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


De Verbo (The Word) #8

De Verbo (Chadwick translation)      

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8. VIII. The Lord's marriage with the church, which is the marriage of good and truth in the Word.

It is well known that in the Word the Lord is called bridegroom and husband, and the church bride and wife. The reason these terms are applied to the Lord or the church is because of the linking of good and truth in every individual in heaven and in the church, who has the church within him. For the Lord exerts His influence on an angel or a member of the church from the good of love and charity. The angel or member of the church who is governed by the good of love and charity receives the Lord in the truths of teaching and faith he possesses from the Word. Thus a linking takes place, which is called the heavenly marriage. This marriage is present in the details of the Word, and since it has this in its details the Word may be called the heavenly marriage.

The existence of such a marriage in the details of the Word was demonstrated at length in my Arcana Caelestia and also in the Teaching of the New Jerusalem, 1 where the Word is discussed. The existence of such a marriage can only be seen by 2 those who are concerned for its inner or spiritual sense. For there are everywhere, and quite obviously in the prophetic books, two expressions for one thing, one of which refers to good, and so to the Lord, the other to truth and so to the church. Anyone who knows the correspondences can see this clearly; for there are expressions and words which correspond to good, and there are others 3 which correspond to truths. This then is how the Lord is linked with heaven and with the church by means of the Word.

[2] Since there is a marriage in the Word, it contains a spiritual and a celestial sense. The spiritual sense is for those in the Lord's spiritual kingdom, who make up all the lower heavens; the celestial sense is for those in the Lord's celestial kingdom, who make up all the higher heavens. The angels of the spiritual kingdom possess the truths of the Word, but those of the celestial kingdom its good. When therefore a person reads the Word piously, the spiritual angels perceive by correspondences the truths in it, the celestial angels the kinds of good in it. But, what is a secret, the celestial angels do not perceive the good in it directly from the person, but indirectly through the spiritual angels. The reason is that hardly anyone in the Christian world today possesses the good of celestial love, but some possess only truths. The good of love cannot therefore pass directly from a person to the celestial angels who compose the third heaven, but it passes indirectly through the spiritual angels who compose the second heaven.

Thus the Lord's marriage with the church is also realised in the heavens by means of the Word. For the Word in its spiritual sense deals with the church, but in its celestial sense with the Lord. So the spiritual angels relate everything to the church, but the celestial angels to the Lord. That is why the Lord likens heaven to a marriage and so calls it; and it is the Word which brings about this marriage. But this is a secret which can only dimly be perceived by a person on earth, but it is clearly perceived by an angel in heaven.

[3] The reason why celestial angels can relate to the Lord everything which the spiritual angels relate to the church is that the Lord is everything to the church.


1. i.e. The New Jerusalem and Heaven's Teaching for it. -Translator

2. The manuscript has from'. -Translator

3. The manuscript has correspondences'. B. Rogers proposes the same emendation -Translator


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Sacred Scripture 80, 81

True Christian Religion 248

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