CHRISTIANITY/ What is Church?

Tom Riello

venerdì 2 luglio 2010



Life is full of deep questions, such as, "why am I here?" and  "what is the meaning of life?" that spur people to search for answers. These types of questions are important and require much thoughtful reflection. The answers that one comes up with will more than likely impact their life greatly. An equally important but often unasked question by many that requires just as much, if not more, thoughtful reflection is the question, "what is the Church?"


Many Christians view the Church as nothing more than a voluntary association of like-minded individuals. The Christian's relationship to the Church is secondary to the Christian's relationship to Jesus Christ. Thus, the question, "what is the Church?" takes a back seat to the question, "do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?" The Christian often does not see a necessary connection between Jesus Christ and the Church. In fact, many Christians believe that the Church has often gotten in the way of knowing Christ. Therefore, there is often distrust for the Church. The problem with this mode of thinking is this; the Church is pitted against Christ, as though they stand in opposition to each other.


The reason that many well meaning Christians can pit the Church against Christ has to do with the fact that many Christians believe in the "invisible Church" which is often at odds with the "visible Church." A good number of Christians believe that the primary nature of the Church is invisible (cf. The Presbyterian Church document Westminster Confession 25:1). In fact, the invisible nature of the Church is of the essence of the true Church, according to this position.


Thus, the visible nature of the Church takes a back seat to the invisible Church. Martin Luther wrote, "The first (reality) which is essentially, fundamentally, and truly the Church, we name spiritual and interior Christianity. The other, which is a human creation and an exterior phenomenon, we shall call corporeal and exterior Christianity." If this is one's conception of the Church, then it is no surprise that the true Church is invisible and the visible Church is nothing more than a human creation capable of failure just like all human creations. Since many Christians believe this about the nature of the Church, we should not be taken aback by the many splits and divisions that exist within Christianity. If the visible Church can and often does fail, and even in some cases is deemed apostate, then the only recourse that one has is to break away from it and start another church that will be more faithful than the prior church. The rallying cry of such groups is to get "back to the Bible." This belief to get back to the Bible is borne from the notion that only the Bible can provide the support needed in which to construct a church.


While it is commendable to get back to the Bible, it needs to be stressed that almost all the break-away groups shout that same cry, and yet, there are as many break-away groups as there are interpretations of the same Bible. The difficulty with such thinking is that the very Bible that is used to make such a claim never makes the claim for itself.


The Bible does, however, make such a claim for the Church and, in particular, the Church's leadership (e.g. 1st Tim 3:15; Heb 13:17; 1st Peter 5:1-5). The Church, not the Bible, is the pillar and ground of the truth, says St. Paul (1st Tim 3:15). The leaders, not private interpretation, are the authority in which believers are to be in submission. This notion of the Church is, admittedly, foreign to the ears of modern Christians, even many Catholics. It does, however, make sense that it is foreign to our modern ears if the visible and institutional Church is nothing more than a human creation.


But, if the Church's nature is essentially invisible and only secondarily visible, it begs the question as to why the Apostle Paul would labor so strenuously to teach the SAME THINGS IN EVERY CHURCH (1st Cor 4:17)? If complete doctrinal agreement which manifests itself visibly is not essential to the nature of the Church, then Paul's passion to teach the same things in every Church seems misguided.


Why make things so difficult if complete doctrinal unity is a non-essential? Why is there such distrust toward the Church, yet, not the same distrust toward the Bible? The very Bible that many erroneously think is the "pillar and ground of the truth" is the same Bible that actually does say that it can be mishandled and warns against such actions (2nd Peter 3:16-17). Why is it that people will have a jaundiced eye toward one who says, "the Church teaches," yet, so readily embrace the one who says, "the Bible teaches," especially in light of Peter's warning to the Church to be on guard against those who distort and misinterpret the Scriptures?


There is an excellent reason as to why the Bible is not distrusted; it is of God. The Bible is God’s Word to us and can be trusted because God is its author. The Scriptures, like the Incarnation, are both divine and human. The humanness of the Scriptures does not militate against them being inerrant and infallible and trusted because they are also divine. Can the same not also be said for the Church? Is it erroneous to believe that the Church, like the Scriptures and the Incarnation, is both divine and human? Is it erroneous to believe that the humanness of the Church does not militate against it being infallible? If the humanness of the Scriptures does not militate against them being infallible, why would the humanness of the Church militate against her being infallible?


One might counter and say that the Church is not described this way in Scripture, but the Church is called the pillar and ground of the truth, which is a very strong description of the trustworthiness of the Church. The description of the Church as the pillar and ground of the truth, in fact, begs the question as to how can she be described this way if she were not infallible? Why would Paul point Timothy to the Church as the pillar and ground of the truth if the Church could just slide into error and even apostasy? What kind of pillar and ground of the truth would that be if the Church could do that?


When our Lord Jesus told the Apostles that He would send the Holy Spirit to guide them in all truth (John 14:26; 16:13) are we to think it a stretch that the promise of infallibility is not co-joined to that pledge? Is it a misguided imagination that posits that our Lord Jesus would safeguard and keep His Church from teaching and sustaining error? Is it faulty to be confident that our Lord's promise to Peter and the Church (Matt 16:18) means that He will keep His Church from teaching error? These are not stretches if one recognizes that the visible Church is every bit as Divine as the so-called invisible Church.


Of course, these are stretches if one cannot SEE that the visible Church is nothing more than a human creation. The Scriptures know no such entity as the invisible Church, as Fr. Louis Bouyer pointed out, "an invisible Church is the same thing as no Church at all." So then, what is the Church? Is the Church essentially invisible or is it essentially visible? Is the visible Church nothing more than a human creation that is a voluntary association of like minded individuals? Or is the visible Church given by Christ and endowed with His authority so that it can be the pillar and ground of the truth, the house of the living God?


Scripturally the Church mirrors the Trinitarian reality of God (1st Cor 12:4-6; Eph 4:3-6). The diversity of the Church does not nullify the Church's oneness, just as the diversity of the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit do not negate the oneness of God. The Church also mirrors the Incarnation of the Son, thus, the essential nature of the Church is visible. When one speaks of the essential nature of the Church being invisible they run the risk of implicitly denying the Incarnation.


Those who hold to the essential and primary nature of the Church as invisible, risk embracing an implicit gnosticism in this definition of the Church. This definition of the Church runs roughshod over the visible, Incarnational reality of the Son, for the One Christ who became flesh is the same Christ who is the Head of His Body which is the Church. The whole point of the Incarnation is that the invisible God was made visible in the Word made flesh (John 1:14; Col 1:15). The Incarnational reality of the Word made flesh continues in the Church across space and time, thus, the Church is called "the body of Christ" (1st Cor 12:27).


The reality of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus is still operative in the life of His Body the Church. The Church shares in the whole Christ, and, as such, the Church is a community that participates and manifests the offices of the whole Christ. The Church has a duality, that is to say that there is a "both/and" character and nature to the Church. This duality does not mean that there are two Churches, but, rather that this duality is manifested in the One Church. The Church is both teacher and disciple, possessor of the deposit of the faith and the faithful, shepherds and sheep, pastors and flock.


These categories of person flow out of an Incarnational ecclesiology. We see this duality in the life of our Lord. He is both the manifestation of God's faithfulness to humanity and humanity's faithfulness to God. Jesus Christ is God's answer to man and He is man's answer to God, as Pope John Paul II said, "Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life." He is the good Shepherd (John 10), the way, the truth and life (John 14) and He is also the obedient Son who desires to do the Father's will (John 4:34; 5:30). The implications of this participatory Christology are evidenced in the life of the Church. Christ is the one who received the promised Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33), thus, the Church receives the Holy Spirit (John 14; 16; Acts 2). Christ is the Chief Shepherd (1st Peter 5:4) thus, the Church has under-shepherds (1st Peter 5:2). Christ is the faithful, obedient and humble Son, thus, the Church is called to model His life (Phil 2:1-11). Christ is the King, thus, the Church has a Prime Minister (Is 22; Matt 16). The salvation that our Lord wrought came through suffering (Heb 2:10; 1st Pet 2:20-24) thus, the Church is called to share in and complete His suffering for (Acts 9; Rom 8:17; 1st Peter 2:20; 2nd Cor 4:10-11; Col 1:24).


There are many implications that can be teased out in reflection on participatory Christology, but for the sake of brevity we have touched just the surface of the implications. Suffice to say, there is a connection between Christ and the Church that is manifested in the whole Church, that is to say, its structure, institution, hierarchy, and faithful. Christ cannot be any more distilled from the life of the Church than the U.S. Constitution can be distilled from our government. This is why students of Scripture must be very careful when they speak about the Church, specifically when they speak against the Church. At the end of the day the authority of Christ is made known in the Church He founded upon Peter and the Bishops in Communion with Peter.


If we cannot trust the Church, then whom can we trust? For the Catholic, as the late Father Neuhaus once said, “Faith in Christ and faith in His Church are one act of faith.” It does no good for us to meander about aimlessly wondering what it is that God wants us to believe. He has given us a Church, His Church, as a sure guide in an ever-changing world.


As Jesus said to His disciples, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). Let us listen to voice of the Church and in so doing we shall hear the voice of Christ.