Much of what I see written about the Church these days is less about theology and more about practicality.
It is not that theology is absent, but it is often enlisted mainly to advocate for a certain form of church order, polity or to try and understand its diminishing status in much of Western life and culture. This is to some extent understandable. Along with the rapid decline of mainline denominations both in America and Europe, we are also witnessing a politicization of US evangelicals unseen, to the same extent, since the American Civil War, some 150 years ago.
What is more painful, however, has been to come to terms with, especially theologically, the exposure of abuse that has taken place within our churches. We think immediately of the crisis of child abuse and resultant “cover-ups” within the Roman Catholic churches, both here and in Europe. While such abuse, sexual and otherwise, is not unknown in Protestant and evangelical circles, there are other patterns of abuse that have more often come to light. In evangelical communities especially, where often the pastor has little accountability to either peers or strong lay councils or boards, numerous issues have come to light. Many of these issues have received comment from others. They range from pastors employing the so-called “Moses Model”, to the largely accepted nepotism of pastors’ wives, children, in-laws, etc. taking up positions of responsibility in a single church, to pastoral over-reach in terms of financial accountability (or the lack thereof), to the “pastor as star’ syndrome which often times seems endemic within certain circles.
Now, let us be clear, whether such behavior is evidenced in a Roman Catholic parish, or an evangelical free church, or a mainline Protestant denomination, the desired result is the same – control. Along side that “desired result” is a related behavior that is shown all too often – those whom you cannot control, you exclude. The exclusion may be subtle or blatant, but the message is clear nonetheless – “You’re not one of us”.
It strikes me, however, that this is the opposite of our relationship with God. The whole point of that relationship is inclusion, that is, for us to be brought into the life of God himself. The manner in which that inclusion is accomplished is rooted in the nature of the Triune God himself. Here, I am speaking of the ontological nature of the Trinity. Most often we speak of the economic Trinity, that is, the activity of God and the roles of the three persons with regard to creation and redemption. When, however, we speak of the ontological nature of the Trinity, we are speaking of something different but, I believe, something which we are called upon to imitate and to model as the Church.
You see, our relationship with God is part of a dynamic of giving and receiving. It is a ongoing continuum of bestowal and counter-bestowal. St. Augustine recognized this in aligning the statement that, “God is Love” with God’s trinitarian nature, for God the Father is the Lover, God the Son is the Beloved and the Holy Spirit is the bond of Love. As the Father loves the Son, he bestows himself upon the Son. The Son receives this gift and, in turn, gives it back to the Father. The gift given, bestowed and returned again, is God the Holy Spirit. It is an ongoing eternal relationship of love and inclusion, of that which is entirely love, bestowed, given, received and given back that God might be “all in all”.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” (Jn. 15:9) You see, this is the relationship that I believe Christ is calling the Church to imitate. Or again, “I in them and You in Me–that they may be perfectly united, so that the world may know that You sent Me and have loved them just as You have loved Me.” (Jn. 17:23) While we always consider this latter verse as a call to Church unity, I believe it is something much more, it is an invitation for the Church to participate in the life of God.
When we consider early communion practices, I think the early Church understood this dynamic, even if it took time to fully articulate. We know from the Didache, Ignatius and other early writings that believers would gather together to offer themselves to God. The sign and symbol of that self-offering would be the bread and wine that was to be placed on the altar. In the ante-Nicene period, all who were able would bring bread and wine which would be gathered together. A small portion would be placed on the altar, while the rest of the offering would be set aside to be distributed to the poor. The offered gifts on the altar would be consecrated and then given back as the body and blood of Christ to the people.
Do we see what’s happening here? We give ourselves to God in the symbols of bread and wine. God accepts the gift and bestows upon us, by the work of the Holy Spirit, the gift of his Son. In this giving, receiving and giving again, we are given a glimpse of the ontological nature of God himself. The gift is freely given. The message to the believer is not one of control, but one of love. It is an invitation to inclusion, not exclusion.
I am coming to believe that abusive situations in the Church – sexual abuse, emotional abuse, pastoral abuse and authoritarianism, lack of financial disclosure, nepotism, cliques, pastoral narcissism and all the rest – are not merely matters of “bad practice”, but something far worse. I had always wondered about the harshness of Christ’s words, when he said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.” (Mk.9:42) Now, after the many things that we have witnessed in recent decades, I begin to understand. The sin is not merely against the person offended, the person excluded, the person made to feel unwelcome… No, the sin is against the God who wants to show the world that his nature is love and through the gift of his Son has demonstrated what love really is.
Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD