The Church is Our Mother

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.

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4 thoughts on “The Church is Our Mother

  1. nokareon

    I find it interesting to reflect on the Church as our Mother metaphor in the light of the Protestant dissemination. If God is our Father and the Church our Mother, are we stepbrothers and stepsisters between denominations? Does a Methodist have one Church Mother and the Presbyterian another? Is the Baptist more closely related to the Lutheran than from a Greek Orthodox parishioner? Does God the Father have many Church wives with whom he fathers individual believers?

    While mostly tongue-in-cheek, I wonder if these kinds of questions show the absurdity of talking about the “big C” Church without having a fundamental unity of authority and structure to the members of its body. The Catholic or Orthodox church can claim, from their perspective, to comprise the “big C” Church, provided that they see the Protestant denominations as her estranged children. But there doesn’t seem to be a way from the Protestant perspective to expand the concept of the church beyond the confines of one’s own denomination—unless one simply defines the Church as “the collective body of all believers,” which would in turn make the truth “the Church is our Mother” rather trivial.

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  2. ifaqtheology Post author

    I see what you are saying, and I hope to venture an opinion about the nest of issues involved here. In dealing with this issue Calvin spoke of the invisible church and the visible church, the elect and those actually gathered. I want to think of the church as always concrete and actual. Not to speak in too nominalist a way about it, but I don’t think the most real church exists as a Platonic idea somewhere. On the other hand, the church is manifested concretely and actually in many locations, at many times and under many denominational names. None can sustain the claim of being identical with the church. The whole (catholic) church can be present in a certain way in one gathering of one tradition, but no one group can manifest the whole life and potential of the church. In an analogy, a single human being is really human but does not and cannot bring to concrete actuality the full possibility of human nature. A particular gathering or a particular denomination experiences the fullness and catholicity of the church best by keeping in communication with all of its manifestations. Among other functions, this is the work of theologians. And I take it very seriously.

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  3. nokareon

    I appreciate your response! Your analogy to individual humans having a need for community in order to actualize their collective potential hints at the Ecumenical perspective on denominations, which I myself resonate most with. Looking forward to reading more soon!

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  4. Falon Opsahl

    I would argue that at the heart of digesting this concept of “Church as a Mother” is not just Catholic-Protestant differences, but collectivistic-individualistic cultural biases. As a white Protestant American, I can’t help for my first thought to be cynical: How can we trust the church to fulfill its role properly? To — as you say — birth, nurture, care, teach, guide and correct in moral/holy/godly/Christ-like ways? Haven’t we seen enough examples of both micro and macro institutional corruption to agree that putting that kind of trust in large entities to make and encourage ethical decisions is erroneous? Even if they are “democratic,” “diverse” and/or “tolerant” in any senses of the words?

    But those questions are making some serious assumptions about an individual’s capacity to be Christ-like without a system of guidance, support, encouragement, aid or accountability. As you said in your response to nokareon, “a single human being … does not and cannot bring to concrete actuality the full possibility of human nature.” I would add that most people would not want to either because God created us to be in community with each other — even if Western culture dictates we can, should and would be happier if we did it on our own.

    While I agree that thinking of the Church as our Mother helps us better understand our relationship to God and other Christians, I still think the above questions are, to a certain extent, valid. If Christians do begin to think of their individual churches as active arms of their Church Mother, it seems to me that there needs to 1) be a faithful, intelligent trust rather than a blind compliance (churches are, after all, still made up of fallible, sinful humans), 2) a pervasive shift in American churches from feel-good fluff to deep theological struggle (this is a generalization, but I believe it is one worth mentioning), and 3) a more sincere and ubiquitous cooperation between the churches and denominations (God is involved with and accessible to all His people, and we should follow that example despite differences and disagreements).

    What do you think? Do you think I’m making some inaccurate assumptions or sliding down a slippery slope? Or perhaps I misunderstood something about what you were saying?

    Ultimately, to reiterate, I think it would be beneficial for people to start thinking of the Church, the bride of Jesus, as our Mother, the necessary other half of our divine parentage. This idea definitely shifted my perspective about the Church in a positive way. Thank you for your thoughts!

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