Tuesday, August 22, 2006

What makes church, church?

Ceryn says:
Church is exciting

And Chris Green blogs this:

I don't know if anyone else has spotted this, but there's a fascinating confusion in the CofE's report 'Mission Shaped Church', which might explain why some odd expressions of church get included. On p. 96 it attempts an ecclesiology, and says, The four classic marks of the Church, enshrined in the Nicene creed, as 'one, holy, catholic and apostolic', remind the Church of its true nature and calling...

It then gives a brief summary of each of them, and goes off into more Anglican territory with Episcopacy, and so on. BUT... these aren't the 'marks' of the church.
The marks of the church are described in the 39 Articles in classic Reformed style as 'a congregation of godly (people) where the word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered'. That is, they describe the church observably, in its activities.
(On the old Reformed question about discipline as a mark, with a typical Anglican shimmy the Articles don't include it but the Book of Homilies does)
What makes church, church?


  1. The body of Christ?!

    God is amazing isn't He? Even though there are many different types of church's(buildings, groups of people) around the world, all Christians are one body!!

    Different buildings. One Body.

  2. When you asked 'what makes church, church' all I could think of is Tom Wright's thoughts on Paul's doctrine of justification by faith. i.e. that faith is what marks the church (not circumcision).

    I suppose that the exact words/emphases of the NT writers changed depending on who they were contrasting the church with. Jesus would have emphasised real obedience, over and against the Pharisees etc. John would have said love for your brother and sister in Christ. [Maybe the attempt to distinguish themselves from Rome was the motivation of the drafters of the 39 articles too]

    Having said that, although you won't find a stronger believer in the value (esp for the CofE) of both preaching AND the sacraments (never mind church discipline) I am not sure they really are the marks of the church.

    Interestingly the 39 articles statement starts with 'godly people' as it’s foundation. Ceryn's post starts with the gospel that makes us godly. Chris Green seems to thinks preaching is essential, which sadly seems a lot more like the opponents of Jesus, Paul and John.

    I also suspect that the writers of the 39 articles could have no conception of a church without preaching and were really making obvious the importance of teaching, and the bible, and true doctrine.


    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to muse about this subject publicly. You always manage to get me thinking Dave!

    BTW I love Chris Green's word of his grace, so it's not a personal thing... and I don't really believe he is a Pharisee!

    PS One final thought. I wonder how far Chris Green's presuppositions are from those who tell me 'I like Christianity but not (the) church'?

  3. Always happy to hear your thoughts Dave.

    I wonder what happens if take the 39 Articles definition... and then replace "word of God" with gospel (pretty much synonymous in Acts)... and consider that the sacraments (Baptism/Communion) are symbols of the gospel..... then we have the gospel-centred congregation of a people made by the gospel...

    Likewise, pondering.

  4. Back already!

    While I was away I looked up Calvin, and he has some interesting reasoning:

    [moving from discussing 'judging' individual Christians to 'judging' a church...] With regard to the general body we must feel differently; if they have the ministry of the word, and honour the administration of the sacraments, they are undoubtedly entitled to be ranked with the Church, because it is certain that these things are not without a beneficial result.

    Unusual from Calvin in a way, as he generally seems more concerned with 'right worship' from God's point of view rather than how it is beneficial to the congregation (all we think about now-a-days). But anyway, he is basically making the same point as you - that we are 'made by the gospel' through preaching and the sacraments.

    Calvin is trying to sum up a pragmatic way of deciding whether we should be associating with a particular group of people calling themselves the church. The 39 articles are doing the same. Because of this I think the phrase 'marks of the church' may be unhelpful despite it's pedigree. But even if we replace the terminology I suspect Calvin may not being biblical by defaulting to marking a church by the means of grace rather than it's fruits. This is especially strange as the reformers often criticised Rome for assuming that the means of grace guaranteed fruit.

    The NT writers were all about fruit, and esp whether preachers had it; although we hate to admit it. The reformers rarely dared do that, perhaps because it removes a lot of certainty and causes a lot of chaos. They were the heirs of Augustine after all and he had all those problems with the Donatists.

    I have no idea how to apply this biblical perspective without being judgmental and self-righteous... It causes me a little stress.

    Maybe my problem is trying too hard to make tight formulations. We all know what church looks like after all: a 'gospel-centred congregation of a people made by the gospel'. I should stop fretting.

    So in that light - enough of this liquid church without the formal boundary markers of teaching and what not! I must to bed.

    (quietly I laugh about my clever witticism - I bet Chris Green would hate Pete Ward's book - justifiably)

  5. The fruit angle is interesting... I wonder how that ties in with the letters in Revelation - a number of churches lacking fruit but still addressed as churches....

  6. Hmmm... just when I was thinking I could draw a provisional line under this subject in my mind you've got me thinking again!

    When I think about it I cannot think of a single occasion in the NT where a a body claiming to be a church is judged not to be a church (although I think there a threats it may happen - e.g. in Rev).

    This makes me think of Newbigin again. He always claimed that justification by faith meant that we all ought to be ecumenicalists because otherwise we are judging by works - I was never convinced about that one.

    However, thinking of the NT again, Jesus and Paul clearly thought that the Jews though claiming to be God's people should not be considered so. Although not because of particular unholy works (except maybe Romans) but because they crucified the Christ.

    But then again... I have just thought of the Nicolaitans!

    Hmmm... I'll have to think some more, and offline

  7. Paul even sees evidences of grace in the Corinthian church... and if ever a church was in a mess that one was... they were at least a church founded on the preaching of "Christ & him crucified", even if they'd strayed morally, practically, spiritually somewhat since.