CONCERNING THE CHURCH
Who are the people of God? Could you identify them in a police line-up? Could you recognize them by their bumper stickers? Or would you need to sit them down with a stack of questions and a #2 pencil?
Really, we are asking, "What is essential?" What makes you a person of God? If it is not your hemline or your hairstyle, then what is it?
According to Robert Barclay, the people of God might belong to any nation -- or even any religious tradition.
It is essential for us to abide in God's love. It is essential that we surrender ourselves to God's spirit. The essential elements of faith are a sincere devotion to God and a deep, deep longing for real transformation. These matters supersede all outward language, custom or dress. They even supersede matters of doctrine.
Barclay quite plainly suggests that one may find the people of God "both among the heathens, Turks, Jews, and all the several sorts of Christians."
Understood in its broadest and most universal sense, "the Church" is the collective term for all these people of God. As you can see, Barclay begins his discussion of "the Church" by casting his net very wide indeed!
But if Barclay is more inclusive than the popular convention, he is also more exclusive. The same principle which allows Barclay to expand the Church out beyond the confines of Christendom also allows him to evaluate whether some of those called "Christian" are indeed members of the Church.
As Barclay sees it, it is absurd for us to be so focused on the outward rites of membership that we exclude the genuinely holy (because they have failed to undergo some formulaic profession of faith or some outward ceremony). And it is positively diabolical that we credit those who have made such professions to be members of the true Church of Christ, even if they inwardly lack any holiness whatsoever!
He writes, "This is plainly to put light for darkness, and darkness for light; as if God had greater regard to words than actions, and were more pleased with vain professions than with real holiness."
Barclay suggests that we focus so much of our attention on outward forms because we live in the shadow of Emperor Constantine. Constantine, as you may remember, is given credit for incorporating Christianity into the fabric of the Roman Empire. By doing so, he made the forms of Christianity respectable. The upwardly mobile found it to their advantage to appear as a Christian.
Consequently, after Constantine, people became "Christian" by birth or by education and not necessarily through a real transformation of the heart. Ultimately, the established church ceased to be leaven in society. Instead, it became an extension of society (and all the worldly pursuits of greed and political control).
By emphasizing the inward nature of membership in the Church, Barclay hopes to call us back to a vision of the Church that is spiritual, pure and revolutionary.
On the local level, Barclay suggests a church should pattern itself after the those "churches of primitive times gathered by the apostles." The "primitive church" is one based primarily upon relationship. People are gathered together because their "hearts are united by the same love" and because their "understandings are informed by the same truths." Seen this way, the local church is like a family, wherein each watches over the other -- teaching, instructing and caring for one another as they are led by God.
To become a member of a particular church of Christ, one must first be a member of the Church universal. One must first be open to the workings of God. But one must be even more than this. Barclay insists that a person uniting in membership with a Christian church must accept and profess the foundation of our faith: namely, that Jesus Christ is the Light who works within us, calling us to God.
While all people have access to God (regardless of belief), it does not follow that all beliefs are equally valid. Although all people have access to God, Barclay and the early Friends are certain that this access is provided through Christ. And so, to unite with a Christian church, one must uphold the truth of this. Ultimately, the truth of Christ lies behind the Truth we all seek.
Here are some questions to consider:
1. What do you think are the "essential elements of faith?"
2. Have you ever known a truly Godly person who did not fit within the parameters of your previously held assumptions?
3. Can we really hold these two things in tension: the universality of God's presence and the centrality of Christ?
4. How do you view membership in the church?
Continue reading Proposition Ten (pt. 2)