When I think about the theology of the church (“ecclesiology”), the questions come pretty quickly—especially one set of questions. The church, comforter or afflicter? The church, a place that heals or a place that hurts? The church, oppressor or liberator? The church, a blessing or a curse?
I have an answer to these questions: “Yes!” What I mean is, in my experience, the church has been both a blessing and a curse. We invest ourselves in this community, we make ourselves vulnerable to each other, we care deeply. The rewards can be great—but so too can be the disappointment and hurt.
When the church is a curse
When is the church a curse? Sometimes a relatively powerless individual or group becomes the focus of “church discipline.” This scapegoat gets the boot, and the larger group finds momentary peace.
The church tends to be a curse when it places a priority on perceived purity over compassion and understanding. Desmond Tutu, the great South African peacemaker, has lamented over the church. He points out that in just about every movement for justice and liberation over the past few centuries, the strongest opposition to change has come from the church. Many Christians argued strenuously in favor of slavery right up until the Civil War. Even today, it is said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in our society.
The general message the churches have given is one of support for the status quo. In Great Britain, a long effort lasting much of the 19th century to do away with the death penalty came to the brink of success early in the 20th century—but then it was held up for one more entire generation. The bishops of the Church of England continued to insist that the death penalty reflected God’s will. Abolition only came when the bishops relented. Is it a coincidence that as the church has lost power in Western Europe, rejection of the death penalty has spread?
When the church is a blessing
However, of course, this is only one side. The church indeed has been and continues to be a blessing as well as a curse. Many of us have found love and care in the church. I know I have. I can think back now more than 35 years when I first chose to attend church. I was stunned when I learned that people in that church had cared enough about me to be praying for my wellbeing, even when they barely knew me. The experience of genuinely being loved remains the legacy of my experience back then—an experience that decisively shaped the rest of my life.
The church is also a blessing when it provides enough critical mass of clarity and faith to stand as a counterweight to our wider society’s violence and imperialism. In every college class I teach, I feel a sense of gratitude to our congregations. Some, at least, do shape their young people to question materialistic and militaristic values in American culture as they seek to follow the way of Jesus.
The church is a blessing when it provides an anchor for our workaday lives, a place where we come to sing and pray together, where we come to be around people whose lives inspire us to try just a bit harder to love and care for others.
The practical value of the church
How do we negotiate this blessing/curse tension? I believe a key step would be to desacralize the church. Maybe we should not think of the church as something unique and special in God’s eyes, a “sacred place” akin to the Temple in the Bible. Maybe we should not think of the church as a place that exists over against the secular world. Maybe we should think of the church simply as one possible human community.
The church is a human structure. As such it is one of the Powers; as such it is one of the fallen Powers – capable of good, certainly. But the church, like all human structures, like all fallen Powers, can too easily become an idol. The church can seek to take God’s place in our lives. The church, like many other human structures, can become an absolute that demands to be defended—even with violence if necessary.
If we no longer look at the church as sacred and recognize our tendency to make it an idol—will there be any reason to want to “redeem” it nonetheless? Is there any reason to bother with the church if it is simply a human structure?
Well, yes….One kind of reason for bothering with the church is a “mundane” or everyday reason. Even if the church is not sacred, it still serves the life-enhancing role that any authentic human community does. A second kind of reason is a “Christian” reason. If we do theology as if Jesus matters—if we do ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) as if Jesus matters, we will have reasons to bother with the church.
What about the mundane rationale? Human beings are, by nature, social creatures. We need other human beings in order to be human. We may see this need clearly in a negative sense when we look at how it is exploited by oppressors.
The most powerful weapon prisons have to control prisoners is solitary confinement. Hundreds of years ago, in their desire to make prisons more humane, Quaker reformers argued for solitary confinement to take the place of beatings. If prisoners are isolated, the argument went, they’ll search their souls and seek to change. Well, what happened instead is that solitary confinement drove prisoners insane. And, bingo, tragically, pacifist Quakers gave prisons a powerful weapon for violence.
We are learning of the careful research into torture methods that our government has sponsored. These methods include intense efforts to disorient and isolate detainees. Such trauma triggers detainees’ need for human contact. When the need is strong enough, detainees reach out to their torturers since they are so desperate to connect with humans. Then the torturers have them where they want them.
Of course this story is terribly upsetting—but we may learn from it. These occasions of the cost of isolation underscore just how important human community is. The positive side, the joy we receive from friendship, underscores just how central community is to being whole human beings. And the church is one place where we can find such community. Probably all of us, if we were to list the moments in our lives when we have experienced genuine joy, would include times with friends, maybe even friends in church.
Church communities also at times have been crucial to wider social movements—think of the role of the Catholic Church in Poland in resisting Communism and the role of the black church in the American South during the civil rights movement. So, one set of reasons to bother with church might well be simply our human need for community.
Still, I also want to insist on a set of reasons that are Christian. To think of the church as if Jesus matters is to say that the church is faithful when it self-consciously furthers Jesus’ way—through its teaching and preaching, through its worship and communal prayer, through its practices and projects.
We should bother with the church as Christians because it can be, it should be, it must be (if it is to be faithful), a place where people work together to embody, to make real and concrete, the basic message of Jesus: Love God and neighbor. And as social creatures, we need other people to help us do this.
Faith community in the Bible
Let’s consider four scripture texts that can help us think about why to bother—or, maybe I should say, how to bother with the church.
Psalm 15 emphasizes that living justly and compassionately is the pre-requisite for abiding in God’s presence and among God’s people. The identity of the community imagined by the Psalms centers on people in this community living here and now in ways that foster life and resist evil.
Jeremiah 7 denies that ritual acts and public worship are in and of themselves of value to God. When they co-exist with easily accepted injustice, ritual acts and worship are acts of rebellion against God. When the church places a higher priority on status and comfort than on caring for vulnerable people, than on rejecting violence, than on serving as a house of prayer for all nations – it is tending toward idolatry.
Luke 22 establishes the political style that must characterize Jesus’ followers – not power-over, not claiming to be benefactor while actually practicing domination, not to seek status and to be served. The political style of Jesus is a politics of service, a politics of simplicity, a politics of authentic humility and equality of status.
Romans 12 points to the faith community as a counterculture that thinks differently. This counter culture makes Jesus’ priorities its priorities in contrast to the priorities of the “domination system,” that is, in contrast to the ethics of power-over all too common in the world.
The church is worth bothering with insofar as it understands its existence as a way to help its people to embody these attributes. The church is not an end in itself. It serves the true ends: love of God and neighbor. To such service is where ecclesiology in light of Jesus leads us.
Three senses of “the church”
In working at a theology of the church in light of these reflections, I would start by suggesting that we may think about the church in three senses: the structural church, the visible church, and the invisible church.
In thinking about the “structural church,” we may understand one aspect of the church’s existence to be an organized group of Christians with a recognized (usually ordained) formal leadership, with membership, with regular rituals (most commonly baptism and communion), a regular meeting place and regular meeting times.
To refer to the “visible church” is to refer to the church as the concrete fellowship of followers of Jesus Christ who form a community, meet regularly, worship together (usually involving singing, prayer, and preaching), study scripture together, offer one another encouragement, organize for service, social action, and witness, and share in ritual such as baptism and communion.
To talk about the “invisible church” is to speak metaphorically of the mystical “communion of the saints” made up of all those who trust in Jesus Christ. The church in this sense exists throughout time and all over the world.
The second sense, the “visible church,” takes precedence over the first and the third senses. The “structural church” and the “invisible church” only have meaning in relation to the “visible church.” There is no “invisible church” apart from many visible congregations. Without authentic, face-to-face discipleship, the “structural church” is only a calcified human institution.
The church’s mission includes at its heart witness to God’s love to all the ends of the earth—as Jesus challenged his followers just before he left them in Acts 1:8. The church so witnesses (1) by embodying in the present, in its common life, the reality of God’s promised kingdom; (2) by finding ways to communicate this reality to the wider world as invitation; and (3) by confronting the powers of death through exorcism and dis-illusionment.
The focus of the church should be positive. It seeks to understand and live out its mission of witnessing to God’s love. Christian existence is based on God’s mercy, not human strictness and purity. The key metaphor for the aspiration of the church is “health.” Health is found through self-awareness and identity security.
The center of the church is faithfulness to Jesus’ way, not doctrinal formulations or legalistic purity. The focus is on the center, sustaining the community’s core identity—not on the boundaries, striving to divide between insiders and outsiders.
As an inviting fellowship (more than a fellowship focused on purity), the church is open to a variety of expressions of faith under the rubric of following Jesus. As a voluntary fellowship, the church does not coerce or claim to hold the “keys of salvation.” As an active fellowship, the church expects its members to join in the task of witness. As a discerning fellowship, the church expects all its members to be part of the church’s work of perceiving the “signs of the times” and to share and receive counsel for personal life and social discernment.
The church and worship
A final area of reflection in relation to our theology of the church is worship, the communal times when people of faith gather to share with one another in hymns, public prayer, and the ministry of the word. Something should happen during those one to three hours Sunday morning that plays a major role in helping us to make sense out of our lives. This time should help us to find strength and encouragement and hopefulness.
In authentic worship, in being pointed toward God, we are simultaneously being pointed toward the kind of people we want to be, the kind of world of which we want to be part. Various elements make up the worship service and combine to provide encouragement. These elements I am calling the emotional, the intellectual, the social, and the meditative parts of worship.
These different elements all overlap. We sing, what I am calling an emotional element. However, the singing includes our minds so it is also intellectual and we do it together, so it is certainly social. As well, it often includes a prayerful, meditative element.
When I use the term emotional, I am not meaning that worship makes us intensely emotional. I do not mean emotional in the sense as when we say that someone who is fighting back tears is “emotional.” Certainly intense emotions may occur. What I have in mind, though, is simply that part of us that we might call the emotional part of our being. The part that maybe transcends words or is at least something we can’t describe in strictly a linear way. You could call this the inarticulate speech of our hearts.
The part of our worship that I have especially in mind as “emotional,” in this sense, is our hymn singing. Hymn singing, in ways beyond the actual word content of the hymns, can act as a kind of salve on the hurting soul. It’s not magical; the hurt typically remains. However a kind of soul soothing may be felt. It is partly the act of singing, of expressing something with at least a little bit of a sense of abandonment. It is also partly the act of hearing—the instruments, the other voices. As well, I have also experienced in times when I feel joyful that hymn singing may be an opportunity to voice that joy.
The intellectual element comes to the fore more in other aspects of worship. When we actually do talk, I think what we say is very important. I am thinking especially of sermons here, though also our children’s stories, scripture readings, and other times where just one person is speaking. My Mennonite tradition has placed a high priority on hymn singing. This has always been a central part of Mennonite worship. So, too, have sermons.
Sermons can be a very significant source of spiritual encouragement. In Romans 12, we hear Paul calling for “spiritual worship.” This has to do with the “renewing of our minds.” He calls for us to think—and in new ways. He wants us grow in understanding God’s ways of peace and justice and of our world and our place in it. He urges us to find words to express our soul’s longings and hurts and joys.
The best sermons I have heard provided nourishment through various means—stories, images, evoking memories, touching emotions, as well as analysis, definition, explanation. I came away thinking about new ways to see. At times I felt encouraged sometimes that some of the old ways are still alright. My mind as well as heart found spiritual nourishment.
So, our worship includes hymns and sermons, both of which in different degrees and different ways touch our hearts and our heads. A third element that also does both is what I call the social or interactive element. Here I am thinking of when we talk with each other. We talk both in formal settings such as Sunday school and worship service discussions and in informal settings when we visit before and after our service.
When Kathleen and I began attending a Mennonite congregation in the late seventies, we came from a pretty intense, zealous church. Our first sense of the Mennonites was certainly positive. However, we also thought that the group was not that far from being, as we said, “just a social club.” We did not see that the congregation was doing that much compared to what we thought a church should do.
However, my thinking has changed a lot since then. I do think that congregation is and always has been more than “just a social club.” I also am not nearly so critical of the idea of being a social club. At least, I think being the kind of social club we are is not just a social club. Maybe no social clubs are. I see the social-ness of our being together as part of our worship of God. It is a powerful force in encouraging us to be spiritually alive and fruitful in our lives in the world.
We need to have a sense that we are part of something bigger than just our individual selves. We need other people who we trust and respect and who trust and respect us. We need to have a sense that we matter. Our church community, and our socializing, especially, offers to meet these needs. Here we have opportunity to make ourselves heard to other people who actually listen and act as if what we say is worth listening too. We have the chance to think together on issues that interest us and affect our lives. We also find enjoyment in the human contact, our senses of humor, and the give and take and stimulation of thought processes.
The element of our worship having to do with talking with each other is a very important part of the whole. In this area, I am pretty Quaker in my theology. Some people accuse Quakers of being non-sacramental because they do not observe the Lord’s Supper. However, they believe they are sacramental, in that they experience communion in their fellowship with one another. I think there is something to that. We can understand our time together as the “sacrament” of communion occurring via talking and listening, enjoying each other, learning of the God that is part of each of us.
I believe that our worship proves to be encouraging to me because with our worship we join in constructing an alternative world to the rat race around us. Our singing, our thinking, our talking and listening all help shape that world. We connect with values, with hopes, with a spirituality. These all point toward a new world. This is where people, where relationships, where love, respect and compassion – all enlivened by a caring God—are affirmed. We confess these as true, as genuine, as at the center of what we want to be as human beings.
We call forth this alternative world tentatively and imperfectly. However, we do make contact with it. In doing so, we find some hope, some encouragement, and some reason for continuing on. That is what church is about and why it is worth bothering with.