"What is the relation between personal experience and the common faith of the Church? Both factors are important: a dogmatic faith unsupported by personal experience remains empty; mere personal experience unrelated to the faith of the Church remains blind" 1I have occasionally heard people say that Jesus never intended to start a church, and that He disliked organized religion. I disagree; for the Bible tells a very different story.
As we saw in the article Is Christianity A Religion?, Jesus generally approved of and devoutly participated in the ancient Israelite religion, which His Father had ordained centuries before. His own sayings reveal His intention to found a "church" (Hebrew: k'nesset=community; Greek: ekklesia=assembly, people called together):
"And Jesus answered him, 'Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven'" (Mt 16:17-19)The article Is Christianity A Religion? also shows how the earliest Christians had a definite "religious" structure. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul calls for organization and control during Christian worship, since "God is not a God of confusion but of peace" (I Cor 14). "Disorganized" spirituality can manifest a definite tendancy toward confusion and anarchy; this is not the will of God for His people!
"If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Mt 18:15-20).
Christianity has Doctrine
Some people, even a few Evangelicals, object to the existence of "doctrine" in the Church. But this objection is biblically groundless. The word "doctrine" comes from the word "to teach", so doctrine simply means teachings. The Bible clearly refers to the doctrine of the Church:
"I appeal to you, brethren, to take note of those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught; avoid them" (Ro 16:17).What kind of Church would we have if it had no teachings? The basic error of the "anti-doctrine" crowd is very clear.
"If you put these instructions before the brethren, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of the good doctrine which you have followed" (I Ti 4:6)
"For a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled; he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it" (Titus 1:7-9)
"But as for you, teach what befits sound doctrine" (Titus 2:1).
"Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God; he who abides in the doctrine has both the Father and the Son. If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting" (2 John 9-10)
Why the Church?
The Church is both a parental authority (Our Mother) and a fellowship of the brethern.
Christ said that unless we become like children we cannot see the kingdom of God. Commentaries on this passage will often point out that children are innocent and trusting, and that we must imitate these qualities. This is all very true, but there is another aspect of childhood often overlooked here: children are not independent, but are under the authority of their parents! If we want to be children of God, we must be under the authority of our spiritual parents: God our Father and the Church our Mother.
There is no sense in trying to have God as ones Father without the Church as ones Mother, for the Lord does not rule over a "broken home". There is both a Father and a Mother in the household of God! This is the structure He ordained for His children. Note that I said children, not child. No Christian is an "only child"; we have brothers and sisters, and they matter! Remember that Jesus told us to pray "Our Father who art in heaven", not "My Father who art in heaven". He wanted to impress on us the fact that we are not "lone rangers", we have a family, and should address God as a family: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Mt 18:19-20)."
A good household has rules and roles for each member, and the Church is the "household of faith". As good, loving parents lay down rules for their children, so our dear Father God and Mother Church lay down rules for us - for our own good!
Too Many Hypocrites?
Have you ever heard anyone protest "I don't go to church because of all the self-righteous hypocrites!"? (Ironically, the words can be spoken in a very judgmental, self-righteous tone of voice!) Yes, there are hypocrites and sinners of all kinds in church; and in a certain sense they belong there! As my grandmother used to say, "The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints". And whether we want to admit it or not, we too are not perfect, and church could do us a lot of good (could you imagine a sick person saying "I don't want to go to the hospital because there are too many sick people there"?).
Church-going may involve a certain humility, a willingness to number oneself among the struggling sinners in the pews, and to admit that we are not necessarily more noble and virtuous than they. But the benefits can be great. "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble . . . Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you" (James 4:6, 10)
Of course, one does not have to be in a church building to pray. You could certainly pray alone any time you want, but that would just be your prayer. The liturgy is the prayer of Christ and the Church. The Mass is the supreme Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, made present again on our altars. Unless you're an ordained priest, you can't do that alone! And if you stay away from Mass, you deprive yourself of this special gift which Jesus longs to give you.
Fellowship with other believers has many benefits. It can be compared to starting the charcoal on a barbeque grill: we usually pile the briquets together, set the whole pile on fire, then let the heat penetrate all the coals until they are ready to cook food. If one briquet rolls off the pile and settles in the corner of the grill, it will soon grow cold. But as long as it is with the others, they will constantly transfer the heat amongst themselves, keeping each other warm and glowing.
When we gather as a vital faith community, we support and encourage each other. We "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). If each stands alone then he or she is weak, but together we are strong! This is God's will for the Church, as stated in Hebrews: "Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:24-25).
The institutional Church preserves our faith, traditions and history. She anchors us in the past, gives meaning to the present and living hope for the future. She is a focal point for our unity and community, her rules and guidelines help keep us on the "straight and narrow". Her morals challenge us to grow as human beings and to help our fellow man.
Most of all, she brings us into union with a God Who is Father of a great family. She nourishes our souls with the true Body and Blood of Christ; she gives birth to us anew in the Holy Spirit. The Christians of the past two millenia were not ignorant fools; they knew and experienced the great benefits of Holy Mother Church. They were humble enough to recognize within themselves the God-given human need for organized religion.
1Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Forward to Renewal and the Powers of Darkness, by Leo Cardinal Suenens (Ann Arbor: Servant Books, 1983).
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