In the first part of this post I discussed what happens when we make the “big mistake”: when we confuse the church and the Gospel. I suggested that the results are pretty dire — and that they constitute a key reason people are leaving the church. But I ended by asking “how do we get church right? Can we get it right? Is church even important?”
Church is important and we can get it right!
In practice there is no question that Christians need community. In practice, if not inevitably, we hear the Gospel from other Christians. In practice, we need the beauty, the music, the inspiration, and sense of identity that churches provide. In practice, we need institutional structures to spread the Gospel. In practice, we need social spaces to live and struggle with the Gospel. In practice, we need support of others when our own faith goes cold, or when life takes a turn for the worse. In practice, even the hardships and struggle of Christian community can be important for nurturing our faith — i.e. the challenge of being church can be quite key.
But the trick is the “in practice” part. We have to remember that churches are only a means to an end. The church itself must never become an object of faith. We must never imagine that our communities are something divine, ultimate, absolute, and essential. We must never imagine that the communities and institutions we develop and support (and, oops, control!) save others. They do not. They will not. God saves. Full stop.
The way to get this balance right is to be extremely vigilant about the distinction between Gospel and church. (Unfortunately, this was one of the greatest weaknesses of the old Greco-Roman Christian synthesis. Pagan Greco-Roman political thought divinized human institutions virtually by default. We’ve all inherited this legacy.)
To get this distinction right means understanding that, as pertains to salvation, the Gospel is essential, the church is not. Just as the Bible only becomes Scripture when read according to the Gospel, so the church only becomes the Church when it manifests and proclaims the Gospel. The church is the servant of the Gospel. The Gospel makes and breaks the church.
This leads me to propose a simple formula for getting church right: the Church only exists when it proclaims the Gospel.
The key word is “exists”. Unless a group of people is actually – in one way or another – proclaiming the Good News of God’s free gift of salvation, there is not a hair’s breadth of difference between them and any other group people doing anything else: hanging at the bar, sitting in a classroom, watching a movie, etc. If you have a group of clergy people advocating for justice in a government hearing – but the word of the Gospel is nowhere present – however much good they may be doing, they are in no way different than a group of secular rights advocates. If you have an entire synod of bishops arrayed in all of their vestments, in a huge cathedral, but they are not conveying the Gospel, all you have – and not a scratch more – is a bunch of old men wearing late antique clothing in a large stone building.
This is why there can be no question of the church somehow being “prior” to the Gospel or the arbiter of the Gospel, or – as we find in the very common objection, and the chief means of sneaking the old idol-church back in – of being the necessary means by which we learn the Gospel. Something that doesn’t exist can’t be the arbiter or communicator of anything! The church “incarnates” or becomes the body of Christ only when it proclaims the Gospel.
This has three important doctrinal consequences:
a) The church is always in process. We are always struggling to convey the Gospel: now we succeed, now we don’t. Thus the church comes into and out of existence constantly. Just when we have it, we lose it again. The Gospel is in effect always building up, and then tearing down, the church: when we proclaim the Gospel, faith emerges, and we build as we can; but then the Gospel tests and tries what we build and do, and the edifice is found wanting. The church is always thus being formed and re-formed. (The notion of the church as a static, eternal repository of absolute truth is also basically a pagan Greco-Roman idea – but we’ll save that for a later post.)
b) No one community or group of communities can ever claim to be the church. The very notion of one institutional community being “the” church is a little bizarre (another pagan Greco-Roman vestige). All Christian communities are always striving to be church – and all are constantly failing. To attempt to institutionally identify this or that body as the church is therefore a bit nonsensical. Two friends in a donut shop can become Church when faith and trust in the Gospel are ignited. Likewise faith can blossom during a high-church vigil. But in both cases, moments later, this may not be true – the Gospel is again choked and buried. Since we define the church by the Gospel, every group of Christians, formal, informal, large, small, has the potential to be church – and the potential not to be.
c) We can all relax! Since the Gospel is not in any way “fused” into or dependent upon the church, we needn’t be constantly frightened that by losing this or that element of ecclesial tradition we are losing the Gospel – i.e. that we are losing something essential. Confusing the church and Gospel is why so much of our church life today is characterized by fear and anger. But it doesn’t need to be. We can be completely confident – and calm – because we know that the Gospel is prior to and separate from the church. Whatever happens to the church, we will not lose the Gospel. Everything that in a tradition points toward and furthers the Gospel is indeed helpful, holy, and valuable – and often we should struggle to maintain such things – but by the same token none of these things is the treasure itself. Even when all our cherished structures and traditions go the way of all flesh, the Word of the Lord will endure.
Within these parameters, the possibilities for church are enormous — and no one need be intimidated or frightened by anyone else. Church can be traditional, big, elaborate; church can be small, contemporary, minimal. As long as you don’t think you’re essential, exclusive, or static, go for it! Church happens when the Gospel happens – and the Gospel can be communicated in an infinite number of ways.
Oh, right, and what about gay people?
If we get the Bible right, and we get the church right, the “gay problem” in many ways resolves itself.
So many of the arguments about homosexuality are arguments from tradition. People are hesitant to countenance any change to tradition because they fear that even the slightest modification will bring the whole edifice down – they believe that the Gospel is fused into every aspect of the church, and so losing or modifying even the smallest part of church tradition means the betrayal and loss of salvation itself. God will withdraw his love and mercy from us.
But if we are vigilant about the distinction between Gospel and church, this fear can find no place. In fact, we realize that the argument from tradition is completely misconstrued. Why? We do not discover the Gospel from the church’s tradition – we use the Gospel to discover the church’s real traditions. If a tradition furthers the Gospel, it’s useful – it’s actually a “Church Tradition”; if not, that’s fine, it can go. So as we struggle to be Church – to proclaim and live the Gospel – our task is constantly to weed and sort through the tradition using the Gospel as our criterion. In addressing homosexuality, therefore, our only question is: Do the many traditions that ban or punish homosexuality actually further the Gospel today? Did they ever? How? I think we’ll find pretty quickly that the churches’ stances on homosexuality never had anything to do with the Gospel – they were just another sad example of Christian communities conforming themselves to sinful human society. They were not the first such instances, nor, I’m afraid, will they be the last. But there is no question that they now need to go.
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