Ecclesiology

Loves Covers a Multitude of (Theological) Sins: Doctrine and Ecumenism

As regular readers here well know, I care a lot about Christian ecumenism (or, I would prefer to label it, “catholicity”).  I also care a good deal more than most about doctrine.  These two are often thought to be in conflict, but I don’t think they need to be.  In preparation for a discussion I will lead with some of the people of my church, I drew up a list of assertions explaining my position about why “catholicity” is obligatory, and possible without sacrificing doctrine.  Any of these can be expanded, and I would welcome feedback on anything that seems to lack clarity, charity, or verity.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) (more…)

Am I a Presbyterian?

I am having an argument with a Christian friend.  He asserts that I am a Presbyterian.  I assert that I am not.  He is not insulting me; he himself is a Presbyterian (on that we both agree).  His argument about my being Presbyterian is very simple: I am a member of a church, that church is Presbyterian, therefore I am a Presbyterian.  My argument is somewhat more complex. (more…)

Basic Ecclesiology 3: Who’s In?

One of the thornier question in ecclesiology is the question of boundaries: who gets included and who gets excluded?  If you’re reading this hoping that I will conclusively resolve the issue in a “basic ecclesiology” series, you will be disappointed.

No, the starting point for my discussion of inclusion and exclusion is the apostle Paul’s advice to a younger minister of Christ, Timothy.  After reminding him of the salvation available in Jesus, Paul continued (2 Timothy 2:14-19):

Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.  Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.  Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly.  Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus,  who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.  Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”

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Did God Command Schism?

The Old Testament books of Kings are filled with wars between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, and make a strong object lesson of the futility, mutual recrimination, and other spiritual harms caused by schism, as both kingdoms turned away from God, whether to the worship of other gods in the north, or to a mere pretense of worshiping the true God among other gods in the south.  This makes sense.  What makes less sense to me is that the political divide was not an act originating from human pride and rebellious spirit, but in fact commanded by God.  With certain things, I am tempted to ask God what he was thinking.

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Basic Ecclesiology 2: Jesus

If, as I argued before, the Greek word ekklesia just means a gathering, then what makes an ekklesia into the Christian Church?

Being an adult convert, I never actually went to Sunday School, but I am told that there is often a single answer that works for every question.  I enjoy a little joke which plays on this observation: A new Sunday School teacher comes and tries to start his relationship with the class to a good start, and so asks a simple question: “What’s gray, runs in trees, eats nuts, and has a large bushy tail?”  No student raises a hand, but one girl in front has a big frown on her face.  The new teacher asks her, “What’s wrong?” and receives the reply, “I know the answer’s Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel!”

It is not a squirrel which makes a gathering into the Church (except perhaps sometimes); the Sunday School answer is correct.  It is obvious, and true: Jesus Christ is what makes a gathering into the Christian Church. (more…)

Basic Ecclesiology: Unity and Plurality

As I have argued that ecclesiology matters, we might then ask what we ought to believe about the Church.  So I thought I might lay out a few basic ecclesiological ideas in a series of short(er) posts.  Of course, our ideas about the Church tend first to be informed by our experience of actual churches, and what we like or dislike about them, and only secondarily (or tertiarily) consult the Bible or any reputable theological source.  But God’s revelation is always there to challenge us, just as Apollos was challenged by Priscilla and Aquila in Acts 18:26, to think better about the subject.

The first point is that there are multiple churches, and yet there is one Church.  The Church is simultaneously singular and plural. (more…)

Having Come Lately

I tend to think that I came to the question of divisions among Christians rather late in the day.  We all have.  Most of the divisions among Christians which exist now already existed before any of us were born.  The division between European Christians and most varieties of Middle Eastern and African Christians happened fifteen centuries ago; the division between Eastern Orthodox and the Latin West is almost a millennium old.  The Protestant Reformation is approaching half a millennium old, and even the Methodists are a quarter of a millennium old at this point.  Many of the Pentecostal denominations are older than a century, as is the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy which sprouted new denominations.  All of these divisions occurred before we were born.  So the question facing us is what to do about those divisions now, given the history that has already transpired.

There are many ways one might answer that question.  Some people regard it as an intellectual challenge, to discern which denomination is the True Church and join it.  Others regard the divisions among Christians as evidence for falsity and abandon the religion, or refuse to join it.  Some people think the correct response is to convince everyone else to join their own group; others prefer  to pretend there are no divisions among the groups.  Perhaps the vast majority of Christians just ignore the issue, staying in the church where they are and ignoring other denominations as irrelevant to them.  None of these is my response, although the reason why will require some background narrative of my own experience. (more…)

Hoc Est Corpus Meum

In honor of yesterday’s feast of Corpus Christi, in some Latin liturgical calendars, here is a narration of my experience leading up to my first communion.  I remember how I described those events at the time, without Christian jargon which was then unfamiliar to me, because of the impression they made on me, both because of their force and because of how unexpected they were.

When I decided to become a Christian, I started visiting churches on Sunday mornings, and in the course of four weeks I visited three churches, one a Calvary Chapel and the other two both Presbyterian churches.  I think none of these churches offered communion more than once per month, but in four consecutive weeks I was offered communion three times. (more…)

The Argument from (Dis-)Similarity

Will the real Church please stand up?  Go to a phone directory of any moderately sized settlement and see if the listings for “churches” don’t rapidly get bewildering.  Indeed, such an exercise is often an education into varieties of Christianity we didn’t know existed!  How should those who worship Christ sort through this denominational chaos?

One method frequently suggested by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Disciples of Christ (along with a few Baptists, on occasion) is to look at the evidence for early Christianity and see which contemporary denomination is most similar to the churches of the apostles and their successors.  This is the argument from similarity.  I recently read a blog post making this argument against Protestants of all stripes, and a commentator here pressed me to consider the same line of reasoning.  It was not the first time.  I have heard this argument made in favor of multiple different branches of contemporary Christianity.  I like to imagine the question by asking which church would look most familiar to the apostle Peter or any of the other earliest Christians, if he were sent on a time-travel expedition from AD 60 to the present.  I prefer someone else to Jesus for this exercise because Jesus is the God who knows the hearts, and this is usually posed as a question about external appearances. (more…)

Church Shopping

Tomorrow I should have regular wireless again, but I found a way to wish you all a happy Pentecost!  Among the “joys” of moving, I strongly dislike “church shopping,” the process of bouncing from one church to another looking for “the church for me.”  It always feels too self-centered.  I don’t want a church to be “for me”; I want it to be “for Jesus”!

But the reality is that when one moves a long distance, one must find a new congregation to worship with.  In the US, at least, this typically involves a fair amount of individual choice, as there are several churches which may be acceptable.  (This is not just a Protestant thing; I’ve watched traditional as well as liberal Roman Catholics pick their parish based on the theology of the local priest, and the competing jurisdictions of Chalcedonian Orthodox churches has given various American Orthodox friends of mine the freedom to prefer one congregation over another.)  How does one exercise this individual choice without elevating one’s personal preferences over Christ’s purposes for his Church, thus setting oneself in judgment over the people of God?  (“And who are you to judge the servant of another?” wrote Paul in Romans 14.)  If individual choice on this matter is inevitable, can it avoid being evil?

It can, I think, when exercised with the right goal.  The goal of finding a new church is not picking a congregation who is like me, or who will like me, or whose theology/worship style/dress code/architecture I find appealing or comfortable.  Those matters are not irrelevant, but they are also not the goal.  The goal is to serve our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Head of his body, the Church.  The other body parts go where the head tells them to.  If I move from one region to another, I am moving from one part of Christ’s body to another, and my job is to figure out where my Lord would have me serve, as part of his body in this new location.  Choosing a church as part of a move is not the same as picking a new phone company or a new internet service.  Instead, it is a matter of discerning my Master’s wishes and fulfilling them.  There are big questions about how to discern God’s will, but prayer is a necessary starting place, and looking for where one is called to serve Christ will raise different questions than judging whether this congregation is comfortable or appealing.

This doesn’t make it easy to find a congregation in a new location.  (Or at least, not usually.)  But it can make it less prideful and self-serving, and therefore not necessarily evil.