So this is how it is possible to be a churchman and an evangelical. Not only is it possible, I believe that rightly understood, the two require each other.
We are told that we are supposed to let the fire of our zeal burn hot — we are supposed to be on the boil (Rom. 12:11). We are also told not to allow this evangelical fire and fervor to run off with us. The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. The structure of the institutional church is necessary, like a fireplace. The flame of true evangelical experience and conviction — a felt Christ as the Puritans would say — is the only reason for a fireplace to begin with.
Over the years, as the mansions got bigger, and the artisanship that went into the carving of mantelpieces got more cunning, the more time could go by without a fire ever being actually built in that thing. I mean, who wants to fill up such a beautiful hole in the wall with a bunch of ashes?
After a time, others — by which I mean radical charismatics and crazed anabaptists — start setting their fires on the coffee table or the love seat. But at least they knew the room was cold and something should be done about it.
The fire of evangelical conviction, when scripturally governed, cries out for a fireplace to burn in. A well designed fireplace, put together by biblically minded craftsmen, cries out for a fire to go in it. A fireplace without a fire is cold and dead. A fire without a fireplace is fierce and destructive. Shouldn’t we be able to work something out?
All the things I have been writing about the new birth amount to this — without the new birth, you cannot have a church, at least not for very long. Without an established church, you cannot have the new birth. How will they hear without a preacher? With a revival, and many coming to know the Lord, those who love the Lord will seek out fellowship with each other and they will bring their Bibles. And the Bible gives us instructions on how to establish the institution of the church. The Bible brings the fire, and the Bible contains drawing for the fireplace.
There will have to be hard conversations, and discussions to allay the nervousness of pretty much everyone. More than one person will say, as Paul did when he came with the famine relief gift to Jerusalem, that this is “the very thing I was eager to do.” And more than one person will be annoyed at having to say it. The fireplace men will remind the fire guys that the fireplace is necessary. And the fire guys will make a point of telling the fireplace men that without a fire, the whole thing is pointless. And both sides are right. Everybody has a point.
Evangelical experience is born from the Word, and the Word will cause that experience to seek out the constraints placed upon it by the Word. This need not be a quenching of the Spirit — in the early rounds, it is the Spirit quenching us. A proper bounding of the fire is done in such a way as to enable the fire to burn hotter. The identity of each is found in the other.
I said earlier that without the new birth you cannot have the church, and here is the reason. The new birth has a predicate, and that predicate is death — death to sin, death to self, death to striving ambition, and death to lordly pride. If such things do not die, then they will devour the church. If they die (all ecclesiastical variants included), then there will be resurrection and glory.
This principle applies to absolutely everything in our lives, but the one place where we must see it functioning in all its glory has to be the church. There is a Jesus way of losing that gains everything (Luke 9:24; Luke 17:33). There is, of course, a loser way of losing that loses everything. Those same passages tell us the central technique that sinners have for losing, and that is grasping. If you grasp at sermons and sacramants, music and processionals, architecture and solemnity, all of it comes apart in your hands. These things cannot be grasped without breaking them.
We have to hate the church in order to love it properly. “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal” (John 12:25). I am a churchman. I love the church. The church is my life. I love the music, I love the Word, I love the liturgy, I love the Supper, I love the fellowship — I love it all. I recall one time in the midst of the service when my wife leaned over to me and said, “I love church.” Me too. And that is precisely why we must hate it. We do not hate it the way the devil does, of course not. We hate it the way we are called to hate our mothers (Luke 14:26) — because the church is our mother (Gal. 4:26).
There is a way of cursing father or mother that just gets your lamp put out in obscure darkness (Prov. 20:20). The church at Ephesus had fallen from her first love, and was in precisely that danger, that of having her lampstand removed (Rev. 2:4). So that is not the way.
Fortunately, we are not left with contradictory and baffling instructions in this matter. We know how to navigate this with other areas. Do we answer a fool according to his folly or not (Prov. 26:4-5)? Do we honor our parents or hate them (Eph. 6:1-4; Luke 14:26)? Do we give to the hungry or not (Matt. 25:37; 2 Thess. 3:10)?
Scripture does not contradict Scripture, and so our task is to take the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27), and honor the church in the way the Word describes, and to show contempt for the things of the church in the way the Word requires. Such a scriptural contempt might be rendered, depending on the circumstances, toward the sancturary, the Scriptures, baptisms, ordinations, sermons, seminaries, robes, preaching traditions, communion, choirs, and more. Any why?
Not to throw them away in disgust, the way a God-hater would, but rather so that we might have them all in the resurrection. If we die, we shall be raised. And if we are raised, the first thing we will want to do is go to church.