THE CHURCH – what is it?

J. C. Ryle


J. C. RyleThere is perhaps no subject in religion which is so much misunderstood as the subject of the Church. There is certainly no misunderstanding which has done more harm to professing Christians than the misunderstanding of this subject.
There are few words in the New Testament which are which are used in such a variety of meanings, as the word Church. [1] It is a word which we hear constantly, and yet cannot help observing that different people use it in different senses. The English politician in our days talks of the Church. What does he mean? You will generally find he means the Episcopal Church established in his own country. – The Roman Catholic talks of the Church. What does he mean? He means the Church of Rome, and tells you there is no other Church in the world except his own. – The Dissenter talks of the Church. What does he mean? He means the communicants of the chapel of which he is a member. – The members of the Church of England talk of the Church. What do they mean? One means the building in which he worships on a Sunday. Another means the clergy, – and when any one is ordained, tells you he has gone into the Church! A third has some vague notions about what he is pleased to call apostolic succession, and hints mysteriously that the Church is made up of Christians who are governed by bishops, and none beside.

I believe that to have clear ideas about the Church is of the first importance in the present day. I believe that mistakes on this point are one grand cause of the religious delusions into which so many fall. I wish to direct attention to that great primary meaning in which the word Church is used in the New Testament, and to clear the subject of that misty vagueness by which it is surrounded in so many minds. It was a most true saying of Bishop Jewel the Reformer, “There never was anything yet so absurd or so wicked, but it might seem easy to be covered and defended by the Name of the Church.” [2] (Jewel’s Apology, Section XX)


What is the one true Church out of which no man can be saved?


There is a Church outside of which there is no salvation, a Church to which a man must belong, or be lost eternally. I lay this down without hesitation or reserve. I say it as strong and as confidently as the strongest advocate of the Church of Rome. But what is this Church? Where is the Church? What are the marks by which this Church may be known? This is the grand question.

The one true Church is well described in the Communion Service of England, as “the mystical body of Christ, which is the blessed company of all faithful people.” It is made up of all God’s elect, of all converted men and women, of all true Christians. In whomsoever we can discern the election of God the Father, the sprinkling of the blood of God the Son, the sanctifying work of God the Spirit, in that person we see a member of Christ’s true Church. [3]

It is a Church of which all the members have the same marks. They are all born again of the Spirit. They all possess “repentance towards God, faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ,” and holiness of life and conversation. They all hater sin, and they all love Christ. They may worship differently, and after various fashions. Some worship with a form of prayer and some with none; some worship kneeling, and some standing, but they all worship with one heart. They are all led by one Spirit. They all build upon one foundation. They all draw their religion from one single book. They are all joined to one great centre, that is Jesus Christ. They all, even now, can say with one heart, “Hallelujah!”

Is it a Church which is dependent upon no ministers upon earth, however much it values those who preach the Gospel to its members. The life of its members does not hang on Church membership and baptism and the Lord’s Supper, although they highly value these things, when they are to be had. But it has only one Great Head, one Shepherd, one chief Bishop, –and that is Jesus Christ. He alone, by His Spirit, admits members of this Church, though ministers may show the door. Till He opens the door, no man on earth can open it. Once a man repent and believe the Gospel, and that moment he becomes a member of this Church. Like the penitent thief, he may have no opportunity of being baptized. But he has that which is far better that any water baptism, –the baptism of the Spirit. He may not be able to receive the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, –he may be excommunicated by ordained men and cut off from the outward ordinances of the professing Church, –but all the ordained men in the world cannot shut him out of the true Church. [4]

It is the Church whose existence does not depend on forms, ceremonies, cathedrals, churches, chapels, pulpits, endowments, money, kings, governments, or any favour whatsoever from the hand of man. It has often lived on and continued when all these things have been taken from it. It has often been driven into the wilderness, or into dens and caves of the earth, by those who ought to have been its friends. But its existence depends on nothing but the presence of Christ and His Spirit, and so long as they are with it the Church cannot die.

This is the Church to which the titles of present honour and privilege, and the promises of future glory especially belong. This is the body of Christ. This is the bride. This is the Lamb’s wife. This is the flock of Christ. This is the household of faith and family of the Holy Ghost. This is the Church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. This is the “holy Catholic Church” of the Apostles’ Creed. This is the “One Catholic and Apostolic” Church of the Nicene Creed. This is that Church to which the Lord Jesus promises “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” and to which He says, “I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 16:18; 28:20).

This is the only Church which possesses true unity. Its members are all agreed on the weightier matters of religion, for they are all taught by one Spirit. About God, and Christ, and the Spirit, and sin, and their own hearts, and faith, and repentance, and the necessity of holiness, and the value of the Bible, and the importance of prayer, and the resurrection, and judgement to come, –about all these points they see eye to eye. Take three of four of them, strangers to one another, from the remotest corners of the earth. Examine them separately on these points. You will find them all of one mind. [5]

This is the only Church which possesses true sanctity. Its members are all holy. They are all more or less conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. They are all more or less like their great Head. No unholy man belongs to this Church. [6]
This is the only Church which is truly Catholic. It is not the Church of any one nation or people. Its members are to be found in every part of the world where the Gospel is received and believed. It is not confined within the limits of any one country, not pent up within the pale of any particular forms or outward government. In it there is no difference between Jew and Greek, black man and white, Episcopalian and Presbyterian; − but fait in Christ is all. Its members will be gathered from north, and south, and east, and west, in the last day, and will be of every name, and denomination, and kindred, and people, and tongue, but all one in Christ Jesus.

This is the only Church which is truly Apostolic. It is built on the foundation, laid by the Apostles, and holds the doctrines which they preached. The two grand objects at which its members aim, are apostolic faith and apostolic practices and they consider the man who talks of following the Apostle without possessing these two things, to be no better than sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal. [7]

This is the only Church which is certain to endure unto the end. Nothing can altogether overthrow and destroy it. It members may be persecuted, oppressed, imprisoned, beaten, beheaded, burned. – But the true Church is never altogether extinguished. It rises again from its afflictions. It lives on through fire and water. – When crushed in one hand, it springs up in another. The Pharaohs, the Herods, the Neros, the Julians, the Diocletians, the bloody Marys, the Charles the Ninths have laboured in vain to put down this Church. They slay their thousands, and then pass away and go to their own place. The true Church out-lives them all, and sees them buried each in his turn. It is an anvil that has broken many a hammer in this world, and will break many a hammer still. It is a bush which is often burning, and yet is not consumed.

This is the only Church of which no one member can perish. Once enrolled in the lists of this Church, sinners are safe for eternity. They are never cast away. The election of God the Father, the continual intercession of God the Son, the daily renewing and sanctifying power of God the Holy Ghost, surround and fence them in like a garden enclosed. Not one bone of Christ’s mystical body shall ever be broken. Not one lamb of Christ’s flock shall ever be plucked out of His hand.

This is the Church which does the work of Christ upon earth. Its members are a little flock, and few in number compared with the children of the world: − one or two here, and two or three there, − a few in this parish a few in that. But these are they who shake the universe. These are they who are the active workers for spreading the knowledge of pure religion and undefiled. These are the life-blood of a country, − the shield, the defence, the stay and the support of any nation to which they belong.

This is the Church which shall be truly glorious at the end of all things. When all earthly glory is passed away, then shall this Church be presented without spot, before the Father’s throne. Thrones, principalities, and powers upon earth shall come to nothing. Dignities and offices and endowments shall all pass away. –But the Church of the first-born shall shine as the stars at the last, and be presented with joy before the Father’s throne, in the day of Christ’s appearing. When the Lord’s jewels are made up, and the manifestation of the sons of God takes place, Episcopacy, and Presbyterianism and Congregationalism will not be mentioned. One Church only will be named, and that is the Church of the elect.


[1] There seem to be four meanings of the word Church in the New Testament. (1) It is applied to the whole body of the elect. (Hebrews 12:23). (2) It is applied to the baptized Christians of a particular district (Acts 8:1). (3) It is applied to a small number of professing Christians, in a particular family (Romans 16:5). (4) It is applied to the whole body of baptized believers throughout the world, both good and bad (1 Corinthians 12:28). In the fourth sense the word is very seldom used indeed. The first and the second senses are the most common. – The Author.
[2] “The adversaries of the truth defend many a false error under the name of the holy Church.” “Beware of deceit, when thou hearest the name of the Church. The verity is then assaulted. They call the church of the devil the holy Church many times.” Bishop Hooper, 1547, Parker Edition, pp.83, 84.
[3] “That Church which is Christ’s mystical body consisteth of none but only true Israelites, true sons of Abraham, true servants and saints of God.” –Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, Book III, section 1, 16000.
[4] “A man may be a true and visible member of the Holy Catholic Church, and yet be no actual member of any visible Church.”
“Many there be, or may be in most ages, which are no members of the visible Church, and yet better members of the true Church than the members of the Church visible for the present are.” –Jackson on the Church. 1670
[5] “To the mystical and invisible Church belongs peculiarly that unity which is often attributed unto the Church.” – “This is the society of those for whom Christ did pray that they might be one.” – Barrow on the Unity of the Church. 1670.
[6] “To this Holy Catholic Church, which forms the mystical body of Christ, we deny that the ungodly, hypocrites, or any belong, who are not partakers of spiritual life, and are void of inward faith, charity, and holiness. The most learned Augustine has denied it as well, giving it as his opinion that all such should be ranked among the members of Antichrist.” – Bishop Davenant’s Determinations. 1634. Volume 2, p.475
[7] “They are the successors of the Apostles that succeed in virtue, holiness, truth, and so forth; not they that sirt upon the same stool.” – Bishop Babington. 1615 Folio edition, p.307