Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Whither the Church?

One of the things that is becoming apparent to me as I'm interacting with those at seminary is that the Church is something different than what I was raised to believe. In my formative church, emphasis was placed on a personal relationship with God, and that relationship's strength (as evidenced by prayer and Bible reading, mostly) determined whether one was a member of the Church (speaking of the true Church - which there meant "those who are going to heaven").

One of the basic questions of evangelism was "If you died tonight, do you know for sure that you'd go to heaven?" and you were supposed to be able to answer "yes" if you'd prayed a certain prayer, which I guess contained magic words that automatically inscribed your name on the rolls up yonder. But I was thinking about this question during church on Sunday, and I thought, you know, it's really up to God who gets into heaven and who doesn't. Doesn't it show an awful lot of hubris for us to claim we've done something that has cemented us in heaven?

But I digress. The point here is that I am starting to see that there are a couple of different kinds of Christian, and I believe they are all legitimate. There is the born-again kind, saved from a life of sin by someone who witnesses to her. This Christian is focused on the hereafter, Jesus's death covering her sins (though not necessarily his resurrection, because hey, the work was done on Calvary, right? This is what Dallas Willard calls the "Gospel of Sin Management"). The point is to keep a strong personal relationship with God. You are constantly aware that you are a sinner, and you "sin every day", but you are happy because you know that you are saved by grace, not works, and thus you just have to confess your sins and your slate is clean. Plus, your name is written in the book of life thanks to that magic Jesus prayer. This is pretty much the evangelical church today: made up of people who have made some kind of personal commitment to Christ, believe that is what has saved them, and make it their goal to get other people to make this same sort of personal commitment. The Church, then, is made up of the people who've made this commitment and who are of like mind about it. They gather together based on their common beliefs and exclude or include others based upon each person's personal beliefs.

Another kind of Christian is someone who belongs to a church. That's really a simple way of putting it. But basically it is a person who worships, fellowships, and recites the articles of faith as contained in the Creeds in communion with others. The "others" can be formed geographically, or theologically, or based on worship method. In this community, the faith of the whole is greater in importance than the faith of the one. You are, quite literally, born into this church. As an infant you are accepted into the family of God by baptism, and the Church commits as a whole to bringing you up as one of its own. (of course, there is also adult baptism for those who choose to commit later in life) People are in the body of Christ not based on anything they have done or are currently doing, but because they have chosen to follow Christ's teachings while identifying themselves with a communion of believers. Thus, the articles in the creed are not necessarily believed by each individual to the letter, but the community as a whole can recite it as their belief. Personal prayer and bible readings are based upon texts that are read by the communion as a whole: that is, the prayers are written in a book so that everyone says the same ones, the lectionary provides scripture that everyone is reading at the same time. Again, this is emphasizing the community of faith.

There is a third kind, and this one gives me the most trouble, but my husband brought it up and I think he's convinced me it's legit. That is, a person who believes that Jesus's model of living was the best possible life, and thus commits himself/herself to living in that way, following Jesus's teaching and example. The person need not be part of a faith body. They need not have made a commitment to Jesus Christ by name. They simply follow his teachings. In this category, you have your monastics, your desert fathers, your Gandhi. It's pretty hard to say that most of our saints were not Christians and yet many of them did not associate with a church body. Perhaps you could say they had the personal relationship that is part of the first type, but it's doubtful they ever prayed a prayer that made that commitment. Some of them manifested their love of Christ by loving others, by serving the poor and oppressed, not just by spending time in contemplation and prayer.

This has dragged on a long time and I need to be about the business of life. These are just my initial musings on the topic. I think a lot more will come up. I welcome your comments.


New Life said...

Oh yes, there are certainly many "brands" out there. Funny, the various brands are often competitive as McDonalds and Burger King, Coke and Pepsi, and Miller and Budweiser.

Like my spiritual director (an older monk) told me, "It is a Mystery... live in the mystery." :)

Thanks for coming by blog!


Anonymous said...

Dallas Willard would propose yet another "type" of Christian -- one who does have a strong commitment to Jesus Christ, and seeks to learn how to live their life as Jesus would live it were He them. The commitment to Christ would be, Willard has said, not merely in what he did on the cross, but also to Jesus as Lord ... and one who offers to instruct us how to become the kind of people Jesus would have us be.