There are very few Christians out there today who would say that the Church is in perfect condition. Yes, there are some denominations out there who believe that they are the One True Church and everyone else is hopelessly lost, but those harsh attitudes have eroded in most places. Even the staunch positions of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches have bent a little bit to recognize the existence of some form of Christianity “out of Communion” with themselves. The challenge (especially for them) is that the Bible (and thus the Church ever since) strongly states that there is but one body. Therefore the Church cannot be divided, simply by definition.
How this played out in terms of ecumenical relations for a long time was by mutual excommunication. Only one side of a split could be the real Church; the other is schismatic, and therefore heretical and without God’s grace. Over time, though, a differentiation between a “schismatic” and a “hopeless heretic” came into clearer focus. These terms, though, have mainly been used by the Catholic-type churches, though. As far as I’ve noticed, most Protestants don’t bother. Why?
It has something to do with their condition: there are tens of thousands of different Protestant denominations, and every new “non-denominational” church plant is technically a new denomination too. The level of schism, therefore, is too staggering to fathom. If Protestants used the term “schismatic,” the level of guilt being thrown around would be staggering. Furthermore, in order to call other denominations “schismatic,” there must be (by definition) an original undivided Church from which some separated. Most Protestants today don’t talk or even think about the undivided Church of the early centuries. Instead they adopt a mindset of constant reformation – the Church is in constant need of revival and reform, and we just need to keep up with the Holy Spirit.
A big issue here is that the unity of the Church is pretty much assumed to be impossible on earth, and thus only a “spiritual unity” is given any credence. This attitude seemingly gets churches off the hook in terms of working towards the greater unity of the Body of Christ, and also fosters and encourages a religious pluralism that compromises the very concept of Truth. For, you see, lots of denominations teach contradicting things. Sure, there are a lot of matters that are simply different perspectives and different angles on single truths, but there are also plenty of plain and simple contradictions. Take for example the Lord’s Supper / Communion / the Eucharist. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer, the Roman Rite, Martin Luther’s Heidelburg Catechism, John Calvin’s Institutes, and the various methods of observing Communion in various churches today are in wide disagreement as to what’s going on. A couple of these are reconcilable through delicate word-play, but most are just plain different. If truth is truth, then the vast majority of them are wrong. But many churches live as if these differences don’t matter and/or don’t exist.
But if “schism” is still too strong a word to swallow for now, then let’s go with a more popular term: broken. The Body of Christ is broken.
I experienced the brokenness of Christ’s Church afresh recently when I visited a Vineyard church that met in a former Roman Catholic church building. Catholic-type churches are built in a way that visually supports the worship that goes on inside. The architecture, the art, everything points towards the altar where the Eucharist is celebrated. That’s because the Eucharist is the central act of Christian worship, and it proclaims the gospel in a mysterious way that complements the verbal preaching of the word. In this particular building, there were saints painted on the walls high above the congregation. As you walked through towards the altar, the saints go further back in time: recent saints in the back of the room, the apostles further up, then some OT prophets, the patriarchs, and finally Adam and Eve. Then you enter into the altar area and the saints give way to angels – symbolizing the Holy of Holies – approaching nearer to the presence of God. That last part of the church building is rounded, and Christ and the Cross are in the very front and center. And just to emphasize this progression even more, all the angels and saints are facing towards the front; they’re all visually pointing to Jesus. But the Vineyard church that had set up shop inside this beautiful building arranged themselves backwards.
Simply removing the altar would have been understandable, because the Vineyard is not a sacramental denomination. But they (I don’t know if it was on purpose or not) took it a step further and set up the stage for the worship team and the preacher in the back of the church building. The great cloud of witnesses on the walls above them are all facing the other way, towards Jesus, who’s now in the back of the room and partially obscured by a plexiglass sound barrier. Now, I’m not stodgy enough to accuse the Vineyard of turning their back on Jesus; I recognize that they’re a legit Christian church who believe in the gospel of Christ. But the way they settled themselves into a former Roman church perfectly illustrated just how broken the Body of Christ is. We’re passing each other in the dark! Protestant churches in general (not at all just the Vineyard) are running with this progressive-reformation mindset and paying no heed to the great cloud of witnesses that has come before them.
Yes, the Church makes mistakes over the course of history that need periodic reform. But the unity of the Church that Christ prayed for and Paul demanded constrains us to keep our eyes back on those who’ve come before us, not just ahead to where we think the Spirit is leading us. The guidance of the Holy Spirit, as important as it is, is only a third of the story, if not a quarter of the story. More on that later this week, when I write about the Three Streams reconsidered.