Friday, February 22, 2013

Communion and the Church

So, the last couple weeks I’ve gotten into ecclesiology: the study and theology of the church. I’ve talked about what the church isn’t, what the church could be, and what makes the church the church. Today I want to talk a little about one of the most important rituals of the church, which is communion, or the eucharist.

Communion has become a point of debate in the last few decades as we continue to react to our past. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church developed the doctrine of transubstantiation, which states that in the ritual of the Eucharist, the bread and wine’s substance objectively changes in the hands of the priest into the actual body and real blood of Christ, so that even though it still feels, looks, and tastes just like bread and wine, the grace of God has changed it into flesh and blood. This, along with the belief that you could not be saved without regularly taking part in this ritual, gave the priests and the church an incredible amount of power in the eyes of the people.

As a reaction against what seemed like the overly mystical nature of transubstantiation and the abuse of the power which these doctrines gave the priests, parts of the church swung completely to the other extreme (as humans are notoriously good at doing). There is absolutely nothing mystical about communion, they say, that there is neither salvific nor any other kind of power in it. Communion is merely a symbol and, therefore, it really doesn’t matter if or how we observe the ritual at all.

 I would like to challenge that based on my posts from the previous few weeks. I will not attempt to prove that there is anything mystical about the ritual, but I do want to challenge us to think more carefully about when and how we participate in communion.

The first reason why we must observe the ritual of communion is simply because Christ told us to. He and his followers enjoined the early church to take part in the Lord’s Supper often, and to observe it in certain ways. As followers of Christ, we must follow His instructions.

Further than that, though, the ritual does have power to constitute the church, even without any mystical add-ons. Paul spoke of communion in I Corinthians 10:17 saying that we [the members of the church] are one because we share in the one loaf of the body of Christ. We humans are social creatures, and there is a special place in our social makeup for rituals. Every group has rituals that seal its members to each other. Tailgating before a football game would be one example, ritualized greetings (Hey, how’s it going?), traditions like Cinco de Mayo and the 4th of July are all secular examples of rituals that help instill group identity. When members of a group all do the same thing at the same time it sets them apart from the rest of humanity and says “We stand together.”

Communion works just the same way in the church. It isn’t and wasn’t ever supposed to be a ritual of personal devotion, but one of corporate identity and constitution. We are one because we all share in this one loaf and this one cup.

Not only does it help form our corporate Christian identity, it is also a public and concrete rehearsal or testimony of the way Christ knits us together. In my last post I argued that the church’s internal structure is perichoretic and Christocentric. If I live in Christ and Christ lives in you, then I necessarily live in you; and if you live in Christ and Christ live in me, then you must also live in me. Our mutual participation in Christ necessarily links us into one another. Communion is a graphic representation of this. As I eat of the bread, and you eat of the same bread, and as we both drink from the same cup, we are joined to Christ and thus to each other, forming the Church.

Of course, if God has endued communion  with more mystical powers to affect its participants, which is certainly within His power to do, then the ritual becomes all the more important; but even without that, communion is one of the most important rituals of the church and deserves much careful thought and discernment in how we observe it.

There are too many implications of this theology to go into here, but there are two specific things that I’d like to point out. First, communion reminds us that our sin is not simply personal. As I come to the table, I’m bringing all that I have with me into the church, including my unresolved sin. As I join myself to Christ, He accepts all of me, just as I am; and any sin I have clinging to my spirit goes into the church as well. My personal issues are not simply my personal issues when I go to commune at the table. In communion, they become an issue for the church I join myself to.

Second, the way we celebrate communion affects how we relate to each other in the church. In South Africa, the way that the church celebrated communion was a precursor to apartheid. Some of the white Christians were hesitant to put their lips to the same cup which the poorer black Christians drank from; they were worried about germs and diseases. So the church responded by setting up separate tables for whites and blacks; separate loaves, separate cups. It wasn’t long before there were two separate churches, and subsequently full blown apartheid. The way we celebrate communion affects the way we relate to one another, and vice-versa.

So as you participate and/or officiate over communion, think about the importance of what you’re doing and be careful. An individualized communion betrays the very heart of what communion is supposed to be. Communion is a form of communication, and we must be careful what messages we sow into the nature of the church through this ritual. What we do at the table, and how we come to the table matters; communion forms the church.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

What is the Church?

What is the church? What defines it; and what constitutes it?

The word “church” can be defined in several different ways. It can mean the building in which Christian worship services take place; this is the etymological origin of the word (from German kirika, from Greek kyriakon meaning house (oika) of the Lord (kurios)[1])

The word has also been used to translate the Greek word ekklesia which means “those who are called out” from the Greek ek (out) and kaleo (to call). This word was used in Greek to refer to public assemblies of people, possibly in the sense of calling them out of their houses and into the public forum to discuss civic or religious affairs and business. Thus, the word church can mean the assembly of Christians called together for worship.

 This sense can also be spiritualized to mean not only the physical and local assembly of believers, but all those around the world who participate in those assemblies, wherever they might be, or some subsection thereof e.g. the Global Church, the Church of North America, the Church of Kansas City, the Nazarene Church, the Baptist Church etc. The Church Invisible consists of all those who belong to the Global Church, both on earth and in heaven, from all of history.

This sense can was further spiritualized in the Late Middle Ages as people started to realize that there was more to being a Christian than simply attending Mass. Being Christian, they began to articulate, is less about outward actions and more about an inner attitude and spirit (dare I say Spirit) which then results in those outward actions. Thus they began to speak of the “True Church” as the body of those believers who are not only Christian in name, but also in spirit.

All of these definitions have their legitimate place in English conversation, but to me, the one that is most helpful to discuss, and which is the least obvious in its constitution, is that last sense. When I use the word “church,” in my everyday conversation, that is normally the sense in which I use it.

This usage, unfortunately, is the least definite or concrete of any of the definitions of “church.” It’s easy to point to two buildings and say “That one is a church, that one is a roller rink.” It’s easy to see people who have gathered on a Sunday and say “all who are here are part of the Church, all who are not are not.” What is more difficult is to speak in any meaningful way about a body of people who are defined by their own inner convictions, motivations, desires, and failures. How do you know who is a Christian and who isn’t? How do you know who is a part of the “True Church” and who isn’t.

The problem, as I see it, is that we are trying to derive an objective measure for a subjective reality.[2] We can’t know who is or is not a part of the “True Church.” There is no test or measure by which we can say “You’re in, you’re out.” We can have tests and measures and qualifications for membership in the local, and thus global, physical assembly; but we can’t define or objectively discern who meets subjective criteria, and thus is or is not a part of the “True Church.”

Ok, so why even talk about the “True Church” if we can’t take action on it? Well, I didn’t say that we couldn’t take action on it, I said that we couldn’t objectively tell who is or is not part of it. We need to talk and think about what it means to be a part of the True Church so that we can look at ourselves, each individually and think about our own participation in that Church.

So, then, what defines the “True Church.” It’s not defined by actions, sinful or righteous; it’s not defined by attendance or participation, that’s what defines the physical assembly. Participation in the True Church is defined solely by The Spirit.

When I define the True Church, I rely on the doctrine of the Trinity, and especially a sub-section of that doctrine which deals with the doctrine of the Perichoresis. Simply stated, perichoresis means mutual interpenetration.[3] That is to say, it refers to a relationship in which two entities contain each other, or live within one another.

As pertains to the Trinity, Perichoresis means that the Father, Spirit, and Son contain and live within one another. John testifies to this when he records Jesus words “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (John 14:10-11). This perichoretic relationship is then echoed down through the reality which the Perichoretic God created, even to the church. John 15:9 and 12 record a simple formula which Jesus relays to His disciples: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you;” and “love one another as I have loved you.” The community of Christians is to relate to one another in the same (or a similar) way in which God relates to Himself. This paradigm is reflected in John 17:20-21 “"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” and has echoes in the Sermon on the Mount, in the Garden of Eden, and elsewhere in Scripture.

Here’s the theological nutshell: God established a relational paradigm for Creation; this paradigm is called Shalom, or The Kingdom of God, and is modeled by God Himself in the Perichoretic Trinity. God’s act of Creation was an opening up of that Trinity to include us in that perfect and perichoretic relationship of love and unity in which God perpetually exists (“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you”); this reality is called Heaven. The Church, the True Church, consists of all those who accept the paradigm of Shalom and attempt to live in the world from the basis of God’s reality of relational wholeness (“Love one another as I have loved you.”). This is reflected in the Lord’s Prayer; the church consists of those who earnestly desire and sincerely pray “Thy will be done and Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” The objective and measurable external actions, called righteousness, are the fruit of this desire for, as I have said before, you can’t sincerely pray for God’s Kingdom if your hands are willingly seeking out and creating Hell; but they are not a measure of actual participation in God’s Kingdom (and therefore the church) as sanctification is a process, and even Christians may sin ( I John 2:1 “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.”)

So the church, the True Church is a result of God’s perichoretic movement; the church is the physical manifestation of an opening up of the Trinity to include creation, and specifically humans, into the heart of God. A Christian is an individual human who has accepted God’s invitation to be united with Him in perichoretic love; a Christian is one who allows God to live in him or her, and who accepts God’s invitation to live in Him. The church is, in some ways, a by-product of this movement (though God always intended the church to exist); for if I live in God, and God lives in you, then I live in you; and if, reciprocally, you live in God, and God lives in me, then you live in me. That is the structure of the church; how it’s built. The church is the extension of the Trinity into human reality through individual participation in the heart of God through the action of the Spirit, the grace of the Father, and the facilitating atoning act of Christ.

There are many more implications of this definition of the church than I can possibly go into in the short space afforded by a blog; but by reflecting on who we are in Christ, and therefore on who we are to each other, we can see the fruit of God’s Spirit begin to form in our communities. Know what the church is; know what makes us the church; know how you fit into the church; and consciously go and live out of that reality and into the world.

[2] This seems to be a common problem, at least in our society: confusing and mixing the objective and the subjective; and trying to derive the one from the other. It’s not possible to derive the objective from the subjective, or vice-versa, without interpretation

[3] Sounds kind of gross, doesn’t it?

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Ecclesiology and Capitalism

I’ve struggled with how exactly I wanted to put these ideas into words this week; but here goes nothing. The church is not a business. Here's why that is important.

Throughout the church’s history, Christians have gotten very attached to various organizational models, to the point of believing that one or another is divinely mandated, to the point of going to war over opposing models. Now, in the U.S. we don’t tend to get dogmatic about church government; but we can get vehemently pragmatic about it. We can assume that the model we’re used to, the one we’ve seen all around us, is the only one that will work; that we need it. But that’s not true.

I think that it should be unsurprising that a capitalist entrepreneurial society such as America should produce a church that runs itself on the basic template of a business. In the Nazarene church, our council of elders is called a board, and the lead pastor is the chairman. We have accountants (sometimes accounting departments) that keep track of our budgets. We tailor our church’s atmosphere and image to appeal to target demographics. We have advertisements, billboards and commercials to try to sell our religious wares to potential customers. In the medieval church, though, in a society of patriarchy and feudalism, the church operated as a kingdom. In other types of societies the church takes other forms and that’s ok.

I think, though, that this pattern should awaken us to a potential problem. The monarchical pattern that the medieval church followed was a natural fit considering its geo-temporal context; but it also had significant problems. And because its members were surrounded by this monarchical, patriarchal model of social organization throughout their lives, it was difficult for them to see those problems before they became so destructive that they ruptured the church. They forgot that, although the church is a Kingdom, it is not a Kingdom of this world, but a Kingdom breaking into this world. I believe that we are in danger of swallowing the capitalistic business model of social organization because it is what we see all around us; we assume that it is necessary, but we aren’t sufficiently removed from ourselves to readily see its weaknesses. We forget that, although the church may benefit from business like practices, the church is not a business.

Two really aspects of the business world that can be abhorrently destructive in the church are competition and profit. In business, competition is healthy because it restricts market prices and ensures the quality of goods and services. In the church, however, competition between churches can lead to ugly, ugly relationships between congregations. I have actually seen advertisements in which a particular congregation was actively trying to lure Christians away from other churches, touting their own strengths and disparaging the weaknesses of other congregations. The church is not a business; it is a body; and while it is healthy to ruthlessly compete in the world of business, it is not at all healthy for a body to war upon itself.

In business, you must have capital to survive. Businesses exist to make money, and they cannot operate without a healthy flow of cash, both incoming and outgoing, to keep the economic gears whirring. The church, however, is not a business. It does not exist to make money, it does not produce a saleable product, and it does not, therefore, need any kind of steady income to keep its spiritual gears working. The church needs the Spirit of Christ. We must have compassion, generosity, commitment, holiness, faith, hope, and above all, love. These don’t cost a dime.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t invest in buildings, projectors, lights, heating and a/c, books, pamphlets, media, production etc. Money is a resource, and I believe that God wants us to be good stewards of the resources He gives us; but, we must remember that money is only a resource among others, and if the flow of money suddenly dried up tomorrow, the church would go on. Unlike businesses, churches can thrive in a state of poverty.

We need to remember who we are; and we need to remember what it is that really makes us the church. I think it would even be healthy to investigate new models of church government and organization; models that might serve to uncover the weaknesses of the capitalistic church; models that may be able to coexist with, partner with, and alleviate the weaknesses of the capitalistic church.

Next week, I intend to talk more about what makes the church the church. In the meantime, do you have any ideas for organizational models for the American church? What might be some alternatives to running the church like a business?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Human Trafficking

I went to a . . . something last week. I don’t know what to call it; it wasn’t really a conference, or a symposium, or a seminar. It was more of a gathering, or maybe a screening because most of the time was spent watching a documentary. The night revolved around the issue of human trafficking around the world and in the U.S. The movie was called Nefarious: Merchant of Souls and it bowled me over.

The movie was, essentially, a series of interviews with several professionals and activists who work in this area along with several people who had been victims of sexual slavery or who had participated in human trafficking. It was gut-wrenching. One woman was lured into prostitution by her “boyfriend” and soon found that she had spiraled down into a life she couldn’t escape from; another was lured away from home by the promise of a job as a sales girl in a department store only to find herself in a foreign country where she didn’t know the language and was beaten into submission by her captors. Another woman was molested as a child and grew up under the impression that she was worthless and undeserving of any other life. Another segment told the story of young girls in South-East Asia who are sold into prostitution by their parents. It was person after person after person talking about the reality of what is going on in the world.

When I got home I did some more research and found the story of a young woman in Florida who was befriended by another young lady at school. After a few months this new friend invited her to a sleep-over. Turns out that this new “friend” was really an accomplice (read fellow victim) of a human trafficker. The young woman was drugged, beaten and raped repeatedly over three days. Her story can be found, in detail, here

I’m not bringing this up to be depressing; I’m talking about this because it is real and it is happening right now to millions of women, girls, men and boys around the world. According to ExodusCry, there are an estimated 4.5 million people in sexual slavery around the world; there are 800,000 people trafficked across international borders, 79% of whom are used for commercial sexual exploitation. In the U.S. alone there are an estimated 100,000 children who are victims of sex trafficking each year.

We need to talk about this; we need to do something about this.

There are many organizations around the nation and around the globe that are involved in this fight. I would encourage you to find one. Here are some organizations that I know of that you can get involved with:
Veronica's Voice: a shelter in the KC metro area that helps women who are trying to get out of a life of prostitution. This is not a religious organization.
We Love Children: an organization that focuses on helping young girls at risk of sexual exploitation in Cambodia and Vietnam.
ExodusCry: a movement which works to prevent human trafficking, intervene where it is occuring, and holistically restore victims of human trafficking. It is an explicitly Christian organization.