Some thoughts on the Church

For a number of years I have participated in an initiative known as “Round Table for Austria” which brings together Christians from different traditions (Roman Catholic, Lutheran/Reformed, Evangelical, Pentecostal/Charismatic, as well as potentially Eastern Orthodox and Messianic Jews) to work towards a reconciled diversity in the Body of Christ here in Austria. The following is a presentation I gave at the Spring 2010 meeting of the Round Table in Graz.

Some thoughts on the view of the Church of Jesus Christ
in the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Evangelical traditions

The task I was given was to produce a synoptic summary of the three talks on the subject of Ecclesiology at the last Round Table in Götzis. However, the three speakers in Götzis approached their subject from such wildly varied vantage points that it is difficult to produce such a synopsis. Therefore I took the liberty to interpret “synopsis” very loosely, and will therefore prefix my presentation with the statemen, “It is what it is.” Or as my mother used to say, “Eat what is being served.”

I have been amazed at how many of the thoughts I had voiced in this paper have already been mentioned by others in completely different contexts during the past couple of days.

Let me begin by clarifying some terminology. When I use the term “Church”, unless it is part of a denominational name, I am referring to the Church of Jesus Christ, the Body of Christ — in other words, all true believers in Jesus Christ collectively. When I speak of “popular churches” I am referring to churches which baptize the children of their members more or less automatically, and then consider all persons baptized by them as members and thus as Christians . When I speak of “free churches” I am referring to churches which require a conscious act to join them. To use contemporary internet terminology, one could refer to popular churches as “opt-out” churches, and to free churches as “opt-in” churches. More specifically when I speak of free churches I am referring to Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Charismatic churches — I believe that was also what Helmuth Eiwen had in mind in his talk in Götzis. When I speak of the Protestant Church, I am referring to the combined church of Lutherans and Reformed as it exists here in Austria. With one exception, which I will note when I get to it, “Catholic Church” refers to the Church headed by the Bishop of Rome. Consequently, Protestants are members of the Protestant Church, Catholics are members of the Catholic Church, and Evangelicals are members of free churches as defined above — for simplicity’s sake the term includes Pentecostals and Charismatics as well.

One problem I faced is that while I am fairly familiar with the Catholic and Evangelical views of the church, I know virtually nothing about the ecclesiology of the Protestant Church as it exists here in Austria. Therefore please pardon the fact that I will concentrate on Catholic and Evangelical positions; I am open to and will welcome any corrections and additions.

What follows will be arranged by means of eight key words: the four notae ecclesiae (marks of the Church) taken from the Nicene Creed which were mentioned in Götzis (one, holy, catholic and apostolic church) and four Greek words which describe the mission and the life of the Church (martyria/witness, leiturgia/worship, diakonia/service, and koinonia/fellowship). No doubt one could explore many other aspects of the Church, but time is limited.

1. The Church of Jesus Christ is ONE

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.Ephesians 4:4-6

This is a statement which will invariably produce questions, because it does not at all correspond with our experience. If it were otherwise, we would not sit here and discuss this subject, we would not need the Round Table, and we’d be a lot further along in evangelizing the world.

On the other hand it is a statement which we all are convinced of — if it were otherwise, we would not sit here and discuss this subject, we would not need the Round Table, and the evangelization of the world would be even less likely to be accomplished.

All of us, Catholics, Protestants, Evangelicals, as well as the Eastern Orthodox, believe that there is only one Church, only one Body of Christ, and and that all who belong to Christ are members of that Body.

The differences become apparent when we try to go beyond that basic statement, and these differences are mostly related to the question whether the one Church of Jesus Christ needs to exist as a single institution.

The Catholic Church insists that the Church of Jesus Christ must have a single institutional expression, and that the most perfect expression of that is the church under the leadership of the Bishop of Rome, as the successor to the Apostle Peter. The theologians’ way of putting that in Latin is that the Church of Jesus “subsistit in” the Roman Catholic Church.

For the free churches which for the most part are “conversion churches” the big problem with this view is that they are unable to see the Church of Jesus in the institution of the Roman Catholic Church (or the Protestant “popular churches” for that matter) with their vast numbers of unconverted members — even when they recognize that there are converted Catholics, Lutherans, etc. How can they seek institutional unity with an institution filled with unconverted, unregenerate people? That is why Evangelicals find it much easier to get involved with an initiative like ours which speaks of a unity of hearts rather than the official ecumenical movement which aims for institutional unity.

The Roman Catholic claim that the one Church of Jesus Christ subsists in their institution is hard to swallow for Protestants of all traditions; as one who is himself part of the free church Evangelical movement I would remind ourselves that we, too, in our churches, either denominations or individual local churches, live and act on the principle that the Church of Jesus Christ subsists in our church. This is the only way one can “do church”: with the firm conviction that the way we live and teach as a church is fully compatible with what Jesus intended for His Church. If we were not so convinced, we would have to change; if we thought we were lacking anything, we would have to undertake to supply it; if we thought that we were doing something contrary to Jesus’ intentions, we would have to start doing something else, etc. Because this is the only way of living as a church it is very easy to become arrogant and overly confident in our own correctness, and I would like to suggest that it is not only the Catholics or the Orthodox who have given in to that temptation but many Protestant and Evangelical groups and churches as well. Right after the Reformation the Protestant churches persecuted dissenters, all the way to a martyr’s death, and we’d better not even talk about today’s Evangelicals and their ongoing battles about the proper way of being faithful to Scripture.

All of us need to learn to hold our necessary conviction that we are fully “the Church of Jesus Christ” with the biblical assertion that all our knowledge is “through a glass, darkly” and that it is at least possible that in some things we are wrong, and others are right.

2. The Church of Jesus Christ is HOLY

So that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.Ephesians 5:27

This is another statement bound to prompt questions, especially these days when the media are full of reports about sexual molestation of children by clergy, or when we look around in our churches and see how we often treat each other as Christians.

We in the free churches tend to point our finger at the popular churches: we know, allright, why there is so little holiness there, with all the unconverted church members and even clerics; but that begs the question why there are so many “church-damaged” individuals in our churches (or already outside them again), and it’s also useful to realize that in other countries our traditions are faced with similar issues as the popular churches here. As an example, in the southern states of the USA it is culturally normal that at some stage during their childhood or youth people will go forward in church, be baptized and then be considered Christians, without major effects on their lives. A perominent example of that are a former President of the United States with a well-known zipper problem.

To the Catholics I would like to say, as a free church Evangelical, that it does not impress me (and as current reports indicate, many others as well) when the church reacts to abuse by members of the clergy, which violates the claim of holiness, by speaking of the sins of individual clergy or members, as if the individual members were so easily divorced from the institution of the church. Precisely because the Catholic Church claims that in it as an institution subsists the Church of Christ, she cannot escape responsibility for the actions of her institutional representatives.

Lest Protestants of all stripes feel neglected, I have something to say to them as well: Glee and a “holier than thou” attitude in the face of current news reports are inappropriate. On the one hand there are reports of similar abuse in countries where Protestant churches operate or have operated as many schools as the Catholics here in our countries (i.e. Canada and Australia), so that internationally it doesn’t seem to be a merely Catholic problem (and according to recent reports not even a merely ecclesial problem), and on the other hand these sorts of things and the often exaggerated reports about them bring dishonor to the name of our Lord, whatever tradition we belong to, and can become a serious obstacle to people finding a living relationship with God.

How, then, is the Church holy?

First of all the Church is holy because it is made up of people who were redeemed, purchased, by Christ. The original meaning of “holy” is “consecrated to God”, “set apart for God.”

But we also have this verse in Ephesians 5, and the clear command from God, “Be ye holy, for I am holy,” and that speaks to the definition of “holy” as “free from sin”, “perfect”, “spotless.”

Because we Christians, as long as we live on this earth, are, to use Luther’s phrase, simul iustus et peccator, at the same time righteous (or justified) and sinners, and because we, unlike God, cannot see into people’s hearts, the Church is a corpus permixtum, a “mixed body”, a collection of people who for the most part believe in Jesus, but who, even if their faith is genuine, are still imperfect and flawed, and who are still on the road towards that holiness of God. In the same way the Church is still on the road towards that holiness, towards that spotlessness and perfection which Paul describes in Ephesians 5. And when the Church, in the persons of her members and representatives, has violated and betrayed this holiness, it needs to confess this sin and ask for forgiveness, in order to advance on the way toward God’s holiness. (When David or Daniel in the Old Testament confessed the sins committed by Israel they said “We have sinned”, not “some of our citizens have sinned”!)

It is also extremely important for the recognizable holiness of the Church that both discipline and mercy are clearly visible in its life. I am afraid that those who in the current situation are clamoring most loudly for vengeance for the victims of clerical abuse will be the ones, in a few months, to castigate the Roman Catholic Church most viciously for her lack of compassion and mercy if she now gives in to the cries for vengeance.

3. The Church of Jesus Christ is CATHOLIC

(You) have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.Colossians 3:10-11

In this section I will use the term catholic not exclusively for the Roman Catholic Church and her members.

In English-speaking countries Protestant Christians, if they recite the creed in their services, confess their faith in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” Church, and because the word catholic is written in the prayer book or service sheet with a lower case initial it is immediately clear that it does not have a denominational significance.

In German this distinction between “catholic with a lower case c” and “Catholic with a capital C” is obscured, and so Protestants in the German-speaking countries confess their faith in the “one, holy, Christian and apostolic” Church or the “universal” Church.

But what does the term mean?

The Greek word means “comprehensive”, “all encompassing”, and thus the catholic Church is the Church in all the world and throughout all time. This mark of the Church is thus a logical complement, a necessary consequence of the statement about the ONE Church. There isn’t a European church and an African church, a church of the gentiles and a church of the Jews, an early church and a mediaeval church, a traditional church and an emerging church — there is only ONE Church, and that Church is CATHOLIC, i.e. ALL-ENCOMPASSING, regardless of where in the world we find it, all the way from Pentecost till Jesus comes back.

What does this mean for us in practical terms?

If we confess our allegiance to this one, catholic Church, for one thing we need to stop distancing ourselves from things which happen in other parts of the Church and which we find embarrassing. I am thinking about how long it took for Protestant church leaders in Germany to express their outrage at the murder of two German Bible School students in Yemen last year, or the way European Baptists were quick to distance themselves from the eight Baptists from Idaho who in their desire to help naively thought they could cross the international border from Haiti to the Dominican Republic with a bus full of children but without papers. But we all tend to disavow things and people we deem “fundamentalist”, such as the Russian-German families in Germany who do not want to send their kids to public schools and are prepared to face fines and even prison for their convictions, or the teacher from a charismatic church in Upper Austria who was disciplined by the school board and maligned in the press for praying with her pupils. Or else we, from the free churches, cannot quite suppress our “Schadenfreude” at the news reports about abuse in Roman Catholic institutions …

It also means that whatever happens to the Church in Sudan, Haiti, Chile, India, or, very current, in Nigeria is our business, and we are called upon to help, just as if these things happened in our church. It IS our Church — there is only ONE Church.

The writer to the Hebrews addresses the temporal aspect of “catholic” when he talks about the cloud of witnesses which surrounds us. And even though I have grave reservations about the way these things have developed in popular piety (and not only there), I believe that this awareness of a “community of the saints” which includes not just us who live here on earth right now, but includes those who have preceded us into eternity, should help us Protestants to be more tolerant of our Catholic brothers and sisters who ask departed saints for their intercession.

4. The Church of Jesus Christ is APOSTOLIC

(You are) built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.Ephesians 2:20

This immediately seems to make clear what this term means, as also in Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

But then we find that there are churches which hold fast not only to the Apostles’ teaching, but also to their laying on of hands, and the whole matter becomes much more complicated, especially since we tend to see things as mutually exclusive:

Some say, “What’s the point of apostolic succession in the laying on of hands when the teaching has been corrupted?” And others say, “If you are not ordained in the succession, you are not a church but at best an ecclesial community!” Yet others believe that the apostolic teaching has been obscured for a thousand years or more until they — and only they! — rediscovered it and re-established the true Church of Jesus Christ. And finally there are those who are not satisfied with the apostles mentioned in the New Testament, and if you don’t recognize their contemporary apostles you are not apostolic.

As Protestants the apostolicity of a community or particular church is closely tied to the term, sola Scriptura. A church or denomination is apostolic to the extent it follows the Apostles’ teaching; and the Apostles’ teaching comes to us sola Scriptura, by Scripture only.

But who has the authentic interpretation of Scripture, particularly when we can’t agree on some point or other? Are there boundaries, parameters, within which we interpret the Scriptures? Who defines these? How small or large do we draw the circle when we cannot agree on the interpretation of certain matters?

This question of how large the circle is or should be seems to be a problem for the Roman Catholic church as well, despite the fact that they claim to have a divinely guided magisterium. While there are the very public situations where prominent theologians are being disciplined by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, there is also a large number of Catholics, lay and ordained, who openly espouse and promote theological positions and religious practices at odds with the teaching of the magisterium but remain largely unchallenged. If you don’t know what I am talking about you need to look at the program at many “Catholic” adult education institutes.

Committed believers in the Protestant traditions have a hard time understanding why the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand excludes us from eucharistic communion because we do not have an ordained ministry in the “apostolic succession” and hold to a variety of views on the nature of the Eucharist, while tolerating in her own ranks many priests and other office holders whose public pronouncements and frequently their way of life indicate that they are much farther removed from apostolic faith than we are.

5. The Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ: MARTYRIA — WITNESS

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.Acts 1:8

This is one of the most central tasks of the Church: to be a witness to that which God has done in this world through Jesus of Nazareth, and what he still wants to do in the lives of people today. We are pretty much agreed on that, across all traditions. The disagreements start when we ask to whom we should testify, give witness of these things, and what results we expect from that witness.

Are obviously unconverted members of a denomination (here in Austria we call them “Baptismal Certificate Christians”) legitimate targets for evangelism by members of another denomination? Or are these “Baptismal Certificate Christians” the property of the denomination that issued the certificate, and any attempts to evangelize them constitute illegitimate “poaching” or “sheep stealing”?

What is our appropriate reaction as Christians when we see rampant unbelief among the members of a parish of another denomination?

What is our appropriate reaction as Christians when we see rampant unbelief and many unconverted members in parishes and congregations of our own denomination, but find no support for doing something about it from the church or parish leadership, when our testimony of a personal relationship with Jesus is labelled “fundamentalism” or “fanaticism” by the pastor?

6. The Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ: LEITURGIA — Worship

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.Acts 2:44-47

All traditions celebrate their Sunday morning services according to recognizable patterns which are repeated week after week, even in the non-liturgical free churches — although the appropriateness of the term “celebrate” varies greatly, right across the denominations and traditions. I have observed that the services in free churches in the English speaking world seem much more liturgical than in our churches here in Austria.

It is common in free church circles to always use the word “liturgy” together with the word “dead” — and “dead liturgy” certainly represents the experience of many who grew up in the “popular churches” without coming to a personal faith in Jesus Christ.

I would like to add to that two observations I have made:

Firstly, even in our free churches there is a limited choice of language used in our services, and unlike a carefully planned liturgy, where someone has gone to great pains t0 think about meeting congregants where they are and taking them along before the throne of grace or into a worthy commemoration of the Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection, services in some non-liturgical congregations are dominated by the current state of mind or emotion of the service leader or of the handful of people who pray out loud. I know churches where Sunday after Sunday it is the same handful of believers who spontaneously pray the same prayers — and are convinced that this practice is more spiritual and pleasing to God than the dead liturgy in the Catholic or Lutheran parish church down the road.

Secondly I keep hearing from free church teenagers that they consider the Sunday morning service to be utterly boring — which very likely means the same thing as “dead liturgy.”

Recently, inspired by churches and movements such as Willow Creek some churches have introduced so-called “seeker-sensitive” services. I believe the intention that drives this, to reach the unchurched, is good; but it loses the primary emphasis of why the Church meets on Sunday, “the Lord’s day”: to worship God. Rather, the Sunday morning service becomes openly instrumentalized for evangelism. I would counter that with the observation that people who are not believers but are open for God’s speaking will respond positively to a normal church service which has been planned with love and care and is conducted in such a way that God’s presence becomes evident. And the ones who are not open to His voice will not hear it even in a seeker-sensitive setting.

Perhaps it is a phenomenon of our time that we can afford ever less time for the Church and thus try to cram too much into the couple of hours on Sunday morning: Encounter with God and fellowship with each other, worship and announcements, evangelism and discipleship/catechesis. My wife spent part of her youth and young adulthood in a church tradition where it was normal to have a communion service for the believers on Sunday morning and a more evangelistic preaching service on Sunday evening where one could bring friends and work mates, and a Bible Study or Prayer Meeting at least once during the week. There seem to be fewer and fewer churches where it is realistic to expect people to spend this much time in church.

7. The Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ: DIAKONIA — SERVICE

Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me. Matthew 25:40

Helmuth Eiwen reminded us this morning that the ministry to the poor is a central part of the gospel, and thus of the mission of the Church.

With some charitable ministries run by the “popular churches” one gets the impression that serving the poor is what the gospel is all about, so that Christian service is all about our relationships with people, promoting social justice etc.

With some charitable ministries run by free churches one gets the impression that serving the poor merely serves to soften them up for true, spiritual seed of the gospel; where this does not work within a reasonably short time we find something else to do, even if the poor are still with us. Social justice is labelled “social gospel” and that is a bad, a liberal idea.

Of course there are praisewothy exceptions to these two characterizations.

When we look at Christ’s ministry we see that he “healed all their diseases” because “he had mercy on them” — not because he expected a particular response. The Old Testament is full of exhortations to care for the poor and needy, and I cannot find any biblical justification for instrumentalizing this for evangelism or any other purpose.

On the other hand, if all we are concerned about is the physical needs and wellbeing of people, how is teh Church different from purely secular philanthropic association?

As Christians we should love our neighbors in practical ways in obedience to God’s Word, because it is an inseparable part of the gospel, but also because we are driven by the love of Christ for people created in the image of God and by our own gratitude for how God has blessed us. If we live that way, God will be glorified — and if in the process people become more receptive for the gospel message, all the better.

8. The Life of the Church of Jesus Christ: KOINONIA — FELLOWSHIP

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. — I Corinthians 12:13-27

I have to confess that due to some things I have experienced recently both in free churches and the Catholic Church I am currently somewhat cynical when it comes to this topic of fellowship. I frightens me to see how some Christians treat each other. Sometimes it seems to me that Paul’s prohibition on Christians taking other Christians to court before a secular magistrate is considered by some Christians as a license to behave in ways they couldn’t afford to in the world.

On the other hand I have experienced Christian fellowship which provides a foretaste of heaven and carries one through hardship.

Ultimately however it is not our experiences which are the canon, the standard, but what Scripture says, and there the Church is described as the Body of Christ. The members of a body cannot pick and choose who they want to be associated with, just as members of a family cannot pick and choose brothers and sisters, mother and father, or sons and daughters.

Unity and Fellowship are especially important at times when we are not inclined to say to someone, “I like you!” but rather “I love you in the Lord.” That is when we find out how serious we are about these high-sounding ideals.

I hope that these comments will provoke some thought and discussion as we follow our separated but reconciled Christian walk, and that these discussions will bear fruit. I believe it is extremely important that we continue to vocalize both what divides us and what unites us, in order to avoid misunderstandings and get to know one another better. This is what makes the Round Table such a blessing, in my view.

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