In Defense Of Our Mother: Why Augustine Was Wrong
IN THE PAST FEW MONTHS I have shared in several conversations online with Twitter followers and Facebook friends concerning St. Augustine’s famous quip, “The Church is a whore, but she is my mother.” Whether or not he actually said that could be disputed (it has also been attributed to Luther), but the phrase has enjoyed somewhat of a revival in recent years among disgruntled young Christians. As one seminary student recently told me, “I affirm Augustine’s words. I think the church often behaves worse than Israel and the prophets had harsher words for Israel that Augustine did for the church.” Another seminarian said that Augustine’s phrase was “a profound theological statement that is essential for those who see the damaging (expletive) of the Church [and] the destructive force the Church can be.”
I am always quite grieved to read such views about the Church that fellow believers seem to hold, as I feel that they are exceptionally very low thoughts about the Church, as well as being grievous statements toward our Lord and Savior. A quick reading of the New Testament reveals that the Lord Jesus and the Apostles never spoke ill of the Church, even though the Old Testament is full of the language of whoredom. While there can be much legitimate critique made against the excesses of Christians, the way the Scripture (both Old and New Testaments) speaks of the Church always is in a most holy and reverent manner.
What I want to do in this essay is to take a cursory glance of the Biblical passages concerning the Church and show that while once the people of God were guilty of spiritual adultery, no longer is that the case, and that to continue speaking of the Church as a whore is offensive to the Lord Jesus Christ who bought His Church to make her pure and holy. While the strongest case for spiritual adultery can be made from the Minor Prophets, yet even there is the promise of a pure and faithful Church. Later in the New Testament, there is, at times, talk of whoredom in the Church, but there is never an injunction made against her for being a whore. If we filter our understanding of the church firstly through the lens of Christian history, we will see a most distorted picture of the Body of Christ. But if we begin with a Biblical framework, Biblical terminology will come to our aid. To prevent unnecessary evil from being spoken against the Church, it is necessary to have the mind of Christ concerning His Body and Bride.
Old Covenant/New Covenant
The understanding of idolatry in the Old Testament reveals that it was a condition predicated by the hard hearts of the nation of Israel. Time and again the Lord spoke of His people that they were hard hearted and could not love Him the way they should (Ex. 32:9, Acts 7:51). Because the human heart in its fallen condition is a “factory of idols”, an unregenerate people could not help but follow after other gods. It was unrighteous for the pagan nations to worship idols, but for the Jews to leave Jehovah to serve Baal was unrighteousness compounded with adultery. God had made a covenant with no other nation. Israel was God’s bride, albeit reluctantly.
Since sinful hearts are by nature idolatrous, adulterous, and whoring, and the Law only increased the power of sin (1 Cor. 15:56), it’s no wonder that the Children of the Law were the most spiritually adulterous nation in the world. Time and again we see the prophets lay the charge of unfaithfulness against a whoring people (Ez. 16), until the promise for a new heart, a new spirit, and a cleansing from idolatry (Ez. 37) would come in the person of Messiah (Isa. 52:3-6).
The thread of adulterous idolatry runs all through the prophecy of Hosea. The Lord repeatedly declares His anger against the unfaithfulness of His people. He goes so far as tell Hosea to marry a whore and to name His daughters “No Mercy” and “Not My People”. But the theme of Hosea is not just betrayal and judgment, but also redemption through regeneration. Deep in the texts of faithlessness is the promise of the righteousness that comes by faith. While God desires Israel to remember His fidelity on His end of the marriage covenant, even more He wants to reveal to them His promises for a sure and better covenant (Heb. 8:6, 9:15).
The Lord speaks by His prophet that He will remove Israel’s heart of adultery, cause her to remember the Baals no more, and betroth her in faithfulness (Hos. 2:16-20). The New Covenant promise is that the people of God would not be an idolatrous whore, but the faithful bride of their Redeemer. The two daughters of Hosea were promised mercy and acceptance after they had been formerly guaranteed only judgment and rejection (Hos. 2:23). This is the Gospel.
More than seven hundred years after Hosea prophesied, the Lord Jesus Christ came to make that promise a surety by propitiating God’s wrath against the whoredom of Israel (Heb. 2:17), redeeming them from sin that caused their infidelity (Eph. 1:17), and by sending the Holy Spirit to produce in their hearts the fruit of faithfulness (Gal. 5:22). Not only to the Jews does He secure the promise of a new heart and new spirit, but also for as many that believe (John 1:12) that He was willing and able to make them new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17). Both Jews and Gentiles are now given access to this New Covenant, since the better promises broke down the dividing wall between Israel and the pagans (Eph. 2:14).
Both groups have now become one Bride betrothed to one Lord because the New Covenant is based in the Spirit, not in the flesh (1 Pet. 3:18). Conversely, those who remain without faith still possess lesser promises, a heart of disloyalty, and thus, are still living in the day of God’s wrath. This is the partial hardening that has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles comes (Rom. 11:25). God has not rejected His people (Rom. 11:1-2), but the basis of His covenant with them has changed, and for Jews to enter into the New and Living Way (Heb. 10:20) they must be circumcised in heart, not in the flesh. This is the fundamental message of the epistles to the Romans and Hebrews.
The Apostles, then, became heralds of the New Covenant. They spoke of the people of God as actually having received the promises made in the prophets about a new heart, a new spirit, and the indwelling Spirit of God. These promises were not only to the individual member, but also to the corporate body. Paul wrote that just as Mt. Sinai on Earth signifies the Law, so Jerusalem above signifies the Spirit (Gal. 4). He said that the Jews who had lived under the Law in the flesh must now live by faith in Christ in the Spirit – and not just the Jews, but Gentiles, also. The flesh, the earth, and the Law were the marks of the whoring nation. The faithful nation, by contrast, was in the Spirit, dwelled in Heaven, and lived under grace. This is why the writer of Hebrews says,
“For you have not come to what may be touched… but to heavenly Jerusalem… and the church of the firstborn.” (Heb. 12:18, 22-23)
The congregation of the Church of the Firstborn are assembled and enrolled in Heaven where “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” now reside. That they are firstborn means that they have been raised with Christ now, not in some future tense (Col. 1:18). The writer of Hebrews is clear that as long as the Jews (and Gentile converts) remain under the Law, they have no participation in the New Covenant nor in the Heavenly Congregation, and like the foolish virgins, will remain outside the joy of the wedding feast (Matt. 25:11).
A Jew is one inwardly because circumcision is of the heart, not the letter (Rom.2:29). Those under the Law are earthly and fleshly, and consequently can not be spiritual and Heavenly at the same time. The New Covenant is made in the Spirit and in the heavens, while the Old Covenant resides on tablets of stone in the Earth (2 Cor. 3:3). All of these teachings are the New Testament declarations that the types and shadows of the Law are now a reality in Christ Jesus (Col. 2:17). “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17).
The Bride And The Whore
There are three chapters in the Book of Revelation that we should weigh against Augustine’s statement: Chapters 17 and 18 speak of the Whore of Babylon and Chapter 21 speaks of The Bride, which is New Jerusalem. Here are two pictures that we should look at very closely.
The Whore of Babylon is characterized by her wanton and perverse way of life (Rev. 17:2, 18:1). She murders the saints (17:6, 18:24), grows rich through trade (17:4, 18:3), aligns herself politically with kings of the earth (17:2, 4, 18:3,4,9), commits sexual immorality (17:2, 18:3), and the names written on her back all blaspheme the Lord (17:4). She rides on the back of the beast (17:3) and her dwelling place is associated with demons (18:2). In the end, her political allies destroy her. She is completely and utterly a worldly system, and her end is destruction.
New Jerusalem is described as the Bride, the wife of the Lamb (21:9), and as being made of precious stones (21:18-21), whose foundations bear the name of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (21:14). The light of God illuminates the city (21:23), and the Lamb Himself is its temple (21:22), and it is filled with the glory of God (21:23) . The image fits the NT language concerning the Church, since she is simultaneously the Bride, the Body, and the Building. This city is the people of God, the Living Stones (1 Pet. 2:5) who are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Furthermore, she is seen coming down from Heaven, which is where the Apostles repeatedly describe her as currently residing (Heb. 12:23, Phil. 3:20.).
When the Lamb conquers the Prostitute, the Beast, and the Ten Kings in Rev. 17, it is said of those who are allied with Him that they are “called and chosen and faithful” (17:14). There is no language of infidelity surrounding those who are united with the Lamb. It is quite the opposite. This phrase perfectly reveals the Lord Jesus’ mind concerning His Bride: She is called “faithful”, not “unfaithful”.
The picture of the pure, spotless Bride, not the Whore, is the NT portrait of the Church. To say the Church is a whore is to grossly misjudge her as the Prostitute that Christ overthrows, not the pure, spotless Bride that He sanctifies by water and the Word (Eph. 5:26). If the Body is a whore, then the Head is a whore, for Christ and His Body are One (1 Cor. 12:12). If we confuse the Prostitute with the Church, we are in danger of calling our Lord and Savior a blasphemous name, which, coincidentally is one of the qualities of the Whore of Babylon.
Babylon is the NT description of the World and its systems, and symbolizes the captivity that Israel was carried into for their unbelief. It is not Egypt, the power of sin and bondage, which Christ destroys at His coming, but Babylon, that ungodly nation that keeps His people from living holy lives in their homeland. The charge of being the mother of prostitutes is laid at her because her children worship idols instead of the Living God.
But because the Church is spiritual, she is therefore incapable of even committing such sins of idolatry. There is no hint of faithfulness one day and unfaithfulness the next in the New Covenant. We should believe the Lord our God and believe His prophets (like Hosea) when He promises to betroth us in faithfulness (2 Chron. 20:20). The apostolic charge to the believer, then, is one of conformity to the reality that is Christ and His Body, who ever abide in faithfulness to God.
Notice that I did not say individual believers are incapable of idolatry. James admonishes the saints not to be adulterous (James 4:4), but he does so in the context of friendship with the World, which is Babylon. If you are friends with the world, he says, you will be an adulterous person, and will have no friendship with God. John says as much in His epistle (1 John 2:15, 5:4, 5:19). But neither man says anything of the nature of the Church as being adulterous. It is the individual believer who must wage the war between living in the flesh and living in the Spirit, because he remains in the world. She must choose where her allegiance will be placed: with Christ and the Church in Heaven, or with Satan and the Beast in the world. The cloud of witnesses who have gone to glory have no friendship with the world because they have been taken out of the world (Heb. 12:1, 23).
It can be said that the Church is in the world, but not of the world, because the Church is of Heaven and the Spirit (John 17:15). Jesus prays to the Father that just as He was sent into the world, so the Father would send the disciples into the world. And from where was Jesus sent into the world? From Heaven. This is why, I am convinced, the disciples did not go out into the world until the Spirit was given to them from on high (Lk. 24:49).
The Church is the Body, yes, albeit made up of many members, but if such members love the world, they will be expelled from the fellowship in the Spirit and are in danger of losing salvation. Because Christ and His Body are one, salvation is in the Church. Those who choose friendship with the world run every chance of being expelled from the Church. There is no such thing as dual citizenship in Heaven and the world (Luke 16:13). The admonitions come time and again by the Apostles to live by the Spirit and to not be friends with the world (1 John 2:15). I believe in the power of present-day apostles to hand men over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that their spirit might be saved (1 Cor. 5:5) and so that they would learn not to blaspheme (1 Tim. 1:20). Who blasphemes but the whore of Babylon? And why does she blaspheme but that she is in the flesh and at war with the Spirit (Gal. 5:17)?
The Worldly Church
What, then, of the atrocities committed, wars fought, schisms created, and injustices done in the name of Jesus? One doesn’t need to mention the Crusade or Inquisition for Christian abuses to come to mind. History is a living example of Christians not only oppressing Jews, Muslims, and Hindus, and others, but also oppressing other Christians. This is perhaps the greatest charge brought against us by our opponents, and certainly one the biggest qualms that the restless reformers of today have with Christianity. If Jesus is such a good man, why are His followers such wicked people? Gandhi is often quoted alongside Augustine: “I like your Christ but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”
Without oversimplifying a complex topic, I would say that there is a simple answer to why Christians are not like Christ: Those who begin in the Spirit seek to become perfected by the flesh. History is a living book that shows us what sin has done to the human race. This much is clear to everyone who would read its pages. What’s more confusing to a watching world – not to mention immature Christians – is why those who claim to have been delivered from sin still go on sinning spectacularly.
The true Church has never caused any great destruction, only saints living in conformity with the World and walking in the flesh. This surely is the NT way of speaking of the Church. Sin is the destructive force in the world, never the Church. Those in the World walk in the flesh. Those in Heaven live by the Spirit. The apostle’s admonitions couldn’t be any clearer: “If you have been raised with Christ, keep seeking the things above. If we live in the Spirit, let us walk by the Spirit.” (Gal. 5:16) If we set our mind on things below, and are conformed to the pattern of this world (Rom. 12:12), we will as a result live in the flesh, and the mind set on the flesh is death (Rom. 8:6.) This is why the apostles’ plead with the saints to live in conformity with the Last Adam, the life-giving spirit, not the First Adam, the living soul. The warning is found all through Scripture: You cannot serve God and Mammon, live in the Flesh and the Spirit, live by the Law and by the Promise, love the world and the Lord, hold citizenship in Babylon and Jerusalem. “Choose ye this day who you will serve. (Josh. 24:15).
Is not the Galatian problem a microcosm of all of Christian history? What began in the Spirit eventually turned into an effort of flesh. Salvation is by faith, through and through. We are justified by faith, sanctified by faith, and glorified by faith (Rom. 8:30). The Scripture is clear that you cannot begin in the Spirit and be perfected in the flesh (Gal. 3:3). Having started with Christ, they switched allegiance to the Law, not unlike an ambassador in a foreign country who suddenly forgets which country he is representing.
As a recent example of what happens when Christians begin in the Spirit and turn carnal, take the Congregationalist churches here in America in the past three hundred years. Natural theology became the hallmark of late 18th century Congregationalism, followed by social action in the next three centuries. Dissatisfied with the Calvinism of their ancestors, they quickly moved farther and farther from a spiritual basis for their faith towards a rationalistic one. Long before the Civil War, many had crossed the threshold of faithfulness and had become more committed to social justice than to Jesus Christ. Eventually the Congregationalist’s success in the abolition movement led them to work for woman’s suffrage in the 20th century. All of this transpired while the group become increasingly apostate in the name of working for Christ through political and social means. Now in the 21st century they ordain homosexuals to the ministry and participate in interfaith dialogue. All this from the ancestors of the Puritans!
Behind even social justice movements can be a form of worldliness. Those who work for justice on earth and yet fail to cry for justice to Heaven will find themselves moving away from the Gospel of grace. Social justice easily becomes a form of justification (or justice) by works. The Law always comes with her two wicked stepsisters, the Flesh and the World. In seeking to change the world, many became worldly and carnal. Somewhere they believe that spiritual ends are best achieved through social means, and ultimately lose the plot, when, in fact, the exact opposite is the truth: social ends are best achieved through spiritual means! This goes for political and cultural ends, as well, and history is full of sad stories about the results of the unholy mixture of Christianity and politics, or Christianity and culture.
In conclusion, the saints on Earth can live in the flesh, but the Church cannot live in the flesh because she is above. The covenant people of God once resided on Earth in the nation of Israel. They now reside in Heaven, seated with Christ in Heavenly places. This nation includes both Jew and Gentile. One day Christ will usher in the New Heaven and New Earth, but for the present time, we are to seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated, the Church has her true fellowship, and where we await the Lord’s return to Earth.
If our understanding of the Church is an earthly one, then of course we will see her as a whore. She has murdered, lied, stolen, committed adultery, worshipped idols, and become drunk with wealth, arrogance, and political power. She has been populated with tyrants and charlatans – at the very best, pastors who run off with their secretaries and idiots who want an audience online. Yes, she has had great men, too, who have turned the nations towards Christ and His Kingdom. But how can she account for The Inquisition, the Crusades, or answer for the murders of righteous men like Tynedale, Servetus, or Manz? She is duplicitous at best, another name for adulterous.
But if she is in Heaven above where God dwells, then she is pure, holy, righteous, and just. All of her sin has been atoned for, and her wicked deeds are no longer remembered. She goes from glory to glory and from age to age, even by the Spirit of the Lord (2 Cor. 3:18). She is filled with saints who await their Lord and Bridegroom at the consummation of the age. Her heart is not idolatrous, for she has been betrothed in faithfulness.
Let us not confuse the Church with the Whore. The Whore of Babylon is a worldly system, made up of worldly people, which employs worldly means. Sadly, the saints through the ages have caused great damage in the name of Christ because they have stopped walking by the Spirit and have walked after the flesh. The mind set on the flesh is not just destruction, but ultimately death.
The New Jerusalem is above and we belong to her if we belong to Christ. Since His Body is His Temple, it is where His Spirit resides, and is by necessity a holy dwelling. We have been taken up in the Spirit to sit with Christ in Heaven as surely as the Spirit has been sent down to dwell with us on earth. The mind set on the Spirit is life, and life more abundantly. May the Lord bless His Church.