The Boundaries of the Church

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

Nicea is a line in the sand about boundaries.  The original Nicea formulation contained all kinds of anathemas to protect the boundaries:

whoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance of essence from the Father or that he is a creature or subject to change.. the Catholic church anathematizes them.[i]

In the Protestant church this method of defending the church’s boundaries became untenable, but the church has found other ways to defend its boundaries.  Most importantly, however, it is God in His sovereignty who continues to preserve His Church. We must remember, however, that our question here is not how best to defend the church’s boundaries, but what those boundaries are.

Hillary of Potier woke up one morning and discovered that the whole world it seemed had become Arian, but he vigorously reminded the church that the position of Arius was not faithful to the Apostolic witness.  In time, Arianism did not prevail, and the church re-emerged.  In our own time, we woke up one morning and found that much of the entire mainstream Protestant churches which flowed from the Reformation:  Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed had pushed beyond the boundaries and begun to seriously erode the unity of Nicea.   Many liberal Protestants – and a few daring Roman Catholics finally came out in the open and, like Arius of old, denied the true Deity of Christ or the inseparable link between a truly Risen Christ and the Church.  Christ, they argued, must be made more reasonable for modern men and women.  Christ did not truly, bodily rise they insisted, but arose in the preaching of the Apostles. Some boldly claimed that the Enlightenment had finally delivered the crushing blow and called for the church to re-invent itself along lines more compatible with modernity, lest the church have no future in a secularized world.  More recently, in some of the post modern readings, we are called to all experience Christ in our own way and not be bothered by the confines of some ancient Apostolic proclamation.  Post modernism urges us to live as independent islands in a sea of meaninglessness.  Your autonomous opinions, they argue, are just as meaningful and valid as those who deliberated at Nicea or who were first commissioned by the Risen Lord.  A hermeneutic of proclamation and faith is replaced by a hermeneutic of suspicion and doubt and both called equally valid.  According to this scheme, theology, it seems, is really – after all – only anthropology.  The church is a human construct, not a divinely ordained community.  Yet, in the face of all of this –  though the tempest rages for a season, the church is once again reconstituted into the truth.   What we are experiencing in our day has been the re-emergence of a more faithful church from other quarters, mainly in the non-western world and the great unanimity of the church throughout the ages marches on, because God is the one who preserves His church and its living witness to Jesus Christ.

The church is constantly being reconstituted in the truth.  In fact, it is Dr. Cox who in his book Fire from Heaven observes this phenomena, calling it in the words of the Frenchman Gilles Kepel, “the revenge of God.”[ii] Indeed, every time the NT is opened and the gospel is proclaimed it happens again and again throughout the world.  The church, therefore, is called to persevere as the public witnesses of the apostolic message.  We are a living community united to the Risen Christ.  The word “saint” never appears in the singular a single time in the NT.  The word for church, ekklesia denotes a public assembly, not a private cult.[iii] We are a community of witnesses and we cannot bear witness in isolation from our brothers and sisters in the faith around the world in space or the witness of the church through the ages in time.  We are united to them both in worship and in witness…in what the Apostles’ Creed calls the communion of the saints, the communio sanctorum.  To forsake either that worship or that witness is to cross the boundaries and to cease to be the true church.

Today, 2000 years into this great proclamation, after having weathered every storm from Gnosticism to Arianism to Protestant Liberalism to the current storm of post-modernism, I remain convinced that the true church will always re-emerge as the faithful witness.  Indeed, in the final analysis it is not really that significant what my view of the church’s boundaries are if it is merely an expression of a private opinion.  However, if we are all but witnesses and stewards of a worship and a witness summoned forth by the Father, through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and heralded through the ages by countless millions, then our voice joins the great chorus and takes on eternal meaning.  Indeed, it seems the great burden of proof rests on those who want to part from Nicea, either Christologically or hermeneutically.

If Nicea does not lay out boundaries, then we are left only with self-identification and we can no longer use the word ‘Christian’ or ‘Body of Christ’ with any real meaning.  For if you don’t have doctrinal stability, you cannot have ethical stability and if you don’t have ethical stability you don’t have stability of worship and therefore we are no longer related vitality and necessarily to the headship of Jesus Christ.   Our historic boundaries would become lost in a post-modern sea of autonomous self-definitions.  What a contrast from the Apostle John who gives that final testimony at the end of time which gives us the courage to know that in the Final Day the church will be preserved out of every snare for he hears this act of worship in heaven, testifying not to another gospel or something novel, but to the Apostolic proclamation:

You were slain and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…and so… to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power forever and ever (Rev. 5:9,13), thus fulfilling those words of the Apostle Paul in Col. 1:18:  And He is the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from the dead, so that in everything He might have supremacy.


[i] P. Schaff and H. Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-N icene Fathers, vol. 14:  The Seven Ecumenical

Councils, 3.

[ii] Harvey Cox, Fire From Heaven:  The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in

the 21st Century, (Addison Wesley Longman, 1995) xvii.

[iii] Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans,

1965)  501-536 .

Comments

  • James Mace says:

    Dear Timothy, I’ve been wanting to find out more about you and am glad to see you think spiritually in helpful categories. We need global solidarity from Trinitarian eschatological ecclesiology binding the mature Church in communitarian love. and I suspect we will not succeed in our great commission until we obey the 1st & 2nd Great Commandment combo, to Love the Head and to Love His Body.
    Only then will the Church incarnate with power as the immanent presence of God in the world, able to shine like a city to draw the nations and to break chains in liberating captives.
    But such maturity is contingent upon defining the identity, obedience and empowering hope of the Church. So examining and delimiting boundaries of the Church and its intra-ecclesial activity, esp. the 2nd Great Commandment of formational love, is foundational to reformation into an overcoming worldview. In that way can we survive persecution and thrive in the centuries ahead.