With the overturning of Row v. Wade, I have noticed numerous professing Christians posting things like, “Now the church needs to start caring for all of life for those who get pregnant,” or “The church needs to do more than simply denounce the practice of abortion.” I would contend that this, albeit it a well-meaning statement, misses the mark of the God-ordained ministry of the visible church. It is to view the church as a nanny church. It is not the role of the church to adopt. It is the role of individual Christians to adopt. It is not the role of the church to start Christian pregnancy centers. It is the role of individual believers to do so. It is not the role of the church to provide for every woman who conceives out of wedlock. It is the role of parents and the father of the child to provide. This is not to say that the church doesn’t have to collectively come alongside a woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock. However, pastors and congregants alike may denounce the wicked and hellish practice of slaughtering the unborn without having their consciences being unnecessarily bound to adopt or support the unwed in society. There will most certainly be cases in which a young woman does not have the support of parents or the father of her child. However, the ordinary moral responsibility falls on those God-ordained relational structures, rather than on the visible church as the visible church. God places that responsibility on those within the sphere of moral proximity.
The late Dr. R.C. Sproul once recounted a time when he shared a taxi with the great Christian apologist, Francis Schaeffer. At one point, Sproul asked Schaeffer, “’Dr. Schaeffer, what is your biggest concern for the future of the church in America?’ ‘Without hesitation,’ R.C. said, ‘Dr. Schaeffer turned to me and spoke one word: ‘Statism.’ Dr. Sproul concluded,
“Schaeffer’s biggest concern at that point in his life was that the citizens of the United States were beginning to invest their country with supreme authority, such that the free nation of America would become one that would be dominated by a philosophy of the supremacy of the state.”
As much as statism should concern us, there is an equally destructive danger for believers, namely, churchism. By churchism, I do not mean that one can value Jesus’ church too highly. In fact, most professing believers value both the visible church and invisible church far too little. What I mean by “churchism” is the propensity for many to put an unjust burden on the leadership of a particular visible (i.e., local) church to live the Christian life for those within the church. Just as we ought to reject a nanny state, so we ought to reject a nanny church.
Before addressing the peculiar ways in which many today project unjust expectations on the visible church, we should consider the biblical and historical-theological teaching the nurturing aspect of the church in the lives of believers. The Westminster Confession of Faith sums up the role of the visible church for the spiritual lives of believers, when it states,
“Unto this catholic (i.e., universal) and visible church, Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world; and does by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.”
Here we find, in summary form, what the Apostle Paul wrote about the Old Covenant Church, Israel, in Romans 9:4: “To them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” The same principle applies to the New Covenant Church. In Acts 2:42, we read, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The Lord has entrusted the keys of the kingdom (i.e., the ministry of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and the practice of discipline) to the visible church and its God-ordained officers.
When we speak of the visible church, we are thinking of the collective group of baptized, professing believers and their children who gather together in order to worship the Triune God. When we refer to the invisible church, we are speaking of all those who are savingly united to Christ. It is the visible church—with its God-appointed leadership—to whom biblical revelation is addressed (Phil. 1:1; Rev. 1:4). God gave Old Testament revelation to the members of Israel and addresses New Testament revelation to particular visible churches throughout the world. For instance, the Apostle Paul wrote letters to the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae, and Thessalonica. In each of them, God addresses particular circumstances in the life of each congregation. All of the “one another” passages, exhortations to obey elders in the Lord, and warnings in the epistles are given to the visible church and are to be carried out, first and foremost, among the members of local churches.
If we wander from the gathered assembly of believers, we will put ourselves in the exceedingly dangerous place of spiritual drift and ultimately abandonment of our professing of faith in Christ. God has so instituted the visible church that it is said to be “the house of God,” and “the pillar and ground of truth.” Our spiritual life and vitality are, in some real sense, dependent on the work of God through His appointed means (e.g., the word, sacraments, prayer, discipline, and fellowship) through the shepherding oversight and care of His ministers. It is for this reason that the early church theologian, Cyprian, rightly stated, “He cannot have God for his father who has not the church for his mother.”
The church of Christ is to have a biblically-defined ministry commitment. The church gathered (i.e., the visible church gathered together as the worshiping community) is not called to engage in political or social activism or reform. It is the task of the gathered church to worship, witness, and walk in love toward one another. It is the God-given task of the members of the church to think outside of themselves and to how they can spiritually and physically care for the needs of others. We must learn to distinguish between the role of the church gathered and the role of individual Christians who comprise the church scattered. Kevin DeYoung explains,
“We want to avoid the danger of making our mission too broad. Some well-meaning Christians act like everything counts as mission. They put all their efforts into improving job skills, digging wells, setting up medical centers, establishing great schools, and working for better crop yields—all of which can be wonderful expressions of Christian love, but bear little resemblance to what we see Paul and Barnabas sent out to do on their mission in Acts.”
Just as well-meaning Christians can mistakenly make the outward mission of the church too broad; Christians can make the programmatic ministry of the local church too ultimate. There are numerous tangible ways in which we see how professing believers can start to fall into churchism, in this respect. When individuals in a church get upset about not connecting enough to others in the same church, without themselves seeking to develop community with believers in the same local body, they have probably begun to embrace the misconception of a nanny church. When particular individuals suggest that they should have more influence in the leadership of a church, they have wrongly fallen into churchism. When believers allow ministers to bind their consciences with unbiblical rules and regulations, they have allowed themselves to be subject to the misplaced concept of the nanny church. When certain segments of Christians criticize visible churches–rather than individual Christians–broadly for not caring about certain social issues, they have embraced the idea of a nanny church.
Every visible church is subject to the criticism of the word of God and the all-searching eye of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rev. 2-3). However, many of the criticisms that individuals level at visible churches today are illegitimate critiques of the gathered church driven by the mistaken notion of a nanny church. Though the church is the bride of Christ and is to be held in the highest regard, she has been given a very particular task by the King and Head of the Church, Jesus Christ. He is our Savior and Lord, and He and He alone determines what the mission and ministry of the church is in the world. May we hold the church and its ministry in the highest esteem while acknowledging that the church and its ministries are not to live the Christian life for believers or tackle all the societal needs in the world around it.