Saturday, May 18, 2013

Thoughts on the Church

One of my last summers at Fuller I signed up for a class on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Like the Nouwen class I have described, this class was explicitly dedicated to studying Bonhoeffer. My friend Derrick signed up along with a pastor from Montecito. The only hang up was the drive to Ventura and overnight stays in a hotel since the class was Friday night and all day Saturday. Luckily, Derrick and I decided to split a hotel room each of the three weekends.

As is prone to happen in such a small class we went through the initial “awkward class” phase quite quickly. Derrick and I only had two personalities to get used to, Patterson had years of experience, and Chris was just a cool dude.

During the third weekend we took lunch altogether, which we did each Saturday. We went to Dargan’s to grab a pint of beer and discuss “When is the Church no longer the Church.” Now, before you judge too harshly a bunch of theologians, sitting around deciding what action or belief is acceptable for the Church and who is in or out, you have to remember the topic of the course…Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer lived in a time and situation I doubt any of us will ever really have to go through, the church of his home was caught up in the throes of Nazism. Bonhoeffer had to legitimately tackle the question of what Church meant, and conversely what it meant to be a part of that Church.

For the three of us, the conversation revolved around PCUSA and the ordination of homosexuals. Why? Because Patterson and Thomas were PCUSA ministers. It was quite contextual. These men were part of a denomination deciding the future for congregants based on theological beliefs and understandings, while also reflecting the views of different parishes.

Now the purpose of this post is not to expose the views of either Patterson or Thomas. I spent a total of about 36 hours with these guys, well maybe 60 for Chris since I crashed on his couch twice…during the Olympics, which was kinda cool. (Side note. I still think Chad is Rad!) The point is there is this ongoing idea that runs into Christians’ minds of what (who?) is the Church. Most probably wouldn’t want to use that exact term, because it is uncomfortable to make this decisive statement that this person or that church or no longer Christian. I say most, because some people have no problem with it.

To a certain extent that is what the three of us discussed as I drank a Smithwick's for the first time. The two of them were discussing what was going on in PCUSA, while I avoided that altogether, being a theological mutt and not calling PCUSA my home. At the time, and to a certain point still today, I was more concerned with the lack of justice and sensitivity to a racially divided church. I was and am more concerned that men and women of different races and ethnicities have had such a hard time even endorsing one another, let alone worshipping together.

I doubt we ever came to concensus in that little pub to whether the PCUSA was still a true church. If we did, that was certainly not the takeaway I had from our conversations. But this takes me back to my previous post: when you are this lonesome, charismatic intellectual, how do you know that what you are doing, who you are, and who you worship with are still the true church? What are the anchors when your denomination is kinda loosey-goosey, this particular location looks like this, and that particular location really likes studying Romans more than speaking in tongues?

These are the theological questions that should be answered and can keep someone awake at night. So, what I came up with is this:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

That’s right…a Charismatic evangelical finding orthodoxy in an ancient, Catholic Creed. What is Orthodoxy you may ask?

To be orthodox, or to hold orthodox views can mean one of two related things: First, to hold an orthodox view is “conforming to the approved form of any doctrine.” Second, to hold an orthodox view is to hold to a “sound or correct opinion or doctrine.” Those should go hand-in-hand. Conforming to an approved should belief should also indicate that it is the sound and correct opinion. However, as the narrative of culture changes things what is orthodox can be changed.

Simply stated, I choose not to worry too much about anything outside of this. If the men and women I worship with can affirm these basic beliefs of the early church, who took dedicated time to boil down the essentials of faith into a succinct text, that for the most part was unanimously agreed upon, then that is safe to serve as my baseline.

I know there are many arguments that come against this. For example, “James, you will have to give account for what you did on this earth. Did you do this for the poor, that for the homosexual, that for the mentally ill?” Others will say it is theologically irresponsible. "You need to have a definitive stance on what is permissible and what is not permissible. Who can continue fellowship, who can partake of the table, etc." And those are legitimate concerns and arguments. However, I think at the heart of the Gospel, at the core of loving God with every part of me, and loving everyone on earth, as I look for anchor on who the Church is, and what is still orthodox, anyone who can still agree to this is still fine in my book.

And I guess that is why I can hold a book by Thomas Merton in one hand, a book by Miroslav Volf in another, while listening to a sermon by Joyce Mayer. It’s also why I don’t worry if the Episcopals I worship with each Easter openly affirm LBGTQ, while the Vineyard I attend tends to be quite conservative. I trust that the men and women of both congregations are working out their salvation with fear and trembling and know both to worship the same Jesus. And sure, some may say that is a bit shortsighted, but I choose to err on the side of grace when the God I worship spent his time hanging out with hookers and outcasts.

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