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Should the Church Serve the Common Good? (Rethinking Church #24)

Since the Fourth Century, the church has functioned within Western society in the role of a supporting player. It became a teacher of morals, pastor of souls, and guarantor of the overarching worldview that made sense of life and the social order. The church accompanied you through all of life’s passages with her sacraments: at birth with baptism, passage into adult with confirmation, transition into the married state with holy matrimony, and in your journey through death with last rites. And along the way she helped unburden your conscience through the sacraments of penance/absolution and Eucharist. The church was involved in education and ministry to the poor. Feast and fast days, Sundays, Saint’s days, and holy days of all sorts marked out time and gave rhythm to life.

The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation did not fundamentally reorder this symbiotic relationship between church and society at large. Looking back with benefit of hindsight at the late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries we can see some early indicators of the coming change, but it was not until the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries—after Darwin, Spencer, Dewey, Freud, and Marx—that the exponential growth of cities and rapid industrialization produced the beginnings of secular society in the United States. There had always been a large minority that were unchurched. But even the unchurched thought of themselves as Christian and viewed the institutional church as a social good.

The current institutional form of churches in the United States—despite all the doctrinal and organizational differences among them—derives from the Nineteenth Century, the era after disestablishment—that is, after the separation of church and state—and before thorough secularization. Churches of today do not expect to be financially supported by the government but still present themselves to society at large as serving the common good. And they expect to be treated as a social good. They want to speak to the moral, social, and political issues of the day. They wish to retain all their traditional privileges.

However in the early Twenty-first Century a significant, but disproportionately powerful, secular minority in society—especially within journalism, education, and entertainment—no longer thinks of the church as a social good. This minority is especially critical of traditional Christian morality. They no longer view the church as a reliable teacher of morality. Indeed, the church is viewed by many as institutionally sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and racist. Its critics portray it as a purveyor of hate and a hindrance to social progress.

What is to be done?

Since I am speaking in this series autobiographically and from experience, I don’t want to generalize. However, from what I see I do not think that the status quo can be maintained for much longer. Some secular progressives would like to destroy the church by using government power to tax and regulate it into oblivion. Others hope to cancel its speech with interruption and protest. But I think the greatest threat to the church’s Christian character is its own unwillingness to rethink its centuries-old role in society at large. As a whole, society no longer looks to the church as its moral conscience, teacher, pastor, and guarantor of a meaningful worldview. Consequently, the church stands at a crossroad. On the one hand, the broad road beckons. It can try to prove its continued relevance to society at large by adapting to society’s progressive morality while deceiving itself into thinking this new morality is thoroughly Christian. Or the church can give up its vain ambition to be recognized as chaplain and advisor to an increasingly pagan culture and take up its original mission as a countercultural witness to Christ crucified and risen from the dead. Remember what Jesus said about our anxious desire to survive:

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).

This truth applies to churches as well as to individuals.

Doing Church—Are There Any Rules? (Rethinking Church #16)

When the church comes to exist in a particular place and time, it inevitably takes shape in the world as a visible association of people. We can see this happening before our eyes in the New Testament. Jesus chose twelve apostles and gathered many others around him. The number twelve, clearly patterned after the twelve tribes of Israel, represents a new beginning to the people of God. In other ways, Jesus and his disciples resembled a school with Jesus as a rabbi. Early Jewish churches naturally adopted the synagogue model. As we can see in Acts, early Christians met in public spaces to listen to the apostles’ teaching and in homes to share the Lord’s Supper. As the church moved into the gentile world it also adapted models borrowed from the Greek and Roman cultures.  Many groups met in the homes of wealthy patrons, like those in the houses of Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor 16:19) and Nympha (Col 4:15). [For this story, see Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians].

According to Acts, the first church was led by the apostles. Soon other leaders were appointed to administer some community tasks (Acts 6), and eventually James the Lord’s brother and the “elders” became the main leaders (Acts 15, Gal. 1–2). In the Old Testament, elders were traditional local, tribal, or clan leaders. The authority of elders is a natural extension of the family, and their presence was common among ancient Israel’s neighbors and in Greek and Roman villages. As the name indicates they were usually older men who were respected by the community. In many cities beyond Judea, missionary founders of churches, such as Paul and Barnabas, were the authority figures at least for a time. Apparently, some churches eventually adopted the model of elders as leaders in particular cities (Acts 20:7; 1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1).

In previous essays in this series, we’ve been able to find in the New Testament clear teaching about what the church is and what it is supposed to do, but we do not find instructions specifying how it must be organized everywhere and for all time, or where to assemble to engage in its communal life, or what means it must use to accomplish its mission. Instead, we find variety on all three counts. Believers seem to be able to adapt to circumstances, adopting and modifying as necessary, models already used by other types of associations.

It seems that there is no one pattern of organization, communal life, or means of action that is essential to the church. Are we, then, left without guidance for these areas? Are we completely free to do whatever we like? No, we are not without guidance. First, there is tradition. The New Testament church grew out of and in organic continuity with Jesus’s ministry. It adapted that original community life to new circumstances but did not make a radical break. Judging by the way it preserved Jesus’s teaching and deeds as witnessed in the gospels, the early church seems to have treasured that continuity. And in our efforts to be the church Jesus built we should take pains to preserve that continuity as well.

Second, the New Testament’s clear teaching about the church’s essential constitution and mission gives guidance and sets limits to how we go about organizing and conducting communal life and accomplishing the church’s mission. It should be obvious that organizational structures, functions, offices, and means should serve the essence and mission. But experience teaches that they tend to become institutionalized, centralized, and self-perpetuating. Alternative motives and goals gradually replace the original motives and goals. Church history can be written as a tug of war between the tendency to drift and efforts to return to the church’s essential features.

Hence the church in every age must take care to keep its means aligned with its essence and mission. Many of the essays in the rest of this series will be devoted to examining the way we conduct church life in contemporary America (USA) in view of the church’s essence and mission.

Rethinking Church #12: The Devil’s Primal Instinct

As the church becomes visible in the world, occupying space and time, turning people toward Christ in devotion and loyalty, and transforming the way they live and relate to others, the world fights back on all fronts. In the New Testament, the “world” is understood in two ways. It can mean God’s creation, which he loves and wishes to save (John 3:16). Or, it can refer to the twisted order that exists in the human mind wherein something other than God holds the place of honor. This perverted order manifests itself in such individual vices as lust, greed, and pride and in all levels and combinations of the social order:

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).

I will leave to one side the individual and focus on the social dimension. We are born into a network of social relationships of ever increasing abstraction—the biological family, local communities, and finally the state. We enter other communities voluntarily—businesses, friendships, schools, gangs, clubs, unions, and professional organizations. Each of these societies has a preexisting identity and tradition. In volunteer societies, identity and tradition are expressed in rules and ceremonies, and in the state they are expressed in laws and symbols. Every association demands that its members conform to the group in ways that preserve group identity and facilitate achieving its purpose. Individuals that refuse to conform are disciplined or excluded.

According to the New Testament, we should not be surprised but expect that the entire social network into which we are born—that is, “the world”—is wrongly ordered. Everything is out of place. As I said above, the world and everything in it is God’s creation. But if we love it as a whole or in part more than we love God, we become “the world” in that second sense.

We cannot evade sin and our responsibility by forming corporations and associations. Human associations do not escape but mirror and magnify the vices and virtues of the human heart. Sadly but quite clearly, most people do not love the Father more than they love world. Consequently, the human institutions and associations they form are always ordered to worldly goods—pleasure, wealth, honor, and security—as their highest value. So much so that John can say “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).

The state more than any other human institution mirrors and magnifies human vices and virtues. Like other human institutions composed of lovers of the world and dedicated to worldly ends, states cannot love the Father more than they love themselves. But more than that, since states by their very nature reserve to themselves the ultimate power of life and death over their individual members, inevitably they come to think of themselves as gods. Perhaps some states are better, more just, or more benevolent than others when measured by the gospel’s morality. I don’t deny this. But whether promulgated as the will of the Pharaoh of Egypt, the King of Babylon, the Emperor of Rome, or the will of people speaking in their representatives in Western democracies, the “law” is always a human law, never the will of God. And it’s always accompanied by the threat of death. The confession “Jesus is Lord” is heresy in every municipality, county, state, and country in this age or any other.

When the church becomes visible in the world, the world expects it to submit to its order. Everyone else does. But the church replies to every family, friendship, business, friendship, school, gang, club, union, professional organization, and state, “Jesus is Lord.”

 “But I can give you pleasure, wealth, honor, and power ‘if you will bow down and worship me’” (Matt 4:9), a confused world answers.

“Jesus is Lord,” The church repeats.

 “Then I will confiscate your property, put you in prison, torture your body, and kill you!” the world shouts, trembling with anger.

Then, remembering Jesus’s words, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. (Luke 12:4-5), the church asserts without hesitation, “Jesus is Lord.”

The devil’s primal instinct leads to a second defeat. But he has one last trick up his sleeve—for he is an expert liar.

Next Time: The devil offers to embrace Christianity. He pledges to protect and defend the church, to give it favored status and a prominent place in the imperial court. “I will open my games, assemblies, courts, with prayer to your God. I will suppress your enemies and build magnificent basilicas for your worship. Only, pray for me and urge the people to obey me in all things related to the temporal order.”

Rethinking Church #11: The Church, the Devil, and the Rulers of this Age

Jesus entered the world to fight a battle. In his baptism in the Jordan River he declared war—not against Rome, not against the corrupt Jerusalem aristocracy, or against fanatical zealots, but against the devil and his allies. The devil struck the first blow. “If you are the Son of God,” the tempter whispered, “tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus replied, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:3-4). Two more blows followed. All three of the devil’s suggestions urged Jesus to adopt the world’s understanding of glory, honor, and power. But Jesus knows that Rome and Jerusalem are not the real oppressors of God’s people. The real enemy is not flesh and blood. The walls of his stronghold cannot be breached with siege works, nor can he be subdued with arrow and sword. The devil’s weapons are half-truths and lies through which he enflames lust for glory, honor, and power and instils fear of humiliation, obscurity, and, most of all, death. Jesus spoke the truth: God alone deserves our love, loyalty, and trust. Jesus rejected worldly glory, honor, and power and accepted death as the price of faithfulness to his Father.

The devil lost. Yes, God raised Jesus from the dead. But the devil had already lost. The real battle is not about who commands the most powerful army but about whom we love supremely, what we want most of all, and what we are willing to do for it. Can Jesus—can anyone—remain loyal to God despite every evil the devil can inspire human beings to inflict? The devil’s most powerful weapon is threat of death (Heb 2:14). But Jesus disarmed him of this tool: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more” (Luke 12:4). Jesus’s faithfulness unto death on the cross inflicted on the devil a spectacular defeat! The cross, as Paul proclaims, is God’s secret wisdom:

“We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:6-8).

Indeed they would not have! For Jesus’s willing acceptance of shame, pain, and death on a Roman cross, instigated by the “best and brightest” and “holiest” of the rulers of this age, demonstrated their slavery to the devil and blindness to the truth. With their lies exposed, they found themselves powerlessness to intimidate Jesus’s followers into submission. The cross redefines what glory, honor, and power means for both God and human beings. To seek glory, honor, and power now means something totally different from what it did before the cross. And the rulers of our age understand it no better than the rulers that crucified the lord of glory.

Next Time: The “rulers of this age” push back.

Rethinking Church #8: Ecclesiastical Malpractice

In the previous essay I argued that “bearing witness to the love, glory, goodness, and greatness of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ is the essential work of the church.” While the essential features of the nature and work of the church are fresh on our minds I want to entertain the sad possibility that the church may dilute, be diverted from, or abandon its essential work.

The Way of the World

Human beings are social animals. We are born into families and form extra-familial associations of all kinds, from friendships to states. The family is given by nature. Friendships are forged by mutual interests. Most associations beyond friendships are deliberately constituted to serve a purpose, to achieve an end. Some goals can better be accomplished by the cooperation of many individuals. A thousand people can by pooling their resources accomplish what 1,000 individuals working separately cannot.

It seems to me that people usually form associations to deal with a single challenge and achieve single goal. Athletic clubs promote their sport. Guilds and unions are designed to promote the economic interests of their professions. Founders establish schools and colleges to facilitate education. Learned societies promote their subject.

It is well known that associations tend to stray from their founding purposes. Energy, influence, and money originally directed to one purpose are diverted to another. This change can happen in several ways. (1) The original founders of institutions and associations are usually very clear about the end they wish to serve and devote themselves wholehearted to that cause. However, second, third, and fourth generation leaders often do not share that original vision and devotion. They become bureaucrats that devote themselves to perpetuating the institutional machinery of the association. Their work becomes a job rather than a mission. (2) Every association, especially large ones, must have officers who discharge responsibilities on behalf of the association. These officers are tempted to place their own self-interests alongside or even in place of the original mission, diverting energy away from the founding goal of the association. Embezzlement or insider trading are just two obvious examples of this abuse.

(3) Associations, especially large ones, possess power and influence. This power was given to them to achieve the end for which they were created. But an association’s officers are greatly tempted to redirect that power and influence toward their own ends unrelated to the original purpose of the institution. And often those unrelated ends are political. This abuse is the most insidious and pervasive of ways associations can be hijacked. It is common, even expected, for associations that are ostensibly devoted to education, a sport, a profession, or a particular subject to make resolutions and public proclamations on divisive political and social issues completely unrelated to their reason for existence. Not all mutinies occur on ships. Not all pirates sail the seas.

The Visible Church

The church exists not only in heaven but also on earth. It lives “in Christ” but appears in space and time. It is the body of Christ but it looks like a collection of human bodies. When the church becomes visible in the world it takes form as a human association. To the world’s eyes that is all it is. In analogy to other associations, the church coordinates the resources of its members to achieve its objectives. It will have some organizational structure. And here is the great temptation: the church has always been tempted—and often gives in—to follow the path of other associations. (1) Later generations may not feel the passion for the mission that the founding generation felt. They may begin to preserve the traditions and institutions of earlier days simply to ensure their positions in a bureaucracy. (2) Leaders may begin to enjoy the power, honor, and money that their positions can bring rather than viewing themselves as means to the end of witness to the glory and goodness of God.

(3) Church leaders may begin to view the church as a means to social and political ends. The church assimilates to the model of service organizations, non-profit groups, or even political lobbies. Like educational, professional, and learned society leaders, the church’s leaders may wish to leverage the influence of the church to weigh in on the political and social issues of the day to the detriment of its mission of witness to Jesus Christ. Not all wolves work on Wall Street. Not all barbarians live outside the gates.

Next Time: We will begin discussing the question of the means the church uses to accomplish its work. Are any practices and means essential?

Rethinking Church #7: Witness is Essential

What is the essential work of the church? What is its purpose? What is the activity must not be neglected at all costs? The New Testament church did many things. It worshiped, sang, prayed, baptized, participated in the Eucharist, gathered, taught, preached, comforted, and served. But I believe the New Testament vision of the essential work can be captured in one word: witness. Peter puts it this way:

“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

And Paul explains that God’s

intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph 3:10-11).

I am using the verb “to witness” is the broad sense of “to manifest.” The church works to manifest as best it can for all to see and hear on earth what is going on in heaven. It seeks to embody in the present time the kingdom of God that will come in its fullness in the future. The church teaches, proclaims, worships, embodies, and lives to make known the character and will of God in the world. The church witnesses to the truth and reality of God to itself and to others. It must not let the world go into the night with an easy conscience or a despairing heart. Even if it must be a lone voice calling to a “disobedient and obstinate” people (Isa 65:2). Even if no one listens, even if the church finds itself persecuted, the church never ceases to call the world to acknowledge its creator and its Lord. It says,

“The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice” (Psa. 97:1).

“The Lord reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake” (Psa. 99:1).

Bearing witness to the love, glory, goodness, and greatness of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ is the essential work of the church. In all it does it must never forsake this task. In its works of mercy and justice, in its worship, teaching, and preaching, in its work with children, teens, young adults, families, and seniors, and in its use of funds and of property, its work of witness must never be displaced or forgotten.

Rethinking Church #5: The Holy Spirit and the Divine Dimension of the Church

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a third essential feature of the church. In the New Testament, especially as seen in Acts and the letters of Paul, the Holy Spirit acts to make God present and effective within the human sphere. The Spirit empowers, leads, purifies, renews, and encourages believers. He gathers, creates, unites, and enlightens the church. He gives life, transforms, liberates, bestows love, and perfects those God has chosen. The Spirit is God’s real personal presence elevating human beings above mere human possibility, uniting them with Christ, and making them into God’s children. He is the active presence of the future resurrection, the guarantee of the future inheritance. Apart from the Holy Spirit there is no church.

The Divine Dimension

A gathering of people is the “church” only as it is united to God through Christ and the Spirit. Only as it exists in Christ as the body of Christ empowered by God’s own Spirit is a “people” the people of God. The church is a divine/human reality. The divine dimension is not a separable aspect, located in heaven, acting only intermittently. The divine permeates the human aspect and draws the human into the divine life. God’s presence and activity in the church is not only essential, it is primary. The church exists because of the divine presence, it acts in divine power, and it moves as directed by divine wisdom. Christ is the head, the Spirit leads, and God is all in all.

The Human Dimension

I want to issue caution at this point. The church indeed has a divine dimension as the foundation of its constitution, but this truth should never be used—as it has been too often—by some to bolster their claims to have coercive authority over others. Christ and the Spirit are fully capable of governing and leading God’s church, and they do not delegate their divine authority to anyone. Human beings have “authority” only in so far as their lives embody the cross-shaped life of Jesus, and only through their faithful persuasion and obedient wisdom do they have a right to instruct others. A “church” that claims to be a divine institution but does not actually seek God’s will and submit to God’s authority is not acting as the church.

Next Time: The presence and working of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are essential to the church. Apart from this working there can be no church. Next we ask about the essential human features that constitute the church. The church consists of human beings who have responded to the divine call and working with faith in Jesus and baptism.

Rethinking Church #4: The Body of Christ

In the previous essay (#3) I argued that the origin and continued existence of the church is God’s act. This aspect of the church is an essential feature apart from which there is no church. Now we will consider a second essential feature: the church exists as a reality in the world only “in Christ” (Rom 8:1, 10; Eph 2:6-7, 10) as “his body” (Eph 1:23; Col 1:24). Apart from and outside of Jesus Christ there is no church. Christ is the sphere within which the church lives and the form that gives it identity. The church is visible within the world only as his body. Now let’s explore the implications of this dense statement.

Reconciliation in Christ

Jesus Christ is the place within the world where “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) and “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). The events of incarnation and reconciliation unite creation to God in a way more intimate than does the act of creating and sustaining the creatures. In Jesus Christ, God takes one human being through life and death into eternal life through the resurrection. Jesus is both the first truly saved and glorified human being and the Savior of all who follow. Paul speaks of the resurrected Christ as the “last Adam” who has become a “life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45). Just as in Adam we inherit mortal life, in Christ we inherit eternal life. As Paul puts it, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). Or again, “And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man” (15:49).

The Church Exists in Christ

Christ who now lives as the life-giving spirit is the sphere within which God is reconciling the world to himself and transforming human beings into images of Christ. To be “in Christ” is to be in communion with him, empowered by him, protected by him, directed by him, and transformed by him. By establishing this spiritual space and gathering people into it, Christ establishes and maintains the thing the New Testament calls “church.”

The Church Exists as the Body of Christ

The New Testament uses the term “body” in reference to the church in more than one way. In 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Paul uses the unity and diversity within the human body as a metaphor for the unity and diversity within the Church. Ephesians 1:23 and Colossians 1:24 speak of the church as the “body of Christ,” a body that functions in a way similar to how our bodies function as visible expressions of our persons. Christ manifests himself, speaks, and works visibly, audibly, and palpably in the world through the church. Christ is the head—that is, the governing principle—and life of the body. Apart from the governing principle, the body has no unity or direction. Apart from the life principle, the body has no power to accomplish anything.

“In Christ” is an Essential Feature

An institution where God is not or is no longer reconciling the world to himself in Christ is not the church whatever else it may be. A group through which Jesus does not or no longer manifests himself in a visible, audible, palpable way within the world is not the church. And a “gathering” that does not or no longer understands itself as existing in Christ and drawing its life from him has forgotten its essence.

Next Time: The church is by definition Spirit filled and Spirit led.

Rethinking Church #3: The Church is God’s Act

What are the essential features of the thing we call “church”? Of course, most of us already have an idea of what “church” means—from the Bible, history, and our own experience. However at this point in the series I am asking everyone to place all those images aside to join me in rethinking the concept from the foundation up. How shall we proceed? Where shall we look to find the essential features of the church?

To get us started, let me make an assertion that I may need to modify later: we will find the essence of the church in its origin as documented in the New Testament. Perhaps we can learn more about the full implications of those essential features as the church takes different forms in different cultures and historical eras, but I am working with the assumption that its essence existed from the beginning and has not changed.

The most basic essential feature of the church is its origin in God. In Ephesians 1, we read about the grand story of salvation in Christ, from the depths of eternity (1:4, 11) to the gathering into unity of all things in Christ (1:10). At first, Paul speaks of the objects of God’s great love as “we” and “us” (1:3-10), but soon he begins to include those whom he calls “you” (1:11-18). Toward the end of the chapter Paul combines the “we” and “you” into a new “us” (1:19) that he calls “God’s holy people” (1:18) and “the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (1:22-23).

The church is God’s idea, God’s choice, and God’s act. God created it to achieve his purpose according to his plan. The church—whatever else it is—is the divine act of gathering all the scattered pieces of creation into unity in Christ by the power of the Spirit (Eph 1:13). We need to think of the word “church,” then, not merely as a noun designating an entity but as a verb describing an action. God is churching the broken, mutually hostile, and fragmented world. It will make clearer sense if we ignore the English word “church,” with its accumulated connotations, for a moment and think of the Greek word ekklesia, which means a gathering of people, an assembly. A gathering must be gathered by someone for some purpose. In reference to the church, God is the subject of the verb “gathering” and the gathering (the church) is the object.

In rethinking church, then, we must rid ourselves of any view of the church that in theory or practice displaces God as the primary actor and replaces him with human actors. The “gathering,” the “uniting” of all things in Christ that we call the “church” is God’s decision, choice, plan, and work. God is churching (reconciling) the world in Christ (2 Cor 5:19). The church is not our plan or project. It’s not for us to determine its purpose or measure its success. And its purpose is way beyond our power to make happen.

If we forget this essential feature of the church and try to “make it happen” by our own power, we may indeed achieve great things measured by human standards. We may build huge, wealthy, and influential institutions. We may entice crowds of people to say the right words. But only God can gather the scattered pieces of creation into unity in Christ. Our task is to let ourselves be churched by God. It is to believe, speak, and act only in harmony with the crucified and risen Christ empowered by God’s Spirit. Do we believe God can do this? Do we have the courage to let God be the primary actor is this event we call “church”? Can we be satisfied with what God does and the way he does it?

Next Time: the church is Christomorphic in form and Cruciform in action.

Rethinking Church #2 Where to Begin?

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.