Is the Church Our Mother?
Our question for this issue comes from a friend in South America: “Besides the church being the bride or wife of Christ, according to Galatians 4:26 and other verses ... is the church also the mother of believers or Christians?”
Scripture does not in so many words call the church the mother of believers. Nevertheless, the expression is, we believe, warranted by Scripture. Revelation 21:9 suggests it for, if the church is the bride of Christ, then it follows that she is also our mother.
Isaiah 66:10-11 exhorts us, “Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her: rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her: That ye may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations; that ye may milk out, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory.” Jerusalem was a name for the church in the Old Testament and continues to be a name for the church in the New (Heb. 12:22-24; Rev. 21:2). Isaiah certainly is describing Jerusalem as the mother of believers, therefore.
The verse mentioned by our South American friend, Galatians 4:26, is closest of all to an actual reference to the church as our mother: “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” Here again, in an allegory, the name Jerusalem is a name for the church and the church is called “the mother of us all.”
The church is our mother in the sense that she gives birth to us. It is not the church which regenerates, justifies and sanctifies us, but it is through her ministry that God performs His work of grace in us. Thus Paul calls the members of the church, “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you” (Gal. 4:19).
The Christian church has always recognized the propriety of this name. The church father Cyprian said, “No one can have God as Father who does not have the church as Mother” (The Unity of the Church, chap. 6) and Calvin wrote several times in his Institutes of the church as the mother of believers. Here are a couple of his famous quotes:
I will start, then, with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith. ‘For what God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder’ [Mark 10:9 p.], so that, for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother. And this was so not only under the law but also after Christ’s coming, as Paul testifies when he teaches that we are the children of the new and heavenly Jerusalem [Gal. 4:26] (4.1.1).
But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us 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 the angels [Matt. 22:30]. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives (4.1.4).
This name “mother” has been misused, especially by Roman Catholicism which uses the name to buttress its absolute authority. Because the church is our mother, so they think, we must bow to her authority as we would bow to the authority of the Word of God: unreservedly and without question. Such abuse of the name, however, is easily answered with a reminder that no mother is a good mother who does not come with the Scriptures in hand and whose authority is not founded on that Word.
While rejecting the errors of Romanism, thinking of the church as our mother serves as a reminder of some important things about the church. It is a reminder of the unity of the church of Christ in all nations and all history. Believers have only one mother, though the visible church is fragmented and divided. We all—no matter our background, skin colour, nationality, language, etc.—not only have the same Father but also the same mother. Names such as Jerusalem and Zion are names for the church, both in the Old and the New Testaments (Gal. 4:24-27; Heb. 12:22-24), and are an example of this wonderful unity which transcends time.
The name mother reminds the church and her leaders that she must be like a mother to her members, and not like a tyrannical and over-bearing monster. It serves as a reminder to the members that the church is the place where they should expect to be fed, nourished, comforted, corrected and guided (Isa. 66:10-11). They should not leave her side, unless she in her visible manifestation becomes a whore rather than a mother. Though the name Mother is not used in Revelation 22:17, the idea of the church as our mother, the one through whom God provides for His children, is certainly to be found there: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.”
In some churches, all the emphasis is on “saving souls” but what is done for those who are so saved? “Mother” church does little or nothing to nourish and care for her children. Nothing is said about church membership to the evangelized, and those who do become church members are left untaught and unguided. That same misguided emphasis on “saving souls” often leads to the neglect of those who have been long time members of the church, especially the elderly, the widows, the sick and the poor. It leads all too often to neglect of the youth as well. Though under the care of mother church, they remain untaught and it is no surprise that they go their own way in the end.
As our mother, the church deserves our respect and love and obedience. Christians ought to put ourselves under her care, “maintaining the unity of the church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them” (Belgic Confession 28).
When our mother is seriously ill, as she sometimes is, we must not immediately abandon her, but must seek her healing and well-being, through prayer, standing for the truth and, if necessary, church reformation. All too often those who would not think of abandoning their natural mother give up on mother church when she is ill and falls short of the standard for spiritual health set by the Word of God. Rev. Ron Hanko