Pilgrims from Paradise:
At the end of the last podcast, I identified the third of the three essential obstacles I had suggested stand between a Western Christian believer and the experience of a pre-Augustinian Christianity. It has to do with misconceptions about the nature of the Church. So let me being this podcast by simply asking: What is the Church?
There is a bumper sticker I see from time to time that succinctly captures the image of the church, which it seems that the majority of Western Christians hold. The sticker reads: “The true Church is invisible.” What does that mean, exactly? To understand it, we once again must consider the state of the Christian West.
Obviously, the West is as divided as it can get. When it comes to fundamental teachings about God’s relationship with us and the nature and process of salvation, Christians of different denominations like to claim unity, in the fact that they use the same words to described Jesus Christ: Loving, incarnate, crucified, resurrected, coming again. But when it comes to what these words mean to them, that is, when it comes to what these truths have to say about Christ’s desire for us and how they contribute to our salvation, Christians of differing denominations are in conflict. Their mutual use of the words does nothing to ground them in any functional unity. For those who want to consider this point further, I direct you to my podcasts on Christian pluralism and the Person of Christ.
When your Christian world is one of denominations with conflicting doctrines and contrary worship styles, it is impossible to argue that your world is one, in the most obvious sense, that of actually holding identical beliefs about Christ and offering Him one mode of worship. At the same time, it is clear, as we have seen over and over again in this series, that this straightforward, genuine oneness is exactly what the New Testament scriptures and the teachings of the early Church demand. Facing this, those rooted in the Christian West must find some generic, abstract sense in which they can declare people with differing doctrinal ideas about Christ to be, nonetheless, one.
Enter the invisible Church. According to this notion, the true church is not one particular church, it is not one particular body of doctrine, one particular way of worship, one unique way of living Christ in the world. Instead, the true church is an abstract, mystical, spiritual union of all those who profess Christ as savior and Lord, regardless of their theological beliefs or denominational commitments. This is a pleasant idea, full of conciliatory tones, but the only problem is, the Church cannot possibly be defined in such a way. That becomes plain when one asks the question, “What does a person have to believe about Christ in order to have membership in this mystical church?” The answer is, pretty much, whatever you choose to believe about Him.
Some Western believers reserve the right to be more restrictive than that in their definition of the church. They would forbid membership to some folks who profess Christ. In particular, they would bar anyone they suspect of patently denying any of those commonly endorsed descriptors of Christ that I just mentioned: Incarnate, crucified, resurrected, etc. But anyone who could make a good case that they believe those truths, is in, even if they interpret their meaning and purpose in conflicting ways. Thus, those who believe in predestination, and those who refute it; those who think good works are necessary for salvation, and those who do not; those who believe that baptism is a requisite for being saved, and those who deny it is anecessity; those who dismiss the sacraments, and those who hold them salvifically essential—all of these believers can rest assured that they are mutually members of the one, true, mystical Church.
As we consider this, we can discern that there is, in fact, a specific criterion for membership in the invisible church of the West. There is one quality that these theologically divided Christians all share. All of them have a profound sense of commitment to their particular Christ. They are in no way genuinely one in their beliefs in worship, but they are one in the deep feeling of devotion they have for their various personal doctrinal views and worship experiences. That is the criterion for membership in Christ’s invisible church: An internal, subjective feeling of fidelity that one has for an image of Christ that may differ radically from the image of Christ held by other believers.
Can this possibly be the essential nature of the Church? That it has been brought to such a conception of the Body of Christ is yet another sad result of the wrong turn Western Christianity took in the early middle ages. How it ended up there may be easier to grasp if we first look at the Church from the alternative view of the Christian East.
The Church, St. Paul tells the Colossians, is the Body of Christ (Colossians 1:24). What is a body? It is the physical, visible manifestation of a person. Through the body, one expresses, in a tangible and outward manner, the thoughts, desires and intentions of one’s inner being. Thus, the church, the assembly of those who enter into genuine union with the Lord Jesus Christ, becomes, through the indwelling Spirit, the physical, visible presence of Christ in the world. Christ lives out his life through his people. And what is the life of Christ? St. Paul teaches that, in Christ dwells all the fullness of the Godhead, bodily (Colossians 2:9).
Christ’s life then, is the life of the Holy Trinity. He is joined to the Father and the Spirit, in mystical, interpenetrating union. Those who experience union with Christ, thus become joined to the Trinity’s life. They also become intimately joined to one another. As St. Paul puts it, they become one body in Christ, and individually members of one another (Romans 12:5). Here is the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan for oneness: Through Christ, human beings unite in participation in the life of the Holy Trinity. By this, they become the Body of Christ. They become the Church.
All this reveals a much different essential definition of the Church than the invisible church that so many Western Christians endorse. The church is not some abstract mystical “Je ne sais quoi,” some vague sense of unity among various professions of Christ, rooted in a common feeling of devotion to their very different images of who Christ is, what He expects of us, and how He redeems us. No, the Church is the life of the Holy Trinity in the human realm.
This is what I meant at the end of the last podcast when I asserted that the Church pre-exists those of us who are joined to it. This is why I said that the Church has a life of its own, for the Church is the life of God. Through the Holy Spirit, we may become united to it. Recognizing this, we can identify the true criterion for membership within the Church. Professing Christ in some form or another, is not enough, no matter how strong the commitment to one’s particular theological beliefs about him may be. Why? It is because to be a member of the Church, one must fully share in Christ’s life, and to share in Christ’s life is to live in the Holy Trinity with all other members of the body.
The persons of the Trinity are perfectly one. The Father, Son and Spirit, do not have divergent understandings about their relationship with humanity. There is no disagreement among them about why and how we should be redeemed. Together, They possess one will, one mind, and one judgment. This is the reason St. Paul admonishes the Corinthians, “Now I plead with you brethren, by the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
The apostle is not just presenting a hopeful ideal, here. He is not telling the Corinthians, “Hey, real unity is nice if you can pull it off, but if you cannot, it is enough to be sincerely devoted to your particular doctrinal division, to your own personal mindset and judgments about Christ.” There is no way that St. Paul’s words here can be construed as advocating the sort of agree-to-disagree unity and diversity attitude that has produced the notion of the invisible church. No, St. Paul is telling us that life without divisions, this life of perfectly joined minds and judgments is the only genuine Christian life, for it is the only life of the blessed Trinity.
See how starkly the Christian West stands in contrast to this kind of unity: Division is embraced as normal. Anyone can start their own church. What is more, there is the increasingly popular notion that one can be a purely individual Christian and dispense with the business of church altogether. It is easy to be comfortable in this brokenness when one has the safety net of the invisible church to fall into. Christians can disagree and divide all they want. They are still one in the invisible body of Christ. Unfortunately, these attitudes and actions, this happy acceptance of division, is completely at odds with the apostolic call to unity. More importantly, it is contradictory to the nature of the Holy Trinity, Who is the foundation of the Church. Because of this, the difficult conclusion is inescapable: To willingly live in this invisible church is to stand outside the true Church of Christ, and fall short of the deeply intimate life of God.
I have met hundreds of people who have come to these conclusions on their own. They recognize that nothing can redeem the division in the denominational, non-denominational, or completely personal, anti-institutional Christianity of the West. There is no way to excuse it. The invisible church is an absolute fallacy, constructed only to explain away the unacceptable doctrinal variety among professed Christians.
And so, these dissatisfied folk go looking for the visible true church. But even as they do that, the legacy of their Western philosophical approach to the faith haunts and impedes them. While they have come to understand that the shattered, individualistic world of the Christian West cannot represent the Church, the rationalism and idealism they have inherited through their Western culture, keeps them from recognizing the Church when they see it. We will discuss why that is next time.