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The Church: Why "Why Church" Is Not Where We Begin
Positioning God's People in a Lonely World
Answering the ‘what’ of the church must begin before the ‘why’ question, as there will always be a reason to say not.
On Not Beginning with “Why Church”
In most accounts of ecclesiology—at least in most modern accounts—the question of ecclesiology is one of self-justifying: why church? Why should people be a part of the church? What is meant by this is a kind of social apologetic: we live in a world in which there is skepticism—both from Christians and non-Christians—about the relationship between Jesus and being a part of a church.
Now, cards on the table: I think the why question is both understandable and theologically incoherent.
The instinct that God can be encountered in living rooms, in nature, and even on a TV is not wrong. The entire Christian tradition insists that God is not hindered by anything and can be near people through matter—even when conveyed by data packets to a screen. God indeed dwells with his people, gathered in homes across the world. Yet it would be incorrect also to call such a presence “church.” The church is not God’s guiding, consoling presence in one’s heart or the very real consolation and correction that can come when a group of Christians meets to pray. Nor is it what we name the occasional gathering of Christians to sing and study in homes or around tables worldwide. In the Bible, the concern of God in creating the church is not to form persons but to form a people. Abraham’s call was to be a blessing to the nations; David’s was to be a king of Israel, not simply a man after God’s own heart; and the judges convicted the sin of Israel’s leaders in order that the nation might be led into holiness.
Asking “why” is understandable because there are myriad scandalous churches, and plenty of wolves in the fields. There is a reason why Kristen Kobes du Mez is staying amply busy on the interview circuit, and why documentaries, book publishing, and new media projects focus on the scandals of the church writ broadly. There’s reasons why participation in church in North America among youth has declined to historically low levels,and the scandalous behavior of many a minister is no small part of this, at least according to the surveys.
And without making any apology for these abuses and scandals, such has always been the story of the church. As one who has taught church history surveys multiple years, please let me tell you about some real macro-villains. There’s an important critique to be made of the most recent spate of “evangelicalism as villain” trend in book publishing to be cast in relief against the longer history of the 20th century. For in doing so, it would become easier to see that the short history of evangelicalism since the 1940s is not necessarily an outlier when it comes to scandal. The belief that the church will be pure is a temptation which the Donatists will be happy to answer for you, and that story always ends in the church eating itself alive in a never-ending quest for impeccability.
At the same time, the possibility of a non-church Christian is a theological impossibility for the New Testament, insofar as being in Christ is to be joined to Christ’s body, to be a stone cemented into this new temple, to enter into an endless exchange of gift-giving: pick your metaphor. To be a part of Jesus’ disciples is to be among Jesus’ disciples, full stop. And this is not always easy.
Christ’s Presence Amidst the Fragments
The impulse to go it alone, despite the church, is a self-exhausting one, I think. Even if we set aside the sociological evidence that habitual attendance is the greatest predictor for a sustained faith over time, the key question is not “whether it’s sustainable”, but “whether it’s possible”, as a theological reality. By this, I mean again that the ticket to entry into Christ’s company is being among even those who are Christ’s enemies: that Ananias, Sapphira, Judas, and countless others are named as villains is predicated upon them first having been a part of the baptized.
There is no safety here. If we begin by asking “why”, we will always find a reason to never begin, save one answer: this is where we meet Jesus.
In Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah, we find Paul Atreiedes, the hero of Dune, having to live with the aftermath of winning. More specifically, he’s having trouble holding together various worlds which are far flung and have no discernible relation to each other. Paul is ready to shake off the mantle of being their leader, when his advisor Scytale makes this observation:
"Some say," Scytale said, "that people cling to Imperial leadership because space is infinite. They feel lonely without a unifying symbol. For a lonely people, the Emperor is a definite place. They can turn toward him and say: 'See, there He is. He makes us one.' Perhaps religion serves the same purpose, m'Lord."
The ancient church position of the bishop being the unifying factor of the church echoes here: that in the person of the bishop, Christ was being signified (not embodied), and this was what helped bind together churches which had no other knowledge of each other. I’m less convinced by this argument than I am the deeper indicator here: that what makes a church a church is Christ’s own presence.
Does this necessitate some kind of signs which make that presence visible? Yes! We’ll get to those questions eventually, but what I want to signal here is that the single answer to the “why church” question is simply this: the presence of Jesus. Jesus’ presence in the wild is predicated upon Jesus’ calling a people: that in the wild, Jesus calls people out of their fragments, out of being alone in the infinitude of space, and into the presence of the living Word who gathers up the scattered crumbs of bread into a single loaf. The movement is not one of endless scattering, but of going out that the whole of the world might be gathered in, that the lost sheep might be brought back into the flock.
The whole article is a banger, and you should read it.
There is recent evidence to suggest that perhaps these trends are changing, or at least plateauing?
It’s fine as far as sequels go. Nothing can match the original, and there are 25 books in the series, some written by Herbert’s kids, but the first four seem to be reasonably good. Just go with me here.
Not sorry for spoiling the end of Dune. It’s a fifty-year old book.