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The Church: Beyond the Christian Religion

by Douglas John Hall

Douglas John Hall is Professor of Christian Theology in the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Among his many books are the first two volumes of a proposed trilogy, Thinking the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context, and Professing the Faith; Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross; The Reality of the Gospel and the Unreality of the Churches; The Stewardship of Life in the Kingdom of Death; and God and Human Suffering. Permission to use this material has been granted. The following address was given to the 1999 Covenant Conference, Network of Presbyterians, November 6, 1999, in Atlanta, GA. Other presentations made at the conference may be found at http://www.covenantnetwork.org.


Although I have written a good deal about the church over the past three or four decades (more, probably, than is decent!), I feel increasingly that ecclesiology is one of the most difficult subjects for present-day Christians to sort out. This, I would say, is due to the fact that we are the generations in whose persons, individually and corporately, the enormous metamorphosis through which Christianity is passing is actually occurring. We ourselves, most of us, have been shaped by the goals and assumptions of fifteen centuries of Christendom; yet we are also beckoned daily and insistently into unknown places--places untrodden by our forebears and mentors; places incommensurate with our own formative assumptions as children of the established religion of our culture. Thus most of us, most of the time, manifest a certain ambiguity of orientation. Unwilling to let go of the past, we are yet drawn towards a future that seems inhospitable to much of the past that we cherish. As we stand at the portal of a new millennium--new, somewhat ironically, by our own much-questioned religion's standard of chronological measurement--we ask ourselves and one another how much of the church's past (its doctrines, its relationships, its expectations) we can or must or dare to take with us into that future. We all have bleak hmoments when we wonder whether anything that we can salvage out of the ruins of the corpus Christianum will enable us to meet the challenges of our vastly changed and changing world.

Yet this, I suspect, is the best possible condition for Christians to undergo at this juncture in time; for out of just this open and honest uncertainty, this chaos of spirit, thought is borne, and nothing is more needful for the Christian future than that the community of Christ's discipleship, which has thriven heretofore on power and convention, should now become a community of original--and therefore critical and troubling--thought. Our time, I often feel, is like the period described in the first chapter of Acts, between the departure of the Christ and the advent of the Holy Spirit. The disciples are obviously, understandably, perplexed, bewildered. Speeches are made--but they are not decisive. An election is held--after all, something should be done! They pray a good deal--but there are no immediate answers. It is, one senses, an unsettling moment: everything could fall apart. Yet without this moment the Pentecost experience could scarcely have occurred.

As I read the Christian literature of a century ago, when our forebears found themselves entering the Twentieth Century, I am struck again and again by the certitude (not to say the smugness!) that had gripped them all--liberals and conservatives alike. They just assumed that Christianity was the wave of the future. The 20th Century would be "The Christian Century", and a certain journal enshrined, in its title, this credo. Even in liberal and modernist circles there seemed little questioning of the rectitude--well, the inevitability!--of Christendom's expansion, or of its consequences for those who were "not of this fold." The churches in Canada and the United States were still full (at least by contemporary standards); bishops and moderators had influence in high places; and the clergy were the bright, affable, well-spoken and of course (ostensibly) heterosexual young men (yes of course, men) who had chosen theology over law and medicine.

I am not amongst those who believe that this was "all bad"; but I do think that it was not as good as it thought it was, and I am disturbed by the fact that it wields, still, far too weighty an influence on the imaging of church in the minds of its people. The truth that hindsight at least reveals, if foresight could not, is that this brave image of Christian mission and destiny was naive about the world, insensitive towards otherness of every sort, and theologically and biblically inept. It was clearly wrong about the Twentieth Century, and its wrongness was not an innocent misjudgment, because in its enthusiasm for the immanent spread of God's (very Western!) "Kingdom" it neglected to notice the biblical distinction between the Kingdom and the Church. It failed to recognize the eschatological surprise-factor that Augustine had in mind when he wrote, "Many whom God has the church does not have, and many whom the church has God does not have."

Though it would be ludicrous for serious Christians to boast about the 20th Century, one of its few positive accomplishments, surely, has been a greater sensitivity towards "the other"--the racially, culturally, economically, sexually and religiously "different." It is a sensitivity that is far from complete, but those of us who are over fifty know, if we are honest enough to know that we know, that by comparison with the earlier decades of the century this consciousness of difference has grown and even, here and there, matured. Gradually, painfully it has inserted itself into the Christian mainstream and, as I do not have to say in this company, it has created--predictably enough--a backlash, which, in turn (also predictably enough), has led to polarization and exaggeration. Like most of you, I surmise, my sympathies are with the Christian Left and not the Right (though I dislike this terminology rather intensely). I believe, however, that those of us who find ourselves in that camp have a responsibility that we have not yet adequately discharged: namely, to demonstrate that our disposition is based, not on purely personal liberality or the various ideologies of tolerance, but on theological grounds evoked by scripture and apostolic tradition. Since we have not repressed the awareness of the actual multicultural, pluralistic, patchwork-quilt character of our world, but have taken it with the utmost seriousness, we have the greater responsibility to address the question: How shall we be able to fashion our life as the community of Christ's disciples (after all, our only raison d'être), and how shall we carry on as a missionary faith, in this kind of world?

My purpose in this address is to respond to that question. I will not say to answer it, because it will have to be answered, if it is answered at all, corporately and over time. But one must respond to it all the same because it is there--concretely and irrevocably. My response, for the sake both of clarity and connectedness with the great tradition, will take the form of a commentary on the four so-called "marks of the church": one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Credo in unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam. I cannot say everything that needs to be said on this subject, but perhaps by commenting contextually on these Nicene claims at least some of what I say will be intelligible.

"One"

"We believe in one . . . church". Every one of these marks of the church implies a negative reality that the gospel intends to negate; and every one of them is subject to misinterpretation and manipulative misapplication. The unity that ought to characterize the Body of Christ is set over-against the militant and the subtle disunities, divisions and alienations that characterize human life under the conditions of historical existence. The dividing walls of hostility are being broken down; forgiveness and mutuality are being learned; reconciliation and koinonia are being experienced as real possibilities and not mere ideals. We are speaking here of the most central things of this faith.

But this same gospel of harmony and at-one-ment is and always has been susceptible to manipulative misapplication. It is not for nothing that imperial Rome, torn by internal division and already smelling the smoke of the fires that would destroy it a century later, found at last in the Christian religion a principle of cohesion that would permit it one last effort to realize the dream of the Caesars and envelope the entire known world under the banner of the Pax Romana. With its many-faceted deployment of the unity principle (the unity of the deity, the unity of all creation, the unity of the church, the eschatological reunification of all creatures in the divine Kingdom), the Christian religion, divested of its critical dimension, served Rome and many subsequent empires very well indeed--though of course it has never cured the ills of empire, which are endemic.

And it is not for nothing, either, that every internal questioning of the Christian church, including the Reformation of the 16th century, has evoked in the powerful of Christendom the plea not to destroy the unity of Christ's Body. There is in short a way of appropriating oneness that very effectively rules out any kind of diversity, dialectic, or even dialogue, and lends itself, for that purpose, especially to those persons and forces within the community whose power is great enough to sustain their own particular version of Christian unity. If the oneness of the church means that there is only one way of being the church, only one way of expressing Christian truth, only one way of living the Christian life, then this mark of the church must be considered one of the most oppressive of Christian teachings. Nothing could lend itself to totalitarian systems or authoritarian religions more readily than a unity-principle that permits of no plurality in its expression and realization.

We know from Scripture and from the best doctrinal traditions of the faith, however, that the Nicene Creed's affirmation of the church's oneness could not legitimately be taken to endorse such an undialectical conception of Christian unity. Paul's application of the unity principle to the church in his soma Christou metaphor not only necessitates the distinction between the Body and its Head, Christ, but also distinctions within the membership (the eye is not the hand, and so forth). Jesus' dialogue with his disciples in the final chapter of John, where the risen Christ in effect tells the aggressive Peter, the Rock (!), to mind his own business, recognizes the marked differences among the disciples, their gifts and their vocations. And the doctrine of the Trinity, which certainly wanted to affirm the monotheism of the parental faith, interpreted the unity of God through its exegesis of three distinctions.

Oneness, in this tradition, is therefore not an ontic, static givenness but a dynamic mutuality that is glimpsed and struggled towards in the honest encounter of Creator with creature, and creature with creature. It is indeed the otherness of the other that makes such oneness necessary, but it is also the otherness of the other that makes suchoneness possible. For the oneness desired by this gospel is the oneness of love, and love presupposes otherness even while it counters the alienation and estrangement that prevents love's realization.

"Holy"

"We believe in one, holy. . . church". Here we are on even more dangerous ground. It is not accidental that "holiness" had become, already in John Wesley's England, a term of derision; for its misappropriation far outshines its legitimate use. To reclaim the latter, we should once again ask what this mark of the church is intended to negate. Speaking contextually, I should say that holiness is posited of the church because and insofar as it rejects the one-dimensionality, secular flatness, and business-as-usual mentality of jaded worldliness. It does not, however, infer otherworldliness, but on the contrary bears witness to a new and grace-given affirmation of this world in all of its concreteness and physicality. It affirms the extraordinariness of the ordinary, the spirituality of matter, the mysteriousness of the natural and expected--as Luther did when he cried, "If you really examined a kernel of grain thoroughly, you would die of wonderment." (Works, Weimar Aufgabe. l9:46, ll.)

The church is holy, therefore, when it resists the technologization of life and the reduction of the human beings to inefficient and bothersome machines whose purpose--the whole six billion of us--is in extreme doubt. Moreover, the Christian community that knows this prophetic rebellion to belong to its contemporary mission will recognize and welcome other witnesses to this same sacredness, be they communities of faith or of purely humane concern.

But this mark of the church is also--and as I've already said, gravely--subject to distortion. Here the distortion emanates, not so much from the political misuse of the claim, as with oneness, as from its specifically religious misuse. We have all suffered, one way or another, from that!--whether as victims or as perpetrators. Under the spell of the religious impulse (and I distinguish religion from faith), holiness is turned into affected unworldliness, exceptional piety, and the assumption of unusual moral rectitude. The alleged holiness of a person or a church is then measured by its discontinuity with the world--particularly, in North American Christian history, by its incessant testimony to worldly immorality, personal immorality. This world is seen (in the words of Dwight L. Moody) as "a wrecked vessel", and evangelism means saving from the world "all you can".

But such a version of holiness, right as it may sometimes be about society's moral degradation, regularly lacks the compassion for creaturely finitude that I identified, in the first lecture, as the test of our baptismal identification with the Christ. Moreover, and more seriously, it ends by pitting the doctrine of salvation against the doctrine of creation. To be saved is to be saved out of creaturehood, not for it. I do not see how the biblical narrative, beginning with its strong affirmation of the goodness of creation and culminating in its testimony to the incarnation and crucifixion of the Word made flesh, can be caused to support any concept of holiness that, both in theory and in practice, militates against the astonishing world-orientation of this whole narrative. Yes: there is something wrong with the world, and with us--all of us! But the righting of the wrong is not accomplished, according to this story, through by-passing what is in favour of a new, spiritual realm in which wrong is programmed out. The salvation of the world, if we believe this gospel, implies the exceptional courage of some--beginning with "the Pioneer of our faith"-- to enter even more completely into this world, to the very heart of its darkness, than ordinary human bravery makes possible. That is our holiness. And it is never, strictly speaking, ours.

"Catholic"

"We believe in one, holy, catholic . . . church." This historically disputed and still (for many Protestants) tainted word is nevertheless potentially very provocative in our present context. For fun, I looked it up in a number of popular dictionaries of English usage, and I discovered, beyond its specific reference to Roman and other capital-C "catholic" churches, the following secular connotations: "of general scope or value; all inclusive; universal; broad in sympathies, tastes, etc.; liberal." This argues rather strongly for allowing the worldly use of language a certain precedence over its typical ecclesiastical employment!

Clearly, the negative reality over which the Nicene ecclesiology sets the confession of the church's "catholicity" is the tendency of all human communities, including religious as well as national, racial, sexual and other communities, to build protective walls against "the outsider," and so to become parochial, provincial, chauvinistic, narrow. Catholicity applied to the Christian Movement embodies the kind of boundary-lessness that is implied in the Johannine declaration of God's love for "the cosmos" as the rationale of the cross; and it embodies, too, the transcendenceof all natural and historical boundaries that, however real, entrenched, and even humanly necessary, stand in the way of the communication of that divine agape. "Catholic" is thus integrally related to both the previous marks of unity and holiness.

As the very history of this word itself testifies, however, it too can lend itself as means to highly questionable ends. It hasbeen so used, not only by pre-Modern RomanCatholicism in relation to Protestant and other forms of dissent; and not only by Anglo and other claims to catholicism in relation to non-conformity; but more subtly, perhaps more effectively, by the whole of Western Christianity, Protestant as well as Catholic, in relation to the Christianity of the Orthodox east and, in the recent past and present, the newer churches of the so-called developing world. The principle informing all of these misappropriations of the term "catholic" is not hard to comprehend: when the mighty get hold of an idea they are easily able to set themselves up as its only legitimate exemplars.

But there is a critical corrective to this misuse within the term "catholic" itself, and the secular meanings that I cited a moment ago capture, better than our tainted ecclesiastical vocabulary, the gist of that corrective: catholicus, with its Greek background in the idea of "complete wholeness" (kata holos), defies possession by only a part of the whole. And all of our historic churches or denominations are just that: only parts. The whole, fragmentary and tentative and unrealized as it may be, transcends our incomplete appropriation of it. Without the continuous testimony of the Spirit to what we are called to; and without the input of all the others who name that Name, especially the excluded, our claim to catholicity is premature at best, if not just pompous.

The practical ecclesial implications of this critical insight are many, and it seems to me that they have only been superficially recognized by 20th century ecumenism, which has concentrated too exclusively on inter-denominational dialogue and the mutual recognition of the most established churches. The catholicity of the Christian movement, when it is understood as movement and not institution, incorporates the testimony of those at the edges and not only at the center of the communio viatorum. But even denominationally, our ecumenical dialogue has been fixed too narrowly on matters of structure and (in a pretty wooden sense, usually) "doctrine." Apart from the "Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation" process of the World Council, which showed great promise but in many ways failed, there has been too little shared reflection on the great issues and instabilities that we all--all Christians, and, often, all communities of faith generally--inherit as citizens of earth in this historical moment.

To take only one example of this failure, why is it that our denominations seem ready to engage in this great upheaval over gay and lesbian ordination all alone, with hardly a reference to the struggles and decisions of other parts of the ecumenical church? Why, especially when every one of the so-called mainline churches in North America has had to face this question, is it treated by each almost without knowledge of the others? Would not a working catholicism call that odd? And might not a working catholicism help in this as in many other areas of contemporary concern?

To be concrete: I happen to belong to a denomination that has tackled this question openly, carefully, prayerfully, and I even venture to say (though I would not say this of very much in my denomination) wisely. The United Church of Canada, one third of it Presbyterian at its inauguration in 1925, at its 32nd General Council in l988, after much study and years of hot debate, made the kind of decision in the face of this issue that ought at least to be considered by other ecclesial communities facing it. The decision was offensive to some, and a no-doubt significant minority (the current estimate is 3.5% of the total membership as of 1988) left the denomination, temporarily or permanently. But the question was in some real sense "settled," and, while it is still "around," it has (Deo gratia!) ceased being the tail that wagged the whole ecclesiastical dog! Since that time, while many internal divisions persist, the United Church of Canada has been able to get on with other things, including great global concerns of social justice that must have a certain priority over personal morality and church polity.

The decision of 1988 is incorporated in a larger statement entitled "Membership, Ministry and Human Sexuality." It addresses the question of ministry and sexuality orientation in two consecutive clauses, whose division into two is crucial: (1) "That all persons, regardless of their sexual orientation, who profess Jesus Christ and obedience to Him, are welcome to be or become full members of the Church; (2) All members of the Church are eligible to be considered for ordered ministry." In other words, to state it negatively [in my own words], membership in the church is not predicated on a person's meeting of certain physical and psychological conditions extraneous to the foundational confession of faith; and no-one is barred a priori from consideration for ordered ministry who is a member of the church.

I do not say that every other denomination should follow suit, but I do think that the claim to 'catholicity', if it is more than merely rhetorical, ought to mean that in our present context such decisions, undertaken by a part of the Body, together with the consequences and experiences surrounding them, ought to be examined knowledgeably by other parts of the church universal.

"Apostolic"

Finally, "We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church." This, surely, points to the theological foundation that is presupposed by all the other "marks of the church." It is a people that is sent, sent out into the world, and sent there with a message and a mission not of its own devising. Its unity, insofar as it manifests such, is not the result of its members' genius for togetherness; its holiness, if it exists, is not the consequence of a superior spirituality; its catholicity, such as it is, has not come about because it has risen above narrow loyalties and achieved an enlightened global outlook. All of these, together with any other virtues that could be named, are gifts of the Sender, continuously given, continuously rejected, continuously renewed.

The claim and call to apostolicity is posited of the church over-against the realities of arbitrariness and rootlessness that have often revealed themselves in Christian history. Christianity is an historic faith, grounded in events of which humans qua human have no innate awareness, in scriptures that must be studied and contemplated, in theological traditions that need to be rehearsed even when they are, or seem, outmoded. The conservers of scripture and tradition are right when they remind Christian liberals that they are responsible to an account of the world that they did not invent and ignore at their peril. But apostolicity is also posited of the Christian Movement over-against the realities of religious isolation, doctrinal purism and ecclesiastical self-preservation. And liberal theology has been right in reminding Christian conservativism that it is sent out into the world with a gospel that is for the world and therefore must be translated into the language of the world. As your own "Call to Covenant Community" puts it, ". . . Christian faith has an inevitable public and political dimension," and therefore "the place of the church is in the world" even though its gospel is not of the world.

Like the other marks, apostolicity, too, can be and has been misappropriated. It is misappropriated by those who are quick to claim "apostolic succession" but slow about discerning the faithfulness of clerical systems based on such claims to the "apostolic teaching" that it was devised to safeguard. And it is misappropriated by the self-appointed Protestant guardians of the sola scriptura who behave as if the Bible were their possession and preserve its letter without its spirit.

Above all, apostolicity means that the Christian mission is first of all God's mission, defined as to its character and goals by Jesus Christ, and enabled by the Holy Spirit. In everything, the church is faithful only when it is in some discernible measure representative of the One whose Body it is. Its vocation is not to be a religion among religions, though its faith is never empirically separable from the religious impulse. Its object is to live the representative life of the Christ in God's beloved world; and Jesus Christ, as Moltmann recently wrote, "did not bring a new religion into the world, but rather new life." (A Passion for God's Reign, ed. by Miroslav Volf; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998; p. 61.)

As you may have gathered, I like nearly everything in your "Call to Covenant Community" manifesto; but most of all I appreciated your central ecclesiastical statement, "The church we seek to strengthen is built upon the hospitality of Jesus." In reclaiming this important biblical term, "hospitality," and linking it with the content that it must have when it is associated with that Name, you have (in my view) correctly interpreted for our context the meaning of "apostolicity." We are not "inclusive" in our own names, or in the name of the Christian religion, or in the name of some humanitarian ideology. We are to receive others, as we ourselves have been received: sola gratia, per Christum solum. Cleansed a little of our inhibitions and our clanishness, we are being sent out with the beginnings of a new openness and a new nonchalance about ourselves.

One knows that when people in churches today resort to the buzz-word "inclusivity," they are intending something right and good--especially when it is heard, as it must be, over-against the militant "exclusivity" that characterizes, not only so much historical Christianity, but the Christianity of our own North American context. Yet "inclusivity" is a terribly inadequate term, and one that begs a great many questions. It has perhaps the right intent, but it is poor in content--especially biblical and theological content. No serious reader of the gospels could deny that it is better to include than to exclude. But what is the basis of this inclusivity, and what its nature? To be included in a community that is inclusive tells one very little. And what of the people who resist this all- embracing "inclusivity" because they fear, often with reason, that it will end by swallowing them whole?

Hospitality--yes--presupposes a host; and hosts can be overwhelming, excessively directive, intrusive. But our Host, by whom we are all received, does not leave the definition of hospitality open to such misappropriation. And if we are sent by this Host to exercise his hospitality in the world, we are not at liberty to impose upon the church and its mission patterns of hospitality that are the products of our racial, ethnic, class, gender or other personal backgrounds--including our sexual orientation. The question for the church that knows itself to be "sent" is not, "What kind of community would we like to be?" but "What kind of community are we called to be?"

To conclude: Luther--and in our own time several others, notably (I would say) Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Simone Weil--insisted that the truly indispensable mark of the church is (in Luther's language) "the mark of the holy cross": that is, that the disciple community must experience in real and concrete ways the suffering of the world that is the anthropological background of the gospel of the cross. If this is missing, then all the other marks are thrown into gravest doubt.

This is not a masochistic teaching--unless it, too, is distorted (which of course it has often been). There is no special interest in suffering here. The only special interest, as Bonhoeffer insisted, is in discipleship. There is suffering in the world--perhaps the 21st Century will see its increase; certainly it will see its greater and more complex proliferation. Jesus Christ will be where there is suffering. The people who covenant with Him must be there too.


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