What is the Church Made of?

What is the Church made of?  There are lots of interesting debates we could have in answer to this question—do we define the Church by baptism or by faith?  By formal membership?  By those truly regenerate and known to God, or by outward profession only?  Here, however, I have a much more basic question in mind.  If asked to define itself, in an identity or mission statement, on a website, etc., many churches might begin with words like “Our church is a collection of individuals from all walks of life, united by faith in Jesus Christ…”  Hold on, stop right there.  Is it accurate to say that the Church is a collection, or a gathering, of “individuals”?  Well, at first glance, yes; this seems a theologically impeccable statement.  But for many evangelical churches today, as the identity or mission statement goes on in the same vein, something begins to ring false—”the church consists of individuals each endowed with unique gifts”; “we aim to support one another as individuals who are each loved and valued”; “we want to bring together individuals in a shared life of discipleship and worship together,” etc.  Sociologically, at the very least, something seems to be missing here.  After all, in most churches, unless made up of the very old or the very young, it is not primarily individuals who drive up to church, get out of the car, and come sit in the pew on a Sunday morning—it is families.  

Of course, in our society as a whole, this empirical fact is being steadily eroded, as families do fewer and fewer things together.  They don’t spend time together, they don’t eat meals together, they don’t participate in the same hobbies; as soon as kids reach driving age, they go to their own places on their own schedules.  This erosion has increasingly made itself felt in the church as well, as different family members do not even necessarily attend the same church, and if they do, they are quickly segregated off, not to see one another again until after the service.  The teenager goes to the youth-group, the ten-year-old to the ten-year-olds group, the six-year-old to the six-year-olds group, and the two-year-old to the nursery.  And of course, this is for those church attendees who are in fact families.  Reflecting broader cultural trends, churches are increasingly populated with folks well into their thirties who are still single.  Perhaps indeed it is now both theologically and sociologically accurate to describe the Church as a collection of individuals.

Time was, quite recently, when conservative Christianity in the US witnessed a militant reaction against this trend, a determination to reclaim the family as the heart of the church and the society.  Groups like Vision Forum proclaimed an anathema against age-segregated activities at churches, and preached a gospel of salvation by family cohesion.  Homeschooling was of course part of the prescription, but for many it went further, as families were discouraged from allowing their children to be exposed to any unmonitored outside influences, or even leaving the parents’ sight for any extended length of time, until well into teenage years.  This pattern was even to be manifested liturgically, as fathers were invited forward to take servings of bread and wine to distribute to their families.  Such were the more extreme manifestations of the movement, but the broader ethos, one which can only be called a kind of “familyolatry,” proved very influential in many fundamentalist and Reformed circles.

This reaction has provoked, in turn, a counter-reaction, in which many Reformed folk, re-asserting the primacy of the Church over the family, have reminded us that Jesus described his kingdom as one that would dissolve all family ties, one in which we were all brothers and sisters within the one family of faith.  The Church, we were reminded, was the new community in which old social bonds are replaced, in which the water of baptism is stronger than the blood of kinship, in which the communion of the eucharist is the new family meal.  

This reaction, while rather more theologically reflective than what drives most evangelical churches, reminds us that the prevailing concept of the Church as “a collection of individuals” may be more than a mere capitulation to cultural trends; it may reflect in part a conviction that the New Testament calls us to a model of the Church in which we all stand as individuals in relation to the center that is Christ, rather than bound by the natural relationships that may pertain outside the Church.  From this standpoint, some see the Church as called in fact to accelerate the dissolution of traditional social hierarchies, of which the family and the distinctive roles it imposes is the most central. 

The prevalence of such thinking might help account for the widespread incredulity toward infant baptism, even among churches with a long tradition of this practice.

What are we to make of all this?  For those of us troglodytes still convinced that the family, with its intergenerational ties, its rhythms of life together, its relationships of subordination and authority, is still an essential building block of society, how are we to articulate its relationship to the church?  Can we avoid a familyolatry that privileges the nuclear family over all other bonds, including the bonds of brotherhood in Christ that we are called to?  Can we avoid making the family so normative that the vocation of singleness, so prominent in the New Testament, is driven to the disreputable margins of the Church?  Can we do justice to the passages in Scripture which speak of the relativization of all family bonds, without immanentizing the eschaton and acting as if marriage and child-bearing are passé?

The balance, admittedly, is a difficult one, but I think this might be another area where a two-kingdoms perspective could help us out.  The following is merely the barest sketch of how; I leave it to others to figure out further what this might actually look like in pastoral practice.

First, we can make a pretty sharp distinction, whether in visible/invisible terms—the church in its empirical expression of visible congregations is not identical to the church as known before God—or in eschatological terms—the church within history, within the limits of mortal life, is not identical to the church as it will be at the consummation.  Before God, the Church is quite clearly made up of individuals, in the sense that each believer is united to Christ directly and identically, not through the medium of her father or her mother or her brother. In the eschaton, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage; we shall not bear children, and parents will not need to teach or exercise authority over their children.  And yet now, in the empirical, historical church, we do marry and are given in marriage.  Children are born to Christians, and they are raised, by and large, by their parents, not by the church leaders.  Most of their teaching and training comes at home, through their parents, and it is these parents who are likely, from an empirical perspective, to be most responsible for the children’s coming to faith and participation in the church.  

Such clear distinction can help us avoid blurring together biblical passages that speak to the Church in these two different senses, or stages.  Paul can address the Church as a new family of saints in which there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, and yet can issue directives addressed to husbands, to wives, to fathers, mothers, and children, to master and slaves, each in their distinct earthly roles.  It can help us avoid an immanentization of the eschaton in which we try to treat the Church as if it ought somehow to be a community that has transcended natural limitations, that need not acknowledge the existence of families in its midst—a posture that will undermine the primary means by which the Church’s ranks are replenished with new members, and by which these members are trained in the faith.  

However, this distinction cannot be the whole answer, if it is to avoid treating these two perspectives as wholly separate, the church in history as unrelated to the church in glory.  Clearly, the former is to be a sign of the latter, a hint of what is to come appearing already in the present.  The vocation of celibacy, it seems, is to be one way in which this sign is attested in the community of the Church, as some members live lives directed wholly to God and toward their brothers and sisters in Christ, rather than directed toward the natural propagation of the species.  Any church that does not make room for, and value, this vocation, is a church that is not fulfilling its mission to be a sign of the new creation in the midst of the old.  Likewise, although most of us show up at the church doors as families, we become one family in worship, as we sing together, respond together, and partake of the Eucharist together, displaying our shared relationship to Christ and to one another.  Churches ought to find ways, while acknowledging their general dependence on the foundation-stone of the family, to witness to the eschatological reality in which our identity is found in Christ alone, and not in biological descent and natural social structures. 

On the other hand, we should be wary of embracing anything that seems “communal” as if it were somehow a manifestation of this eschatological life, an abolition of natural bonds in favor of spiritual ones.  We are apt to think, for instance, as if the sharing of earthly possessions that should characterize the church’s life together were a mark of a new eschatological community, a transcendence of natural loyalties.  Or we imagine that the fact that, in the church, we aid and support one another in the raising of children means that somehow the natural parental role has been transcended in a brotherhood in which we are all fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters to one another.  The latter presumption is simply a mark of how far we in the modern West have substituted the nuclear family for the full array of human social bonds which characterized most pre-modern communities, so that we now imagine anything that relativizes the nuclear family is a mark of eschatological inbreaking.  On the contrary, in many non-Western societies even today, it is common for the community as a whole, or extended family or clan networks, to display a shared responsibility for the care of one another, and the raising of children.  To this extent, the tightly-knit communities that churches seek to foster are merely the return to a more fully natural form of human sociality, rather than the oddly truncated form we have become familiar with.  

Likewise, even the willingness to share possessions that should characterize the church is in fact a picture of restored nature, not transcendence of it.  A strictly private view of property that has lost sight of the need to ensure common use of this world’s goods is not the natural state of things, which the visible church is called to replace with eschatological communism, but a deviant state of affairs, that does not understand the just administration of property.  Acts 2, then, is not evidence that the church is supposed to live the life of the age to come in the present, but evidence that the church is supposed to model the just patterns of natural life in the present.  But I risk veering off-topic.

The baptismal rite, it seems to me (or the infant baptismal rite, to be precise), seems to offer a rich, well-balanced picture of how these various dimensions are to intersect in the life of the visible church.  It is the parents who bring the child to be baptized, attesting the visible church’s reliance on the natural structures of propagating the species.  Not only the parents, however, but also the congregation as a whole, and (in many traditions) the sponsors or godparents, make vows to help raise and nurture the child in Christian faith.  This is a communal responsibility which perhaps pictures, in certain respects, the erasure of family distinctions in the eschatological body of Christ, but also simply reflects the natural order of human sociality, in which we are meant to care for and support one another beyond the boundaries of the nuclear family.  In the course of the liturgy, the parents hand the child over to the minister, who stands in the place of Christ, and the minister baptizes the child.  In this, the parents symbolically renounce the child to Christ, and put him in the same position that they themselves were in when they were first baptized.  In this moment, the child is revealed as a child of Christ, a brother to his parents, rather than their son, and equally a brother of all others who are in Christ.  But the liturgy does not end here; the minister returns the child to his parents with a charge, showing that for now, while we live within the bounds of mortality, he remains uniquely their responsibility to provide for and teach; he is the ward of his parents, not the ward of the church generically, or of the minister particularly.  For the minister is not Christ and does not wield his authority, even if he symbolically represents him for purposes of the liturgy.

This post was not meant to be an apologia for infant baptism (although I would have no qualms about writing such an apologia), but perhaps it has ended there.  In a normal, healthy church, most baptisms should be infant baptisms, and the liturgy should teach us the right relationship between the church and the family; and yet in a healthy church, there should also be a good number of adult baptisms, which by displaying for us the entry of an individual believer directly into relationship with his Savior, ensures that we do not lose sight of the eschatological dimension of the church, its calling to be the sign of a new community, a new family, in the midst of time.  Churches that lack infant baptisms are likely to fall into an individualism or a kind of communalism that displays an over-realized eschatology; churches that lack any adult baptisms, or that practice infant baptism without godparents or otherwise picturing the active role of the whole congregation, are likely to fall into a rut of familyolatry, turning the church into nothing more than a gathering of families, and excluding singles from their fellowship.  

8 thoughts on “What is the Church Made of?

  1. Caleb Roberts

    I like your balance of thought here and your charge for the vocation of celibacy to be more acceptable is certainly crucial, especially when we’re in a time where prominent evangelical leaders like Al Mohler say that persons pursuing ordination who are single "need to understand that there’s going to be a significant limitation on their ability to serve as a pastor." You know, just like the significant limitation that singleness placed on Paul’s ministry.

    But, interestingly enough, the balanced picture you see in the rite of infant baptism does not appear so clearly to me. For according to the traditional Anglican rite, it is the godparents who actually present the child to the priest for baptism and renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil in the child’s stead. At least for Anglicans, this would seem to present a challenge to the imagery you see in infant baptism as the natural relationship a child has with his/her believing parents quite literally stands to the side in significance as the rite progresses. The birth parents hand the baby over to the godparents who ascend to the baptismal font to proclaim the vows on the child’s behalf. The whole thing used to send my residual "covenantal" paradigms into chills.

    Good post.

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      Sorry for the delayed response here, Caleb. You’re right to note some important ambiguity in the baptismal rite. For the sake of space, since baptismal rites weren’t my main focus, I described a sort of idealized form, which is admittedly hard to find. The older Anglican rite is admittedly problematic on this front, although as I understand it (and certainly as my rubric says it), it’s both parents and godparents, not godparents alone, who present the child, and who say the vows together. If you’ve seen a version in which it was the sponsors *alone*, then I think that is really problematic. The modern Anglican rite (not that there is only one, but I speak of those I am most familiar with—the 1979 US Episcopal, and the 1982 Scottish Episcopal) rectifies this to some extent, by having the parents alone come and present the child for baptism, and then say the vows together with the godparents. It does seem really theologically important to show the parents alone as those that are bringing the child for baptism, because it is from them, not from the community at large, that the child has come into this world. The godparents’ role is one that begins *at* baptism, not before, so I don’t see why they should be part of the presentation. Ideally, I think, the parents should also have some distinct vows of their own to say, in addition to saying some with the godparents, to signify the fact that, whatever the contribution of the community, there remains a unique parental calling. And I’ve seen some liturgies that look like that, though they may not be in very wide circulation.

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  2. Thanks for this Brad. Reading the first few paragraphs, I was really hoping you would address infant baptism. I’m so glad you did, because you’ve brought to light some of the implications I’ve been considering with respect to the kingdoms/sacraments relationship. As long as protestants try to make the temporal/visible church synonymous with the eschatological communion of saints, approaches to infant baptism will be riddled with inconsistency. I would like to think more carefully (not least exegetically) about the nature of God’s "promises" with respect to families. I’m led to think that Jesus’ "redefinition" of the family becomes supremely important at this point because it makes it an issue of faith, not flesh. Oddly, it occurrs to me that a lot of protestant paedobaptists de facto base infant baptism on the the "flesh" of the nuclear family rather than the faith of the covenantal family. As you’ve suggested this likely arises from wrongly identifying the nuclear family as synonymous with the covenant family; such confuses the kingdoms, especially eschatalogically. At any rate, I do think this is why the sacraments are so profound. I would even consider the minister’s relationship to God’s authority via both word and sacrament to be "sacramental." But I digress.

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      Sorry for the delayed response here as well. Thanks for these thoughts. Could you clarify what it would mean to "base infant baptism" on "the faith of the covenantal family" rather than "the flesh of the nuclear family"? Part of my point is that in its visible/pre-eschatological form, the Church is dependent on the nuclear family as its building block, and its baptism of infants testifies to this. So to that extent, I guess I do want to base infant baptism on this fleshly reality. I think I’m a bit less comfortable with approaches to infant baptism that justify it in terms of the child’s presumptive membership in the invisible church, even if we do have good Scriptural grounds for confidence in our children’s salvation.

      As far as the minister’s authority being "sacramental," well I tend now to think (much more than I used to) that there are good reasons to be wary of this language, as it seems to me likely to lead us, among other things, to a kind of VanDrunenian concept of ministerial authority, to which I think you share my aversion. But that is, as you say, another discussion.

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  3. AJ

    I’m a single dad trying to raise three kids in the fear of the Lord. Talk about the breakup of the family is a tough issue for me because it hits close to home (no pun intended). What would you say to single parents trying to live this out?

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      You have my admiration, I’ll tell you that. I’m a married dad trying to raise two, and I wonder every day how single parents do it. I do think that single parents may take a lot of comfort from this, by recognizing that our society’s abstraction of the nuclear family from the more extended family and from broader community bonds is an aberration which the Church is called upon to correct by its life together. No parents ought to be all on their own, but should recognize the role that other members of the community can and should play in helping to teach and care for the children. For children who are missing a parent, this is all the more the case, as Christians are called to step in and attest to the fact that God is father to the fatherless and mother to the motherless, by helping to fill those roles. However, the single-parent family is still a family, and is not to be simply dissolved into the Church community. A single parent remains uniquely tasked by God with physical and spiritual responsibility for his children, so other Christians in the church ought not to think that they can just step in and try to replace the missing parent, as I’ve seen happen in some cases, with unfortunate consequences. It’s a delicate balance, of course, and just because you can grasp the balance doesn’t necessarily mean that you will find yourself fortunate enough to be in a church that understands this need to provide lots of support while still respecting your unique God-given responsibility.

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  4. Ryan

    Brad,

    So, you mention that Acts 2 is a model for the “just patterns of natural life,” as opposed to “life of the age to come.” So, first, I don’t know what you mean “just patterns of natural life?” What does that mean and why is it opposed to the life to come?

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  5. Brad Littlejohn

    The "just pattern of natural life" means, "life lived within the limits of creation, according to the standards prescribed at creation." So, for instance, the seventh commandment. In this earthly life, most of us marry. That’s how God intended it, and we couldn’t very well get by without it. Within that assumption of marriage, justice entails that we need to stick to our own wives—no sharing around, or making use of another’s. In the life to come, there will not be marriage, because there will no longer be need for the biological propagation of the species. My relation to your earthly wife will then be just the same as my relation to my earthly wife. (Of course, there is some room for theological disagreement on the details of this—perhaps there will be aspects of that earthly relationship that carry over.)

    Analogously, with property. Within the constraints of this present age, we need access to the earth’s resources in order to survive. In general, we need some way of dividing up access to these resources for the sake of order and to ensure their best use. But, unlike with marriage, justice dictates that the earth’s resources be used for the sustenance of all, and our arrangement and use of property should be directed toward this end. In Acts 2, when all share with one another as each has need, they are respecting this created purpose of material resources, and testifying to the instrumental purpose of private property as a means toward this end of common sustenance. In the life to come, presumably, there will be no lack of anything we might need for sustenance—indeed, I don’t suppose life will depend on food at all—and thus no need for property arrangements or for pooling resources.

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