Thursday, July 30, 2009

What is the Church?

A friend recently told me about Steve Fuller's "Church Experiment" blog that describes his visits to 52 places of worship in 52 weeks.

[This new style of writing is becoming more and more popular - with writers explaining their own unique personal experiences, as AJ Jacobs did in the 2004 book "The Know-It-All" - a book that described his reading of the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. I must confess that it's a style that I've used as well in my little booklet called, "Go Eat Popcorn" that describes my experiences reading four of Paul's New Testament letters. Here's a link to the first 200 pages: ]

Steve Fuller's posts are interesting and sometimes humorous. He writes about what he's heard from Pentecostal preachers and his experiences of going to different places of worship (although I would not identify some of the places as "churches" as he does -- like the local Hindu Temple and the Muslim Mosque.)

Reading his blog reminded me of my struggles over the years of trying to find answers to the question of "what is the Church"?

Even though I've been a professing Christian since my youth, the issue of ecclesiology has been one that I've wrestled with over the years.

I guess this struggle can be seen in my own "church experiences" too. I was raised in a very liturgical United Methodist church, discovered a Vineyard "seeker friendly" church in college and worked there part-time for a few years after I graduated. Now I enjoy the beauty of historic liturgical prayer combined with contemporary worship music in an Anglican fellowship.

For me the most helpful answers to the question of "What is the Church?" have come from the writers who lived during the Protestant Reformation. This attempt to reform the church, is generally identified to have begun on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther (a Catholic monk and teacher) posted Ninety-Five Thesis on a church door in Wittenburg (which is now in Germany).

In the midst of the great turmoil that followed, the leading Protestant theologians of the Reformation (like Luther in Germany and Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin in Switzerland) were forced to address the important question of "What is the Church?"

In looking at Scripture they explained that there were two important attributes (that they called "marks") that described a true Church.

These two marks were (1) the preaching of God's Word and (2) the proper administration of the Sacraments.

Preaching, for the Reformers, was one of the two essential marks of the Church. They frequently quoted St. Paul who wrote, "Faith comes by hearing and hearing the Word of God". They sought to follow Paul's advice to "preach Christ crucified" (I Cor. 1:23) and to "preach the Word, in and out of season." (2 Tim. 4:2)

Essential to their preaching was an explanation of the Good News, which the New Testament writers called the Gospel.

Huldrych Zwingli (who lived from 1484-1531) summarized the Gospel with these words:

"The summary of the gospel is that our Lord Christ, true Son of God, has made known to us the will of his Heavenly Father and has redeemed us from death and reconciled us with God by his guiltlessness. Therefore, Christ is the only way to salvation of all who were, are now, or shall be."

According to the Reformers, the task of preaching is to share the Good News that God rescued us from our sin through His Son Jesus.

The second "mark" or attribute of the true Church was the proper administration of the Sacraments. During the Reformation there was much debate between Christians over what was a Sacrament and what was not.

The word Sacrament comes from the Latin word sacramentum meaning something sacred. This concept was used earlier by Greek writers who used the word mysterion to mean something sacred, unknown or mysterious.

For the Reformers, the Sacraments were an outward sign of an inward grace. The items that they identified as Sacraments were baptism and communion (also called "The Lord's Supper" or the Eucharist).

In baptism, according to Martin Luther (1483-1546), it is not the minister or the one being baptized who exerts the religious effort but God. As one historian explained Luther's view:

"God is the Doer in baptism, the minister merely God's agent. In baptism God announces His gracious acceptance of the sinner, for those who receive baptism in faith are none other than those who have been bathed and cleansed in the blood of Christ." (Timothy George, "Theology of the Reformers", pg. 94)

For the Reformers, there was also much debate over the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper.

Some (like Zwingli in his early years, in response to the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation) explained that the taking of the bread and wine was only a memorial. Because Scripture taught that Jesus is "seated at the right hand of the Father", Zwingli in his early years could not accept a belief that communion could be anything more than a memorial. After all, Christ had said, "Eat this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19).

Others, like Luther and Calvin (and Zwingli later in life), believed that communion certainly was a memorial, but also something more...something where Christ was present.

Luther referred to Christ's words in Luke 22:19, "this is my body given for you" and Christ's words in the next verse, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." It is interesting to observe that Christ did not say this is like my body or like my blood. Rather, Christ said, "this is my body" and "this is my blood". Luther explained that Christ was present, "in, with and under" the Sacrament of the bread and the wine.

John Calvin (1509-1564) in affirming the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament, explained that the "mystery of the Supper" is that "Christ is truly shown to us through the symbols of bread and wine, his very body and blood, in which he fulfilled all obedience to gain righteousness." (Inst. 4.17.11)

Calvin explained that the Sacrament involves a "true participation with Christ Himself." In the Lord's Supper, Christians "grow into one body" with Christ and become "partakers of his substance, that we may also feel the power in partaking of all his benefits." (Inst. 4.17.11)

We might ask, "How does this happen? How does Christ unite Himself with His followers in the Sacraments of baptism and communion?"

The answer, for Calvin is that it is the work of the Holy Spirit:

"Even though it seems unbelievable that Christ’s flesh, separated from us by such great distance, penetrates to us, so that it becomes our food, let us remember how far the secret power of the Holy Spirit towers above all our senses, and how foolish it is to wish to measure his immeasurableness by our measure. What our mind does not comprehend, let faith conceive: that the Spirit truly unites things separated in space." (Inst. 4.17.10)

May we have faith to believe the things we do not comprehend and be united with Christ in the power of His Spirit,


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