Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Church Repentant

I was thinking today about the metaphors of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. These ideas have fallen into disfavor in many circles for basically sound reasons, but I think we lose something if we just toss them aside without replacing them.

The primary problem with the Church Militant metaphor is that somewhere along the line we forgot who we were fighting and what we were fighting for. The strength of the metaphor is that it emphasizes the fact that the Christian life is a struggle, not just individually but also corporately. While the Church may be a city on a hill, it isn't just basking in the sunshine. Christ calls us to hard work. The weakness of the metaphor is that it too easily gives way to them false notion that the purpose of the struggle is to conquer the world for Christ. It gives the impression that we (the insiders) are "the good guys" and everyone else (the outsiders) are "the bad guys." The Church Militant starts to look like the Church Triumphant-in-Many-Places-and-Working-on-the-Rest. That is, in our scope of influence we've already won (contra Phillipians 3:13).

Following the Reformation, Protestants offered the idea of ecclesia semper reformanda, the Church is always reforming. This is good in as much as it reminds us of our constant need for self-examination. The danger, however, is that it presumes an ideal state of the Church. In fact, the implicit suggestion is often that the only reason the Church is always in need of reforming is that we need to fix the things we have broken and get back to some previous state when everything was right. Though posing as a dynamic view of the Church, semper reformanda too easily becomes a slogan of ideally static ecclesiology.

I would like to suggest the metaphor of the Church Repentant. It's been used before, but not much and perhaps not in the sense I mean. Thesis number one of Luther's 95 Theses was this: "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent!' he meant for the Christians whole life to be one of repentance." Lutherans have generally taken this to mean not the stopping of individual infractions (and hence a return to some hypothetical perfect state) but rather a constant turning toward God. The Benedictine idea of conversatio morum, the commitment to being open to change and growth, is useful here.

These ideas of repentance and conversatio are typically applied to the individual, but I think we need to grow them and apply them to the Church as a whole. We need an ecclesiology in which the Church itself makes a commitment to growth and change in Christ. Our calling is not to maintain or return to a state of glorious perfection but to move forward and to be open to what God would have us be today.


Pastor David said...

I like the idea here, and agree that with your take on the metaphor of the church reforming. I have appreciated, rather than reformanda or conversio the image of renovare. "Church Repentent" seems to look backward -- changing what we have done. Semper Renovare or the "Church Renewing" points forward for me, and speaks to moving toward something rather than away from something.

Andy said...

I can see why you'd say that Church Repentant seems to look backward, but I think it only seems that way because we aren't willing to accept what Luther and so many who have followed him have told us about repentance. But you're right that it will have the backward-looking sense for many people, if not most. Maybe "Renewing" is better.