Thursday, June 03, 2004
As members of the Church of Jesus Christ I believe that it is our duty to recognize every baptized person as a brother and sister in Christ. It is our duty to recognize every baptized Christian as part of our history, even the most corrupt of them. Many believe that this position necessitates our rationalizing, tolerating or even participating in their sinfulness and error. I don’t believe that this is true. Rather this position necessitates that we speak truthfully about the existence of error within the Church. The purity of the Church is not an inherent purity. The purity of the Church results from the fact that it belongs to Jesus Christ. If we seek to look for the purity of the Church within the Church itself we will soon settle for a lowered standard of purity, achieved by disowning those we deem to be corrupt. This, of course, has a parallel on the individual level. The individual who struggles with guilt often seeks to free himself from guilt by disowning certain of his sinful actions by laying the responsibility upon his upbringing or environment. He falsely believes that by disowning his sin he will eventually be able to own himself. However, due to the total depravity of man there is no part of man that is untainted by sin. Man ends up being utterly alienated from himself by sin. I believe that the conviction that one can only truly own oneself when one has disowned one’s sin can also be observed on the level of ecclesiology. Whilst I am well aware of the fact that there are few if any who are thoroughgoing in the quest for the Pure Visible Church, I do believe that it is a tendency to be observed in some circles. People seek to achieve this pure visible Church by disowning any relationship with any part of the Church that they deem to be corrupt. This is merely self-righteousness made into a doctrine of the Church. Those who think within such a framework frequently presume that any claim that those within the papal churches are ‘brothers and sisters’ in any real sense of the words constitutes a denial of the reality of their errors. I fail to see how this follows at all. It is the reality of the forgiveness sealed to us in Baptism that enables us to recognize members of papal churches as brothers and sisters in Christ. Our purity is not found in the fact that we are ourselves inherently pure, nor in the fact that we belong to an inherently pure Church. Rather, our purity is found in the fact that we belong to Jesus Christ, in whom we are cleansed and freely forgiven. The fact of belonging to Christ that is sealed in Baptism enables us to own ourselves and the Church as sinful without having to be dominated by the sins of our past histories. What then becomes of our confession of the One Holy Catholic Church? The true holiness of the Church is found in its union with Jesus Christ and not inherent in the Church abstracted from Christ. The holiness of the Church arises from the fact that the true life of the Church is hid with Christ in God. Consequently, the true holiness of the Church is often hidden to the eyes of men. The fact that there are sexually immoral, greedy, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards and swindlers within the Church (1 Corinthians 5:9-13) does not negate the true holiness of the Church. Even the fact that some within the Church deny the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12) does not negate the true holiness of the Church. Calvin writes:—
Among the Corinthians no slight number had gone astray; in fact, almost the whole body was infected. There was not one kind of sin only, but very many; and they were no light errors but frightful misdeeds; there was corruption not only of morals but of doctrine. What does the holy apostle—the instrument of the Heavenly Spirit, by whose testimony the church stands or falls—do about this? Does he seek to separate himself from such? Does he cast them out of Christ’s Kingdom? Does he fell them with the ultimate thunderbolt of anathema? He not only does nothing of the sort; he even recognizes and proclaims them to be the church of Christ and the communion of saints [1 Corinthians 1:2]! [Institutes IV.i.14]The true holiness of the Church is yet to be revealed in the future. At the present time there are many rebellious members of the Church who will one day be purged out. The righteous must patiently and prayerfully bear with their presence. Calvin writes again:—
In bearing with imperfections of life we ought to be far more considerate. For here the descent is very slippery and Satan ambushes us with no ordinary devices. For there have always been those who, imbued with a false conviction of their own perfect sanctity, as if they had already become a sort of airy spirits, spurned association with all men in whom they discern any remnant of human nature. The Cathari of old were of this sort, as well as the Donatists, who approached them in foolishness. Such today are some of the Anabaptists who wish to appear advanced beyond other men. [Institutes IV.i.13]By acknowledging the reality of God’s covenant in the papal churches, Calvin did not blunt his criticism of their errors. It was this belief that enabled him to criticize them as covenant-breakers. In Calvin’s mind the Pope was ‘not an enemy from the outside but from the household of faith’ [Commentary on II Thessalonians 2:4]. Calvin argues on the basis of this that ‘we by no means deny that the churches under [the Pope’s] tyranny remain churches [Institutes IV.ii.12].’ Even in the corruption that existed in the papal churches at the time of the Reformation, Calvin argued, a remnant of God’s people was preserved and marks of the Church — most particularly Holy Baptism — remained. Calvin compares the papal system of his day to Israel under Jeroboam. The necessity of separation is found in the fact that, were the Reformers to grant to the papal system the title of the Church, they would also have to ‘grant to their church every honor, power, and jurisdiction that Christ gives to his church [Institutes IV.ii.9].’ They would also be forced to take part in sacrilegious forms of worship. This denial of communion with the papal churches was an imperative for the Reformers. However, this denial of communion was not a denial of the fact that the papal churches were in a very important sense within the covenant and within the Church of Jesus Christ. When we refer to members of the papal churches as brothers and sisters we recognize that they are not strangers to the Church of Jesus Christ, but that they are those who have been unfaithful to the covenant. When we withdraw from fellowship with the papal churches and yet continue to refer to their members as brothers and sisters we are simply following the biblical pattern of II Thessalonians 3:14-15. As Calvin observes, the sign by which the brotherly love referred to in verse 15 is to be proved is ‘not flattery or fawning respect, but admonition.’ As someone who is supportive of ‘Reformed Catholicism’, I will happily come out and say that I believe that serious errors still exist in the papal churches and that we should be careful not to become partakers in their unbiblical practices. I further believe that we should seek to evangelize members of these churches. Any form of ‘brotherliness’ that denies the imperative of obedience is worthless and to be despised. It is this sham ‘brotherliness’ that underlies much of the so-called ecumenical movement. On the other hand, I strongly affirm that the papal churches are genuinely part of the ‘visible Church’, that the clergy of these churches are to be seen as gospel ministers and that the members of these churches are to be treated as members of the Church of Jesus Christ and as those of the household of God. Consequently, we must be prepared to treat them as brothers. This position stands sharply over against the position of those who seek to disown the papal churches in order to maintain their perfectionist ecclesiology. A recognition of members of the papal churches as brothers and sisters is only possibly in the light of the belief that the Church is founded upon the free forgiveness of sins. Only when our identities have been formed by the grace and love of God do we have the tools with which to own ourselves and the Church itself as possessing histories tainted by sin. Only a form of justification that recognizes that justification is a declaration spoken over one who, considered in himself, is a sinner is truly equipped with the tools whereby we can truthfully own ourselves as sinners and be at peace with our histories. Only the belief that the true purity of the Church is found in Christ and not in the Church considered in itself abstracted from Christ is equipped with the tools to resist the self-righteous ecclesiology of many independent churches today and truthfully reclaim the Christian tradition. The Christian tradition and the history of the Church are not perfect, but if we are members of the Church it is our tradition and it is our history. By finding our identity in the fact that we belong to Christ as baptized members of His forgiven Church we are enabled to own the tradition as ours, even when it has erred. The person holding the perfectionist ecclesiology is generally reactionary. His system demands that he disassociate himself from any Church tradition that is not pure to his eyes. Those holding such ecclesiology tend to churn out revisionist histories. Their fear of being tainted derives from a false idea of where the purity of the Church truly lies and results in all of the key symptoms of self-righteousness being exhibited on the ecclesial level. These people are at risk of seeking their true identity in belonging to the ‘pure visible church’ rather than in belonging to Jesus Christ. The idea that they might be in any way related to any corrupt Church traditions threatens their self-determined ecclesial identities and strikes them with fear. The huge focus that is laid upon discipline in some churches can be seen to be inseparably connected with a desire to be in control of their own identities. Rather than surrendering ourselves as sinners to God’s free forgiveness presented to us in Baptism, we seek to determine our own identities. The notion that Baptism is primarily to be seen as our ‘act of obedience’ is one of the principal errors that lie at the root of self-righteous ecclesiology. This idea teaches that the identity of the Church is primarily determined by our faith, rather than by God’s covenant — by our word, rather than God’s Word proclaimed over us. Only when our identities have been placed in God’s hands in Baptism can we be at peace with ourselves and speak truthfully about what we have done without being destroyed by the knowledge of it. We can write honest histories and not hagiographies. We will certainly seek purity. However, this purity will be sought by confession of our sins to one another and not by denying any connection with those we deem to be impure. There are too many people who are lonely in their struggle with sin because perfectionist ecclesiology does not provide them with the means whereby to publicly own themselves as sinners without risking being shunned and alienated. People are trained to avoid speaking truthfully about sin in their own lives and churches as they are unable to properly deal with it when they find it. If we follow the Apostle Paul’s pattern we will recognize the existence of brothers outside of communion with ourselves. We will pray for the restoration of such people. We will not fear them. We only fear others when our identity is threatened by them. I believe that a denial of the fact that members of the papal churches are brothers and sisters by virtue of their Baptisms can often be the flipside of the phobia that results when we seek to be the masters of our own identities. Rather than truly reaching out to members of the papal churches with the gospel, too many evangelicals feel threatened by them and seek to define themselves in opposition to Rome. The result of this has been appalling misrepresentations and lies. We seek to paint the sins of the papal churches in the worst possible manner and put the best construction upon the sins in our own traditions. This is nothing but self-righteousness. Any church that believes in justification in Christ will be more likely to put the worst possible constructions upon their own sins and the best possible construction upon the sins of other traditions. The Christian tradition is one that must honestly confess its sinful history (cf. I Corinthians 10:1f. and numerous psalms). That we can do this without being destroyed by it is purely a result of the grace of God in Jesus Christ that now determines our existence. Our owning of our sin does not flow from any justifying of the sin itself. Rather it flows from our own justification in Christ. We need not be torn apart, trying to disown what we truly are and what we have done in order to own ourselves. The doctrine of justification enables us to own ourselves as sinners and corrupt, members of a Church that really is corrupted by liberalism, idolatry and other serious errors. However, as we are entrusted to God in Baptism we have faith that He will perfect and purify His Church. As brothers and sisters of covenant-breakers, we should daily pray for their restoration and seek to restore them to true fellowship with God and with ourselves in Christ. Purity is achieved by confession of sins and repentance rather than by utterly disassociating ourselves from covenant-breakers and disowning them. There is an awful lot more to be said on this issue, but time does not permit to explore it in the depth that I would like to at the moment.