Here Is the Church
By Audrey Stallsmith
“Here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” That old finger rhyme reminds us of what most frequently bugs us about the Church—the people!
We Christians call the universal Church our family, and its other members are very like family. They love and support us like nobody else does, as well as occasionally getting our goat like nobody else can and just generally driving us crazy.
For example, the board of our interdenominational writing conference has recently been debating whether or not to move that conference closer to the weekend so that conferees can attend without having to take so many days off of work. I objected to the idea of having classes on Sunday, only to discover how many other denominations apparently hold that commandment to be optional—or have different ideas about what constitutes work than I do.
Since I belong to a church which believes in observation of the Sabbath, I find this somewhat disheartening. What seems obvious to me apparently doesn’t seem so to other Christians.
In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, one of the demons advises another that Christians can be tricked into becoming disillusioned with the church by having the differences of its other members made clear to them. “It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains,” that demon points out. “You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy’s [God’s] side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father Below [Satan], is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous.”
What that “patient” doesn’t like to acknowledge is that he is as imperfect as everybody else. We need each other, because we are all off-center in some way. If left to our own devices, to a reclusive faith, each of us would fly off at an odd angle into our own peculiar heresy. But, because the skewing differs in each person, as long as we meet together and bounce our faith off of each other, we can balance each other out.
As Philip Yancey notes on his web site, “Families are flawed, difficult to transform, and full of eccentric characters, too—but few people entirely give up on their families. We stick it out because we value what we hold in common, and in the process we learn to think less about our own needs and more about others. That’s the hope, anyway.”
Just as family is the haven we run to when the rest of the world fails us, the Church is our Ark and will get us safe to heaven. As long as we don’t all stand on either the port or starboard side of the boat, which would end up capsizing it in one direction or the other!
Once we get there, we won’t need it any more. As Frederick Buechner points out in Wishful Thinking, “The reason for there being no temple in the New Jerusalem is presumably the same as the reason for Noah's leaving the ark behind when he finally makes it to Mt. Ararat.” But, for the present, that ark is essential.
Granted, some of us may be able to attain balance by reading the books of other Christians, including those such as Lewis who are long dead. That form of church may be necessary for persons who can’t attend for health reasons or because they simply live too far from any church building. However, most of us don’t have that excuse, and you can’t really interact with distant authors as you can with present persons.
In our country congregation, for example, people frequently bring each other their extra vegetables or eggs, depending on whose gardens are prospering at the time and whose hens haven’t been picked off by predators. Who can help whom varies from one year—or even one month—to the next. One of the ladies who has very arthritic fingers may occasionally ask me to button a cuff for her. I probably will have to ask someone to help me in the same way a few years down the line.
Although we prefer to be on the giving end of these transactions, we all need to learn to accept help when we need it. How else, after all, are we going to learn to accept the grace of God which we cannot earn?
We also need to remind ourselves that the Church doesn’t just consist of one church. We are to worship God only, never our own denomination or its leaders, and should consider any other Christians our brothers and sisters.
The litmus test suggested for picking out other believers can be applied to their churches too. Paul advises us that “No one speaking by the power of the Spirit of God can curse Jesus, and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and really mean it, unless the Holy Spirit is helping him.” (I Corinthians 12:3b LB)
In other words, those churches which acknowledge the lordship of Christ, as expressed in the basic tenants of the Apostles' Creed, generally are--and should be--considered Christian. That creed runs as follows: “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day the rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic [universal] church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
I’ve noticed myself that cults almost always deviate from this creed in some way. For example, many of them consider Jesus a good man but not divine. They don’t believe that he was born to a virgin or that he rose from the dead. They are, in other words, denying that Jesus was more than human.
Others take the opposite tack and assert that he never really became a human being, but only had the appearance of one, perhaps in the same way that angels can look like people. In that case, however, he could only have appeared to die, so his death would have had no real meaning.
The Bible tells us that another “way to identify a tree or a person is by the kind of fruit produced.” (Matthew 7:20 LB) Charles Colson, a Baptist, wrote in his book The Body that “I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve received over the years protesting my use of Mother Teresa as an example of holy living. Many even suggest that I visit her so I can give her the plan of salvation. To me this reaction is astounding. How could anyone deny this woman’s faithful witness?. . .The means by which men and women are saved and come into the church cannot be reduced to human formulas that put God into our own little box. . .But Jesus did teach His disciples that they would be known by the fruit of their lives.”
Although we Protestants don’t like some aspects of Catholic belief—the papacy, the veneration of Mary and the saints, etc.—we have to acknowledge that the Catholic Church was the only Christian church for quite a number of years. We also share that common Apostles' Creed, though we Protestants make the C in Catholic lower case. The fact that the church contrived to survive despite the excess trappings proves that it is indestructible if its core beliefs are true.
Although Luther may have been necessary to reform the church, he was far from theologically sound himself. That “Be a sinner and sin mightily” idea, for example, is not one most of we Protestants would endorse!
I also have to acknowledge that my own denomination has tacked on quite a few “standards” which I don’t consider valid either. I stick to the church, however, because I believe its Armenian doctrine to be correct even if the extras aren’t. (Armenian doctrine holds that all humans have free choice as to whether or not they will accept the salvation purchased for them by Christ.)
So do I still believe my denomination is right to observe the Sabbath too? Absolutely! It doesn’t seem logical to me that only one of the Ten Commandments should be considered optional. Also, people need a day off from work to have time to rest and reflect. I’m guessing that some people don’t want to have time to think, which is why they rush through the Sabbath as busily as they do the rest of the week.
I’m obviously never going to agree with all my fellow Christians on everything their churches do or don’t do—any more than I always agree with other members of my family. As long as we are all doing our best to love and obey our heavenly Father, however, we are still family.