Who is the Church?
In John 17, Jesus prays one of His longest prayers—that for the unity of the Church to be identical to the unity between the Father and the Son. It also seems to be the one the Father has most likely (as far as appearances go) answered with a resounding “No.”
Skeptics have for centuries cited various divisions, sects, and denominations within Christendom as evidence against its veracity. I’ve always felt that these ‘divisions’ were like the various organs of a body, in accord with Paul’s descriptions of the Church being one Body with different parts, but unified in purpose…just seemingly suffering from some sort of auto-immune disease caused by human nature and the actions of the Adversary.
Yet the heat of division seems to be heating up. In college, I worked for a few months in a Christian store in the mall, a simple retail job like many students take. One day a woman walked in and asked what kind of store we were. I answered and she walked out, sniffing, “Well, I’m Catholic.” I’d heard of Protestants looking at Catholics askance, but this was not a “Protestant” store, it was a “Christian” store, so I was surprised a Catholic would see herself as Catholic over Christian.
Now we have issues over whether Messianic Jews are Jews or Christians or some unholy hybrid. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has become such a hot issue that it has damaged another candidate’s campaign due to a vocal supporter, and a major PR campaign by Mormons has taken off. Often in a discussion about whether Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses can also be Christians, it is often retorted, “but they’re Jesus is different than our Jesus.” And it goes on for many other groups, and even when you get into the issue of the interpretation of Genesis among otherwise lock-step evangelicals, it isn’t too long before hisses of “heretic!” seem to escape from clenched teeth. Indeed, one of the reasons that politics and religion are considered verboten topics in many circles is because of the incredible speed at which Jekyll/Hyde transformations can occur among otherwise civil, sophisticated human beings.
I am only making observations here and not defending one side or another. The “different Jesus” argument sure seems to have some merit when looking at certain documents and statement by the founders of the movements. However, even in mainstream Christian denominations and groups there have been periods or individuals who have gone too far in requiring or teaching things that severely mangle the line between orthodoxy and cultism, and have been pulled back.
It is easy to be baffled by this, but the root cause is pretty simple. Christ makes some pretty exclusive truth claims, and there is a justifiable desire to see that folks not be misled to believe something different that might lead to them not finding salvation. So altruism may be at its source, but the rancor and vicious aspect of many of these ‘defenders of the faith’ tends to effectively hide it from view. I myself have struggled with how much wriggle room there is in what constitutes “saving faith,” and have probably erred on both sides of the line.
Does a person, at the moment they ask Jesus to forgive their sins, have to believe or understand that He is divine, or can that understanding come later? What if it doesn’t until they trot up to the Pearly Gates? Is baptism necessary for salvation? What constitutes sufficient “fruit” in someone’s life to verify their salvation? Can a person lose salvation? Denominations have been formed and split over smaller questions than these.
Yet another monkey wrench in the works is the difference between a group and its individual members. We humans need and love labels. As finite beings, we have a need to know where the boundaries are, to know where we are safe and where we have crossed into danger. We have a need to identify and categorize things, and it isn’t an intrinsically bad trait. Back in the Garden, God specifically brought the animals to Adam to see what he would name them, and that was what they were known as from then on. (It is another whole topic to consider that simple passage—that God created the animals and plants, but gave humans the authority to Name them! Astounding when you think about it.)
The problem comes when labels are too simple or too readily given, or become confused, or evolve over time to mean different things. When first coined, “Christian” was a possibly derogative term for followers of Christ bestowed on them by nonbelievers in Antioch. Now it can be as broad as synonymous with “Westerner,” regardless of that person’s actual faith or lack thereof. So if “Baptist” can merely mean someone who regularly walks into a Baptist church on Sunday morning regardless of their actual spiritual alignment, then perhaps, just maybe, there can be orthodox followers of Christ in “edgier” groups. Then again, perhaps not.
It occurs to me that guidance might be found in Jesus’ parables. The “Good Samaritan” was His response to someone who sought to have the label of righteousness without necessarily having to actually be righteous. In the parable Christ teaches us that it is the ones who act neighborly who are neighbors, those who demonstrate righteousness who are righteous. Therefore, it does not seem too big of a stretch to suggest that a Christian is one who really has saving faith in Christ.
Unfortunately, that is an invisible trait, unlike skin color, clothing style or what door someone walks into at a specified time. So how are we to determine “who’s in?” The beauty is that we aren’t. Other parables have God telling the angels to not cut down the weeds with a big scythe for fear that some wheat might be cut, indicating very strongly that even the angels might not always be able to tell Christians from non-Christians. In still others, Christ makes it clear that He knows His own. In still another place (Revelation, I think), He calls His people out of a false religion.
So, I feel forced to conclude that it is God’s job to keep everyone sorted.
But what about the legitimate desire to curtail false teaching? Let’s go back to our instructions. We are commissioned to glorify God, and, as we go out into the world, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all He commanded, and He would be with us.
What I glean from all of this myself is that we are to teach people about Christ, and deal with people as individuals in terms of their beliefs and teachings. In other words, if a group is teaching something clearly not from Scripture, that group’s teaching should be criticized. If talking with an individual from that group, deal with what that individual believes, which may, and often does, have variation from the official position of the group. That is different than looking down on a person and condemning them for being in a group, which is the opposite of love.
Of course, it does get a lot more complicated than that, very quickly. I do not have the training or authority to lay out how to handle such situations. What I am pretty sure of is that we have a lot more room to offer grace and let the Holy Spirit work than our tendencies seem to allow. Where we need to be the most careful is in replacing Scripture with our interpretation of Scripture. This is why James urges us to be wary of becoming teachers in the faith, saying we’d better be darn sure we got it right before explaining theology to others.
Perhaps then, the answer to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 has been “yes,” insofar as the Church is made up of individuals that have surrendered in faith to Christ, and that unity is found person to person, rather than institution to institution. Does that mean I reject the institutions? No, not in the sense of being “anti-denominational.” I guess I see the denominations and other groups as places where I am most likely to find members of the Church, but the name on the door is not itself the Church. An analogy: while it is conceivable that one might find a cow in the city, if you want to maximize your chances of finding a cow, then it is best to look on a farm. But you should not expect every creature on a farm to be a cow. It is foolish to condemn a farm because of that. And, just because a farm has a cow, that does not mean that it is a dairy farm, and even dairy farms can have animals in addition to cows.
So, in light of that required humility, I offer these comments as my attempts to hold to my understanding of the faith, and deal with those with whom I seem to have significant disagreement who also claim to fit under the banner of Christ.