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The word ‘Church’ has to be one of the most misunderstood words in the English language. It has confused both saints and sinners alike for Millennia. I will suggest that the Church is both the medium for God’s purposes on earth and contains the divine message. As the Twentieth Century philosopher Marshall McLuhan said “The medium is the message” (McLuhan:1964). The Church’s Mission is God's mission.
What is the Church?
If you asked a person in the street where the church was you would get different answers. A non- churchgoer will direct you to a church building. Going there you, enter a peaceful but usually empty building. It would not necessarily be a church our founding fathers would have recognised. To fulfil God’s purpose a church needs people and they would say the people are the Church.
If the person you asked was a traditional churchgoer, they might direct you to the same church building but add a service time. You might go, hopefully be warmly welcomed and enjoy the service. This would start to be an expression of God’s mission in the 21st Century – but what about the other seven days in the week? God’s mission and purpose would only be being partly fulfilled.
If the person you asked was an enthusiastic member of a house church, they might say that they don’t meet in a ‘church’ at all. You might be taken to a house, industrial building or community hall on the edge of town which was full of a welcoming, believing church community. The Apostles would not only have recognised this as God’s Church but probably gone up to the front and contributed! This church would be not only by its nature a ‘church’ but be fully performing the purpose of ‘the Church’.
During the first four centuries of its existence the early Christian Church had no great church buildings. The disciples and apostles created the ‘divine firestorm’ of the early church without buildings. The nature of the early Church was just its people. Their role was simply reaching and preaching to more and more people. This were both the Church’s nature and function. The more there were, the bigger it got and the more of the Church function they achieved. However, the success of the early Church created logistical problems. Gradually congregations became too numerous to meet in people’s houses. How were large numbers of worshipers to gather together for regular worship and to hear the word of God if they were not protected from the elements? The Church needed church buildings. This is when the Church started to get complicated and institutionalised.
Over time, the Church and church fabric became confused – not only by the average person in the street but by saints like St Francis. When he was worshiping in the little dilapidated church of San Damiano in 1205 and heard the divine command to ‘Rebuild my church, which is in ruins.’ he misunderstood the instruction. ‘He (St Francis) thought God meant the building. It was to be the most significant moment of his life, a command that determined his future vision and direction. However, initially he misunderstood and like so many of us today, became preoccupied with rebuilding the fabric of the tiny church building. Two other churches were similarly repaired before Francis grasped the enormity of what God was asking of him’ (Day: 2017). The Holy Spirit was of course asking Francis to rebuild the Church as a whole – not just the three little churches he restored!
How and why churches and the Church had to happen
What if our street enquirer had been sent to the first church, found a great crowd of people, been warmly received and then participated in an uplifting and inspiring service? From this we can conclude that the Church was not the building but the building facilitated the worship. It may or may not be called a church. However most of the great Church denominations would include their buildings as a part of their nature and function. Without them they would find it hard to express the purpose and mission of Christ. They create focus, inspiration and above all a space to worship and learn of God and the value of religious life. Equally, inspirational church music, art and liturgy are an integral part of worship and so a part of the nature of the Church. Church buildings can also be places of refuge for the sick, homeless or abandoned. Compassion and healing were a key part of our Lord’s ministry (Mat. 25 34-46). St Martins in the Fields in London personifies the way Church buildings can be used to shelter and minister to thousands of lonely and rejected rough sleepers. Saint Teresa of Calcutta did the same for the destitute and orphaned of Calcutta. All over the world the Church performs charitable work with the help of church buildings.
Our churches and church organisations are only one part of the great Universal Church. However, the tail must not be allowed to wag the dog. The fact that Francis was confused by the nature and purpose of the Church suggests that we need to think more deeply and historically about the evolution of the Church that we see today. As Alister McGrath observes:
Ecclesiology was not a major issue in the early church. The Eastern Church showed no awareness of the potential importance of the issue. Most Greek patristic writers of the first five centuries contented themselves with describing the Church using recognisably scriptural images, without choosing to probe further (McGrath: 356).
In spite of Paul creating one of the first Christian congregations in Europe in Philippi, it was four centuries before its bishopric was established. Many generations of that congregation saw no need to have one. Their concept of Church, as an organisation was based on the Old Testament one where groups of believers were simply the ‘called out ones’ or Ekklesia. The congregation of the Israelites in the wilderness – referred to in Old Testament were the Ekklesia. (Halls:12)
When our Lord appointed Peter to lead his ‘Ekklesia’ He described the nature and purpose of the Christian Church he was to establish in (Mat 16:13-19). ‘The word Ekklesia appears 115 times in the New Testament (Ibid). Equally, it is the name given to the company of original disciples at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:47).
By the fourth century the Christian Church, or God’s mission, needed to be expressed in more formal terms. When the Emperor Constantine I converted to Christianity in or around 312AD he not only ended the Roman persecution of the Christians but allowed church buildings to be constructed all over the Mediterranean and Near East. If we were to look at Philippi there was only one church building at the beginning of the Fourth Century but by the Six Century there were seven – a seven-fold increase. Similar rates of expansion were replicated across other early Christian communities. The nature of the Church had started to include buildings. These needed to be contextually appropriate. Thus, the new Trinitarian theology and Christology created Ecclesiology which help inform the church structures the congregations required. When the Romans adopted Christianity as their state religion church buildings became increasing recognisable. Christianity at once became mainstream and in ancient terms ‘world-wide’. Unfortunately, this new status came with it the trappings of power, status and political influence. These were eventually to enter the Church decision making processes and contribute to divisions within it. New denominations would be formed and its nature, if not its ultimate purpose, to mutate.
The Nature and Purpose of Church Evolves
Between the fourth and sixth centuries Donatist Controversy created one of the first major divisions within the Church. Donatist questioned the authority of bishops to ordain priests if they had at any time succumbed to the demands of the Diocletian persecution (303-313). They became known as ‘Traditores’. This schism, originating in the Church of Carthage, argued that clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective therefore their sacraments valid. St Augustine ‘healed’ the Church by pointing out that Christ’s message was all inclusive and was for sinners and saints alike (Luke 15). Augustine simply asked "Whenever did I describe the church as being without spot or wrinkle" (Ibid:30) Augustine stated that the ‘efficacy of a sacrament rests not upon the merits of the individual administering it but upon the merits of the one who Instituted them in the first place – Jesus Christ’ (McGrath:359). However, I do wonder whether the papal excesses which led to the Reformation would never have achieved a foothold if Donatist levels of ecclesiastical rigor had been applied to the Church clergy. We will never know but Augustine’s intervention has unquestionably become a changed both the functioning and the nature of the Church
More controversy was to follow. The Council of Ephesus in 432AD created a split which resulted in the Assyrian Church then later the Council of Chalcedon created the Oriental Orthodox denomination which held a different Christological position concerning the nature of Christ divinity calling it Monothelitism. The understanding of the nature of the Church was muted each time.
Even more radical developments were to come as the Great Schism of the 11th Century resulted in the remaining major body of the early Church splitting in two to create the Catholic and East Orthodox denominations. Although this schism was a result of deeply held theological beliefs, it could be argued that the causes of this breakup were as much political as religious and so did not actually effect the purposes and nature of the greater Church.
More fundamental was the effect of the Reformation. Although Pope Gregory IX supported Francis’s divine command to “rebuild my Church” his support did not result in the reforming of the Church – only in assistance in the foundation of the Franciscan Order. It took Martin Luther’s and Calvin’s protestant movements and those of the radical Reformation movements like the Anabaptists who shone a light on the self-serving excesses of the Catholic Church in the latter part of the middle ages. The Catholic church’s response was to establish its own Counter Reformation, beginning with the Council of Trent (1545–1563). This saw the nature of the Church mutate into something we can more easily recognize today. From then on there were Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions. These three vast umbellar entities cover a huge range of liturgy and religious practice which most denominations trace their roots back to. They are the foundations of the nature the Church today.
Undoubtedly the Luther and Calvin driven Reformation helped to restore the ‘one to one' nature of our relationship with God. This was the nature and mission embedded in the early church. Those who wished had the option of abandoning the Catholic traditions that still assigns a central role to its priests. Further key developments occurred in 20th Century during 1962-65 Pope John XXIII initiated Catholic Church’s Vatican II Council. This transformed the nature accessibility of the Catholic Mass, made the Catholic church more ecumenical and so further evolved its nature in and direction.
Four Marks describe the Purpose and Nature of the Church as being One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic
Ever since the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 created our Creed, the Church has declared itself to be at once One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.
Christ’s mission and therefore the Church’s mission is at once inclusive and universal. There are denominations within the Church but it is still only one Church. The nature of the Church is as Paul says, one body if containing very different elements and talents (1 Cor 12:27)’. Cyprian of Carthage calls the Church the ‘seamless robe of Christ’ which should not be divided (Cyprian of Carthage, AD 251): Chris Halls suggests that there are five different approaches to describing or predicating unity of the Church. These include the narrow Imperialist Sectarian approach, the Platonic empirical historical church, the Eschatological Church, the Biological tree like Church and the Theological approach. All ultimately unite the Church - either currently on the last day (Halls: slide 24) This said many may lean towards St Teresa of Ávila’s poetic approach when she says that we are the body of Christ through which He performs His Mission. The italics are mine.
Christ has no body but yours - nature
No hands, no feet on earth but yours, - nature
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world, - purpose
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, - purpose
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world - purpose
The Church is Holy because it has been initiated by Jesus Christ not because its members are holy. I have already quoted the pragmatic view of Augustine. Thomas Aquinas is equally practical ‘That the church will be… without spot or wrinkle… will only be true in our eternal home, not on the way there. We would deceive ourselves if we were to say that we have no sin, as 1 John 1:8 reminds us’ (Halls:31).
The purpose of the Church is apostolic because it originated with the apostles, teaches what they taught and carries on the succession of their apostolic ministry
If the Church were an animal it would have the nature of a chameleon. Whenever if faces trials or persecution it changes its colour to the colour of the times - while still staying one animal. For instance, when the Romans persecuted it the Church became Roman, when the czar Ivan the Terrible and later scientific socialism destroyed churches in Russia the Church remained its people and is now resurgent, rebuilding churches destroyed by the revolution. Currently, although Christianity flatlines in the West, Church activity flourishes in China and the southern developing countries to the point where overall numbers of Christians are increasing - thanks in large part to the Pentecostals.
However, there are examples of emerging church forms in the West which include the Alpha movement, Filling Stations, Missional Church, Deep Church, Messy Church Cafe Church, Liquid Church, Simple Church and the Purpose Driven Church. All are valid as important as the new expressions of Church as are virtually all denominations which are rooted in Christian spirituality. The first condition for expanding churches are that they are ‘Churches that cultivate earthed spirituality where people encounter God’ (Murray:64) The Centreing Prayer and contemplative traditions personified by the work of the Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohe are classic and expanding examples of this work in action.
Lastly when talking about the current nature of the Church must include the increasing role of laity and especially women clergy within many churches. The Church Times (2017, September 27) recorded that in September 2017 there were a record number of 5,690 women in full-time ministry just within the Anglican Church. (Williams:2017) They are making a crucial contribution to both the nature and function of our Church and the Church worldwide.
The nature and purpose of the Church today can be summarised as the Missio Deo mission. "Mission is God’s mission and it is a mission that goes beyond the church. It embraces everything that God is doing in the world through people and nations to establish His Kingdom here on earth. God's work is not limited to the endeavours of the church but the church does have a special role, sent by God to continue in His mission” (Robinson:1)
The Church’s mission is God’s mission. Although a work in progress the Church’s nature and function are both the medium and the divine message.
Robinson, Alan (2017) Faithindevelopment.org, Oxford Centre for Mission Studies: Oxford
Dey, Gordon (2017) Rebuild My Church www.franciscans.org.uk/page/2?s 10th December 2017
Halls, Chris (2018) Ecclesiology; Christian Doctrine lecture, South West Ministry Training: Exeter
McLuhan, Marshall (1964) Understanding Media, Mentor: New York
McGrath, Alister (2017) Introduction to Christian Theology, Wiley & Sons: Chichester
Murry, Stuart (2008) Church After Christendom, Paternoster Press, Milton Keynes
Robinson, Alan (2017) www.faithindevelopment.org Tearfund or (OCMS) Oxford 28th April.2017
Williams, Hattie (2017) More Women Than Men Enter Clergy Training, Church Times 27th Sept. 2017