The Discipline and Reform of the Church

Fr. Greg’s response to my diatribes has been there for a while, but with current exigencies here and some technical issues to resolve re this blog (when you’re self-hosted, you have to deal with these things) has delayed a response.

Some of the items he brings up–especially concerning the authority and nature of the church–we’ve actually discussed before, as you can see here.  There are two specific issues that I’d like to address, and those are the discipline and the reform of the church.  Much of the dialogue has centred around people who have been out of sorts with either Roman Catholicism or Russian Orthodoxy, and that represents my concerns, which have haunted me since I took my leave from the former.

Let me start with this:

Church discipline is exercised in order to bring someone to repentance and thereby, to eternal life, never to deprive anyone of eternal life. Remember that if the Eucharist is received unworthily, such reception, far from bringing the receiver closer to God, does just the opposite, subjects the one who so receives to Divine Judgement, and endangers their participation in eternal life (I Cor. 11:27-32). Also, in all the Apostolic Churches, all Church discipline ends at the time of death; the person in question is released into the hands of the ultimate judge, Jesus Christ himself. As further evidence of this, all priests are duty bound, in the case of danger of death, to administer the last sacraments to anyone, regardless of standing with the Church, at the least sign of repentance (construed in the most general of terms): all disciplinary bets are off (or, if the person is unconscious, the priest is to presume repentance and so to administer anointing and absolution). Further, the question of infallibility doesn’t real enter into questions of discipline per se. Thus, your numbered points are at best a caricature.

All other things being equal, this is true.  But they aren’t.  There are two reasons in particular why history shows that this isn’t always followed the way it should be.

The first is state involvement.  If the state decides that it has an interest in the suppression of heresy, pastoral considerations such as you outline above can go out the window.  That was all too evident with both the Old Believers and the Jansenists, to say nothing of the Christological controversies (now I know you’re in league with Peter the Fuller!)  That’s something that we don’t see as much of as we used to, but it still happens.

Of more interest in our own time is when the church decides to “keep up with the Joneses,” i.e. follow modern trends.  That was certainly the case with the Old Believers, and the Jansenists too.  The Jesuits wanted to present a faith that they felt was acceptable to the people of their time, and austere Jansenism was in the way of that.  So Port-Royal was razed.

I think it’s also worth noting that, with Roman Catholicism, its solicitousness to bring people back to orthodoxy can easily turn into an endurance match with the heretics, grinding them down rather than bringing them up.  That’s a legacy of the Inquisition, and Dostoevsky was right in attacking it.

One other thing: the issue of infallibility certainly does come up if the issue involves one of the doctrines which is claimed to be so promulgated.

In our time the worst practitioners of this kind of thing are those who Kendall Harmon refers to as the “reappraisers.”  We’ve seen this kind of thing in the “scorched earth” policies of the TEC.  Those on the left can be very brutal when dispatching their opponents, even if they do it in the name of preserving the “integrity” (double-entendre intended) of the church.

But that leads to my next point.  Let’s look at the following:

Further, while the Churches are always in need of practical reformation (not dogmatic reformation) to one extent or another, our primary task, as individual Christians, is not to reform the Churches, but to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, through the ministry of the Church, in the transformation of each of us as persons so that we conform to the image and likeness of Christ. The fundamental rule of thumb here is Matthew 23: “do what they say but not what they do.” The Christian path has long been laid down: it is simple, but no, it is not easy. So many would seek an easier softer way, and it is so much easier, and more gratifying to remove the speck from your eye than to remove the plank from my own. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony here.)

There are actually two issues here, related but not identical.

The first is the reform of the church.  Tied to that, however, is the mission of the church.  Each and every Christian is obligated by Jesus Christ to be a part of the mission of the church.   The successful implementation of that depends in large part on the opportunity level of the church which the individual believer faces.  If that church is relatively inert, if that inertia is buttressed by institutionalism, if that institutionalism encourages a low level of participation, then the believer isn’t going to be what God intended for him or her to be.  My main experience here is with Roman Catholicism, but it isn’t restricted to that church.  The whole Wesleyan secession could have been avoided if the Church of England, lead by its Governor, had properly released the enthusiasm which Wesley and his friends had exhibited.  Institutionalism isn’t restricted to a church which considers itself a formal mediator between man and God, but a church which has that high a view of itself is more prone to justify itself on institutional grounds than one that doesn’t.  Many moves towards reform are tied to people who wish to see the fulfilment of their own divine purpose on earth, and don’t see the opportunities to do so at hand.

It’s certainly possible for one to live a good and holy life without reaching out and working to reform the church around them.  That’s one reason why I caution Evangelicals about being so quick to judge people in Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox churches not having a proper relationship with God.  But it isn’t the “whole deal” either.

There’s one more minor point I’d like to make, about this:

Don, what you have written concerning the end of sacrifice assumes that the foundational purpose of sacrifice is dealing with sin.

The forgiveness of sin is a necessary part of sacrifice, but it certainly is not the entire purpose.  Part of the problem with discussing anything with me is that my theology can be composite.  I’ve made it clear that I do not think that salvation solely consists of having one’s name written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.  It also consists of the indwelling of Jesus Christ in us.  That’s an inheritance from my years as a Roman Catholic.

One thought on “The Discipline and Reform of the Church”

  1. Don, my response to this can wait until after Christmas. For now, I will simply wish you, yours, and all who read this a most blessed celebration of the birth of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.

    Christ is born! Glorify Him!

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