The Ordinary Christian Church
Throughout its history, the church has tended to view itself as extraordinary. For example, in the medieval period, the church was an extraordinary place apart from the world, the sacred separated from the profane, the place of salvation, the holder of the mysteries of heaven.
The church contained extraordinary people—monks and nuns, priests and bishops, and above all the pope as Christ’s representative on earth. These extraordinary people were the ones who had callings to do ministry; everyone else simply did work. Even more, the church had extraordinary means—sacraments that conveyed grace through the working of the rituals themselves. As monks and mystics did mighty deeds and fed the laity with heavenly food, some of the extraordinary received sainthood while the ordinary longed for final release from sin and a glimpse of God in heaven.
To heighten the extraordinary aspect of the church and its most holy servants, church buildings themselves were constructed with the extraordinary altar at the far end of the sanctuary separated from the ordinary people by a fence, screen, or rail. The line was drawn again at the Eucharist, in which the laity was denied the chance to partake of the wine (as the blood of Christ) for fear of what would happen if it was spilled. The Christian church was filled with reminders of the extraordinary.
One of the key contributions of the Reformation—and of Protestantism generally—has been its emphasis upon the ordinariness of the church. To be sure, John Calvin would approve of Cyprian’s observation that the church is our mother and “away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation,” or as the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches, “The visible church … is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (25.2). The church is God’s normal place of grace. However, God’s grace does not come through an extraordinary display; rather, God uses His ordinary church to sustain and nourish believers through ordinary ministry, people, and means.
In His ordinary church, God works through ordinary ministry. The Reformers made a distinction between those biblical offices that were extraordinary and meant to last for a time—such as Apostle and prophet—and those biblical offices that were “ordinary and perpetual” in the church—elder and deacon (Eph. 4:11-13; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9). The extraordinary ministry of Apostles and prophets established the church (Eph. 2:20), their foundational teaching consisting of the canon of Scripture. However, from the close of the canon to the present, God has used the ordinary, regular ministry of elders and deacons to build up the church (1 Tim. 3:15).
These elders and deacons are chosen by God’s people in concurrence with Christ’s own determination to gift His people with officers (Acts 6:1-7, 14:23; Eph 4:7-12). Far from involving a supernatural, extraordinary call, the calling to ordinary ministry comes through God’s people looking among themselves for men “of good repute, full of the spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3). These men are set apart to take what they have received concerning the gospel and to pass it on faithfully to others (2 Tim. 2:2). And while some of these men will do this on a full-time basis and receive remuneration (1 Cor. 9:8-12; 1 Tim. 5:17), others will continue in their daily work as tent-makers, fishermen, teachers, and doctors even as they shepherd the flock of God (Acts 18:1-4, 24-28; 1 Cor. 9:6-7). Elders devote themselves primarily to prayer and the ministry of the Word and deacons to serving the physical needs of the people, but both work for the building up of God’s ordinary church (Acts 6:1-7).
This is the normal ministry through which God works—elders and deacons doing ordinary ministry in response to God’s call that comes through the regular processes of the church. But the church advances its cause not only through an ordinary ministry, but also through ordinary men and women living daily life in the world and church.
The Reformers insisted that God’s cause in the world advances through ordinary people living out their callings in every area of life. As men and women trust in Christ in their daily work, they do good works. These works are as good as a pastor when he preaches or as an elder who ministers at the bedside of a dying woman. Luther put it this way: “If he finds his heart confident that it pleases God, then the work is good, even if it were so small a thing as picking up a straw.” Believers’ work is acceptable to God not because it is church-related or world-renowned; it is acceptable because it is done in faith, because it pleases God, and because God uses it to prosper His world. God uses ordinary people as a kingdom of priests who represent and mediate common grace to all creation.
This priesthood of all believers also changes our understanding of ordinary life in the church. Since every believer is a priest before God united to the chief priest, Jesus, each believer’s worship is significant (1 Peter 2:4-10). The prayers of the woman on Friday are as valued and valuable in God’s sight as the prayers of the minister on Sunday. The Sunday school teaching of the accountant is as valued and valuable in God’s sight as the lectures of the seminary professor. All believers have God’s anointing; all are priests before God; all are significant in building God’s kingdom (1 John 2:27).
This is not to say that God has not gifted some more than others; nor is this to say that God has not ordained a structure for His church with elders called to shepherd the flock and to be apt to teach (1 Peter 5:1-5; Heb. 13:7, 17). However, it is to say that in the ordinary Christian church, God uses ordinary men and women as “priests to his God and Father” (Rev. 1:5), whose worship is significant and whose work is acceptable in Christ.
As this ordinary church gathers—ordinary men and women served by an ordinary ministry—it finds God working through ordinary means. The Westminster Shorter Catechism refers to the “ordinary means of grace” as the Word, sacraments, and prayer. Though these ordinary means look simple and even foolish to some, God uses them in powerful ways, for He makes them “effectual to the elect for salvation” (Q&A 88; see 1 Cor. 1:18-31).
In the reading and especially the preaching of the Bible, God works to convict and convert sinners and to convict and comfort the saints, that is, all believers. In the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God works to confirm His Word and assure our hearts through the work of His Spirit and the response of our faith. In our prayers, God works in our hearts and lives as we offer up our desires to God. Through His working, God makes these ordinary means effectual for our salvation (WSC 89-91). That is, they confirm and sanctify us in Christ as we await our glorification.
The ordinary Christian church does not need the latest fads to draw sinners or seekers. Instead, it needs these ordinary means along with faith in the God who uses these means. Surely one of the great crises in our own day is the crisis of confidence and faith in the ordinary means of grace. God is calling us to remember once again that He does not need extraordinary experiences or events; rather, He delights to use these ordinary means to do His work in people’s lives.
For when God’s people use the ordinary means, even the most uneducated person can learn the great story of salvation, grow in faith and grace, and serve as a priest in God’s house. The Westminster Confession of Faith admits that not everything in the Bible is plain or clear to every Bible reader, “but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding” of those things necessary for salvation (WCF 1:7). Likewise, one does not need “extraordinary revelation” or a special manifestation of the Spirit to gain assurance; rather, an infallible assurance of salvation is attained “in the right use of ordinary means” (WCF 18:3). Such learning and assurance requires God’s people to attend their ordinary Christian church Lord’s Day by Lord’s Day in order to use these ordinary means of grace.
And when we commit ourselves to this ordinary Christian church—God does extraordinary things. He grants mercy and grace; He enlightens our minds and engages our wills; He effectually calls and justifies; He sanctifies His adopted children; and He brings them safely home. Thus, God does not call us to give first place to the helpful but extraordinary conference, podcast, book, or magazine; rather, He calls us to love His beautiful, blood-bought, ordinary Christian church.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.