Where is Christ in the Church? The Protestant Perspective

Someone dear to me recently said that they just “don’t get the whole Orthodoxy thing”. I understand where this person is coming from, but after you’ve taken them to the Church, what else can you do to help them “get it”? “It” can only be understood after a significant degree of dissatisfaction and longing. While this makes it difficult to express, it makes it more trustworthy – for Christ reminds us that it is those who seek who find, those who mourn who are comforted, and those who thirst that are sated.

Does this mean that I should pray for, and attempt to lead such people into a state of dissatisfaction? This seems like a rather unpleasant, and perhaps counterproductive task, especially when it involves someone you deeply love. Yet, inasmuch as it is loving to do, we are called to do precisely this. Godliness often leads us through an unpleasant country, and allowing someone to die by complacency for the sake of comfort is utterly wicked. “Good enough”, and its stagnancy should be killed as much as possible in our lives.

This is not the same thing as being spiritual party-poopers. It is our lives – our love – that should encourage and convict those around us, Christian and non-Christian, Orthodox or not.

Explaining my dissatisfaction, and urging for similar resonance among others is a very difficult task, one that has to employ some biography and some argument. For my purposes here I want to suggest an argumentative route to describe the dissatisfaction: it is not meant to be used to slam anybody, just present a dilemma.

The dilemma is that somehow we expect, whether Protestant, Orthodox, or Roman, that coming to Church offers us a privileged nearness to Christ. Indeed, even the historical Protestant believes that an institution should exist for the purpose of being the “Body of Christ”. Why does this expectation occur, and where is the grounds of us believing that participation in an institution (by this I mean any organized group of people) has anything to do with the human experience of the Christian God?

I want to begin by looking at Protestantism, varied though their beliefs are. The Protestantism that I was raised in holds dearly onto its history and tradition. The Protestant songwriter Derek Webb, whose album She Must and Shall Go Free warmed me up for Orthodoxy, says this emphatically in the culminating song from the project, “The Church”. This highly reformed writer’s chorus says :

I haven’t come for only you
but for my people to pursue
you cannot care for me with no regard for her
if you love me you will love the Church

Several years ago I delivered a sermon at a Protestant church, and ended with this quote. The sermon was received well, and this quote was not only accepted, but lauded. Note that this is opposed to a “only my personal relationship with Jesus” attitude. Webb, like all historical Protestants believes that communal ecclesial life is essential for a relationship with Christ. The Church is the Bride, He is the Bridegroom.

I can’t help but make a point about the Sacramental nature of Webb’s song as well. “ So when you hear the sound of the water you will know you’re not alone” and “ so when you taste my flesh and my blood you will know you’re not alone” he writes. He cannot talk about Christ’s relationship to the Church without a strong, indeed very strong, Sacramental theology. This holds true throughout the entire album.

I can already hear people objecting; that the institution is helpful but man-made and dispensable. “Church is wherever two or more are gathered”. So by this picture – a picture that opposes the historical Protestant – those who have been reborn (without an Church baptism) get together with others who have been reborn and, viola it’s the Church! This idea, which is a reasonable thought for those who have been raised Protestant has become the carte blanche for the lazy, arrogant, and dissatisfied to indulge themselves and flee from authority and accountability. It has been exploited by the Emergent(ing) church who extol the virtues of creativity and self expression. It is the lie that threatens to dissolve Christianity into a vapid and nebulous humanism.

Most traditional Protestants agree with me on this. There seems something good and sane to gather on Sunday mornings at a church building and hear music and a sermon. There seems something amiss about those who consider the golf course a suitable location a coffee shop conversation a suitable alternative to what goes on at your average church body.

From this we can see two radically different ideas about what the Church is, but also what is should be.  For the Emergentist the Church is us; an invisible group of people with beliefs that get together in support group like fashion.  For the traditionalist the Church is a hospital where people are healed, comforted, and instructed.  There are lots of peripheral issues and variances, but this is the battle lines between two importantly different groups that exist within Protestantism.   

Most of what has been said, in fact pretty much all that has been said by the Christian media has been tending to the side of the Emergentist. Parents who are traditionalist in their tendencies should realize that most of what their kids are being exposed to is this sort of hyper-individualistic, boundary-less, dogmaphobic “Christianity”.  If you send you child to a Christian high school or University most the messages will be more about what I call the “new fruits of the Spirit”: Creativity, Authenticity, Relevance; than to hear about the Fruits of the Spirit that are listed in Galatians. 

 Some Protestants have argued that communities like Mosiac are fringe, and while it is true that Mosiac is has several unique elements, it is also sadly influential.  I know of a large community church that patterns one of their services after Mosiac, and another more “teen driven” service after Imago Dei. Books explicitly promoting these ideas have done very well, especially A Generous Orthodoxy and Blue Like Jazz. The crowd that follows these men are well informed, well connected, and very influential; mostly because it is attractive to mainstream folks.  Many of the crowd finds this material just a recall to a deeper personal relationship with Christ, and on that account they are not to be faulted.  However, the picture of the Church that is being proposed here is radical, largely unBiblical, and ultimately unChristian.

Why is it that most Protestants tend to think that the Church of the New Testament was fueled by authenticity and sponteniety?  The sense that we should return to the Church of the book of Acts is understandable, but misguided if this is what people think that means.

There exists within Protestantism two pictures of what the Church is.  These two pictures cannot peacefully coexist.  And right now the Emergent ideal is gaining the most ground.  And this is not surprising because they are – while being unBiblical – consistent as Protestants.  Either ecclesial structure is only important in terms of governmental effectivity and does not affect the presence of Christ, or the Emergentists are well within their rights to dispose of whatever they deem necessary and exposit whatever virtues are most helpful for their community of fellow believers.

Why would Protestants think that their church government is correct?  Why would they think that going to church provides us with a privileged way to draw near to Christ?  Why do they defend that Christ is in their church?

The answer to the first question is usually because the church structure is somewhere listed in Holy Scripture.  Presbyterians are quite proud of their Biblical governmental structure, consisting of Presbyters and Deacons.  But what makes their structure Christian in a way that excludes the Mormons?  Surely Christ is not invisibly hovering around looking for the most governmentally “correct” institution that upon seeing it, He can choose to reside therein. 

The other answer is to say that it is in the church that the Gospel is preached.  Than why is governmental structure important in the days of mass media?  Why shouldn’t we just be “Bible teaching based support groups”?  And why meet on Sundays?  And why offer Sacraments?  And why have a pastor preach, and not just read the Holy Scripture?  Why sing songs?

A consistent Protestant has to give way to governmental flexibility to an extreme degree.  Once a group finds their current structure unhelpful – once they as the shot-callers – church becomes about giving the people what is helpful.  This isn’t Christ, and the people who attend such a place attend a hospice, not a hospital.

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