Article XX-The Church

Continuing on the series of the Free Methodist Church’s Articles of Religion (see here and here for an explanation of the series and format):

¶121 The Church

The church is created by God. It is the people of God. Christ Jesus is the Lord and Head. The Holy Spirit is its life and power. It is both divine and human, heavenly and earthly, ideal and imperfect. It is an organism, not an unchanging institution. It exists to fulfill the purposes of God in Christ. It redemptively ministers to persons. Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it that it should be holy and without blemish. The church is a fellowship of the redeemed and the redeeming, preaching the Word of God and administering the sacraments according to Christ’s instruction. The Free Methodist Church purposes to be representative of what the church of Jesus Christ should be on earth. It therefore requires specific commitment regarding the faith and life of its members. In its requirements it seeks to honor Christ and obey the written Word of God.

¶131 Scriptural References

The doctrines of the Free Methodist Church are based upon the Holy Scriptures and are derived from their total biblical context. The references below are appropriate passages related to the given articles. They are listed in their biblical sequence and are not intended to be exhaustive. Matthew 16:15-18; 18:17; Acts 2:41-47; 9:31; 12:5; 14:23-26; 15:22; 20:28; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 11:23; 12:28; 16:1; Ephesians 1:22-23; 2:19-22; 3:9-10; 5:22-23; Colossians 1:18; 1 Timothy 3:14-15.

The Church is one of the hardest topics for Protestants to discuss. This Article is no different in that stream of the conversation. We are very good at talking about what the Church does, but we are not so good at talking about what the Church is. There are a few opposites held in tension at the beginning of the Article, but besides that and saying it is a living organism rather than an institution, there is not much about what the Church is.

The problem with this is that Scripture is actually pretty clear about what the Church is. Many of the verses are the ones referenced. The Church is the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Bride of Christ, the pillar and ground of truth, and the fullness of God. Within the history of Christian tradition, the Church has been identified with four distinct adjectives: One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic.

It is difficult for us to talk about the Church like this because we so often do not see it in reality. We see broken relationships, church splits, unhealthy interactions, and fights over some serious and some not-so-serious issues. It becomes easier to talk about what the Church does, because that is at least attainable by us. We can preach and administer the sacraments. We can be redemptively engaged in our communities. We can have fellowship and restrict actual membership to those who have accepted the truth of the Gospel (whether or not they live out that truth).

This is still one of the burning issues and unresolved theological topics from the last 500 years of the Reformation. Until we can truly affirm what the Church is, and begin to live into that reality, we will come up short.

We are trying. Pray for us.

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6 thoughts on “Article XX-The Church

  1. Overall, this article is no better than most Protestant attempts to define the Church, and muddles what the Scriptures and the rest of Holy Tradition have said in this regard. The primary difficulty begins with the following: “It is an organism, not an unchanging institution. It exists to fulfill the purposes of God in Christ. It redemptively ministers to persons.” Christ’s Church is not, in fact, an organism that redemptively ministers to persons. This is made clear in the Book of Hebrews. The sole purpose of the Church is to love God with all its heart, all its strength, and all its mind (i.e. true worship/work). God has done, is doing, and will do all the ministry — for only God can minister to and save anyone.

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    • True. It is no better. I whole-heartedly agree. I would challenge, though, the idea that God alone can minister. The entire biblical witness is that God, for whatever reason, has chosen to work through human beings in this world. This is also why Jesus Christ established the Church, which makes disciples and offers ministry as an outflow of that disciple making process. Specifically, I am thinking of passages like Matthew 25 with the separation of the sheep and the goats and the distinction between the two groups of what was done to the least. That sounds like ministry to me.

      Yet this does not get at how the Church is the fullness of God in the world or how it is the pillar and ground of truth. That is, I think, where we have the biggest problem in trying to define what the Church is.

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      • I suppose it’s a matter of semantics in how you define ministry. I admit that the way St Paul talks about “his ministry” has the casual appearance of supporting the idea that we can minister to each other. Yet I still hold that a careful review of Hebrews, and even your references in Matthew 25 and 28, support the idea that only Christ (God) does the ministry. For example, in Matthew 25, starting with the parable of the virgins and ending with the final judgement, neither the virgins nor the one that Christ commends in the judgement did anything to minister to anyone else. Indeed I think every one of Jesus’ parables portrays God as the only competent minister. The strongest argument I think you can make is that the one whom Christ commends in the judgement is only praised for essentially giving alms (unwittingly) to Christ himself. Even the reward (“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, …”) is presented as if it is only a reward for loving God — i.e. for loving God with all your heart, strength, and mind (as did the prodigal Son, when he finally sobered up). And yes, I think even the central commands in the Great Commission can be understood in terms of merely giving alms.

        But there again, I don’t think the narrative in the Book of Hebrews leaves any doubt on this point, when it describes how much more excellent Christ’s ministry and sacrifice is to any other priest/servant who has ever lived (or has yet to live on Earth). Thus, we can obviously quibble about whether something analogous to giving alms is equivalent to ministry. But I am not that optimistic, and I only see all of Holy Tradition agreeing with me on this point.

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      • It is semantics to a point. There are two words in the New Testament in general (and Hebrews in particular) that are translated as “ministry.” The first is leitourgia and the second is diakonia. Much ministry is called diakonia and ministers are literally deacons. The use of leitourgia is used of the priestly sacrifice at the Temple, and is the one to which you are referencing in Hebrews.

        What I find interesting is that this same word is used in the Didache in Chapter 15 where the leitourgia of the Bishops and Deacons is equated to the leitourgia of the prophets and teachers. Also, John Chrysostom and Basil speak of the role of a priest as “ministry” throughout On the Priesthood. And in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, during the anaphora the priest says, “and we thank Thee for this leitourgia which Thou hast deigned to accept at our hands…”

        It is not quite accurate to say that “all of Holy Tradition” agrees with you on this point.

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  2. That’s interesting, and very similar to what I’ve read about these passages and terms. And thanks for the liturgy quotes. Here again, I’m not sure the different terms really change what I’ve said. You rightly point out that both leitourgia and diakonia are mentioned (and occasionally partially equated) in the context of worship. And thus, the key question is: do the distinctions in terms mean anything different in terms of ministry? I still see it as a question of the proverbial chicken or the egg — are we (the Church) ministering to people or merely giving alms (i.e. right sacrifice and work) to God?

    There are many examples of this throughout Scripture and Holy Tradition to draw from (e.g. Abel vs Cain, Jacob/Israel, the Psalms esp. 49/50, the many NT parables, Hebrews, James, Revelation, just to name a few in Scripture). And I don’t mean to belabor the point. But I still remain doubtful that we can rightfully take any credit (i.e. claim that we minister to people) for what Christ has-done / is-doing / will-do for anyone/everyone.

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    • Well, at this point I think we will have to agree to disagree. I do believe everything has its origin and completion in God, and that all of creation is to/by/for Christ. Yet I also see how God invites us by virtue of the Incarnation and Pentecost to participate in his redemptive ministry in the world. If that means that it is only God who ministers ultimately, then it is semantics. Either way, it is a humbling proposition that we are included in something as holy and awe-inspiring as a Church that is the fullness of God and the pillar and ground of truth.

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