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Volume 8, Issue 5: Thema

Mother Church

Douglas Jones

Mother fell silent as her sickness took hold of her more strongly. And so on the ninth day of her illness, . . . I closed her eyes; and an immeasurable sorrow flowed into my heart and would have overflowed in tears. But my eyes under the mind's strong constraint held back their flow, and I stood dry eyed. In that struggle, it went very ill with me.

Modern life has robbed us of so much. Far from much Protestant thinking is the image of the Church as our mother. The ancient prophets often describe the Church in motherly terms (Is. 49;50;54;66:7ff; Jer. 3,4). The book of Revelation depicts the Church as a mother giving birth to the Messiah and then shows her hiding to avoid persecution (Rev. 12). Similarly, the Apostle Paul glories that the "Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all" (Gal. 4:26). The early Protestants were much closer to the ancient and medieval heart on this matter. Calvin encouraged us to

learn even from the simple title "mother" how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until putting off mortal flesh, we become like angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation.

Many modern Christians don't even have a mental drawer in which to file talk about the Church, let alone the Mother Church. We can speak of churches and the local church and the invisible church, but we don't have a place to speak of the Church. It makes some squeamish. Older Protestants didn't have this problem, but an industrial-strength individualism has beaten our thinking into submission.
As she breathed her last, the child Adeodatus broke out into lamentation, and we all checked him and brought him into silence. But in this very fact, the childish element in me, which was breaking out into tears, was checked and brought into silence by the manlier voice of my mind. For we felt that it was not fitting that her funeral should be solemnized with moaning and weeping and lamentation. For so it is normal to weep when death is seen as sheer misery or as complete extinction. But she had not died miserably, nor did she wholly die.
Though Scripture pictures the Church in various ways, the image of a mother is especially helpful for our era. But what does it mean to speak of the Church as mother? One way to answer that is to see how Scripture describes motherhood and then look for those traits in the Church. We regularly turn to Proverbs 31 for a wonderful picture of the faithful mother. If so, that passage can also fill out the characteristics of the Church.
The Centrality of the Church: In Proverbs 31, mother serves as the pillar of nourishment and provision--"She brings food from afar. . . and provides food for her household. . . . She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household is clothed with scarlet." We get the impression that without her, the family would collapse. Without her, we would be hungry and naked and broken. Mother holds life together.
This great gift also, O my God, my Mercy, You gave Your good servant, in whose womb You created me, that she showed herself, wherever possible, a peacemaker between people quarreling and minds at discord. . . . She was a servant of Your servants. Such of them as knew her praised, honored, and loved You, O God, in her; for they felt Your presence in her heart, showing itself in the fruit of her holy conversation. She had been the wife of one husband, had requited her parents, had governed her house piously, was well reported of for her good works.
The Church should be so central in our thinking that without her life would collapse. She should play prominently in our understanding of the past, the present, and the future. She--not the state or the family or the individual--should be first on our lips when we discuss evangelism and social change and the good life. We should turn to the Church first for doctrinal nourishment and practical raiment.
Instead, we ignore mother. We run to the state for social change and licenses. We skip her meals and change her menus. We move our families for "the job" and then only afterward whine that there is no good church around. It's as if mother is just a convenient annex to the household.
What then was it that grieved my heart so deeply? Only the newness of the wound, in finding the custom I had so loved of living with her suddenly snapped short. It was a joy to me to have this one testimony from her: when illness was close to its end, meeting with expressions of endearment such services as I rendered, she called me a dutiful loving son and said in the great affection of her love that she had never heard from my mouth any harsh or reproachful word addressed to herself. But what possible comparison was there, O my God, between the honor I showed her and the service she had rendered me?
vRecognizing the centrality of the Church doesn't mean spending more time at the local church (it might mean less). It means that we view the world through medieval eyes--a world where the church spire and not city hall is the most prominent point on the landscape.
The Authority of the Church: A mother could be central but not authoritative. Children might fawn over mother and say yes but then go about their business. Proverbs 31 tells us that mother "opens her mouth with wisdom, and on her tongue is the law of kindness." Proverbs also tells us to "not forsake the law of your mother. Bind them continually upon your heart; tie them around your neck" (6:20; cf.1:8).
Like mother, the Church in the Old Covenant had genuine, circumscribed authority (Dt. 17:8-13). This continued in the New, where Christ granted the Church the authority to bind and loose (Matt. 18:18) and teach (Matt. 28:18ff). In Acts, the Church "assembled with one accord" (Acts 15:25) to authoritatively clarify Church teaching, and we have these authoritative teachers "till we all come to the unity of the faith" (Eph. 4:13).
When the day was approaching on which she was to depart this life--a day that You knew though we did not--it came about that she and I stood alone leaning in a window, which looked inwards to the garden. . . . There we talked together, she and I alone, in deep joy; and forgetting the things that were behind and looking forward to those that were before.
We're so American that any talk of genuine Church authority immediately provokes talk of abuses and inquisitions and popes. In an era of thousands of splintered denominations where anyone can hang a church shingle on his own home, worry about Church authority is like lonely orphans stubbornly avoiding mom. Mom has been thrown out with the bath water; baby sits alone.
We are far more comfortable removing our hat and lowering our eyes for the state than for the Church. Even though the full majesty and fire of the Triune God has determined to bring blessing and cursing through the institution of the Church, we treat the Church with the same deference we give a community bulletin board--a little info, a little humor, a little opportunity.
When the State calls, we scramble to meet its deadlines, write neatly, and say, "Yes, Sir." When the State frowns, we don't just keep driving, thumb our nose at the judge, hop jurisdictions, or make up our own personal constitutions. But when we consider the Church, we think it acceptable to skip around churches as if they were fast food stands. This stand didn't fulfill my needs. We decide whether they are worthy of our money. I decide if the teaching is acceptable.
Because I had now lost the great comfort of her, my soul was wounded and my very life torn asunder, for it had been one life made of hers and mine together. Evodius took up the psalter and began to chant--with the whole house making the response--the psalm Mercy and Judgment I will Sing to Thee, O Lord.
The Church has spoken authoritatively through her creeds. She has passed down centuries of wisdom to us. She has embraced many wise teachers. If she is a mother, then these can't be merely suggestions. They are law until rescinded. Yet a mother's law need not be perfect to be authoritative. And when it needs correcting, individuals have no right to do so as vigilante theologians. How disrespectful. The Church corrects her own creeds. After all, to her alone, not the state, not the family, not dad, not the parachurch, did Christ give promises of truth and eternal perseverance. And, yes, in those rare, abnormal instances in history where "mother" turns out to be a harlot who murders her children (Lam 1; Hos. 1-4), then God afflicts her for her idolatries (Lam. 1:5) and raises Elijahs and Josiahs for the true mother. But that is not normal Church life.
The Patience of the Church: With wisdom and strength comes patience. Proverbs teaches us that "strength and honor are her clothing; she shall rejoice in time to come." She may not be able to rejoice at the moment, with all the diapers and infant screams, but she will in the future. She is patient. She knows the frame of her children. Only a tyrannical mother would expect instant maturity and perfection. They have so much to learn, and she is gentle.
vI remembered how loving and devout was her conversation with You, how pleasant and considerate her conversation with me, of which I was thus suddenly deprived. And I found solace in weeping in Your sight both about her and for her, about myself and for myself. I no longer checked my tears, but let them flow as they would, making them a pillow for my heart.
Like her husband, Christ, the high priest, the Church should "have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since He Himself is also subject to weakness" (Heb. 5;2). The Church like a nursery can be a messy place at times, ripe with the smell of rebellion and ignorance. But we should despise divisions and childish quarrels like warriors despise combat--sometimes battle is necessary, but we should never long for it.
Perfectionism in the Church is very ugly yet rampant. Calvin complained, "for there have always been those who, imbued with a false conviction of their own perfect sanctity, as if they had already become a sort of airy spirits, spurned association with all men in whom they discern any remnant of human nature." The Lord has called us to be patient with some "doubtful matters" that appear very clear cut, like vegetarianism (Rom. 14: 1-3), and He even had patience with Naaman bowing before an idol (2 Kgs. 5:18) and with the heretical disobedience of the Corinthians. Dare we have higher standards than God Himself? Surely we could love truth and draw doctrinal distinctions without having to divide the brethren? "For I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (Hos. 6:6).
So let her rest in peace, together with her husband, for she had no other before or after him, but served him, in patience bringing forth fruit for Thee, and winning him likewise for Thee. And inspire, O my Lord my God, inspire Thy servants my brethren, Thy sons my masters, whom I serve with heart and voice and pen, that as many of them as read this may remember at Thy altar Thy servant Monica.
Monica was the mother of that great Christian--Augustine. She is popularly remembered for her years of prayer for her onetime wayward son, whom God redeemed as one of the greatest gifts to the Christian Church. The above selections are taken from Augustine's memorial to her. Augustine's deep devotion to his mother is a rich image against which we can compare our love for the Mother Church. Do we love the Church? Is she central to our life and community? Do we show respect to her work and heed her pronouncements? Do we hate divisions and long for peace? Do we weep to see her healthy again? Could we really say in her absence, "my soul was wounded and my very life torn asunder"?
Surely, Proverbs should haunt us: "a foolish man despises his mother" (Prov. 15:20).

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