This is an essay I wrote for a scholarship application recently on the subject of “The Church”. It specifically comes at things with the Mennonite tradition in-mind, but nothing in it is something I would not say to Christians from other traditions. I explore what the Church is, what makes “the Church” different from other social institutions; and not just “a church”, but “the Church”. I talk about how the Church should conduct itself, in the world. I also delve into a controversy in church history that we can remember and learn lessons to apply in the American church specifically. I’ll split the essay into three chunks, and this first one mainly focuses on the question “What is the Church?” and “the unity of the Church”.
“This is a great mystery, but I am speaking of Christ and the Church”
Writing about the Church simultaneously awakens a heavy heart and a burning love within me. I am, after all, writing about a whole of which I am a part. My current mission and later destiny are wrapped-up with what Ephesians says is “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”. This essay comes on the heels of major shifts in my understanding of the Church, shifts which are still in progress. In this essay I will not be writing about those shifts, but will use biblical exegesis, theology, and case studies in church history to sketch my current understanding of “The Church”, and apply that understanding to pressing issues for the church today, including issues unique to the Mennonite church in the present. The reason why I will start with an in-depth theological and historical discussion is that my own experience, or even the experiences of the entire modern church, are not sufficient guides. It is a frequent and serious illness amidst my generation, one which I have struggled with, to have a narrow perspective on history, never really taking a look at things that have happened with the mantra “Be Present”, yet simultaneously we have grandiose and often narcissistic aspirations of our individual impact on it. At bottom though, our ability to leave a redemptive impact on history depends on how seriously we take a man who lived over 2000 years ago.
A timeless topic for the Church is its’ identity. By “identity” I do not mean what does the church do which sets it apart from other institutions, already assuming that the church fits into a category of social science. The New Testament term for “church” is a religious takeover of the original Greek word defined as “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly”, but this is not what I am searching for either. By “identity” I mean the common characteristic which binds the widely varying expressions and features of what we have called “the Church” across millennia and continents. What is the church?
The aforementioned passage in Ephesians likens the church to Christ’s body, and later in the same chapter Paul uses the analogy of a building; in 1 Peter 2 the analogy of a house is also used, along with these terms: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own”. Within these two texts, two themes emerge: 1) the church is a singular, unified reality, and 2) the church is a society-forming reality. Behind both texts is language signifying what gives this reality its’ existence. In 1 Peter 2:4-5, we are told that it is only “as you come to him”, to Jesus, that we are made part of this new building, and it is “through him” that we carry out our function as a “spiritual house”. In Ephesians 1:1-14, the phrase “in Christ” or “in Him”, occurs 7 times to describe a location, and it is this refrain that leads to verse 23, describing the church as his body. These are only two texts, but I believe that the New Testament is consistent in stating that the Church is the human portion of God’s new creation in Christ, whose very existence depends on being in Christ; united to Him. This unity with the Godhead is maintained by the Holy Spirit, which sets apart and marks we who have accepted God’s invitation to come into His family, become freed, forgiven children, and give our lives to Jesus as Son of God, Lord, and Messiah. This brief search for a definition will become crucial as I continue discussing the two themes I mentioned above: the church as a singular, unified reality, and the church as a society-forming reality.
The unity of the church is a corollary of the identity of the church. In the New Testament the Church is never, ever, analogized to a plurality of physical bodies, or buildings, or priesthoods. While there are a plurality of churches-qua-gatherings, the fundamental unity can be seen in Paul’s rhetorical rebuke to the church in Corinth: …end your divisions…Is Christ divided? Now, growing up in the fundamentalist Pentecostal church of my parents, where even listening to preachers outside of the denomination was spoken of as potential backsliding, I am keenly aware of the sinful desire to set ourselves up as the ultimate judges of who is a part of this body, and who is not. Over the course of my first three years as a disciple of Jesus, I successively judged non-Charismatics, then non-Calvinists, then all institutional churches in general, and then myself. It was only after a major theological shift towards positions which I had previously thought were “heretical” that I saw my pharisaical, doctrinarian attitude as the insecurity it truly was. My journey has taught me that the fundamental unity of the church in Christ does not necessitate that I have that unity in the control of my mental concepts or ecclesial structures. As Dr. Miroslav Volf recently stated with reference to his early work on “free-church ecclesiology”:
“I was thinking of all these small churches [in Europe]…they have given their lives, sometimes literally, to the work of the Gospel and they somehow aren’t churches but… whatever other institution there, is a church by the sheer fact of the succession and communion with Rome; and I, for the life of me, could not see how this is the case and how this in any way would correspond to what one finds in the New Testament”.
If we are Christ’s body through His spirit within us, and if Christ cannot be divided, then we must start with this as an axiom in ecclesiology. We must conform our theology and practice to this most obvious biblical truth, not distort this truth to our theology and practice. In addition, while this conviction does lead us to believe that the unity of the church in Christ has an unseen, spiritual dimension, this conviction does not require us to ascribe to misconstrued understandings of the church as “invisible”. This is where the church as a society-forming reality comes into view.
A society-forming reality is not the society itself, but rather the source of ruling principles which form the society’s basic structure. This is true of the Church in Ephesians 1:20-23 where spiritual and earthly powers, including those which rule and order human societies, are “under Christ’s feet”, and the Church is Christ’s body. This is also evident in 1 Peter by the emphasis on being “born anew” and growing up as “newborn infants”. We are not describing a transition from one social group to another. To over-simplify: society is the outworking of human life; the Church is a society-forming reality because it is a unity of new humans birthed by the Holy Spirit. We must re-learn how to live, guided by obedience to the truth and sincere love; ruling principles which conflict with the “empty way of life inherited from your ancestors…”. The New Testament’s use of the phrase “Kingdom of God” further illuminates what kind of society this new humanity will produce.