestant ecclesiology, of which only the first volume is presently available (Dogmatic Ecclesiology, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019). This writer has not yet been able to read nor engage with Greggs’ ecclesiology, but based on the book’s own self-description, the work will be geared toward “the doctrine of the church for Christians from a variety of backgrounds.” Thus, this work (while undoubtedly valuable in terms of its contribution in a lackluster modern era in terms of Protestant ecclesiology), may not be one in a self-consciously or explicitly Reformed/Presbyterian vein. Furthermore, there is a very recent work of ecclesiology authored by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen entitled An Introduction to Ecclesiology: Historical, Global, and Interreligious Perspectives (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2021). This writer has not had the opportunity to consider the work as of yet. No doubt this work will prove to be an important contribution to the field of contemporary ecclesiology, particularly as the author writes with a deliberate emphasis on global and interreligious aspects and how those come to bear on Christian ecclesiology. While modern and scholarly, readers will note that this work is self-consciously an introduction to the field of ecclesiology and that it gives consideration to “major theological traditions, including Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Pentecostal.” While valuable, this work may, again, not be a work of explicitly Reformed or Presbyterian ecclesiology.
 Herman Bavinck, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, trans. Bolt, J. & Vriend, J., Vol. 4 of Reformed Dogmatics, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 279.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 280.
 Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 281.
 “[B]y calling it “new” they do great wrong to God, whose Sacred Word does not deserve to be accused of novelty. Indeed, I do not at all doubt that it is new to them, since to them both Christ himself and his gospel are new. But he who knows that this preaching of Paul is ancient, that “Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again for our justification” [Rom. 4:25], will find nothing new among us. That it has lain long unknown and buried is the fault of man’s impiety. Now when it is restored to us by God’s goodness, its claim to antiquity ought to be admitted at least by right of recovery.” Calvin, Institutes, 1:15-16.
 “Moreover, they unjustly set the ancient fathers against us (I mean the ancient writers of a better age of the church) as if in them they had supporters of their own impiety. If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory—to put it very modestly—would turn to our side…But we do not despise them; in fact, if it were to our present purpose, I could with no trouble at all prove that the greater part of what we are saying today meets their approval.” Calvin, Institutes, 1:18.
 Westminster Confession of Faith 21.6 makes clear that, “…God is to be worshipped everywhere, in spirit and truth; as, in private families daily, and in secret, each one by himself,” (emphasis mine in italics). But then the confession goes on in the very next clause to state, “so, more solemnly in the public assemblies (emphasis mine in italics), which are not carelessly or wilfully to be neglected, or forsaken, when God, by His Word or providence, calls thereunto.” “Westminster Confession of Faith,” Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, accessed November 8, 2021, https://prts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Westminster_Confession.pdf.
 The Heidelberg Catechism, along with the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt are together often referred to as the “Three Forms of Unity” and constitute the confessional and theological documents which historically governed many churches stemming from the Continental Reformed, Dutch Reformed, or German Reformed Tradition. Thus, the reference here to the Heidelberg Catechism is supplementary and also complementary to the Catechism’s sister document, the Belgic Confession. For more information, see “Introduction to the Creeds and Confessions,” Three Forms of Unity, United Reformed Churches of North America, accessed November 8, 2021, https://threeforms.org/introduction-to-the-creeds-and-confessions/.