Brad Littlejohn has a very helpful post on the question of the church’s constituency, whether it should be conceived as made up of individuals or of families. This is a question that often arises in conversations about patriarchy, ecclesiocentrism, and basic relations between church and state. Mr. Littlejohn is also right to point to the doctrine of the two kingdoms as a helpful way to parse the categories involved.
The Church in general, or perhaps we could say “the universal Christian Church,” is a different entity from any particular congregation. The spiritual kingdom, sometimes what folks have in mind by “the church,” is the church as it exists coram deo, as the eschatological (and thus invisible) community of the saved. This “church” is the Body of Christ in the strictest sense, the elect, and it is made up only of true believers. It is therefore comprised of individuals.
The visible church, however, with which any particular congregational polity must be concerned, is an institution of the temporal kingdom. It is one hierarchy of jurisdiction or “sphere of authority” in this kingdom, standing alongside the family and the state. This “church” is therefore always dependent upon these other spheres — dependent, not in the sense of finance or political jurisdiction per se, but rather in terms of the kind of people who will come to the congregation and eventually join. These people are themselves living in the other spheres as well; and, for all but the children born into the church, they have a prior history of existence and social representation before joining the congregation. This means that, as John Calvin and Richard Hooker both held, a good church polity will closely mirror the civic polity of the land.
All of these basic observations point to the fact that congregations of the visible church are ordinarily made up of families. Obviously this would all begin with individuals, but since those individuals form normal social units, through marriage and childbirth, their families would be identified as the basic units of the church. Singles are certainly welcome, and the church always has a special ministry to orphans and widows, but the family would nevertheless become the normative social member. We can see this throughout the New Testament, and we can see the ordinary family jurisdiction being respected by the church; the locus classicus for this is 1 Corinthians 14:35: “If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
Now most moderns don’t know what to do with such a verse. They are too scandalized by the apostle’s convictions regarding sexual hierarchy to be able to think of much else. In the days of the New Testament, however, male headship was taken as an obvious feature of reality, going back to the creation itself. Paul’s point in context is to argue that the ministry of the church, even with its spiritual gifts, does not disrupt the ordinary civil order and external decorum. Even though all are equal “in Christ,” there are still important distinctions of role, including the way in which “church” activities interact with the domestic realm. The husband’s authority over his wife does not have to be checked at the church door.
Now having said all of this, we have only laid out the basic categories of thought. There is still the question of the particular ecclesiastical jurisdiction, what falls under its unique authority, and how its officers are selected. The fact that the visible church is made up of families does not necessarily tell us what church government will look like, nor how specifically ecclesiastical functions will be carried out. It tells us only that the church’s make-up does not overturn or supersede the basic fabric of human existence.
All but the most radical churches have established officers. While not setting forth any conception of divine right church polity, the New Testament does teach that leadership is a charismatic gift (Eph. 4:11) and that congregations must have authoritative leaders with real jurisdiction over their members (Heb. 13:7, 17). Most churches, in one way or another, evaluate whether a specific man possesses the appropriate gifts, and then elect him (even if through a sort of tacit consent) to a representative office. Congregational polities may act as if they are true democracies, but they almost always look for some sort of credentialing features for their pastors, and they do not constantly bring up ordinary matters of leadership for a vote; likewise, hierarchical and episcopal churches are famous for the ways they can have a priest or rector reassigned to a new parish, and while some bishops might possess transcendent powers, most are fairly ordinary administrators. Invariably, representative government proves the reasonable means of selection.
This representation then brings with it real authority. This is authority within certain bounds, to be sure, but it is an authority which must be obeyed all the same. The minister is entrusted with the Word, as well as the sacraments and the liturgy, as well as appropriate matters of administration and pedagogical leadership. And again, this is an authority within the temporal kingdom. In the spiritual kingdom, properly speaking, there is a fundamental equality “in Christ,” apart from any distinction in rank. In the visible church, however, such distinctions are necessary and inescapable. The leaders of the church are in charge.
Thus the families have a duty to respect the jurisdiction of the pastor and the elders. Those things which have been especially given to the officers are not to be constantly vetoed by the families, but rather happily submitted to. Similarly, those things not given to the jurisdiction of the pastor and the elders are not to be subsumed under ecclesiastical power. Certain things indifferent can be under church authority, of course, provided the identity of these things is clearly understood by the members. That which obviously belongs to the domestic or civil sphere, however, should not be placed under ministerial control.
This delineation also tells us something important about the nature of congregational membership. While it is rather familiar to hear pastors say that the church is not a “voluntary” organization, in strictly political terms it is precisely a voluntary organization. Membership is never to be compelled, and various entrance vows are made publicly with clear conditions and stipulations. Certain spiritual ramifications may result from an improper exit, but any temporal ones are limited to the terms of civil covenants. This is why congregations write up constitutions and books of “church order.” That earthly wisdom and political prudence are necessary for a group to function is rather obvious, even if our theologies and philosophies don’t always have clear categories for it.
It is only with a clear doctrine of the two kingdoms, however, that these rather mundane observations are so easily articulated. As soon as the visible church is identified with the spiritual kingdom of Christ, then the situation changes. Every congregation then must become a sort of absolutist regime. All laws are divine, and all rule is theocratic, not in the philosophical sense, but in the political. The leadership is held by divine right and the laws are eternal. Furthermore, while only the most radical proponent will point this out, the absence of the two kingdoms also necessitates a blurred distinction between the jurisdictions of church, state, and family, and it even obscures the marital dyad and the distinction between the sexes. Typically seen only in cults and utopian communes (though also now more and more in theological liberalism), these features are but arbitrarily resisted by the more ordinary divine-right polities. For a creational ordinance or natural law to have force, the church must be, in an important respect, both natural and in the world.