scripture, yes, but also the church

In my own life of over forty years of professing the faith, scripture has been more than less central. Church has been important all the way through in shaping my reading of scripture, but it’s been mostly about reading (and probably even more, hearing) scripture, something which is still of central importance for me to this day.

What has been lacking, I’m afraid, is a sufficient realization of just how central the church ought to be in both our identity and practice. It is as good to be part of a church tradition, as to have a well worn Bible. Understood rightly, I think they go hand in hand. But in our western individualistic mindset, church can be relegated to a secondary status, and a theological commitment to “sola-scriptura” can feed right into this error, even though it doesn’t have to do so. On that point, I tend to see this theological construct as a fiction in that there is no such thing as scripture alone, when you consider the place the church and tradition is given in scripture itself. Scriptura-primera, scripture-first, might better describe the more Catholic, yet still Protestant approach I might take along with others. That plays itself out in wanting to test everything by scripture. Though understood in the full theological context, even the Roman Catholic Church attempts to do the same. It is just that their understanding of tradition goes somewhat beyond, so that part of what can be accepted in the teaching and practice of the church ends up coming from implications or what could follow, or maybe just be in alleged harmony with scripture, rather than from scripture itself. But to some extent, even Protestant churches do that in their tradition as well, in my Anglican church, the bread and wine are consecrated to be in some sense the body and blood of our Lord for us in our participation in Holy Communion.

The so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral posits the church, tradition, reason and experience in that order as givens in our life in Christ. And some Anglicans like N. T. Wright would insist on the first three, leaving experience out. All four rightly understood can surely have their place, and I especially would not want to lose sight of reason (although experience, as in “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” seems right along this line, also), scripture itself openly and by implication appealing to human reason.

So tradition is important, and has its place. What is of uppermost importance in tradition, I think, is simply the reality and practice of church. After all, the church is Christ in a sense, specifically his body in the world, of which he is the head. So it seems to me that a full-orbed life in the Lord, will certainly put an emphasis on church which minimally means faithful participation in meeting and giving, and in both the common, and the sacramental life.

In my own life, I’m afraid church hasn’t been central enough. I’ve always been a part of a church, but that may not mean all that much to many of us, certainly not enough in terms of what scripture makes church to be. That has played out in my life in a number of ways which were not helpful. Raised Mennonite, after conversion I was influenced by someone, and left the Mennonite tradition, and in my faith journey ended up traversing through a number of traditions in search of the most scriptural tradition. That could be called mistake #1. I frankly would have been better off to pray and become settled in one tradition, which well could have been Mennonite, or something after that. I do appreciate my Mennonite/Anabaptist heritage, which I think in some ways, after coming back to something of it, remains with me for good, not in length, though that’s probaby true, too.

Maybe this is where the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox have it over on us, one of the ways: Your obedience to the faith, to Christ, includes your obedience to the Church. You can protest, and for example become an advocate for women in the priesthood, etc., but you still have to be obedient to the Church to be obedient to Christ. I think there’s plenty of wisdom in that. Not to mention that it is plainly taught in scripture.

I hope and pray that scripture will continue to have primacy in my life, in the attempt to keep Christ and the gospel central. And part of that ought to be a complete identification with and participation in the church.

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