human standing beside crucifix statue on mountain

The Ideal is the goal as we live in the Real.

As a people, the Church lives in an inherent Tension, the real and the ideal. How we navigate this is important.

As a Historian of the 19th Century Church I see two dominate ideas driving a lot of the debate and frustration. The first is the Realism of the Scottish Presbyterians, often called: “Common Sense Theology” and the second is the Idealism of the Mercersburg Theology. Realism; defined as: “the quality or fact of representing a person, thing or situation accurately or in a way that is true to life.” Lead to doctrines like “The spirituality of the Church” or the idea of the “Visible and Invisible Church.” Idealism is defined as: a diverse group of metaphysical view which all assert that “reality” is in some way indistinguishable or inseparable from human perception and or understanding.” This led to the Mercersburg Theologians definition of the Church as “visible and having organic unity by the Holy Spirit.”

Charles Hodge, the Princeton Theologian who wrote against Mercersburg had a hard time comprehending how the Mercersburg Theology could work in the real and the Philip Schaff and John Williamson Nevin had a hard time understanding how Hodge’s view worked in the ideal. So while Hodge mainstreamed and justified the various Church Splits that were happening in every major denomination through his definition of the Church. Schaff and Nevin wrote against sectarianism and schism and warned of the outcome of what were to happen if they were allowed to continue. Schaff believed that these sects could not last and would either die off or “return to the main body of the Church.” Hodge believed such splits were necessary to “preserve the Gospel.”

We have what some people believe to be an incorrect reading of Augustine to thank for the realist position. The story goes that Augustine looked around at church after Constantine and saw that sinners and saints alike sat in the pews. So he posited a view rooted more in his Manichean philosophy than the Holy Scriptures. Picturing the Church as being made up of both saints and sinners and that this was the unreal church living here on Earth while the real church was existed in heaven. The unreal church was visible and imperfect, the real church was perfect and unstained by the world. Hodge uses this argument in his posthumans work “On Polity’ as a justification for Church Splits. If the Church is unreal here but real in heaven, if it splits here, it does not split in heaven. Hodge leaned heavily on Revelation and the Epistles for scriptural support for this view.

Meanwhile, Schaff and Nevin looked at John 17, Jesus high priestly prayer and said that: “If Jesus is one with the father and Jesus prays that the Church might be one like He and the Father are one, then the Church should strive to be one in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.” This striving for the ideal was to be the goal of the Christian Life, but not simply the ideal, but the ideal that is Christ and our life in Him. In fact, as believers, since Paul tells us to become like Christ, the entire goal of our life should be to become like Christ in word and deed for the glory of Christ and that includes life in the Church. If the: “whole body is built up into the head, into Christ” then we must be striving to “put off the old self…and put on the new) (Eph 4:15, 20). The reality that we are sinful and broken should lead us to Christ and our lives should be spent being: “conformed to the image of Christ” (Rom 8:29).

As with many debates in the 19th century, it seems that the two sides took two positions that seemed at odds and faced off on either side of the coin, instead of allowing tension, they created competing views of what the Church was and how to solve its problems. The reality is, the Church is a people living on earth which is made up of redeemed sinners we call saints and unredeemed sinners. It is full of people who never grow beyond a shallow understanding of the faith and are still: “tossed to and fro by every vain doctrine” (Eph 4:13). But even though this is the case, we are called to move beyond that into the fullness of Christ Jesus. Pastors are given to Disciple and guide people into a fuller and deeper relationship with Jesus. Evangelists are given to reach new people with the message of Jesus through their words and lives. Prophets are given to call the Church back to the life of scripture and so on and so forth. The Holy Spirit gives us knowledge and wisdom to deal with everyday situations and problems that arise. He is also the one which creates this ideal unity and we grieve him when we ignore or shun it. When we divide Christ, as Paul argues we ought not do in 1 Corinthaians 1-3.

Again, there is a tension here, it is uncomfortable. It also means that we have to lay down our individualism, including our individual interpretations of Scripture, for the sake of the wisdom of the entire council of the Church and of Scripture. Church History then is a useful tool, it helps us see, for instance, that 1 Timothy 2:10-15 was not applied the way it is today until the 9th-11th century. Historical Theology is a useful tool for helping us understand how we should interpret scriptures in light of events in history. Since history is cyclical, similar contexts arise to the first century Churches. This reality prompted Dr. Jim Singleton of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary to say that: “We have not seen a time so close to the first century in the West as we are starting to see today.” His goal then was to instruct us how to live and teach in a society that is growing increasingly hostile to Christianity and where the terms of Christianity, such as Trinity, Christology, ect, are not known. As the place around us became increasingly “Pre-Christian” we were aware that tension was to be part of our lives, the old debates were debates of convivence, now we had better get it right in word or deed or we would have no credibility with the dying world around us. Like it or not, this is quickly becoming true as true in the Midwest and South. But have faith, the Church has been here before.

We have to live in this tension between the real and the unreal if the Church is to be: “a pillar and buttress of the faith” (1 Tim 3:15). Going too far to the realism side will cause to be too earthly minded we are no heavenly good or being too heavenly minded we are no earthly good. That is, we either focus too much on the state of the sinful church in our days and fail to strive for the ideal or we focus too much on the “invisible” church and its perfection that we ignore those perishing around us. When we focus too much on idealism we can become legalistic and pharisaical, we end up too far on the law side of the law-grace spectrum. Or we go too far the other way and we embrace cheap grace in favor of peacekeeping rather than true unity in the Spirit. Or you end up with the perfectionism of second blessing theology.

The fact is that the Church is a people who live in a broken world, unified by the Holy Spirit that helps us and guides us into Christ as we strive for the ideal that is Christ in the very real conditions in which we live. We must exist in both the real and the ideal if we are to truly live faithfully, that is, in the real life we live we should strive for the ideal of Christ and the way we do that is by “putting on Christ” as if we were putting on a garment. By being transformed by Christ we will see His blessings follow us, but not until.

I say that last part because there is a drive within American Spirituality to attain Christ’s blessing apart from him. As Eugene Peterson points out: “We want God on our own terms, God with all the God taken out.” We think His blessings should just come because we claim His name, and we think they should come for things that are inherently anti-Christian. Since the Church belongs to Christ, is His bride, and Christ defines the Church and builds the Church. It stands to reason that we will not see the blessings of God trying to do things opposite the way and will of God. We will miss out on the truth and life that comes from a life with Christ.

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