Tuesday, September 07, 2004

What is it to be the or a Christian Church?

In a recent adult forum in my congregation, a friend who is a theology professor (and former missionary) reminded some of us of the existence of numerous “churches” (his focus was on Africa) which are independent of any of the historic branches of the Church catholic and of relatively recent institutional origin. There are, of course, numerous ancient branches of the Church which one or another of the other branches consider unorthodox. The Nestorian churches, for example, have long been dismissed as heretical, but recent ecumenical dialogue has revealed that they may be less at odds with the decrees of the ecumenical councils than we have supposed for centuries. But these churches are of a different breed. They are not “mainstream” in any historic sense. Akin to storefront or side-pasture “Bible churches” that spring up all over the United States, these congregations and even networks of congregations have little concern for the ancient dogmatic structure of the Church (which, of course, also raises the issue of how they heard the Gospel in the first place).

The great ecumenical dialogues of the twentieth century have highlighted the importance of distinguishing (to employ a Lutheran term) “adiaphora” (i.e., debatable non-essentials in the Church’s life, which do not of themselves affect the purity of the Gospel’s proclamation) from the essentials. Thus, to employ a radically simplistic example, it is adiaphora whether a eucharistic minister vests in cassock, business suit, alb, or chasuble. What has seemed undebatable is that the eucharist must be celebrated. (Recent American Lutheran dialogues – with various Reformed churches – arguably seem to suggest that the nature of the presence of the Lord in the eucharist is also an adiaphoron, despite centuries of assertions that “real presence” is a given in eucharistic theology praxis. But I can’t afford the energy to take on that battle right now.)

With the introduction of the “new churches” of which my friend spoke, however, the old distinctions seem to turn grey. In many Pentecostal versions of the “new churches,” the eucharist may never be celebrated. Preaching, response, sanctification, and even rites carried over from other (pagan) religions hold the system together. But the standard “marks” of the Church seem not to exist among them.

I am moved to ask, then, how we are in the present age to discern whether a self-proclaimed “Christian” entity is “church”? Does naming the name of our Lord suffice? (I remember the words of our Lord: Who is not against us is for us.) What about the dogmatic perimeters set out in the decrees of the great ecumenical councils (the only ones that can legitimately be pointed to, because since them, the church has been in schism and has been able to articulate – on other than a parochial, chauvinistic and/or interim basis – virtually nothing about the nature of the Church and the faith.

How do Christians of good will, with a passion both for the unity (i.e., full fellowship, if not institutional union) of the Church and for the “right praise” (i.e., ortho-doxy) of God as that is enabled by concern for the theological heritage of the Church, determine whether to have truck with an organization that claims the name of the same Lord as do we?

Are the ancient dogmatic formulations open for debate? Is, for example, the two natures of Christ no longer an issue? (As I understand a distinction, “dogma” are those non-debatable claims about the nature of reality which govern the church’s teachings and practice. “Doctrine,” on the other hand, is a construct that explores the meaning and implication of a dogmatic statement or proposes dogma where the Church has not yet spoken on the subject.) Given the schisms that currently constitute the character of the Church, are we in any position at all to delineate the dogma binding on all Christians?

To cite my friend, can we reasonably expect self-described, Southern Hemisphere churches to buy in on dogmatic formulations that grew out of philosophical arguments that these newer churches have never faced – e.g., the Niceno-Constantiopolitan Creed, the Chalcedonian formulations (I suppose even the Augsburg Confession)? But if we do not hold them to such dogma, how do we know with any certainty that the Gospel they proclaim is “the one delivered from the apostles”?

It is easy when one’s focus is the long-established churches (East and West): One can reasonably hold churches, pastors/presbyters, theologians, and even laypeople (heaven forfend!) to standards of orthodoxy relatively easy to identify. Is that a na├»ve statement? There does seem to be an increasing debate about the very essentials of the Faith. There are thousands of blogs on the internet that muse on the relative heresies of this and that theological position juxtaposed with commentaries by those who would change or ignore those supposedly fixed formulations. Still, with all the controversy, there is still, it seems to me, consensus that there is some basic “inner core” to the proclamation of the Gospel that can be spelled out (perhaps the Apostles’ Creed or something similar.

And what about the liturgical practices of these churches? For many of them, there is no interest in the Eucharist at all. (They may have other rites of “fellowship” and they certainly pay great attention to their own rituals of conversion and baptism, but the Holy Meal seems not to be even marginally interesting to many of them.) Aidan Kavanaugh has said that “A baptized and baptizing group that never celebrates its death and life in Christ around the Lord’s Table may be a sect of some vigor, but it is not the Church.”

What about all these new “traditions” – which term seems most inapt to describe them, with their lack of a sense of historical succession? How are we to react or respond? Should we welcome them as brothers and sister in the faith? Or should we treat them as neophytes, who need to be nursed into the True Faith? Or do we stand fast by our principles and question their validity.

Now I know little or nothing about these new “Christian movements,” so I may be blowing this matter out of all proportion. But I’m quite confused about and by them. And I’m ready and eager to learn.

I admit that I am in a quandary. I want to be friendly and welcoming, but I can’t conceive of what welcoming means without strict confession of the ancient creeds and confessions and the practice of at least the minimum number of “sacraments,” not the least of which is the Eucharist.

How about some help?

Grace and peace to you.


Anonymous said...

I know this is a tangent, but reading it knocked me back to thinking about your chewy post, here. Does it do anything for you? (The dots that connected for me had to do with adiaphora and the meta-question of whether we are focused on what is essential.)

Encountering the Living God (dated 9/11/04)Or copy and paste into your address line:

Jim said...

Excellent thought-provoker. And the rows are getting shorter!

I have become convinced of late that everything about "Church" hangs on three things that Jesus specifically told us to do. See what you think:

1. Love God.
2. Love your neighbor as Jesus loves you.
3. Make Eucharist in remembrance of Him.

Find something else (of importance) that can't be traced to these. I've tried hard, and can't. The first two are a mild expansion of Rabbi Hillel's summary of the Law, as re-stated and improved by Jesus. The third is a direct command from Him.

For example, his "inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these..." is a direct descendant of number 2.

For what it's worth.