The Church: Visible or invisible?

A friend asked:

Can you recommend any resources for defending the church as an institution?

churchRather than looking at the Church as an institution (a corporation with officers and bylaws and uniforms and all), from the inside we look at it this way:

The apostles founded local communities all around the Mediterranean and the Middle East: Greece, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Asia Minor, etc. Each of those communities, locally, was a church. But St Paul speaks of all of them, together with the Jerusalem community as The Church. To Paul there’s an Us (the Church) and there’s everybody else. All those 1st-century communities, founded by the apostles and by those who followed them, remain united in the same faith and practice, and consider themselves one with the apostolic band at Jerusalem.

Over the next couple of generations, the Church expands from end to end of the civilized world. Heresies and cults arise: Montanists, Gnnostics, Ebionites, and lots more. Modern scholars debate the validity of those competing christianities; and they speak of the Jerusalem community and those that are in union with them as “proto-orthodox.” We recognize the same division, and call that “proto-orthodox” community-of-communities The Church.

By the 4th century, when Christianity is legalized, there’s a rift down the center of that Church: Arians deny the divinity of Christ. The emperor orders the Church’s bishops to sit down and determine what his Church believes. By the time Athanasius is done presenting his case, the vocabulary is agreed on and the bishops sign onto the resulting Creed. Some bishops (e.g. Basil the Great and Eusebius of Caesarea, IIRC) arrived as semi-Arians, that is they liked to call Christ homoiousious, of “similar nature” to the Father, but after hearing from the others present, they agreed to adopt the majority’s vocabulary and they agreed to the Creed. Those bishops who refused to attend the council, or those who refused to submit to its Creed and canons, were anathematized as heretics: not part of the Church.

Now there were Christians outside the Church. They were worshippers of Jesus, in their way, but not part of the Church.

That paradigm worked until just the last couple of centuries: People were Orthodox Christians, or heretics, or unbelievers. But nowadays, the Church finds itself coexisting with millions of Christians who do not define their faith by how they differ from the Church – most of them have never heard that there is a community-of-communities organically identical to the apostolic band at Jerusalem. Most of them are not heretics in that they have never chosento reject the Church’s teaching; they’re trying to be faithful to what they received. And many of them, who believe there is no identifiable, visible community called The Church, think of a church as an organization that people set up and trademark a name and run as an institution.

That’s why OrthoFolks are so hung up on historical rootedness: We can disagree about whether the Church is still faithful to the apostolic teaching or has fallen into false belief – but what’s not in dispute is the fact that the communities the Apostles founded never went away: Berea, Thessaloniki, Alexandria, Athens… those communities still exist, they still are united in faith, they correct one another when one gets out of line – and they call themselves Orthodox.

To answer a question with a question or several: On what basis do Evangelicals exclude Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons from the invisible Church? If I still love Jesus but I become unconvinced of, say, the virgin birth, the Trinity, or Christ’s divinity, do I instantly lose my membership in the invisible Church?

Do I have to measure up to some minimum, nonnegotiable degree of doctrinal orthodoxy to be a member of the Church? Why? And exactly what minimum beliefs? And on what purely scriptural basis do we proclaim those to be minimums which exclude you from the invisible Church? Can these questions be answered without having to make up an answer?

I really can’t see any point in positing an invisible, intangible thing called “Church” without the ability to definitively say who is in it, what puts you outside it, what it must and must not believe, how you join or leave it, and precisely how it is organically connected to the communities the Apostles founded.

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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