What is the Church?

A comparison between the 17th century confessions

by Kees van Kralingen


Ecclesiology is receiving renewed attention in recent years also in evangelical circles (1). Part of the reason must be the emergence of new and different forms of churches: seeker-sensitive churches, the so-called ‘emerging church’ movement (2), the phenomenon of internet-based churches. In addition, global communication and the growing exchange of people from different parts of the world have drawn attention to cultural aspects of the church. The key question is: What is the church? The aim of this article is to give a brief survey of the reformed answers given in the great 17th century reformed confessions and to evaluate the relevance of these views for today.

The 17th Century Confessions

The Puritan movement in the 17th century resulted in the development of the three great reformed, doctrinal confessions (3), which have exerted a powerful influence in Protestant churches ever since. These confessions also address the subject of ecclesiology in more or less detail. The Westminster Confession is firmly Presbyterian, whilst the Savoy Declaration (4) and the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith (5) of 1689 (referred to as the 1689) adopt a congregational ecclesiology (with the latter distinguishing itself from the Savoy Declaration regarding the view on infant baptism).

The Westminster Confession and the Savoy Declaration

The Savoy Declaration and the Westminster Confession treat the subject relatively briefly with only 5 and 6 paragraphs, respectively. All three are uncompromisingly emphatic that the Pope represents antichrist and is not head of the church. Christ alone is head of his church. The Savoy is unique in its eschatology of victory, ‘we expect that later days, Antichrist being destroyed, the Jews called, and the adversaries of the Kingdom of his dear Son broken, the churches of Christ enlarged, and edified through a free and plentiful communication of light and grace, shall enjoy in this world a more quiet, peaceable and glorious condition than they have enjoyed.’

Both the Westminster and the Savoy follow Calvin in adopting the distinction between the invisible and the visible church (6). According to the Westminster, the latter is composed of those who profess the true religion and their children (the latter in line with its paedobaptist and Presbyterian position). This confession equates the visible church with the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. With the statement that ‘outside the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation’ the Westminster also follows Calvin although it leaves some room for (a divine) exception. The Savoy Declaration defines the visible church as ‘the whole body of men throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel and obedience unto God by Christ according to it (the gospel).’ This is an expansion from the brief Westminster statement on the profession of true religion.

The Baptist Confession of 1689

The 1689 also treats all the main elements of the Westminster but with some significant modifications and a lot of additional material. The 1689 has 15 paragraphs on the church. The 1689 also uses the term ‘invisible church’ but specifies this by adding the words ‘in respect of the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace’. In other words, the church is invisible because the work of the Spirit is invisible.

Unlike the Westminster and the Savoy Declaration the 1689 does not use the phrase ‘visible’ church. The 1689 states in paragraph 2: ‘all persons throughout the world who profess to believe the gospel and to render gospel obedience unto God by Christ are, and may be called visible saints’ and it ends the paragraph by saying that ‘and of such persons all local churches should be composed.’ As compared to the Westminster, the 1689 like the Savoy Declaration is more detailed about what is professed (the faith of the gospel) and adds the element of obedience. The 1689 places both here and in other places more emphasis on the personal nature of faith and obedience as essential marks of true believers and as pre-requisites for church membership.

Paragraph 3 explains that churches in this world are still troubled by mixture and error, in other words, are not pure. However, Christ will always have a kingdom in this world.

In paragraph 5 the 1689 emphasises the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ as the Head of the church calls individuals (the elect) to faith and obedience, who are commanded to organise themselves in local churches. Paragraph 6 describes this as it were from the human perspective: they show by their confession and way of life, that they obey Christ’s call. These are the ‘visible saints’ which ‘willingly consent to hold fellowship together’ and form the local church. The 1689 rejects any institutions or bodies over and above the local church (see paragraph 15). The 1689 in these two articles holds together a number of important features: first of all the work of the Lord through Word and Spirit and the command to form a local church and secondly, the focus on the personal response in voluntary church membership.

So true believers called by the Holy Spirit must become ‘visible’ in this world and then must also form a local church. In this way the 1689 draws a close connection between the invisible church and the visible appearance of the church (the visible saints). The biblical standard is that only true believers should be members of local churches. Even though the standard sometimes appears compromised because of human weakness and imperfection (see paragraph 3), there should be no conscious decision to allow non-believers into local church membership. This is a significant development from both Calvin and the Westminster Confession.

The idea that there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside the church is notably absent from the 1689. The reason is that the 1689 confesses that ‘the Lord Jesus calls to himself from out of the world, through the ministry of his Word, by his Spirit, those who are given to him by his Father’ (paragraph 5). This can happen wherever the Word is preached: in the church (meeting) or outside the immediate context of the church by the personal testimony of a believer. In the Westminster (following Calvin) the order is: through the ministry of the church (the preaching of the gospel) people are saved and added to the church. The 1689 reverses this order by stating that people, who hear the gospel, believe and obey form a local church. The 1689 in fact says that new believers are the fruit of the preaching of the Word applied by the Holy Spirit, and not the product of the church.

Evaluation of the differences between the Westminster and the 1689

Both confessions agree on key points thus reflecting their basic reformed position. The question on the need of the church if believers are the product of divine election is resolved explicitly in the 1689 (in contrast to the Westminster) in terms of the biblical command, necessity and inevitability for believers to meet and form a local society or church. The 1689 can do this because of its definition of visible saints.

In this way, the 1689 can and does maintain a close connection between the invisible church and the visible church (regarded as the local congregation of visible saints), without making them completely equal (the 1689 still maintains the possibility that churches may contain hypocrites). The position of Calvin and the Westminster confession has more difficulty relating the invisible church to the visible church. If a too intimate connection between the two is made, the risk is that the visible church as institute will claim more than is in agreement with either the Bible or reality (showing imperfection). If they separate the two, the visible church may degenerate in an earthly institute robbed of its essentially biblical and spiritual nature. This element in the 1689 is relevant to any reformed ecclesiology. It does not resolve all the tension there is between the invisible church and its visible manifestation in the world, but it maintains a more biblical balance.

Relevance for today

The 1689 emphasises the responsibility of the churches to fight against error. The view on the local church composed of true believers therefore assumes application of biblical discipline (as indeed mentioned in paragraph 13) (7). Recent developments in the way people form churches underline the need for a fresh view on biblical church discipline.

The confessions and especially the 1689 assume both divine sovereignty and human responsibility. To keep these concepts in a biblical balance also in the area of ecclesiology is of utmost importance today. The church is not the product of human effort: Jesus Christ is the Head of the church who will gather and maintain his church to the end of the world. At the same time, the Lord Jesus has given us the task to proclaim his Word in this world.

The clear biblical view on the importance of the local church is also much needed today. The church is not a ‘fluid’ and informal organisation. The biblical concepts of fellowship, congregation and covenant are fully applicable. This also means commitment. Believers are subject of the new covenant and they also ‘covenant’ with each other to form a local church. The aim of the local church is not entertainment or development of its members for its own sake. Rather the church has a clear biblical mandate and task to perform. The 1689 refers to the task ‘to promote their common welfare and to engage in the public worship which he requires them to carry on while they continue in the world’ (paragraph 5). We need to show the love of Christ in preaching the gospel in evangelism and mission and care for each other and needy people in the wider world.

The biblical emphasis on the local church does not mean total isolation from other churches. There is every biblical reason (Acts 15) to consult one another and to associate for mutual support ‘with gifts and graces’ whilst maintaining formal independence of the local church. This is well expressed in paragraphs 14 and 15 of the 1689. David Kingdon has shown from history that the early Baptist churches practised this kind of association with much benefit (8). Many examples can be cited all over the world of Baptists churches uniting in unions or associations. We should at our conferences maintain and strengthen unity and association. Isolation is always dangerous for a local church.


1 See for example: Carson D.A. (ed.), The Church in the Bible and the World (Exeter: Paternoster, 1987); Carson D.A. (ed.), Biblical Interpretation and the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984); Dever M., 9 Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004); Dever M. and Alexander P., The Deliberate Church (Wheaton, Crossway, 2005)

2 D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005)

3 All of these can be found on: http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html

4 http://www.reformed.org/master/index.html?mainframe=/documents/Savoy_Declaration/index.html

5 A Faith to Confess: The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (rewritten in modern English) (Leeds: Carey Publications Ltd, 1975); see also the article by Erroll Hulse, ‘The 1689 – Its history and role today’, in: Clarke P. et al., Our Baptist Heritage (Leeds: Reformation Today Trust, 1993)

6 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (McNeill J.T. ed., and Battles, F.L. transl.) (Philadelphia: Westminster Press) Book IV

7 This has also become a feature of other, non-Baptist confessions, e.g. the Heidelberg Catechism

8 Kingdon D. ‘Independency and Interdependency’, in: Clarke P. et al., Our Baptist Heritage (Leeds: Reformation Today Trust, 1993)