Locating the church

Is it possible to follow Jesus while forgetting the church?

By Molly T. Marshall

Identifying the true markers that locate the church has been an ongoing debate since the early centuries of Christianity. Unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity were the classic marks distinguishing the new expression of the people of God, signed by the cross of Christ.

Soon after he became bishop, Augustine faced the Donatist controversy. The key question became: “Where is the church, whether among us or among them?” He rejected the rigorist Donatist doctrine of the church because it disallowed a mixed community, the presence of lapsed persons among the faithful. Yet, this remained an insider conversation.

Letty Russell argued Church in the Round that these early debates seemed too inward and added justice as an essential mark to the list. Liberating practices demonstrate the church’s authenticity, and one’s confession of faith is deceptive apart from redemptive action.

Bob Ballance, creative pastor of Pine Street Church in Boulder, Colo., offers this reflection in the aftermath of the devastation of flooding in his community:

Several thousand young adults formed a coalition, going door-to-door to help flood victims. When they came to a home where our church’s team of 12 had been working for days, it was late in the day, and we were all exhausted. These young adults stormed the house, realizing that we were from a “church,” and made this statement: “We’re not religious. We’re not from a church. We are not people of faith. We’re just here to help.”

Some argue that humanity is naturally compassionate, but this is too optimistic. Caring actions issue from the stirring presence of God’s Spirit who draws humanity to take up transforming initiatives for the sake of others. Of course, this is a theological interpretation, which is inescapable, in my judgment.

Are these people who have rejected faith, preferring instead to invest directly in assisting others, a new expression of church? Pope Francis is quoted as saying: “These people are the ‘new’ church. They are divorced from the ego of church politics and truly are the hands and feet of kindness and compassion.”

The church has for too long felt it has the purchase on being the source of goodness in our world. It has always startled congregations to realize that more righteous deeds may be transpiring outside of the ecclesial fold.

Whether the issue is civil rights, gender equity or immigration practices, these justice causes often run parallel to the “insider” activities of churches. In a sense, these movements “stand in” for the church, calling it to better practice.

Andrew Sullivan has written an interesting article, “Forget the Church, Follow Jesus.” He contends that American Christianity has become hypocritical and irrelevant to millions -- hence the current crisis we are living through.

In his judgment, the real culprits are politics, priests and get-rich evangelists. We can agree with him; the church has become culturally marginal, financially challenged and radically insular.

Thoughtful interpreters such as Diana Butler Bass and Phyllis Tickle believe that this time of casting off old forms can lead to a “resurrected Christianity.” I believe so, too -- especially if we consider afresh how to trace the contours of Christ’s Body.

Is it possible to follow Jesus while forgetting the church? Yes, and no. When the church is mired in ecclesiastical minutiae, which neglects the “weightier matters,” one may have to step away to see him more clearly. We see this over and over in the history of Christianity as reformers forge a more faithful following.

I am not advocating a solitary faith, however, for I do not believe that it is sustainable. We were “made for one another,” as Tom Wright puts it in Simply Christian. Soon, a community will gather around the renewed vision, and a new expression of Christ’s presence among his people will emerge.

Drawing the line between what is church and what is not church is more challenging now. As the light of the world, the risen Christ draws persons to act in self-giving ways; and they may not yet profess his name.

Matthew 25 narrates the perplexing reality of those who act according to the way of Jesus, but do not confess him as Lord. “When was it that we saw you?” is the refrain of those doing works of righteousness, those who unknowingly serve Christ.

The work of the Reign of God has a mysterious quality to it -- often hidden, nearly imperceptible, and unbounded. The church is an instrument of this dawning reality, and God grants great freedom to the forms it may take.



OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.