Spiritual: October 2006 Archives

What is a Church?

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Mark Roberts is doing a series called What is a Church? Biblical Basics for Christian Community. I especially like the four posts he's written so far under the title "When a Church is not a Church?" These look at the Greek word usually translated as "church" in the New Testament, 'ekklesia', which means "assembly" or "gathering" (and not "called out ones", as many erroneously claim because of some bad arguments from etymology).

The fourth post in that series within the series raises a point very much worth emphasizing. It makes no sense to say that you're part of a gathering that you don't show up for. In a sense any Christian is a member of the gathering around the throne of God in heaven, but we also speak of ourselves as members of local congregations. The average congregation has about 60-70% of its membership regularly attending. Does it make sense to call the others members of a gathering that they don't ever gather with? Treating a church like an organization with a membership list does have this particularly unfortunate consequence, even if there are legal reasons (and perhaps other reasons) to do so.

There's lots of other good stuff in Mark's series, but that struck me as a pointed observation about this attitude about what the church is among a large enough population in contemporary evangelicalism.

Roman Catholicism has never officially endorsed the idea of Limbo (a place not as cool as heaven but much better than hell and purgatory). It was proposed as a place for children who die before being baptized and for people who believed before the Messiah's first coming. It looks as if Pope Benedict XVI is pulling the Roman Catholic church out of their ambiguity on this issue. There is no such thing as Limbo, he is now declaring.

According to the article, the idea goes back to Augustine's unwillingness to accept that God would send innocent children to hell. That, of course, fits neither with the biblical teaching on what Augustine later called original sin nor with Augustine's own views on the subject. The biblical teaching on what is required for salvation never includes a footnote indicating an exception for those under some fictional age of reason. Augustine's own views treat original sin as something that's part of us from conception, and original sin is the basis of the death sentence on every single human being (except Christ, although he faced it anyway). I can't see any absolutely compelling biblical argument against the view that all children who die young will be saved. God would have to perform a work of grace specially in each child who is saved to regenerate the person and remove the sin nature, which is what scripture teaches about every adult who is saved. But the lack of any exceptions to what seem to be clear statements seems to me to count as evidence against such a view.

However you treat the biblical silence on the issue, it's clear that there's no positive biblical evidence for such a view. The article seems to me to suggest that the reason for removing Limbo is that there's no biblical evidence for it. Why, then, assume that all children will be in heaven? That equally has no biblical evidence. Are they thinking it's better to err on the side of giving false hope in this life than it is to err on the side of preparing people for the worst in case their children who die young will not be saved?

[hat tip: Claude Mariottini]

Update: See Siris for some hesitations on a number of things here. I don't agree with his interpretation of I Peter's statement about Jesus speaking to the spirits in prison (who in context and especially in relation to Jude and II Peter's similar statements have to be the Genesis 6 fallen angels, with the message one of victory over them rather than salvation). [Update 2: See his comment on this post for his clarification even on that.] I don't have much background in the other issues he raises, but he's much more aware of the history of theology than most religion writers for newspapers like the Chicago Tribune.

Jollyblogger's recent post on whether churches should advertize gets into some interesting issues about the goal of advertizing. In particular, what sort of people do the advertizements intend to attract, and does that fit with the purposes of what a gathering of believers is for? What sort of people do we want coming to visit our congregations, and how do we get them there?

I'm not going to get into those issues, though I think they're worth thinking about. What drove me to comment (and thus, now, to expand on my comment here) was his side discussion of whether it's good to single out newcomers, in particular whether it makes a difference if the person is a Christian or a nonbeliever. Several people in the comments were saying that Christians like to be singled out, but nonbelievers aren't very comfortable with that. I don't think it's that simple. Some nonbelievers might like being noticed, but I think the more important issue is that not all Christians will want to be singled out. Extroverted Christians might like that, but if I visit a church and they do something like that I tend to get really turned off. I don't like to be made the center of attention (unless I'm doing something specifically requiring it like teaching, in which case I then won't want people not paying attention).

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