Many images are conjured up in oneâ€™s mind when the topic of the ideal church is mentioned. Iâ€™m hoping to stretch the canvass and thus broaden the image that one thinks of concerning this topic. I wish to do that in two ways. First, by â€˜churchâ€™ I mean the church universal—that is, the whole body of Christ. But I also mean the local expression of the church. Youâ€™ll see what I mean shortly. Second, by â€˜idealâ€™ I donâ€™t mean the perfect church; we all know that no such thing exists because weâ€™re all sinners. Now, before you get too disappointed with what I wonâ€™t be saying, let me address what I will be: I will be talking about the ecclesiastical structure and theological underpinnings for such. I wonâ€™t be talking about whether such a church has Sunday school or home Bible studies or Vacation Bible School or weekend retreats. My comments are restricted far more to theological structure. Now, I could spend the rest of this blog defining things, but I think Iâ€™ll just dive right in and hope you can follow.
First, the universal church today should be united in what it believes when it comes to the essentials of the faith. Individual churches could vary on this theme, but the core doctrines should be held by all. The church would recognize that its greatest apologetic is the love of believers for one another, by the unity of the Spirit, while confessing a common creed. Many churches confess the Nicene Creed, and I think that thatâ€™s a wonderful place to start. Both the Orthodox and Catholics confess it regularly. Protestant churches, only rarely. Perhaps if it were confessed in Protestant churches more often, there would be a better sense of what unites us all. And those who couldnâ€™t even come close to confessing it might be treated as outside the universal body of Christ.
Second, we would all embrace sola scriptura. The question, however, that looms very large is how to access the meaning of special revelation. For this, I donâ€™t have an adequate answer. In broad strokes, it has been answered in one of two ways: reason or tradition. The problem with tradition is that it is full of contradictions. This was Lutherâ€™s argument at the Diet of Worms. But the problem with reason is that, at least for the Calvinist, it canâ€™t be fully trusted either. And theological liberalism grew out of the elevation of reason, not the elevation of tradition. Pragmatically, we all place something over revelation in order to access it. Traditions that we know do not have a sound biblical base or a solid historical base (that is, the ones that do not reach back to the earliest times in the history of the church) will need significant justification to be maintained. We wouldnâ€™t simply jettison them, of course. Otherwise, we would have to get rid of pews, pulpits, hymnals, organs, communion using crackers and grape juice, etc. Many Protestants take these things for granted, but they are traditions that have minimal historical precedent. Why, then, do we condemn Catholics for having traditions that reach back for centuries?
Back to sola scriptura and how to access the meaning of scripture. It may actually be easier to talk about what I donâ€™t like about todayâ€™s church than about what the ideal church would look like—because I donâ€™t exactly know. What I donâ€™t like are anti-biblical traditions, those that seem to contradict the clear meaning of the Bible. But what I also donâ€™t like are screwy interpretations that seem to go far afield from the meaning and spirit of the Word of God. If Catholics can be blamed for the former, Protestants can be blamed for the latter a hundredfold! Frankly, every one of us is a heretic (at least with a lowercase â€˜hâ€™); the problem is that we donâ€™t know in what areas we are wrong. Yet, many of us are equally dogmatic about both central and peripheral doctrines. Tradition and reason both have their place, but the tragic thing is that the average Christian today has to choose which one to elevate because no church is balanced.
Third, the ideal church would observe the Lordâ€™s Table every week. And there should be rich liturgy in the service that glorifies Jesus Christ and magnifies his transcendent lordship over all. As readers of my blogs have noticed, I believe that Protestants have much to learn from Catholics and the Orthodox, and that the Orthodox and Catholics have much to learn from Protestants. One of the things that Protestants can learn from the other two branches of Christendom is the importance of the Eucharist. When Protestants say to Catholics, â€œHow can you call yourself a Christian when you are adding to the gospel?â€ they make a valid point related to justification. When Catholics and the Orthodox say to Protestants, â€œHow can you call yourself a Christian when you treat your communion with the Lord Jesus Christ in such a trivial manner?â€ they, too, make a valid point—this time related to sanctification. One group rightly says, â€œA Christian believes this,â€ while the other group rightly says, â€œA Christian does this.â€ And both groups have biblical precedent.
Fourth, in terms of symbolism, I would like to see the pulpit down low (as it is in Protestant churches), but off center (as it is in Catholic and Orthodox churches). I would also like to see the communion table down low and off center. The elevation of the pulpit above the congregation, though meant to represent Christâ€™s transcendence above his people, pragmatically elevates the priest above the people. It has the effect of denying the priesthood of the believer. In Protestant churches, the pulpit is front and center, illustrating that we are all believer-priests and that the proclamation of the Word is of central importance. I would prefer to have both the pulpit and the communion table off center with a cross between them, the only item that is elevated. Both the proclamation of the Word and the celebration of the Lordâ€™s Supper should always focus on Jesus Christ. I have yet to see any church that does this—perhaps because itâ€™s a new tradition!
Fifth, there needs to be theological and personal accountability that reaches beyond the walls of each individual church and of each denomination. That is, there should be a worldwide hierarchy that maintains the theological and personal integrity of the church. Admittedly, there is such among Catholics. But just as admittedly, Rome has done a poor job in handling this responsibility. But among Protestants, the situation is every bit as bad. There are over 30,000 denominations! And in America there are millions of Christians in unaffiliated, independent Bible churches. What happens if the pastor goes off the deep end theologically? All too often, he takes the sheep with him. All too often, cults find their roots in rich Protestant soil. And what happens when a person in a Protestant church needs to be disciplined? He packs up and leaves and goes to another church a block away. There is zero accountability. At least in the Catholic Church, there is the semblance of accountability. To our shame, both groups have done a poor job in keeping the church pure.
Sixth, there should be a profound understanding of the priesthood of the believer. On the one hand, this doesnâ€™t mean that we have the right to pool our ignorance (the common misunderstanding of this doctrine). On the other hand, it does mean that each of us has the right and privilege to come directly before the throne of grace. Protestants tend to make the priesthood of the believer a one-size fits all sort of doctrine—one that refers both to prayer and to accessing revelation. Catholics tend to deny both aspects. If neither one is completely right, then how does the average Christian choose?
These are just a few thoughts on the subject. As should be readily obvious, the ideal church canâ€™t exist. And a large part of the reason it canâ€™t is because weâ€™ve made a terrible mess of things. Iâ€™m not suggesting that our differences are trivial or unimportant. No, I agree with Jaroslav Pelikan that the Reformation was a tragic necessity. And I believe that the Protestant faith—at least its evangelical form—comes closest to the ideal church of any. But make no mistake: itâ€™s a far cry from ideal!
Some Protestants say that they canâ€™t learn a thing from Catholics about the Christian faith, and some Catholics return the compliment. Such a view unmasks either that the accuser thinks that the accused is not really a Christian or that, even if a Christian, the accused has suffocated the inner witness of the Spirit. And yet (assuming that we exclude liberal Protestants and cults), all these Christian groups can affirm that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, that he bore our sins on the cross, that God raised him from the dead, and that we must believe in him for salvation. I think that may be enough to argue for essential unity.