The Church as Community and as Institution

Address delivered in Hilversum, the Netherlands, on April 23, 1942, to the local chapter of the Confessional Union.

Originally published in Religie en Politiek (Nijkerk: G. F. Callenbach N. V., 1945).

Translated by Ruben Alvarado

In the church, there are people and there are things. It is beyond all doubt true when one says, the church – that is all believers taken together, the entirety of believers that together forms a congregation, a community, one body; we ourselves, the believers, are the church. But it is not true when one says that the concept of the church is exhausted with this notion. Because then one only sees people in the church, but overlooks things. The church is more than just the collection, the assembly, the community, the entirety of believers. In this community there are also institutions, magnitudes, figures, shapes with their own strength and own significance. And when we use the word church, we also think of them. I refer to preaching as proclamation of the gospel and as ministry of the Word of God according to the commandment and under the promise of Christ. That is one of those figures with its own strength and its own significance. And that is also one of those essential parts of the church. We also need to think of that, when we use the word church. “Church” is, among other things, also, that there is preaching in this world, i.e., that the gospel is proclaimed, the Word is ministered. That is an institution, an ordinance of Christ.

This concept of ordinance or institution, foundation or institute, means two things. In the first place: preaching as an institution of Christ signifies that it is done according to the commandment, on the authority of Christ. He has commanded his apostles, and in the apostolate the church, to go into the world and proclaim the gospel. So this is not something thought up by men or what has emerged from the impulse of the pious heart. There is preaching because Christ instituted it. And secondly, in this truth of preaching as institution of Christ there lies this thought: preaching is done under the promise, in the power, of Christ. Christ not only commanded us to preach, but He also pledged that our preaching would indeed be preaching, the testimony of Christ, proclamation of the gospel, the ministry of the Word of God, and therefore itself God’s Word, the opening and closing of the kingdom of heaven. This promise puts preaching under the high voltage of eternity; for this reason it is true, like nothing else in this world; therefore, it is more than the spontaneous testimony of our piety, more than the word propagandizing our perspective, more than an indication of the way of salvation, even more than an offer of grace. By the power of Christ’s promise, preaching is the Word of God itself, the key to the kingdom, the proclamation of salvation. Through preaching, salvation is bequeathed – and therefore we are saved by preaching – or we are lost by preaching. These two concepts: “commandment” and “promise” together form the concept of “institution.” And the institution of preaching is an essential part of the essence of the church. There are people in the church; there are believers; the church is the community of believers. But there are also things in the church; there is, for example, preaching; the church is also the institution of Christ.

But there are more things in the church than that. I would also refer to the sacraments. The sacraments were instituted by Christ. We Protestants take this stand very strongly vis-à-vis the Roman Catholic church. Why does the Catholic church have seven sacraments, while we only have two? Because we do not see clearly respecting the other five, that they were instituted by Christ. And a sacrament is something so grand and lofty and sacred, that we persevere with this proposition: the sacrament, in order to be really and truly a sacrament, must have been instituted by Christ, as God Himself in human flesh. And this institution or ordinance of the sacraments by Christ embodies the same thing as the institution of preaching: command and promise. We celebrate baptism and communion because Christ commanded us, and we believe that baptism and communion have an essential meaning and strength because Christ has promised that the signs shall not be vain, empty, without content. The power of the sacraments therefore lies not in the signs and the elements, in water, bread and wine as a product of nature, and in the actions that are executed on these elements, as moments of history, as little as does the power of preaching lie in the voice of the preacher as an expression of the human mind. The power of the sacraments lies in the secret work of the Holy Spirit, and it lies in the commandment and the promise of Christ. The ordinance of baptism and Communion is election, the election of the natural products water, bread, and wine, and of the historical acts of washing and burial, breaking and pouring, eating and drinking, unto signs of the kingdom. And when we think of the church, then we must also think of these “things.” The church, that is us. Yes, but also: the church, that is, inter alia, also the sacraments.

And there are even more “things” in the church. I would also refer to the offices. Besides the one, preaching, and the two, sacraments, there are the three offices: pastor – elder – deacon. These are also given by Christ. One cannot desist from this statement. The ministry was not invented by people, nor was it born of the need of circumstances, but instituted by Christ; in bud already by the Christ in His humiliation, in the apostolate as root office from which the other offices emerged, and in development by Christ in His exaltation, as the book of Acts and the apostolic epistles describe to us. The offices do not stand under the motto: let everything proceed decently and in order – for then the truth regarding offices is purely a matter of utility, of practical usefulness. Rather, they stand under the motto: for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ. The truth of the spiritual office is also much too deeply grounded in the saving truth of the threefold office of Christ, than that it should be added to the church from outside, from practical circumstances. It comes from within, from Christ and His work of reconciliation and redemption, extruded into the church as the body of Christ. Because Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the officeholder par excellence, and fulfills the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king, therefore His congregation as His body exhibits the office even as a reflection of the threefold office, in the three offices of pastor, elder, and deacon. Hence: if we say church, we also think of these “things,” of the offices.

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Behold the church as community and as institution, as an entirety of people and of things, as organism and as institute, as Gemeinschaft and as Anstalt. The church is on the one hand the gathering of believers, the number of the elect, the congregation of the saints; but the church is on the other hand also the entirety of the institutions of Christ, the one preaching, the two sacraments, the three offices.

We find this duality of people and things in the church beautifully rendered in the word assembly. This is an ambiguous word; it has a passive and an active meaning. The church as assembly of believers signifies on the one hand, the word taken in its passive sense, being-together, the being-with-each-other, the community of believers in one group, together forming a single whole. The word assembly, in that case, designates a condition. But the church as assembly of believers signifies on the other hand, the word taken in its active sense, the bringing-together, the gathering-to-each-other of believers in one group; the institution by which believers are assembled, brought together. The word assembly then points to an action.

The same duality can be illustrated in the phrase “communion of saints.” This expression as well, which we use in the Apostles’ Creed as the more detailed description of the church, has a double meaning. Communion of saints signifies, first, communion of holy people, viz., of believers who indeed in Christ are holy, sanctified, i.e., separated and dedicated. But the communion of saints signifies, secondly, also the communion of holy things, particularly communion of sacraments, these sacred things which are also given in Christ. So we see here as well, and here very clearly, that in the church there are men and things, believers and sacraments, and that we should put equal emphasis on both to delineate the concept of the church to some degree.

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And now this is what is most characteristic of the pure concept of the church: it is ridiculous to fight over the question of what comes first, the church as community or the church as institution. One cannot say that first there is the community of believers and that these believers then go “institute” the church, that they go institute the offices in order to get to the ministry of preaching and the sacraments. The consequence of that would be a unilateral humanization of the entire church, because in that case everything would come to rest on the personal faith of the faithful and on their spiritual possession. As little can one say that there is first the church as institution of Christ and that this institution then doles out grace to the people, to the congregation, or rather – because in that case, a congregation would hardly exist anymore – to the public. That would lead to a one-sided deification of the entire church, because then everything would be subsumed in divine things and in the end there would not even be a question of a community of people. The first bias is that of the sect, the second that of Roman Catholicism.

To both extremes one can only say: they are both at the same time. The church is the divine-human body of Christ, and so in Christ the community and the institution are equally established. With Christ there is – it goes without saying – the church as organism and the church as institution. The one surrounds the other and inheres in the other. The church as community is only roundabout the church as institution. I do not know of another church, even as community, than the one that arises and becomes manifest roundabout preaching, the sacraments, and the offices. Even when I think of the church as the number of the elect – which is the outer limit of the church as community – even when I think of that, I can only meaningfully think of the congregation that on Sundays is absorbed in the preaching of the Word and baptizes its children and celebrates communion and maintains a pastor, receives a visit from an elder, and gives offerings to a deacon. In this very simple phenomenon, there is something of the high voltage of eternity. In the church in its day-to-day goings-on through the years, I meet the number of the elect. Thus the Bible can say, there were daily added to the number of them that are saved, and yet Ananias and Sapphira are also included there.

From Christ out, from out of the covenant of grace, the highly visible church must therefore be spoken of, which is gathered around the institution: it is the holy congregation of Jesus Christ. And from Christ out, from the covenant of grace, the number of those who are saved must also be thought of: I can only form a good and correct idea about this by looking at the concrete congregation that is there in practice. I cannot drive a wedge between them. There are not two churches: the visible and the invisible. Then it becomes like this: sure, the visible congregation of all those people who go to church, is there of course, but that’s really nothing – what it comes down to is the invisible church of the true elect. But that is an utterly mistaken idea. Preaching, sacraments, and offices, are holinesses of the LORD, not inventions of man, and all that is gathered around them, shares in the holiness of Christ’s institutions. An elect, regenerated, converted soul is not a whit holier than any child being baptized or any churchgoer. From Christ out, covenantally, they are all partakers of entire salvation in entirely the same sense. Each wedge that I would like to drive into this is a frustration of the truth of Christ. When I say that the number of the elect is everything and that the congregation roundabout preaching, sacraments, and offices is just the external church, then I might as well say that the incarnation of the Word with cross and resurrection are only external realities and that the interior light is everything – and then I enmesh myself in the most dangerous heresy. So must we be satisfied with the statement: the church as community is only roundabout the church as institution; so does it arise, so is it there, so does it become manifest.

And this statement is balanced by the other proposition: the church as institution is only in the church as community. The institutional resides in the organic. The church as institution does not stand outside the church as community. It is not facing it. It is not above it, either. It is in it. Preaching is preaching in the church. The sacraments are served in the assembly of the congregation. Hence, when we celebrate communion with a chronically ill member, an elder should be there, and preferably also the entire family, and actually also a few communion-celebrating neighbors. It is not the church as institution that carries the sacrament to a section of the public – but the congregation celebrates the sacrament. And that is why the officeholders do not form a clergy above the congregation as the sum total of the laity; rather, that the officeholders are ordinary church members who partake in exactly the same grace as all other members of the church, but are called for certain offices.

Therefore it speaks very essentially for itself that the pastor and other church members pay the tithe, that the pastor and other church members dress in ordinary clothes and speak in ordinary language like any normal person. Protestantism abolished Latin as the language of the clergy. Hence, the elder is the officeholder par excellence. When I always enumerate the three offices in this order: pastor – elder – deacon, I do not do that to put the pastor first, but to put the elder central. He is the officeholder in the most literal sense of the word. The preacher easily becomes clerical, the deacon easily becomes an almoner, but the elder runs neither the one nor the other danger, he is very clearly both member of the congregation and officeholder. For this reason the elder takes the middle position; he keeps, so to speak, the pastor and the deacon going. He demonstrates that the spiritual office is an office in the strict sense of the word and yet stands squarely in the middle of the congregation. Or to put it in the language of Hoedemaker: the offices are not to be compared with an instrument, for example, a hammer or a saw, but with an organ, e.g., an eye or a hand. The offices are the organs of the body of Christ.

The church as community is therefore not to be loosed from the church as institution, and vice versa, neither is the church as institution to be loosed from the church as community.

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The case comes up in a yet wider context and brighter light, if we relate our subject to another distinction in the church concept. I have in mind the distinction between the visible and invisible church. Then we get two pairs of concepts: community and institution, and visible and invisible church. They are, as it were, two pairs of rails. How do they relate to each other? Do they run side by side, so that these two distinctions have nothing to do with each other? Or they do they rest on each other, so that the church as institution is the same as the visible church, the church as community the same as the invisible? Or do they cross over each other, as we so often see at train stations, that the railway tracks run so brilliantly through each other via switches? I believe the latter. These two distinctions do not coincide, but intersect.

However, it is true that the tight connection between community and institution, on which I elaborated above, leads me to see that I cannot so easily pass by the visible church as many people today still seem to believe. How many are there who think that the visible church is something human and that what really matters is only the invisible church. Hence, in practice they concern themselves not in the least with the visible church and live cheerfully in some sect, or in an evangelism campaign, or even in that pious, broad, impassive interdenominational life. Or, they do indeed in practice have some concern for the visible church, but in the meantime view it, at any rate, as something purely human, and therefore abuse it as they raucously give rein to their old nature, or as they let loose their passions in party struggle (think of the disastrous institution of electoral associations[1]); or they even solidify into something that seems very churchly but essentially is deeply unchurchly churchism.

On all sides this is incorrect. The visible church is the body of Christ, and therefore I may not ignore it in the least, and I may not abuse it in any way, shape, or form. The things of the visible church are sacred things, with which I should deal and handle only in obedient devotion and deep respect. I need to feel the vibration of the holiness and glory of Christ unto the outer limits of the organic-institutional life of its body (even unto the meeting of the church’s electoral committee). I only see that clearly when I learn to discern the close interweaving of community and institution. Because the church as community only is such around the church as institution, therefore the visible communion of the congregation is holy; the sacrament and election are equally in it. And because the church as institution only is such in the church as community, therefore all these visible things of preaching, sacraments, and offices are no worldly shapes, but also signs, sacred signs of the kingdom.

Therefore, one cannot say that the church as community is invisible and the church as institution is visible. They are each both at the same time. The church as community is invisible and visible at the same time. There is an indissoluble link between the number of the elect and the membership roll of the church. Doubtless, these two do not coincide. Not all those registered in the membership roll of the church are found in the number of the elect. Nor, conversely, are all who appear in the number of the elect, registered in the membership roll of the church. And yet God forbids me to just sever the bond between them and say: the number of the elect and the membership roll of the church have nothing to do with each other. Did the Bible not speak about the congregation as about the number of those who are being saved – and did this not include Ananias and Sapphira?

Both concepts: the number of the elect and the membership roll of the church belong to the church as community, because both are concerned with people – but the one is completely invisible and the other is just as completely visible – and yet they belong very essentially together. Thus we see that the church as community is both invisible and visible at the same time. And the same applies to the church as institution. Only we speak here involuntarily in the reverse order. The church as an institution is visible and invisible at the same time. As I just referred by way of illustration to the membership roll of the church, I now point by way of illustration to the sacrament.

The sacrament is something very visible. There is nothing as gruesomely visible in the world as just the broken bread and poured out wine, the gray bread and the red wine on the Communion table. And at the same time there is nothing so perfectly hidden from our external and internal senses as our eating of the body and our drinking of the blood of Christ in heaven. And yet between these two there is again an absolutely inextricable connection. We speak of an unio sacramentalis, a sacramental unity of sign and thing signified: eating and drinking bread and wine and eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ are linked together, are in certain, viz., sacramental sense one and the same thing. This unio sacramentalis is so perfect that we speak of a phraseologia sacramentalis, a sacramental speech, in which everything runs together in a salutary confusion, because the names and characteristics of the sign are attributed to the thing signified and vice versa, the names and characteristics of the thing signified are attributed to the sign. The bread, e.g., is called the body of Christ.

Thus we see that the church as an institution is not only visible, but that the invisible thing is present in the visible sign. This transparency, the transparency of the visible to the invisible, is characteristic not only of the sacraments, but also of preaching and the offices. The quality of the sermon does not lie in the eloquence and the fire with which it is pronounced, nor even in the spiritual profundity of thought or inward experience, nor even in the personal share of the pastor; the quality of the sermon depends simply and only on the gracious election and institution of God, on His commandment and promise. The preaching of God’s Word – however clumsily it is done – is, in a very hidden but very real way, God’s own Word, just as eating and drinking bread and wine are the perfect and true communion with Christ Himself. And so: I do not have to revere a pastor, an elder, a deacon in what they are and in what they do, but in what they have been given by God. No glorification of the elders because they are such fine people or because they do their work so excellently, but because they have been placed by God in such excellent office! One also needs to see through the elder in the transparency of divine election, in order to see actual holiness and glory.

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Thus, the duality of community and institution makes it impossible for us to pass by the visibility of the church. We must always step through it in faith. But this duality of community and institution likewise makes it impossible to ignore the humanity of the church. We must always stand in faith. These two, community and institution, are so close together, that I cannot fit a pin between them. Here I am entirely on the earthly, worldly, human level. When I reflect on the relation between the church and the kingdom of God, then the distinction is fierce and radical. When I then reflect on the distinction between the militant and the triumphant church, or in other words, on the church above-below, then the distinction is much less fierce and radical, but I cannot possibly bring them entirely together; between heaven and earth there is the boundary of death and materiality. And when I then begin reflecting on the distinction between the visible and the invisible church, then the two foci of thought are already a lot closer to one another, even though a certain distance remains, which we then call the hidden work of the Holy Spirit. But when I in my thoughts then come to the distinction between church as community and church as institution, then these two are so close together, they are so closely related to each other and in each other, that I cannot separate them anymore. There is no boundary and no distance between them. Which boundary and what distance would lie between the baptized child and the elder? Together they form the church.

And this very close relationship brings humanity into it. Here we see what it means that Christ wishes to live with sinners; Christ lives in the flesh. There are two ideals to which I must die. There is the Roman Catholic ideal of the sacred, consecrated, celibate clergy, in which I shear myself of all holiness and find it outside of myself in the priest. And there is sectarian ideal of sacred, exalted, heartfelt piety, in which I take all holiness unto myself and find it in my own heart. Both of these are an idealistic view of the church. And if things disappoint, if in the congregation and in the church things go the way of all flesh, and we affront each other and step on each other’s toes – then we complain bitterly about so much disappointment and would like to just walk away from it. But that is not the response of faith, hope, and love to the poor fleshly reality of the church. It is our idolatrous idealism, in which we worship idols with our Christian ideals of how things should be, which responds in that manner.

The Christian view of the church is different from the idealistic. It makes us stand in the church, not because of any ideal (for every ideal is an idol, a false god), but because of the incarnation of the Word. The Word became flesh and Christ wants to live with sinners. This deprives me of all idealism. Now I endure the humanity of the church fully and to the end. They are not many wise, not many noble, not many mighty, not in any way, neither social nor cultural nor spiritual: they don’t have much money and much true cultivation and much deep inward experience, and only a tiny bit of knowledge of the Word. It is a sober crowd of ordinary people and the preaching, the sacraments, the offices, the entire worship service, it is all just as simple, meager, and sober. Now I share all the joys and sorrows with all the saints. It is not easy to stay in a guest house, I who have seen better days in art and philosophy. But just so do I experience the community of grace and love which is in Christ. It is deep, very deeply hidden in the flesh. Christ loved lost sinners, and this lesson I now study every day. I live in community with all and sundry or, as Hoedemaker used to say, with the rabble. I maintain community with the elder. I live in the church as community and I live in the church as institution. And so, here on earth, I have eternal life.

[1] Kiesvereenigingen:  the kiesvereniging or electoral association was an institution in the national church dating from the 1860s in order to give the laity voice in the election of officeholders. It was a body of selectmen empowered to elected officeholders. In time these associations became hotbeds of electioneering.