My title may sound a bit strange – for I do not mean to say “the Problem of the Church” – but simply the problem that something exists called “the Church” creates for modern Christianity. My thoughts are occasioned by a question posed to one of my recent posts. I assumed that the person posing the question was an evangelical or protestant of some sort – for the statements that were questioned centered around the problem of Church.
As I have been writing recently about boundaries, the one boundary I have avoided is the most obvious: what constitutes the boundary of the Church? The question can be answered in a variety of ways depending on the tradition from which it is viewed. It seems to me that most Christians would readily agree that there is a boundary to Church. This is the Church, this is not the Church. But, of course, how the question gets answered is indeed the problem.
I recall a few years back (and doubtless continuing), within Anglicanism the question was raised as to whether a person who is not Baptized should be admitted to communion. Within the Christian Church (the denomination that uses that title) this is common policy. This is radically “open communion.” Of course, when a Buddhist kneels at your altar rail and takes communion, what does it mean? What is in fact happening? What does the communion itself mean?
In conversations between Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox the “problem” of the Church is much simpler even if it seems to prove constantly intractable. Both generally understand that the Church is a visible entity, not merely a “mystical Body of Christ” or “invisible Church.” This latter idea is a late invention of the Protestant Reformation in which the Church ceases to be a visible entity and becomes a group of people known only to God alone. It solves many problems for the pluriform nature of Protestantism (some 20,000 different groups now). It also has the convenience of being easily harmonized with the individualism of American culture which is gradually sweeping the globe. “I have accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior, therefore I am in the Church.” This, of course, has the added benefit of not having to deal with the problem of other people.
Most of the problems in my life over the last 30 years or so have been in the context of Church. It is the location of my closest friends as well as my most aggravating companions. Hopefully all of them will forgive me. But were the Church to exist only in some mystical form, only as the invisible Church – frankly nothing would bother me. I could read the books I choose and my Bible and believe as I will or will not and me and Jesus will get along just fine.
Of course, all of that latter sentiment is delusion. It is only my imaginary relationship with Christ (if the Church is invisible it is little more than imaginary). It is the visible character of the Church, and the possibility of boundary (everything visible has some boundary) that creates the “problem.”
For if there is a boundary, then someone is not within the Church. If there is a boundary then you can be inside it or you can be outside of it. And there is the problem. Who says where the boundaries are to be set?
Many modern churches (Protestant) have side-stepped the issue and generally lowered or dropped the boundaries altogether. This of course makes those who believe in visible boundaries seem exclusivist or outlandish in their claims.
Thus the embarassment or rudeness one encounters when speaking with the Orthodox or with some Roman Catholics (I try to avoid being rude). But there is such a thing as the historical Church. It can be identified with historical confidence. That the Eastern Orthodox Church is in direct succession of the Apostles and those whom they appointed is not a faith claim but a simple historical fact. The same has to be granted to Roman Catholicism, although the Orthodox generally would offer the criticism that Rome has departed in some important ways from the Tradition they were given (but this becomes a matter of discussion and debate between Rome and the Orthodox which is not my purpose here). I’m sure Rome would return the favor.
But there is a vast common ground in that conversation. Both agree that the Church is visible and recognize its historical life. The multiplicity of schisms that have created modern Protestantism is a creature of another sort. There, churches can be created by a single individual so long as they can convince some other individuals to join. Indeed, in the MegaChurch model, all denominational labeling is generally hidden. It’s just Church, or something like that.
I started this post with a title – the Problem of Church. I believe that an important milestone in the maturing of a Christian life is coming to grips with this problem. It is recognizing that the Church is God’s creation and not man’s; that the Church existed before I was born; that it may have boundaries; and that I might be outside the boundaries. This is like growing up and realizing the difference between marriage and dating (especially some of the bizarre forms that modern dating has taken).
When a Christian begins to read the Bible seriously (including the many passages on the Church) and to read even a few centuries of Church history, questions frequently begin to form and generally head in the direction of the historical Church. Many of the Protestants who come through the doors of my Orthodox Church are precisely in such a situation. The lack of boundaries in much of modern Protestantism will eventually dictate its extinction. That “such and such” a megachurch ever existed may not have any historical significance – or that it was this megachurch and not that megachurch may not have mattered. Many of the traditional Protestant denominations are quickly placing themselves in line for extinction as boundaries cease and meaning disappears.
I will restate the problem as a conclusion for this post. The Problem of the Church is that there is one. Whatever free associations man has created, there still exists a Church whose life is rooted in that first community in Jerusalem and stretches through the centuries into the present. It is not a problem to be solved – but it is a challenge to the fiction of invisible Churches and boundary-less associations.