The Holiness of the Church
Rev. Angus Stewart
In the Apostles’ Creed, the Christian
confesses, "I believe an holy, catholic church." The church’s holiness
is taught in Ephesians 5:25-27: "Husbands, love your wives, even as
Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify
and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might
present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or
any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish."
The holiness of
the church does not refer to its imposing liturgy and ceremonies or its
awe-inspiring architecture. Nor is a church holy because of its
venerable history or its connection with holy personages of the past.
People are the church: people chosen in Christ
"before the foundation of the world" (1:4), redeemed by the blood of the
cross (5:25), and called to be "saints" (1:1) or "holy ones." Thus the
church is not holy because she has a few holy members, such as ministers
or elders or deacons, but because of the holiness of all her believing
members: godly office-workers, children, labourers, housewives,
The holiness of an individual believer is his
spiritual separation from the wicked world and consecration to the
Triune God alone. Likewise the holiness of the church (the community of
believers) is her real, spiritual purity; her devotion to Christ, her
head and husband (5:24), in love. Thus holiness is of the essence of the
church: without holiness, no church.
The church’s holiness is attacked. She is under
pressure to conform to the world in her thinking and lifestyle (Rom.
12:1-2). Unbiblical ecumenism is forbidden to the true church:
"Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the Lord?" (II
Chron. 19:2). False doctrine is the enemy of the holiness of the church,
for the preaching of "another gospel" of "another Jesus" by "another
spirit" corrupts the church (II Cor. 11:3-4).
God has ordained that the church’s holiness is
preserved (in part) through official church discipline of those whose
doctrine is contrary to the church’s creeds or whose lifestyle is
ungodly. Where God’s way of church discipline is rejected the entire
church will become corrupted, for "a little leaven leaveneth the whole
lump" (I Cor. 5:6).
The church’s holiness is chiefly wrought and
maintained through the pure preaching of the gospel of Christ, signified
and sealed in the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Ephesians 5 presents the church as Christ’s bride and sin as filth, and
teaches that Christ sanctifies and cleanses her by "the washing of water
by the word" (26). Through pure preaching, Christ not only teaches what
true holiness is and calls us to be holy, but in this way He also works
holiness in His members by the Holy Spirit.
Christ calls His church to be "subject" unto Him "in
every thing" (24). The instituted congregation must obey Christ in
faithful preaching, sacramental administration, discipline, worship and
government. Without this, the church’s confession of Christ as Lord is
hypocrisy. Similarly, the members of the church in their lives in the
world—their thoughts, speech and actions—must be subject to Christ "in
God chose or
elected the church "that we should be holy" (1:4), and Christ "gave
himself" for the church "that he might sanctify" her (5:25-26). Thus the
holiness of the church (progressively in this age and perfectly in
heaven) is the goal of both election and redemption. The church’s
holiness (including the removal of the filth  and spots and wrinkles
of sin ) is her enrapturing beauty as the bride of Christ, a far
greater beauty than all the beauty of the whole creation. The church’s
holiness is also her glory (27), a glory that reflects and serves the
glory of the Triune God, the Lord of His holy church.