Part 6 - The Church
Welcome to the 6th part of our series on the Westminster Confession of Faith. In this issue we will look at what the Confession has to say about the church.
The confession has a chapter on the church, which is fairly small, but it has a bit to say about the church and how it should be run in a number of its other chapters as well, and we’ll take an overview of all of them here.
The confession distinguishes between what it refers to as the visible and invisible churches. The Invisible church is worldwide and consists of ever member of the ‘elect’ (all those who are saved by God’s Grace). Some people are surprised to see the church described as catholic by what is a fairly fundamental protestant document, but in this case the word is used in its fullest sense, meaning that it encompases a broad variety, it is universal and transcends nationality, ethnicity or denomination. This invisible church is described as being both the spouse and the body of Christ. Beloved by him and through whom he acts and works.
However, there is also the visible church. That is the church in this world which the Confession describes as being made up of all true believers in Christ and their children. This visible church is made up of various branches, some of which are described as more or less pure than others. The confession recognises that no branch of the visible church is completely pure and that all include error, and that some fall so far in to error that they cease to be truly part of the church at all. At times in history the church will be more or less visible and faithful, but the confession teaches that there will always be a church on earth, preserved by God and striving to worship him according to his will.
The visible church is the family of God and the Kingdom of Christ being established in this world. It is the means through which God will normally act to reach the unsaved and teach the elect through the working of the Holy Spirit.
Westminster Confession churches recognise that the church has only one head, Jesus Christ, and that no man or woman can be made “head of the church”.
In addition to this teaching, the chapter on the Communion of Saints reminds us that believers are bound to strive for unity and fellowship one with the other. To unite in worship, to share their gifts for the good of the church and each other. We are to extend this unity and fellowship not just to those we consider to be like us and with whom we share traditions but “unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus” (WCoF, XXVI:2).
In terms of church organisation, the confession teaches that God appoints “officers” over the local church (in our tradition these are what we would call Elders). These officers have responsibility for the ministry of the Gospel and teaching. They also have responsibility for disciplining local members and seeking to correct them when they stray from God’s ways. It is these local officers also carry the responsibility for permitting access to the sacraments, and in cases of ongoing, unrepentant sin from barring people from access to them, not as a punishment, but to seek to bring them to repentance and back to fellowship.
On a wider scale, the Confession speaks of “Synods and Councils”, assemblies of ministers and “other fit persons” gathered together to rule on matters of church government, religion, practice and “controversies”. This includes setting direction for the “proper ordering” of worship. This is where our Presbyteries and General Assembly comes from.
In both of these sections the Confession makes clear the distinction between civil and church authority. The civil authorities have no right to interfere with the running of the church, but equally church authorities should restrict themselves to ecclesiastical matters and not interfere with areas which do not have relevance to the church.
As ever, this is just a summary of what the confession teaches, and I hope you’ve found it helpful!