Church in Winter

The Church


(This is taken from Henry Sloane Coffin’s Some Christian Convictions, originally published in 1915)

No man’s spiritual life starts with himself; there is no Melchizedek soul—without father or mother. As our bodies are born of the bodies of others, as our minds are formed from the mental heritage of the race, our faith is the offspring of the faith of others; and we owe a filial debt to the Christian society from which we derive our life with God.

Nor is any man’s spiritual experience self-sustaining. Our mental vitality diminishes if we do not keep in touch with thinking people; and brilliant men often lose their lustre for want of intellectual companionship. “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” A Christian’s religious experience requires fellowship for its enrichment, and no large soul was ever grown or maintained in isolation. We are enlarged by sharing the wealthier spiritual life of the whole believing community.

Nor can a religious man contribute his spiritual endowment to the world without joining with kindred souls in an organized effort. Edward Rowland Sill, speaking of his spiritual isolation, wrote to a friend: “For my part I long to ‘fall in’ with somebody. This picket duty is monotonous. I hanker after a shoulder on this side and the other.” The intellectual life of the community organizes itself in schools and colleges, in newspapers and publishing-houses and campaigns of lectures. A learned man may do something by himself for his children or his friends; but he can do incomparably more for a larger public if he is associated with other learned men in a faculty, assisted by the publications of the press, and receives pupils already prepared by other teachers to appreciate his particular contribution. An earnest believer can accomplish something by himself for the immediate circle of lives about him; but he is immeasurably more influential when he invests his inspired personality in the Church, where he finds his efforts for the Kingdom supplemented by the work of countless fellow toilers, where the missionary enterprise bears the impetus of his consecration to thousands he can never see face to face, and where a lasting institution carries on his life-work and conserves its results long after he has passed from earth.

The Christian is dependent upon the Church for his birth, his growth, his usefulness; and this Christian community, or Church, like the intellectual community, instinctively organizes itself to spread its life. There is an unorganized Church, in the sense of the spiritual community, which shares the life of Christ with God and man, as there is an unorganized intellectual community of more or less educated persons who possess the mental acquisitions of the race. But this intellectual community would lose its vitality without its educational agencies; and the spiritual community would all but die were it not for its institutions. The spiritual community is the Church; it is organized in the churches.

As Christians we look back to discover Jesus’ conception of the Church. We find it implicit in His life rather than explicit in His teaching. He was born into the Jewish Church which in His day was organized with its Temple and priesthood at Jerusalem, with its Sanhedrin settling its law and doctrine, with its synagogues with their worship and instruction in every town and a ministry of trained scribes, and with a wider missionary undertaking that was spreading the Jewish faith through the Roman world. It was a community with its sectarian divisions of Sadducees, Pharisees and the like, but unified by a common devotion to the one God of Israel and His law. Jesus’ personal faith was born of this Church, grew and kept vigorous by continuous contact with it, and sought to work through its organization, for He taught in the synagogues and the Temple.

Jesus does not seem to have been primarily interested either in the constitution, or the worship, or the doctrine of the Jewish Church. He criticised the spirit of its leaders, but did not discuss their official positions. He must have felt that much of the Temple ritual was obsolete, and that many parts of the synagogue services were crude and dull, but He entered into their worship that He might share with fellow believers His expression of trust in His and their God. He did not invent a new theology, but used the old terms to voice His fuller life with God. He was primarily interested in the religious experience that lay back of government, worship and creed; and gave Himself to develop it, apparently trusting a vigorous life with God to find forms of its own. So He never broke formally with the Jewish Church; and even after it had crucified their Master, His disciples are found worshipping in its Temple, keeping its festivals, and observing its law.

But within this Church Jesus had gathered a group about Himself, to whom He imparted His faith and purpose, and into whom He breathed His Spirit. He taught them to think of themselves as salt and light to season and illumine the community about them. As leaders, He bade them become like Himself servants of all. One was their Master, they all were brethren. Soon they developed a corporate feeling that separated them from their fellow Jews, a corporate feeling Jesus had to rebuke because of its exclusiveness: “Master, we saw one casting out demons in Thy name; and we forbade him because he followed not us. But Jesus said, Forbid him not, for he that is not against us is for us.” On the eve of His death He kept a Supper with them, which pictured to them His sustaining fellowship with them and their comradeship with one another in Him. And He left them with the consciousness that they were to carry forward His work, were possessed of His inspiring Spirit and had His presence with them always. Not by Jesus’ prescribed plans, but by His spiritual prompting the Church came to be. “Like some tall palm the noiseless fabric sprang.”

It was not, then, organization, or ritual, or creed, that made the Christian Church, but oneness of purpose with Christ. In the picture of its earliest days we see it maintaining Jesus’ intercourse with God by prayer; continuing to learn of Him through those who had been closest to Him; breaking the bread of fellowship with Him and one another; expressing that fellowship in a mutually helpful community life; and all of its members trying to bear witness to others of the supreme worth of Jesus. We get at what they think of themselves by the names they use: they are “disciples,” pupils of the Divine Teacher; “believers,” trusting His God; “brethren,” embodying His spirit toward each other; “saints,” men and women set apart to the one purpose of forwarding the Kingdom; “of the Way,” with a distinctive mode of life in the unseen and the seen, following Jesus, the Way. They called themselves the Ecclesia—the called out for God’s service; the Household of Faith—insiders in God’s family, sharers of His plans; the Temple of God—those in whose life with each other and the world God’s Spirit can be seen and felt; the Body of Christ—the organism alive with His faith and hope and love, through which He still works in the earth; the Israel of God, the holy nation continuing the spiritual life and mission of God’s people of old—no new Church but the reformed and reborn Church of God.

The main point for them was that in this new community the Spirit of God was alive and at work, producing in its members Christlike characters and equipping them for Christlike usefulness. A body without life is a corpse; and the Church fairly throbbed with vitality. It naturally organ ized itself for work, but in organizing it was not conscious of conforming to some fixed plan already laid down, but of allowing the Spirit freely to lead from day to day. Christians found among themselves specially gifted men—apostles (of whom there were many beside the Twelve), with talents for leadership and missionary enterprise—prophets, teachers; and they instinctively held these men highly in love for their works’ sake. One thinks of a figure like Paul, who claimed no human appointment or ordination, but whose divine authority was recognized by those who owed their spiritual lives to him. And beside this informal leadership of gifted individuals, a more formal chosen leadership came into existence. God’s Spirit used the materials at hand; and Christians in various parts of the Roman world had been accustomed to different types of organization in their respective localities, and these types suggested similar offices in the Church. Some had been accustomed to the town government of a Palestinian village by seven village elders; and this may have suggested “the Seven” chosen in Jerusalem to care for the poor. Some were brought up with the Oriental idea of succession through the next oldest brother, and this may account for the position of eminence held by James, “the brother of the Lord.” Some in Gentile cities had been members of artisan societies, guilds with benefits in case of sickness or death, not unlike lodges among ourselves; and many hints, and perhaps offices (the overseer or bishop, for instance) were taken from them. Some had been familiar with the Roman relationship of patron and client, and when the little groups of converts were gathered together in a wealthier Christian’s house, he would be given something of the position of the Roman patronus. Still others had been trained in the synagogue, either as Jews or as proselytes, and would naturally follow its organization in their Christian synagogues. There seems to have been variety of form, and along with this variety a felt and expressed unity, with freest intercommunion and hearty coöperation for the evangelization of the world. Throughout there was democracy, so that even a leader so conscious of divine authority as Paul appeals to the rank and file, “I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say.”

In worship, the Church from its early days had the two fixed rites of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; but beside them were most informal meetings for mutual inspiration. “What is it then, brethren: When ye come together, each one hath a psalm, hath a teaching, hath a revelation, hath a tongue, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.” Here was room for variety to suit the needs of many temperaments.

And in doctrine there is a similar freedom. One can see in all the Christian speakers and writers in the New Testament an underlying unity in great convictions:—the God and Father of Jesus Christ is their one God; Jesus is their one Lord; they are possessed and controlled by the one Spirit of love; they are confident in a victorious hope; they draw inspiration from the historic facts of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. But they interpret their inspirations in forms that fit in with their mental habits. The fisherman Peter does not think with the mind of the theologically trained Paul, nor does the unspeculative James phrase his beliefs in terms identical with those of the writer to the Hebrews.

Jesus left His Spirit in a group of men; that group gradually was forced out of the national Jewish Church, and became the Church of Christ, dominated by His living Spirit and organizing itself for work, worship and teaching, out of the materials at hand among the peoples where it spread.

We have taken this brief retrospect over the origin of the Church not because it is important for us to discover the precise forms the Church took at the start and reproduce them. It is nowhere hinted in the New Testament that the leaders of these little communities are laying down methods to be followed for all time. Indeed, they had no such thought, for they expected Jesus to return in their lifetime and set up His Kingdom; and they gave scant attention to forms of organization and doctrine that would last but a few years. Nor is it reasonable to suppose that forms which were suited to little groups of people meeting in somebody’s house, waiting for their Lord’s return, will answer for great bodies of Christians organizing themselves to Christianize the world. No institution can remain changeless in a changing world. “The one immutable factor in institutions,” writes Professor Pollard, “is their infinite mutability.” Almost all the divisive factors in Christendom are taken out of the past, by those who claim that a certain polity or creed or practice is that authoritatively prescribed for all time, by Christ Himself, or by His Spirit through His personally appointed apostles. The chief question for the Church to decide, when it considers its organization, is—What must we carry on from the past, and what can we profitably leave behind?

The Church of Christ has always been and is one undivided living organism, composed of those who are so vitally joined to Jesus Christ that they share His life with God and men. Our bodies are continually changing in their constituent elements, but remain the same bodies; the spirit of life assimilates and builds into its living structure that which enters the body. The Church of Christ in the world is constantly changing its components as the generations come and go; each new generation is in some respects unlike its predecessor in thought, in usage, in feeling; but the continuity of the Spirit maintains the identity of the Body of Christ. We must carry forward the Spirit of Christ, and keep unbroken the apostolic succession of spiritual men and women, all of whom are divinely appointed priests unto God. We must realize that, as members in the Body of Christ, each of us must fulfil some function for the Kingdom, or we are not living members, but paralyzed or atrophied. There is a continuity of life in the Church that cannot be interrupted; we must inherit this life from the past, and we must pass it on to those who come after us. Just as the first Christians felt themselves the Israel of God, so today we are conscious of being the heirs of patriarchs and prophets, apostles and martyrs, churchmen and scholars and missionaries, leaders of spiritual awakenings like Francis of Assisi, Luther and Wesley, theologians like Clement, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, and of countless humble and devoted believers who have been ruled by the Spirit of the Master. They have bequeathed to us a solemn trust; they have enriched us with a priceless heritage; they have transmitted to us their life with Christ in God. The Church comes to us saying:

I am like a stream that flows,
Full of the cold springs that arose
In morning lands, in distant hills;
And down the plain my channel fills,
With melting of forgotten snows.

But the historic succession of Christians through the centuries is not our sole connection with Christ; we not only look back to Him, we also look up and look in to Him, for He lives above and in us. The Church is not a widow, but a bride; and shares its Lord’s life in the world today. The same Spirit who lived and ruled in the Church of the first days has been breathed on us, through the long line of apostolic-spirited men and women who reach back to Jesus, and lives and rules in us. We must keep the unity of the Spirit with the believers of the past, and with all who are Spirit-led in the world today; and we must remember that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.” We are not bound by the precedents of bygone centuries in our organization; we are free to take from the past what is of worth to us, and we are free to let the rest go. Is not the Spirit of God as able to take materials at hand in our own age, and to use them for the government, the worship, the creed, the methods of the living Church of Christ?

We cannot, of course, be content with an unrealized unity of the Church. Every little group of Christians, in the first age, felt itself the embodiment in its locality of the whole Church, and it was at one in effort with followers of Jesus everywhere. It exercised hospitality towards every Christian who came within its neighborhood, welcoming him to its fellowship and expecting him to use his gifts in its communion. We want the whole Body of Christ organized, so that it is vividly conscious of its unity, so that it does not waste its energy in maintaining needlessly separate churches, so that followers of Christ feel themselves welcome at every Table of the Lord, and every gifted leader, accredited in any part of the Church, is accepted as accredited in every other where he can be profitably used. The practical problem in Church reorganization is identical with that which confronts society in politics and in industry—how to secure efficient administration while safeguarding liberty, how to combine the solidarity of the group with the full expression of its members’ individualities. To be effective the Church must work as a compactly ordered whole. Individuals must surrender personal preferences in order that the Church may have collective force. Teamwork often demands the suppression of individuality. There will have to be sufficient authority lodged in those who exercise oversight to enable them to lead the Christian forces and administer their resources. But we dare not curtail the freedom of conscience, or impede liberty of prophesying, or turn flexibility of organization into rigidity, lest we hamper the Spirit, who divideth to every man severally even as He will. We do not want “metallic beliefs and regimental devotions,” but the personal convictions of thinking sons and daughters of the living God, the spontaneous and congenial fellowship of children with their Father in heaven, and methods sufficiently flexible to be adaptable to all needs. We look for an organization of the Church of Christ that shall exclude no one who shares His Spirit, and that shall pro vide an outlet for every gift the Spirit bestows, that shall bind all followers of Christ together in effort for the one purpose—the Kingdom of God—enabling them to feel their corporate oneness, and that shall give them liberty to think, to worship, to labor, as they are led by the Spirit of God.

Meanwhile there are some immediate personal obligations which rest upon us. We cannot be factors in the organized Church of Christ, save as we are members of one of the existing churches. A Christian should enroll himself either in that communion in which he was born and to which he owes his spiritual vitality, or else in that with which he finds he can work most helpfully. A Christian who is not a Church member is like a citizen who is not a voter—he is shirking his responsibility.

We must free our minds from prejudice against those whose ways of stating their beliefs, whose modes of worship, whose methods of working, differ from our own. We are not to argue with them which of us is nearer the customs of the New Testament; that is not to the point. Wherever we see the Spirit of Christ, there we are to recog nize fellow churchmen in the one Church of God. We do not wish uniformity, but variety in unity; for only a Church with a most varied ministry can bring the life of God to the endlessly diverse temperaments of men and women. We are not seeking for the maximum common denominator, and insisting that every communion shall give up all its distinctive doctrines, ritual, customs and activities. We do not want any communion to be “unclothed,” but “clothed upon,” that what is partial may be swallowed up of fuller life. Dogmatists, be they radicals or conservatives, who insist on a particular interpretation of Christianity, ecclesiastics who arrogantly consider their “orders” superior to those of other servants of Christ as spiritually gifted and as publicly accredited, sectarians so satisfied with the life of their particular segment of the Church that they do not covet a wider enriching fellowship, and churchmen whose conception of the task of the Church is so petty that they fail to feel the imperative necessity of articulating all its forces in one harmoniously functioning organization, are the chief postponers of the effective unity of the Body of Christ.

We have to consider the particular communion to which we ourselves belong, and ask whether there are any barriers in it that exclude from its membership or from its working force those who possess the Spirit of Christ, and so are divinely called into the Church and divinely endowed for service. We must make our own communion as inclusive as we believe the Church to be, or we are not attempting to organize the Church of Christ, but to create some exclusive club or sect of Christians of a particular variety.

We must study sympathetically the ways of other communions, and be prepared to borrow freely from them whatever approves itself as inspiring to Christian character and work. A Presbyterian will often refuse to avail himself of the great historic prayers, simply because he thinks he would be copying Lutherans or Episcopalians, forgetting that he is heir of the whole inheritance of the Church, and that his own direct ecclesiastical forbears freely used a liturgy, and even composed some of the most beautiful parts of the Book of Common Prayer; and an Episcopalian will not cultivate the gift of expressing himself in prayer in words of his own because this is the practice of other communions. As every communion employs in its hymnal the compositions of men and women who in life were members of almost every branch of the Church of Christ, so each should as freely use methods of propaganda, or worship, or education, that have been found valuable in any communion. The more freely we borrow from one another, the more highly we shall prize one another, and the more completely we share the same life, the more quickly will our corporate oneness be felt.

We must set our faces against allowing congregations to embrace but one social class, or several easily combined social strata in the community. In our American towns the Protestant communions are separated more by social caste than by religious conviction. People attend the church where they find “their kind.” Poor people do not feel themselves at home, even spiritually, among the well-to-do, and the children of comfortable homes are not permitted to go to the same Sunday School with the children of the tenements. Class lines are as apparent, and almost as divisive, in our churches as anywhere else. The Church of Christ under such circumstances ceases to be a unifying factor in society; its teaching of brotherhood becomes a mockery. In every community there will be found some entirely unchurched social group; and the churches themselves will be impoverished by the absence of the spiritual appreciations to be found most developed in persons of that stratum. Our denominational divisions tend to accentuate our social divisions. Church unity, lessening the number of congregations in a locality, would help to make the churches that remained more socially inclusive. Meanwhile the “one class church,” in any but the very rare homogeneous community, ought to realize that, whatever Christian service it may render, it is all the while doing the cause of Christ a great disservice, and is in need of a radical reorganization and an equally radical spiritual renewal into its Lord’s wider sympathies.

Personally we must rigidly examine ourselves and test our right to be considered members of the Body of Christ. There are some New Testament evidences of the Spirit that we must still demand of ourselves. One is loyal obedience to Jesus: “No man can say, Jesus is Lord, but in the Holy Spirit.” A second is filial trust in God: “Because ye are sons, God sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” A third is self-devoting love akin to that shown on Calvary: “The fruit of the Spirit is love;” “By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another.” And if the Spirit is within us, He is eager to work through us. We may be quenching Him by laziness, by timidity, by preoccupation. We are of the Body of Christ only as we are “members each in his part.”

Above all we must constantly remind ourselves of the Church’s adequacy in God for its work. When we speak of the Church we are apt to think first of its limitations; when Paul spoke of the Church its divine resources were uppermost in his mind—”the Church which is His Body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.” Perhaps the Church’s greatest weakness is unbelief in its own divine sufficiency. We confront the indifference, the worldliness, the wickedness of men; we face an earth hideous with war and hateful with selfishness. We think of the Church’s often absurdly needless divisions, the backwardness of its thought, the coldness of its devotion, the inefficiency of many of its methods, the want of consecration in a host of its members, the imperfections and limitations of the best and most earnest of them; and we do not really expect any marked advance; we hardly anticipate that the Church will hold its own. Would not our Lord chide us, “O ye of little faith! all power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth, go ye therefore and make disciples of all nations”? “There are diversities of workings, but the same God who worketh all in all.”

The Church exists to make the world the Kingdom of God. In the holy city of John’s vision there is no temple, for its whole life is radiant with the presence of God and of the Lamb. In the final order there will be no Church, for its task is finished when God is all in all. Meanwhile the Church has no excuse for being except as it continually renders itself less and less necessary. It has to lose itself in sacrificial service in order to save itself. It must never ask itself, “Will the community support me?” but “Can I inspire the community?” As it seeks to do God’s will, it can count on Him for daily bread; a more luxurious diet would not be wholesome for its spiritual life. It exists only to spend and be spent in bringing the children of God everywhere one by one under the sway of His love and presenting them perfect in Christ, and in putting His Spirit in control of homes, industry, amusements, education, government, and the whole life of human society, until we live in “realms where the air we breathe is love”

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