Ecclesiology: A Guide for the Perplexed

The following was presented as a lecture for the “Faith Seeking Understanding” course of the Partnership for Theological Education in Edinburgh on Tuesday.

Ecclesiology, or the study of the church, is perhaps one of the most difficult and elusive areas of theology, despite the fact that its content seems so empirically obvious.  With soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, we are dealing with things that happen largely invisibly within us, and in some vague future judgment.  With eschatology, the doctrine of “the last things,” we are dealing with things entirely future, and largely hidden from our perception.  But the object of ecclesiology, “the church,” is right in front of us, all around us, right?  We see numerous churches as part of our normal experience, and “the church” can simply be described as the totality of these, the whole body of those who call on the name of the Lord—right?

This apparently simple description, however, becomes more complicated when we try to relate the rather messy empirical reality of churches as we find them to the rather exalted language that Scripture often uses in speaking of the Church.  And indeed, given the importance of the church, Scripture is remarkably elusive in how it speaks of this fundamental Christian reality, resorting almost entirely to a rich array of metaphors which seem to bear little obvious relation to one another.  I borrow the following catalogue from Herman Bavinck:

the church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the sheepfold of Christ who gives his life for the sheep and is known by them, the building, the temple, the house of God, built up out of living stones on Christ as the cornerstone, and on the foundation of apostles and prophets, the people, the possession, the Israel of God.  The members of the church are called branches of the vine, living stones, the elect, the called, believers, beloved, brothers and sisters, children of God and so forth. (Reformed Dogmatics IV.298)  

What are we to make of all this?  We might seek to gain some illumination from the Old Testament, seeing, as Christian theology has frequently done, the church as the New Israel, the continuation or rather fulfillment of the people that God called out of Egypt, and who worshipped him in the centuries before Christ.  But the discontinuities between the church and Israel seem to loom as large as the continuities: Israel was at the same time a political state, whereas the church makes no such pretensions, but lives amidst, though distinct from, the political states of the world, even when such states confess Christ; Israel had at the center of her identity one geographical location, whereas the church is called to be spread over all the world; Israel had detailed and specific laws governing her worship and religious identity, whereas the church does not.  These discontinuities mean that although important to helping us construct a doctrine of the church, the Old Testament will hardly relieve our difficulties in that task.   Read More


Always Social, Always Public: Herman Bavinck on Religion

I will shortly be posting my own thoughts again, rather than big quotes of other people’s thoughts, but here’s a gem from Bavinck’s discussion of the church in Reformed Dogmatics IV:

We are by nature social beings, ‘political animals’; we are born out of, in, and for community and cannot for a moment exist apart from it.  The family, society, the state, associations of various kinds, and for various purposes, bind people together and cause us to live and act in concert with one another.  Even stronger than all these institutions and corporations, however, is the bond that unites people in religion.  There exists in religion a powerful social element.  The reason for this is not hard to find: religion is more deeply rooted in the human heart than anything else.  It is the immediate result of our being created in God’s image and therefore radically integral to our nature.  In religion, we regulate our relationship to God, the relationship that is central and foundational.  Our relationship to our fellow humans and to all other creatures is the outflow of our relationship to God.  Foundational to all issues is that of religion.  Those who agree with us in religion agree with us in our most basic, most sacred, and all-controlling convictions and sooner or later arrive at the same insights also in secondary matters.  But differences in religious convictions, upon serious reflection, produce ever greater divergence between people also in all subordinate matters.  That which unites people in religion is stronger than material interests, natural love, or enthusiasm for science and art.  People are prepared to sacrifice everything, even their own lives, for religion.  For if they lose it, they lose their own selves, their own identities.  In religion, as everyone believes, a person’s very soul and salvation is at stake.  For that reason, too, every religion seeks to propagate itself and engates in mission.  Religion is never merely a private matter, a subjective opinion, a matter of taste; it always implies the claim to being the true and saving religions and therefore seeks acceptance by others and expansion, if possible, throughout the human race.  It is never a matter of the individual alone but always also a matter for the immediate and extended family, the people, and the state as a whole.  Accordingly, it always produces a common dogma and a common form of worship, sustained as it were by the consciousness that not the individual but humanity as a whole is the completed image of God, his temple and body.


Notes Toward a Doctrine of Christian Liberty: Freedom as Social Reality

Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations, ch. 7—”The Redemption of Society”:

“It [1 Cor. 14.24] is the paradigm for the birth of free society, grounded in the recognition of a superior authority which renders all authorities beneath it relative and provisional.  We discover we are free when we are commanded by that authority which commands us according to the law of our being, disclosing the secrets of the heart.  There is no freedom except when what we are, and do, corresponds to what has been given to us to be and to do. ‘Given to us’, because the law of our being does assert itself spontaneously merely by virtue of our existing.  We must receive ourselves from outside ourselves, addressed by a summons which evokes that correspondence of existence to being.  ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’ (2 Cor. 3.18).  The church of Christ, which professes the authority of God’s summons in the coming of Jesus, has the role of hearing it, repeating it, drawing attention to it.  In heeding the church, society heeds a dangerous voice, a voice that is capable of challenging authority effectiely, a voice which, when the oppressed have heard it (even in an echo or at a distance), they cannot remain still.”
—p. 252

“Freedom, then, is not conceived primarily as an assertion of individuality, whether positively, in terms of individual creativity and impulse, or negatively, in terms of ‘rights’, which is to say immunities from harm.  It is a social reality, a new disposition of society around its supreme Lord which sets it loose from its traditional lords.  Yet individual liberty is not far away. For the implication of this new social reality is that the individual can no longer simply be carried within the social setting to which she or he was born; for that setting is under challenge from the new social cetnre.  This requires she give herself to the service of the Lord within the new society, in defiance, if need be, of the old lords and societies that claim her.  She emerges in differentiation from her family, tribe and nation, making decisions of discipleship which were not given her from within them.  Between the old and new lordships, then, is a step she must take on her own, a responsibility for individual decision; and that, too, is a contribution to liberty, not because it creates a vacuum in which the individual is momentarily free from any society—that is not liberty!—but because it allows her to enrich society by the gift of her self-donation to it.  Individual decision, the act of heart and mind, has now become fully and consciously engaged in and for society; so that society itself is free, being upheld by the free self-giving of each member.  A society founded in conversion and baptism is a society unlike all others.  

“Modern liberalism is not yet ready to leap fully armed from the head that first conceived this thought.  This is not yet ‘freedom of conscience’ in a generalized sense.  It is ‘evangelical liberty’, which is to say, the freedom freely to obey Christ.  Yet evangelical liberty has proved to be the foundation of a more generalized freedom, including a certain, not indefinite liberty for misguided and erroneous judgment.  The logic which leads from the one to the other is that of St. Paul, writing about the ‘weaker brother’: ‘Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?  It is before his own master that he stands or falls’ (Rom. 14.4).  Which is not to say that there is no such thing as evident and unarguable error; nor that each person’s vocation is so hidden that the right and wrong of what he thinks and does is obscure.  It is simply that he has (has, not is) his own master, and his master is not the ruler who governs him in the order of civil society. There are some judgments that may be evident enough, but which do not fall to the ruler to make.  The ruler has to establish a prima-facie interest in the implications for civil order before intervening between andy man or woman and the God who commands.  That is the correct way of stating the liberal doctrine which is often put misleadingly as ‘the separation of law and morality’.  There can be no separation of law and morality; but what there can be, an is, is a sphere of individual responsibility before God in which the public good is not immediately at stake.

“A perennial observation of political philosophy declares that there are two alternative concepts of freedom, a negative and a positive: freedom from control and freedom for self-realisation.  For the sake of exposition one could characterize the two as the freedom-ideal of slaves and the freedom-ideal of aristocrats.  The one consists in the abolition of oppressive constraints, the other in opportunities which are somehow given as a birthright; the one lacks an end beyond the goal of liberation itself, the other never needs liberation to bring its ends within reach.  If we situation the idea of freedom at the point where the church impacts upon society, we shall understand why neither conception will suffice.  An adequate description of freedom has points of affinity with both.  The truth in the negative conception is that freedom is a Gospel which, whether they know themselves to be in need of it or not, is addressed exclusively to those who are, in fact, unfree.  But it is not a Gospel complete in itself, but only the first moment in the Gospel.  The truth in the positive conception is that freedom is evoked and sustained by the command of God.  That command does not merely say ‘Be free!’ and then fall silent; it puts before us a way of freedom, which is the way of Christ’s victory.”
—pp. 254-56


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.  


When Time Stands Still?

A Prayer for the First (and only) Sunday of Christmas, 2012
Composed for St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church

Lord Jesus Christ, Incarnate Word, baby of Bethlehem, we come to you today with hearts full of joy and thankfulness for the riches you have showered upon us this Christmas season: for family, friends, food, and fellowship, for the exchange of gifts which knits us closer to our loved ones, for the more glorious exchange we have experienced in worship in recent days and weeks, as we bring our praises and our hearts before you and you give us your own presence in return.  We thank you for this opportunity to rest our bodies and refresh our hearts as we prepare to take on the challenges of a new year.  

And yet, Lord, we come to you also with hearts aching inwardly, sometimes weary of the world and burdened by its multitude of griefs, and weighed down by a hundred private cares of our own.  We like to imagine Christmas as a day when ordinary business stops,  when time stands still, when all the world holds its breath in memory of that day two thousand years ago when history turned the corner; we yearn to experience Christmas as a foretaste of eternity, transcending time in the midst of time.  And yet how insistently time presses itself upon us, how impossible it proves to shut out the world, in all its mundanity and its madness!  Stores open their doors early on Boxing Day for shoppers craving ever more stuff; investors rush to resume their trading; politicians return to Washington to continue their interminable squabbling and posturing while America’s fiscal cliff looms before them.  Duty keeps forecasters and emergency workers at their posts on Christmas Day as storms, fueled by a changing climate, batter Britain with floods and sweep through the American South with blizzards and tornadoes.  For hundreds of thousands of families in the Philippines, Christmas just means another can of cold food, shivering in a makeshift shelter, wondering how to pick up the pieces of lives shattered by a typhoon. For grieving mothers in Newtown, Connecticut, sitting bewildered by the graves of their children, Christmas brings only a redoubling of the pain, while elsewhere in the US, new shootings are reported on Christmas Eve.  Meanwhile, for grieving mothers in Syria or Afghanistan, Christmas is just one more day of bombings and bloodshed, and for a billion worldwide struggling in the deepest poverty, neither rest nor a feast is a luxury that can be contemplated.  Truly, Lord, we walk by faith and not by sight, confessing that the world has been reborn in the birth of Christ, when all around us it seems still to be groaning.  

 

And yet it is no different than the first Christmas, when the peaceful dawn in Bethlehem was so soon shattered by the tramp of boots, the ring of iron, the screams of children, when throughout Palestine, the days, weeks, and years after Christ’s birth brought more business as usual—soldiers abusing, tax collectors extorting, leaders plotting, peasants starving, criminals dying on crosses outside the city gate.  


Jesus, Glory of Israel, make yourself known to your church this Christmas and in the new year before us.  You have promised to call for yourself a new people, heirs of the promises of Israel, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and yet when we look around us at the church all we see is a bunch of squabbling siblings, unable even to understand one another, much less agree, on issues such as women’s ordination or homosexuality.  You are the light of the world—shed the light of truth upon us in the midst of our confusion.  Feed the sheep who hunger for your word, in this church and throughout the churches of this land.  Strengthen the shepherds who are to lead and guide, especially Justin Welby, as he assumes the see of Canterbury; may your word be a light unto his path in a time of darkness and uncertainty.  

Christ, Desire of the Nations, make your rule felt among the rulers of the earth this Christmas and in the new year before us.  We repent of the foolish leaders we often elect, that their hearts are far from you and their lips do not honor your name.  We thank you for the witness of Queen Elizabeth, who reminded the nation and the commonwealth on Christmas Day of your blessed birth, and called upon us to give our hearts to you.  May many of those in power heed that call, especially now in the UK, as leaders forge ahead with plans for gay marriage, ignoring the voices of your churches, and as, throughout the developed world, politicians try to balance budgets by shielding the wealthy and powerful and abandoning the poor and weak.  In these days of violence, Prince of Peace, teach us to beat our guns into ploughshares, and our missiles into pruning hooks.  We are not naive; we know that peace is not easy in a world of sin, but, emboldened by faith in your promises, give us the imaginations needed to make peace a reality. 

Emmanuel, God-with-us, rule in all our hearts today.  Fill the doubting with faith, the fearful with hope, the lonely with love.  Lord, for each member of this congregation today, we pray that you would so fill us with the awareness of your presence, the comfort of your grace, the fire of your love, that we would be filled to overflowing, no longer obsessed with receiving the attention and affection we need, but eager to give it to others who need it.  On Christmas, we seek in vain in the world around us for that foretaste of eternity, that sign that the fullness of time has come, but by your grace, we can find it within our hearts, in moments of worship and fellowship with one another, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease.  Help us, as we face this new year, to draw strength from that peace in our hearts, and to carry it out into the world, that all eyes might see your salvation.

 

Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word: Grant that the same light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in  the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.