Own the church, be the church

Extra ecclesiam nulla salus: “outside the church there is no salvation.” At first glance this quote from Cyprian of Carthage may cause us to bristle at its arrogant and exclusive tone. It sounds like this third century bishop was on a power trip and wanted everyone to know it. In fact he was stating—what was for him and other Christ followers of his day a clear, essential spiritual and temporal truth—that the church is the body of Christ. If we bristle some at his statement, then we are perhaps revealing the great distance that exists between third century believers and us.

If we believe that the church is primarily a spiritual/temporal institution, an institution that we are free to join and leave as we see fit based on our own individual preferences, a fragmented/denominational institution that only deserves our loyalty if it provides a secure, safe place for us to worship and be nurtured in while buffering us from the theological debates and social issues that may threaten our current views of God or the Bible, then the distance between Cyprian’s world and ours is vast. It is a distance defined by a very different understanding of what it means to be the church.

For Cyprian, the church was the body of Christ, not an institution. Outside of the body of Christ, the church, there was no salvation. You see, for Cyprian and other Christ followers, you could not “go to church,” you could only “be or not be the church.” The church was not an institution you went to or chose to join. It was the universal, redeemed community of faith created by Jesus’ death and resurrection. To be saved meant to be a part of Christ’s body the church. The key criterion for being the church was Jesus, not a believer’s personal preference or choice.

If we are Protestants raised in this country, then we have been subject to what historian Nathan Hatch has referred to as the “democratization of Christianity.” Essentially this means that Protestant Christians in particular have spent the last 200 years applying the same democratic principles that shaped America’s political identity to their understandings of the church. The result has been a view of church that looks a lot like American politics/culture. The autonomous individual, within the limits of the law, is free to exercise the right of choice to pick a political party and the candidates that represent it. If you don’t like the way that political party or candidate is governing, then, every two to four years, based on the election, you can change your mind and pick someone else. As one visitor from Europe pointed out to me years ago, “You Americans are interesting people. In Europe we have two main religious faiths, Catholics and Protestants, but dozens of political parties. In America you have two political parties but thousands of churches.”

In our culture, it will be very difficult to “own the church” or, as Cyprian believed, “be the church” if we think that the church’s value and existence depends on our choosing it. I hope that Spiritual Emphasis Week has encouraged us as a learning community to reexamine together the nature of the church and what if would