What Defines a Church: A Response to Arch Van Devender
In recent weeks, while I didn't have time for writing much in my own blog, I have been involved in commenting on a couple other blogs. One of the discussions that came up over at Theologica was regarding how we can know a "true church" from (I presume) a false one.
To bring my three readers up to speed, the topic came up when Mike Russell posted an article entitled "To be a church or not to be a church; That is the question". The response that followed was:
- Arch Van Devender posted an initial response, claiming Mike was quite wrong in his use of "love" as the criteria.
- Less than an hour later, David Wayne also entered his response, which also claimed Mike was wrong and identified love as an insufficient criteria, based on our modern sense of love being a "warm and fuzzy" subjective feeling.
- I joined in the comments on all three posts, but Arch apparently decided my comments were worth dealing with more in depth, so...
- In two different entries last week (Part I and Part II), Arch took the time to address my comments specifically and to further defend his position.
I finally have had a chance to sit down and more thoroughly digest what Arch has written, and am taking the time to formulate a more thorough response here on my own blog to contribute more to the conversation.
In reading, I am struck by a few thoughts that perhaps Arch (or any of the three readers here!) may want to help me with:
- I'm still having trouble understanding why, when Jesus pointed out love as the identifying characteristic, Arch is trying to explain that it's not a good standard to use. He explains that there can be "loving actions" without "love" and that love is something that will not automatically be present in a Christian. Based on Arch's presupposition ("loving acts" can exist without love), I understand the logical progression of his arguments, but I don't agree with the presupposition. The presupposition that one can have "loving actions" without love seems flawed to me. I think that's the entire point of 1 Corinthians 13. There is no such thing as a "loving action" minus the love. There are actions which would have great merit if accompanied by love, but which mean nothing without the love. Actions cannot be defined as "loving" unless accompanied by love.
- I don't feel like Arch adequately defended the three particular criteria he presented (right preaching, right use of the sacraments, right discipline) as being the three that are necessary for measuring a body of believers. While it is definitely true that Christ commanded us to celebrate communion and to baptize believers, and while it is true that Paul was instructing Timothy to preach the Word, and while it is true that Paul corrected the Corinthians (or at least attempted to!) on their lack of discipline, it still remains that these three things are not given as "criteria" any more than any other command in Scripture, such as "bear one another's burdens" (which is the passage that mentions fulfilling the law of Christ).
- The idea that these things can be present without love and yet measure a "true church" seems very shaky to me. Again, 1 Cor 13 seems very clear on this that if you don't have love, you can be doing all these things, and it counts for nothing. As I pointed out in an earlier comment in the same subject, the whole discussion about defining a "true church" came about in reference to the mention of losing a lampstand in Revelation. The reason Jesus gave for losing the lampstand was that they had lost their first love. He doesn't say that they stopped preaching, observing sacraments, or disciplining. Is it possible that's what He meant? Yes, it's possible. But without any clearer explanation, we must tread carefully on putting that requirement in there.
- I found it very interesting that in a similar manner to the way Arch explains away Jesus' own use of "love" as the criteria for identifying disciples, he explains away love being "the greatest of these" and instead emphasizes faith. The more clear explanation in Scripture, I believe, is that faith will result in love. Love is the goal as Arch said, yes. But to imply that it's somehow "optional" in defining a church doesn't make sense to me.
Let me make one thing clear: I do not believe that love can be demonstrated in any way other than actions. In the words of those great theologians DC Talk (hehe), "Luv is a verb". That's why Jesus said, "Greater love has no man than this: That he lay down his life for his friends." But again, why the emphasis on love in Scripture, if not to say that it is the defining characteristic? We can preach 'til we're blue in the face. We can celebrate communion seven days a week. We can baptize thousands of converts. We can discipline people right and left and make sure sin isn't in the ranks. But if we have love, nothing else matters. Those deeds will do nothing for our standing before God.
Jesus said that in the end, people will recount all they did for Him, and He will say, "Depart from me, I never knew you" because they did not do the very things that showed they loved Him. In other words, they didn't love Him!
Arch, you're very easy to read, so I commend you for your writing style and presentation. But with all due respect (to paraphrase your response to Mike Russell), it's not your style that needs adjusting. It's your content. ;) (I do mean that in a teasing way)
Let's not try to explain away what the Scripture actually says in order to make something seem to be more "objective". There's a good reason why God chose to emphasize love above all else, and I think we needn't (and shouldn't) put that aside.
Until next time,