Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Is the church a bag of marbles or a loaf of bread?

The Wall Street Journal details the ongoing fallout pitting dissident Episcopal congregations that have joined the Anglican Church in North America against the established Episcopal Church USA, Church Fights for Assets, Members and Legitimacy.

When the members of St. Luke's of the Mountains Church in La Crescenta, Calif., voted in 2006 to leave the Episcopal Church, they never meant they wanted to leave their church.

But last month, they got notice they were being evicted from the 80-year-old stone structure that had been their spiritual home.

The congregants lost a long legal fight for their building when a court ruled that the national Episcopal Church, which represents the world-wide Anglican Communion in the U.S., and the local diocese were the rightful owners of the property -- not the breakaway leaders.

I have written about this before, so I will skip rehashing the details. Squabbles like this are proof positive of the dangers of pride and worldiness in the church. In the spirit of disclosure, a few years ago I would have stood up and railed against them lib’rals for trying to take away these buildings from real Christians. Now I look at the situation and the whole thing just seems sad. Countless people are perishing outside of Christ all around us and these people, in the name of Christ, are suing and countersuing one another over property like real estate developers.

I applaud those who have removed themselves from the Episcopal Church. Long ago, the ECUSA disqualified itself as a legitimate expression of the church by abandoning key components of the Gospel, chiefly by refusing to call sin what it is: sin. The unfortunate reality is that in removing themselves from what has clearly become a schismatic organization, these “breakaway” congregations find themselves up against the legal might of the Episcopal Church and its lawyers supported by case law in America where courts traditionally have sided with the national denominations (yet another example of the danger of the church getting into bed with the state). I do find troubling the way in which these congregations who have left the ECUSA find their identity so deeply linked with the building they used to meet in. What is tragic and regrettable is not that they lost control of a piece of property, it is that the ECUSA has embraced sin and rejected Christ. Buildings are buildings. The apostles didn’t need buildings, pews and pulpits to preach the Gospel and fellowship with the saints. To those in the ACNA, I say that the trade off of losing buildings and keeping the Gospel is a no-brainer.

What I found even more troubling are those who are staying behind precisely because the schismatic denomination controls the building.

Alice Monson, a 79-year-old member of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Hurst, Texas, said she stayed with the conservative faction after the schism in part because it retained control of the sanctuary. She helped paint the Stations of the Cross there. When the church was short of funds, she cut flowers from her home garden to grace the altar.

"To me, it's home," she said. "It's my church. I will stay here."

Asked what she would do if the more liberal faction gains control of the church building, Ms. Monson shook her head. "I'm afraid to address that. It's too painful," she said. "We just keep praying and let the courts take care of it."

This is not a criticism of Ms.Monson. It is indicative of the prevailing view of the church. That building, that congregational organization, that is the church. The church is defined by the place and time we meet, not by who we are. I am sure Ms. Monson is not unique or even uncommon in staying with a local gathering that has abandoned the Gospel because they feel at home. “It may be heresy, but it is our heresy”. A church that has abandoned the Gospel is no church at all, no matter how long it has been there or what the name on the sign says or if it has stained glass windows.

The overarching problem stems from a faulty view of the Church as a whole. Western evangelicals and mainline Christians alike have long overemphasized the local church organization. Please note the distinction. The local gathering of the church is an integral part of the life of the Christian, a visible representation of the common salvation and common confession of the whole Body of Christ. The self-perpetuating local institution that draws from the wellspring of tradition and institutional inertia is perhaps the poorest reflection of the New Testament Christian community one could come up with outside of no community at all.

These are pretty weak analogies but I am sleepy and it is rainy, so give me the benefit of the doubt here.

The traditional view of the church is like a bag of marbles. Each marble represents a “local church”. We are technically in the same bag but other than our common container, we are merely shifting and autonomous entities. It doesn’t matter how long you stir and shake a bag of marbles, when you open the bag and pour them out they are still all marbles.

The church should be like a loaf of bread, an image often used to describe the body of Christ which is also how Christ describes the church (as His Body). In a loaf of bread, there are many ingredients but once they are mixed and baked the individual components become indistinguishable. You can tell what they add to the loaf but it is still one loaf.

Is that analogy perfect? Nope. It is not even a very good one but I hope it conveys the point. The church is so much more than a loosely knit patchwork of local church organizations that have more in common and fellowship with denominationally similar churches hundreds of miles away than with the church that gathers next door. The church is infinitely more than the incorporated entity, the traditions, the religious accoutrement, the building. You can take the building and the pulpit and even the name of the local church. Give me Christ and give me fellowship with His people.

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