Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Means To An End Or An End In Itself?

I read a post some time ago by Alan, The Unsolved Problem of Protestantism, where he quotes from a book by Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church. Ever since I have been hoping to find a copy of Brunner's book to read for myself. The problem is that Brunner's book was written in the 50's, is fairly small and new copies from Amazon are almost $40 (used hardcopies are over $300!). Lo and behold, I saw a link to the original post recently and on a lark decided to check our library and sure enough they had it stashed away in the archives! Like many older books, it is far meatier than the standard fluffy fare that gets published today.

Anyway, something that grabbed my attention early on was his idea of  the church as an end in itself rather than the more common practical understanding of Roman Catholics and many Protestants alike that see the church as a means to an end, the dispensing of the sacraments in Catholicism and as the location where we receive the "means of grace" in Protestantism, two concepts that are different in doctrine but awfully similar in practice. Here is what he wrote:

The New Testament Ecclesia realizes that it is the Body of Jesus Christ, that it is divine revelation and salvation in action, therefore never to be thought of as a means to an end, but as an end in itself, even if as yet only an adumbration of a yearning for the consummation which shall be in God's good time.

Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church, pg. 10, see note below on "adumbration"

Interesting. Do you agree with Brunner?

I largely find myself in agreement, not surprisingly. Both Roman Catholics and Protestants alike see the formal gathering of the church at least in part as a means to an end, somewhere we go to "worship" and receive communion/baptism. I see the church as a reality, a picture of an already/not-yet life to come. The church as it appears in the world is a witness, not an invitation to come to church but a living demonstration of living examples of the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit and the redeeming power of His blood. We don't "go to church" to have something dispensed to us via the church gathering as a conduit of grace, we go to because we have already experienced His grace and are gathering to be equipped and edified to declare and demonstrate that grace to the lost world around us. A subtle distinction perhaps but a very real and very necessary one that when misapplied leads to mischief, heresy and religious apathy.

I have never cared for the notion of the gathered church as a "means of grace", primarily because the term and even the concept is absent from Scripture and also largely because I see this idea as a means not of grace but of control by making the rituals we have labelled "baptism" and "The Lord's Supper" into ordinances or sacraments that are only properly available when done under the auspices of a local religious organization and performed by a religious professional. I understand the underlying idea behind it and don't really object but I find the application to be fatally and dangerously flawed.

I think this idea merits more thought. In spite of our talk about the priesthood of all believers and our nod to the notion of coming boldly before the throne of grace, in practical terms we see the "visible church" as a necessary intermediary between the people of God and God Himself, something that we need in order to properly experience God. Certainly when the church comes together it is one of the best means of edification and encouragement but that is not restricted to Sunday gatherings. I am often far more encouraged and edified by casual conversations with other Christians than by a dozen prepared sermons. I learn more by observing the way other Christians live than by months of Sunday school lessons.

When we see "the church" as a means to an end, it adds an unnecessary and unhealthy extra step in our path. When we see "the church" as an end in itself, a living embodiment of the Gospel in action, it changes Christianity from an event driven, institution and clergy centric religion to a people called out and set apart as a witness. The latter is what Christ instituted and the apostles lived, the former is what man perverted into something completely contrary to everything we read in Scripture. The world doesn't need to see more "churches", it needs to see the church.

FYI, if you don't know what "adumbration" means, it is defined as:

1. to produce a faint image or resemblance of; to outline or sketch.
2. to foreshadow; prefigure.
3. to darken or conceal partially; overshadow.
I had to look it up, I have a pretty decent vocabulary but that was a new one for me.


Eric said...

Excellent post Arthur!

The church as an end to itself is not something I have thought about a great deal (at least in those terms). However, I agree completely.


Aussie John said...


What can I say at this hour of the day? You've said all!

Your paragraph beginning,"I have never cared for the notion...." is spot on.

It brings to mind some reading I did a long time ago,on captive audiences and their control as a tool for numerical growth.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Arthur and another one that should have us reviewing and reflecting again on what it means to express what church is all about.