On Unity: Jesus Christ, The Hope of the Church

 — Oct. 29, 200729 oct. 2007

We hear complaints these days decrying much that is wrong with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): ministers with questionable theology, regrettable statements from denominational officials, and misguided decisions by judicatories at all levels. One effect of these recitations surely is to leave under a cloud Presbyterians who profess continuing loyalty to the denomination. We who remain affiliated with the denomination are often portrayed by separation-minded colleagues as sell-outs, as compromisers, as “lukewarm Laodiceans” who have sacrificed theological and biblical integrity for the sake of unity-at-any-price.

We reject these portrayals and intend now to declare the biblical and confessional faith that leads us to keep faith with our brothers and sisters within the PC(USA). We contend that the decision to remain within the fellowship involves neither a softening of confessional commitments nor a sentimental minimizing of the problems afflicting the denomination. Rather, our commitment to hold firm in common life with our fellow Presbyterians is grounded in the recognition that the hope of the church lies nowhere else than in the saving Lordship of Jesus Christ its Head.

The corollary to this affirmation is the recognition that the decision to leave is questionable as an act of Christian faithfulness. While we do not doubt the godly intentions of many who have left or are considering leaving, we suggest that the path of separation tends to reflect a certain kind of despairing unbelief regarding Christ’s presence in and with the church, an abandonment of hope in a living, acting, and reigning Lord Jesus. Such a position stands in contradiction to the Gospel.

A helpful way to understand the dynamics of this despairing unbelief is to examine it in the light of the Reformation marks of the church. Ours is certainly not the only era in which questions about separating from the church have come to the fore. The teaching of the Protestant Reformers outlining the marks of the true church, from which separation cannot be faithfully undertaken, is well known. As Calvin puts it, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the Christ’s institution, there it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.” Calvin goes on to teach that a church which bears these marks, however defective it might be in other respects, cannot be faithfully forsaken without incurring grievous sin: “Separation from the church is the denial of God and Christ.”  (Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.1.9-10)

The teaching is straightforward enough, but the process of applying it to the life of an entire denomination can quickly become confusing. A true church exists where the Word of God is purely preached and heard — how often? Measured by what standard? In what percentage of the pulpits? Since the time of the Apostles there has never existed a church where all the preachers did a completely faithful and competent job every Sunday in all the church’s pulpits. To what is this Reformation mark really pointing?

Similarly with the Sacraments: The Reformers teach that the true church is one where the Sacraments are rightly administered according to Christ’s institution. How many botched liturgies or unexamined consciences, or how many theological errors creeping into pastors’ homegrown Eucharistic or baptismal prayers does it take before this mark is considered forfeit? What percentage of congregations in a denomination need to exhibit competent sacramental practice? And how could one specify such a percentage without appearing completely arbitrary? How often must sacraments be rightly administered? Both Calvin and Knox strongly advocated weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, a standard from which most of our congregations fall short.

Applying the Reformation marks to the life of a whole denomination is a much more complicated business than it first appears!

The complications disappear, however, when we consider the Reformation marks in the light of their historical context. Examining them in their original settings makes it clear that the Reformation marks of the church are less concerned with individual aberrations and incompetence among the clergy and church leadership, and much more focused on systemic errors grounded in the church’s official teaching and confessions.

Many Protestant churches in Luther and Calvin’s time had substantial numbers of clergy who were confused or incompetent — in that respect they were little different from the Roman Catholics. In 1528 Martin Luther undertook a tour of Protestant parishes in his vicinity and discovered that large numbers of both clergy and people were completely ignorant of the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, and the Ten Commandments! But Luther’s response to this was not to separate out yet another, purer offshoot from the church at large, but to introduce his Small Catechism for teaching and instruction.

The problem that stood at the center of the Reformers’ breach with the Roman church was not that pastors and leaders were confused or incompetent, but that faithfulness was illegal. Faithful preaching and administration of the sacraments weren’t just neglected; they had been officially outlawed by the Roman church! Luther’s attempts to preach the gospel of God’s free justification of sinners led him to be censured and excommunicated by the Roman religious authorities. Calvin recognized in the officially required liturgies of the Roman Mass an idolatrous denial of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross.

As the Reformers understood them, the marks of the true church were not a question about how many instances of bad theology and scandalous practice existed on any given Sunday within the body of the visible church, but about whether faithful proclamation and sacramental ministry were legally permitted within the church’s life. Individual aberrations in doctrine and practice, even if widespread and uncorrected, do not in Calvin’s view justify the “atrocious crime” and “sacrilegious disloyalty” of separation:

I confess it a great disgrace if pigs and dogs have a place among the children of God, and a still greater disgrace if the sacred body of Christ be prostituted to them. But even if the church be slack in its duty, still each and every individual has not the right at once to take upon himself the decision to separate. Indeed, I do not deny that it is the godly man’s duty to abstain from all familiarity with the wicked. … But it is one thing to flee the boon companionship of the wicked; another, in hating them, to renounce the communion of the church.”
(Institutes IV.1.15)

But isn’t it a shockingly lax standard, to say that we should stay with the church so long as faithful ministry has not been declared officially illegal? Don’t these Reformation marks fall far short of the rule of righteousness befitting the followers of Christ? Shouldn’t we in our term be zealous and ambitious enough for the cause of Christ to set a higher and better standard than this for the church?

The answer is, of course, that Christ does call the church to higher standards than this, and we, like the Reformers before us, should strive and pray and work to achieve those better standards, trusting in the help of the Holy Spirit and relying on God’s grace when we fall short.

But now, to advance our argument, we must make a theological point of some importance: the Reformation marks of the church are not a description of ideal aspirations, but a statement of confidence in the reality of the presence of Jesus Christ himself to and for the congregation. It is this presence — in the freedom of his love and in the power of the Spirit — that constitutes the church. We do not ourselves, either by what we do or in what we attest, bring the church into being. Wherever Christ is, there is the church. Or to put it colloquially: it is not about us, it is about him!

The issue has to do with the Reformers’ belief about where the hope of the church ultimately resides. The hope of the church, as the Reformers see it, lies not in our human powers and abilities and achievements, but in the life-giving grace of God given to us in, through, and as Christ and the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself is the ultimate hope of the church, through his ongoing presence with us in the Spirit, manifest to us in Word and sacraments.

The practical consequence of this teaching is that the Reformers see hope for the church wherever there exists the actuality of an active connection to Jesus through Word and Sacrament — a connection (better, perhaps, a koinonia) that is alone his to give. Because the Lord Jesus wills to speak to and be present for his people (an actuality), there is now the genuine possibility of fellowship with him through the Word rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. And where Christ is present we do not abandon hope and go elsewhere! Human error, wickedness or incompetence, no matter how grievous, do not have the capacity to place the church permanently beyond the reach of Christ’s healing, renewing presence, and power.

Seen in this light, it is worth pondering the messages, unintended perhaps, but nonetheless real, we would proclaim should we decide angrily to break fellowship with a church where the possibility (because of Christ’s presence) of faithful preaching and sacramental ministry remains intact and to a certain extent in effect. We highlight two such messages. In leaving we would either be making the fearful judgment that Jesus Christ had wholly abandoned the proclamation and sacraments of the PC(USA); or, our departure from a church where Christ was still present would suggest that Christ’s presence is not enough to establish the church’s hope for the future! Such a separation effectively proclaims that the hope of the church must lie elsewhere than Christ’s reality and reign, perhaps in the supposedly superior moral purity and theological righteousness of its leaders and members.

Intended or not, the act of separating from a church that still bears the Reformation marks, and the assumption behind them of the actual reality of a present, acting, and reigning Lord Jesus, shifts the essential foundation of the church’s hope from what God has done, does, and will do for us in, through, and as Jesus Christ, to what human holiness and theological acuity can muster of their own accord.

We are bold now to call upon all our sisters and brothers who are facing decisions whether to leave or stay: Consider prayerfully and faithfully the message that your actions will proclaim. Consider where your hope really lies. Amid frustration and disappointment, continue to cast yourself upon Jesus Christ as the one sufficient hope for yourself and for the PC(USA). It is Christ’s presence and strength, not ours, that alone is capable of guiding and preserving and sustaining the church. It is Christ’s holiness and righteousness, not ours, that brings hope of renewal in the face of all the human error, weakness, and incompetence that might afflict it.

Jesus Christ is Lord! This is made for us the sure foundation. Let us then receive our Lord with joy and be about the business of bearing witness to him both in the church and in the life of the world.

Mark Achtemeier is associate professor of systematic theology at University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and Andrew Purves holds the Hugh Thomson Kerr Chair in Pastoral Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, Pa.

Posted: Oct. 29, 2007 • Permanent link: ecumenism.net/?p=7287
Categories: OpinionIn this article: Christian unity, ecumenism, Presbyterian Church USA
Transmis : 29 oct. 2007 • Lien permanente : ecumenism.net/?p=7287
Catégorie : OpinionDans cet article : Christian unity, ecumenism, Presbyterian Church USA

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