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Basic Christian Doctrines VIII: The Necessity of the Church.

Updated: Jan 11

The Doctrine of the Church

A New Existence in Christ

This reflection paper will discuss how the faithful Christian perceive and express the idea of the church. We will look at how theologians respond to the problems of individualism, as well as there response to the question of the need for a corporate Christian community. The paper will conclude with the affirmation that the church is indeed required and through steadfast love will work to liberate the abused, the poor and the oppressed.

Ecclesia - The Assembly

It was not until the late middle ages that theologians began to articulate the Doctrine of the Church. One of their first revelations was the realization that the Christian does not believe in the Church. Roman Catholic Theologian Hans Kung (1928-2021) , among others, noted that in general, the ancient creeds speak not so much of believing in God and in the Holy Spirit, but of believing the Church (Credo ecclesiam).

In believing the Church, we mean that it is not God or Spirit or any Sacred, Divine or Supernatural thing, despite the constant temptation to believe so. We do not believe in the church, because we are the Church. We are a sinfully fallible pilgrim people who are in no position to believe in themselves. However, because the church is an instrument of God's Salvation and Divine Presence in the world, the creeds commit us to believe the Church.

The Four Images Of The Church

It is because of the early Christian writers, like Saint Paul, that there are excellent images to help explain the identity of the Church. There were four commonly used images that, even today, communicate a great statement about the way the Church expresses their own role and function. They are People, Body, Communion and Spirit.

The earliest and most inclusive image was the church as the People of God. The Eccelsia (assembly) now had universal dimensions within temporal boundaries. The Church does not belong to any nation, does not have a common language or any particular ethnic identity.

The People of God are now the Body of Christ. To Saint Paul, the body was not an organic presence, but an ethical and social presence for the world. The self-giving love of Christ is now defined in a unique communal structure. Jesus lives on in the body as it perpetuates the sacrificial quality of life.

The Body of Christ are now a Fellowship or Communion in which the faithful Christian discovers identity and fulfillment in each other and in relation to Christ. To Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), this Communion represented a Fellowship of Love. Interestingly, the Scholastic and Reformed theologians saw the church as a Fellowship of Faith. The Faith Community, through their fellowship, was able to acquire the hope of a new existence in Christ.

It is because of this Fellowship that the Church is open to an indwelling and empowerment. It is a Divine activity in the image of the Holy Spirit. Saints Augustine and Aquinas (1225-1274) interpret the Holy Spirit as both working within the Community as "the Soul" or "Vital Force" which continuously energizes the Body of Christ, the Church.

The Dilemma

Systematic Theologian Edward Farley (1929-2014) suggested that the early Church was perverted by institutionalism and conversely the modern Church is perverted by both individualism and privatism (non-involvement).

According to Farley, the danger for the Church is this polarity of belief. On one side, there are some Christians who defend hierarchical and authoritative institutions, while on the other side there are Christians who make extravagant claims for the Holy Spirit, Church authority and Creedal conformity.

There are those who are constantly critical of the Church, denying any need for an institutional religious body. There are also people who believe the Church, but only tacitly. They seem to find that the Church is a therapeutic safe haven through its counseling, ideology and clublike activities. The Church finds itself today bouncing between the poles. The sad thing is that both points confront the Church with a loss of essence and a distortion of its true self.

An Ecclesial Response To Christian Individualism

As was mentioned in a previous paper, The Holy Spirit and Spiritual Phenomena, one of the greatest challenges for the Church is individualism. To the Christian individualist, the Faith includes a sense of both individual devotion and morality. To them, the church exists for the sake of personal salvation and the need for an institutionalized body becomes, if not archaic, much less relevant.

It is now apparent, that as a response to Christian individualism, ecclesiology is taking a new approach to its understanding of what constitutes a Community. It is beginning to show that the Church is intrinsically communal in structure. The American philosopher Josiah Royce (1855-1914) further develops Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's (1770-1831), "Community of Spirit", by setting forth a theory of the "Universal, Divine, Spiritual Community".

For Reformed Theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968), it is the Holy Spirit that aids in the 'gathering', 'upbuilding' and 'sending' of the Christian community. Lutheran Pastor and Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), taking a theological-sociological approach, understood Community to be a collective-person manifesting an objective spirit, and he established both a relation and a distinction between the Holy Spirit, the giver of Faith and Love, and the objective spirit of the empirical Church. He believed that the I-Though relations between persons, including the relation to the Divine Though, could occur within the framework of the Community.

Presbyterian Theologian William Edward Farley (1929-2014), mentioned above, using his tools of philosophical phenomenology, understands Ecclesia as a Community transformed by the experience of Redemption. To Farley, the Community is "self-surpassing" and "non-provincial", knowing no ethnic, cultic, spatial and temporal boundaries. It is through the Ecclesial Community, not in individual devotion, that the realities of Faith, God, Christ, Creation and Redemption is socially mediated into every believers life.

Roman Catholic Liberation Theologian, Gustavo Gutiérrez (1928-) believes that the role of the Church is to exist within the realities of the world. The Church should be a place of comfort for those people who are abused by oppression and poverty. To Gutiérrez, the Church must work toward a transformation of the current social order, even if it brings itself into open conflict with the power of the State.

The necessity of the Church is apparent when we see it alive and active in the world. Faithful Christians, as a Community, follow the teachings of Christ, and with a deep sense of reconciling love, can liberate people from sin, alienation and oppression.


Originally entitled A New Existence in Christ: The Necessity of the Church was submitted to Dr. William Close as a Master of Theological Studies course requirement 511v-Basic Christian Doctrines St. Stephen's Theological College University of Alberta

Published on November 20th, 1996

{Revised September 20th, 2023}

© Dr. Charles Warner 2023

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