We Believe in the Church

Part 5 of “We Believe: The Nicene Creed”

one holyOne of the things I’ve been noticing lately is that in clergy circles there is an overwhelmingly negative vibe about the future of the church—not just the United Methodist Church, but the Church in general. We are bombarded with statistics about the church’s decline; people are attending church less often; the culture is becoming increasingly hostile to the church; and internal strife threatens to rip the church to pieces, which has already happened in many places.

On the other hand, there are also plenty of articles about how to make the church more culturally relevant—how to deliver better religious goods and services that cater to the needs and wants of individuals; how the church should be more politically active and back candidates that ostensibly fit its agenda (which usually winds up working the other way around); or how the church should adjust its traditional values and morals to adapt to cultural trends.

The problem with all of this wrangling and hand-wringing is that it doesn’t ever define what it means by “church.” Is the church an institution that is best measured by inputs and outputs? Is it an organization for social or political activism? Is it a building? A denomination? A social club with a little Jesus overlay? Or is it something else?

In the midst of all this confusion, it’s important that we go back to basics. As we’ve been saying in this series, the Creed provides us with some important definitions. We’ve talked over the last several weeks about how the Creed defines God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all co-equal with one another—one God in Three Persons, the great mystery of the Trinity. Now we move to the section of the creed that points out the implications of this community of the Godhead for us—those who gather as the Church and say the Creed together. We not only believe in God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—but we also believe in the church.

When you think about it, the church is the natural extension of all that we’ve talked about in describing the Trinity. As God’s very nature is communal, the life of God is embedded in creation and embodied in the form of the human community he created in his own image. From the very beginning, God has chosen to be made known in community. He creates a family—man and woman in the Garden. He calls Abraham and makes of him a great family that becomes a nation—Israel. Abraham’s greatest descendant is Jesus of Nazareth, the full embodiment of humanity and divinity, and he himself creates a community of disciples that will come to be known as the Church. As God is embodied in Jesus, so is Jesus embodied in the Church in the power of the Holy Spirit, as we talked about last week.

Indeed, the apostle Paul’s favorite metaphor for the Church is the Body of Christ—a body with many individual members but all connected as a whole. In the New Testament, in fact, there is no such thing as a Christian apart from the Church. The writers always speak to the attitudes, dispositions, and practices of communities. As John Wesley put it, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” We were designed to live as Christians in community.

This emphasis on community runs counter to our American worldview, however, where the rugged individual is our best example. Perhaps that’s why the American church is so dysfunctional these days—we’ve forgotten what the Body of Christ is for.

ONE, HOLY, CATHOLIC, APOSTOLIC

This is where the Creed can help us. It offers four distinct markers of the Church that, when taken together, define for us the very nature of the Church and its mission. According to the Creed, the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Let’s look at these in order:

One. There are a couple of senses in which the Church is one. In the first sense, it means “unique.” The Church is the community chosen from all the world’s communities to embody the Spirit and mission of God. It is the community that is bound together by the good news of God’s salvation and it is through this community that the world comes to know who God is. That’s an awesome responsibility when you think about it—when the world looks at the church, it should observe the very presence of God in the lives of its people. In that sense, the Church is an outpost of God’s kingdom, representing God’s reign and rule on the earth.

The other sense that the Church is “one” involves unity. As Paul puts it in Ephesians 4:4-6, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father all, who is above all, and in all, and through all.” Paul assumes that there will be one church, but many people have morphed that into the idea that there should be only one “right” denomination. Remember, however, that Paul also uses the metaphor of the Body with many different members and those members can be diverse and scattered. They can be of different races and cultures, from different places and in different settings. All who share in the one Lord, one faith, and one baptism are considered to be part of the church; all function together as a unity with diversity, just as the Trinity itself is unity with diversity.

A caveat, however. “Unity” does not mean the same thing as uniformity, nor does “diversity” mean the same thing as deviance. Some Christians have tried to insist that the Church be uniform in its practices, its processes, its doctrines, and its rituals, while others have claimed a diversity in beliefs that disregards the basics of Christian faith. Not all forms of unity are helpful if they are forced, and not all forms of diversity are encouraged if they lead to heresy or threaten the unity of the Church. We need to see the church as one in adherence to the basics (which the Creed gives us) but diverse in the ways we live out those basics in our particular culture and communicate the gospel through its lenses.

Which brings us to the second marker that actually modifies and defines the first: The Church is not only one but it is holy. When God commanded the Israelites to “be holy as I am holy” in Leviticus 11:44, he was reminding them that their community had been set apart for his purposes. As God is “other” than the things he created, so the Church is to embrace its “otherness” in the world. That’s what holiness is about—being other than, set apart, made holy. It’s not about our own inherent holiness or “holier-than-thou-ness” but about God’s grace making us into a holy people. As Jesus said, we are to be in the world but not from the world; not shaped by the world but shaped by God. Holiness is thus one of the pursuits of the Church. Sanctification, or the process by which we are made holy, perfect, set apart, happens through God’s Spirit working through the community. Just as we can’t be Christians on our own, neither can we be made holy apart from community. Methodists understand this better than most. John Wesley believed that real holiness was cultivated when people gathered together to “spur one another on to perfection.”

People can be unified around a lot of things, as political campaigns teach us. The Church is to be unified around holiness, the communal and set apart life of the Trinity becoming the basis of our life together. Some in the church have taken that view of its context and made holiness an individual competition, but it looks a lot more like cooperation with God and with the Church. The real marker of holiness in the Church is this: Do we look like the community of Jesus? Are we doing the work of God the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit? If not, we will neither be one, nor will we be holy!

The third marker of the Church is that it is catholic. I get a lot of questions about this. When we say the Creed, are we becoming Roman Catholic? Actually, Roman Catholic is an oxymoronic term—it takes a broad work like “catholic” and makes it specific. Actually, the word “catholic” in Greek means “throughout the whole.” In other words, when we say the Church is “catholic” we mean that it is universal; it exists everywhere that believers gather in community under the same Lord, faith, and baptism. And, in that sense, it is also inclusive. As with our discussion of unity, our “catholicity” embraces the differences of culture and place, race and gender, in an inclusive whole. Remember Paul’s word in Galatians: In Christ there is male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. No matter where we find ourselves, if we are in Christ we are in community with whomever we find.

I’ve had the marvelous experience of worshipping with Christians in a Masai village in Kenya, where the only music was a drum; with Christians in South Korea who pray passionately; with charismatic Christians in a storefront church in Scotland; with a small Christian community in the Middle East. As our baptismal liturgy puts it, the Church is opened to people of all ages, nations, and races, and it is in the Church that all people may find reconciliation with God and with each other. It’s an alternate way of life that transcends the walls and boundaries of nations.

That’s why when the Church begins to buy into the rhetoric of nationalism and politics it begins to lose its voice. When Christians begin allying themselves with those who would build walls out of fear or support violence against innocent people, we are no longer the Church. The Church is not to be about division, but about reconciling humans under the markers of unity and holiness, inviting others to be reconciled to God.

But as holiness modifies unity, the word “apostolic” modifies our catholicity. The Church is not to be inclusive of every idea and every belief or practice. Rather, regardless of culture or race, the Church in every age identifies with the Church of the original apostles. We are part of a continuing story with a common history and message. When we gather as the Church, we gather in union with the Church across time and space—with God’s people on earth and all the company of heaven, as our communion liturgy puts it—to worship, to encourage one another, to share in Word and sacrament, and to carry out God’s mission in the world.

The word “apostolic” thus calls us back to the basics of the faith. It provides a litmus test for seeing where we have compromised the apostolic message and witness and offers us the framework for renewal. Whenever the Church has deviated from its purpose, the apostolic marker calls it back to its roots. We study the Scriptures, we discern them under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and we remember who we are.

One. Holy. Catholic. Apostolic. These are the markers of the Church. All four are necessary and must be held in tension if the Church is to reflect the way of the Trinity. And I think that word “tension” is appropriate, for often the Church will try to lean toward one marker or the other. We will be tempted, for example, to have unity without the apostolic witness; or we might try to be catholic without being holy. We have to learn how to do life together while holding these four markers in tension and in concert with one another.

It’s true that these are turbulent times for the Church. The cultural influence the Church has had here in the West is waning, while in the East the Church in some places is threatened with extinction by persecution. We can decry the situation, we can try to compromise with the culture, but ultimately the answer is to continue to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. As scholar Luke Timothy Johnson puts it:

“The greatest threat and challenge to the church is not its sheer survival or even its success in winning adherents, but its ability to sustain life together with integrity.”

Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday where a crowd cheered him on one day and sought to kill him a few days afterward. But Jesus never wavered from his mission. The same must be true for his church, whether in times of popularity or persecution.

Our church celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. We’ll have a special celebration on April 10 and our District Superintendent will be here to celebrate with us. It has take a lot to bring us to this point and there are significant challenges ahead. In a culture where people see the church as being less important, we the same choices before us that other churches are making. Either we will give up, we will give in, or we will get busy being the Church. After all, the Church was God’s invention and it will be around until the end. As our liturgy puts it:

“The Church is of God and will be preserved to the end of time for the conduct of worship and of the Word and Sacraments, the maintenance of Christian fellowship, the building up of believers, and the conversion of the world. All persons stand in need of the means of grace which it alone supplies through Christ’s Spirit.”

One. Holy. Catholic. Apostolic. The Body of Christ. Let us be the Church together. Amen.

2 Comments on "We Believe in the Church"

  1. Lisa Hatfield says:

    Apostasy must be the same root word as apostolic.

    But ironically, the only time I have seen that word used is in relation to Islam (the book Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali – which was a fascinating book!) Apostasy in Islam is punishable by death. Ali’s friend Theordore van Gogh was murdered in Holland just because he associated with her after she rejected Islam..

    Are Islamic leaders worrying about the future of Islam? I do not think so.

    Bet you were not expecting me to write that.

  2. Linda Lyons says:

    Amen to Integrity!

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