Is the church institute or organism, visible or invisible?
Reformed Perspective of 1 November 2013 placed a couple of articles by Rev W Bredenhof about Abraham Kuyper, a powerful figure in church and state who wrote much and had a profound influence on the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Much of what Kuyper wrote was good but he developed some theories which were not scripturally sound. One of these, says Rev Bredenhof, had to do with the church.
“[Kuyper] distinguished between the church as institute and the church as organism. The church as institute is the local congregation, and the church as organism includes all believers everywhere, or the church in its broadest sense. [The result was that] some placed all the emphasis on the church as organism, seeing that as the ‘real’ church, and then used that to justify cooperation with non-Reformed people in many different endeavors, including Christian education. After all, if the church as organism is the ‘real’ church, and all believers are in this church together, then shouldn’t we work together for God’s kingdom?”
The church as institute versus the church as organism has also been referred to as the difference between the visible church and the invisible church. Scripture does not speak in the way Kuyper formulated it and therefore neither does the Three Forms of Unity. Nevertheless, this thinking continues to be reflected in efforts to work together with Christians from differing religious bodies for ‘Kingdom causes’. The obligation to join Christ’s true (visible) church then becomes of lesser importance than working together with Christians from outside the true (visible) church, but who are presumed to belong to that ‘invisible’ church, for the sake of one or another ‘Kingdom cause’.
Rev Bredenhof adds:
“One could also argue that this view was behind the reluctance of the concerned in the Hervormde Kerk to leave, even when things were so obviously off the rails. Why were they staying in a church where ministers were denying the resurrection of Christ when Paul so clearly says in 1 Corinthians 15 that to deny this is to deny the gospel itself? Kuyper’s weak view of the church probably allowed this to be rationalized.”
If the real church is not the true, visible, instituted church but an organism, an the invisible totality of believers (the elect) that only God sees, then the obligation to leave the false church and join Christ’s true church (BCF 28) is undermined. The church, we confess, is not an invisible number of the elect but a gathering of believers, a communion of saints (HC LD 21), characterised by faithful preaching, administration of sacraments and church discipline (BCF 29). The Canadian Reformed Churches dealt with this issue at their Synod 1986  and said:
Scriptural evidence for this [visible, instituted church] can be found, e.g. in 1 Corinthians. In this letter the apostle addresses himself to the church at Corinth with its official congregational meetings (“when you are assembled” 5:4; 14:26; “When you assemble as church” 11:18, 14:23), in which discipline is exercised (5:4,5) and the Lord’s Supper is celebrated (11:20), where the Word is preached (14:19) and where outsiders and even unbelievers may come in and be convinced by the preaching (14:22-24) and where the believers receive their appointments, gifts and assignments in their special office and in the office of all believers (12:27-31). The church (ekklesia) in Paul’s letter is the assembly of the saints which is called together.”
Think also of the churches to which paul sent his letters, and the seven churches of Asia Minor to whom John sent his letters. All were visible entities, congregations, each with an address.
Old age – a blessing from God and for others
The Fair Haven Retirement Village, in its glossy November 2103 Newsletter, contained an interesting lead article by the chairman, John Schoof, based on his speech at a general meeting. Whilst many view aged people as a burden on society and even go so far as to promote euthanasia, terminating the lives of those unwilling or unable to give their consent (as happens, he says, in Holland and Belgium), the Bible speaks quite differently.
“For instance in Deuteronomy we can read that old age is a blessing from God. ‘Walk in obedience to all that the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess’ (Deut. 5:33). Also in Deuteronomy we are taught that the aged are perceived as resourceful people with valuable gifts for the good of everyone. ‘Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you’ (Deut. 32:7).
We are further taught that we have a responsibility to care for our aging members. As God’s children we need to be especially sensitive to the needs of our aged. ‘Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD’ (Lev 19:32). The passage in 1 Tim. 5:1-16 teaches us that our aged members deserve kindness and respect; it teaches us that families have an obligation to provide for their aged members, and again that the aged/ elderly are a valuable resource in the communion of saints to teach others.”