We've just passed the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I wanted to write, but really felt as if I have nothing to contribute to such a thing. I've been thinking and reading on the subject of ecclesiology for some time now (more thinking than reading lately), and it always seems to be a very divisive subject.
I have no use for Christians who take deep pride in their particular spiritual pedigree or denomination. In this region that pride is often in the form of their supposed lack of a "denomination." "I'm a non-denominational Christian," many will say gleefully - as if that were possible or desirable. Perhaps it is, but I cannot treat it as such a foregone conclusion.
Why even think about "ecclesiology" - what makes the churches "the Church" at all? If a Christian shares perspective with most forms of Protestantism, there is little reason indeed. In contemporary Christian life, it is commonly agreed that Jesus did not "found" any church at all, and that our churches are our own little man-made organizations that try to carry out the work of spreading the gospel and converting the heathen more efficient. I know this sounds glib, but that's what it comes down to: that the church exists because it is useful to our version of the Gospel (which we believe to be a separate thing from the church) simply because Jesus wants his people to "meet together."
On the other hand, what if Jesus didn't come to impart some information about God and a revised moral code? What if he didn't come with a way for us to have an individual personal relationship with God that we could practice with other people if we wanted to? What if Jesus really did found a community that really did have a real and physical existence in the world? What if being joined to Jesus through baptism and being joined to this real physical community really is the same thing, the same Godward movement that makes us alive and saves us from death?
Upon Christian initiation, one becomes part of Christ - in Pauline language, the Body of Christ. While I understand that one should avoid an ultimate identification of Christ and those who make up the Church (it is full of sinners, after all, for Jesus loves the riff-raff), we must say that if Jesus founded a "community of salvation," that an impaired communion with that Church entails an impaired communion with Christ himself. If that is a worthy question and a valid concern, our ideas about what makes up "the Church" really matter very much.
The bottom line is this: if the bedrock of the Christian life and God's work of transforming love in the world is a "personal relationship with Jesus," then theories about "the Church" are non-essential issues. However, if our membership in that community determines in some way our relatedness to God and his work of salvation for the world, than it is a first-order theological problem.
2 weeks ago