Networking is great. But it is not the unity of the church.
Networking is not the same as the millenia old belief that there is but one true holy and catholic church.
I am all for pastors in locales meeting with like minded men, for fellowship and care and encouragement. But that is not what the apostles creed means.
So why am I writing about this?
Well, for reasons beyond my control, I have spent entirely more hours in the last year thinking about polity than I have the previous 30. My reading has firmed up my convictions in many ways. It has also introduced me to doctrinal reflections that were previously unknown to me.
One of those is the doctrine of the one true church.
I have to admit, as soon as I hear such a term, my “reformation marks of the true church” DNA reacts and makes me itch. It sounds so, so, so . . . Catholic.
But the doctrine of the one true church was not made up. It is not a fabrication of men. It is the root of the doctrine of the church particular.
And the oneness of the church, across the landscape of local churches, is worthy of attention.
Granted, the history of this truth is checkered. The rise of the monarchial bishop (for non theologians think of that as the super pastor over other pastors), and the loss of the priesthood of the believer were sad developments. They were wrong efforts made to preserve the truth which is the foundation of the one true church. But that is 20-20 hindsight.
I had missed this doctrine. And when I had heard it, I had dismissed this doctrine. Here is what surprised me. It is not just the Roman church that speaks of this doctrine. It is sound and deep Reformed thinkers who do so.
Bavinck is one example: It (the church) is an organism in which the whole exists prior to the parts; its unity precedes the plurality of local churches, and rests in Christ. (Reformed Dogmatics, inveniate ipsum cum labore, which is latin for “find it on your own time.”)
What I find is that if we go back to read, even a few of the great theological thinkers of the church, we will find our small world’s broadened and our practices challenged.
So, back to the first sentence. I look across the landscape of modern church life in my city and find lots of new churches with names that tell me next to nothing, and lots of established churches with names that mean little anymore. I see associations and networks as expressions of the larger unity of the church. And I see lots of churches toughing it out on their own
But I wonder, if you stepped into one of these many new or established churches, would you hear or overhear any sense of being part of a whole?
Granted, there are exceptions. Within the Protestant world, presbyterian polity gives significant honor to this. So does episcopal polity in its various expressions. But it seems to me that, outside of those contexts, the networking of pastors is where we go and it is not the same as a fraternity of pastors working as part of the one true church.
How can we express this?
Well, we could try to restore the early church in the hope that that would change it all. But that is both idealistic (who wants more perfect first century churches like Corinth?) and unnecessary (we have the Word of Christ by the Apostles and that is the faith that was once for all given to the saints and the foundation of the true church).
Locally, we are seeking to be engaged in a true partnership with a daughter church, as one expression of this. We are trying to figure out what that looks like with two equal and independent churches, with no higher office than that of elder. It is exciting to say the least.
There are simpler ways we can simply recognize and honor other churches nearby, as planted by Christ, and not as competitors. Here is one example. A friend of mine makes sure that every week he leads the congregation in prayer for nearby evangelical churches. He says it expresses a conviction that they are part of a whole, and reminds his people again and again of something invisible and more real than they can imagine — the one true, holy, universal church, composed of all believers of all time.