Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Ecclesiology and Church Sins

Over at titusonenine , Kendall Harmon has provoked some discussion by posting a quote from Dean Paul Zahl:

The church, as an institution, punishes its own, and generally martyrs its own. If you really set a lot of store on entities such as “The Episcopal Church,” you get disappointed, and deeply so. Because my theology focuses on other things than ecclesiology, I just don’t lose so much sleep over the church, institutionally speaking. Meddling and intrusive bishops, punishing and exiling bishops, give me the creeps. But again, you can find big sins among the Lutherans, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the Roman Catholics, and especially with their official leaders.

As you can see from the comments there, some feel Zahl’s ecclesiology is a bit too low.

Until very recently, I could have said something very similar to Zahl’s comment. Moreover, like many from a Protestant background, I haven’t given much thought to ecclesiology for most of my Christian life. And what ecclesiology I possessed was quite low.

One reason – I became a Christian almost in spite of the church. My childhood church experiences were not positive. And even the church events that led to me hearing and comprehending the Gospel for the first time – I was there because they sounded fun and because of a girl I liked. Hey, I was 13.

I also was very individualistic, and probably still am more than most people. I didn’t view my relationship with God as having much to do with the church. It was the Lord and me. I went to church because I wanted to and because I felt that’s something Christians should do. But through my college years, the core of my spiritually was well outside the church. Bible study was the focus. And at Duke, I was more involved with InterVarsity than with my church. And I really didn’t see why it was that important to go to church since I was involved in an on-campus group. (I went anyway because I wanted to.)

Church became more important to me after Duke. My ecclesiology maybe slowly rose higher. But not that high. I still had a sour view of most of the institutional church. There were very few denominations I was doctrinally compatible with. And even some of those had a culture I wanted to stay away from. I grew more and more fed up with the liberalism of the mainline denominations. Neither Catholicism nor Orthodoxy was close to an alternative either although I felt more kin to a conservative Catholic than a liberal Protestant.

And my church search of 1988 revealed it was hard to find even a local church I felt comfortable in even in the buckle of the Bible Belt. And after six years, I felt compelled to leave that one. And I witnessed power plays that steamrollered good Christians in my first two post-Duke churches.

So in my view, most of the institutional church wasn’t the work of God, but a noxious hindrance to it. Yet, at the same time, it grew more and more important to me to be involved in a good church. My ecclesiology grew “higher” in that way. That desire, combined with my distrust of most of the church, including about all the large denominations, is probably a big reason I was a member of two independent Bible churches for 16 years.

Now that I’m Anglican, my view of the church is a bit higher and, yes, more charitable. But, after years where ecclesiology was not at all the focus of my beliefs, I still don’t have a deep, articulate ecclesiology, much less a particularly high one.

But I’ll probably write more on that another time.

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