I like to get to the bottom of things. I am not satisfied until I see how a claim is properly derived from a foundation that cannot be further analyzed. I know I am not alone in this desire, but I’ve been told that I am more obsessed with it than many others. So, let’s methodically clarify the essence of the thing we call church.
When something provokes us to take an interest in a thing and seek greater understanding, our minds begin sorting things, making distinctions, and seeing relationships we had not noticed before. One such distinction turns on the difference between the essential features of a thing and its accidental features. Conceptually, there is a very clear distinction between the two even if it’s difficult to apply to a real thing with precision. If you add or remove an accidental feature of a car, flower, or human being, these things still exist. But if you destroy an essential feature of a thing, it no longer exists. Aristotle said that a human being is essentially a “rational animal.” A human being can be short or tall, male or female, and brown or white. But if you remove life or rationality from a thing, it ceases to be a human being. Likewise distinguishing between the essential and the accidental properties of the church is one way to begin rethinking church.
Adding or subtracting accidental features from a church does not cause it to cease being the church. However removing an essential feature would destroy its churchly existence completely. What is left is not the church at all. As an example, let’s pick something uncontroversial. Whether a church meets in a public building, a private dwelling, or in a cave, makes no difference to its existence as a church. However, a “church” without faith in Jesus Christ is not a church at all. It is something else.
We need to exercise great care and humility in applying the essence/accident distinction to the real world church. Reading church history and observing the contemporary church demonstrates the great diversity in how this distinction has been applied. Many controversies, some of them bitter, find their origin in this diversity of application:
1. For it is possible to mistake an accidental feature for an essential one, expanding greatly the number of “essential” features.
2. Or at the opposite extreme, essential features can be treated as optional.
3. Or in a third possibility, one may burden the church with so many and such extraneous accidental features that it makes it almost impossible to live out its essence.
4. Or again, perhaps one could be so insistent that the church refrain from adding any accidental features that it cannot adapt to circumstances and can carry out its mission effectively in the real world.
Numbers 1, 3, and 4 retain the essential features of the church despite their excesses, deficiencies, and misplaced priorities. Only number 2 ceases to be the church at all. Given the possibilities for mistakes and the absence of the perfect alternative, you can see why I want to approach the question of the essence of the church cautiously, methodically, and with humility.
Next Time: The first and most fundamental essential feature of the church is its divine origin.
essential features are they doctrines?
Some essential features are indeed doctrines. But I want to unfold this study gradually, so allow me to put off a definitive answer to this question. However, I’ve already mentioned faith in Jesus as essential. And faith must possess some idea of who Christ is, what he did, and what he offers. These ideas are doctrines. Thank you for your thoughts.