Friday, February 26, 2010

What Is the Church?

I quoted St. Francis De Sales' Catholic Controversies last week for his argument from history. Basically:
  1. We know Christ established one core set of beliefs in his Church, and entrusted the Holy Spirit to guard that Truth;
  2. Since two Persons of the Holy Trinity are actively protecting these beliefs, we should find them continually proclaimed;
  3. #2 invalidates Protestantism, since its distinctive views can all be traced to extremely late sources like Luther and Calvin;
  4. #2 also validates Catholicism, since we know from Romans 1 that Rome had the true Faith, and we know from history that there was never a point were the Roman Church started proclaiming something else, only to be called out by faithful Christians everywhere.
My friend Erin responded from a Protestant perspective. Her argument, as best I can encapsulate it, was:
  1. The proposition that "the Church is run by human beings, not God. How could it ever be true?"
  2. And derived from that, that "The Truth is in the Gospel, in the Word of God, not the structure of the Church."
I responded that the Church is run by human beings, but also by God. Luke 10:16 is instructive here, in that it shows fallible individuals speakingwith the power and authority of the infallible Christ. Acts 1:17, Acts 1:20 and Luke 9:1 are also helpful, in that they show that even Judas was chosen by Christ to hold office, given a share in the ministry, and given power and authority (in the case of Luke 9:1, to drive out demons, a power possible only to God, as made clear in Matthew 12:26-28). If even wretchedly sinful people can do things by the power of God, then for me, it's not a real obstacle to say, "Yes, Alexander VI was a bad Christian," and simultaneously, "Yes, Alexander VI was the authority chosen by God to head the earthly Church." If the truth of the Catholic Church were dependent upon the personal holiness of the pope, we'd have been destroyed 2000 years ago.

Erin responds:
Hey Joe,

You got my thesis right for the most part. Here's what I struggle with: the argument that one Christian church is better than the other. How can one be more true than the other? I have heard the arguments on this, and very intelligently stated especially by you and others, and I've heard it for years, but I just don't get it. I think it's because everything I was taught in regards to this issue runs parallel to most Catholic arguments. I don't think that helps when we try and understand each other.

I want to clarify, I don't think that the church need be either, or, instead I agree with you quite vehemently that the Church is both human and spiritual. Where I disagree I think is that I don't believe that the Catholic Church is the true church, as I don't believe that any Protestant Church is the true church, rather the True Church is the community of believers.

Maybe that makes my position more clear? Maybe it complicates the discussion? Who knows :)

Have a great day,

Erin

The argument that Erin struggles with, how can one Christian church can be more true than the other, is self-evidently true, although I don't deny it's problematic. Here's what I mean. Catholics claim that the Eucharist is the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ. Protestants claim Catholics are wrong about this: not only that Protestant communion is symbolic (to which Catholics agree), but that Catholic Communion is symbolic. If they didn't believe this, they'd have to acknowledge that while their own denomination might have a lot of great things - a great choir, solid preaching, good fellowship, and a shared passion for Our Lord - that it lacked the most precious thing available to any Christian, Something available at even the worst Catholic parish: the Flesh and Blood of Our Savior, Who communes with the faithful and enriches their life spiritually. What's more, Catholics believe that the Bible and Sacred Tradition are both quite clear that we're instructed to confess our sins, clean our consciences, and Commune with Christ Physically. Protestants, of course, deny that the Bible instructs any such thing. Now the two camps can't both be equally right. There's simply no way to create some sort of Schrödinger's Communion where it's at once the Body of Blood of Christ when receieved by the Catholic, and merely the representation of Such when a Protestant observes a Catholic receiving. Someone has to be wrong.

What's important to note here is that "Someone has to be wrong" means that they're holding to a non-Christian belief, in as far as a belief can't both be untrue and be the Christian belief. But it's not true to say that the person who holds this belief is therefore "less Christian." This is a frequent mistake, and it needs serious correction. The Catholic Faith isn't simply a collection of multiple choice questions which need to be answered correctly. It's a relationship with our Lord and Savior: a relationship which He's structured in a specific, often misunderstood way. To take two extreme examples: compare the Pharisees, who had a better theological understanding of Judaism than the average fisherman or tax collector, and even spoke with binding authority in Matthew 23:1-3, to the children Christ welcomed in Luke 18:16-17. The children had a better relationship with Christ, but there were still areas where they needed to realize that the Pharisees were right. Being "correct" and being "good and faithful" are two very different things.

So I see no problem in saying that a faithful Protestant may sorely misunderstand Eucharistic theology, and in the process, miss out on the greatest opportunity afforded them upon this Earth, and still be more of a Christian, or have a better relationship with Christ, than a Catholic who understands the Eucharist, knows It to be Truth Incarnate, and then never acts upon that belief. So I think that this is probably the important distinction. I'm not arguing that all Protestants are less Christian than all Catholics. I'm arguing that on this and other issues, they're wrong, believing something other than God intends them to believe, and that this wrongness harms both their own spiritual journey and the unity of the Body of Christ as a whole.

Christ's command in Matthew 23:3 about the Pharisees is: "So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach." And I think for a Catholic living under Alexander VI, this would be the same thing. He never preached heresy as pope: he simply lived a shoddy personal life.

So when we talk about the Truth, it's certainly possible to proclaim the absolute Truth. The Bible, for example, is absolutely perfect. But it's not possible to live the absolute Truth as fallen men and women. The lives of the Apostles and the Prophets before them are not absolutely perfect. So when you say that the True Church is the community of believers, I'm not sure what that means. When a Catholic says it, we mean that there is the Catholic Church which possesses and proclaims the fullness of the Truth as given to us by Christ. She proclaims everything true and nothing false. Within Her walls are every saved man, woman, and child. Some are formally, and visible within Her walls, while some aren't (but should be, and would be if they realized this). But the mere fact that Protestants claim not to be Catholic doesn't mean that they're not still Catholic. As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:15, "If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body." So the Body of Christ is visible, but will have some parts which don't think that they're part of the visible Body.

This, more or less, is the Catholic view of Church. It's a little more complex than this, of course:
  1. we think that the Church consists of all the saved on Earth, in Purgatory, and in Heaven;
  2. that She consists of specific offices such as bishop, priest, and deacon, even when those offices are held by unsaved individuals;
  3. that She contains all true Doctrines;
  4. that She contains all true Believers;
  5. that She is Visible, and we can say where She is;
  6. that She contains some who are connected Invisibly, and we can't say where She isn't;
  7. that She is capable of acting institutionally.

The seventh point here is one which is also important. Look at how the New Testament describes the Church: it's capable of exercising discipline, and excommunicating members (see, e.g., Matthew 18:17-18). If She were only the collection of all Believers (#4), and not also an institution with offices (#2), She couldn't exercise discipline.

As I understand it, this description of the Church is both solidly Biblical, and descriptive of the Catholic Church. I don't know of any Protestant denomination which even purports to be the One True Church, so if it's true that God the Son established a visible Church (Matt. 16:17-19) to be the "pillar and foundation of Truth" (1 Tim. 3:15), I think it narrows the possibilities to One. Hopefully, this was responsive, and advances the discussion. I'm eager to hear her response.

2 comments:

  1. I can’t disagree with you that Protestants view Communion as a symbolic element. But I will say that it’s not merely a symbol, maybe it is for Lutherans or other Protestant denominations. I will say that my denomination believes that we commune directly with the living Christ through Communion. I am a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) tradition and we believe the following:

    The Lord’s Supper or Communion is celebrated at weekly worship. It is open to all who are followers of Jesus Christ. The practice of Holy Communion has become the central element of worship within the Disciples tradition. Disciples’ observance of the Lord’s Supper emanates from the upper room, where Jesus shared bread and win with his disciples of the eve of his crucifixion. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the living Christ is met and received in the sharing of the bread and the cup, representative of the body and blood of Jesus. The presence of the living Lord is affirmed and he is proclaimed to be the dominant power in our lives.

    While yes, the physical elements are representative, it’s not merely symbolic. It is transcendent. We can experience the living Christ, the body of Jesus, commune with him in the act of Holy Communion. I would hardly say that’s just a symbol. It is a physical act of connection made by the Holy Spirit between Christ’s followers and our Lord.

    For as often as you eat this bread, and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 1st Corinthians 11:26

    That line is from the NRSV is it differently stated in other versions? But the point is that Christ speaks of the elements as both bread and His body. I think it’s easy to interpret the text one way or the other…the trick is, who is right? But does someone have to be wrong? I guess so. But is it that important? Sure, if Catholics are right that during the Eucharist, I physically eat Jesus and drink His blood, I may be missing out on something. But if we are all seeking communion with the Living God, I don’t really see why someone has to be wrong. Or rather, I’m not sure it matters. In 1st Corinthians Christ says, offers his body and blood, because literally he will be offering it. He asks His disciples to remember Him, to partake of His offering. To commune with the sacrifice He will be making and to remember it until His coming again.

    We also believe that our sins need to be confessed, but without the present of a Priest. Although in our tradition, celebration of Grace is very important, we are asked to share our shortcomings and failures in living a Holy life with God; to ask for forgiveness and to transform our lives.

    So someone has to be wrong. Okay, I’ll jive with that notion. I guess we’ll find out for sure when hopefully we have this conversation with the real deals. AKA God and Jesus. Wouldn’t that be fun? You and I sitting there with coffee (because I’m REALLY hoping there’s coffee in Heaven) and chatting it up with the Big Guys!?!? I really hope that happens.

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  2. Anyway, I’ll reiterate that I loved what you wrote here. Right on:

    But it's not true to say that the person who holds this belief is therefore "less Christian." This is a frequent mistake, and it needs serious correction. The Catholic Faith isn't simply a collection of multiple choice questions which need to be answered correctly. It's a relationship with our Lord and Savior: a relationship which He's structured in a specific, often misunderstood way. To take two extreme examples: compare the Pharisees, who had a better theological understanding of Judaism than the average fisherman or tax collector, and even spoke with binding authority in Matthew 23:1-3, to the children Christ welcomed in Luke 18:16-17. The children had a better relationship with Christ, but there were still areas where they needed to realize that the Pharisees were right. Being "correct" and being "good and faithful" are two very different things.

    I think this is such an important preface that all Christians need to think about when they discuss issues and beliefs. It establishes our community as believers and enters the conversation in an open way.
    Just to give a little background on what I grew up being taught in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) tradition:

    1. Within the whole family of God on earth, the church appears wherever believers in Jesus the Christ are gathered in His name. Transcending all barriers within the human family, the one church manifests itself in ordered communities bound together for worship, fellowship, and service; in varied structures for mission, witness, and mutual accountability; and for the nurture and renewal of its members. The nature of the church, given by Christ, remains constant through the generations, yet in faithfulness to its nature, it continues to discern God’s vision and to adapt its mission and structures to the needs of a changing world. All dominion in the church belongs to Jesus, its Lord and head, and any exercise of authority in the church on earth stands under His judgment.
    2. Within the universal Body of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is identifiable by its testimony, tradition, name, institutions, and relationships. Across national boundaries, this church expresses itself in covenantal relationships in congregations, regions, and general ministries of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ), bound by God’s covenant of love. Each expression is characterized by its integrity, self-governance, authority, rights, and responsibilities, yet they relate to each other in a covenantal manner, to the end that all expressions will seek God’s will and be faithful to God’s mission. We are committed to mutual accountability. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and constantly seeks in all of its actions to be obedient to his authority.

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