Friday, June 03, 2016

Christians and the Church: Res et signum

[continued from here]

The exact relationship between the Invisible Church and the Visible Church is not an easy one to answer. Before we look at a way to resolve this in a way that seems most biblical, let us look at how a few Christian traditions have answered this question.

Various responses in Christian traditions

We will start by looking at the non-Christian "Christian" traditions of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In Roman Catholicism, there is only the visible church instituted by Christ and found in unity with the pope, the bishop of Rome. While the invisible church is not denied, it is minimized. While Vatican II has coined the term "separate brethren" as a cosmetic veneer to woo evangelicals, the status of everyone not in communion with the Roman pontiff is clear, in that they are at best not in a church, and at worst not believers. Eastern Orthodoxy is similar to Roman Catholicism, except the locus of authority is not in one supreme pontiff, but in the plurality of bishops of the Eastern Patriarchy.

At the opposite extreme of the spectrum lies the non-denominational churches of every kind including the "non-denominational" denominations like Calvary Chapel, the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA), and many independent churches and house churches. These churches either deny that Christ has in any way instituted his church, or see the invisible church as bearing no relation whatsoever to the visible church. At best, the invisible church is just code for the way of faith and salvation. Believers all join the invisible church by faith. Then they have to join the visible church, in a separate act of faith. The visible church is a voluntary association of believers coming together to worship God, at least as traditionally understood. In the modern period, even the purpose of the church is disputed, thus we see the idea of "social justice emergent gatherings," "disciple-making churches," "evangelistic churches," "healing ministry churches" and all manner of niche ministry churches being formed. As an aside, all of these ideas of "doing church" will only arise, but not necessarily, in congregations that follow the model of denying Church as institution, or denying any necessary relation between the Invisible and the Visible church.

Generally speaking, the traditional Anglican and Methodist model of churches is based on the parish model of doing church. In this, there is the tendency towards the model of Rome and Constantinople. Yet, because the Gospel is primary (or at least used to be primary) in these two church bodies, there is no strict one-to-one correlation as in Rome and Constantinople. Methodism, as originally conceived as a renewal movement within the Church of England, diverts even further from the strong correlation model, although since John Wesley did not set out to start a separate church, I don't think there is any one THE "Methodist" model. I am sure there are Anglicans and Methodists who have put more thought into this issue, but the general thrust of these two church bodies is to put forward some form of correlation without officially having a definitive view on the subject.

Lastly, we move to the Baptists, and that is basically almost impossible, since no one speaks for the Baptists. Yes, some can point to certain baptist confessions of faith, like the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, but that is only one faction of Baptists. Baptists run the gamut from higher church types that are similar to Presbyterians, to non-denominational types indistinguishable from "Churches of Christ." At least one strain of more traditional Baptist thought is to focus on the local visible church as that instituted by Christ, but of course one wonders how it can be said that Christ instituted the local visible church if it owes its existence merely to the voluntary association of believers.

A way forward: Res et signum

The general Reformed view is that all believers join the invisible Church by faith, and that all Christians ought to be in the Visible Church. The Reformed do not really distinguished much between the local and universal church, because with its understanding of connectonalism, all Christians in local churches are members of the Church universal, which is expressed in a denomination through its presbyteries, synods and general assemblies. Of course every Reformed church member has to be a member in a particular church, but then every member in a particular church belongs to the church as denomination, the denomination's best expression of the universal church in this fallen world.

But this is not clear enough, for this simple model is unable to deal with Christians not in the denomination or in a church body in communion with her. What is an American Reformed Christian for example ought to think of believers that are not situated in NAPARC churches? If the denominations of the Reformed churches are to earthly expressions of the universal church, what about those professing Christians outside the association of Reformed churches?

One could resolve this problem by moving towards the evangelical model, and thus the denomination is no more seen as an expression of the universal church, but as one denomination among many. Or one can resolve this by moving towards Rome, and thus see one's denomination as being more of a remnant among apostate Christendom. But both seem to be trying to resolve a tension in a way that denies some biblical truths, either that Christians ought to be united in the former, or that salvation is by faith alone, not faith and church membership, in the latter. On the former, if the denomination is just one among many, why not then have all churches in one united denomination? But they refused because they deny doctrine X or that denominations are biblical, you might say. Well then, are they schismatic for rejecting Reformed unity? If so, will you shift your position to the latter position, or move further away to deny connectionalism?

There are here a few biblical truths that one must juggle as all being true:

  1. Salvation, and thus membership in the invisible church, is by faith alone
  2. Christ instituted His Church
  3. The Church is supposed to be connectional, therefore the denomination is supposed to be an expression of the universal church
  4. Christians in the Bible are always found in a biblical church

The only way that seemed to be able to hold all these truths together is to posit a strong correlation between the visible and invisible church, while making clear that the correlation is not a strict correlation. Thus, all Christians should join Reformed churches, but since salvation is by faith alone, it is always possible for a Christian to not be a member in a Reformed church.

A similar problem arises in the dispute over baptism: Does baptism save a person (baptismal regeneration) or does baptism have nothing whatsoever to do with a person's salvation. Using the traditional language of sign (signum) and thing signified (res significata), we recognize that baptism does signify salvation (c.f. 1 Peter 3:21) but it does not necessarily result in or comes with salvation. The sign (water) does not confer the thing signified (salvation), but the correlation is such that whoever partakes of the sign ordinarily should also partake of the thing signified, not necessarily, but ordinarily.

This strong correlation view as seen on the practice of baptism is of help to how we should view the relation between Christians and the Church. Ordinarily, true Christians should join a Reformed church. But not necessarily. And therefore we see that true Christians might be found in non-Reformed contexts, but they are not supposed to be there. But you may ask, if most Christians are to be found outside the Reformed church, can we actually say that "ordinarily" true Christians should join a Reformed church? First, whether something is ordinary or not does not depend on the numbers. Second, if there are no biblical Reformed churches in the vicinity, then what is "ordinary" cannot happen. Thirdly, can we be sure that many supposed Christians are in fact, truly Christians? I think it is certainly legitimate to cast doubt on the salvation status of those who sit in churches who preach heresy regularly (e.g. New Creation and Joseph Prince) and who find no problem at all in the teaching.

[to be continued]

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