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


Conjugial Love #116

Conjugial Love (Rogers translation)      

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This chapter also takes up the marriage of the Lord and the church and correspondence to it, because without a knowledge and understanding of the subject, scarcely anyone can see that conjugial love in its origin is sacred, spiritual and heavenly, and that it comes from the Lord. Some in the church indeed say that marriage has a relationship to the marriage of the Lord with the church, but they do not know what the nature of that relationship is.

In order to make this relationship perceptible to some sight of the understanding, therefore, we must discuss in detail that sacred marriage which exists with and in those people who form the Lord's church. They, too, and not others, possess truly conjugial love.

To explain this secret, however, we must divide our treatment into sections under the following headings:

1. In the Word, the Lord is called a Bridegroom and Husband, and the church a bride and wife; and the conjunction of the Lord with the church and the reciprocal conjunction of the church with the Lord is called a marriage.

2. The Lord is also called Father, and the church, mother.

3. The offspring from the Lord as Husband and Father and from the church as wife and mother are all spiritual offspring, and this is what is meant in the spiritual sense of the Word by sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law, and by other terms which have to do with descending generations.

4. The spiritual offspring that are born from the marriage of the Lord with the church are truths, from which come understanding, perception and all thought; and also qualities of goodness, from which come love, charity and all affection.

5. From the marriage of good and truth that emanates and flows in from the Lord, a person acquires truth, to which the Lord joins good, and in this way the church is formed in the person by the Lord.

6. A husband does not represent the Lord and his wife the church, because both husbands and wives together form the church.

7. Therefore neither in the marriages of angels in heaven nor in the marriages of people on earth does the husband correspond to the Lord and the wife to the church.

8. Rather, the correspondence rests with conjugial love, insemination, procreation, love for little children, and other things of a similar sort that occur in marriage and result from it.

9. The Word is the means of conjunction, because it is from the Lord and thus is the Lord.

10. The church comes from the Lord and it exists in people who go to Him and live according to His commandments.

11. Conjugial love depends on the state of the church in a person, because it depends on the state of his wisdom.

12. So, then, because the church comes from the Lord, conjugial love comes from Him as well.

Now follows the development of these points.

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From Swedenborg's Works

Inbound References:

Conjugial Love 339, 458, 516, 518

References from Swedenborg's unpublished works:

Coronis (An Appendix to True Christian Religion) 36

Other New Christian Commentary

  Stories and their meanings:

I'm Taken

  Spiritual Topics:

A Church is Not a Building

Glossary of Terms Used by Emanuel Swedenborg
Resources for parents and teachers

The items listed here are provided courtesy of our friends at the General Church of the New Jerusalem. You can search/browse their whole library at the New Church Vineyard website.

 Offspring in Heaven
Everyone in the afterlife once lived on earth. Angelic couples do not give birth but may raise children who have died. Couples may also produce spiritual offspring.
Sunday School Lesson | Ages 11 - 17

Thanks to the General Church of the New Jerusalem for the permission to use this translation. The full title of this translation is "DELIGHTS OF WISDOM RELATING TO CONJUGIAL LOVE".