I wish I would have read and studied much on the church, both in regard to scriptural exegesis, theology, and especially with reference to the historical (called, historical theology). Younger folks dive into this kind of stuff, and I’m thankful for that, but as I get older, I confine myself to the niche I have (whatever that is). Though in this day and age with Wikipedia, and other resources online, it is amazing what one can pick up in an hour or two (or even less).
Why I ask the question, “what is the church?” is because of the question of authority with reference to tradition. This is not entirely a moot question, because there have been councils which spoke authoritatively for the church along the lines of theology. Some carry weight and some don’t (or maybe all do), depending on which Christian tradition one is a part of.
Of course we know from scripture that the church is the body of Christ who regularly meet together, most of them on the Lord’s Day (Sunday). The church is also called the pillar and foundation of the truth, in other words where we can find the truth lived out, proclaimed and taught. It should go without saying that the church is not infallible in its own judgments and pronouncements. At the same time it also needs to be said that safety is found only where the Spirit has said the same thing to God’s people, not just to one person, or one group. Scripture is the source from where we gather truth, but theology includes all that we bring as humans and from culture, to decipher and express that truth.
Every generation has to continue this work, not because past generations have gotten it wrong, but to speak the truth afresh with the Spirit’s help to each new generation.
I wish it was all this simple. Tradition is important, because God works through tradition to help us rightly read and understand scripture. But what tradition? Which one? And where do we appeal to defend one particular group as the bearers of the tradition? Yes, we appeal to scripture, but God uses the church to read scripture rightly, to get the message of the gospel straight.
I think in the end we have to appeal to something like C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity,” which is widely appreciated by Catholics and Protestants alike. There are significant differences across tradition, but we perhaps come closest to the truth as we find common ground. At the same time, I am not at all convinced that the broad tradition is going to get everything right. For example the pacifist Christianity of the early centuries of the church has been buried through a union with the state in which it was taken for granted that Christians would go to war and kill if need be, sometimes -sadly- even in the name of Christ. The Great Tradition got it right when they made all soldiers upon their return do penance (sadly, not the case with so many churches today). Penance from my perspective: considering the seriousness and gravity, as well as wrong that is inevitably done in such endeavors, with accompanying repentance. But that tradition went astray, I take it, by not following the teaching and example of our Lord against all such violence for the follower of Jesus.
This question goes on. I will continue to count as church wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, with the promise that he is with them (yes, in a disciplinary, judging context, but I take it to be a general promise, as well). And I will respect that this is so wherever true followers of Jesus meet across all the traditions in which the truth found in Jesus is taught and followed. All of us in Jesus are in this together for the world.