Since the spring semester starts tomorrow, I thought I’d conclude my fall semester series of ecclesiology posts by sharing my response to one of my final exam questions, which was to write and defend my own definition of the church.
The church is the communion of every community formed in Christ by the Holy Spirit through word and sacrament, in continuity with the apostolic community birthed at Pentecost and the gathered saints in the world to come, sent forth by Christ for the world.
Word and sacrament are the practices that form us as Christians and that particularly distinguish the practice of Christianity from that of other religions. They are the spiritual DNA we received from our ancestors in the faith, and correspond to two of the four creedal marks, apostolic and holy. They were identified by Calvin as the notes of the church. Christians in every time and place have affirmed that we encounter Christ in scripture, have celebrated the Lord’s Supper, and have incorporated new members by baptism. Whatever differences may exist in how we do these things and how we understand what we are doing, we all do them and we are all shaped by them. They are constitutive of our ecclesial identity.
As a communion of communions, the church traces its genealogy to the unique eyewitness generation of the apostolic church, and looks forward to its eschatological fulfillment when all the saints are gathered in praise and glory of the Lamb. The church on earth today journeys together toward that fulfillment, accompanied by the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. This set of relationships corresponds to three of the four creedal marks: one, catholic, and apostolic. Our lived experience is that we journey as a rather ragged, disparate, bickering company, but we journey together nonetheless. For the church in this generation, scandalously divided by schism, the ecumenical relationships lifted up by this item are essential to ecclesiology.
“As the Father sent me, so I send you.” The gospel witness is clear that the church is sent into the world for the sake of the world, just as Christ was sent. The gifts we are given, and the spiritual nourishment that we receive when we gather for worship or fellowship, are not given to us for our own benefit, but for the building-up of the church for the sake of the world. This understanding of mission as essential to the definition of the church keeps us from lapsing into fideism or triumphalism.
These elements, defining as they do the answers to the questions “who are we,” “how do we relate to each other,” and “how do we relate to the other,” are essential to any ecclesiological definition. This formulation, defined using language that can be interpreted broadly and then further refined, is deliberately aimed at furthering ecumenical dialogue, which is a critical task for ecclesiology today.