Mt 18:15-20 The Meaning of Church
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“If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church.
If he refuses to listen even to the Church,
then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”
More than most words, the word, “church,” contains a wide assortment of meanings. In the books of the Bible alone, church could mean the physical temple, the new Zion, the Bride of Christ, the Kingdom of God, the Body of Christ, a community of believers, a community of common history and law, a family, or various combinations of these things, or something different altogether. Because the Church signifies so many different meanings, one can feel tempted to think of it as some vague idea that any individual candefine for himself. One person take a narrow view of the Church, thinking of it as aspecial building that houses a certain group of people who follow a particular set of moral teachings. Another might treat Church in much broader terms, thinking of her as a vast network of sympathetic, though not exactly united, individuals open to the divine.
Obviously, picking either of these extremes will lead to error. If a person has a narrow view of the church, he will feel tempted to treat it as a mere social club with an arbitrary set of rules. He might attend one church because it suits his class and background while another person will attend some other church for the same reasons. Their method of worship will often follow from a set of rules considered and maintained by a consensus of the members, reinforcing personal preferences while relativizing absolute the truth of Divine revelation.
The narrow view of church fueled many of the early Protestant breaks in the sixteenth century. The Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican churches often broke away from the Catholic Church because many of their followers saw church in terms of a physical community. In the case of Lutheranism, German princes wanted their own German churches that would rest under their authority and represent their people, not an Italian (or sometimes French) church that assumed a supranational leadership. Calvinism appealed to the Swiss and some of the American Puritans who again wanted a church specific to their customs. In one fell swoop, King Henry abolished Catholicism for an Anglican church that would accede to his leadership—allowing him to divorce his wife—and thus nationalize Christianity. While different doctrines accompanied the founding of these churches, popular opinion more often played a bigger role in determining a new church’s success than a better argument.
To be fair, Catholics at this time countered with the same tendencies towards a narrow Christianity. The French and Italians appropriated the Church for their own purposes of government, which led to the abuses of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance. In the schisms of the fourteenth century, these two countries tried to either make the Church a retainer of their respective governments, angling to make one of their people the pope; one side wanted to make the Catholicism French, the other, Italian, but few political leaders thought of making France or Italy Catholic, taking the success of past missionaries for granted. Spain did the same, using the Church to convert half the New World to Catholicism and by extension, under the dominion of Spain. When one considers the usurpation of the Christian Church for the purposes of legitimizing political authority and certain national identities, he should recognize the problem in labeling the conflicts resulting from the Reformation as the “Religious Wars”. Monarchs waged these wars, not the Catholic Church or the breakaway Protestant churches; they used religion to organize their particular faction, which had a political character more than a religious one. Even a cursory glance will show Catholics apparently supporting certain Protestants, and vice versa, showing that spiritual truth figured less into the meaning of church than political power and authority. Understanding this does not excuse the violence, but it should help correct the widespread fallacy that blames religion for starting wars.
Applied to today, taking an overly specific view of the Church has led to similar trends in modern Christianity. All too many Christians today associate Church with their cultural or particular community rather than with the spiritual life. Of the billion or so Catholics in the world, a large portion of them would probably only qualify as “Cultural Catholics.” They do not practice their faith; they do not pray; they know little to nothing about theliturgy, the Bible, or theology; they do not attend Mass except on holidays with their grandparents; but, all the same, they call themselves Catholic because they attended Catholic school once upon a time, or they have Catholic family members praying for them. They make the mistake of saying that were “born” Catholic, instead of baptized Catholic, betraying their thought that religion is some cultural trait instead a spiritual way of life that leads on the true salvation. They think their Italian background, their memories of the nuns disciplining them, or their parent’s alcoholism makes them Catholic, and thus embrace a stereotype instead of reality.
Ironically, this excessively narrow view of Church has resulted in an excessively broad view of the Church. Many writers reacting to the horrors of the “Religious Wars” wanted to redefine the Church as a kind of philosophy. Instead of an actual group of people with actual beliefs and actual traditions, Church became an abstract concept. These enlightened people whisked away the important doctrinal differences between Catholicism and the new Protestant denominations, deeming them altogether subjective and irrelevant. As more people adopted this open view of the Church, Christendomeventually became Christianity; later, Christianity became theism, on par with any other form of belief whether it be Buddhism, Totemism, or Scientology. Theism, without any formal set of beliefs or regular gathering, eventually dissolves in agnosticism or atheism: the Church of God degenerates into the Church of Man.
Despite the argument that expanding the meaning the Church would allow more people to unite under its banner and therefore enlarge the community and minimize conflict, it has actually contributed to the widespread spiritual individualism and isolation. If Church is simply an idea, then one can reject it on the basis of one’s opinion, or one can adopt it one on his own terms; it has no physical reality. Many Christians today worship alone, away from others, without any kind of reference point. They hate “organized religion,” never considering the fact that religion implies the organization of belief among a group of people. They say that Jesus came to save sinners and abolish the Church; lacking any kind of guide outside themselves, they overlook Jesus’ quite apparent desire to have his disciples organize into a universal Church that would preserve and spread His gospel. Otherwise, these Christians who do not believe in Church—a somewhat blatant contradiction, but a prevalent view nonetheless—will make their own gospel and speed down the solitary descent of perdition.
The correct orthodox understanding of Church lies somewhere in between these two extremes. The Church is composed of real people, who do interact as a community, where “two or three” or a thousand gather in physical proximity. Those who do not gather, or substitute virtual gathering for real gathering (i.e. the Internet), at some point in their spiritual lives, which even hermits do before their seclusion, risk having a warped perspective of God, themselves, and others. The Church stabilizes and supports her members in their spiritual journey; alone, those members will necessarily become destabilized and fall deeper into sin and error. Along with gathering, the Church must accord with God’s Will, “in my [Jesus’] name.” Church should not serve as some social club of likeminded people or some cultural symbol; it must administer God’s truth. If people do not gather in Jesus’ name, they cease to qualify as members of His Church. Those who try to maintain otherwise, those who meet in their own name, not Jesus’ name, should be corrected by those who follow Jesus; when they resist correction, they must be removed from the Church: “treat him as you would a gentile or a tax collector.”A group of people that gathers in any name besides Jesus effectively commits the sin of idolatry, worshipping what is not God. Churches that have allowed every new ideology to penetrate their theology eventually lose their mission, and ultimately lose Jesus. Quite a few Christian denominations in the Western world have suffered this fate.
Catholics today who face the twin temptations of making the Church too exclusive or too inclusive must stop looking at other organizations around them, and look to Jesus beyond them. Christ, not the ambitious individual or the confused rabble, must lead. Both divine and human, he must lead the spiritual dimension as well as the physical dimension of His Church. With Him, the Church will flourish; without Him, the Church will inevitablydecline and eventually fall into obscurity.