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Position Papers Chapter 7

 

 

THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH  

 

    There is conspicuous interest in the nature of the church today. This is true in the Christian world as a whole because of the drive for renewal. It is true of the RLDS Church similarly, but also because of our increasing concern to explore the theological footings upon which our whole enterprise stands. The ecumenical revolution around us, the erosion of distinctives which we felt we possessed, and an awareness of our historical rootedness in 19th century enthusiastic religion have all combined to create an identity crisis for us which comes to focus largely in how we understand the church. Such a crisis sets before the church the fundamental task of exploring its nature and developing a comprehensive doctrine of the church which is informed by the mounting resources of scholarly research and Christian experience.
    This paper, however, is not an attempt to do that task. Rather is it an attempt to isolate some of the most urgent questions confronting us and propose a position on them growing largely out of the experience of the church and the insights accumulated by others as they have pursued similar problems.
    As is the case with a great deal of our message, much of what doctrine of the church we have has been shaped out of the desire to communicate persuasively with the popular mind and thus facilitate proselyting. Consequently, the position has often been simplistic and superficial. While somewhat successful in winning converts, such an approach can be a barrier to achieving true discipleship,

         The Problem of the Proper Question

    Our problem begins in the 19th century sectarian situation. Between 1820 and 1840 the zenith of the denomination-forming period in American church history was reached. The proliferation of churches was attended by innumerable claims and counter claims. It is not difficult to see why a sensitive young man would want to ask "which of all the churches is right?" It was a most natural question in the midst of sectarian excitement, but on the other hand, a most presumptuous question in terms of the New Testament understanding of the ecclesia or fellowship of Christ. It was a question based on the assumption that Christ established an institution and that in the midst of many institutions his favor was to be found on one and no others. There are some questions for which there is no correct answer simply because the question itself is improper. It would appear that many of our difficulties in terms of a viable doctrine of the church proceed from the fact that we have believed such a question as young Joseph asked was a proper question and therefore a proper answer can be worked out on its premises.

The Return to the New Testament for Validation

    The very fact of a fragmented Christianity where separate churches have asserted themselves against all others has driven the whole Christian community back to the New Testament to seek to find there the form of the primitive church so that faithfulness to it might be used to defend one's claims to rightness. But churches have been humbled in returning to the New Testament for they have discovered that the church's form was not an institution, but rather a loose, yet deep fellowship of believers which formed a living community united with Christ and with each other in the bonds of love, depending upon no particular universal polity or structure for their unity or identity, but rather upon their love for one another.
    Moreover they discovered that the word church does not even appear in the gospels with the exception of Matthew, and there only three times. Obviously the writers were faithful to the fact that Jesus was the foundation upon which a unique fellowship emerged, but not the founder of an institutional church as we know it. Biblical writers were also faithful, however, to the fact that the fellowship rather quickly took an institutional form as evidenced in the epistles.



    In a sense it is curious that Christ should have laid down no detailed instructions for the outward organization of the church. But in a deeper sense it is not strange that he should have left the outer structure of the church to be shaped by the growing and changing needs of the Christian community, for to do otherwise would have been to run the risk of diverting attention from his basic concern to foster a true fellowship of persons on the grounds of love instead of upon details of organization and order. In other words the ecclesia Christ was laying the foundation for in his life was one of faith and love relationship. This was the essential mark of the community of the faithful that collected in response to his life. Indeed the church may have organization and officers and arrangements, but these cannot be said to be the church.

Transition from Fellowship to Church

    Thus the significant mark and essential being of the ecclesia consists in the quality of agape--the new ethos of the fellowship of its members. In providing for the continuity of the fellowship through the introduction of organizational structure which it must do, the church nevertheless faces the risk of losing the genius of its being. It is tempted to invite men to know it on the grounds of its organization, its creed or belief, and not on the grounds of its love one for another. In fact when the fellowship of love is lacking or the pervasive ministry of the Holy Spirit begins to disappear, a church is tempted to substitute theology and dogma for the living Word of God; to substitute institution for fellowship; and to substitute a creed or moral code for the faith which proves its reality in love.
    It appears in the New Testament that the ecclesia as a fellowship of the spirit was an articulated living order without being legally organized. This appears to be the mystery of its being. Brunner points out that "the delicate structure of the fellowship founded by Jesus, and anchored in the Holy Spirit, could not be replaced by an institutional organization without the whole character of the ecclesia being fundamentally changed: the fellowship of Jesus Christ became the church." (The Misunderstanding of the Church, p. 54) He sees the essential mark of the fellowship of Jesus as love and faith. Therefore the effort of churches to be the New Testament Church on the grounds of polity, orthodox belief, or officers is to misunderstand the nature of the church.

The Problem of a True Church

    This brings us full circle back to the question Joseph asked regarding "which of all the sects was right," and to which he received the answer, "none." The answer was profoundly correct for inasmuch as churches compare and contrast selves with each other on grounds of polity or organization or even orthodoxy of belief, by that very fact they are incomparable to the New Testament ecclesia. It possessed its validation not in the particular order it possessed, nor even in orthodoxy of belief, but rather in the love which its members held for one another born through faith in Jesus Christ. Thus no single organization could possibly be "the right" church inasmuch as the grounds upon which its rightness is claimed are grounds foreign to the New Testament. Nor could any single organized church ever be "right" in the sense that it exclusively recaptured the primitive essence. The moment one employs formal organization, creed, officers, etc., to shape the contours of the fellowship, something other than the ecclesia exists. Yet it is readily acknowledged that for any human community to have perpetuity it will need formal organization, a delineated faith and responsible functionaries. Thus the New Testament church proceeded to organize itself. Put that organization was not itself the ecclesia. It was rather a generating community which by its worship, its teaching, its sacraments would hopefully feed lives into that ecclesia or true fellowship of Christ where love and service and faith are the bulwarks. In some ways, the ecclesia may have have nearly existed for us in those months prior to 1830 when men united themselves together not in response to some institutional structure, but on the grounds of deep faith, love, and concern.


    It is misleading therefore to identify any single one of the historically developed churches, of which ours is one, with the true Christian communion. All are marked by an institutional character, and as Luther observed, "have as their countenance the countenance of a sinner." The problem therefore is to acknowledge the relationship of historical churches to this true Christian communion, the ecclesia. Churches are called to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Discipleship is not achieved by giving assent to a set of beliefs, no matter how orthodox they may be. Discipleship is a style of life with faith in Christ at its root, which faith authenticates itself in love. By this are men known to be his followers. To the extent that an historical church demonstrates its ability to facilitate the emergence of such a life style in a man, it can be said to be adding to the growth of that true Christian communion which stands beyond any denominational boundaries and for lack of a better term may be called the universal church.
    It is readily admitted by us, on the grounds of empirical experience, that out of all churches have emerged persons who are characterized by a profound faith relationship to Christ and are enlightened and enabled by the holy spirit and relate to their fellowman in Christian love. So far as the New Testament is concerned, this is the only way one can be a true Christian. That all churches are capable of producing such a person and that no church possesses all such people, leads us to affirm that historical churches, including our own, stand in a common relationship to each-other. This is not to deny differences in polity and belief. Nor is it to say that such differences are unimportant. It is simply to affirm that it appears unreasonable to believe that any given church is the "true" church while all others are "false" churches. The churches find finally their distinguishing mark in their differing ability (if any) to produce true disciples who stand joined with true disciples produced in other denominations in what may be called the universal church. Such a universal church is the society, the fellowship, the community of all those who are knit together in love through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the only church outside which there is no salvation. Outside this actual fellowship of those who truly live in Christ, the living Christ is not to be found.
    In this sense the Church (universal) is an end; the churches are means. The church is a pure fellowship, a community of persons, the communion of saints; institutions, organizations, ecclesiastical structures. The Church has no beginning, the churches were brought into existence because the blessings of Christian fellowship were not to be once received and then passively enjoyed. The Church is a spiritual home, a fatherland, a colony of heaven upon earth; the churches are missionary structures seeking to transmit by word and deed God's reconciling love to all mankind. By the very nature of God's covenant the Church (but not a particular church) is where men find God's righteous will and outreaching grace.
    Therefore, the task before any church or all churches cannot be that of themselves becoming the ecclesia since it knows nothing whatever of sacred polity or deliberate institutional structure. Rather is the task of churches to further the growth of the ecclesia by creating the conditions by which men are introduced to Christ and move from that introduction into a faith relationship with him which may lie quite beyond any institutional structuring.

Purposes of the Church

    It is apparent, therefore, that some conceptions of the organized church's purpose are inadequate. Five are particularly noteworthy:
(1) That the church exists solely for the publication of the gospel.
At stake here is whether or not the church has any further role than simply to set before sinners the invitation of the gospel. Moreover, it is doubtful whether such publication can in fact be accomplished authentically by simple verbal communication, by the listing of propositions or beliefs and calling upon the hearer to render his decision. The gospel was first communicated to men in a life. It was not a set of propositions to be decided upon, but rather a life of redemptive love encountering their own life. In such a confrontation men are called upon to do more than accept or reject a set of ideas or principles. Thus we would affirm that while the publication of the gospel is part of the church's task, it is not the entire task, and even as a part of the task it must be understood in incarnational terms.
(2) That the church exists solely to bring about social reform.
At stake here is the issue of the church being solely a tool for political, social, or cultural change. While the church has a legitimate interest in those political, cultural, social, and economic factors that affect the possibilities for a truly human life and must accept responsibility for witnessing to these issues, still social reform is not the single focus of the church's purpose.
(3) That the church conceives itself to be the kingdom of God.
At stake here is the issue of identifying the whole work of God with one particular organization. Such a view fails at three points: it identifies the spiritual or universal body of believers under Christ with an externally formed organization; it identifies the total true church with one particular organization which very obviously does not have a monopoly on the fruits of the spirit; and finally, it presumes that there is but one channel of grace and truth which God acknowledges.
Such a view of a church as the embodiment of the kingdom of God has most pronounced effect upon the motivations for and the forms of evangelism. Such a church will see itself as the sole dispenser of divine grace and thus will see evangelism essentially in the framework of proselyting--claiming that salvation lies here and not there, and therefore it is all important where a person makes his institutional commitment. Such a view ignores the saving action of God on widely diverse fronts and the liberal distribution of his grace in varied settings.

(4) That the church exists as a substitute world.
At stake here is the understanding of the church's proper relationship to the secular world. It is to this world the church is sent and for this world it is called to sacrifice itself. It is in this world that the salvation of God is to be consummated, thus the church can never properly present itself as an alternative world into which men enter having resigned their citizenship in the secular community. That the church ought to be distinguishable from the world is granted inasmuch as the church is that community which acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus Christ and develops a distinctive life style which bears witness to that Lordship. But that the church is entitled to conceive of itself as an isolated enclave, organically separated and discontinuous with the life of the world, we do not grant as viable. Moreover, individual believers are called to recognize that it is in the world that the essential meaning of their discipleship is to be worked out. They are not the church just when they are in the gathered community. They are the church as they are dispersed throughout the secular society. Their secular calling, rather than being a necessary evil, are in fact the God-given settings in which their being the church is to be made manifest.
(5) That the church exists to impart divine grace by "correct" rites or ordinances.
At stake here is whether or not God's grace is exclusively channeled through certain authorities or rites. Obviously, the organized church with its ordinances and sacraments is extremely helpful in nurturing faith and conveying the grace of God. But this truth is sometimes distorted into a legalistic and almost magical conception of a divine gift which requires for its transmission a correct adherence to prescribed forms of sacramental ritual and properly vested authorities. Unfortunately for such a theory, many persons give evidence of having received the grace of God in quite "irregular" ways from persons who make no claim to apostolic succession or other forms of vested authority. This does not mean that the sacraments are of no value, or that properly appointed officers are superfluous. It simply means that such cannot be described as being the sole means of grace.
    Thus we affirm that God does call priesthood to his work and commissions them, but their call does not invalidate the call of others.
    We also affirm that we have received the grace of God through the sacraments, ordinances, and ministrations of the priesthood, but that such channels are not the exclusive channels.
    We also affirm that through the institution we know we have encountered the Christ and have been called to authentic discipleship, but that such an experience does not invalidate the similar experience of others in differing churches.

The Basic Mission of the Church

    To what true purposes then does the organized church address itself? What is its basic mission? Foundationally, it is called to be the people of God, the new Israel. Hence Peter described it as a "chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people (who) should show forth the virtues of him who hath called (it) out of darkness into his marvelous light. (I Peter 2:9) This entire mandate was compacted and revealed in the life of Jesus. Thus the church pursues the mission it finds inaugurated in him. Jesus thought of his task being threefold; to announce the kingdom of God, to distribute its benefits among men, and to demonstrate the character of the new society announced. These three areas of responsibility can be discussed under the technical headings kerygma (proclamation), diakonia (reconciliation, healing and servanthood), and koinonia (the personification or demonstration of the new life.)
1. Kerygma
    The church is called to declare the good news of the action of God for human salvation, an action which has not only reconciled men to God and to each other, but an action which has defatalized history, delivering it out of the hands of alien principalities and powers, and liberating men to work with God to shape a truly godly world, subdued and dominated by the power of goodness. To proclaim this new situation of reconciliation and the victorious deliverance of all power into the hands of Christ is a basic function of the church.
2. Diakonia
    The church in its varying dimensions (as the individual Christian and as the corporate body) is called to continue in the servant work of Christ, healing the brokenhearted, delivering the captives, recovering sight for the blind, and setting at liberty them that are bruised. Such a healing, restoring ministry issues out of the fact that the church sees itself as the beneficiary of a redemptive, healing love, and responds to that gift by incarnating it into its own life style. As Hoekendijk has observed, such a life "turns the church inside out." It empties out its life to bring men to the full dimensions of their human possibilities. It sensitizes itself to what constitutes a truly human life as defined in Christ Jesus and labors in the world to create this possibility for all men. It shows special concern for the forgotten-to-death, those with whom no one identifies, the unacknowledged of the world, even as God reflected special concern for widows, orphans, aliens, and strangers and in Jesus showed special concern for the publicans, sinners, and outcasts.
3. Koinonia
    Karl Barth calls the church "God's provisional demonstration of his intention for all humanity." Thus the church is the point at which human hope becomes visible. It is called to be that community in which the new style of life, life in the spirit, life emerging out of faith and love, is beheld. The cultivation and expression of this sacred life of love is central to the church's mission. To fail to embody this in its own existence is to fail to be able to function in its other callings. Thus to fail in this is to fail to be the church, the outward embodiment of the divine Word still living in the world "full of grace and truth."
    This embodiment of the divine word cannot occur in a fashion discontinuous with the life of the world and still be redemptive. The church is called to embody the word in the midst of the life of the world even as Jesus was the word made flesh in the midst of the world. The koinonia function applies to the church as a dispersed community as well as it does to the church as a gathered community.
    The church worships, studies, nurtures, fellowships, and participates in the sacraments in terms of these three basic functions. Such activities are not ends in themselves, but rather facilitate the churches ability to proclaim, to serve, and to embody.
    While it is informative to suggest, as the Reformers did, that the church truly exists "where the word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered," it does not appear that such a description is adequate. It was useful in a period when the church was pre-occupied with identifying heresies. But today it appears that a church can preach and administer sacraments "properly" and still not be the people of God. Thus while not denying the need to communicate the word and the sacraments faithfully, the church validates itself as the church where the functions of proclaiming, healing, and embodying occur. The signs of this sort are signs of the church obedient.
                                      Implications for Writing the Curriculum
1.  The RLDS Church exists as a church among many churches commissioned to reach into all the world and make disciples. Its presence does not make other churches obsolete. Their presence does not make us unnecessary. We are called to minister out of the peculiar heritage we possess, not making that heritage the gospel, but rather confessing that one's cultural and historical heritage both discloses and distorts the gospel simultaneously, and therefore is subject to divine judgment and correction. While our contribution to the coming kingdom may be distinctive or unique by virtue of our gifts, our justification for existence does not lie in some distinctives we may offer, but rather in God's call to witness him fully and faithfully.
2.  The Restoration church emerged in response to authentic spiritual stimulation but that stimulation must not be construed to suggest that similar stimulation has not been experienced by others. Because we feel entitled to exist, we cannot. suppose that others are less entitled. Because we feel involved in God's work we cannot assume by that fact that others are not.
3.  Our traditional concern with authority in exclusivistic terms is related to the sectarian environment and mentality out of which we emerged and in which many of our people still live. It reflects the very natural human desire to escape the ambiguity inherent in denominationalism and the desire to escape the finitude and uncertainty which are part of the meaning of being human. While we understand this, we cannot affirm there being the kind of "true" church which makes all others "false" churches. Nor can we affirm today that this is "the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth with which  the Lord (is) well pleased (D. & C. 1:5). We affirm that no single organized institution (church) an earth is the perfect embodiment of God's will and purpose and therefore qualified to claim itself as the sole source from which his grace proceeds or through which men are joined to him. The only church outside which salvation cannot be said to exist is that universal household of faith which embraces men from many denominations and settings who live their lives under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
4.  Denying the validity of the sectarian theory of the church, evangelism cannot be understood as proselyting (claiming salvation lies in this church but not that) but rather is it understood as bearing faithful witness to the revelation of God in Christ Jesus and enlisting men to engage their lives in his mission.



5.  The church possesses its validity in the degree to which it demonstrates itself as being able to introduce men to Jesus Christ, nurture a faith relationship to him, and facilitate their redemptive involvement in the world to which God sent Christ and Christ sends the church. Its identity to the primitive church must lie along these lines of function rather than some notions of form or completed doctrinal development.
6.  One must go beyond the institutional structure in order to discern the meaning of the church. The church is not an institution, but in the life of the world cannot escape the necessity of expressing itself in institutional terms. The church does not live according to the flesh, but it does live in the flesh. Organization is not the essence of the church, but organization there must be. As the word of God does not have life apart from the outward physical means by which it is communicated, so the church--an inward community of faith and love--must have its outward form, a form determined by the nature of the inward community which it is designed to express.
7.  The church does not exist as a substitute world into which men may gather to escape involvement with secular society, but rather is it a community who have gathered in response to the call of God and see the world as a place where God is working and to which they are sent as co-laborers.
8.  To speak of the church as being separable from its mission so that one sees the church as referring to the society devoted to worship, spiritual care and nurture, and mission as referring to the propagation of the gospel in to attempt to dichotomize an inseparable whole. A society of worship and nurture may well exist, but if it exists alone it may not properly be called the church. When the church ceases to be a mission proclaiming the good news, healing and restoring humankind in the world, and personifying in its own life the life to which all men are called, it ceases to qualify as the church.
9.  The church exists in an ecumenical age. It is called to understand what this means for itself and the world. Ecumenism is a dynamic movement. It is understood in several different ways. For some it is a church-centered phenomenon. It is understood as the attempt to reunify historic confessions. Church merger and consolidation are the ends sought. For others ecumenism is a pietistic phenomenon. It has to do with individuals. It sees the unity of the church in terms of the reformation of the piety of individual believers. Such union is not organizational but rather the development of a kindred spirit by an educational preference for things which all Christians share commonly. Currently, a new conception of ecumenism seems to be emerging which is related to both the foregoing, but yet quite different from them. Albert Van den Heuval calls it "the secular understanding of the ecumenical." It distinguishes itself in laying emphasis not on relations among the churches, but between the church and the world. It sees the church being called to play a constructive role in the orders and structures of society and to identify with mankind. It sees the world being the real addressee of the church and the place where the living God is at work. As such this understanding of ecumenical does not seek to bring the different denominations together in a merged body confessing a common belief, but rather to encouraging the engagement of all believers in the ministries of witness in the world. As such the participants in the ecumenical movement are all those who care and are willing to test their faith in effective expressions of it. Ecumenism thus becomes a process where Christians who care come together and work out "a confession in situation." Their different traditions play a functional role in this process. Each brings the values and insights of his own tradition to bear on a common problem in life. The faith becomes stated in the concrete way they respond to the problems being assayed. Ecumenism in this sense is understood as having meaning for our tradition.

 

 

 

 

 
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