19 Jun Why We Need the Church
The Ven Dr Lyndon Drake is Kaiwhakamana Amorangi ki te Pihopatanga o Te Tai Tokerau, and Pirihi Whakahaere mo te Takiwa o Manukau (ministry roles in the New Zealand Anglican Church). He also serves as Venn’s Board Chair.
E whakapono ana mātou kotahi anō Hāhi tapu
ko tō ngā Āpōtoro, ā, puta noa i te ao.
I believe in one, holy, catholic*, and apostolic church.
(The Nicene Creed)
Some Christian leaders have been reputed to cross their fingers behind their backs as they say the Nicene Creed. The idea is that while feeling compelled to verbally join Christians around the world in this foundational statement of Christian belief, they don’t actually believe all its statements. In the 20th century, the incarnation or the resurrection of Jesus were most likely to provoke skepticism. Today, my sense is that the part of the Creed most likely to provoke skepticism is the phrase I have quoted above in Māori. A large number of people I know have grave doubts about their belief in the Church.
These doubts existed before COVID-19 and a national lockdown forced us to abandon meeting together, of course. Church attendance has been in decline for decades. And for some time people have expressed grave doubts, particularly in Aotearoa, about the benefit or even necessity of being part of the Church.
Some of this is cultural and tied to ideas of independence and rejection of institutions. But from years of pastoral ministry, I can attest to the fact that very few of the Christians I know in Aotearoa have a clear understanding of the theology of the Church (ecclesiology), and of the connection between ecclesiology and a flourishing life as a Christian.
Perhaps you haven’t yet begun to cross your fingers behind your back as you recite the Creed on a Sunday. But my guess is that many of us share doubts about the place of the Church in the mission of Jesus. And I’m pretty confident that most of us don’t even see the Creed as particularly significant in our Christian lives. But our doubts about the Church and disconnection from the historic Christian faith are keeping us from a full enjoyment of the Christian life and participation in God’s mission in the world.
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells Peter that “upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it”. Jesus is making a play on the word for rock—Kepha (Aramaic) and Petros/petra (Greek)—and Jesus uses this to establish Peter’s role as an apostle in the Church he institutes. Jesus calls the Church, “my church”, and this claim of ownership of and lordship over the Church is one that the wording “draws attention to” (France, NICNT, 623).
It is essential to note that the word which we know as “church” is the word widely used in the Old Testament to refer to Israel as God’s chosen community. So, Jesus is here claiming that the new institution he is forming and establishing through the apostolic office that he gives to Peter, is also in continuity with the “church” of Israel up until this time.
The apostle Paul recognises the cosmic significance of Jesus’s institution of the Church. In fact, Paul does so to such a degree that Tom Wright, correctly in my view, points out that the main “symbol in action” of God’s work in the world is the church in its “unity, holiness and witness” (PFG, 385).
These three aspects of the Church are all vital for our own understanding, and our life within the Church. I will briefly touch on the importance of the unity, the holiness, and the witness of the Church.
As the Nicene Creed puts it, we believe in “kotahi/one” Church. In Ephesians, Paul uses the image of a single house (“built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets”), with Christ as the “chief cornerstone”. Despite the fragmented nature of the modern church, the intent is for the Church to be a united symbol in the world. But the precise nature of the intended unity of the Church has sometimes been overlooked.
In Paul’s letters, the most significant risks to the unity of the Church arise from false teaching, but in particular false teaching around the visible unity of different ethnic groups. Ethnic separatism (and its related religious matters, such as religious rules around sacrifices and food) is again and again the issue Paul returns to in his writings. Paul is obsessed by achieving a visible unity that crosses ethnic boundaries.
Whether Paul is describing the Church as a building, as a temple, or as a family, his emphasis is on its ability to unite those who up until now have not shared the same building, have not worshipped the same God, and have not treated each other as a single family. The Church, Paul says, is one body, and we ought not to live as if we are dismembered.
The unity of the Church is not to be found primarily in overcoming doctrinal and practical disagreements. (This, by the way, is the reason why the ecumenical movement is largely a distraction.) Instead, unity is demonstrated by the Church overcoming the bias of human beings to divide on ethnic grounds.
I wonder if you can see how relevant this is to our life today in Aotearoa? Despite our Prime Minister’s insistence that “we have always been a country that stands against racism, discrimination and that [police brutality] kind of violence,” her statement is completely untrue.
Paul’s vision of the Church as an institution that can tell a true story of citizenship in a different country (Eph 2:19; Phil 1:27), that does stand against racism and discrimination, ought to be an inspiration to us to participate in the Church to this same end in our own day.
The church in Aotearoa has not always done a great job in this regard, and I say this as an Anglican—we can probably point to the worst failures in our own story (as well, I hope, to some of the signs of hope). The point is not that our history is perfect, but that Paul wants our hope to defeat racism to be centred in the Church as an embassy of Christ’s new Israel rather than in political reform (in his day of Rome, in our day of the New Zealand Government).
Secondly, Wright points out that Paul often reflects on the holiness of the Church. Another way to put this is that the Church has a distinctive identity as the “people of the Messiah”. An older pastor put it this way to me: “People don’t need to know me to discover Jesus, they need to know us“.
That older pastor was right. The apostles didn’t just make individual disciples. They planted churches. The apostles did this because the visible symbol of Jesus in the world is found in collective identity, not merely individual identity. Jesus intended to form a renewed Israel, not merely renewed Israelites. Just as God’s visible expression of his presence in the world before Jesus was the nation of Israel, now we see God’s presence in the world in the institution of the Church.
People encounter God primarily through the Church. (Maybe you instinctively react against this, but, in the end, part of being a Christian is accepting God’s design instead of our own flawed desires.)
As Wright puts it, it is through Jesus that “the community of his people gazes at the one God and, through worship and thanksgiving, is itself transformed into the same likeness” (PFG, 406, emphasis mine).
Do you long to see this nation transformed? Then we need to call people into the community Jesus established, the institution which has his identity at its heart. Do you want to see the image of God restored? Then the institution where Jesus, the perfect image of God, is worshipped in the ways he commanded is the place to go. Do you want to see people willing to commit sacrificially to the way of Jesus? Then you should commit yourself sacrificially to the pattern Jesus established through the apostles.
Thirdly, it is through the Church that God is primarily seen in action in his world. In Ephesians, for example, Paul points out that the gifts of God which will transform the world—the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers—are given “to the church” (Eph 4:11).
In fact, the Church is so central to the work of God, that the efforts of the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers must all be used to “do his [God’s] work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12). Paul isn’t calling for this so that an institution can exist for itself, but because he has been convinced by the Holy Spirit that the growth of the Church is essential to the hope of the world found in the person of Jesus Christ.
As we contemplate the action of the Church in the world—which is a participation in the greater work of God in the world—I want to draw your attention to two particular actions of the Church which are distinctive and central to our witness. The first is baptism, the entry point into the Church, which marks out our citizenship of a different country and our loyalty to a different Lord. The second is the Lord’s Supper.
Neither of these are possible by individuals, and both are ways in which God works in the world distinctively through the Church. Of course, the Church does far more than these two actions—we read Scripture together; we act to redeem the world; we live transformed lives which portray the holiness given to us; and so on—but these two acts, both commanded by Jesus, are only possible collectively. As Jesus commanded, the apostles were to baptise others to bring them in, and the Lord’s Supper is something which happens as a group not as individuals.
In conclusion, I want to give you encouragement. The Church began as a tiny group of apostles. Now, perhaps two billion people around the world have an allegiance to Christ through the Church’s mission and ministry.
As a church minister, I can assure you that I am deeply, daily, and devoutly aware of the failings of the Church and of its people (and I include myself in that gloomy assessment!). But can we draw some comfort from the extraordinary success of the institution Jesus established some 2,000 years ago? No other institution has ever had such an impact on the world.
And as a pastor, can I pass on to you a challenge from another pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In his classic work Life Together, he cautions against rejecting the Church because of its many flawed people. To do so, Bonhoeffer argues, is a form of idealism that is actually idolatry, because it means that we desire a church the differs from the Church Christ gave up his life for (Eph 5:25—note that it is “the church” not “believers”). To reject the Church, or to dream of a different one, is to wish that Jesus had made a different sacrifice, and, in the end, is to substitute a god of our own desires for the one true God.
In the disappointments of church life, I often turn back to Bonhoeffer’s book to remind me that I follow Jesus. And to follow Jesus means to follow the choices Jesus made—and the church is Jesus’ dearly loved bride. If I am to love Jesus, I am compelled to love his church, and like Jesus to forgive its flaws and devote myself sacrificially to its flourishing.
Jesus has made the church the symbol and source of hope in the world. I would be a fool to abandon it.
The path Jesus walked before me calls me now to give my life in sacrificial service to his Church. That is the path my family and I have chosen. I pray that you will too.
*“Catholic” refers to the church’s universal scope and its united commitment to orthodoxy — in other words, there is one church which is united by its common faith throughout the world. It is not a reference to “the universal church” in the sense of all Christian believers distinct from the institution of the church.
(Image: Te Karaiti te Pou Herenga Waka, photo by Lillian Murray)