The Meaning of "Church"
The Church Universal
Seen from God's point of view, the "Church" consists of all regenerating people throughout the world, whether Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, or even Animists. All who are trying to live a good life according to their lights (that is to say, all whose ruling love is good) constitute the church in this broad sense. It is the Lord's kingdom on earth, united with the Lord's kingdom in Heaven, thus joined with the Lord himself. We call this "The Church Universal." And please note that it is inevitably the New Church, because indeed there is no other church now in existence! The "Old" Church was liquidated by the Last Judgment in the year 1757. Strictly speaking, therefore, every good person in the whole world today is a member of the New Church, whether they know it or not, and no matter what their nationality, race or creed. It is "universal." (Arcana Coelestia 5135, 9334, Heaven and Hell 308)
The Church in this sense is seen by the Lord in the form of a "Universal Human" (Maximus Homo), each individual member functioning as a tiny cell or tissue of this vast human organism.
The Church Specific
Those in the church universal who possess the Word of God and understand it according to true doctrine and who worship the Lord God in his divine human constitute the heart and lungs of this spiritual universal human. They are the "church in particular" or "Church Specific." (Arcana Coelestia 9334, True Christian Religion 767) The Lord's life or holy spirit flows directly into them, and through them into all the other members of the church universal, scattered far and wide over the face of the earth. (All people on earth intercommunicate unconsciously by contact between their spirits in the intermediate region of the spiritual world.) There must be a church specific somewhere in the world, or the human race would perish.
Only the Lord knows who are Members of His Church
What has been said so far is basic. It must never be forgotten. However, from our point of view, the situation is anything but clear, because we cannot judge other people's interior states— scarcely even our own. So we can have no idea as to who are regenerating and who are not. Only the Lord knows who are members of his church universal; and, of course, no one can belong to the church specific unless he is also a member of the church universal! Please always bear this in mind, especially when speaking about church membership, baptism, and so on. We cannot say of any specific person that he is, or is not, a member of the New Church. Only the Lord knows.
The External Church
We can, however do our best to encourage and help people to become members of the church specific by teaching them the Word and true doctrine and by providing facilities for worshipping the Lord in his divine human. This has led to the development of the External Church, known as "The Organization," or "The Establishment;" and, in fact, when we speak loosely of "the church" we generally mean "The External Church," as it exists among people on earth, with its characteristic buildings, its clergy and councils, and all the paraphernalia that has grown up around it. Much of this paraphernalia has its origins in paganism. It would be an interesting exercise to trace back to their sources such familiar elements as: the altar table with its candlesticks, the priests' vestments (and tonsure?), the organ, pews, liturgy, hymns, sermon, and so on to say nothing of the Gothic-style building, with its stained glass windows and its tower or steeple.
The original Christian church, as founded by our Lord and his immediate apostles, had very little in the way of externals or organization. Its members met in one another's homes, or anywhere that was convenient—even in the catacombs when other meeting places were denied them! They had no professional clergy, no trustees or church committee, and the only money they raised was given to the poor. Each group had its leader, usually elected by its members from among their own number: he was called "presbyter" (elder), or "bishop" (overseer) and might have an assistant called a "deacon" (servant.) Only after the Christian church had declined spiritually did it erect large pompous buildings, amass land and possessions, and employ professional clergy, who became rich and acquired political power, and then quarreled among themselves and split off into sects and denominations, each claiming to be in the right and condemning the others as heretics. Much of the history of Europe since the decline of the Roman empire is the sordid record of the quarrels and wars of so called Christian nations and churches.
The New Church must be placed on an entirely different footing. Swedenborg tells us (what we should have known from the gospels) that the church is and can be only in the heart of people who are in love to the Lord and the neighbor. An organization is only the church in so far as it consists of men and women who have the church in themselves.
Do We Need an External Church?
In view of the above, many people are asking nowadays, "Do we need an external church? Hasn't it outlived its day? Could we not study the Word and the doctrines privately, and worship the Lord with our families at home?" There is much to be said for this view, and it might be a good thing if we did scrap the whole thing and start again, if only to rid ourselves of the utterly false view that the church establishment has sanctity and value in itself. Many of our present problems are due to the fact that the original founders of our New Church organization back in the end of the 18th century were apparently unable to conceive of any other kind of church than that which they saw around them, belonging to the Anglicans, Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists. Quite deliberately they put the new wine into old bottles, with the inevitable result foretold by our Lord. (Matthew 9:17)
Nevertheless, experience teaches us that we must have "bottles" to hold the wine; the only question is, "what kind of bottles?" We need some kind of church organization or establishment. Here are some reasons:
(1) It is more difficult to worship on one's own than in a group. Just as a burning stick tends to cool off and go out if removed from the fire, so does an individual tend to lose his spiritual glow if he does not join regularly with others in public worship. In a group, we encourage one another, support one another, and build one another up; our religion becomes more outgoing and less self-centered.
(2) An external church provides for the children and for new converts. Before regeneration we are all of us external; so if there were no external church, there would be no "door" through which we could pass into the internal sanctities of religion. Besides, people constituting any group will probably be in varying stages of regeneration, and we all have our ups and downs: so how could we meet together if the church had no externals?
(3) It is better to be associated with a church externally than not at all. A person who is deeply immersed in the life of the world, but nevertheless belongs to a church, does at least know where to turn for help when temptation or trouble strikes.
From Center to Circumference
Spiritually speaking, those who know the doctrines well and are trying to live according to them form the center of a New Church group. Around them are those who are less well instructed in the teachings, but who are trying to live in harmony with what they do know. Further out are those whose interest in the doctrines is merely intellectual, with little bearing on their lives. On the circumference are those who are not interested in the church's teachings, but attend worship services because they enjoy the ritual, or the preacher, or the choir, or other mere externals (like the women's lunches or tea parties, the fund raising, etc.). Life flows from the Lord into the center, and then passes outwards, until it is lost in the circumference. Where there is no center, the church dies. No amount of external activity, pledging, enlarging the building, improving the choir or organ, or even increasing the membership, can save it.
Should There be a Professional Ministry?
Swedenborg has very little to say about how the external church should be organized and run, and most of what he does say seems to be merely a description of the Lutheran church as he knew it. There is a section in the Heavenly Doctrines on "Ecclesiastical and Civil Government," in which he points out that order cannot be maintained in this world without governors. "Governors over ecclesiastical affairs are called priests, and their office is called the priesthood. Priests ought to teach people the way to Heaven, and also lead them; they ought to teach according to the doctrine of their church from the Word, and lead them to live according to it . . . Priests ought not to claim to themselves any power over the souls of people . . . Dignity and honor ought to be paid to priests on account of the holy things they administer; but they who are wise give the honor to the Lord. Priests ought to teach the people and lead them by truths to the good of life. They ought not to compel anyone, since nobody can be compelled to believe contrary to what he thinks from his heart to be true." (New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine 314-318)
You will see at once that this leaves out most of the duties that fall to the priest, pastor, minister or clergyman in our churches today, from comforting the sick to putting out the monthly bulletin. If more and more of these duties could be taken over by the laity, including the conducting of services from time to time (not mentioned in Swedenborg's list of priestly duties), it would be vastly better for the laity, and would give the minister more time to organize study and worship groups in other districts, thus extending the church's influence far and wide. It seems probable that this is one of the ways in which things will develop in the future.
Other externals will also change radically, to meet the changing needs of the times. There is nothing sacrosanct about externals; each generation must work out their own, using only what is meaningful to them.
The Ecumenical Movement
The Christian churches seem to have learned their lesson abut the evils of splitting up into warring sects, and the ecumenical movement is in the opposite direction, bringing the denominations together into larger and larger mergers, which may end by leaving us with one huge Christian church, though there will always be variety in the separate congregations.
Emanuel Swedenborg was in fact one of the first advocates of Ecumenism. Writing over two hundred years ago, he said:
The "Church Specific" of the Future
What is to be the church specific of the future? Some people think that the organization that we call the Church of the New Jerusalem will become purer and purer, until it is in very truth the church specific that is to function as the heart and lungs of the "Universal Human" of the church universal.
Others think that the church specific will never be confined to any external organization, but will be scattered throughout all the organized churches and eventually the one great Christian church of the future. Remember, the New Church specific consists of regenerating people who have a true understanding of the Word, and worship the Lord in his divine human.
Minimum Requirements for the New Church
In several places, Swedenborg gives the minimum requirements of being a New Church person. "To confess and acknowledge from the heart that the Lord is the God of Heaven and Earth, and that his human is divine. (Arcana Coelestia 7660) In Divine Providence 259:3 we read: "There are three essentials of the church: an acknowledgment of the divine of the Lord, of the holiness of the Word, and the life that is called charity." Elsewhere, he includes a belief in the life after death. Anyone who qualifies according to these requirements is a member of the New Church, though he may not know it, and though he may never have heard of Swedenborg. Whereas we who are "Swedenborgians" (that is to say, we who go along with Swedenborg's teachings), if we do not measure up to these minimum requirements, we are not even in the New Church universal, let alone in the New Church specific! The ideal, of course, is to be both New Church people (regenerating) and Swedenborgians (students of the writings), for then we can enrich our regenerating lives with more and more details of heavenly wisdom, thus becoming like-minded with the angels. Our love and our wisdom will then grow together, and we shall, when we die, enter into the joy of our Lord. The church exists to help us do just that.