My experience in the church has included Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Holiness, Mainline (neo-Orthodoxy version), Eastern Orthodox, and briefly Asian Christianity. I have visited many faith communities and have seen God working in many of them.
When I grew up, the fundamentalists Baptists that I knew treated a saving knowledge as necessary for salvation, along with confession. There was a real sense from them that Christians are in a real way responsible to spread the saving knowledge that keeps people out of hell. One thing that was distressing to me was the disconnect between the idea that humanity was going to burn due to the lack of simple knowledge, mixed with the seeming lack of urgency. It was hard to accept that the people believed what they were saying.
I also grew up with a Holiness Friend Grandmother who questioned the validity of Methodists, openly rejected the validity of Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics or other groups outside the Wesleyan-Holiness movement. Her parents were Friends ministers, as was her husband and his parents. From them, I had an exposure to Friends, especially Barclay’s concept of perfection, interpreted thorough a second work of grace lens.
These early views gave the idea that the church taught an approach to life and an understanding of the divine — and the goal of the church was to use human means to convert others to the Church’s world view. This creates the conflict between a right church, and everybody else.
Eventually I took classes from a professor at Friends University who liked Karl Barth. An exposure to other approaches led to an appreciation for them. The right-church conflict in many ways started falling apart. About that time I seized onto the idea of a Religious society. I started to realize that Fundamentalist-Calvinist vs. Wesleyan-holiness argument I knew as a child was in a way false. I understood that the fundamentalist-modernist-emergent debates now are a false argument. I have come to believe that we do form “religious societies” that form practices and reasons and teachings on deeply held and important beliefs — but the true church is those who are gathered by God. I do not believe that a least common denominator approach fosters deep Christianity — but, I also believe that when we see the Presbyterians as a separate church from the Methodists, we have a false view of the church. The Methodists and the Presbyterians may both serve the church by exploring theories about God as best they can, but the church must be open to the inclusion of all who Christ illuminates.
Accepting that Christ judges — and, I am not responsible for another person’s soul, and also accepting that Christ’s light gives a different vision of church for me than spreading the knowledge that saves from eternal damnation. It becomes about forming communities of people who seek to better live out their faith as a group than they do alone. In addition, my idea of ministry has shifted from “outreach” to community building. Though many have complained about Church turning into a social club, the need for fellowship is in itself enough of a reason to meet.
The fact scripture uses the term ἐκκλησία tells me several things about the Biblical idea of Church. The word can easily refer to the Greek Assembly in Athens which was the democratic assembly. It was the people who had the final say on laws and on the works of the authority. In Acts 15, we see a regional council that includes Christians from different cultures holding different views on Hebrew customs. From this meeting, we learn that there is an idea that the assembly has the power to make rules.
In I Corinthians 8 Paul writes of it being allowable to eat meat which was sacrificed to idols. This violates one of the clear decisions made in Acts 15. Romans 14 follows the same principle, though is less specific calling for an even greater toleration of diversity in practice than what is agreed upon in ecumenical council. It creates the idea that there needs to be tolerance of people who do not agree with even what there is general agreement as proper behavior. Paul’s writings imply that the church either has limited power to enforce the rules, or there was a development in accepted practice, not recorded in scripture, that overturned the Jerusalem Council in Act 15.
The clearest duty of the church that I see is “Do not forsake meeting together” in Hebrews 10:25. An assembly that does not meet is no longer an assembly. The Society of Friends published an advice that Friends keep their regular scheduled meetings, even in the case of adversity (advice #1: given by the Elders at Balby 1656). While persecution of Friends was not nearly as severe as early Christians faced, the point is that the Assembly must meet, even when meeting together leads to death or imprisonment. There is a sense that meeting is of greater value than personal life and liberty. While the meetings were not required to be large, it is considered necessary to meet.
In addition, I believe that the scriptural understanding is that these meetings are to include a recognition of Christ’s presence. They were to meet in Christ’s name — and there is the idea that the individual is to be encouraged in his or her connection with Christ. The scriptural model also seems to include food, however I am not sure that eating is a command so much as a physical requirement.
Biblically, I am uncomfortable calling denominations `churches.’ The idea that we can reject those with a different opinion as outside the “church” seems counter to Paul’s understanding. In a wider sense, the church includes those who ignore the rules, even when they are stated clearly. The diversity of views and practices within the church makes me recognize why parties and religious societies form. Often our spiritual practices drive our theological understanding, or we form theological theories to explain why the practices are meaningful. Both Pentecostals and fundamentalists claim to be part of the church — and while neither is eager to claim the other, I have a desire to claim both in honor of Paul’s very liberal attitude about practices, which are driven by important beliefs. I think part of the work of the religious society is to build a framework that allows people to explore faith more deeply, and to grow into Christ. The work of the wider church is to somehow live together, and perhaps encourage one another. The nature of the church, in my reading of scripture is: “We believe in one God — but, sometimes we have radically different understandings of what it means to be faithful.