What are we about when we are being the Church? Is the Body of Christ an institution or a charismatic (meaning Spirit empowered, and less specifically the charismatic renewal) movement? Are we invisibly organized by the presence of the Spirit, or a visibly recognizable, historic, human organization? Choose one?
As Anglicans, we see the Church as a mystery which encompasses both realities. The Church can be understood as a charismatic institution. That is, a human organization within human history, and with human ritual, structure, and patterns, but with a divine purpose and empowerment, enacted by the sovereign Holy Spirit. We are ontologically the mystical Body of Christ and experientially the Church in the world.
A kind of Apollinarianism is often operating in this regard. That is, the church is conceived as “spiritual” in a way that perceives a division with its material concerns, and a relegation of those concerns to a lesser status. In this light, the material or human concerns of the church as an organization or institution are seen as a lesser evil – something we put up with but not as a part of the work of redemption. Money, programs, long term planning, conflict, etc are seen as sad and necessary parts of our fallenness and as in conflict with our spiritual mission. We tend to envision the “ideal” church as being one which somehow transcends these petty things by becoming spiritually enlightened enough to move past them. That is, if we pray enough, love Jesus enough, love each other enough, then we won’t need institutions, programs, budgets. Instead, we will be “spirit-led” and can follow that divine intuition where it leads without the “messiness” of board meetings, hard thinking, research, and risk.
But that is not the church as it exists and even as it has been conceived by orthodox Christians from the beginning. The Church is people, human beings in flesh and blood, who use minds, hearts, and bodies to worship God through the institution that we have inherited from those who have gone before. Budgets and programs are not witness to our fallenness, but are signs of our institutional life with all the possibilities of serving our worship and mission as study and prayer.
A simplistic “spiritual” view of the Church that does not recognize its institutional character may seem inspiring, exciting, and powerful, but in the end may be a form of escapism from the hard work of actually prayerfully using discernment to build on the work of those in our past, for the lives of the future generations of believers. If we pretend that we are not institutional, ignoring our history, ritual, organization, and culture, we are giving up on the future. We will live only so long and we are responsible to prayerfully make sure that the institutional life of the Church continues in faithfulness to the Gospel and Scripture and the Apostolic teaching. If we shy away from the humanness of the Church, we neglect this task.
While it is difficult to express how the church can be both fully charismatic and institutional, being a mystery, it is not impossible to go about the mundane business of building the institution, while praying for and seeking the charisms necessary for the Church to continue as the Body of Christ on earth. We believe that God will turn our hearts to him and incline us to his will, working through us to build up, rebuild, and reform an institution on earth, a charismatic institution.
The implications are many. One implication relates to the large number of evangelicals in America that do not find the church community a necessary part of their Christian life, who are abandoning their calling to build, rebuild, and reform the institution called the Church. They simply find participation unnecessary for their personal spiritual growth. Since we have spent so much time trying to convince people that the Church is not visible, and they have believed us, they find it logical that they need not use their gifts to help build a visible one. They can build the invisible one from the couch at home, which is a neater and cleaner spirituality (anything that avoids committee work is neater and cleaner by definition).
We need a more robust and thoughtful theology of the Church that affirms rather than denies its institutional nature, while at the same time fully affirms its charismatic nature as well. And we have no choice but to do this, as we ponder the future generation of Christians and the great needs they will have for a robust Church institutional life with depth of thought, gifts, charity, and witness for its mission of the Gospel in a changing world.
Originally posted at the Bull Street Blog, adapted for use here. .