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Beliefs That Count by Georgia Harkness


Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by The Graded Press, Nashville, Tennessee, 1961. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 9: We Believe in the Church


The Church is not essentially a human institution but is the community of believers of which Jesus Christ is Lord and in which he works by his Holy Spirit. It is the gift of God for the salvation of the world through the proclamation of the evangel of good news to all men. It asserts the claim of Christ as the incarnate Word of God to the lordship of all human life. It is universal in nature, standing greater than any group claiming exclusively to represent it, end above every nation and culture in which it finds its home. Belonging to all the ages, it defies the passing of the centuries and embraces within its visible and invisible membership both the living and the dead. Though composed of both human and divine elements, its nature is not abridged by the frailties of those forgiven sinners who compose its membership. It is His body, the instrument of His active power, and the bond of fellowship between all those who accept His lordship.

What is the Church?

The church is an established part of American life. There are very few communities that do not have at least one church, and the larger cities have many hundreds of them. Over sixty per cent of the total population belongs to some religious body. While church attendance by no means equals membership, it is the regular and expected thing on Sunday mornings to find large numbers of people at church.

Life’s most sacred moments are usually those of marriage, parenthood, and death. Even those persons but marginally connected with the church generally wish to be married by a minister or priest rather than by a justice of the peace. When death enters a home, the agency of the church is invoked, both for whatever comfort may be received and for a fitting funeral or memorial service. The baptism of the newly born is less common and varies according to different denominations, but it is still a widespread practice. So is the attendance of these same children, when they get a little older, at Sunday school. In short, to be connected with a church is not universal, but it is an established part of the American way of life.

But what more is it? The statement quoted above declares that it "is not essentially a human institution." This we believe. If it were not more than a human institution, it would not hold the place that it does in human society. The remainder of the chapter will attempt to define this "more" and to answer the question, What is the Church?

The Church as the Community of Christ’s Followers

The Church is not essentially a human institution but is the community of believers of which Jesus Christ is Lord and in which he works by his Holy Spirit. It is the gift of God for the salvation of the world through the proclamation of the evangel of good news to all men. . . . Though composed of both human and divine elements, its nature is not abridged by the frailties of those forgiven sinners who compose its membership.

We have a great number of denominations in America -- at least 25 -- and there are others in other parts of the world. In matters of detail in organization, practice, and grounds of authority, these many churches are by no means of one mind. While various factors, both theological and non-theological, cause divisions, the most basic cause for division lies in differing views of the nature of the Church. We cannot here go into all these differences. The more important fact is that amid divisions and differences there is a great unity. This centers in a common loyalty to Christ and the belief that God has commissioned the Church to carry Christ’s gospel to all men.

Most, if not all, Christians believe that the Church is the community of Christ’s followers and that in spite of its many weaknesses there is something of God’s Spirit in it. They believe that it is meant by God to be universal and world-embracing. If a person believes this, he believes in the holy catholic Church.

Since we affirm this faith every time we repeat the Apostles’ Creed, it may be useful to look a little further at this phrase, "holy catholic."

To call the Church holy does not, of course, mean that it is flawless, wholly divine, or something to be worshipped as God is worshipped. It is composed of people, and all people -- even the most faithful Christians -- have shortcomings. The Church, furthermore, is composed of people of varying degrees of faithfulness to Christ, and by no means are they all saints! Nevertheless, the Church is the perpetuator of a divine gospel. Its effectiveness is to be judged not by the strength of its organization or even by its numbers, but by its fidelity to this gospel.

In the Apostles’ Creed the words "I believe in the holy catholic church" are followed immediately by "the communion of saints." The two phrases belong together, for the second explains the first. In short, the holy catholic Church is the communion of saints. But this may sound to modern ears like explaining the unknown by the more unknown! Therefore we ask, What is the communion of saints?

Communion means fellowship, literally a "strengthening together" of one another. A saint in Protestant thought is not a person canonized by the Church, nor is he the long-suffering martyr or the well-nigh perfect person he is often assumed to be. A saint in the New Testament sense is a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, a redeemed person who has found new life in Christ. A saint therefore means a Christian -- a Christian who is particularly faithful to Christ. Paul’s greetings "to all the saints in Christ Jesus" or "to the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia" were sent to his fellow Christians who, in spite of difficulty, had managed by God’s help to remain faithful.

Although we had better not tinker with the wording of the time-honored Apostles’ Creed, we are perfectly justified in mentally substituting the words "the fellowship of the faithful." The communion of saints is the great company of Christian believers, past and present, living and dead, who have fought a good fight for Christ and who, in loyalty and devotion to him, have kept the faith. Some of these are still living; the greater number have entered into the higher, heavenly kingdom. Whether they are still in this life or have gone to God’s nearer presence, they strengthen us. And in our flagging efforts to serve Christ we are spurred on by the thought of being "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses."

Such a community -- or communion -- is a human institution; but it is more than that, for it was established by the will and purpose of God, is sustained by the Holy Spirit, and seeks to exalt Christ "as the incarnate Word of God to the lordship of all human life." With this grounding and mission we have every right to call the Church holy. But what of its being catholic?

The Church Universal

It is universal in nature, standing greater than any group claiming exclusively to represent it, and above every nation and culture in which it finds its home. Belonging to all the ages, it defies the passing of the centuries and embraces within its visible and invisible membership both the living and the dead.

The word "catholic" in the Apostles’ Creed is written with a small "c" and does not mean Roman Catholic. It means something far more inclusive -- Christ’s universal Church of all denominations around the world. In a sense this is an ideal rather than an actual description of the churches, for Christ’s body is broken by many divisions. A cynic is said to have remarked, "I believe in the Church universal and regret that it does not exist." Yet in another sense it is a very potent reality.

When we speak of the catholicity, or inclusiveness, of Christ’s Church, we are affirming that it is world-embracing. The missionary outreach of the Christian gospel is implied in this fact. In our day and for the first time in its history, the Church has literally encircled the globe. This does not mean that the gospel has been "preached to every creature" but that there is no major part of the earth’s surface where it has not in some measure been taken. From this it follows that we actually have a Church far more catholic than the early creed-makers could possibly have imagined.

The word "catholic" implies another matter of great importance. This is the fact that the Church was designed by God to be inclusive enough to embrace not only the people of all parts of the earth, but also persons of every race, color, nation, economic or social class, age, sex, culture, language, and station in life. Although churches have never fully lived up to this ideal and have often sadly departed from it, the Christian gospel has always been a rebuke to race prejudice, national or class conflict, and every other form of man-made division. Some of the issues in which "the fellowship of the faithful" have been most called upon to resist the world lie exactly at this point.

During recent years the term "ecumenical" has come into use to describe this inclusive unity or catholicity of the churches of Christ. The word means "from the inhabited world." It was used in the early centuries to designate the great councils such as the Council of Nicaea, to which representatives came from what was then the whole of Christendom -- the section around the Mediterranean Sea where churches had been established. The term began to be used again in modern times after the great missionary conference at Edinburgh in 1910 had inaugurated movements to study the "life and work" and the "faith and order" of the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches. The Roman Catholic Church would be welcome in the ecumenical movement but prefers not to affiliate.

In the summer of 1937 at two historic world gatherings of Christians, the Conference on Life and Work at Oxford, England, and on Faith and Order at Edinburgh, Scotland, it was voted to merge these two movements to form the World Council of Churches. After some intervening stages, the World Council fully came into being at Amsterdam in 1948 and held its first great American meeting at Evanston, Illinois, in 1954. A third major assembly of the World Council of Churches meets in New Delhi in 1961.

Other expressions of the ecumenical movement are found in the International Missionary Council, which correlates the work of many denominational mission boards around the world, and in the United States we have the National Council of Churches and many state and local councils. Perhaps the most familiar form that the movement takes on the local level is the interdenominational observance of the World Day of Prayer on the first Friday in Lent by the women of many thousands of communities, not only of this country but in 144 countries of the world. It also comes home to us in the observance of World-wide Communion Sunday on the first Sunday of October in Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches around the world.

The ecumenical movement, like the holy catholic Church from which it derives its authority and function, is not essentially an organization. It is a spirit that expresses itself in fellowship and mutual service. It is a fellowship of the faithful followers of Christ who see all men as brothers because God is our Father and who feel themselves knit together and mutually strengthened by a common loyalty to our Lord.

The Church as the Body of Christ

It asserts the claim of Christ as the incarnate Word of God to the lordship of all human life. . . . It is His body, the instrument of His active power, the bond of fellowship between all those who accept His lordship.

The most familiar symbolic term for describing the nature of the Church is a term coined by Paul. He used it repeatedly, and it was from the New Testament that it was taken over into modern diction. It is the phrase "the body of Christ."

This figure of speech is elaborated at length by Paul in the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians, where he compares the unity and interdependence of the members of Christ’s Church to the interacting unity of the various members of the human body. Just as the foot needs the hand and the eye needs the ear, so the whole Church needs all its parts. As in the human body, even the weaker and less glamorous parts have their places. (Perhaps this was a subtle rebuke to the ecclesiastical prestige and clamor for position that was already emerging in the church of Paul’s day!) The passage comes to a great climax in the words:

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one
member is honored, all rejoice together.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually
member of it." (I Corinthians 12:26-27.)

This same idea is repeated in Romans 12 :4-8: "For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them" for prophecy, for service, for teaching, for exhortation, for contributing, for giving aid, and for doing acts of mercy. Never have both our interdependence as Christians and the obligations stemming from diverse gifts and functions been better stated.

Yet the symbol of the Church as the body of Christ implies more than our mutual dependence and responsibilities, vital as these are. The Church is the body of which Christ is the Head. It must have no other head but Christ; the governing authorities and all else within it must be subject to him. It exists to exalt the lordship of Christ over all of life. When anything or anybody else becomes supreme, idolatry has corrupted its nature and distorted its function. Christ is the incarnate Word of God, and he alone must reign within it.

This is a requirement of the utmost urgency and is the ultimate test of whether or not our churches are really the Church. Wherever there is mere conventional attendance at or deference to the church; wherever there is self-seeking and clamor for prestige and power among either laity or clergy; wherever our service is becoming ingrown rather than outwardlooking; wherever, in short, there is conformity to the world instead of the proclamation and daily witness to the gospel that transforms the world, there Christ is dishonored and his lordship flouted.

To believe in the Church as the Body of Christ means many things. It means that there must be a missionary outreach to carry the gospel to many lands. It means that persons must witness to the gospel in a way that will make it relevant to the business, family, and social life of our day. It means the canceling of all race distinctions within the Christian fellowship and, as soon as possible, within all community life.

It means better church schools and Christian schools of higher learning so that the heritage of our faith may be passed on more fully and vitally to oncoming generations and so that adults may understand more accurately the foundations of their faith. It means unremitting efforts to eliminate injustice, poverty, hunger, disease, and ignorance wherever they are found.

Such an effort is found in the sending of aid in the spirit of Christ to the victims of communist tyranny and to other persons made hungry and shelterless by war. Such efforts are also found in the earnest resolution to cement the bonds of brotherhood so that wars and fears of war may no longer devastate mankind.

"I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints. . . ." Do you? Upon all of us who believe this, God lays the obligation to exalt the lordship of Christ and to justify our faith by our works.

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