09 February 2006

Parables & Ecclesiology

Several parables of Jesus have been applied to ecclesiology—the Church’s understanding of herself. One is the parable of the wheat and tares (Mt 13.24-30).

This parable is misunderstood if it is interpreted to mean that the tares are wicked priests or badly behaving Christians. As St Augustine points out, the Lord later says, “The field is the world” (Mt 13.38). Therefore, “He doth not thereby directly speak of the Church, [so] we may with good reason understand the seed of evil-doers to be the hereticks, since in this world they are mingled together with the good, not in one common Communion, but only under one common name of Christian.” (Liber Quæst. Evang. in Matth. cap. 11, tom. 4)

In other words, in this parable the Lord indicates that he mercifully permits heresy to grow up alongside the Church. However, this mercy does not give Christians permission to remain in communion with heretics. Quite forcefully, St Paul reminds us that communion with heretics is prohibited. (See, for example, 2 Thes 3.6 & Titus 3.10 esp in the KJV). Where those in heretical communions ought to go is another question for another day…

The misunderstanding of this parable, however, coincides with a similar misunderstanding among Christians—a misunderstanding fueled, I would suggest, by a flattening of the word “sin” coupled with a fiercely held belief in the primacy of the invisible church.

The misunderstanding goes something like this:

  1. The church in its visible manifestation is not perfect.
  2. That imperfection is seen by the bad actions of Christians.
  3. Those bad actions range from moral imperfections (meanness, impiety, abuse) to false teaching (heresy).
  4. Nevertheless, the church’s communion is not invalidated by those bad actions since the Lord says, “Let the wheat and tares grow together.”

The error in this syllogism is in the third point: the equation of moral imperfections with false teaching. In Apology VII, the 1580 Book of Concord rightly distinguishes between “wicked priests” (i.e., impious and immoral men) and “false teachers” (heretics). The former are in view when Luther talks about “the devil and his grandmother” giving a valid communion; but the latter we are to flee from with all haste since they deliberately, persistently, and willfully deny the faith.

If one flattens sin to include any breach (however small) of any of the commandments (as if the order doesn’t matter), then there is no reason to flee heretics. And if the church is primarily invisible (i.e., its visible manifestation is secondary and occurs only in a select faithful “local congregations”), then fleeing heretics and false teachers is simply a matter of creating a new bureaucratic structure.

However, what if the Church is the ecclesial Body of Christ with all the same characteristics of the incarnate Body of Christ (as St Paul suggests in Rom 12 and 1 Cor 12)? What if ecclesiology is christology not simply noetically but actually? Is it possible, then, that heresy is not a virus within the body but a cancerous growth which must be quickly and surgically removed? And if excision is not possible, might this suggest that the "body" in which one finds himself may not be the true body after all?

Or, to return to the parable, is it possible that while the wheat and tares remain in the world, they must not (in fact, cannot) commingle?


Anonymous said...

Fr Fenton,

As always, I enjoy reading your thoughts. Now, with a new blog at your disposal, I get the chance more frequently. You mentioned common misunderstandings about the church. Could you explain where the church visibly resides, perfectly? Where are sin burdened souls to flee to? Your comments and those on Pr. Petersen's site have awakened me to this discussion.

Thank you

Fr John W Fenton said...


Thank you for visiting, and for you comments and questions. What you've asked is a fair question--and one that deserves an answer. That answer entails another entry or more in my blog. As time goes on, I hope to answer that question.