The Church. What do we mean by it? What does it mean to us? That was the topic of discussion that enthralled a group of Lutherans who gathered at the Tipsy Toad Tavern for Pub Theology on Thursday night.
It’s a good question, and one that we don’t always have an answer for.
A friend of mine, who writes the this top of speculation blog (yes, I frequently plug others’ blogs, get used to it), has been writing a good deal about the discussions in the Episcopal Church revolving around church structure, specifically as it relates to apostolic succession and the bishops.
Recent years have seen an intentional focus in the ELCA on being a “missional” church. For me, that means getting our priorities straight. Western culture has a long history of scholastic thought, which in the realm of church translated into an exclusive obsession with orthodoxy, “right belief”. But being a missional church means that we now should be focusing on “right action” or, more appropriately, “right service”. With this, I hope, will come a higher place for our diaconal ministry (Didn’t know that the ELCA had a rostered diaconal ministry? Don’t feel bad, you have good company. Most members of the ELCA don’t even know that this ministry exists, let alone what it does. We as a church have done a grave injustice to this ministry of Word and Service).
By emphasizing mission instead of orthodoxy, we have earned ourselves some enemies within Christianity. One of my professors once (lovingly of course) called the ELCA the “prostitutes” of ecumenism because we have so many full communion partners. Some of our Lutheran friends cannot believe that we would so willingly sacrifice any point of Lutheran doctrine.
In some ways, they are right. Approaching the discussion from the side of doctrine, the ELCA has indeed stepped outside the bounds of the Book of Concord in its full communion agreements. We don’t believe the same things, even about Holy Communion, that our ecumenical partners do. They don’t believe the same thing we do. Holy Communion has always been a stumbling block for ecumenical work, and instead of getting everyone else to see things our way, we simply picked up the block and moved it to the side. How can we be “the church” if we don’t stick to our guns when it comes to doctrine? Isn’t that what the church is, and is all about?
I no longer consider that to be the most important. And, much to my shock and dismay, I am about to support my argument with a quote from every good Lutheran’s least-favorite letter in the Bible, James:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
Now, before anyone has a stroke, I do not and will never believe in works-righteousness. Works do not justify.
What I am saying is that James is essential to understanding the missional church. For the past 1500-or-so years the church has so concentrated on right belief that we have forgotten what it means to be apostolic, or sent into the world. The first command of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) is “Go”. Instead, we have turned that command around to the world and said, “Come”. I am reminded of the recent “Catholics Come Home” media campaign, which perfectly articulates this notion of people coming to the church instead of the church going to the people. What good is our orthodoxy, our doctrine, if we don’t go out into the world and serve? Orthodoxy is only the beginning of faith, not the end.
That is what the church means to me. The church is not a place for people who have the same beliefs to gather. Remembering a popular children’s song, the church is neither building, steeple, or resting place. The church is the people, people called, set apart, and most importantly, sent into the world. The building/property/institution is merely a convenient launchpad for the real work, the mission, of the people. We are all apostles. We are all deacons.
The ELCA just celebrated landmark conversations with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, which we hope will lead to further cooperation in ministry and service. I look forward to the ways in which this missional idea is further explored and how it will shape the future of the church.