Whether we recognize this truth or not, institutions are always at risk of being disestablished by God. Whenever God brings covenant sanctions in history, it is the institutions that must suffer. That is not to say that individuals do not suffer want; rather, it is to say that institutions that are not obedient to King Jesus will find themselves divorced from God and brought to nothing.
The most obvious example of this is a nation whose God is not the LORD. Repeatedly in the Old Testament, as well as the New (e.g., Rome in the book of Revelation), nation states, or more to the point, civil institutions, are brought to nothing because of their obdurate rebellion. Perhaps the most illustrious example is none other the story of Babylon and her pride-induced king, Nebuchadnezzar.
Nebuchadnezzar had loftily placed himself above God. Of course, we know that this can only happen in theory and practice, but not in actuality. This king’s entire mindset was fueled by the same desire with which Satan tempted Adam and Eve: to know and determine good and evil apart from God’s covenant. Because no one builds a ginormous statue of himself out of humility before God, Neb decidedly exalted himself and asserted his institutional supremacy. “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30, emphasis mine). Again, not humble.
The Disestablishment Principle and the Church
Whenever institutions exalt themselves past God’s jurisdiction and bounds, the covenant is breached and the sanctions begin (cf. Deut. 28–29). While the above example is primarily one related to the civil covenant, the church is not exempt. In fact, as Peter notes, judgment begins with the house of God (1 Pet. 4:17). Let me remind you of the principle I asserted at the outset: “Institutions are always at risk of being disestablished by God.” We might call this the disestablishment principle.
The word “disestablish” simple means the removal of official status. Call it a revocation of licensure, or legitimacy, the “removal” part is key. When God removes the legitimacy of an institution, he does so in a couple of ways. One, he destroys the organization. The classic example of this is Sodom and Gomorrah, or even the story of Nineveh when God relented his covenant sanctions. Another example is the church in Sardis found in Revelation 3:1–6. This local, institutional church had the reputation of being alive, but in reality, they were dead (vs. 1). They lacked good works (vs. 2) and the angel threatened that if they didn’t wake up out of their drunken stupor, the angel would “come against [them]” (vs. 3). Another example is the church in Ephesus who eventually did come under covenantal sanctions as an institution. They had lost their first love and eventually their institution died out.
At this point, I need to offer up a couple prefatory remarks before going further. In his book, The Nature, Government and Function of the Church, Stephen Perks argues that we should understand the Greek word ἐκκλησία (ekklesia) in a few different ways:
In the New Testament the word ekklesia is used of the body of Christ or assembly of Christians in three distinguishable senses: (1) to refer to the whole body of the elect that have been, are, or ever shall be united to Christ through faith (Mt. 16:18; Eph. 5:23, 24, 25f., 27, 29, 32; Col. 1:18, 24). This is the invisible catholic or universal church. (2) The term is also used to refer to all those throughout the world who profess faith in Christ together with their children (Acts 5:11; 8:1,3; 1 Cor. 12:28; cf. Eph. 4:11–12; Eph. 3:10). This is the visible catholic church. (3) The term ekklesia is, quite obviously, also used to refer to the body of believers in a particular location assembled together as a local congregation (e.g. Mt. 18:17; Acts 11:26; 14:23, 27; 15:4, 22; 16:5; Rom. 16:1, 4, 5, 13, 16; 1 Cor. 1:2; 4:17; 7:17; 11:16, 18; 16:11; 2 Cor. 8:1, 19; Col. 4:15; Rev. 2:1, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14 etc. The instances of the use of ekklesia in this sense are almost too numerous to cite). This is the visible church in a particular location organized into a congregation for the maintenance and practice of the Christi public religious cultus—the institutional church.1
Here is how we should understand this, and I’m going to nuance this in my own way, borrowing from what Perks has laid out. To start, the CHURCH (all caps) is, in general, the universal CHURCH, which simply refers to all regenerate/elect saints for all of history. Without getting into the weeds regarding the helpful (and sometimes unhelpful) distinctions regarding the visible and invisible Church, it is important to note that there is also the Church (capital C) which references all those alive at the present who are, across the world, professing Christ. (Perks adds above, “together with their children,” which is agreeable, too.) Again, there are plenty of nuances to go around, but I want to stick with this distinction, and that is, the CHURCH (all elect in history) can be distinguished from the Church (presently professing at this time), which can also be distinguished and the church (all lowercase) as a present, visible institution with public religious cultus, containing both unregenerate and regenerate “Christians.”
In short, the CHURCH and Church (in history) have manifested in the public religious cultus (that is, the “local church” assembly) as an institutional entity, but the CHURCH is not defined by its institutional activities. This is incredibly important for reasons we’ll look at shortly. The CHURCH exists because of the Father’s election, the Son’s particular redemption, and the Spirit’s active regeneration. The covenantal union of individuals to and with Christ is not determined by outward, cultic acts. Stated plainly, a local church isn’t the Church or CHURCH. Simply administering the sacraments and having qualified elders does not make the people of God (CHURCH & Church) exist. The existence of the institutional church does not rely on itself for its perpetuation, it relies, immediately, on the Church. You don’t have an institutional church without the Church, but you can have the Church without the institutional church.
This ties into what I said earlier about the church in Sardis. Covenantally speaking, it was dead. On the outside, it was alive and well, but it was flirting with the covenant judgment of God. The apostle John distinguishes right there in that passage between the local church, which is to be judged, and the “few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy” (vs. 4). In other words, there were plenty of people who were a part of the Church (universal at the time), who were covenantally alive as individuals, but were not part of the church local which fell under judgment. Their covenant status was tied to Christ because of their Spirit-filled, regeneration-induced, obedience. But the institution itself—it was dead, ripe for judgment. Ray Sutton remarks,
Is it possible for an institution to be covenantally dead, even though it still physically exists? Yes. Jesus says a church can become a “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 3:9). The members are still physically alive, continue to meet, and go through all the motions of “churchiness,” but the church body is covenantally dead. Its preaching, prayers, and worship are satanic. To God this death is more real than the physical.2
Without this careful nuance and clarity, we’re at risk of continuing to think that the local, institutional church is the end for the Church (or CHURCH). This is also why there is such confusion on “mandatory local church membership.” Instead of the Protestant position, too many have a Roman position: There is no salvation outside the local church. This is also why we’re failing to influence the culture around us.
When we conflate CHURCH with church, or more pertinent to today’s present woes, Church with church, we fail to think covenantally. There will always be a Church, and a CHURCH, but there might not be a church right next door. Sure, they may have the building and fog machine, but as Sutton mentioned, they are dead.
The failure to think critically about all of this leads to completely absurd notions that I see all the time. “If you’re not a member of a local church, you’re not saved.” Or “If you don’t submit to elders [it’s always about authority no matter if it’s lawful or not] you aren’t a Christian.” These types of comments stem from an ecclesiology that ignores the Church while putting all their eggs in the ecclesiological basket of the institutional church. Since when did a man-made covenant become the very means by which a person gets salvation? When did becoming “a member of a local church” suddenly become the litmus test for whether or not someone is elect (CHURCH) or part of the Church?
I’ll tell you where it came from: statism. If we don’t apply the Bible to the civil institution, statism runs amuck and everyone bellyaches. And they know the State is a terrible savior, so they sneak around and make their authoritative regime of the local institution the savior. How else are we to interpret, “If you’re not a member of a local church you aren’t saved”? Men who won’t be governed by the law-word of God will be governed by tyrants—and that goes for all institutions: family, church, and state.
When Jesus came to shut down some of the first-century churches, He did so understanding that the Church was just fine. The disestablishment of denominations, local churches, and everything in between is a judgment from God.
The reality is, many American churches are just as covenantally dead as the one in Sardis. They are outward and live with hip pastors and the latest LED light package. They have million dollar facilities and can woo you like nothing else. Their greeter teams, first impression teams, worship pastors who repeat the lyric ad nauseam; the hipster pastor with his coffee cup and ripped jeans—we have it all! I mean, what a time to be alive!
Or are they alive? It’s easy to pick on the skinny jean guys whose book deal made the New York Times and because of it, they bought a house with a huge gym. (After all, sermon prep is easy when you fluff your way through it; something must fill the time! Ah yes, I’ll lift more weights.) It’s easy to pick on the mainline denominations whose leaders are part of the homosexual brigade.
But what about the allegedly solid churches? Could it be possible that some of them, too, are covenantally dead? That answer is, of course. Sound doctrine and close watch over the details of the Confession saves no man.
Over and over again in the Old Testament, God threatens covenant sanctions on Israel’s institutions. Their worship? Filthy (Isaiah 1). Their government? Idolatry everywhere. What about their priests? The pastors—surely, they are exempt from judgment. Remember the destruction of the temple? Remember the second destruction of the temple?
Ah, you might say, that’s Old Testament! We’re New Testament Christians! First, no, we’re biblical Christians, and even that is redundant. Second, the churches in Revelation . . . are . . . New Testament. This is where all of this is heading, and I’ll let R.J. Rushdoony set it up:
The training of such mature men is the function of the church. The purpose of the church should not be to bring men into subjection to the church, but rather to train them into a royal priesthood capable of bringing the world into subjection to Christ the King. The church is the recruiting station, the training field, and the armory for Christ’s army of royal priests. It is a functional, not a terminal, institution. . . . The church has by and large paid lip service to the priesthood of all believers, because its hierarchy has distrusted the implications of the doctrine, and because it has seen the church as an end in itself, not as an instrument.”3
These words hurt a little, don’t they? It hurts because for far too long the church, the institutional church, has felt itself to be the end of the Christian life—that the whole point of our existence is to sit in the pew, shut up, and sing something. We have treated the institutional local church as an end, instead of an “instrument.” And because of this, for example, abortion remains legal. There is a direct connection between our treating the point of the Christian life as church attendance and the fact that our inward, pietistic antinomianism has come home to roost. Whenever the vox populi of the Church is usurped by the institution’s gatekeepers, the institution has officially swung into the realm of communism. It has no ability to maneuver without the permission of the “collective,” which, incidentally, is . . . you guessed it . . . those in charge.
Having just celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I thought it fitting to add a couple more thoughts.
One the beautiful treasures of the Protestant Reformation was the recovery of the principle of individual self-government underneath the authority of the Scriptures. With that, we confess that church government simply cannot be viewed as ultimate. It must serve its God-given purpose, just like the civil magistrate. Let’s not forget that it was the Pharisees who asked Jesus, essentially, “Who are your elders?” (Luke 20:2).
Legitimate authority in any sphere of government rests in the Scriptures, not in the sphere itself. Once a sphere is looked upon as the ultimate court of appeals, it has officially trampled liberty for the individual, and has begun to walk the path of totalitarianism.
Unfortunately, today, the modern church has indeed walked that path. The sad irony of our time is that Protestants have been decidedly in favor of embracing 1) the false dialectics of humanism (collectivism of local church overrules both collectivism of the universal Church and individual self-disciplined Christian); and 2) the false premises of Romanism (top-down authoritarianism).
Friends, this is the judgment of God. When any sphere’s authority commandeers its God-given role, we must reject it. That’s why Matthew 23 is in your Bible. The Church of Jesus Christ and all her institutional 501(c)3 saplings are never free from God’s purifying judgment. In fact, judgment starts here. Until we preach individual self-government, we will continue to trade our liberty in Christ for totalitarian government in any sphere, especially the Protestant church, whose navel-gazing obsession with authority and submission has produced the fruit of humanism, Marxism, and Rome.
The Protestant Reformation was not God’s way of putting makeup on an ugly church; no, it was God’s way of freeing His people to be the Church. The Reformation was about authority, and that authority rests in the law-Word of God, not men, spheres, and institutions. Any sphere that has authority has it on a very, very short leash.
The disestablishment of an ungodly institution, with all her forms, liturgical concoctions, and organizational structures—unless currently repenting—will find itself disestablished eventually. Jesus Christ has full authority, and any revocation is vested in the crown.
Rev. Dr. Jason Garwood serves as the teaching pastor of Cross & Crown Church in Northern Virginia. He is husband to Mary and father to three children. His passion is the gospel, and his desire is for the social order of the Kingdom of God to be present in the here and now. His motto: All of Christ, for all of life.
- Stephen C. Perks, The Nature, Government and Function of the Church (Taunton, England: The Kuyper Foundation, 1997), 12.(↩)
- Ray Sutton, That You May Prosper (Tyler: Texas, Institute for Christian Economics, 1997), 31.(↩)
- Rousas John Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law, Volume One (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press, 1973), 764.(↩)