Introduction: The Church as an Object of Belief?
And now we come to the church. The creed has been speaking of the identity and activity of God the Father, his son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and then all of the sudden turns its attention to us. Of course, the church has been the elephant in the room all along, for it is the church who believes, promulgating creeds and developing doctrines in order to regulate its witness in the world and worship of the triune God. The church is the believing subject of the creed. That is why it is so odd to turn our attention to the church, because now we are treating the church an object of belief: I believe in the Holy Catholic Church. Is the church really an object belief alongside the triune God?
The answer to this question as stated is no. The church is not an object of belief in the same way as God is. Here is a good place to recall the three senses of faith outlined in the first week of this series. In terms of faith as trust, we do not put our trust in the church. We do not cling to the church in life and death. Such a posture is reserved for God and God alone. Trusting in the church alongside God is an act of idolatry.
In terms of faith as fidelity, however, we are called to be faithful to the church. The church is precisely the context in which we embody our fidelity to God. But even here there is a distinction, for our faithfulness to the church is a means, albeit a necessary one, toward the end of faithfulness to God. So the church is an object of faithfulness, not alongside but along the way to God.
In terms of faith as belief, assenting to propositions, we certainly do believe certain things about the church. The creed attaches adjectives to the church, which implies we believe these adjectives aptly describe the church. But such beliefs do not have the same status or significance as our beliefs about God. The church is not the central character in the story; God is. This does not mean the church is dispensable. It just means the church is not the same sort of thing as God is. The point is that beliefs about the church do not supply the center of gravity around which all other beliefs are organized. Quite the opposite is true. Beliefs about the triune God condition beliefs about the church.
This broader theological context is crucial not only to block ecclesial arrogance but also to properly uphold the crucial place of the church in the story of God. Too often the church is dismissed as an unnecessary appendage to the gospel. You have heard it said, "I'm spiritual, not religious." Perhaps you have said it yourself. Placing the church in its broader theological context, "putting the church in its place" so to speak, is the best response to this endemic problem. We've been doing this all along in this series, but let's make the connections explicit with three brief statements.
(1) The Father elects the church. The God of the Bible is a God who chooses a people. This doesn't mean God doesn't love all people. But God spreads his universal love through particular communities. God is the God of history and therefore works in and through particularity. This does not cease with Christ, but is intensified in him and then bursts out through the church whom he sends out into the world. Which brings us to the second point
(2) The Son institutes the church. Alfred Loisy once said, "Jesus preached the kingdom, but the church came instead." Now he meant that with several layers of irony, but at least one level the proper response is, "That's exactly what Jesus wanted!" Jesus preached the kingdom and he sent his disciples preach that same kingdom, of which he is the king. The church was not an accident but at the heart of Jesus's own mission. Nothing speaks more to his intention to establish a community than the institution of the Lord's Supper, giving his disciples a concrete practice to continue after his death and resurrection. The many promises giving to the community so gathered points to Jesus's ecclesial intentions. The mention of promise brings us to our last point.
(3) The Spirit constitutes the church. Jesus promised that the Father would send another comforter, who would be poured out on his disciples to equip them for mission. At Pentecost, the Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus who had ascended to the right hand of the Father descended upon his disciples. In so doing, the Spirit constituted the church. The church has its being in its act of mission. The church's mission is not a bonus activity appended to its self-enclosed communal being. The church exists as the sent community. So the outpouring of the Spirit is not reserved for a special functions or functionaries of the church, but constitutes the church as the community sent for the sake of the world.
Within this context and under these conditions, we can and should join our voice with the church in proclaiming our beliefs about the church. Theological reflection on these beliefs (called "ecclesiology") traditionally takes its cue from the adjectives attached to the church in the creed. Let's follow the tradition's lead and organize our discussion of the church around the so-called "Notes of the Church."
The "notes" of the church are those attributes that the creed predicates of the church. The Apostles' Creed declares two such notes, "I believe in the Holy Catholic church." The Nicene-Constinopolitan Creed expands this to four: "One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church." Now the problem we immediate run into is that these notes are often regarded as criteria for finding the true church. They function a checklist for church shopping. But so treating the notes of the church sets one up for disappointment. What church has all these notes? What local church is truly catholic? What denomination is truly one? What tradition is thoroughly apostolic? What community is genuinely holy?
Now there are lots of clever ways of construing these notes to avoid disappointment. For instance, one might say that these are attributes of the invisible church. Now the notion of the invisible church is a necessary one. The true church of Jesus Christ cannot be strictly equated with one or many visible institutions. On the one hand, the church is less than visible church, for ecclesial institutions are mixed bodies, full of those who are not genuine Christians. On the other hand, the church is more than the visible church, for there are genuine disciples of Christ who have been estranged from the institutional church. So there is a place for talk of the "invisible" church.
But we must be very careful here, because such invisibility can be an escape for the very concrete calling to which the church is called. The invisibility of the church can be used to justify schismatic departure from the church or apathetic maintenance of the church's failed institutions. After acknowledging the theological function of the invisible church, we should turn our attention solely to the visible church. In what sense to the notes of the church apply to the visible Christian community?
Since we have already proposed that the Spirit-constituted church has her being in her act of mission, the notes cannot be regarded as static attributes of the church. They cannot describe the being of the church abstracted from here forward-moving activity in the power of the Spirit. The notes do not point up to an invisible church, nor do they point in to self-enclosed well-ordered community, nor do they even point back to some pristine church of the apostles. The notes point forward and outward to the church's mission for the sake of the world in light of the coming kingdom of God. Such a missional account of the church requires that we turn the Nicene notes of the church on their head, beginning with the last one first.
The church is apostolic. Apostolicity should be understood according to its root meaning as “sent-ness" (the Greek word apostello means "to send"). The point is neither apostolic teaching (Protestant) or apostolic succession (Catholic), but the continuity of the apostolic mission to the nations. The true church is the one that is being sent into the world.
The church is catholic. The church is sent to the whole world (kata holos means "according to the whole"). So catholicity should be understood in terms of the global reach of the church. Catholicity should not be seen as some sort of achieved consensus, but rather a sought-after scope. The true church is the church that is spread throughout the world.
The church is holy. In a missional context, holiness must be in terms of hospitality. Just as the heavenly sends the gift of rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous, so the church is also to love both its friends and enemies (Mt 5:43-48). Holiness is not a statically perfect subject, but an outward-motion toward a complete object: the world. Holiness defined as hospitality is the natural result of missional apostolicity and global catholicity. The encounter with the global other in mission leads to hospitable perfect love.
The church is one. The oneness of the church must be located within God's reconciliation of the world to himself through the church’s ministry of reconciliation. Unity is therefore not a given but a gift. Yes, the visible unity of the church is to be desired, and its absence is tragic. But church unity is not an end in itself, but is intended to serve the church’s mission within the context of the ever-increasing unity of all creation. It is no coincidence that the modern ecumenical movement began on the mission field. The early ecumenists saw that unity could serve mission. But just like the previous notes, unity is only found as its flows from the mission of the church. Missional apostolicity leads to global catholicity, which in turn breads hospitable holiness, preparing the way for reconciling unity.
Now, does all this future-oriented talk get the visible churches off the hook? If the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church is out in front of us, then can local churches, denominations, and the global Christian community simply rest easy and say, "We're on a journey. God's still working on us." Such an attitude is opposed to the intention of a missional ecclesiology. But to block such an unintended consequence, some kind of standards must be set. Although the notes cannot function as a criterion for finding the true church, there must be some criterion by which communities can be judged to be genuinely ecclesial communities. What makes a church a church? This is where the reformation tradition of the "marks of the church" comes in.
During the ecclesiological revolution that came to be known as the Reformation, the various protestant groups were compelled to defend themselves against the charge of schism. The general response was to develop a doctrine of the marks of the church whereby one can identify the true church from the false church. The marks of the church where not meant as a church-shopping list but a church-staying list, a means of justifying participation in communities estranged from the Roman Catholic Church. The practical function of the marks of the church is not to have impossibly high standards but to have a clear low-water mark: if a community falls below this line, one is free to break fellowship without being a schismatic church-divider or shallow church-hopper.
Now there is no revealed list of marks, but various lists have been proposed. Martin Bucer, the leader of the reformation in the city of Strausbourg, recommended three marks of the church: church is wherever the pure word of God is preached, the sacraments are rightly administered, and discipline is properly executed. Because of the perceived abuses of the radical reformers in their emphasis on and application of church discipline, many magisterial reformers (such as John Calvin) dropped discipline as a mark of the church in favor of the twofold pattern of word and sacrament. The debate concerning two or three marks re-emerged a century later during the Puritan controversy in England. The Puritans pushed for the return of discipline as the third mark of the church, and on its basis began to question the authority of the Anglican Church. Through the influence of his Puritan heritage, John Wesley affirmed the third mark and the churches that developed out of the Methodist revival include the third mark in their constitutional documents, many of which are not inconsequentially named “The Discipline.” Denominations with roots in the Evangelical revivals in which the Methodists took part tend to also affirm this third mark in one way or another.
Now this historical excursus not only helps you see some of the options for constructing the marks of the church, but also encourages you to see the importance of concrete practices for the church. The church is identified by her actions, not by her abstracts ideas or her amorphous feelings. The church has its being in its act of mission to the world, which takes concrete form in her proclamation, worship and discipleship. Just as the triune God is identified by his narrative, so also the church is identified by her narrative. This is so because the church is personal -- not a triune person, but a person created in the image of God. Scripture speaks of the church in personal terms: the church is the people of God, the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, etc. These personal categories speaks of the church not only as a community of like minded individuals, but a communion of persons and so a communal person, who communes with the triune God as she participates in God's mission in the world. The mention of communion brings us to the next line in the creed.
The next two lines of the Apostles' Creed is not new topics but further specifications of the work of the Spirit in the church. We not only believe in the holy catholic church, but also in the communion of saints. What does this phrase mean? Well, it initially referred to faithful who have died and are no longer with us. The church believes that it communes with not only with fellow Christians of today but also with fellow Christians of yesterday. As the church proclaims the gospel, she carries forward the mission of the apostles. As the church gathers for worship, she joins the praises of the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before her. The communion of saints therefore speaks to the historical continuity of the Christian community throughout time. But this continuity is not conceived in solely institutional terms, but in personal categories. The church is the communion of the faithful with Christ and one another as we walk together as one person with one purpose. In other words, the church is the body of Christ.
The reference to communion rightfully brings with it the connotation of the Lord's Supper, also called communion, eucharist, mass, etc. We have already mentioned the Lord's Supper as a sign of Jesus's institution of the church. The language of "institution" in face comes from the Lord's Supper liturgy, which speaks of the "words of institution." The double meaning of all these words is purposeful, because it points to this meal as the means by which the church is gathered and equipped for her service in the world. It is the practice by which she hears and proclaims the gospel not only with audible words but with visible objects and actions. It is Jesus's own chosen object-lesson, symbolizing his broken body and shed blood. Such visible words in the church are referred to as sacraments. Whether one has or even needs a particular theory for what makes this meal special, the point is that the church is not alone in her mission, but is fed by her Lord and has fellowship at his table with him and with one another. Even as he sends us out into the world, he gives us the promise of his perpetual presence (Mt. 28:20-21). The sign of this presence, the visible pointer to the deep truth of the communion of saints, is the Lord's Supper.
The mention of saints of course brings up the question of sainthood. Is there a special category of Christians called "Saints." One can see how such a category emerged. If we believe that the church here on earth communes with those who have gone before, then it is easy to start thinking about specific dead Christians. The first that comes to mind are the martyrs, those who died for their faith. The martyrs were held in high regard from the very beginning, as can be seen already in the Book of Revelation. Such special regard was then easily transfered to other exemplary Christians. Then distinctions start to be made between "saints" who go directly to "heaven" and those "souls" who must by "purged" of their sinfulness before coming into the presence of God. It is important to see the sensibleness of this train of thought, even if one has good reasons not to go down this road. One need not disparage the many exemplary Christians who have gone before us in order to avoid the abuses that such a train of thought has produced.
At the end of the day, however, one must remember that in the New Testament all Christians are addressed as "saints," even those confused and conflicted Corinthians. Christians are by definition saints because the Holy Spirit sanctifies the church. Here we must make reference to the doctrine of sanctification. God desires a holy people. And so God sets apart a people for his own purposes, God cleanses his people from their sins, and God fills his people with the power to live a new life for him. Sanctification is the work of God. It is a gift -- the gift of the Holy Spirit. Christians together seek to live a holy life, set apart for God's use. They do so not in their own power but by the power of God. God is faithful, and he will do it.
After speaking of the heights of the church's missionary purpose and communal sanctification, the creed reminds of where we come from and where we return again and again: that we were and are sinners in need of forgiveness by a gracious God. We are not only communing saints but forgiven sinners. This is not meant to bring us down a notch, but to call forth our thanks and praise. We must be forever thankful that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us; that God did not hold our sins against us but reconcile us to him in his son; that God had mercy on me, a sinner. With this word of thanks we come to the doctrine of justification.
Now we have already spoke of the basis of God's justification of sinners when we spoke of the cross of Christ. So we need not linger long here. But it is important to not only speak of forgiveness there and then, but also here and now. There is a traditional distinction made between redemption accomplished for us in Christ and redemption applied to us by the Holy Spirit. Whether the distinction itself is helpful or not, I'll let you be the judge. The point is that the forgiveness given in Jesus's death really comes to us by the power of his Spirit. We can be assured of our forgiveness of sins, and walk in the freedom that this brings. This freedom is not to be abused, because it is a freedom with a purpose, freedom for new life in Christ. This is why it helps to speak of our being sanctified for the mission of the church first before turning back to the word of forgiveness. But nevertheless this word of freedom must be spoken and never left behind.
Just as the communion of saints has a visible sign, so too the forgiveness of sinners has a visible sign: baptism. The Nicene Creed makes this connection explicit: "We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sin." Baptism visually portrays the death of the old life and the beginning of the new, the cleansing of the flesh and outpouring of the Spirit. It the rite of initiation into the church and thus a sign of conversion to the gospel and its proclamation. In baptism one both hears the gospel spoken to oneself and is called to speak the gospel to others. As such it is the ordination of all Christians to the ministry of reconciliation. That is not to deny that there may be special functionaries within the church's life and that special rites may be instituted to set apart these people for service. But all such rites are subordinated to the common baptismal calling of all Christians to preach the gospel of forgiveness out of thankfulness that they too are sinners saved by grace.
- To what extent is it apporpriate to develop a doctrine of the church?
- Does the larger theological context sketched above help address the problem of dismissing the church, at least on an intellectual level? What else can be done to respond to this problem? Is it even a problem?
- Do you agree that the church has its being in its act of mission? Does such a priveledging of mission in ecclesiology have some drawbacks? What other concepts might function better at the center of ecclesiology?
- Does my idiosyncratic presentation of the notes of the church connect with you? Why or why not?
- What kinds of "marks" do people implicit use to evaluate particular Christian communities? How should the marks of the church function? What do you believe are the marks of the church?
- What does a belief in the communion of saints entail? What does it not entail?
- What does sanctification in the context of the church look like?
- Do the Lord's Supper and Baptism succeed as signs of the communion of saints and forgiveness of sins? Should their "success" even be evaluated, and if so, how? If they fail, what other signs are available to point to these truths?