Your Indispensable Spiritual Mother

1 May 2023 by Wes Bredenhof

Who Needs the Church?  Why we need the Church (and why the Church needs us), Terry L. Johnson. Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2022.  Hardcover, 126 pages.

John Calvin famously said that “he who would have God for a Father must have the church for his mother.”  Like many others did, Calvin based that assertion on Gal. 4:26.  Similarly, our Belgic Confession insists in article 28 that “there is no salvation outside of” the church of Christ.  That’s a position that’s been held by the Church for thousands of years.  The church, our spiritual mother, is indispensable. You can’t do without her. 

That’s the driving theme of this little book from Terry Johnson, a Presbyterian pastor in Savannah, Georgia.  He’s addressing the problem of what he calls “our collapsing ecclesiology” (ecclesiology is the doctrine of the church).  He writes this in the first paragraph of chapter 1:

It’s Sunday morning.  You wake up, prepare a hot beverage, eat breakfast, and finish your morning routine.  Now what?  Go to church?  Maybe, maybe not.  May depend on what else is going on.  Or what I feel like.  Or what is available online.  Attending public worship services has become optional for a growing number of professing Christians, as has commitment to the visible, institutional church.  (p.9) 

As I’m writing this review, it’s the day after Christmas, December 26, 2022.  This year Christmas fell on a Sunday.  It was astonishing to see how many churches cancelled their worship services because Christmas fell on a Sunday.  They said that few people would come anyway, so there was no point.  Church leaders are dropping the ball – Terry Johnson is quite right to speak about a “collapsing ecclesiology.”

Who Needs the Church? is a short, simple, and clearly written primer on a key element in the biblical doctrine of the church.  It consists of 19 bite-size chapters in three parts:  What Scripture Teaches, Clarifying Perspectives, and Historic Perspectives.  Everything in these chapters is consistent with the Reformed confessions.

One of the points I appreciated in Johnson’s book is his strong emphasis on the local church.  He writes:  “Behind the diminished regard for the church today is an overblown doctrine of the church’s invisibility” (p.85).   He rightly notes that “nearly every reference to the ‘church’ in the New Testament is to actual congregations” (p.87).  Believers are meant to be members of local churches of Christ.

For such a small book, it addresses a wide range of questions.  Some of them include:

  • Can one be too committed to the local church?  What about outsiders? 
  • Is there a place for parachurch organizations?
  • Is the concept of church membership actually biblical?
  • What is the job description of the church? 

While Johnson does cover a lot of ground, it’s certainly not exhaustive.  Readers may still be left with some questions.  For example, while he does speak about bad behaviour and hypocrisy within the church and the place that should have in our thinking about membership in a local church, he doesn’t address the problem of what to do about a spiritually abusive church.  The closest he comes is to say, “Authoritarian, unaccountable, autocratic church leaders cannot sustain the long-term spiritual well-being of believers” (p.43).  So if you have such leaders in your church, can you go elsewhere?  He doesn’t say.

Some churches provide welcome packs for visitors and these packs sometimes include books – this book would be ideal for that.  It could also be worthwhile for new members or inquirers’ classes.   Sadly, there’s one audience this book likely won’t directly help:  those church members on the fringe, only occasionally attending church and otherwise uninvolved.  Many of those folks just don’t care and so they’re not likely to read this kind of book.  But those who shepherd them should and by doing so they’ll be equipped to address these issues in a biblical manner.

Originally published in Clarion 72.6 (April 28, 2023)