Skeptical conversations, part IX: The church and its mission

Continuing the conversation . . . Parts I-VIII here. Also, I’ve updated the credo Wordle post.

R: The church, then, is the people of God; and specifically, we are the people God has brought out of slavery to sin. Just as he led the people of Israel on the Exodus, out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land, so he is leading us on a new Exodus toward his eschatological kingdom.

A: I’m not familiar with the word “eschatological.”

R: I’m not surprised. Eschatology is the part of theology that deals with the end times, the Second Coming of Christ and all that; the eschatological kingdom is the kingdom of God as it will be once the world as we know it has ended and been remade new.

A: So that would be Heaven, then?

R: Close enough for now. The point is that the church exists in motion, on the road; and as we journey toward eternity with God, we are to be caring for one another, helping each other grow in spiritual maturity and meeting each other’s needs. We are not left to grow as Christians alone, but we help each other along.

The Bible also describes the church as a body, with Christ as its head. This captures many truths about the church, including that every one of us in the church has gifts to offer and that none of us can go it alone; but it also, I think, makes the point that we are the physical representatives of God in the world. We are the ones Christ left here to be his feet, to go to those who need him, and to be his hands to reach out in love. When Christ was on earth he made a career out of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable; one major element of both was his proclamation of himself as God’s good news for the world, including the news that those whom the religious leaders rejected were welcome to come to God. Another was his ministry of healing and deliverance, setting people free from sickness and demons, raising the dead and forgiving sin. When Christ ascended into heaven, he left that work behind for us, his body, to carry out: the work of outreach, of proclaiming the good news and of working to bring good news into the lives of the poor, the downtrodden and the powerless.

A: It sounds like you’re saying that the church has a social mission to fulfill.

R: Yes. I don’t want to prescribe any one political program—I have my ideas and others have theirs—but social justice, however we might seek to achieve it, is clearly a concern of the biblical writers; you can see that in Jesus’ ministry and also very distinctly in several of the OT prophets, as well as in many other places in the Bible.

A: You’re shattering my image of the church as a collection of Bible-thumping right-wing reactionaries. I’m not sure I like that.

R: Good. The simple fact is, the church has just as many left-wing reactionaries anyway, it’s just a matter of who gets the press and why. Anyway, another major image of the church is as the temple of the Holy Spirit, because God’s Spirit no longer makes his home on earth in a building, but rather in the hearts of his people. Besides completing the picture of the church in trinitarian terms, this points up the third major work of the church on earth (another echo of the Trinity there), which is worship. That is, after all, what temples are for. These three works interrelate, for while we worship God for his sake, not for ours, worship is still necessary to our spiritual growth; and as we grow more like Christ, we are moved more and more to do his work in the world. As we share his good news with others and bring them into the covenant community, they see what God has done for them and are moved to join in worship—and so the cycle continues.

A: All this is very good, I’m sure, but couldn’t a false church make the same claims? How would you distinguish a real church from a church that’s going to end up drinking the Kool-Aid?

R: I think Jim Jones is a bit of an extreme example, to be sure. But the question of telling the true church apart from false churches is a live one, and there are three points which have been offered as the marks of the true church. One, the true church preaches the pure gospel, with nothing added on or taken away. Two, “the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them”—baptism and the Lord’s Supper (also called communion or the eucharist) are administered faithfully and properly with no distortion of their meaning, nothing added or removed. Three, proper church discipline. The true church doesn’t wink at sin in the lives of its members, and when necessary it disciplines them by one means or another. This is especially true when it comes to leaders who sin. I think this is probably the most obvious area in which false churches show themselves false, since in many cases those who lead such movements take flagrant advantage of their position.

A: But what about sexual abuse by clergy? A lot of churches wink at that.

R: I never said the church is perfect. You’re right, that’s a problem, and it’s one that individual churches don’t always address. Denial is a pretty typical human response to bad situations, after all. But the church as a whole does take clergy sexual misconduct seriously, even if we still handle it imperfectly.

I think, too, that there’s a distinction to be brought in here, which is that the word “church” is used to mean different things—related, to be sure, but not identical. Again, it’s a threefold distinction. You might use the word “church” to mean the church mystical, which is all of the church as it has ever existed or will ever exist throughout time and space, going all the way back to the beginning of humanity’s history and stretching forward all the way into the future. Should we carry on long enough to plant colonies in other star systems, the church of Christ will go with them, and they too are part of the church with us in the mystical sense. Or by “church” you might mean the universal church, the church everywhere in the world today, from Russian Orthodox in Moscow to Southern Baptists in Texas to Pentecostals in Brazil to Presbyterians in Korea. Or, most commonly, “church” might mean the local church—or perhaps one should say the localized church; you might mean a particular congregation in a particular place, but you might also mean, more broadly, a particular denomination, such as mine, the Reformed Church in America. Whether you talk about one small church or the entire church spread throughout space and time, though, the same truths apply, and the same marks; and I suppose that individual congregations can cease to be true churches, or perhaps better to say that they can cease to be true parts of the true church.

Going back to the marks of the true church, however, I would add a fourth, that the true church is characterized by love. After all, God is love, and he created us and saves us in order to bring us into relationship with himself and to make us more like him; just as he is a community of love between Father, Son and Spirit, so he creates us as a community of love to reflect his character. 1 John makes it very clear that anyone who knows God will reflect that in love for him and for others, and the same is true for the church as a whole.

A: That makes a lot of sense. I had a question, though, about the second element you listed as a mark of the true church. What did you mean by “the pure administration of the sacraments”? I’m not familiar with the term.

R: That’s another phrase from the Belgic Confession, which goes on to offer a very good definition of the sacraments: “They are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit.” There are two that Christ instituted (though the Catholic church counts some others as well), baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and they are ceremonies of the new covenant which correspond to and supersede circumcision and the Passover, which are covenant ceremonies established by earlier covenants.

A: What I know about baptism is that some churches baptize infants while others only baptize adults. Where do you stand on that?

R: My tradition practices infant baptism, and I agree with that. Baptism is the initiatory rite of the covenant, and the covenant is not a covenant God makes with mere individuals but a covenant he has made with his people; so baptism is the sign that one has joined the covenant community. Infants were always understood by the biblical writers to be part of that community, to be under the covenant, as you can see from the fact that Hebrew children were circumcised at birth, not at their coming of age or any other time. This is because baptism is about God’s promise to his people, not about what the individual says or thinks or does. It is not a guarantee that the child who is baptized will be saved, because baptism of itself does not save; that child is free to keep the covenant or to reject it, as is anyone. Baptism is, however, a guarantee of God’s faithfulness.

A: What about someone who is baptized as an infant, rejects God and Christianity, and then later converts? Would that person be baptized again?

R: No, no one in that situation would need to be baptized again; their conversion is rather a validation of the faithfulness of God promised when they were baptized. It is the fruit of that baptism, in a sense, their return to the covenant community in which they were born.

The other sacrament is communion, the Lord’s Supper, and you might call it a covenant celebration ceremony, if you can say that without tangling your tongue. The Passover, which communion supersedes and completes, celebrates the central act of God’s relationship with Israel—his deliverance of them from slavery in Egypt, which launched the Exodus; and communion celebrates the central act of the new covenant—Christ delivering us from slavery to sin, which launched the New Exodus. Unlike bap­tism, communion is restricted to committed believers, because the first Lord’s Supper was something Jesus shared only with his close disciples; those who celebrate it properly are blessed through it, but those who partake when they are not right with God bring judgment on themselves, 1 Corinthians makes that clear.

I like the description in our liturgy of the Lord’s Supper as “a feast of remembrance, of communion, and of hope.” That captures beautifully the fact that this is a celebration in three dimensions. We look back to remember and proclaim what Jesus did for us in his death and resurrection; we look at our present, to celebrate the communion we have with him as we eat and drink—not just as individuals but as his people, and so it is communion with each other as well; and we look forward, as Jesus himself did when he ate that last supper with his disciples, to the time when we will sit down to eat and drink with him in his kingdom, when we will know him fully as he is.

A: I have a question about all this. I know that Catholics believe that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus, though apparently they still look and taste like bread and wine. That has never made any sense to me at all. From what I can tell, it doesn’t make any sense to Protestants either, but the way you talk it doesn’t sound like you understand this to be merely a memorial dinner, either. So how do you understand this, then?

R: That Catholic doctrine, which is called transubstantiation, is rooted ultimately in Aristotle’s metaphysics; he was a great philosopher, but his scientific understanding is a couple millennia out of date. No, I don’t agree with that understanding of the Lord’s Supper, for a lot of reasons, nor do I believe it is merely a chance to sit and think. As in most cases, I think Calvin’s view makes the most sense here. Christ is not physically present on the table, because his body is in Heaven with the Father. At the same time, though, he is present in a special way in the bread and the wine, through the work of the Spirit. This, too, is a mystery, but in communion the Holy Spirit unites us with Christ in a special way as we eat the bread and drink the wine; they are not literally, concretely the body and blood of Christ, but it is not merely metaphorical to call them so, either. Jesus is spiritually present in the elements, and so they are a feast for our spirits.

A: That sounds quite strange.

R: I can see where it would. It’s hard to express, but the Lord’s Supper is more than just a memorial; as with baptism, it’s more about what God does and has done than it is about what we do.

If I may shift topics slightly at this point, there’s one last point to address in regard to the church, and that’s the question of church government. There are three basic forms: first, there is the episcopal form, in which there are bishops above the individual churches, archbishops above the bishops, and so on; the Catholic and Episcopalian churches are representative. Then there is the presbyterian form, which retains the hierarchy but replaces individual bishops and archbishops with representative bodies; that would include the Presbyterians, of course, and the Reformed denominations, including mine. Finally, there is the congregational form, in which the individual congregation is independent and self-governing; congregational denominations are called associations, conferences, or conventions—such as the Southern Baptist Convention—and the individual churches which belong to them are free to disassociate themselves at any time.

A: Given that your denomination is presbyterian in structure, I suspect you’re going to tell me why that’s the best form.

R: I am indeed, and I do believe that. First, though, I want to make the point that none of these three forms of government can really be supported from Scripture. We know that in the early church, congregations were led by elders, and there is clearly some concern that the right people be chosen; and we know that another role was established, that of the deacon, to carry out works of service—providing meals and that sort of thing. We know, too, that the position of pastor evolved as, in essence, the lead elder, to take responsibility for preaching the word of God and administering the sacraments. I can easily affirm that the church should be led by pastors, elders and deacons, and that these people must be chosen according to the call of God. Beyond that, we have no real prescription in the Bible for how the church is supposed to be organized, so it is very much a matter of opinion as to which of these three forms best fits with biblical principles.

And since opinions are like noses, I have one on the subject. My problem with congregationalism is that it atomizes the church. Just as some Christians believe that the individual conscience is paramount and reject the claim of the church on their lives, so does congregationalism exalt the individual congregation at the expense of the greater church. All commitments by any congregation to the larger church are purely voluntary, to be broken whenever it seems good. This leaves church unity a very fragile thing, and what is worse, it emasculates church discipline. Sometimes the leadership of a congregation, or even the congregation in general, need to be disciplined—for instance, every young pastor has heard horror stories about church boards that bring in, chew up and spit out one pastor after another—and in the congregational system, there is no person or body who is truly empowered to administer that discipline, because the congregation literally does not have to sit still for it. So a stronger bond and a real hierarchy are necessary in the church, I think.

The episcopal form goes too far in the other way, though, in setting up a hierarchy of individuals. This elevates a handful of individuals above the rest of the church; and not only does this make the church unhealthily dependent on a very few people—a bad Pope, for instance, can cause terrible problems for the Catholic church—it promotes a sense of inequality in the church which is very much at odds with the gospel. One of the principles which the Reformers strongly articulated is that of the priesthood of all believers—in more modern terms, that we are all ministers and all equal before God, that the only difference between those who are paid and those who aren’t is the details of the job description—and this structure denies that principle.

What I appreciate about the presbyterian form of church government is that it makes the structure of the church corporate and representative. At the level of the church, one has the pastor or pastors, the elders, and the deacons; each group has certain responsibilities, and together they lead the church. The elders and deacons are chosen from the congregation by one means or another, they serve their terms, and then they step down to be replaced by others. They are chosen to represent the congregation to the denomination, but also to represent God to the congregation, to lead them in his name.

The elders and pastors of each congregation in an area make up the classis, which is the first level of government above the church; they, collectively, are the bishop. The classis is both an administrative body, making decisions and handling necessary administrative tasks, and a judicial body, responsible for disciplining congregations when necessary. From among the members of the classis, some are selected to be part of the regional synod, which is the next level up; and some are also selected as delegates to General Synod, which meets every year, which is to our system as the Pope is to the Catholic church, more or less. And so you have the structure for making decisions, and for imposing discipline when necessary; it’s human and therefore imperfect, but the same could be said of our nation’s government. As with the U. S. Constitution, it’s as good a balance as is fair to expect, and all in all it works pretty well.

A: “Pretty well” doesn’t seem like much of an accolade.

R: I believe it was Churchill who once observed that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others; I think the same applies to the presbyterian form. Not much of an accolade? Perhaps. But it’s still a human structure after all, and still human beings running it, and so nothing you can do is going to make it perfect. Really, to form a perfect government you need to find a perfect person and give them all the authority. The further you get from that, the higher the minimal degree of imperfection in the system—and the less damage any one person’s sin can do, and the more chances there are to fix whatever problems may arise.

You see, there’s this split view of the church, in a way. You look at it from one angle and it’s a group of recovering sinners who sometimes do things beautifully and sometimes make big mistakes; and it’s terribly easy, down in the trenches of the day-to-day, to lose sight of the big picture and forget that we’re all headed somewhere. But then sometimes it’s possible to step back and look at the bigger picture, to get a sense of the church mystical, “spread out through space and time and terrible as an army with banners,” as I think Lewis has the demon Screwtape say. We need that change of perspective; if nothing else, we need it for the reminder that we are a pilgrim people, a church on the way, that we are headed for the kingdom of God.

Posted in Church and ministry, Credo, Religion and theology.

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