The Church is not a creation of creeds or confessions. Neither is it an organization of those who hold certain truths to be self-evident. Rather, the Church is a living organism—Christ Himself animated by the Holy Spirit in the lives of the saints and faithful.
As a living organism, the Church is not bodiless. It is the body of Christ. And as the body of Christ, the Church has a human “nature” as well as a “divine nature.” In other words, the Church on earth and the Church in heaven are one. Moreover, there is truly an identifiable, material organism called “The Church.” So the organizations called “church” are not (á la Plato) cheap copies of an ideal Church in heaven. Neither are they some sort of outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual fellowship of believers. Rather, there is one identifiable communion of churches that is the ongoing continuation of those 3000 whom the Apostles baptized on the first Pentecost Sunday.
This belief in the true visible Church is necessary for two reasons. First, it is christologically necessary. The Church confesses that Christ is both human and divine. It knows no other Christ. While it may speak speculatively or chronologically about a pre-incarnate Logos, the Church does not know (gnwsis) a pre-incarnate Logos. Rather, the Church knows only the One who is both eternally begotten of the Father and born of the Virgin Mary. Hence, His body, which the Church is, must also have both aspects of the human and divine. Not human in the sense that the body of Christ is found in unidentifiable believers scattered in disparate communions; but human in the same sense that Christ is human—in a discernible, visible body.
To the world the true Church looks like (and regrettably often acts like) all other mortal and flawed organizations; yet Christ also looked like a mortal and flawed person since He was capable of suffering, endured wounds and died. But to faith the Church is seen to be no different than Christ: of the Father animated by the Spirit; mortal yet immortal; receiving sinners and living with sin, yet holy and perfect; flawed yet infallible; suffering yet glorified. But above all, the Church is seen to be one. Not one by virtue of what will be, but one in being and in truth. Not one because here and there people have determined to be “church” or “church-like,” but one because there is one communion of bishops to whom the faithful have been sacramentally attached. This, then, is the true Eucharistic fellowship: not pockets of places where the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered, but the intercommunion of bishops who rightly divide the word of Truth Himself.
This belief in the true visible Church is necessary not only christologically, but also soteriologically. If the church is only those who have determined to be “church” and who have gathered themselves and called for themselves ministers who will do “church,” then salvation comes not from the Father through the Son in His Spirit. Rather, salvation comes from the ground up—from those creatures who have located or formed or gathered together to do what the Lord has said.
Please do not misunderstand. It is necessary for Christians to obey the Lord; and obedience is the way of salvation. However, the Lord’s mercy precedes obedience; and God’s spirit comes before forming, establishing and doing; and the Father’s love begets, sends and bestows His Life through those whom He has chosen. Were it otherwise—were “churches” the building block of the Church—then it would be possible, and in fact probable, that the gates of hell would prevail. But the Lord has guaranteed that the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church (Mt 16.18).
I don't think this does justice to what the Lutheran Symbols confess of the Church as the Holy Spirit-wrought society of those in whom faith has been worked, that binds them together to the one and only Lord Jesus Christ, as members of His body.
I had a very interesting conversation with a self-described Emergent a couple of days ago, who said that he saw the "only" difference between Orthodoxy and the so-called Emergent Church as being ecclesiology. Emergent ecclesiology, according to this gentleman, answers the question "What is the Church?" by saying that the Church is whatever the faithful are doing, rather than saying the Church is something to which the faithful have to join themselves.
It's an interesting way of looking at it, I suppose; I see it as being a definition that at least leaves itself fundamentally open to abuses (which my friend acknowledged). Whether or not it is scripturally justifiable I suppose will depend on one's point of view on a few different verses; whether it is justifiable in the light of, for example, the Didache, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and other early patristic writings strikes me as highly dubious.
Still, it seems to me there's a powerful message that Orthodox ecclesiology will have for those Emergents willing to listen. And that message is, plainly, "You don't need to wear yourself out reinventing the wheel. The wheel's actually right here, and it's never fallen into disuse."
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