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
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
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;
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.
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;
14:23, 27; 15:4, 22; 16:5; Rom. 16:1, 4, 5, 13, 16; 1 Cor. 1:2;
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
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
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
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
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
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.