Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Do Christians make the Church or does the Church make Christians?

Does a gathering of individual Christians make a collective church of Christians? Or is there a realistic entity called “the Church” that makes its participants into Christians? This is the basic theological question that still plagues us today. This perennial tension between individualists and communitarians crops up both between and within the alternative proposals for renewal today. For instance, one can find within the emergent conversation both radical individualists and radical communitarians. Both claim to value community. That is not the issue. This issue is whether the basis of ecclesial community is found in the collective of free individuals or in the community itself as such which then grants communal identity to its members. An arsenal of arguments are assembled, the battle rages on, and yet no victor is in sight.

Part of the problem in the debate between communitarians and individualists is that it remains solely on the sociological plane. The missing piece to the puzzle is the very center of church life itself: Jesus Christ. The debate will go on in perpetuity as long as it remains a struggle between two foci. But when a third point is added, a triangle is formed and a more rich discussion can follow.

So then, how do the Church, the Christian and Christ relate?

The classic way to formulate the basic options was put forth by Schleiermacher (19th Cen). He put it in terms of a contrast between the Protestant and Catholic ecclesiological principles (Christian Faith 103-108):

The Protestant principle is that the relationship between the Christian and the Church depends on the Christian's relationship to Christ.

The Catholic principle is that the relationship between the Christian and Christ depends on the Christian's relationship to Church.

Of course, this leads us into a whole other web of problems. Which principle gives pride of place to Christ? Which principle avoids the perils of the extremes? Are these principles adequate descriptions of the Protestant/Catholic difference? How do we acknowledge both the freedom of Christ and the indispensability of the Church? Is there a way to synthesize the principles? Is there a third option? But at least they are properly theological problems and therefore we might be able to get somewhere. In other words, a good ecclesiology must deal in Christological currency.

Although I enjoy being provocative, it seems appropriate to at least sketch the beginnings of my own solution to this basis ecclesiological problem. I would recommend that we navigate Schleiermacher’s triangle by means of the concept of mission. My inspiration here is von Balthasar, who outlines a missional concept of theological personhood in his Theo-Drama vol. III. Balthasar’s advance is that our personhood is grounded neither in our individual Christianity nor our participation in the community of the Church as such, but rather in the fulfillment of our mission. We are sent by God. This is who we are, both as individual Christians and as a communal Church. Balthasar gives the example of Paul, who as an individual missionary was on the periphery of the church and yet served the church precisely in his peripheral mission. He notes rightly that individualism and communitarianism coincide for Paul, especially when he reflects on his suffering for the church (e.g., Colossians 2).

Here’s how one might render Balthasar’s insight in terms of Schleiermacher’s triangle:

The Missional principle is that the Christian's relationship to both Christ and the Church depends on her participation in the mission to which Christ sends the Church.

My hope is that this way of putting things will keep the Christian and the Church in proper balance as they subsist in the one mission of Christ. This certainly doesn’t solve all the problems, but it may help to reframe it in a fruitful way.

Any thoughts?
Any communitarians or individualists out there who want to take me to task?
Any objections to Schleiermacher’s way of Christologizing the problem?
Any suggestions toward a missional solution to these problems?


millinerd said...

Interesting. Noll's recent book comes to mind which says (and I paraphrase), "For Catholics the church is comprised of individuals, for Protestants individuals comprise the church."

Mission might be missing in both.

pk said...

I love the way you unpacked everything in the end in terms of mission. It resonates with me.

But then more questions rise to the surface. To whom do we grant the authority to identify what Christ's mission for the Church is? Who sets the parameters that are the unifying force? Will the Church identify the mission or is that up to each individual?

And then you're right back where you started!?

JohnLDrury said...

that's a great restatement of Schleiermacher's thesis. do think it is a fair description? or is it way off?

JohnLDrury said...


great questions! authority issues are right around the corner, and thus there are more 'protestant' ways and more 'catholic' ways of answering your question. The missional principle only provides a certain formal ecumenical unity for answering the basic question. How it plays out will still have major differences accross christian communions.

How should it play out?
What do you think?

Samuel Bills said...

One...not really
Holy...Maybe on our best days
Catholic...they're cool
Apostolic...well - naturally
Great words John! An ecclesiology centered on mission offers an ecumenical hope I think.

Just . Jay said...

I think Christ makes Christians, and at that point you are a part of The Church whether you know it or not... or whether you LIKE it or not :) If you are a follower of Christ, I guess that makes you a Christian. Not any affiliations to any churches.

that of course is the super-simplified answer of the overarching term *Christian*

But... that doesn't really answer the question, does it :)

"Do Christians make the Church or does the Church make Christians?"

this question is really about the definition of "church" and whether you are using a capital or a lowercase "C" or not, isn't it? I think the bigger question in this post are really important.

If affiliation to "a church" makes you a Christian, then it is just organized religion (in the negative connotation Schenck mentioned in one of his posts). If affiliation with THE Chirch makes you a Christian, then it is a commune-style rotary club.

In my mind The Church is an entity that exists because some of us knuckle-heads accepted the "come follow me" of Jesus in various ways. THE Church is Christ's body, and membership to A church (although an important topic) is almost irrelevant as far as being a Christian by definition goes.

Who has authority, Catholic/Protestant definitions of church, Christ's mission for the church... VERY important topics

i just thought i'd go back to the basics and answer the question in the only way that makes the splitting of hairs any fun for me :) if JESUS doesn't make me a Christian, well, I'm not interested. Where to go from there in regards to The Church and whether 5 Christians who meet together on a regualr basis equals a church -- that's something i look forward to you all discussing!

pk said...

My rough thoughts:

In 300AD the Church made Christians. And that made sense because there was only ONE Church. There was no other church down the street to go be a part of.

In 2005 Christians make the Church. And I hope and pray that we do so missionally in the spirit of Christ as you have propesed John.

As far as authority, I didn't make this up but I'm a fan of the layers of authority that are placed over me. First my local church, then the general church, then the global church, then the historical church. Each one having a voice into what I believe the church to be and how I live that out in community.

ben price said...

I like it John.

I was reading a reflection this week that talked about planting churches, building community and doing mission. The premise was basically that in practice, those who start a church seeking to build a community will never get around to mission. But those who start by doing mission have a chance of building community in the process.

I wonder if "mission" and "kingdom" language are pretty synonomous here. If that is the case, what makes us Kingdom inhabitants--a declaration of Christ's Lordship, or participation in the Mission? Surely the two cannot be far apart, or can they?

Perhaps we become part of Christ's (already and not yet) Kingdom (participants of the mission) first, then, because we are on this earth and Christ's earthly body(community) is the Church, we also become part of the Church.

Maybe, though, the first/then sequence is not ontological, but teleological. We will always be members of the Kingdom/Mission, but we will not always be the Church. The Church cannot be understood outside of the Kingdom/Mission but the Kingdom/Mission can be understood outside of the Church.

So I think I am a qualified missiological individualist . . . participants of the Kingdom/Mission make up the Church, but these participants or "Christians" only have their identity in the Kingdom/Mission, and ultimately, that Kingdom's Lord.

Thanks John, it's clear as mud now.

ben price

Keith Drury said...

Perhaps Protestants answer the title question by asking the null questions: “Can we conceive of a church without Christians?” And, “Can we conceive of a Christian without a church?”

Thanks for letting Schleiermacher speak adding his triangulation approach that brings Christ into the model—not a bad idea for a Christian theology ;-)… also thanks for channeling HVB’s turning the question inside out toward mission--helpful, perticularly among so-called emerging churches.

As you might expect though I’m interested in seeing the diagram of this model—what it “looks” like on the whiteboard.

JohnLDrury said...

re: diagram - I have 'em but I am such a blog newbie that I can't figure out how to put them up without formating problems


Ken Schenck said...

I as you do not think that we are in any way restricted to biblical images or categories. Nevertheless, you'll understand that I gravitate to the models of 1 Corinthians, on the one hand, and Colossians/Ephesians on the other.

1 Corinthians: the body of Christ is made up of all Christians who possess the Spirit of God. We are simultaneously "in Christ" and Christ is "in us." But the most meaningful sense of us being the temple of God is collectively. The Spirit can only be in us individually because the Spirit is in the body of Christ collectively.

Colossians/Ephesians: The body is now the church, with Christ as the head and us as the body. Only in connection with the head is there a church, and the head is the source of the body and provides its nourishment.

So building off Ephesians, it is only Christians in connection to Christ that become the church. And finagling Corinthians a little, it is only the Spirit of the church that allows for the Spirit in the individual Christian.

Oh well, I tried...

JohnLDrury said...


Great way to frame the debate in terms of different biblical emphases. I like doing that with all discussions.

One question: Is the Spirit in Corinthians the Spirit of the Church or the Spirit of Christ/the Lord. It seems like the latter to me (I Cor 12, 2 Cor 3). If so, then maybe Corinthian body language can bit fit into the Col/Eph head language. Just a thought.

However we construe it, there has to be a way to unite the individual and the community in a way that neither is treated as ancillary to the whole. Both of Schleiermacher principles can fall into this trap by making one relationship secondary and dependent on the other. The mission thing may help, but the problem remains: how to make all the parts truly united.

Ken Schenck said...

I agree that the church does not enter into the 1 Corinthians imagery--Paul does not yet use the word church in this way yet, in my opinion (depending on how you date and interpret Gal. 1:13, I suppose).

I like this interdependence model you are working with--it reminds me of the way Paul can say we are in Christ and yet Christ is in you (although a plural "you"). We are in the church and yet the church is in us, plural.

Wandering Jew said...

1 Cor 12 & Rom 12 gives us plenty of clues as to how the body came to be. 1 Cor 12:27, "Now ye [the corporate body] are the body of Christ, and members [individual members] in particular." This sums it up nicely. We are not one [communitarian] or the other [individualist], we are both. But those terms are also rather artificial and mechanical and remind one of socialism vs captialism or the left vs the right politically. The body is to have no such schisms(1Cor 12:25) but, in the true body, it's a seamless thing.

It is important to note that the term "member" never refers to a 'come and join our club and pay your subs' type of membership, which appears to be the prevalent false doctrine or tradition in all forms of institutional type church today. It is also important to note that there are no "Catholics" or "Protestants" in the bible.

There is only one way to be a "member" of the body of Christ, and it is not something one just decides to go and do. 1. " . . .Ye must be born again."(John 3:7) and 2. "Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God."

It is important to remember that profession of the Lord's name is not enough either, "Many will say to me in that day Lord, Lord . . . and then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity." (Matt 7:22-23) "Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well, the devils also believe, and tremble." (Jas 2:19).

When someone is born again, baptised in the Spirit, holds correct doctrine, and obeys the voice of the Spirit, then they ought not to have any problems. But often, because of that very thing, that is where the problems start. Particularly if that believer has a gift that is not recognised or encouraged, such as an apostle, or prophet, or other revelatory gift.

This is because most churches only recognise a pastor (or variation thereof) as the head 'shabang' instead of Jesus Christ like the bible says. Some of these other gifts have a major part to play in the leadership and direction of the body, but one gift, which, by the way, comes about third or fourth on the list, does all the governing in its limited capacity. Often, it does not have the insight that these other gifts may have by the Holy Ghost. Some reject the work and ministry of the Holy Ghost altogether. There is often no discerment whatsoever regarding these matters and many actually grieve the Spirit.

But church folk are so often too dull and carnal to know that anything is amiss, even if it came up and bit them on the nose they wouldn't get it. But those that do discern, that do see, are often a minority or lone voice that never gets heard, and so they fade away into isolation. Then you end up with the situation spoken of by Paul in 1 Cor 12:21, "the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. " Too often this is either tacitly or explicitly done by those claiming to be the body. It makes one question whether they really are part of the true body when they reject its members so often, usually due to gross error.

Believers are first to take care of their individual walk with the Lord, and then there fellowship with the rest of the body should automatically follow. Christ, by the Holy Ghost, promised to teach all believers. Indeed, they are to "try the spirits whether they are of God." (1John 4:1) " . . . ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in him." (1 John 2:27) " . . . the Holy Ghost . . . he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your rememberance, whatsoever I have said unto you." (John 14:26)

One thing professing Christians seem to have great difficulty in accepting is this, "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God." Many reject this being led of the Spirit and that's when you get religion and institutionalisation etc.

So, Christ centered, Holy Ghost led fellowship always draws the members together, " . . . even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love." (Eph 4:15-16). Then we go back to Rom 12:3 and following, and also 1 Cor 12 etc, to see how that "measure of every part" is worked out. It has to be by the leading and unction of the Holy Ghost, not man's leadership, otherwise it plain just doesn't work.

That is what John 15:1-10 is all about.