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.  


The Power of Water

A Prayer composed for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, 11/4/12
(Baptism: Marlowe Bede Smith; Sermon: Mark 10:17-31)  

Mighty God,

We come before you today humbled by the power of water, an instrument of both death and life in your all-powerful hands—water which, driven by unprecedented winds, can drown one of earth’s greatest cities; water which, cupped in the hands of one of your ministers, can wash away sins and welcome us into your household of faith.  Of old you fixed the boundaries of the deep, but by our sin, we have turned this good gift of water into a source of judgment, ever-prone to escape its bounds and visit destruction on the human race.  We have watched in shock and grief this past week the images of towns destroyed, tunnels flooded, lives shattered when the sea burst its banks  in the northeastern United States.  We do thank you, Lord, for the thousands of lives spared by ample warning, by prompt and decisive action from authorities, by courageous rescuers who entered flooding homes at the height of the storm, heedless of their own peril.  And yet we lament, Lord, each life that was lost—whether by heroism, like the off-duty police officer who shepherded seven people to safety before drowning in a basement when he went back to check for others—or by senseless tragedy, like the stranded mother whose two young boys were swept from her arms when her neighbors ignored her pleas for help.  

But by your grace, Lord, the water which in your fallen creation destroys, in your new creation restores; the water that can take the life of a young boy becomes for a young boy here the sign and seal of life eternal.  We thank you for this joyful occasion, for the blessing the Smiths have been to this congregation and your whole church, and the blessing that Marlowe promises to be through the years and decades to come.  With the waters of baptism, you are working to renew the whole world until the day when there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, when there shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.  While we sojourn in this valley of the shadow of death, remind us of this your promise of grace, and give us courage to proclaim it.  But in the midst of earthly pain, Lord, we pray also for earthly comfort—for shelter, for food, for power, to those homeless, hungry, and in the dark; for love and consolation for those who have lost friends and family; for intelligent political leadership that will restore order, provide resources, rebuild infrastructure, and plan prudently to avert future catastrophes.


Lord, if the events of the past week have reminded us of the unequalled power of water, in the passage we have heard today, we are reminded of the frivolousness of what the world too often considers the most powerful thing on earth—money.  All around us in the world today, and in each one of our thoughts, are signs of this idolatry.  We pinch pennies and rationalize our stinginess, we consume ourselves seeking to advance our careers to ensure a ready flow of money in years to come, we worry and fret about the economy, about tax policy, about housing and commodity prices—forgetting your words “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you.”  This preoccupation with Mammon has been apparent this past week in the response to the superstorm, as officials in New York City scrambled to get commerce flowing again in the financial district while, in poorer parts of the city, residents remained trapped in flooded houses or shivering on the streets, and as victims in places like Haiti and Cuba were forgotten altogether.  We know that you are the God who hears the cry of the poor—hear the cry of all these suffering now, and those who regularly die, voiceless and forgotten, of diseases and disasters in the Third World.  Give us who are rich hearts of compassion.

The US election campaign has also showcased our Western preoccupation with Mammom, as the only political issues worth discussing, it seems, are economic ones.  Heal us of our blindness and give us hearts for justice.  In this election, Lord, we pray for your guidance for the American people, torn between two less-than-desirable candidates.  Even at this late hour, we pray that the election would provide an opportunity for intelligent political reflection and mature public discourse.  We pray that the candidate who will ensure better justice will win, and that you will guide his heart and mind over the coming four years.  In the passage we have heard this morning, you remind us that although men will always fail us, by your grace, all things are possible.  Presidents and prime ministers will fail, shackled by the deceitfulness of riches, but you will work out your gracious purposes nonetheless.

But we do pray that, at this decisive moment in global politics, as key decisions are being taken about the leadership of the world’s two leading nations, China and the US, that world leaders would have the wisdom and the humility to set aside differences and work together on the dangers and injustices that face the entire planet.  Break the irresistible hold that Mammon seems to have on so many of our societies, and help the leaders and citizens of the world to heed Jesus’s call to put the poor first.

 

Help each of us who has passed through the waters of baptism tread with confidence the way of the Cross, following you as agents of your kingdom, ready to heal the hurts of those who are suffering earthly pains and griefs, and to proclaim through words, actions, and our own faith, the grace that can bring eternal healing for a broken world.  

In the name of your Son we pray.  Amen.