WCF Chapter 25: Of the Church

“A Christian without a church is a Christian in trouble.”[i] Like a lion hoping to snatch prey that wanders alone Satan aims to devour professing Christians who are disconnected from God’s family. We need the church.

To become persuaded of this truth we need to know what the church is. It isn’t an affinity group; a club we join because of shared circumstances and interests. It isn’t a teaching center that we visit whenever we feel the need for counsel. In this broken world, the church—which presently groans with the rest of creation—is an essential part of God’s rescue plan for lost sinners.


The Church Is the Gathering of God

The Greek word for church, ekklesia, means “gathering,” or “assembly.” Christ is building his church (Matt. 16:18); gathered believers, “like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house” (1 Peter. 2:5). The idea of the church as Christ’s gathering should be understood in at least two ways. First, the church is made up of everyone God is drawing “out of the entire human race … for himself.”[ii] The “whole number of the elect” is invisible to us; many haven’t been born yet. But the church, as it will exist visibly in glory, is already made up of everyone who is organically connected to Jesus by election. She is the true body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27), his one bride (Rev. 21:2), and “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23). Scripture’s teaching on an invisible church warns against simply belonging to a congregation and not belonging to God by faith.

Second, the church is the people God gathers into local congregations. Believers “visibly profess the true religion” and assemble locally. The membership of particular churches is not identical to the names of those “enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). But every true congregation is a microcosm of Christ’s universal church. The church is more than a spiritual entity composed of elect persons. It is also tangible. Despite modern aversion to organized religion with rigorous expectations, that’s exactly how Scripture presents church. Professing believers, and the children they are discipling, gather as Christ’s visible body. Scripture’s teaching on a visible church warns against claiming to belong to Jesus while rejecting the family he is assembling.

As God’s gathering, the church is a manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth. Christ is uniquely present in the church to work God’s will in and through his people. Kingdom is broader than church. But the church is “the most important visible embodiment of the forces of the kingdom.”[iii] This is why “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside of the church”—those who have no interest in Christ’s body cannot claim an interest in its head.


The Church Is Shepherded by Christ

Jesus is the King of creation. So naturally, he is the Lord of the church. But the church is Christ’s special possession which he bought with his own blood (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 2:9). No human leader can claim to be in charge of Christ’s church. Even proper spiritual leaders can only administer authority according to the rules of Scripture to which they themselves are bound. Jesus rules the church. But not as a tyrant. He loves the church and gave himself for her that she might become mature like him (Eph. 5:25–28).

And so Jesus provides his bride means for growth: “The ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God.” The ministry is more than the church’s ministers. Her “shepherds and teachers … equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). Pastors minister to help the church minister. God also provides the church with the oracles—the revelation of God’s will, and the ordinances—prescribed religious rites including a pattern of worship and the sacraments.

Jesus doesn’t merely provide tools for “the gathering and perfecting of the saints.” He also energizes the tools to make them fruitful! He makes the means of growth effectual. The church is and must be reliant on Christ. A congregation could be orderly and diligent in respecting the ministry, oracles, and ordinances but thoughtless about the promises and presence of Jesus. We mustn’t trust in programs but in Jesus’s pledge to make us like him. We need the Spirit’s help to make even our best efforts in the church worthwhile. Recognizing our utter inability to do this work we thank God “who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession” (2 Cor. 2:14–16).

The Church Is a Work in Progress

Scripture ascribes to the church glorious attributes; it is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic body of Jesus. But we don’t always see that. Without making any excuses for sin we need to realize that, like all of us individually, the church is under construction. A day is coming when Christ will “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27). But that day has not yet come.

So, sometimes the church seems very weak. Elijah once thought he was one of the last remaining believers; he couldn’t see that God had reserved for himself seven thousand faithful prophets. But, no matter how diminished the church appears, there is always “a remnant chosen by grace” (Rom. 11:1–5).[iv]

And particular congregations struggle. True believers have many weaknesses (James 3:2). And there are hypocrites in the church (Matt. 13:24–30). But in our struggle we must strive for a divine standard. True gatherings of God manifest certain marks. First, churches must teach and embrace the true gospel. More than anything we must know God’s grace for lost sinners. But not in a simplistic way, mindlessly repeated. We must leave the elementary, simplistic “doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” in our gospel teaching (Heb. 6:1). Second, churches must properly administer the ordinances or sacraments. Tucked into this mark is the requirement of church discipline by which the elders fence the Lord’s table (see ch. 30). If there are no rules for membership and no consequences for infidelity the church will not be holy. Third, faithful churches must worship biblically. The assembly’s directory for worship mandated worship services that were structured by and saturated with God’s word.

There is no perfect church. So we must have fair expectations. But we also must strive for perfection living out all that Scripture teaches about the church. “A church is a group of Christians who assemble as an earthly embassy of Christ’s heavenly kingdom to proclaim the good news and commands of Christ the King; to affirm one another as his citizens through the ordinances; and to display God’s own holiness and love through a unified and diverse people in all the world, following the teaching and example of elders.”[v] Church is God’s plan. So we should love it, unite with it, and trust God to perfe

William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has authored numerous books including, with Joel Beeke, Contending for the Faith: The Story of The Westminster Assembly.

[i] Collin Hansen and Jonathan Leeman, Rediscover Church: Why the Body of Christ Is Essential (Wheaton Ill: Crossway, 2021), 11.

[ii] Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 54.

[iii] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 570.

[iv] And we need not think that the remnant is small. See William Boekestein “Are Only Few People Saved?” The Gospel Coalition. March 13, 2019. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/gospel-driven-church.

[v] Hansen and Leeman, Rediscover Church, 26.


William Boekestein