It was the early 1980’s. We were not a church-going family. On my father’s side we had nominal Protestant roots, less so from my mother’s side, although I would learn later that she had had a formative evangelical experience—a coming to faith moment, if you will—in her early adulthood. In any event, with the exception of the rare funeral or a wedding here or there, I had not really been to church until I was ten years old. Around that time my parents made the choice that many parents of that generation made and acted on it, “We ought to go to church, we want the boys to have Sunday school.” At which point, my family started to attend the local Presbyterian church in town.
Something about those people, about what was done there, what was practiced, how they lived…it stuck. Church stuck. Faith stuck. Christianity stuck. A few months later I would be baptized. I grew up in the church from that point on.
Suppose I still am.
That was a formative experience and not all hunky-dory. At the time that local Presbyterian congregation had a relatively new pastor. The leadership there was in a transitional period. There was also a sizeable portion of the congregation who believed in and experienced charismatic gifts. As such, division had become quite present in the church. A good number of members on any given Sunday took turns attending the Assemblies of God church down the street. As new members of the church we found we did as they did. On the positive side, I found the role of experiencing two denominations with particular distinctions of theology and practice to be tremendously educationally formative to my faith and development. To have the regular occasion to compare and contrast so vividly what the church believes, how it worships, how it reads and interprets scripture went a long way in training up a new disciple, and there were a lot of lasting positives that I retain. But the more lasting impact has always been the negative aspect of the realities of a broken community, of a divided church, the palpable experience of disunity and the broken body of Christ.
It’s easy to locate elements of faith as being primarily situated in the head or the heart. Of course it’s a false dichotomy, we know it’s not true, but we’re given to that distortion rather easily. Maybe because I had both Pentecostal and Presbyterian formation, I like to use one as a corrective to the other. Not that it always works by any means, but as an approach I ask, “Am I too much in my head? Am I too much in my heart?”
I will confess, I was raised and stayed in the Presbyterian church as a child and young adult. I can often be too much in my head. A danger of that is that belief can sometimes be more theoretically true than practically. Not that it isn’t real. Or true. But it can come across less viscerally. For instance, folks such as myself might be able to rattle off the Creed easily enough any given Sunday. But standing at the graveside the smell of dank earth in your nostrils professing, “I believe…in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” the words take on greater significance and they must leave your head-space (or even the heart-space) and find corporeal lodging more tangibly in your being. That is, faith moves us from the idea to the practice, it moves us to action.
I think this is just as true when we say, “I believe in the holy catholic Church.” Our confessions are replete with defining what that is. Heidelberg Q&A 54 and the Belgic Confession articles 27 through 30 can give you the words. But it seems as though that description only has relevance when lived out with the practice of unity defined in the second point of Belhar:
We believe in one holy, universal Christian church, the communion of saints called from the entire human family.
that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22);
that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain (Eph. 4:1-16);
that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted (John 17:20-23);
that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity (Phil. 2:1-5; 1 Cor. 12:4-31; John 13:1-17; 1 Cor. 1:10-13; Eph. 4:1-6; Eph. 3:14-20; 1 Cor. 10:16-17; 1 Cor. 11:17-34; Gal. 6:2; 2 Cor. 1:3-4);
that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God (Rom. 12:3-8; 1 Cor. 12:1-11; Eph. 4:7-13; Gal. 3:27-28; James 2:1-13);
that true faith in Jesus Christ is the only condition for membership of this church.
It seems when we confess the catholicity of the church, when we confess unity to be what we believe, it forces us to move towards one another and not away. It forces us to move from our heads to the practical and very much messy real life situations of our faith in practice. The brokenness of the body is real, the wounds of the body are real, and certainly palpable. But so is the oneness.