Question: What do you believe concerning the “holy catholic church” of Christ?
Answer: That the Son of God from the heginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself hy His Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a Church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and forever shall remain, a living member thereof (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 54).
What is the relationship between the church and the world in worship? Should worship be a time that makes the church accessible to the world, or should it be one where the church displays her other worldliness? Should worship be a means to attract the unchurched to the gospel, or should it be an expression of the church’s identity as aliens and strangers in the world?
The answer to these questions used to be fairly easy. J. Gresham Machen, who battled worldliness in the church through his whole life, had little trouble defending the idea that the church should be separate from the world. In a sermon he preached at Princeton Seminary in 1925 on Matthew 5:13 (“You are the salt of the earth…”), Machen declared that these words of Christ “established at the very beginning the distinctness and separateness of the Church.” If the distinction between the church and the worldwas ever lost, Machen warned, “the power of the Church is gone. The Church then becomes like salt that has lost its savor, and is fit only to be cast out and to be trodden under foot of men.”
The antithesis that Machen recognized as basic to the Bible’s teaching about the church prompted him to oppose all the concessions that liberal Protestants were making to the wisdom of the world. In an effort to retain the truth of Christianity in the face of scientific discoveries that made the gospel incredible to college educated people, liberal Protestantism had reduced Christianity to the safe and reassuring truths of the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount. But the effort to retain the church’s credibility had resulted in a worldly church, like salt that had lost its savor. Machen believed that if the church were faithful to the Great Commission she could not let the wisdom of the world obscure both the power and foolishness of the cross.
Conservative Presbyterian and Reformed folk used to believe with Machen that the antithesis between the church and the world was a good thing, But is that still the case today? With liberalism no longer the threat that it was in the 1920s, do we still need to avoid worldliness? After all, we would never want to be mistaken for fundamentalists, Is worldliness still a temptation? Or might certain forms of worldliness be useful for the church to reach out to the world?
WHAT IS THE CHURCH?
Q&A 54 from the Heidelberg Catechism is a good beginning for understanding the separateness of the church. It pictures God as the actor in salvation, who is gathering a people for Himself from the ends of the earth. The church is a people that are called out of the world and called into fellowship with their God. The very word for church, ekklesia in the Greek, means “called out,” and it describes our relocation: we are out of the world and into God’s presence.
This Greek word is the translation of the Hebrew word, qahal, which means “assembly.” But more is intended than a mere gathering of people. Israel was the Old Testament assembly of the people of God. In the Exodus, God had taken a chosen people, a gathered people, out of the world (Egypt) and brought them to Himself at Mount Sinai. Israel was an assembly at Sinai because the people were gathered in the presence of God. In Deuteronomy 4:10: “Assemble the people to me, that I may let them fear my words so that they may learn to fear me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.” To assemble the people of God is to have them stand before the Lord.
In the New Testament, the church is now the assembly of God’s people. The author of Hebrews draws the parallel between the worship of the church and the assembly of the Israelites at Sinai in 12:18ff:
For you have not come to a mountain that may be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind…But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect.
Just as Israel was called out of Egypt to Sinai, so the church is the gathering of God’s people, out of the world and into His presence. The church at worship is therefore a church that is separate from the world, because it is God who separates the church, in order to gather with Him, to be in His presence.
To be a church, an ekklesia, the church must be separate. It cannot gather in the presence of God if it is still in the world. For this reason Paul describes the separateness of the church in the strongest of language:
Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? Just as God has said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate, says the Lord” (2 Cor. 6:14–17).
WHAT IS THE WORLD?
Israel had Egypt and Machen had liberalism. What is the world from which we must separate in order to worship God? The Bible describes the world in three senses. It can refer simply to the created order, as in Acts 17:24. It can also refer to the nations of the earth, the human race, the world that God will judge (Rom. 3:6). David Wells reminds us that it is inappropriate for the church to be otherworldly in these two senses of the term. We are to be good stewards of God’s creation, and we are to show love for our neighbors by taking the gospel into the world, to the whole human race, to the ends of the earth. The Bible clearly teaches that separation from the world in these ways is forbidden. Jesus prays to His father in John 17:15, 18, that we not be taken from the world, because He has sent us into the world.
Scripture goes on to refer to the world in a third sense, the world as fallen humanity in rebellion against God. In Wells’ words this is “the collective expression of every society’s refusal to bow before God, to receive His truth, to obey His commandments, or to believe in His Christ.” The “world” in this sense is also that way of life that fallen humanity substitutes for God’s holy ways. It is the world as an idol, as a rival to God’s Word, “their appetites, the way that they order their life, their priorities, their behavior, what they really want, and what they will do to get it.” Returning to Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17, we see that this is the world that Christ was not a part of (17:4), nor are we to be a part of. And it was the world for which Christ refused to pray: “I do not ask on behalf of the world” (17:9).
It is in this sense of the word that the church must cultivate its otherworldliness. Christians are called to be exiles and an alien people (I Pet. 1:1), and we are to live as “aliens and strangers” (I Pet. 2:11), because God has provided for us a better country, a heavenly home (Heb. 11:16). In this sense the church and the world are to have nothing to do with each other. The church is contramundum, against the world. We are to hate the world and the things of the world (I Jn. 2:15).
HOLINESS V. WORLDLINESS
In his sermon on the “Separateness of the Church,” Machen observed that “the real threat to the church has always come from within not without.” This internal threat is deadly precisely because it denies the separateness of the church by gradually merging the church with the world under the guise of peace. An “all embracing paganism” results, Machen warned, when the church forsakes its call to holiness and pursues worldliness.
Christians recite in the Apostles’ Creed that they believe “in the holy Catholic church.” What does the holiness of the church mean? I Peter 2:9 links holiness with the idea of gathering: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” To be holy, in other words, is to be called and gathered by the Holy One as His treasured possession. Scripture describes this holiness both in an objective or ceremonial sense (such as the tabernacle and the priests, who were holy because they were set apart for the worship of God) and in a subjective or ethical sense. To be holy then, means that we are not worldly, because we are set apart from the world. As Paul instructs in Romans 12:2, “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
But what exactly is worldliness? For many Christians, worldliness refers to certain forms of amusement such as playing cards, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco or going to movies. Others may think of worldliness as sexual immorality-adultery and divorce, for example. R. B. Kuiper, however, warned that worldliness was not so easily identified. “Few Christians seem to realize,” he wrote, “that a church may take a strong stand against certain flagrant sins of the world and yet be decidedly worldly.” He added that there “are churches which pride themselves on their firm stand against worldliness and yet want to be great as the world counts greatness. They think in terms of costly stone edifices rather than lively stones that are built up as a spiritual house (I Pet. 2:5). They strive after statistical rather than spiritual prosperity. That also is worldliness.”
Kuiper’s point is that to think like the world is to be guilty of worldliness. It is not enough to be devoted to the church. If we measure the work of the church in worldly terms (such as material wealth or numerical size or programs for all ages), then the church has become like the world. Scripture commands us to see with the eyes of the Spirit, not the eyes of the flesh. This is partly what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:18 that “we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal.” And this truth prompted J. Gresham Machen to say to the graduates of Westminster Seminary in 1931:
You, as ministers of Christ, are called to deal with the unseen things. You are stewards of the mysteries of God. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of God’s Word, out of the crash and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still waters’ you alone, as ministers of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God.
The church is as different from the world as green pastures and still waters are from the cacophony of a weary age. The church’s ways are not the world’s ways. And that is because God has called the church to be holy as He is holy. He has gathered the church as His assembly. The church is set apart to serve God.
THE CHURCH AGAINST THE WORLD
The Biblical distinction that has been drawn so far between holiness and worldliness means that the church must be antithetical to the world. The church is at war with the world, and it has the duty to fight worldliness, a duty that we find throughout redemptive history.
With the first promise of a redeemer in Genesis 3:15, God announced that all of history, from that point forward, would be a cosmic battle between two camps: the seed of the woman (the church) against the seed of the serpent (the world). The battle in view here is of an absolute antithesis, between those chosen for life and those dead in sin, between the children of light and the children of darkness.
When Israel crossed the Jordan, the conquest was the cry of holy war, and Israel was to annihilate her enemies. The holy people of God were forbidden to live in peaceful coexistence with their redeemer’s enemies. The New Testament describes this antithesis as spiritual warfare, a battle against the “spiritual forces of wickedness” (Eph. 6:12). In this warfare the world would crucify Christ and persecute His church, as Jesus Himself predicted in John 15:19–20: “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you…lf they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” Because of this antithesis between the church and the world, R.B. Kuiper concluded that “to be the opposite of the world is not only necessary for the well-being of the church but is essential to its very being. If the church should cease being antithetical to the world, it would no longer be the church.” Is the church today willing to accept the terms of the antithesis laid down by Christ? Are we prepared for enmity with the world? Are we prepared to combat the temptation to conform to the world? Are we prepared to renounce the ways of the city of man and follow the laws of the city of God?
Again, we are not denying the love that Christians must show to their neighbors. The point is to underscore the fundamental difference between the church and the world, between the ways of God’s people and the ways of God’s enemies. The church that is faithful to her holy calling will look and act differently from the world.
What does all of this have to do with worship? Perhaps the connection is not immediately obvious. If the church is at war with the world, the wisdom of her gospel will appear foolish to those that are perishing in their sins (I Cor. 1:18–25). The contrast between the church and world will be most evident when the church is at worship. She will be commended the way Paul commended the Thessalonians who “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (I Thess. 1:9). The very act of worship, of assembling in the presence of God, therefore, is simultaneously the church’s renunciation of the world. Worship is a subversive and countercultural act of an alien people who, forsaking the world, listen to the voice of her master saying, “Follow Me.”
True worship, therefore, will be odd and perhaps even weird to the watching world. But this oddness is essential to the church’s faithfulness and witness. For if the gospel is foolishness, it is foolish only to those who are perishing. The church may use a human tongue as its language of worship, it may use worldly time to determine when to meet for worship, it may use electricity drawn from state-run utilities during its worship. But when the church assembles for worship she is not at all like the world. She invokes the name of Christ. She prays and sings to a God who cannot be seen. She hears words said by a man commissioned by Christ that become, by the work of the Holy Spirit, the power of God unto salvation. She eats a holy meal whose portions are tiny, but which, by the blessing of Christ, nourishes God’s people for eternal life. In all these ways the church at worship is different from the world. All of these elements of worship look weak and foolish to those outside the house of God. But to the church they contain the power of God.
For this reason, the church will worship God unapologetically. She must not cater to those bound to ridicule her ways as foolish. Christian worship is a bold political act. It subverts the world’s values by assigning glory and praise to the One whom the world despises. And as weak as the church at worship might appear, the truth is that the powers of this world are no match for the power of God who is present among His people when they gather to sing praise, pray and hear His word. Moreover the church must reject the claim that worship is old-fashioned, irrelevant, and isolated from the “real world.” For believers, the church at worship is the real world. The gathering of the saints in the holy of holies is the eschatological foretaste of the new heavens and the new earth.
The world is predisposed to misunderstand the church. We should not expect unbelievers to be comfortable in services of worship that are alien to the world. “User-friendly” or “seeker-sensitive” worship is not an option for the people of God. In fact, worship that demonstrates the separateness of the church is what Machen called “merciful unkindness,” because it testifies to the world of the hope that is within us. If the world mocks us, so be it. True worship is for the church, not for the world.
D.G. Hart is librarian and associate professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia, PA), and is an elder at Calvary Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania. John R. Muether is library director at Reformed Theological Seminary and an elder at Lake Sherwood Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Orlando, FL. They are co-authors of Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (1995).