[Crosswalk, January 28, 2000]
Q. What would you say to a Bible‑believing Christian who “doesn’t believe in organized religion”? A friend recently wrote to me: “God loves the Church (as in the body of true believers), but He can reveal anything to any person at any time. I don’t trust any group of humans, even if they are Spirit‑directed, to give me a perfect set of doctrine. God desires a one‑on‑one relationship with each of us and I need to go directly to Him for the truth. He’s not an out‑there God, He’s in the room with you. I don’t need a church’s guidance, I need His direction.”
How do we, as believers, deal with those who are also Christians but of another group or denomination? It’s all very well to proclaim that “they will know we are Christians by our love,” but what about the fact that many Christians simply have deeply felt beliefs, which are part of the doctrines of their churches, and which can’t be reconciled one with the other. Some may proclaim “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” feeling that denominational diversity has its advantages, but against that we have our Lord’s clear command and wish that we be one. Discuss, please.
Do you think as time goes by ecumenism/One Church will evolve? The political world is headed for relative shrinking (democracy up, totalitarianism down) so why not spiritual cohabitation, for want of a better term.
A. Since the same question in different forms came up three times this past week, I figured that was a thump on the top of the head as to which topic to choose.
Let’ s start this way. Did Jesus intend to found a church? Now, clearly Jesus intended that each of his followers make a sincere personal commitment to follow him. The saying is hokey but worthy of full acceptance, that sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you a Volkswagen.
But did he also have in mind that his followers would unite and form a body — specifically, His Body? Obviously, yes, and he apparently intended the gathering of Christians as his Body to be something more than a merely administrative entity, something charged with mystical significance.
Look at just a few indicators. Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will found my Church.” People may disagree as to what he meant by “rock,” but no one questions what he meant by “Church.” Founding a Church was his intention.
Likewise, when St. Paul was blinded on the way to Damascus, he heard Jesus ask, “Why do you persecute me?” Paul was persecuting the followers of Jesus, but to Jesus that was the same thing as persecuting him. The Church constitutes his Body.
Third, in the Nicene Creed, written in the fourth century, Christians proclaim that they believe in four things, not three: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and Church. The Church is something we place our faith in; it must be more than a letterhead. Christians’ awareness that together they constituted something of spiritual importance dates back to Scripture and the faith’ s earliest centuries.
We believe in the Church, but which church? For a thousand years, of course, there was only one. But that doesn’t mean there was unbroken agreement; controversies and heresies arose regularly, often instigated by believers acting in complete sincerity, interpreting the Bible as it seemed best to them. Over and over, the Church prayed through to consensus. Working through this confusion was agonizing in many cases, but they were encouraged that Jesus had promised to guide them. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). He intended them to be in theological unity. But how could battling, sincere Christians tell whether they had accurately heard the Spirit?
In the fifth century St. Vincent of Lerins grappled with this problem. “I have given the greatest pains and diligence to inquiring, from the greatest possible number of those outstanding in holiness and in doctrine, how I can secure a fixed and guiding principle for distinguishing the true faith from falsehoods,” he wrote. St. Vincent concluded that a twofold guide was needed: Scripture, and the consistent witness of the Christian community as to what the various Scriptures mean.
Some might object here, why can’t we just consult the plain meaning of Scripture? St. Vincent wondered that too. “Someone will ask, since Scripture is complete and sufficient, why join to it the interpretation of the Church?,” he wrote. “The answer is that because of the very depth of Scripture all do not place one identical interpretation upon it. The statements of the same writer are explained in different ways, so that it seems possible to extract from it as many opinions as there are interpreters.”
St. Vincent came up with a guideline still useful today, which is called the Vincentian Canon. We should believe “that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” The faith consensus of the gathered community is our guide, and the Bible is the core document generated by, and consulted by, that community. Where there is agreement, the Holy Spirit is present and the Church is united.
Notice what this means. For one thing, earlier beliefs of the Christian Church take authority over variations that arose later. The faith accumulates like a snowball, and the beliefs of the first centuries are foundational and not reasonably contradicted. This earliest strata of Christians, after all, were the eyewitnesses of the faith or their spiritual descendants, they wrote the Scriptures and were the closest in time to interpret it, and lived in a refining-fire era of persecution that led many to be martyred for their faith. We can take their view of various theological disputes seriously.
Supplementing this is the principle that the most geographically widespread doctrine takes precedence over contrary local innovations. When a conviction, say, that Jesus is both God and Man is persistent all around the Mediterranean basin, that very prevalence tells us something about its accuracy, despite various local flareups of disagreement.
Bottom line? There should be one Church, united in faith and moral practice. If so united, it would be visible, a distinct Body, consistent with Jesus’s intention to “found” something concrete. It should be united throughout history and around the world B which logically means it would be united with its earliest roots, the Church of the earliest centuries and the first geographical circle (from Jerusalem into Africa and Europe). We do need such a Church, because on our own our individual inspirations and interpretations can lead us wildly astray. But the humility to be guided by the faith of those before us is not widespread in our age.