As I mentioned in my last post, I’m thinking about the nature and current state of the Church in the 21st century. Just to let you know up front, I am a committed congregationalist. I believe, as we say in the AFLC, that the local congregation is the right form of the Kingdom of God on earth.
That said, we must now answer what the nature of a true congregation might be. First and foremost, a true congregation is one which gets the Gospel right. There is no true Church where the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us is not frequently and properly proclaimed. One of the worse things that can be done by a preacher is to assume the Gospel is known and remembered among the people in the pews. Because the Gospel is so contrary to what our sin soaked minds can create, we must be reminded over and again just how we are justified before God. Our natures want to earn heaven so that we can be like God–the very sin our first parents committed. But that is impossible and so it is only through grace giving faith that salvation is possible.
If a congregation is to be Church, it must also be a living congregation. That is, the local congregation will not be Church if it is simply a gathering of friends or a club, or doers of good deeds or a group of people who gather in one place but neither share concern for one another and the trials of our lives. If a congregation is to be Church it should be a place where people of all sorts gather together for Word and Sacrament, share with one another our walk in this world with all of its joys and trials, and work together to build up the Kingdom of God on earth. Anything else would be a false “church”.
In my opinion huge congregations can be many things, but they fail at being the Church because they lack the closeness and shared life together that is required to be a free and living congregation. The former Pope Benedict, when he was a young priest, wrote a book in which he argued that no parish should have more than 300 members. If there are more than that, there is not a true community because of the inability to know one another in any meaningful sense of the term. It’s also just about the place where a solo pastor would no longer be able to do his service well.
There is another problem that comes with a large congregation–it is easy for people to hide there and not engage in the life of the Church. A living congregation, a true Church, has a place for the service of every member. There is no room for spiritual hitchhikers, every member in service ought always to be a goal of the true Church. Now some of our members might be physically or mentally unable to serve in most respects. But prayer is a service; telephone calls to shut ins is a service; buying flowers for the chancel is a service; and the list could go on. The point is that a living congregation is one in which all members know that they are a contributing part of the Kingdom of God–they are the Church.
Our congregation is at the beginning of a renewal program in which we are seeking to prepare ourselves for ministry in the years ahead. That and my reading material of late have caused me to spend a good amount of time thinking about the nature of the Church in our world. With this blog I’m going to begin a series of musings on what the Church is meant to be and where we are failing at that task–because I’ve come to believe that we are indeed failing.
The Reformers of the 16th century had to redefine what was meant by Church when they left the Roman communion. For centuries the Church meant the physical institution governed by the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Rome and its delegates around Europe. [There were, of course, other Christian churches, Eastern Orthodoxy, Coptic Christianity in Egypt and Ethiopia, etc. But the Reformers knew little of them and much of what they thought they knew was wrong. So for today I’ll talk only about Rome and the Reformation]
Accused of splitting the one holy catholic Church, the Reformers redefined the nature of the Church as consisting of the people of God known only to God, wherever they might have been. Wherever God’s people were, whether in Roman Catholicism, Lutheran polity or Reformed polity, they were part of the Church. Frankly there is more than a little sense to that because not everyone on the roles of a Church body is a saved saint of God.
That said, though, what of the visible Church, for there must be a visible Church according to the clear teachings of Scripture. The apostles had no thought of an unaffiliated Christianity, no thought that people would stay in their homes, believing in Christ but not associating in any organized way with other believers. Indeed, the author of Hebrews admonishes believers telling them they are not to cease to meet together.
Certainly at the very center of the Church Militant is the local congregation where believers gather to hear the Gospel proclaimed and to participate in the Sacraments God has established for His Church. At no other place do these events regularly happen, so we know that the Church is present where these things occur. But what about relationships outside the congregation? What is the role of the Church there? What are the relationships among Christians that make them the Church together?
In our nation today there are who knows how many “community churches” and para-church organizations and preachers who function under no one’s authority but their own and their personal perception of the will of God. I have come to believe that the Church, the Body of Christ on earth, is being harmed in many ways by this sort of “independence”. That’s what I’m going to be musing about in this space in the weeks ahead.
I’m teaching through 1 Thessalonians right now and I’m using multiple commentaries as part of my preparation. One is the popular Daily Study Bible Series by William Barclay. (Look, I know there are some problems with his theology, but that doesn’t mean there is no good fruit there. F. F. Bruce considered him a Christian brother so who am I to deny that assessment?)
Anyway, Barclay has this sentence in the commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12; “A tree is known by its fruits; and a religion is known by the kind of men it produces. The only way to demonstrate that Christianity is the best of all faiths is to show that it produces the best of all men.”
That raised the question for me–have I been one of the best of all men this week? Could people see Christ in me when they looked at my ways. Frankly, the answer is kind of mixed for me. Some see the caring pastor, but others see the guy who can be angry and dismissive. Some see a model of the faith, others see a man who is less than perfect in his family relationships. Some see a busy man who works hard, and others see someone who has a tendency to put things off until the last minute or find excuses for not doing what needs doing (apologies to Garrison Keillor).
Sometimes I think we are often too ready to use the idea that we are simultaneously saint and sinner as an excuse for failure to grow in sanctification. In chapter 4 Paul writes to the Thessalonians and to us that, “this is the will of God, your sanctification …”
So I ask you, friends, when someone looks at your life, do they see that faith in Christ produces the best of all men (and women)?