Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Who belongs to the Church?

Ecclesiology must try to answer not only What the Church is, but also the Who and the Where of the Church.

Who is a member of the Church? I think this question has to be answered differently depending on who asks the question. We need, on the one hand, some kind of objective answer that the Church can use do decide who is a member and who is not. But this answer may be different from the subjective answer to the question "Do I belong to the Church?".

Regarding the objective answer we must first ask why the Church as an institution needs an answer to this question. The reason must not be in order to know who to serve and who not: The Church must show the same kind of love to all humans regardless if they are Christians or not. A Church that turns away a person in need, spiritually or physically, is no church. This, I feel includes rituals such as the Eucharist. The Church can uphold a practice of admitting only Christians to the Table, but not turn away someone that wishes to participate based on some objective criterion.

The reason there needs to be a kind of objective criterion of Church membership is that the Church needs to respect that some people do not want to be treated as members by the Church. This refers to people belonging to other religions, as well as people that feel the need to protest against the Church for one reason or other. These feelings are rooted in a searching for identity, a search that the Church in such cases may support the best (thus fulfilling the Church's mission) by stepping back. But the Church should not deny anyone what it has to give in any situation. Love knows no other way. This objective criteria is obviously baptism, no other criteria is possible. (Churches that do not have baptism obviously must find some other solution)

The subjective answer to the question "do I belong to the Church?" is much more difficult to address. Here baptism is not enough, such an answer does not answer the problem formulated in the question. This is especially true because of the practice of paedobaptism. If a baptised person does not feel secure about being part of the Church, this is not a question about objective membership but a question of identity.

A person belongs to the Church if he or she believes that the use of the biblical narrative and the participation in the sacraments and worship of the Church is helpful in overcoming the existential problems encountered in life. This is a technical way of expressing what can in religious language be expressed as to believe that Jesus Christ is Lord. The biblical narrative and the sacraments and worship ultimately aim at making the life story of Jesus Christ an internal part of the individuals life story.

There is room for variations of emphasis here: while one tradition puts the emphasis more on the "Word of God" another may emphasize the sacraments. The point is that I feel it is difficult to call someone a Christian (except in the sociological sense) unless a person believes that being Christian benefits him or her in some way. But there is no way of objectively establish who fulfils this criterion and the Church should not try to do so. There are obviously indicators ("holiness"), but these are not foolproof and the Church, as an institution should not base its practice on them.


Aaron G said...

Hello Patrik.

I like this post and agree with a lot of it. However, I have a couple of questions:

1. You say the church deny turn anyone away, including turning them away from the Eucharist, BUT also that we can 'admit only Christians' to receive the Eucharist.

2. You understand that 'some people do not want to be treated as members' BUT you also say 'there needs to be...objective criterion of Church membership.'

Patrik said...

Yes, that was a bit unclear wasn't it?

1. Regarding the Eucharist my point is that The Church can uphold this tradition, but it is the individual, not the Church that is deciding at that moment who is a Christian. For the Church, that someone wishes to participate should be enough.

2. It is precisely because some people do not want to be treated as members that there needs to be an objective criterion in some cases. This is about respecting the integrity of the individual, not about protecting the "purity" of the Church.

byron said...

A person belongs to the Church if he or she believes that the use of the biblical narrative and the participation in the sacraments and worship of the Church is helpful in overcoming the existential problems encountered in life.

Thanks for this post. I wonder about the language of 'benefit' you include in the definition. While certainly not disputing the massive blessings that flow from life in Christ, I wonder whether one of them is a clearer picture of the problems from which one is rescued in the first place. That is, I am not convinced that the gospel is a straightforward answer to the felt existential needs of humanity. While it does ultimately answer those needs (or the needs behind them), sometimes it does this through transforming our vision of what it is that we do really need. This can perhaps be described as the death of the self ('I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I that live but Christ that lives in me...').

Would love to hear your thoughts on this. Keep it up.

Patrik said...

byron, I agree completely with you comment, perhaps I could have emphasized that the benefits of being a Christian are not straightforward, and especially that they are not easy to see for someone who does not believe in them.

Its a balancing act, because if we keep salvation to closely tied to practical life, we may end up in the kind of theology that promises health and riches to the faithful. On the other hand, if we do not believe there is something useful about believing all we have left is blind submission, and I don't think that is what Christianity is about.

I wrote more about this in another post earlier.

Aaron G said...

Thanks for the clarification, Patrik!

I agree that an individual's decision whether they are a "Christian" is probably more imperative than an institutional decision. However, there are times when the individual is plagued by doubt/guilt/existential conflict, and the institution is able to "objectively" say, "No, you ARE forgiven; you are beloved; you are accepted."

byron said...

Patrik: Yes - both indeed. Real blessings, but every Spiritual blessing (Eph 1.3). That they are Spiritual (from the Spirit) does not mean that they are not real (!) - a point that needs to be made in a reductionist world (notice I didn't say in a materialist world - because I don't think that Spiritual is to be straightforwardly opposed by material). Yet that they are Spiritual means that they belong to the Spirit of God's hidden wisdom, the Spirit and wisdom of the age to come (1 Cor 1-2). This kept from being a new gnosticism by incarnation and resurrection: the new age is not the overthrow or replacement of the old, but is its (hidden) culmination, its renewal, its resurrection.

byron said...

Oh, and Aaron: good point about the need for objective assurance. This is where public reading of Scripture is also important: hearing afresh from outside oneself of God's gracious initiative.

Patrik said...

Aaron, I agree with your pastoral concern, but I am not sure in is an institutional affirmation that is needed: rather it is the help from another person to come a subjective decision.

Chris T. said...

I like your definition for belonging to the Church, Patrik. In the context of un-, under-, and de-churched people, some of whom may be baptized but not Christian, and some of whom may be "seekers" who identify with the Gospel but cannot approach the institution, it's quite useful to consider how central the Church's narrative and sacraments are for a person. That is a fairly effective rubric for membership, I think.