In the third century bishop Cyprian of Carthage wrote the words that form the title of this post. The expression means “no salvation outside the church.” This idea is well understood and has been expounded upon by Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholic teachers for many centuries. But, within the Protestant and Separatist traditions this concept is not well known, nor understood, and in many quarters I would expect it to be flatly rejected and scoffed at. But, in light of the widely popular “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” video and the responses that it garnered through social media, I think this phrase and its meaning are worth exploring for contemporary Christianity.
First, to understand Cyprian’s statement we must know what salvation is and what the Church is. I am going to assume that salvation is understood as a four-fold process; beginning with Regeneration, made sure by Justification, expressed in Sanctification and completed in Glorification. My understanding of salvation is monergistic in essence. But I include the life of the believer as they walk in Sanctification, not just the changing of their moral standing before God. Additionally, for clarity, I am going to seek to distinguish the universal fellowship that all believers in Jesus Christ have as “the Church,” while referring to local, visible, congregations of believers as “the church” or “churches.” The distinction I am drawing is similar to the distinction recognized by many theologians between the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. As a Baptist, along with other Protestants and Separatists, I reject the Roman Catholic notion of the Church Suffering on the basis that I reject the existence of Purgatory. So, the Church Militant is seen in the earthly visible congregations of believers throughout the world and across denominational lines; while the Church Triumphant is seen in all believers, both living and dead, who are counted in the Lamb’s Book of Life and known eternally to God. This definition of the Church Triumphant is different from the Roman Catholic understanding, but I believe it is ultimately more helpful and more biblically faithful.
So, we understand the church as having two expressions: one visible and one invisible. All true believers make up the invisible Church. But, what about local churches? What about those who have membership in local churches or who claim to be Christian while not having fellowship with a local church. This is where the whole discussion gets very difficult. Because only God knows all who are truly part of the Church, it is not possible to accurately discern the spiritual condition of those who are in local churches or those who are not. But, as believers we are called to join together. Jesus Christ established both the Church and the churches. He did so most clearly in Matthew 16:18 Jesus tells Peter that “and I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (ESV). He also spoke through the author of Hebrews to criticize those who were “neglecting to meet together” (Hebrews 10:25, ESV). But, Christians can meet together apart from the church, so what need does a believer have to associate with a local church?
Matthew 18:17 presents the church as the arbiter of Christian discipline when it says: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (ESV). It is impossible to present a disciplinary matter to the Church in its invisible manifestation, so this passage only makes sense as referring to a local church. Additionally, Acts, First & Second Timothy, Titus and others all speak of the organization and operations of local churches in particular detail. The New Testament presents the church as being an essential aspect of Christian fellowship. Paul instructs the Corinthian church on how to administer the Lord’s Supper as well as giving them clear instruction on maintaing order in their worship. Repeatedly, throughout the entire New Testament, the church is witnessed, identified and taught in its local, visible, form and this presentation is normative. The assumption of the New Testament is that believers would gather together in local churches and be subject to discipline, participate in worship and observe the ordinances as local church families. Never, in Scripture, is there a normative presentation of a “lone wolf” Christian or of a believer being recognized as having all that they require for a faithful Christian life apart from the local church.
So, it is normative, from Scripture, that believers should seek fellowship and participation in the local church. But, which denomination? Which local church should a believer join? As a Baptist I value the idea of Liberty of Conscience. The Baptist Faith and Message states that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it” (Article 17, BF&M 2000). For this reason I recognize that different denominations and local churches exist for a myriad of reasons. Some of the reasons are good, biblical, reasons for distinctions between believers. Other reasons are worldly, unbiblical, distinctions created by sinful men. But, ultimately, through the work of the Holy Spirit there is still unity across denominational lines in many ways. So, I am drawn to reject the insistence of some that there is only one organized, institutional, church that all believers ought to be a part of. But, I do so without compromising on the issue of whether believers ought to be a part of a local church; my unequivocal answer is that all Christians are called by Scripture to be united to a local church by clear teaching and normative example.
So, while it is reasonable to reject the notion that there is only one organized, institutional, church; it is not reasonable to believe that one can truly call yourself a Christian while not seeking fellowship, discipline and the ordinances of the local church. It is ridiculous for anyone to claim to be a Christian while rejecting Christ’s Body, the church. It is unchristian to try to simultaneously affirm that one is a follower of Jesus while refusing to associate with the organization that Jesus established, gave instruction for and left in the care of the Apostles and those who came after them. Cyprian was right to declare that there is no salvation outside the church; not because the church is the arbiter of salvation; but, because there is no obedience in the life of the one claiming to be saved who rejects what Jesus, Himself, established and which He and the Apostles gave instruction for and emphasized the importance of.