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 #9256

Arcana Coelestia (Elliott translation)      

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9256. 'You shall surely bring it back to him' means teaching and correcting. This is clear from the meaning of 'bringing back', when it refers to those outside the Church who are governed by unauthentic good and truth, as teaching and correcting; for this is how they are 'brought back'. Doing good to those outside the Church is also meant by the Lord's words in Matthew,

You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? And if you salute only your brothers, what more are you doing [than others]? Matthew 5:43-47.

Here also 'enemies' and 'those who hate' in the spiritual sense mean those who have a different idea of what forms of good and the truths of faith are, in general those who are outside the Church, since the Jewish nation considered them to be adversaries whom they were allowed to consign to slaughter and to kill with impunity. It is evident that they are meant in the spiritual sense by 'enemies', since it says, 'If you salute only your brothers, what more are you doing [than others]?' For all were called brothers who were born of Jacob, thus who were within the Church.

(References: Matthew 5:43-44, Matthew 5:46-47)

[2] To enlarge on the subject of those outside the Church, called the gentiles, they are indeed subject to falsities in doctrine, which however is due to lack of knowledge because they do not possess the Word. Nevertheless when they have received instruction they have a clearer perception and consequently a more internal perception of what heavenly life means for a person than Christians have. The reason for this is that they have not set themselves firmly against the truths of faith as very many Christians have done. Consequently their internal man is not closed but is as it is with young children, open to and receptive of truth. For those who have set themselves firmly against the truths and forms of the good of faith, as all who lead an evil life do, close their internal man above and open it below.

[3] As a result of this the attention of the internal man is focused solely on things below, that is, on the external or natural man, and through this on things that exist in the world, round about their body, and on this planet. And when this is so, they look downwards, that is, towards hell. With people like this the internal man cannot be opened towards heaven unless the negative rejections of truth or positive acceptances of falsity which have closed it are banished; and these must be banished while they are in the world. This cannot be accomplished except by a complete turning around of their life, thus over a number of years. For falsities line up in rows, make a continuous chain from one to another, and form the actual natural mind and the way it sees things that belong to the Church and to heaven. Consequently all matters of faith and charity, that is, everything taught by the Church or contained in the Word, in general everything heavenly and Divine is thick darkness to those people, and conversely everything worldly and earthly is light. From this it is evident that destroying falsities with such people means destroying the life they have, and that if they are to possess a new kind of life falsities must be gradually rooted out and truths and forms of good implanted instead. And these must in a similar way form a continuous chain from one to another and be lined up in rows. This is what is meant by a complete turning around of their life that cannot take place except over a number of years. Therefore anyone who imagines that a person can be made new in an instant is much mistaken.

[4] But those who have not set themselves firmly against the forms of good and the truths of faith - those for instance who are outside the Church and yet have lived in some kind of faith and charity in accord with their religion - have not been able to close their internal man through negative rejections of truth and positive acceptances of falsity that are contrary to the truth of faith founded on the Word. Therefore also - if not in the world, nevertheless in the next life - their internal can be opened above, that is, in the direction of heaven and of the Lord. And at the same time all the earthly and worldly ideas they have brought with them from their life in the world are raised up, in order that they may all look upwards together. These then bring them into a condition to receive the truths of faith from the Lord and forms of the good of charity, to have intelligence and wisdom conferred on them, and so to be endowed with eternal happiness. Such is the condition of all who lead a good life in accord with their religion. For this reason the Lord's Church is spread throughout the whole world. But the Lord's Church on earth is like the Grand Man in heaven, whose heart and lungs are where the Word exists, and the remaining members and internal organs, which depend for their life on the heart and lungs, are where the Word does not exist.

[5] All this also goes to show why it is that a new Church is always established among gentile nations who are outside the Church, 2986, 4747, which takes place when the old Church has closed heaven to itself, as stated above. So it is that the Church was transferred from the Jewish people to gentile nations, and also that the Church at the present day is now being transferred to gentiles.

[6] The fact that the Church is transferred to gentile nations who acknowledge the Lord is clear from very many places in the Word, such as the following: In Isaiah,

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; those dwelling in the land of the shadow of death, upon them has the light shone out. You have multiplied the nation; for them You have made joy great. Isaiah 9:2-3.

In the same prophet,

It will happen on that day, that the nations will seek the root of Jesse, which is standing as an ensign of the peoples; and His rest will be glory. Isaiah 11:10.

In the same prophet,

I Jehovah have called You in righteousness, and will hold Your hand, because I will guard You, and give You to be a covenant of the people, 1 a light of the nations, to open the blind eyes, to bring the bound out of prison, out of the dungeon-house those who sit in darkness. Isaiah 42:6-7.

In the same prophet,

Lo, I have given Him as a witness to the peoples, a Prince and Lawgiver to the peoples. 2 Lo, You will call a nation You do not know, and a nation that did not know You will run to You, on account of Jehovah Your God, and because of the Holy One of Israel. Isaiah 55:4-5.

In the same prophet,

Nations will walk to Your light, and kings to the brightness of Your rising. Lift up Your eyes round about; they all gather together and they come towards You. Your sons come from far, and Your daughters are carried at the side by nurses. Then You will see and abound, and Your heart will be astounded and enlarge itself because the abundance of the sea will be turned to You, the armies of the nations will come to You. Isaiah 60:3-5.

In Simeon's prophecy regarding the Lord after His birth, in Luke,

My eyes have seen Your 3 salvation, which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light for revelation to the gentiles. 4 Luke 2:30-32.

[7] All these places, in which the Lord is the subject, declare that gentile nations will come to Him. They come to Him when they acknowledge Him as their God; and what is amazing, such nations worship the one and only God manifested in human form. When therefore they learn about the Lord they receive and acknowledge Him; and a new Church cannot be established among any others. The fact that the Church is established among such nations is further evident from the following words that are the Lord's, in Matthew,

Have you not read in the Scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected has become the corner-stone? 5 Therefore I say to you, The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits [of it]. Matthew 21:42-43.

'The stone' is the Lord, 6426, 'the builders' are those who belong to the Church. And the fact that these will be last and the gentile nations first is evident from His words in Luke,

They will come from the east and the west, and from the north and the south, reclining in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last. Luke 13:29-30.


1. The Latin means for the people but the Hebrew means of the people, which Swedenborg has in some other places where he quotes this verse.

2. The Latin means nations but the Hebrew means peoples, which Swedenborg has in some other places where he quotes this verse.

3. The Latin means God's but the Greek means Your, which Swedenborg has in other places where he quotes this verse.

4. or nations

5. literally, the head of the corner


(References: Exodus 23:4; Matthew 5:43-44, Matthew 5:46-47)

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From Swedenborg's Works

Inbound References:

Arcana Coelestia 10033

The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 1, 21, 246

References from Swedenborg's unpublished works:

Apocalypse Explained 175, 452, 946

Other New Christian Commentary

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