Monday, January 19, 2009

On Pleasantville and the Visible Church

As our discussion seems to have morphed into one about the visible vs. invisible church, I think a valid question that arises (but is not begged) is, “What, exactly, is a ‘church’?”

I would argue that a “church” is a self-governing ecclesiastical body that administers the Word and sacraments, meaning that a pastor-led congregational assembly is a church, Calvary Chapel as a whole is a church, and the PCA is a church (I’m putting aside for the moment the issue of whether these churches are any good).

And according to this definition, the Catholic Church is also a visible church.

The tricky part, however, is determining whether Protestants believe in a visible church at all, or simply in visible churches. If I visit a Missouri Synod Lutheran church I will be denied the bread and cup, despite the fact that I’m a Presbyterian minister. If one of my kids joins a Calvary Chapel (shudder) in high school, he or she will be offered a re-baptism, one that “really counts.”

So much for the sacraments having anything to do with unity in our circles....

So for better or worse, we Protestants must function as though “church” = “autonomous local body” or “denomination.” Perhaps some space could be made for a group like NAPARC (to which most conservative Reformed and Presbyterian denominations belong), but that is only a loose affiliation with no real jurisdiction or control over what, say, the PCA or OPC do.

Once we have sufficiently convinced ourselves that the visible church is small enough only to contain those who are under the authority of our particular denomination or body, then we can allow passages like Matthew 16:19 to play a significant role in our ecclesiastical practice. When someone becomes unrepentantly delinquent in doctrine or morals, we exercise our proper jurisdiction and remove such a one from our assembly.

But while all of this painful, sober, and faithful discipline happens we have this nagging thought in the back of our minds that the excommunicated person can just run out and join one of many other churches in the area, and that the chances that those churches will take seriously our disciplinary sentence are slim to nil. So he’s not really “delivered over to Satan,” but delivered over to Lakeside Community Church.

My point is two-fold. First, Protestantism doesn’t really believe in a visible church but in visible churches, and secondly, it is only in the context of any one of these distinct churches that spiritual authority and discipline make any sense. But like the residents of Pleasantville, once the members of an isolated church figure out that Main Street is not a big circle but a line that could dangerously lead to other ecclesiastical options, the game could very well be over.

This is a problem that needs to be fixed. But how?