A bishop once said to me: "The problem in America is not that we have a poor ecclesiology, but that we have no ecclesiology."
That point has been brought home to me on more than one occasion. We don't seem to have a category in American Churchmanship for "The Church has spoken"--at least not unless we like what she says, in which case we say, "great, but I was thinking that already." Without the authority of the Church in our Christian culture, it becomes a veritable free-for-all in terms of Biblical interpretation and what behavior ought to be seen from a Christian. Yes, most everyone tends to agree that the moral law (the Ten Commandments) ought not to be broken, well, at least most of the law (except that pesky one about the Sabbath).
But what about gossip? What constitutes slander? What about the lack of respect for the officers of Christ’s Church? How often do we hear priests and ministers denigrated by parishioners? Of course, if the Church has spoken and there has been an injustice, then there are means to address that injustice. Well, unless one finds oneself in an autonomous Church. I remember being in just such a situation. That too, seems dangerous, but that’s for another post, I guess.
So why are we so sketchy about trusting the Church? Because, I suppose, we tend to be Americans. We have a rebellious and skeptical streak a mile wide. Of course, as a good evangelical, I was brought up to believe that what the Bible says is true and ought to be lived out.
So, despite my rebellious leanings as a good American, I make every effort to submit to Holy Mother Church as she teaches the faith of the Holy Scriptures “once for all delivered to the saints” (Galatians 4:26; Jude 1:3). In fact, because of my evangelical upbringing, I must be Catholic, and to submit to that change in my life has been, shall we say, life changing.
So why, I ask, doesn’t everyone who believes the Bible to be the very Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, trust what it says about the leadership of the Church? Jesus said He would be with His Church, and we trust that insofar as we believe we have the canonical books of the Bible in our hands, but then we throw out any need for the Church in terms of interpreting the Scriptures or holding the keys to the kingdom. Of course, the back hand of the absolution said by the priest is ecclesiastical justice—discipline. We see it all in John 20: “…Jesus said to them again, "Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you." And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (vs. 21-23).
The Scriptures seem to be pretty clear about the authority of the Church and her officers, but we continually find reason to not follow the Scriptural teaching. We always decide that the officer is wrong Biblically, doesn’t understand the text, doesn’t know his place in the Church, etc. St. Paul tells Titus to “Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition.” Why then, do we have troublemakers that make a lifestyle out of their divisiveness in the same parish church, year after year?
We have those that wander from Church to Church, avoiding the responsibility and accountability of submitting to authority and always claiming to be misunderstood or just not able to agree in good conscience, etc. Thus, we end up with professionals in the divisiveness arena. They have never submitted, really, to the Church, yet they believe wholeheartedly that they are just doing what they have to do to be a good Christian.
How then, is the Church to handle such people? St. Paul seems to not have an extra category for the very confused. He says reject a divisive man after one or two admonitions and not to suffer an accusation against a priest without at least two or three witnesses. The Church allows these people to move around freely, with no consequences for their behavior, at the risk of damaging the faithful sheep of the fold.
Of course, for the Church to speak the truth in such situations causes all sorts of funny looks and whispers among those who don’t approve of such truth-telling. Yet, that shouldn’t stop the Church from doing that which is right. That shouldn’t stop the Church from actually behaving like the Church; from actually have an ecclesiology.