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The messiness of church

August 22, 2005

I woke up this morning thinking about the messiness of the church. Here’s what I’m thinking about.

Some people think they don’t need the church because of the hypocrisy the see in those who go to church. I find it interesting that these people, many times are not rejecting God, or their own spiritual quest, but they cannot stomach the superficiality (wearing of masks), the cultural ghetto Christianity, the dysfunction in our congregational family systems…and probably sundry other reasons. For whatever reason, these individuals continue their God quest outside the Church. The question is, can you have a God-filled life without the Church, without a rhythm of worship with a local expression of the Church? Can you live a life that is more true, less hypocritical, while at the same time rejecting the Church, which Jesus and the Bible seem to unequivocably claim to be part of the God-filled life–organically so. In other words, I can’t have the God of the Bible and Christianity, without taking my place in the Church. Anything else, is me inventing my own path.

Then there are the people who see the flaws and messiness of the Church throughout history. People who view the post-Constantinian church as compromised by too close of an identification with the powers of this age. People (most Protestants I would say) who view the institutional (Catholic in the West/and most people have never thought much of the church in the East-Orthodox) church as corrupted by power or caught up in dead rituals, traditions, and idolatry. For many Anabaptists there has been a reaction against the differentiation of authority between priest and laity. There is somewhat of an ambiguity as to where the locus of authority lies. In deed we have affirmed that the Holy Spirit is at work in the whole Body of Christ. We have embraced an ecclesiology that seeks to live out the priesthood of all believers. We have de-and reconstructed the role of pastoral mininstry. My role as pastor is not an office I fill.

So we many times look around the Church of the first 1500 years and focus in on Church as our own tradition reconnecting with Christ in the written words of the New Testament, as the Holy Spirit works in us to lead us on the path of conversion and discipleship to Jesus in all of life. In this move we have emphasized the role of discerning Scriptures and the way of faithfulness in local communities–where we worship, find fellowship, and seek to live out our witness (historically as a third way, outside the political, cultural mainstream). These cultural enclaves, have been evolving as the currents of modernity have influenced the way we are and live. Mennonites look very much like our neighbor across the street as I’ve heard Keith Weaver say.

But, getting back to my point. In focusing on the church as gathered local communities, we’ve lost a sense of the church catholic. The church that is organically connected in Jesus, with all it’s members across time and space. Yes, this even includes the part of the church represented by those who persecuted our forbears. Then there were the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Conquest of the Americas. So, in our ecclesiastical sense of self, we do not see all this messy flawed history, as our own history in any kind of primary identity way. We are a part of the Reformation, so our sense of churchliness is primary formed out of the reaction against the church Catholic. Although if you read Snyder and other Anabaptist historiagraphy, we discover that even our own roots in early Anabapstism were influenced by medieval mysticism and many practices of the Church (catholic). Can we just be localized church, or our own denomination without the Church catholic (C)/orthodox (O) across time and history? Well yes, you will say, of course we are a part of the Church across time and history. But I would ask, how is that reflected in our worship, in our theology, in our ecclesiology. (I am so thanful for Pilgrim Marpeck.) I know, I know, some of you will say, “But will they have us?” But the discussion of that question is for another post.

Then you have the contemporary currents of rejecting, or moving beyond with little sense of identification with denominations. For those in this category, church is following the Spirit into the “new thing.” I don’t have time to go into this one in depth, but the question at the end of it is–Can you have the fullness of the Holy Spirit, while rejecting or viewing as unnecessary the history of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church? It’s not that we cling to old wineskins, and reject the new (to use a very popular metaphor in this stream), but we view these words of Jesus as primarily referring to his work of establishing a new and better covenant once and for all. Read Hebrews. So the primarily application for this text (wineskins) is not just to rationalize why we need to do the “new thing” whatever it is (and it is always changing)–worship style, seeker-sensitive movement, laughing revival, emerging church… just to mention a few.

I am a flawed individual, who will be no less hypocritical if I avoid the church. I am a Mennonite, with a full appreciation for the distinctives of Anabaptism. But I am also recovering my Faith heritage as a Christian, who is receiving the faith (Jude 3) not just through the letter of Scripture (Holy Spirit at work), but also through the Great Tradition (of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church) that helps me hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church. I am a Spirit-filled Christian. I believe that I was sealed with the Holy Spirit at baptism. This reality in my life, however, is not just limited to the understandings and constructs of Charisma magazine. I am seeking to follow the Spirit with my local congregation at Sunnyside, into the world that God has made and is in the process of redeeming. I am seeking communion with the orthodox faith of the broader Body of Christ (St. Vincent of Lerins).

Well, this is way too much depth for not having had my first cup of coffee today.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. DML permalink
    August 23, 2005 1:58 am

    I’ve never dared to respond publically to ideas posted on this blog even though I have appreciated your ideas and way of articulating your convictions, questions and reflections. I am usually not good at expressing my beliefs and what I am thinking in an organized and focused way, but after my experience today and now reading this blog, I want to give it a try. I welcome anyone who reads this to help me gain a better perspective on my thoughts.

    I am feeling very discouraged concerning the idea of a unified church. There is nothing that I desire more than a church of the present which is willing to relate across denominational, cultural, social, etc. lines. I want to see the church as the body of Christ across time take ownership of its past, both good and bad. I am encouraged to see ecumenical and interdenominational gatherings take place where I pray and hope that participants are stretched to understand and have more respect for those from other Christian traditions. My husband and I have always been intentional to support projects or ministries where Christians from many backgrounds come together. There are so many conversations I have had with other Christians where I have said or wish I could just say, “I am so glad that (despite our disagreements on whatever issue(s))we worship the same Lord and Christ.”

    Unity in the body of Christ is a miracle, a gift from the Holy Spirit. I may be wrong but I think that unity is a gift few local congregations experience. (I am so joyful that Sunnyside, where I attend, exhibits unity despite differences!) And, I believe that it is because of selfishness and stubborness causing disunity at the local level, that unfortunately, unity is not yet the reality in the Christian Church at large. How Christ must grieve to see his bride disjointed, in pain, and far from the glory we so often sing about in our churches!

    Though I usually feel optimistic, today I really question whether a “catholic” church is really something that will ever happen before Christ returns. Or is it something that must happen before Christ returns? I am not usually as hopeless as I feel today, but I wonder, how can the Church ever be a spotless bride if it is so divided? If unity is really a requirement for “spotlessness,” I will continue in hope and endurance, but I can’t say there will never again be days of doubts.

    Today I had two conversations with two different people about how we relate to those who hate us. The issue began with the Iraq war (surprised?) and ended with relationships. The one conversation was with a non-Christian and the other with a Christian. Interestingly enough, unlike the Christian, the non-Christian agreed with me that we should not be at war with Iraq. He said that lots of innocent people were being killed. However, unlike me, his conclusion was that if people don’t like us (Americans) we should just (in so many words) obliterate them and get out of there. The Christian’s conclusion, ironically, was not so different, in my opinion. He falls into the camp which says we should never have gone to Iraq in the first place (isolationalist). Rather than be nice to these people who keep killing us, he says, we have to do our duty. Afterall, it is a Muslim-Christian issue. He said that their jihad requires they (and who is “they?” – all Muslims? all Iraqis? all people who hate Americans?) kill Christians. He felt that hatred warrented our attacks and war. I felt like responding to him by saying, “so if you sent me a letter saying that you hate me, that gives me the right to kill you?”

    I have heard many “sermons” on the Christian networks justifying America’s war and killing. I grieve when I hear the name of Christ or the Word of the Lord manipulated to serve the endeavors of church leaders who say they speak for God (or maybe for political leaders???). Even though the Iraq war has been a hot topic for so long now, today I am angry. And I am sorry to say that I am overwhelmed with emotion when I think that anyone can believe or have hope that Christians can overcome their differences to worship together. I can excuse a non-Christian for condoning killing and hatred. But how … how can a Christian, who claims to be a follower of Christ … Christ who did not even lash out against his accusers who accused him falsely … condone killing in response to hatred. Are we really worshipping the same Christ?

    Author, Ron Sider, in his book, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscious,” talks about how the Church needs to be more unified, a holy and righteous community. Jesus needs to be the center. Believers need to practice community, seeing the Church as the people of God, not individuals, all who are accountable to Christ and to one another. Finally, the Church needs to be counter-cultural, “seeking to be a visible manifestation of Jesus’ dawning kingdom rather than a carbon copy of the fallen world which is passing away…” Can the Church’s love for Christ and His Kingdom transcend our culture of individualism, our world of racism and prejudices, our empires of political divides, our ignorance of or indifference to our history? Today my hope is low.

  2. loren permalink
    August 23, 2005 2:19 am

    Hi Brian and DML,

    I read this post and it had some good thoughts. I’m glad you recognize the church universal, including the church throughout the ages. But here’s another way to look at it.

    As you know, the Bible includes prophecy about the church. This also means the church has a destiny, and we are not there yet. If you’d like to see what it looks like, check out Eph 4:13-16, at the premise level.

    Hope this helps. His peace.

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    August 23, 2005 11:35 am

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