One of the reasons I love Church history and historical theology is because it helps put things in perspective. Recently I have been more and more interested in the responses of the Reformers and their immediate successors to the ecclesial upheaval they experienced. In reflecting on the ways they reacted to what was in many ways a time similar to our own, I find their thoughts reassuring. Additionally, the more I pray and reflect, the more I study, the more I see that I am not nor do I want to be a sectarian. Indeed, even as I am more and more categorized as a “conservative” in the current conflicts in the Episcopal Church and recognize the kinship I and other orthodox or traditional Episcopalians share with other more conservative Christian bodies, the more I understand there is a vast gulf between where I stand and where many of the more conservative among the general American milieu of evangelicalism stand. I have expressed this concern before over the seeming flippant attitude some evangelicals display in questioning whether “so-and-so is saved” or is really a “Christian,” even if they claim to be one. In fact, I believe I’ve caught more than a whiff of gnosticism and perfectionism repackaged. Most recently among such experiences, Anna and I were looking into the background and thought of a particular camp she was considering taking the youth group to.
Because the camp didn’t have a statement of faith, Anna called them to see if she could get a statement from them or have them direct her to another resource (articles, blog etc…). The man she talked to wasn’t very helpful but he did direct us to the site of a school at which one of the presenters works. The school had a statement of faith so we read it…and something caught my eye:
We believe that the true Church is composed of all such persons who through saving faith in Jesus Christ have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and are united in the body of Christ of which He is the head.
We believe that only those who are members of the true Church should be eligible for membership in the local congregations of the Church.
It was, of course, the second half of this statement that made me think. As Anna and I talked about the statement of faith–particularly this part–and discussed whether we thought the camp inspired confidence (we decided it did not and she would look for another camp for the yoots…), it occurred to me that this understanding of the Church is fundamentally at odds with Paul’s own, and indeed with the consistent testimony of scripture regarding the people of God. This sort of doctrine denies the need for there to be wheat and tares growing up together…as Richard Hooker put it:
[…] there are two kinds of wicked men, of whom in the fifth of the former to the Corinthians the blessed Apostle speaketh thus: “Do ye not judge them that are within? But God judgeth them them that are without.” There are wicked, therefore, whom the Church may judge, and there are wicked whom God only judgeth; wicked within and wicked without the walls of the Church.*
The Church is not, nor was it ever intended to be a comfort to the perfect, it was to comfort the afflicted, including the wicked–that’s all of us. And at the end of the day, we know that–despite our best efforts at discipline–the tares will grow up amongst the wheat. It seems to me that the role of the clergy is not so much as to pull up the tares (because we will inevitably pull out some of the wheat as well, and God desires none to perish…) but rather, to insure that the tares that inevitably show up don’t choke out the good, strong and vibrant growth of the wheat.