Last year I wrote a post entitled Spiritual reductionism, about a view of reality in which the only things that ultimately matter are God and human souls. I think this spiritual reductionism has a very powerful influence among Christians.
Today I want to ask, If we adopt this spiritual reductionism, then what happens to our understanding of the church? Let me describe what I think happens when this view is taken consistently. (Fortunately, people are not always consistent!)
- The universal church becomes invisible. It no longer matters whether or not there is an identifiable group of people living out God’s new creation life on the earth. Our bodies don’t matter, and the earth doesn’t matter. The only things that matter are God and human souls, and these things are invisible and spiritual. So the universal church is thought of in entirely invisible and spiritual terms. Membership of the universal church is entirely invisible, personal and spiritual. If you are a member of the universal church, you can personally be confident of that. But it is impossible to really know someone else’s heart. So it is impossible to know whether or not someone else belongs to the universal church.
- The local church becomes disconnected from the universal church. The universal church on earth is not visible, so “the local church” (as it is called), being a visible institution, is in no sense part of the universal church. It is a category mistake to ask whether a local church is part of the universal church. They are different kinds of things.
- The local church becomes pragmatic. The local church now exists simply to facilitate the growth of believers in their spiritual relationship with God and with each other. A local church is a local community that provides heart-felt worship, good teaching and mutual encouragement so that Christians can grow in their faith. Any connections between local churches exist only to support that goal. For example, they might pool resources, support each other, and plant new local churches. There is no longer any sense that God’s ultimate purpose is to have a visible and global community of his disciples on the earth. Local churches are a means to an end, not part of the end in themselves.
- The local church becomes a community of people who may or may not be in the universal church. Since there is no way of knowing for sure whether or not someone is a member of the universal church, it is not possible to structure local church life around the assumption that a certain group of people belong to the universal church and other people do not. (Or, if you do so, it becomes a very select and inward-looking group.) So local churches are ordered such that it is possible to participate in most areas of the life of the local church without giving decisive evidence of belonging to the universal church. And there is no problem with this: if the local church is a pragmatic tool, serving the goal of growing disciples, it will tend to appeal to people who belong to the universal church anyway, and unbelievers may well be drawn to membership of the universal church through their active participation in the life of the local church.
- The beliefs of the local church become the beliefs of the church leaders only. The local church, being a mixed community, cannot profess a shared faith. But the teaching of the local church must be the kind of teaching that helps individual believers to grow. So it is important that the leaders in the local church profess to believe the essentials of the Christian faith (articulated however the local church chooses). This is partly so that individual believers can exercise discernment when they join a local church, and so that local churches can partner together, particularly through joint events and church-planting initiatives.
- The local church ceases to be a professing community. Only the leaders profess to believe what “the church believes”. The rest of the people in the local church may or may not believe what the leaders profess to believe, and it would not be a good idea to put pressure on them to make false professions of faith. So it is no longer seen as important for local churches to express their beliefs corporately by reciting creedal statements. And, pragmatically speaking, very few people find that reciting creeds helps them in their personal, spiritual relationship with God, so it is no great loss if they are no longer used.
- Baptism ceases to have any connection with local church membership. Baptism becomes a profession made by the individual believer that they are confident that they belong to the universal church. It is no longer a visible sign that the person belongs to the universal church, because the universal church is entirely invisible, and it certainly doesn’t, in any sense, make someone part of the church! The local church has a separate thing called “membership”, which is, to be honest, largely a formality about voting in church business meetings. The two are entirely disconnected. Baptism doesn’t make you a member of the local church, and not being baptised doesn’t disqualify you from membership of the local church.
- The Lord’s Supper ceases to have any corporate role. The Lord’s Supper (along with everything in the life of the local church) is about supporting our spiritual relationship with God. It no longer has a role in forming and marking out a visible community of God’s people on earth. Anyone can partake, if they would like to, whether or not they have been baptised and whether or not they are a member of a local church, and there is little sense that if you take the Lord’s Supper and I take the Lord’s Supper, then we are expressing any kind of solidarity with each other (unless I know you personally and have some confidence that you belong to the universal church). It is no more a corporate act than eating in a crowded restaurant is a corporate act.
Now, I’ve deliberately taken this to an extreme, but does it sound familiar?
Is spiritual reductionism causing us to miss out on God’s purposes for the church on earth?
(Further reading: The Body of Christ is the Body of Christ, by Peter Leithart.)