Please don’t be scared of the word – ecclesiology is the study, or philosophy, of the church. It’s a neglected topic that we frequently run into, though we often prefer to talk about something else, like the Cross of Christ. For example, when “doing” evangelism, a common reaction we get from the un-churched is not a theological or philosophical debate but a story about the church and, lamentably, it’s often one about how badly the church has behaved. It is an issue of importance that we need to tackle, and, too frequently, we are poorly equipped.
The two comments that prompted my thoughts are;
• In a FaceBook discussion about “the One True Church”, one evangelical gave a perfunctory view of the church, as if it were irrelevant to his own personal salvation. To be fair to him, he was reacting against the “Big Church” idea put forward by some religious movements
• A Christianity Today article mentioned a proposal by the Anglican Priesthood in Liverpool to change the words of the Baptism Rite to make it more accessible to un-churched people. The article rightly, in my view, argues for the retention of the “obscure” references like this: "Through water you led the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land."
My reactions are these;
• I can readily understand the perspective of the evangelical poster, because that’s a view I held myself.
• In reading the CT article, I had to wonder if the Liverpudlian priests were more interested in promoting baptism as a brand, or educating and bringing people into the Christian tradition of the Word
The first point of contention is the treatment of “church” as a "brand" (hence the title of this week’s offering). This, like it or not, is how the secular world views Christians; it sees us as promoting this “brand” with our messages of redemption, festivals and values. Our desired outcome, it is thought, is to foster a habit of identification with the “brand” - we want more people to become like us.
This is the source of my disquiet with the Liverpdudlian Anglicans. Possibly, I am reading their position too gloomily, but there is a school of practical atheism within Anglicanism that rejoices with the rites, whilst downplaying the significance of the back-story behind those rites. According to this school, infant baptism could become a nice family bonding experience, which the church is happy to facilitate, but without embarrassing references to potentially mythological episodes in which an improbable God was supposed to work miracles. Baptism, then, becomes a brand, and it is subject to all the normal rules of branding, including the mother-of-all-branding-rules, which is that the product must be re-branded periodically to re-energize it’s customer base.
In my opinion, this approach is not only crass; it is a strategic mistake. For one, it removes any challenge to understand the rite. Baptism, like all the Christian rites, must be understood in the context of Christian tradition, and that is (or should be) founded firmly on the Bible – the Word. It is this Word that provides the back-story, going all the way back to the liberation of God’s people from an oppressive and inhuman dictatorship, through the miracle at the Red Sea, and into the Land of Promise where they are free to live out what it means to be human. The best vehicle to convey this theology is the story of the Exodus, and that is why the references should be retained in the rite. To the Biblically illiterate, this story will sound strange and irrelevant, but surely it’s the church’s job to correct such illiteracy if it wants to bring people in.
Remove the challenge and we miss a very important life-lesson here, which is that the universe will not comply with our preconceptions and prejudices. We need to work, and sometimes to work hard, to understand it. If the references to the Israelites' journey through the parted waters of the Red Sea confuse us, then it is incumbent on us, as Christians, to understand why they didn’t confuse our forefathers.
The second reason the (apparent) branding of the church is wrong, is that it places no obligation on the believer to conform. Successful commercial brands strenuously avoid intruding into their customers' private lives beyond the point of sale. Brands conform to their target audience, or, at least, they promote a well-constructed myth that they do. The customer is always right, so they say. But the Church cannot adopt this position; the “customer” is frequently wrong.
So, it comes as a shock for young believers to find that, yes, the church does “intrude” and it makes it its business to judge you on “private” issues, such one’s sexual habits and preferences. I’m not advocating mind-control here, in fact I’m an advocate of respecting a person’s decisions, whether I like them or not. However, we should expect that believers should be aligned with the Word, and it’s a process that all believers must submit to.
So, if the church should not conform to whatever walks through the door, what should it be doing?
And, if the church is not a brand, what is it anyway?
The perfunctory assessment of my (presumably) young Evangelical’s point of view presents another misconception. If his misconception is anything like mine, then it regards the church as little more than the thing that happens when individual believers get together for mutual support. This, I have come to realize, arises from a view of Christianity that is skewed exclusively to the individual’s status and interests. According to this mind-set, it says that Christ died for my sins, to make me right, and I am the beneficiary of his vicarious work. It's all about me. The fact that there are others like me, is purely incidental. The fact that those "others" are the solution to my narcissistic self-obsession, is inconvenient and best left neglected. Mea culpa.
The problem here is that though the Bible speaks of the redemption of the individual, it is always in the context of community. Fundamentally, God is not here to serve the self; it’s the other way round, and I need to be aligned with with this order of things. Further, I need to understand why God has saved me, and it’s not all about making me into a better person.
My response, in Evangelical language, is that we are not saved by the Church, but we are certainly saved into the Church and for the Church. The Exodus story provides the formative paradigm here; the individuals were saved by God’s miraculous acts, but they were saved so that they could comprise a worshipping community on the other side of the sea. The end goal, if Revelation 5 is a trustworthy indication, is not simply a reconciliation of the individual with God, but the formation of this worshipping community. Compare Moses’ appeal to Pharoah to take God’s people out of Egypt to worship Him (Exodus 9:13) with the "new song" of the redeemed:
And they sang a new song, saying:Revelation 5:9-10
You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”
Notice the significance of “every tribe and language and people and nation”. God’s redemption is now not limited to an ethnic tribe, but to all peoples. And it’s not as if these peoples lose their sense of self-identity and heritage either, but rather the whole person and the whole people is brought before God in worship.
Looking at John’s vision, one must consider that it is the Word that brings this new community together. This Word, God’s Word, includes the stories of the Exodus, the Exile, the Temple and their fulfillment in the Son of Man. I see a special, or spiritual significance in these particular stories, but even if we strip them of all divine connotations, we are still forced to the conclusion that the Church is the product (creation) of the Word. These are the stories that bind us in this worshipping community, and that is something that the Bible rightly rejoices in.
So, the Church (the “True” Church) is a creation of the Word. I’d even go further and say that it is the present “incarnation” of the Word because it “lives out” and fulfills the formative stories in the Word. The corollary is that if it does not conform to the Word, then it is no longer the Church; it might provide much needed fellowship and support, but it has become something other than the Church.
How do we find, or recognize, the “True” Church? Empirically, it’s boundaries do not fall neatly on organizational lines. Some organizations are better than others at “incarnating” the Word, but none are perfect. Some organizations, it must be noted, promote stories and doctrines that are plainly contrary to the Word and, as I noted last week, these crass theologies inevitably give rise to crass practices. My own tradition is fairly aligned with the Word, but we have some very divergent views and not all are positive.
Closer to home, I know the Word better than some, but I don’t know it all and not all my actions align with it. Does this mean I am “in” the Church or not? Here’s where John’s beautiful metaphor of the Church as the Bride of Christ helps;
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.(Revelation 22:17)
Notice that the Church is filled with the Spirit of God, and she yearns to be united with her lover, calling him to come to her through the centuries. The one who hears the Word, joins the call (incidentally, there could be a deliberate ambiguity in the text - we don't know if the "one who hears" is Christ or the believer, but it's immaterial if we view Christ as the "true" representative of all believers). It is open to all who are thirsty and it you want it, it is free - the Church is God’s free gift to the world. Shame on those "churches" that make you pay for the privilege. At its most fundamental level, you are “in” the Church if you love and worship Jesus Christ.
It’s like a marriage, says John. There are better marriages and worse marriages, but if you’re married, you’re “in”, for better or worse, forsaking all other lovers. Like all brides, the Church might not always be beautiful, or even attractive, but God loves her and works ceaselessly and selflessly to be united to her in intimate, exclusive union.
Finally, if God loves His Church, then so must we. If you don’t love the Church – this motley collective of idiots and sinners who sometimes do the most bizarre things - how can you love God?
I don’t believe in the “Big Church” of some religious movements, but neither do I believe in the “Little Church" of others. The Church is not a brand, or an organization; it is where the Word is expressed in community; and where the Word is expressed in community, there the church is also. Matthew, quoting Jesus, puts it this way;
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them(Matthew 18:20, KJV).