These are my summary notes [and comments] on Chapter 18 of Shirley W. Guthrie, Jr.’s Christian Doctrine, “Living or Dead? The Doctrine of the Church”:
Guthrie begins by observing how much people complain about the church. He agrees the church is “in trouble.” Church numbers are declining and church influence on individuals and society at large is waning. [Not everyone sees that as a bad thing, either. Some people these days see the church as an active force for evil in the world. Some of those people speak from persuasive personal experience. For them, less church influence would be an improvement.] So it’s not that easy to take some of the doctrinal words about the church seriously: “the people of God,” “the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church,” and so on. Guthrie acknowledges this, and tries to clear up “those points at which there seems to be widespread misunderstanding and confusion today” (351).
Saying the church is the people of God underscores that the church is “called out” by God (the literal meaning of the Greek word for church, “ekklēsia”). This “called out” condition has several implications. “You are the church” (352) – in the sense that the church is “us” not “them,” “us” rather than “others.” Technically, when we find ourselves asking “why isn’t the church doing something about this?” (whatever it is), we’re asking “why aren’t we doing something about this?” Similarly, “the church is a community of people, not a building” (352) – or a headquarters, or an organizational chart, for that matter. We use the word “church” to refer to the building [as in “I’m off to church, then” or “Hey, who’s got a key to the church?”], which probably contributes to the confusion. In the really old days, though, in the first century, there were no church buildings; “the church” met in people’s homes. If the building burned down, or we couldn’t pay the heating bill and had to sell the building, we would still be, and have, the church. Finally, “God creates and governs the church” (353), which makes the church not your classic voluntary organization. It’s technically a mistake to say something like “this is my church and no Christmas help is going to make me leave” [although I have heard people say exactly that, as a matter of fact]. It’s more properly God’s church, and we are supposed to be seeking and doing God’s will in it and for it.
The church is “the body of Christ” – at a minimum that’s the image used in Scripture. That implies that Christians aren’t, and can’t be, Christians all alone, in the same way that hands or feet or small intestines can exist in isolation from the rest of the body of which they’re an integral part. This doesn’t mean that people have to belong to the church to be “good;” rather, that belonging to the church is something like an organic condition of the state of being Christian [maybe something like having roots in soil is an organic condition of the state of being a tree; or, think of coral …]. The doctrine “no salvation outside the church,” an idea the early church theologians and the reformers shared, relates to this insight. These days we might not say it quite that way, since we recognize that while God is the head of the church, the church is not the boss of God and doesn’t get to say what God can and can’t, does and doesn’t, do outside the church. [“We must have a good hope for all” is, I think, the way the Second Helvetic Confession puts it.] The point is more that the Christian experience of salvation is an “inside the church” experience, not an “outside the church” one.
How can I know that the forgiveness, love, and help of God in Christ are real if I do not experience them through the community of people who are God’s people? How can I be a Christian if I do not participate in the life and work of the community gathered and empowered by God’s Spirit to share with others the forgiveness, love, and help they themselves have received? Whoever tries to do without the church tries to do without Christ. Whoever is too good or too ‘spiritual’ for the church (with all its weaknesses and faults) is too good or too spiritual for Christ himself, the God who sent him, and the Holy Spirit who continues his work. (355)
The church is “a holy people” – another doctrine that causes a lot of difficulty. It’s objectively evident that the individuals who make up the church are not particularly holy, but rather about as sinful as everyone else. There may even be some special sins that are peculiar to churchgoers, and the institutions that are identified with the church may commit their own systemic sins. “There is no point in denying or trying to explain this away” (356). Guthrie’s discussion of the way the church is holy focuses on three things: the members of the church “know they are sinners, freely admit that they are not good or superior, and take responsibility for their sinfulness without blaming someone else for it”; Christians are “dissatisfied” with their sinfulness, confess, and seek to be transformed; and the church gathers in the name of Jesus Christ, who really is holy, and who as the head of the church impels the rest of the body in that direction (357). Part of the symbolism of communion is the dependence of the church on Christ, for everything – and is also the affirmation that we receive what we need from Christ, and arguably a means whereby we receive it. [I can go along with #3 on Guthrie’s list. I’d like to be able to go along with #1 and #2 as well. But while those seem true of at least most Christians at least some of the time, and of some Christians at least most of the time, both are sometimes very publicly absent in the lives of some very public Christians. That fact makes them pretty hard to affirm as a kind of general rule. Maybe if we said “supposed to”?]
The church is “one” and “catholic” necessarily, in being the church of the one Lord Jesus Christ; it unites the community of Christ’s followers in one “faith, hope, love, worship and service” across every time and place and condition of human life (358). The obvious problem with saying this is that the objective history and current reality of the church belies it. There are the denominations, and the fights that gave birth to them, and the ongoing fights within all of them that haven’t [yet] given birth to new schisms. Guthrie explicitly rejects two proposed reconciliations of this fraught institutional landscape with the “one, catholic” language. One is the idea that the “real” church is the invisible one that is one and catholic. No, he says, because if there is this kind of spiritual unity that animates the church, the world ought to have at least some evidence of it in visible life. (And perhaps there is some evidence of it, after all?) The other is the “branches off the same tree” idea, in which the different visible churches are “one” by virtue of that common root. Again, no, says Guthrie, because think of a family: internal diversity doesn’t lead us to make our bookish brother or annoyingly athletic sister live in a separate house, eat different food at a different table, etc. The problem caused for doctrine by the objective life of the church contradicting that doctrine can, from Guthrie’s point of view, only be addressed by recognizing the problem, and working to solve it through ecumenical endeavor.
The church is “apostolic” (363). In the Reformed tradition, this doesn’t so much mean that the leaders of the church are the most recent members of a lineage that stretches back to the original apostles, , maintained in some physical way (like, by the laying on of hands). It means, instead, that the church recognizes the authority of the apostles, which is to say, of their writings as passed down to us. From Calvin’s perspective, this amounted to rightly preaching the Word of God and rightly administering the sacraments [although what happened to foot washing?? The little Mennonite girl in me always likes to bring this up]. Guthrie points out that Calvin’s and his successors’ view of apostolicity leaves a couple of important things out. One is the mission of the church. Apostles are, by definition, sent out into the world to do things, like loving and serving people in the name of Christ, and calling them to be reconciled to God who was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. The other is who is supposed to be doing this mission, which is everyone, not just the pastors. So, don’t forget the “priesthood of all believers,” the idea that every Christian is a priest, someone who brings God to people and people to God.
With that expanded notion of apostolicity in mind, Guthrie outlines some of the practical characteristics of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church and the way it is meant to go about its mission. The church is meant to serve, God and humanity. Its purpose is not its own power or prestige or comfort, but the glory of God and the well-being of the people God loves (that is, everyone). The church is “for the world” – that is, not related to the world as to enemies who are there to be conquered or eliminated, but as the human beings God loves. The church is “with the world,” too, in the sense that the church is not separate from or immune to any of the afflictions that beset the rest of the world, not above the world in any way, but “with” the world in our common need vis-à-vis God. The church is a matter of body and soul, not one or the other. The church is meant to minister to individuals and to society, not to one or the other.
The Christ who sends us into the world as his ambassadors knows and cares for every single individual (without any ideological strings attached). At the same time, he proclaims and brings not just personal salvation but a kingdom of justice, compassion, freedom, and peace that is for all people everywhere (not just for any one group). Our assignment is not to make one or the other but both facts known by what we say and do. (369)
The key thing in approaching the church’s task is to remember that the author and finisher of the work is not us, but Christ. Wherever we go, whatever we do, Christ is already there before us, at work; wherever we go, whatever we do, we go and do to meet Christ. So wherever we go, whatever we do, we can go and do with confidence and joy (370).
I find that last affirmation immensely uplifting. I especially appreciate it after the troubling implications of Guthrie’s discussion about ecumenism, and his insistence that we need to recognize and acknowledge “the sinfulness of the wrangling within and the divisions between churches and denominations that call themselves the body of Christ” (361). This last year, especially, I have bounced back and forth and watched others I know bounce back and forth on the rhetorical front in particular. So much seems so wrong so much of the time, and other Christians seem so deeply entangled in it all. (Or, as some of my Facebook friends say, and as I sometimes allow myself to think, “Christians.” But then I feel bad about it.) Sometimes, it seems, “taking an uncompromising stand” becomes the measure of having good political commitments. Guthrie’s challenge to recognize and acknowledge the sinfulness of wrangling and division seems like a direct assault on that attitude.
The challenge for me is how to steer clear of that sinful wrangling while continuing to have firm commitments, while trying to keep a fast hold on what is good when it comes to principles and what to be “for,” and while trying to impede forces that seem to be propelling us into darkness and to chip away at what seems like calcified wrong. Of course, maybe it’s not just the challenge for me, maybe it’s the challenge for everyone, and maybe it’s not just now, maybe it’s a challenge people have always faced.
And then too, the measure of “unity” depends on who we are trying to keep being one with. The one lesson I haven’t forgotten from Presbyterian Heritage was that the Abolitionists were the only ones who seem to have been on the right side of history, the only ones who really got the ethical imperatives of the situation right. Maybe because that lesson was such a hard one.