Sunday, September 21, 2014

“Visible and Invisible” Christianity – Part One: A Theological Concept Is Not a Tangible Congregation – Why it is essential to reconcile our views of an “invisible” Christianity with its “visible” existence in the local body of Christ

People, visible people, make the church.
I have been reading recently about a better church. No, I don’t mean the other congregations in your area and mine that promise your church’s members an enhanced worship experience, a more interesting curriculum, or the benefits of relegating ministry to their programs and staff while you watch from the bleachers. (Well, in fairness, cushy seats are as essential to new church plants as are their clip-on nametags). I’ve read plenty about those better churches in the past. I’ve even planted and served some of them.
More recently, though, the better church I’ve been reading about is called The Invisible Church.
The Invisible Church is described as such an attractive place that I wish I could see it somewhere. In that church there is perfect unity among all believers, drawn together as they are by their mutual love for Christ and others. If any theological controversies, personality conflicts, or “concerns” over structures, styles, or sermons could result, they would be quickly and amicably resolved. Of course, those controversies, conflicts, and concerns never do arise in The Invisible Church, because no one ever actually meets…well, there, if there was a "there" there.
Now, to be fair and accurate, theological discussions about the invisible church center on two categories. The first category comprises those who are vitally connected with God through Christ: the invisible church. The second category, portrayed as a larger group of which the invisible church is a smaller sub-set, involves the physical expression, corporate activities, and tangible ministries of the visible church—parts of which may not be, in fact, engaged in a relationship with God through Christ.
Just because it's visible, it's not necessarily a church.
My delight, though, in splitting theological hairs over the nature and character of each of these churches is dimmed by thirty years of practical theology as a pastor. There are a number of detrimental effects of imagining some nebulous, metaphysical construct as the real or ideal church (and that is what The Invisible Church would be, even to those who don’t use the terms “real” and “ideal” as the philosopher Plato did, in contrast to the concrete representations that actually occur in the world in which we live). Most difficult among them is the license such distinctions grant for believers to imagine themselves “real” Christians, whether they drift from congregation to congregation, or choose to absent themselves from vital connection in a local fellowship at all.
To be clear: the invisible church, if it can be said to exist at all (and I dispute that it is a legitimate distinction), can exist only within the visible, actual, living-breathing-loving-rejoicing-weeping-congregating of Christians in vital connection with one another.
In his book, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology, British theologian Colin Gunton rightly warns against the Platonic dualism of imagining both an invisible and a visible church, one spiritual and the other a recognizable (and, after the time of Constantine, “Official”) human institution. He notes two results of such a distinction. In the first, the “real” church becomes seen as the institutional, corporately-structured organization, rather than “the congregating of the faithful—because not all the faithful are faithful!” Sadly, the establishment of such a distinction furthers the problem, seeking to build membership in the human-centered religious organization, and disregarding the interrelationship of the members of Christ’s body.
What, then, is the invisible church in this view? Again, Gunton sees a second result of distinguishing the church as an organization rather than an organism. The invisible church becomes equated with the presumed purity of the clergy. I accept that not all the faithful are faithful. But my experience is that faithfulness is a rare commodity among clergy as well. The hierarchy Gunton observes in the institutional, corporately-structured, concretely headquartered “invisible church” (and Gunton does note the irony), in my experience, tends to attract, develop, and promote “ministers” who are pursuing a career in religion, not a calling to shepherd their sub-flock in a local congregation of believers (and others: not-yet-believers).
No parking lot, since no road, because no congregation = Ideal Church.
As a Trinitarian, Gunton is seeing the “congregating of the faithful,” and their interaction with one another, as essential to demonstrating the relational nature of the “one God, eternally existing in three persons.” The false dichotomy of an “ideal” church and our experience of some shadowy, mostly mistaken expression of it probably lead to many more misadventures than the two the Gunton addresses. Some might ask, though, whether the nature and character of “the church” really matters so much, especially in the common view of one’s Christianity as a personal (meaning owned by us as individuals) relationship, rather than necessitating any congregating with the faithful at all. But that very question relies on a similar dualism between being “a real Christian” as an ideal, and allowing our actual walk with Christ to become some shadowy, mostly mistaken expression of it.

Tragically, we are replicating in ourselves the same false dichotomy many would apply to the church as a whole. The presumably “visible” and “invisible” nature and character of simply being a Christian will be explored in my next post. Stay tuned.

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