On this Pentecost Sunday in the year of our Lord 1997, we would do well to consider, anew, the ancient and Reformed understanding of the nature of the church. I say we would do well, because the denomination of which we are a part is not doing very well right now. We are deeply divided, some would say to the point of schism. And though our divisions would seem to center upon the inclusion or exclusion of gay and lesbian Christians from full membership in the Presbyterian Church, the more subtle and insidious division is, in fact, an ancient division over radically different beliefs concerning the nature of the church.
To be sure, from the day of Pentecost on, the visible body of Christian believers began their struggle over what made the church the church. A few centuries later, the church would speak a definitive word concerning the more intricate theological marks of the church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Still later, the Reformers would proclaim that the church is simply constituted wherever Jesus Christ is rightly proclaimed in Word and Sacrament.
But from the moment God's Spirit came upon that diverse crowd of folks gathered long ago in Jerusalem, Christians have been variously at odds, seldom in one accord, as regards what makes the church the church.
So much we could trace if we laid the history of the church and the history of Christian doctrine over the difficulties of our denomination today. Especially relevant to our current struggles about what makes the church the church, are the controversies which have raged over what constitutes the holiness of the church, holiness being that which sets the church apart, marks it off, differentiates it, gives it its basis.
In the 11th chapter of the Book of Acts, it is reported that Gentiles "had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, 'Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?'" (Read, Why did you eat with sinners--with unholy people--with worldly people? The question surely had a familiar ring to those who had followed Jesus around the countryside!) "Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step," until the objections of Jewish Christians to the inclusion of Gentiles in the church were silenced, and they praised God saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." We were in!
Almost in, that is. For a bit later in Acts, clarification again was needed, because the "circumcised" as they were called, though willing to accept these Gentiles, believed salvation and full inclusion in the church turned upon circumcision: "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses," they taught, you cannot be saved." Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem to get matters straight, so to speak, with the apostles and the elders. After much debate--not quite the twenty years we have spent debating homosexuality--the apostles and elders decided to err, if they erred, on the side of grace, declaring to uncircumcised Gentiles, "It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well." Thus differentiated and made holy in the minds of these early Christians, the church seemed to be on the way to being the church.
Fast forward, then, to the 4th century in the region of North Africa. There a bishop named Donatus gave his name to what was ultimately ruled the Donatist heresy. At issue was the purity of the church which, according to the Donatists, was guarded and preserved in the purity of her bishops: 'Too many bishops, it was thought, had 'collaborated' during the Persecution of Diocletian beginning in 303 A.D., handing over copies of the Holy Scriptures to be burnt by the pagan magistrates. This craven act, the traditio, the 'handing-over' of the Holy Books, would have deprived, the guilty bishop, the traditor, of all spiritual power.' [Brown, p.218] The Donatists believed the true church was constituted by pure bishops who, in following what they called the Christian 'Law,' preserved the identity of the Christian church in the midst of an impure society.
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, objected to this understanding of the church with a vengeance. He saw the Donatists as a group on the defensive, immobilized by an anxiety to preserve its identity. "The Church, a Donatist bishop had said, was the Ark of Noah. It was well-tarred inside and out. It was watertight: it kept within itself the good water of baptism; it had kept out the defiling waters of the world." To this Augustine raged, "The clouds roll with thunder, that the House of the Lord shall be built throughout the earth: and these frogs sit in their marsh and croak--We are the only Christians!"
So as the Donatists admitted only the righteous into church leadership, Augustine wrote of the church's membership, "The man who enters is bound to see drunkards, misers, tricksters, gamblers, adulterers, fornicators, people wearing amulets, assiduous clients of sorcerers, astrologers. . . He must be warned that the same crowds that press into the churches on Christian festivals, also fill the theatres on pagan holidays." In other words, the world was in the church and, according to Augustine, that is as God intended it. Augustine's church, writes Peter Brown, "was like an atomic particle: it was made up of moving elements, a field of dynamic tensions, always threatening to explode," while the Donatist view of the church had "a certain rock-like consistency."
As the controversy moved to its inclusive conclusion, Augustine said of himself, a bishop of the church and so a leader whose purity was up for scrutiny in relation to Donatist standards, "0, there are many things in me which they could fasten on: it would thrill them to know about them! Much still happens in my thoughts--fighting against my evil promptings, a day-long tension; the enemy almost continuously wishing to make me fall... Brothers, say to the Donatists just this: 'Here is Augustine...a bishop in the Catholic Church...What I have learnt to look to, above all, is the Catholic Church. I shall not put my trust in any man.'" In other words, this motley gathering of humanity called the church was constituted by the love and forgiveness of God, rather than by the holiness of its bishops. In June of 405 A.D., an Edict of Unity declared the Donatists heretical and removed the so-called pure bishops not because of bad morals, but because of bad theology, absorbing the Donatist congregations (albeit kicking and screaming) back into the Catholic Church.
Though Augustine's battle with the Donatist mindset was not over, for now the controversy shifted its focus from the purity of bishops to the perfectibility of each individual Christian. A theologian named Pelagius wrote in 413 A.D. to Demetrias on the occasion of her decision to become a nun, "since perfection is possible.. it is obligatory." Pelagius believed God was "a God who, above all, commanded unquestioning obedience. He made the human race to execute his commands; and.. would condemn to hellfire anyone who failed to perform a single one of them." The appeal then, as it still appeals now, is the promise of absolute certainty through absolute obedience. The human will is all: the church a gathering of the perfectly obedient.
"Augustine was less sure that a fallen human nature could bear so great a weight: 'Many sins are committed through pride [he wrote) but not all happen proudly... they happen so often by ignorance, by human weakness; many are committed by men weeping and groaning in their distress.'" Augustine was taken with the complexity of human action such that willing one's own obedience was not a simple matter of choice. "[Persons] choose, said Augustine, because they love, but Augustine had been certain for years that they could not, of themselves, choose to love." Hence not human will, but God's grace is all in all. Hence the church, for Augustine, was not a society of the morally perfected, but a hospital for sinners, existing to redeem a helpless humanity and to nurture a congregation in the slow and erratic process of healing.
Hence the Holy Spirit and not pure bishops nor perfected parishioners constituted the holiness of the church. "The church is holy," Augustine concluded, "because within the church the Holy Spirit works through the appointed means of grace to transform human lives." [Leith] Holiness is always and only a gift of God.
Fast forward again to the Presbyterian Church three days after Easter 1997. The front pages of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Times, the Washington Post, to name a few, carried news of the vote of Presbyteries to ban gay and lesbian Presbyterians from the offices of elder, deacon and minister of the Word and Sacrament. But in order to do that under cover, the church had to throw in with an ancient heresy or two, lest she be accused of singling out one category of folk for exclusion. Thus the Amendment, which will be added to our Book of Order this June at General Assembly, includes a line which would make Pelagius proud and would make the Donatists downright giddy. The amendment instructs Nominating Committees that "Persons refusing to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders or minister of the Word and Sacrament." Once again, morally perfectible officers and ministers are said to have something to do with what makes the church the church. Our Stated Clerk has already advised that we may seek information on individuals nominated to be deacons or elders in this church, for instance, from a variety of sources without their permission, uncovering information about what was seen of them or heard about them by another, keeping the informant anonymous. I tell you that will not happen in this congregation or, if it does, it will happen under the leadership of your next installed minister. As God is Lord of the conscience, I will have no part in enforcing this amendment and will work actively to have it removed from our Book of Order.
I think of the Donatists, tarring the ark inside and out, the church taking on a certain rock-like consistency as she sinks into the deep. I think of Pelagius who hated babies because they were dependent upon the love and forgiveness of a parent rather than independent beings capable of willing themselves good. I think of Augustine, and long for such a bishop to proclaim the gospel with clarity and force against these righteous frogs, ruling the church I used to feel a part of and croaking: We are the only Christians.
I do not know you well enough to know where you stand or fall on these matters before our denomination. I only know that there are some in our midst--for reasons of a son or a daughter, an aunt or an uncle, a mother or a father, a friend or a neighbor, for reasons of their own closeted heart--there are some in our midst for whom the church has ceased, in some significant way, to be the church. For you... and for me, I simply trace another ancient doctrine of the church over the church we see this day, lest we be left with a history lesson rather than a proclamation of the gospel. Augustine, who has been called the Doctor of Grace, again is its author. It is a doctrine for days when the true church is hard to find, the visible church having been defined by those imprisoned in their own certainty. There exists, the doctrine goes, an invisible church, an invisible communion of saints, of which the believer is reminded especially around this table, and whose membership is known only to God. The true church of God, so the doctrine goes, consists of all men and women of every time and place who laid hold on salvation by the faith implanted in them by God's Word and Spirit. The doctrine has been a comfort to those ruled out of order by the visible church... but it has also planted a seed of reformation in the minds and hearts of those who cannot be content to let the church croak along in its own righteousness.
In his darkest days, it was this doctrine which kept John Calvin sure of the existence of the church. "Therefore," he wrote, "though the melancholy desolation which surrounds us seems to proclaim there is nothing left of the Church, let us remember that the death of Christ is fruitful, and that God wonderfully preserves his Church as it were in hiding-places."
May it be so for us on this day of Pentecost in the year of our Lord 1997, as we join the communion of saints around Christ's table of grace. For faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Thanks be to God. Amen.