What is the church? The New Testament calls the church by many names: “the assembly (or church) of God,” “body of Christ,” “the bride of Christ,” “the people of God,” “the family of God,” “the temple of God,” and “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Each of these designations points to a certain quality of the thing that came into being as a result of the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. None of these names captures the entire being of this thing we most often call “church.” Not even all of them together can create perfect insight into the nature, life and end of church. And simply thinking or saying the names apart from real participation and empathetic involvement in the life of the church cannot impart an adequate understanding the living reality of church.
In today’s post I want to consider another designation for the church, “the Mother of the faithful.” This name for the church is not found in the New Testament. For some, this absence alone makes the term questionable. And Protestants may shy away from a name that is used prominently by the Roman Catholic Church. But neither of these reasons can bear scrutiny. Paul calls himself “the father” of the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:15). And he speaks of the Galatians as his children “for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal 4:19). And for those who think the term “mother” is exclusively a Roman Catholic designation for the church, listen to a theologian whose Protestant credentials are impeccable, John Calvin:
“But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Mt 22:30). For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.4).
In the paragraphs that follow, Calvin enlarges and details the ways in which the church mothers her children. It is through her voice that we hear the gospel. Whether we read the words of the apostles in the New Testament or hear it in the persons of our parents, traveling evangelists or the ordinary ministry, the church gives birth to us in the faith. She evangelizes, teaches, nurtures, guides and disciplines us until, as Calvin so aptly puts it, we are “divested of mortal flesh.”
The living community of Christians, the faithful people of God, is the means by which each new generation and each person hears the gospel and sees it embodied in real life. Whether we are born to Christian parents or are converted as adults directly from the ignorance of paganism, we depend on the living community of faith, which exists in unbroken, living continuity with Jesus Christ and his apostles. And as John Calvin emphasizes, our relationship to our mother is lifelong. To quote him again, “For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars.” No one is strong enough to live as a Christian apart from the church. The passions of the flesh are too strong, the voices of the world are too alluring and the winds of teaching are too deceptive. We are too forgetful, too lazy, and too distractible. We need to hear the word preached. We need to participate in the sacraments, confess our sins, voice our faith and receive the church’s discipline. We can’t see ourselves objectively and we easily find excuses for our faults.
The 3rd century bishop and martyr Cyprian of Carthage famously said, “Outside the Church there is no salvation” and “you cannot have God for your father unless you have the church for your mother.” In one sense these sayings are self-evident. If the church is the people of God, the mother of the faithful, the family of God and the elect, then outside there is no salvation and no sonship. Put another way, outside the birthing, nurturing, caring, teaching, guiding and correcting embrace of our mother there is no safety and no certainty. There is only danger, abandonment and loneliness. Apart from our mother, we wander as orphaned children in a cold world.