“I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” Matthew 16:18
When people talk about the “church” what do they mean? Perhaps it is one or other of two things, “church” can mean some vaguely defined organisation that is “out there” somewhere, or it can mean something very local and precise, a particular building in a particular place that is attended by particular people. Two very different understandings, both of which lead people to beliefs about the church that are very far from the church in the Bible or the church of the early centuries of the Christian faith. Seeing the church as some faceless, vague organisation leads people to see it in negative terms, to blame it for wrongs, to feel it is something in which they have no part; while seeing the church as something very local leads to people who attend their own building and none other, whose faith sometimes extends no further than the church walls.
If those understandings do not really reflect what we believe about the church, if they do not reflect the teaching of Jesus, if they do not reflect the teaching of Scripture, if they do not reflect the experience of the early Christians, then what is it that we should really believe about the church?
In the 1970s, Avery Dulles, an American Jesuit priest, wrote a book called “Models of the Church”, a book which has helped two generations of theological students. In the first edition of the book,Avery Dulles suggested there were five models, five ways of thinking about the church. He talked about the church as institution, as communion, as sacrament, as herald, and as servant. Each of those ways of looking at the church can help us in working out what we believe.
For country Protestants, the church as an institution is not always going to be our favourite. The idea of the church as an institution is a recognition of the fact that churches have structures,: they are governed in particular ways, they have rules, they have agreed beliefs, they have particular patterns of worship. Every church which has moved beyond being a single meeting in a single house has an institutional dimension to it, even the Dippers, who try to replicate the New Testament pattern of meeting in houses, have an organisational dimension to provide for their conventions and to provide for their teaching and discipline; they are not a movement where one is free to believe or do as one wishes anymore than are the traditional churches. We need an institutional side to our church in order to be organised for the mission Jesus has given us.
The model of the church as a “Communion” can be encouraging when we become disillusioned with the church as an organisation and when we, sometimes, become disillusioned with what we might see as the lukewarmness of other church members. Communion is concerned with relationships created by the Holy Spirit, people brought together as the body of Christ. It helps us to feel that we are not alone, but are part of something infinitely greater than ourselves, but it can also create a sense of spiritual pride, a feeling that we are the “true church”. The model of the church as a Communion is at its best when we can come to worship with a great sense of standing together with Christians all around the world, when we can feel that we are part of a great invisible fellowship.
In the catechism we were taught that a sacrament was “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”. If we think of the church as a sacrament, we might see it as a sign of God’s grace in our world, or we might not. Too often the church has been anything but a sign of grace. We look at church history and we see the church as often being corrupt, oppressive, exploitative and abusive. There’s not much sign of grace in the affairs of the medieval church. Centuries later, the church is still too flawed in too many places for us to be able to say it is the outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace. Rather than being something which is actual, the idea of the church as a sacrament is something to which we should aspire, something which make us constantly examine where we are and where we should be.
The model of the church as a herald is one with which Protestants, particularly those with a more evangelical background, would identify. The church exists to proclaim the faith. In both Roman Catholic and reformed traditions, there has been no shortage of preaching, no lack of belief on the part of the church that its work is to proclaim the good news. Given the amount of proclamation that has happened in Ireland over the centuries, one would expect us to be the most Christian people on Earth, but it has not happened. Perhaps the problem has been the church has talked good news, but not been good news. Avery Dulles wrote, “the gospel is not a system of abstract propositional truths, nor a written document, but rather the event of proclamation itself.” It’s not about us saying something is so because we say it is so, it is not about words on paper, it is about people hearing and seeing the gospel in the church that preaches it. The model of the church as a herald seems as difficult as the model of the church as a sacrament, it does not happen in they way it should, but remains something towards which we should strive.
The fifth model of the church in Avery Dulles’ book is that of the church as a servant. It was a model that reflected the experience of the Roman Catholic Church in South America, where the treatment of ordinary people by violent dictatorships prompted theologians to call for the church to have a preferential option for the oppressed and the outcast. It is a model that Protestant churches in Ireland have never accepted, and some have actively rejected. We have dodged any theological thinking that might be thought “political”, preferring our faith to be about private and personal matters and not to be concerned with anything that might be controversial. Of course, there comes a time when being a Christian means you have to speak, as people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer found in Nazi Germany. Being faithful, means there are times when we must obey God rather than men. The idea of the church as a servant is one that is about the ministry of Jesus, who comes not to be served but to serve; it should challenge us on what we really do believe about the church.
Of course, every church is an amalgamation of various of the models. No matter how much we might stress that we are one sort of church or another, other elements creep in, as do all the faults and flaws that come from a church being composed of sinful human beings. We have to accept that there will be a big gap between what we believe a church should be and what it actually is.
There were two further editions of Avery Dulles’ book, one in the late 1980s and one in 2002 and he developed an idea, a model of the church, which he believed incorporated the best of the other five models, he came to see the church as a “community of disciples
When we think of the church as a community of disciples we escape from the idea of the church as a vaguely defined organisation, it is nothing of the sort, it is a community of which we are part, to which we contribute and for which we have responsibilities; and we escape from the idea of the church as a particular building in a particular place that is attended by particular people, for being a disciple can be confined to no building, nor place, nor people.
The church as a community of disciples is something that asks for our commitment as Christians together as a community and it asks for our commitment individually as disciples.
What do we really believe about the church? Perhaps we can each say that I and we believe ourselves to be disciples of Christ in a community formed by the Holy Spirit.