A Church is Not a Building      

Ásólfsskálakirkja in Iceland.

The concept of a "church" in the Writings is both complex and beautifully organic, linked with teachings on the nature of the Lord and the resulting nature of mankind.

The Writings say that the Lord, in His essence - His actual substance - is perfect, infinite love, a love that powered creation, that is the ultimate source of reality, and that sustains reality constantly. That love is expressed in form as perfect, infinite wisdom, which gave form to creation and gives form to reality.

Deep stuff! You can read more about that elsewhere, but what matters here is that all of creation, from the smallest elements to the whole of the universe, reflects that same structure. It's present in nature itself, powered by the heat (love) and light (wisdom) of the sun. It's present in the essential forms of life, with plants (which are rooted; which change little; which are unfeeling; which are powered by light) representing elements of wisdom and animals (warm, feeling, mobile, ever-changing, powered by heat) representing forms of love. It's present in the near-universal division into male (wisdom) and female (love) aspects of plants and animals alike.

That structure is also in each of us. In common language we might call these our hearts and our minds - what we want and what we think. The Writings commonly talk of them as good (love; what we want in our hearts) and truth (wisdom; what we know in our minds) or as will (heart) and understanding (mind). Not only do these elements define us, they are also key to our spiritual fates. We can use them to accept the Lord's love, come into the good of life and ultimately go to heaven. We can also use them to reject the Lord's love and trot off to hell.

And there are further layers. The Writings say that all human societies are in human form, with functions analogous to the human body. This is true from small groups like families to large companies to entire nations and ultimately to both the entire human race in this world and the entirety of heaven in the next.

Among the most important human societies are, naturally, churches. Since the concept of a "church" is based on the human form, though, churches as referred to in the Writings can take many forms. At one end of the scale, any one person who has true ideas of right and wrong and lives by them is a church himself or herself. At the other end of the scale, all those in the whole world who believe in love of the neighbor – and act from that belief – collectively make up one church.

Many other varieties lie between those two extremes, but most references to "church" in the Writings mean the community of those who have the Word, know the Lord, and follow His commandments. These people have access to the best possible truth and deepest possible understanding about the nature of the Lord and what He wants from us.

Such a church plays a vital role: The Lord works through it to get ideas about being good into people's minds and the desire to be good into the inner recesses of their hearts, reaching far beyond that church itself to touch everyone in the world. In fact, the Writings say there is in essence a marriage between the Lord and the church, with the church in the role of the bride and wife, producing true ideas and good desires the way a wife produces children.

To protect this function, the Lord has made sure that throughout history (and a good bit of prehistory) there has always been a church filling this role.

The first of these was the Most Ancient Church, represented by Adam; it was inspired by love of the Lord. The second was the Ancient Church, represented by Noah; it was inspired by love of the neighbor and knowledge of the Lord. The third was the Israelitish Church, which had no interior love of good but preserved ideas of the Lord. The fourth was the primitive Christian church, which had a new, more direct understanding based on the Lord's teachings. The fifth, according to the Writings, is to be based on the deeper understanding offered through the Writings and their explanations of the Bible.

There is much more that could be said, but we'll just emphasize one other point:

We as individuals are who we are based on what we love, not what we know. We will go to heaven or to hell based on what we love, not what we know. Knowing, thinking and seeking truth are important things, but their purpose is to shape, guide and serve our loves; love is ultimately what matters. The Writings make it abundantly and repeatedly clear that it is the same with churches: They are ultimately based on love, not knowledge, on their determination to serve the neighbor, not their external forms of worship. And if churches share that common purpose of serving the neighbor then they are in essence one, with doctrinal variations being of little consequence.

(References: Apocalypse Revealed 533; Arcana Coelestia 407, 768, 1799 [3-4], 2048, 2853 [2-3], 2910, 2982, 3310, 3773, 3963 [2], 4292, 4672, 4723, 5826 [2-3], 6637, 6648, 8152, 9256 [4-5], 9276 [2]; Conjugial Love 116; Heaven and Hell 57; Teachings about the Sacred Scripture 99, 104; The Word 8)

From Swedenborg's Works


Arcana Coelestia #5826

Arcana Coelestia (Elliott translation)      

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5826. 'You know that my wife bore me two sons' means if spiritual good is what the Church possesses, internal good and truth will exist. This is clear from the representation of Israel, who says these things about himself, as spiritual good from the natural, dealt with immediately above in 5825; from the representation of Rachel, to whom the wife who had borne him two sons refers here, as the affection for interior truth, dealt with in 3758, 3782, 3793, 3819; and from the representation of Joseph and Benjamin,' the two sons she had borne, as internal good and truth, 'Joseph' being internal good and 'Benjamin' internal truth.

(References: Psalms 7:2)

[2] What is meant by internal good and truth existing if spiritual good is what the Church possesses is this: Spiritual good, which 'Israel' represents, is the good of truth, that is, truth existing in will and action. This truth or good of truth causes a person to be a Church. When truth has been implanted in his will - something he perceives to have happened from the fact that he feels an affection for truth because his intention is to live according to it - internal good and truth are present in him. When that internal good and truth are present in a person he has the Lord's kingdom within him and he is consequently the Church; and together with those who are very similar to him he constitutes the Church at large. From this it may be recognized that for the Church to be the Church spiritual good, which is the good of truth, must exist and not simply truth by itself. At the present day it is by virtue of truth alone that a Church is called the Church, and it is what marks off one Church from another. Let anyone ask himself whether truth is anything unless it has life in view. What are religious teachings without that end in view? What for example are the Ten Commandments if separated from a life led according to them? For if someone knows them and the full extent of their meaning and yet leads a life contrary to them, what use are they? Surely none at all; indeed do they not serve to condemn some people? The same is so with other religious teachings that are derived from the Word. These too, being spiritual laws, are commandments for leading a Christian life; they likewise have no use at all unless they are made a person's guide to life. Let anyone weigh up what resides with himself and discover whether he has anything there which really is anything other than what enters into the life he leads, or whether life which really is his life resides anywhere else in a person than in his will.

[3] This is the reason why the Lord has declared in the Old Testament and confirmed in the New that all the Law and all the Prophets are founded on love to God and love towards the neighbour, thus on life. They are not founded on faith apart from life, nor thus in any way at all on faith alone, nor consequently on confidence; for without charity towards the neighbour such confidence is impossible. If it seems to exist with the wicked at times when their lives are in danger or death is at hand it is a spurious or false confidence; for among such people in the next life not a trace of this confidence can be seen, however ardently they may have appeared when near to death to profess that they possessed it. But faith, no matter whether you call it confidence or else trust, does nothing for the wicked, as the Lord Himself teaches in John,

As many as received Him, to them He gave power to be sons of God, to those believing in His name, who were born, not of blood, 1 nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:12-13.

[4] Those born of blood' stands for those who do violence to charity, 374, 1005, also those who render truth profane, 4735. 'Those born of the will of the flesh' stands for those governed by evils that spring from self-love and love of the world, 3813. 'Those born of the will of man' stands for those governed by utterly false notions; for 'man' (vir) means truth and in the contrary sense falsity. 'Those born of God' stands for those who have been regenerated by the Lord and are consequently governed by good. The latter are the ones who receive the Lord; they are the ones who believe in His name; and they, not the former, are the ones to whom He gives power to be sons of God. From all this it is quite evident what contribution faith alone makes to salvation.

[5] To take the matter further, if a person is to undergo regeneration and become a Church he must be led by means of truth into good, which happens when truth becomes truth existing in will and action. This truth is good and is called the good of truth. It constantly brings forth new truths, since then for the first time it is fruitful. The truth that is brought forth or made fruitful from it is what is called internal truth; and the good from which it springs is called internal good. For nothing becomes internal until it has been implanted in the will, the will being the inmost part of a person. As long as good and truth remain outside the will and solely in the understanding they are outside the person; for the understanding is outside, the will inside.


1. literally, bloods


(References: Genesis 44:27)

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From Swedenborg's Works

Inbound References:

Arcana Coelestia 5869, 5879, 5886, 5902, 5906, 5941, 5955, 5957, 5967, 5973, 6030, 6047, 6064, 6082, 6102, 6169, 6225, 6253, 6277, 6299, 6340, 6366, 6426, 6434, 6447, 6499, 6528, 6564, 6566, 6637, 8093, 9241, 9296, 9336, 9340, 9346, 10217, 10220

The Last Judgment 39

The White Horse 8

The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 121, 196, 246, 257

References from Swedenborg's unpublished works:

Apocalypse Explained 104, 573

Other New Christian Commentary

Thanks to the Swedenborg Society for the permission to use this translation.