Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In a recent online search, I learned that 54 countries, including the United States, celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May (May 13, this year). Other countries celebrate something similar on other days of the year. For example, the UK celebrates “Mothering Sunday” on the fourth Sunday during Lent. The roots of that celebration are the tradition of visiting one’s “mother church” (where you were baptized). As time progressed, the day became a time to give honor to one’s birth mother. While I believe it’s appropriate to take a day each year to give honor to our human mothers, I also think (in the spirit of what Jesus said in Matthew 12:46-50) that it is good and right that we give honor to our spiritual mother, the church.
Honoring our mother, the church
Though some Christians ignore and even dishonor the church, Scripture teaches us to give her the highest honor. Protestant reformer and theologian John Calvin did just that, teaching that the church is necessary for the spiritual growth and well-being of all believers:
Let us learn even from the simple title “mother,” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her…. I shall 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… 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 (Galatians 4:26). (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.1)
In a couple of books on evangelical theology, Sung Wook Chung (Professor at Denver Seminary) notes that Calvin identified six functions of the church as our mother:
- Conception: God’s people are conceived in the womb of the church through the power of the Spirit and the Word.
- Birth: God’s people receive life (regeneration) by the Spirit within the context of the church.
- Spiritual nourishment: The church “nourishes us at her breast” (Inst. 4.1.4).
- Care and guidance: The church takes care of us throughout our lives, offering direction and counsel.
- Forgiveness and salvation: We cannot hope for either forgiveness or salvation “away from her bosom” (Inst. 4.1.4). As bearer of the gospel and as led by the Spirit, the church is God’s agent of forgiveness and salvation in the world.
- Cultivation of godliness and piety: In the fellowship of the church we are shepherded by and for good works.
The apostle Paul, whom God used to establish the church among the gentiles, compared his ministry to that of a nursing mother caring for her children (1 Thess. 2:7). He also compared Christ’s relationship with his church to a husband’s relationship with his wife (Eph. 5:25-32). Closely aligned (though not perfectly parallel), Jesus, the head of the church, compared himself to a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings to provide protection (Luke 13:34). Down through the ages, teachers of the church, including Calvin, added these biblical images and metaphors up, and recognized how fitting it is to identify the church’s ministry as spiritual “mothering.”
Happy Mother’s Day!
As Mother’s Day draws near here in the U.S., I am remembering my baptism and the care I have received from my spiritual mother, the church, and the good works of my human mother who nurtured me in the ways of God. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you reading this who are human mothers, and also to our spiritual mother the church.
PS: In the We’re Often Asked section of the GCI website, we addresses the importance of our mother, the church (also referred to in Scripture as “the body of Christ”):
God calls sinners into the fellowship of the saints, which is the body of Christ. Regardless of denomination or choice of Christian congregation, the spiritual nurture of fellow Christians is essential for a faithful life in Christ. It is from Christ that “the whole body [is] joined and held together by every supporting ligament… as each part does its work” (Eph. 4:16). Speaking of the importance of the church in the lives of Christians, Paul wrote: “It was [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-13).
For more about the nature and functioning of the church, see Section 9 in GCI’s new publication, We Believe.