Monday, April 19, 2010

Assuming the church

I wanted to expand on some thoughts I had about Eric Carpenter’s post on the assumption of the church at Together for the Gospel.

Of all the many areas of theology we study, ecclesiology is one of the most important and yet it is so terribly neglected. That is not to say that there is not a lot written about the church because there certainly is not a lack of books and articles and blog posts covering the topic. So I am not saying that we don’t study the church at all. What I am suggesting is that we study the assumed church. We study the church from the perspective of what we assume the church means without getting down to the foundational truths about the church. We assume we know what the church is and we base that assumption on what we have seen portrayed and what we have lived with and experienced our entire lives. Because of that, instead of a ecclesiology built from the ground up based on Scripture, we are already 90% of the way into our definition and study before we even crack open a Bible. I would go so far as to say that there is no area of theology where our practices and our beliefs diverge so wildly.

Perhaps this is because while much of theology focuses on God, in our eyes ecclesiology focuses on us. It is about who we are, how we relate to one another, how we relate to the world and how we meet with one another. Ecclesiology just seems more people focused, although it certainly shouldn’t be.

Or perhaps it is because the church is so real. Talking about monergistic regeneration is easy to do in a theoretical sense because it is not something you can see or touch. Substitionary atonement at the cross happened almost two thousand years and thousands of miles away. The church? That impacts my real life, right here and right now. I mean, I have to talk to these people on Sunday and deal with their quirks and foibles. I have stuff to do, schedules to keep, leisure time to enjoy. I find it much easier to swallow the idea of being a sinner in desperate need of a Savior than I do of treating my fellow Christian as a member of the same adoptive family. The church as we see it in the Bible is hard. It is messy and difficult and frustrating. It is way easier to assume the church and avoid all of those potentially messy entanglements.

I think that the assumed church is why we have such trouble having honest conversations about the church and why some people have such a visceral reaction to anyone questioning the traditions we have built up and called “the church”. Calvinism versus Arminianism? Infant or believers baptism only? Pre-, post- or a- millennialism? Covenant theology versus dispensationalism? Nah, those are child's play. Nothing gets the dander up quite like conversations about the church. I can change my opinion on baptism or the end-times and it doesn't really impact my daily life. Changing my opinion on the church can have very real and very difficult implications for how I live my life.

Our assumptions about the church are so ingrained, both in the church and in Western culture in general, that it is difficult to imagine it being anything other than the assumed church. Having said that, I think there is nothing that would improve the health of the church more and that would lead to the church being a more faithful reflection of what God designed than an honest conversation about the church. Lay it all on the table. Have open and frank (and probably heated) conversations about it. Don’t assume anything. If we could really do that, I believe that we would see a far healthier church. By healthier I mean a church that is a viable witness to the world, that draws persecution because it is a threat to the status quo instead of a willing accomplice. A church made up of regenerate believers where every believer has a ministry instead of a few professionals.

Having said all of that, I don’t have much hope for it happening. The entrenched interests who drive most of the conversation in the church have no vested self-interest in seeing the church truly transformed. Perhaps the greater stumbling block are rank-and-file Christians who like the assumed church because it is neat, tidy and easy for them and doesn’t ask much from them (more on that idea later). I just don’t see it happening until we get to a point where cultural Christianity starts to carry a real cost and people are asked to stand up for their faith in the same way that men like Martin Luther and Felix Manz and William Tyndale stood up for our common faith. On the bright side, that day may be coming sooner than we think.

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