Christmas Message: What do we want the Church to be?

At the end of the year, we pray that the Church, despite her shortcomings, may be increasingly recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place

Benedict XVI ‏@Pontifex

Thus tweeted the Bishop of Rome earlier this week.   Leaving aside all the many, many areas where the Jedirev disagrees with Roman Catholic doctrine and dogma, this isn’t a bad prayer.   And I share the concern.  At Christmas many will celebrate Christ’s coming – but this Christmas, I want to reflect on Jesus’ gift to the world (see John 17:18 or Hebrews 11:38) – it is a precious thing.

I hope not only for the sake of Roman Catholics the world over, but for every man, woman and child on Earth, that this prayer is answered – because there is no salvation outside the Church, but without Christ being recognisably present, there’s no salvation inside the Church either.

But what do we want the Church to be, when we pray we might be more “recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place”?

For me, three things:

1.            I want the Church to be doctrinally recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place.

Our age seems to be characterised by very little affection for real doctrine – schism and mergers tend focus on what we do, asking, “In what style do we worship?”   But doctrine matters – it matters a very great deal.   For example, it’s a doctrinal question to ask, “Who am I worshipping?”   It’s not satisfactory to arrive at a service on Sunday without asking yourself this question.   The dangers are many – we may worship ourselves, some may worship a building, some a tradition – and we might get bogged down in all these dangers, and finding interesting, dare I say it, legalistic, extra-biblical formulas that ensure our worship is “pure”.   But a real doctrinal answer to this question is far more satisfactory.   We worship a holy Triune God – but what are the implications of that?   Being doctrinally recognisable as Christ’s dwelling place means we ask questions, not firstly about ourselves, but firstly about our God.   Doctrine matters because it is actually our doctrine that defines us – not the practical conclusions about what we do.   What we do is shaped by what we believe.   If we marginalise doctrine in our identity as Christ’s body, the Church, then our identity itself is in jeopardy.   (See Titus 2:1)

2.            I want the Church to be practically recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place.

Having right doctrine is good; coupling that with right practice is better.   But there is a danger the Church can express this in all sorts of wrong ways.   There are, for example, many believers in Scotland concerned Presbyterian Religion’s “place at the heart of the nation” might be lost should Scotland become independent – not recognising that this Establishment exists in ink only, no longer a practical reality in Scotland.   It’s the same sort of concern now being expressed in America, where Christians seem to have lost the power to influence the outcome their nation’s presidential election.   But I just don’t buy the argument that a healthy Church must intrinsically have temporal, political influence and power.   Jesus didn’t.   The apostles didn’t.   Yet they did tremendous practical good – alongside the spiritual good – without political influence.   And at no point did they gripe about this.   The Church, Christians even, do not need earthly power to exert godly influence.   In fact, my suspicion is that political influence of this sort only comes as a happy consequence of exerting gracious effort in the first place.   I’m not sure we should long to restore, or even just harp on about, the influence we’ve lost.   But we must be willing to serve our communities with grace (not just spiritually, but practically and sacrificially) so that we will be recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place.   (See James 1:27)

3.            I want the Church to be functionally recognizable as Christ’s dwelling place.

I want the Church to be what the Church is for; using the means God has given us.   What I mean by that is that I want the Church to function as the Church.   I suspect part of the Western Church’s problems today stem from the liberalising agenda of decades ago, where people forgot what the Church is for.   In Scotland, that was a full on social gospel, that turned the Church into a community organiser.   In the more conservative communities, including the Highlands sadly, the Church became for some a means to preserve only empty tradition.    Another danger, this one more distinctly American, is the rise of mega-churches.   But the Church is not just about gathering people, or gelling communities, or harking back to the old days.   To steal Stott’s analysis: the Church exists to Worship God; to convey Teaching from God; to Fellowship together, but also, with God; and to share the Evangel, to preach Christ crucified.   We do this through right use of the Word, Sacraments and Discipline.   Christ is at the centre of all these things.   To be functionally recognisable as Christ’s dwelling place, everything we do, and how we do it, has to be Christo-centric. (See, well… start with Ephesians and see where that takes you!)