You cannot have God as your Father, unless you have the Church as your Mother.
Many Presbyterians aren’t used to thinking of the Church as Mother. It all sounds a bit ‘high church’. Of course, the Roman Catholics do adopt this language – which may explain why many Presbyterians do not. However, in a day when some seem to think that attendance at Church is optional in Christianity; when some have no intention of submitting to the discipline of the church; and when people leave and join churches as if the were changing their car, the idea of our relationship with the Church as our Mother is one which needs greater attention amongst Presbyterians.
It’s always a good idea to turn to Jean…
But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels, (Mat 22: 30).
For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for, as Isaiah and Joel testify, (Isa 37: 32; Joel 2: 32). To their testimony Ezekiel subscribes, when he declares, “They shall not be in the assembly of my people, neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel,” (Eze 13: 9); as, on the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true piety are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem. For which reason it is said in the psalm, “Remember me, O Lord, with the favour that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation; that I may see the good of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance,” (Psa 106: 4, 6). By these words the paternal favour of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar people, and hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal. Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.4
Of course, Calvin’s words are mirrored in the Confession, which states that outside of the visible church (made up of those ‘that profess the true religion, together with their children’) there is ‘no ordinary possibility of salvation’ (WCF 25.2). You cannot be part of the visible church if you are invisible; if you do not ordinarily attend church services. Neither can living like that be in any sense a profession of the true religion. Calvin is not wrong to say ‘the abandonment of the Church is always fatal.’