Chapter 3: Do We Need the Church?

Christian Affirmations
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 3: Do We Need the Church?

The Bible begins its saga of man’s Salvation by portraying Adam alone in a garden. It closes that saga with the company of faithful people living in the City of God. The story is a story of man’s movement from solitude to fellowship, from individualism to community; and it is a way of saying that man, to be redeemed, needs not only the work of God for his Salvation but the companionship of his human brethren in God. That, I suppose, is the final reason why we need a Church.

We cannot even live to ourselves alone, much less be saved alone. Some of you may remember that Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, had occasion to remark that man is a social animal. We all know this is true, although frequently we try to evade the fact. There are plenty of people who want to be "lone wolves." There are very few people who succeed in that enterprise. We live one with another. The existence of the family is a token of this. God, the Prayer Book says in one of its collects, has set the solitary in families; and the man or woman who has not had some experience of family life is to that degree an impoverished human being. A child was found in India, so they say, who from earliest infancy had been away from fellow humans and lived amongst animals; and it was impossible, despite years of effort, once the child had been recovered, to make that child a fully-developed human being. A lone man may make a very good animal but he does not make a very good human. This is the natural ground for the religious fact of community -- one with another -- under God and in God.

As individuals, we tend to be peculiar -- and by this I do not mean certifiably or uncertifiably insane. I mean that we tend to have particular and characteristic ways of saying and doing things. Each one of us is unique. Some of us are very unique! We need other people to balance our peculiarities, our particular characteristics; to give proportion to our point of view. And this, too, is a natural basis for the religious fact of community under God.

Men and women seem to have an extraordinary predilection for getting together. Sometimes this is just for the sake of getting together. "The more we are together, the happier we will be" -- with clubs, even bridge clubs, with fraternal groups, with societies of all kinds for the promotion of everything and anything. These are usually to be explained not so much by the cause to which theoretically they are dedicated as by the fact that men and women do not really want to be alone. Sometimes this is overdone; and it might be said -- in fact, I myself might wish to assert it -- that, in America particularly, our assumption that getting together for the sake of getting together in order that we might get together, is rather inane. I have found that on occasion I really sympathize with a friend of mine who feels that organizations of people are to be avoided as the plague; but I think that is peculiar of me, probably because I live in a rather close-knit community and sometimes find a "gold-fish" existence somewhat fatiguing. But the fact of our wanting to be with one another is another natural ground for the religious fact of community under God.

One could go on with these natural grounds, but for Christians there is one fact which is more significant than any of the natural bases for human fellowship. That fact is the divinely-established basis of community, namely, the divine creation of the Church. It is not correct to say -- and perhaps my denying it will even be startling to some of you -- that Christ founded the Church. One of my revered friends and former colleagues in the General Seminary, Frank Gavin (God rest his soul), used to say: "Christ did not found the Church, He found the Church." By this he meant that the Christian Church is rooted in the older Israel "after the flesh," the Jewish dispensation, and that dispensation is itself rooted in the act of God in calling to Himself a people who were to be, in a special sense, his people, through whom he would work for the Salvation of all men. That is what the Old Testament is all about. What our Lord did was to find the Church, the older Israel, and then, through His life and death and resurrection, to re-found that which He had found, on the rock of the confession of believers that in Him God had visited and redeemed His people. The Church is the new Israel -- God’s chosen people, newly constituted as His chosen people, through faith in Christ as the Messiah of God. That is what the New Testament is all about. To be a Christian, as to be a Jew, means by definition to belong to a society. To be a Jew means to be an Israelite; to be a Christian means to be a part of the Body of Christ. The relatively modern view, that one can be a Christian in the full sense of the word without membership in the Church, is not found in the New Testament at all, and when St. Paul describes the Christian as one who is "in Christ," he is describing one who is a member of the Body of Christ, which is Christ’s Church. That is a simple historical fact.

Of course, in a sense it is true that one can be a Christian apart from the Christian Church, if by Christianity we mean an adherence to certain Christian ideas or beliefs or affirmations; but to think that this constitutes real Christianity is rather like saying that one can be an American while at the same time one lives in Timbuctoo and follows the practices that are usual there, even though one believes some of the ideas which animate American life and attempts to introduce some of the notions of morality by which Americans claim to live. I think a "Timbuctoo-anian" who claimed to be an American would be a rather ludicrous spectacle. So a person who claims to be a Christian away from the Christian homeland and with little more than a nodding at, or at best a rather limited acquaintance with, Christian ideas and practices is not, perhaps, a ludicrous but rather a pathetic spectacle.

The Church is the place where Jesus Christ is known. This is true historically. Some of us are not aware of the fact that apart from the New Testament, which is the Church’s Book, written by Churchmen in the early days of our religion, there are only three or four references to Christ in secular literature. Our knowledge of Him, even our historical knowledge of Him, depends upon the Church’s tradition. People who have nothing to do with the Church but who reverence our Lord are dependent upon the Church for the possibility of their reverence. Had there been no Church, they could not have done this.

But above all, this is true as a matter of living religion. The Church is the place where we meet Christ through the sacraments; and if one is concerned with the most direct encounter that is possible for us with our Lord, it is in the Holy Communion that we shall find this, and this is known in and of the Church. There is an ancient saying that "outside the Church, there is no Salvation"; that is the kind of saying which needs re-interpretation because, as it stands, it seems to remove the majority of the human race -- if you consider human history in its duration -- from the possibility of eternal life. Of course, it does not really mean this at all. What it means is that the assurance of our health -- spiritual health, right relationship with God, adjustment to things as they really are -- is given, and only given, as positive assurance within the Christian community because the Christian community, in its deepest meaning, is the continuing of God’s saving work, His health-giving action, through Christ himself. That is what is meant when we call the Church "the Body of Christ."

Your body and mine have their significance in that they are the means by which we express ourselves and communicate ourselves to the world around us. Ordinarily, despite what may be said about extrasensory perception, our bodies are our way of relating ourselves to our fellow men. Christ’s physical body, in the days of His flesh, was the way in which He made Himself known and available to those who companied with Him in Palestine. Christ’s risen body was the way in which, after the Resurrection, He still communicated Himself to His people. Christ’s sacramental Body -- the Bread and the Wine of Holy Communion -- is the means by which now He communicates Himself to us. And Christ’s mystical Body, which is the Church -- His social body, if I might put it so -- is the way in which the work of health-giving, whole-making, or Salvation, is carried on through the ages. That is why the assurance of our spiritual health is found in and with the Church, whose Gospel and whose worship bring directly to us that which for us men and for our Salvation was wrought on Calvary’s bill. So it is that by Baptism, which is the sacrament of regeneration, those who, by nature, are members of the human race become members of Christ’s people, His flock, and are incorporated into His Body, made living members of the same, and through that membership receive spiritual regeneration and Grace. The Church is the way in which this is certainly done.

Of course, I ought at once to add, as I tried to show when we were discussing Salvation, that we dare not say that those who are not members of the Church are without hope of Salvation. This is God’s business, and it would be well if we men kept silent where we have no proper information. But we do know most certainly that it is within this community, and as members of it, that we have our assurance of God’s Grace for our wholeness.

Many people are rather troubled about the Church. They point out that it has been here for two thousand years and the world is not very much improved. One wonders precisely how they know the degree to which the world is or is not improved. This is like the speculation on what things would have been like if Cleopatra’s nose had been of somewhat different length. Certainly it is right to say that the effect of the Christian Church, and whatever it has done through the history of the last two thousand years, has produced immeasurable effects. Some of them are very practical. It is interesting to know, for example, that hospitals, the care of orphans, the place of respect given to women, are all of them results of the Christian Church’s existence in the world. If you do not believe me, think of man’s life where Christianity has not really penetrated. Of course, these things and many like them are now taken over by welfare agencies of a secular sort; and it is perhaps wrong for the Church to seek to hang on to them when others can now do them well. But let us not forget that we owe them to the Christian Church.

Again we are told that the Christian Church has not managed to stop war. But the Christian Church never professed to work miraculous cures in man’s nature. Look at the material with which it has to work! Selfishness, pride, the desire for power are not eradicated as man continues in the world. They appear fresh and terrible in every newborn son of man. In no significant sense can we claim that there has been moral progress in the human race since the first pages of recorded history. I realize that this is to some an "un-American" statement but I believe it to be true!

All of the gadgeteering, and the educational devices, and the group dynamics, and whatever else, do not alter this basic fact; and it is with this that the Church must wrestle from age to age. It is no wonder, then, that war has not been eradicated, since war is in men’s hearts.

Or, we are told, the members of the Church are not noticeably better than those who are outside the Church. Yet the Church is the only organization on earth whose only condition of membership is that we shall acknowledge that we are not good. The Church is its Lord’s Church, and as He seemed to enjoy the company of confessed sinners rather than of professed righteous men, so the Church, as His Body, does the same. A well-known New York clergyman, once told by an inquirer that the Church was impossible because it contained so many hypocrites, replied, "Come on in, there is always room for one more." That is more profound than you might think. There is always room for another sinner if only he has the grace to acknowledge that he is a sinner. If the Church were the perfect society of saints, I, for one, should be very suspicious of it.

There are some complaints which are properly made about the Church -- for example, it tends to be over-conservative. But there is a reason for this. In any of the activities of men which are most vital to their deepest human interests, such conservatism is generally found. Religion is a very vital concern. It incorporates itself in rites and practices and beliefs that inevitably are carried over from generation to generation. We do not like changes in the things that have become dear to us, that have in fact been the way of our meeting God. This, in a profound sense, is the reason that any change in the liturgy will always trouble people on one side or the other. People do not like the change because they are familiar with something that has touched them deeply.

The Church has also been tempted to identify itself with conservative political and economic interests. Once again, one can understand why this is so. Any institution of long standing begins to acquire a stake in the status quo; and those who are responsible for the institution are rather troubled if that stake is pulled up. They wonder how the institution will continue in existence. But the Church’s conservatism in this and in other ways, wholly understandable, is perhaps not excusable. I think what we who are Churchmen need to realize is that although the Church is the divinely-established fellowship in which Christ’s work is being done, this divine reality of the Church is coupled with what, for want of a better word, I may call the Church’s "empirical" side. By which I mean the side that we see here, that is organized in humanly-devised organizations and groups. This side has about it no guarantees of any kind whatsoever. When we say that the Church is necessary to the Christian life, we do not, by that token, say that the national and diocesan organization of the Episcopal Church is necessary. This is an institution of a human sort; it may come and go; and we are not to be conservative in the false sense of thinking that the various ways of the Church’s organizing its business and running its parishes, are eternally established. What is guaranteed is the Church as the Body of Christ, one as He is one, filled with His Spirit, belonging to Him, knit together in a community which is truly Catholic, possessing the Apostolic Gospel, and sent into the world to preach it and to live it. What is really guaranteed is the Church as the eternal Body of Christ, not the Church as organized under the name of "Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America" or any other name.

I am not saying that these things are not important, valuable, ways in which the divine society works; but it is here that we can afford to be a little "tentative." I shocked some people sometime ago by saying that in the revolutionary world order that, in my judgment, is to overtake us in some measurable period of years, it seemed very likely to me that the organizational side of the Church will be radically altered. The National Council and the Woman’s Auxiliary might no longer exist; there might be no vestries; much else might go. These things might change, I said, and this idea seemed startling to my hearers, who thought it would be the shaking of the foundations. But of course it really would not; it would be a mere disturbance in the superstructure. We need to understand, you and I, that when we defend the Church, we are defending the foundations. We are not defending incidental elements of Christian organization. I say all this because it seems to me that many lay-people (who might be excused) and many clergy (who cannot be excused) are guilty of great confusion on this point; they try to defend too much. It is bad strategy to do that. What we need to defend is that which is essential; and that which is essential is the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, with its Scriptures, its sacraments, its life in Grace, its faith as witnessed by the Creeds, and its holy order as symbolized and continued in the Apostolic ministry. These are the necessary things; and we need them all because they are part of the reality of the Body of Christ, apart from which we have no certainty of health in the Christian sense of that word, but in which we have the assurance of Christ’s saving work brought home to our souls for now and for eternity.