Ecclesiology with godfather
Brad: It’s time for me to have a discussion on ecclesiology (the theology of church or ecclesia) with my Eastern Orthodox godfather, David Goa.
Though I’ve attended churches since birth and spent 20 years as a full-time clergyman (and now a tonsured Reader in the EO Church), ecclesiology is probably the weakest area of my theology. This partly stems from straddling my appreciation of the so-called ‘institutional church’ [hereafter contracted to IC] vis-a-vis my call to minister (via PTM.org) to the ‘nones and dones’ (generally post-Evangelicals). These folks general still love Christ, but for a variety of reasons (from irrelevance to spiritual abuse) have no intention of returning to congregational participation. It leaves me asking, what is church?
David: While your focus has primarily been outreach to the Evangelical world (and those who’ve left it), I more often rub shoulders with clergy on the modern liberal side.
In both cases, two levels of ecclesiology are intertwined. First, regarding those in ministry, what is our calling? What constitutes ministry? And second, what constitutes the church?
Brad: Alright, let’s take those in order. Tell me about the call to ministry.
What constitutes the ministry?
David: What I have found that those who spend any length of time in the register of justice tend to become spiritual anorexics, burnt out and cynical.
If you’re raised in the dominant justice register, your task is social criticism, usually leveled congregation. And so, the congregation gets pissed off or they become convinced, and in either case, they leave and the church withers.
The best and brightest of them can’t sleep in sheets of 220 threads, if you know what I mean. In the place of privilege, they’re exhausted. I say to them, “Your father’s fundamentalism was never the point. Your reaction to his fundamentalism is not the point. There’s something deeper happening here.”
This becomes very vivid when working with that clergy. It’s amazing how few can rest with peace in how they minister. Are they supposed to be politicians, prophets, therapists or liturgists?
Brad: And how do you answer that?
David: What if our calling allows us to simply be present to people? What if we get to be present to our community (outside the church)? To be resources who follow the Spirit’s winds, free to speak the word of healing whenever, to whomever? And what if our calling—our ministry—is to live lives that allow us to hear that word, too?
Once we discuss what constitutes ministry, confusion often occurs around what constitutes the church.
Brad: Indeed. Pray tell, godfather … What is the church?
What constitutes the church?
David: First, let’s look at what the folks you work with have been fleeing. They call it ‘the organized church’ or ‘the institutional church.’ What is the institutional church?
The founding generation of American churches were typically shaped around ‘the folk’ – i.e., ethnicity. This is now mainly over, except where the church has been reduced to ethnic cultural centres. And once ‘the folk phase’ comes to its terminus, then what? Congregations try to survive by attempting to make themselves sexy. Even those claiming to be anti-institutional maintain a very narrow vision of ecclesia comprised of their specific tribe or family. That is, the church to them is filial piety—the shared faith of like-minded people.
What is most striking in these groups, if we diagnose their symptoms, is that they are defined by what they’re reacting to—the institutional church—but then immediately return to thinking entirely in institutional terms: confined by the building/meeting they attend or the circle they belong to. They have no larger thought in this, unless they extend the tribe to a network (still a tribe). And so, even anti-institutional churches are still thinking tribally.
Brad: Or anti-institutional believers who don’t attend a brick-and-mortar church but gather online through social media (I’m thinking of the Facebook groups I belong to). I would note that these groups are about gathering with likeminded … but if it’s still about the tribe, complete with administrators, membership, rules of engagement and expulsion, etc., it’s still ‘institutional’ in that sense.
David: Now Orthodox ecclesiology and the patristic tradition speak to this. And since they are part of every believer’s patrimony, this should not me misconstrued as a pissing contest.
Brad: Do tell.
David: Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology is highly layered.
- The Ecclesia refers, first of all, to the great gathering, the cosmos. This is because the whole cosmos is saved by the Energies of God.
- The second layer includes all those men and women, from all times and places, who have experienced grace and expressed mercy. They are Ecclesia we Orthodox like to chat with.
- The third layer we call the Christian tradition, including the heretics. More specifically the Way of Christ that we’ve inherited.
- The fourth layer is more textured. We think of the Eastern Orthodox Church in its gifts, its wounds, its limits and its capacities.
- The fifth layer of the Ecclesia is my parish (where we gather to pray together, but also the locale where that gathering is situated).
- Finally, the Ecclesia is the world I walk in, the people I meet—whenever I experience a moment of grace, wherever I am an eyewitness to the heavenly kingdom in the lives of those I encounter.
Brad: That’s quite all-encompassing. Let me asking you about this word ecclesia. Christ could have spoken of building his synagogue (a religious community), but he chose instead ecclesia, which carries civic connotations. In any case, gathering is inherent to the word somehow. How do we answer the question, “What is the point or purpose of gathering?” What is it about "when two or three gather in my name"?
Ecclesia as gathering
David: After critiquing and supposedly abandoning the IC, I’m amazed at how anti-IC people immediately turn inward again, practicing those traits common to IC survival. Such as, how to make it bigger, or how to make it pay.
Brad: So expansion plans (growing membership / monetizing) are not really so much about outreach—outreach is about serving the center (hegemony).
David: And so our capacity to think beyond ourselves shrinks. We lose sight of what we are to do for the world, beyond throwing money at programs. But what is it that the ecclesia is called to do and to be?
Ecclesia is called to hospitality, engagement and friendship beyond the boundaries of our own like-mindedness.
The Eastern Orthodox Church
The EO Church is often seen as ethnic, because its American expressions began with immigrants. But sociologically, it’s a place of great diversity, layers of social structure and real difference. It is less class-bound than most other churches.
One of the most important spiritual gifts of ecclesia is that you’re in a gathering, not a community, not a fraternity of like-minded believers. This means we see everyone as God’s children; you have opportunity to see and engage people who really disagree with you.
When we gather, I see them. And I am praying with them. And I see them bend their necks in confession, as the priest listens, and I see that though we are different, they struggle as I do. It’s not about like-mindedness, but about how the Spirit is in all places and fills all things—including those who disagree with you.
Spiritual but not Religious?
Brad: And how do you relate to those who have left the IC? Those who say, for example, “I’m spiritual but not religious?” For many who’ve left, our task is not to herd them back into the fold. But how might we serve them?
David: When someone says, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” I like to think with them. We think together through two important questions:
1. I ask, “Do you have church in a way that I don’t see?” Not, what fraternity are you in, but rather, are you gathering with any un-likeminded family (as most families are) that includes those on the margins?
Who are the people I will work out my salvation with by praying together? This is the importance of public prayer in the un-likeminded gathering. This is the value of regular engagement with those whom I share something and, more importantly, those with whom I don’t share something.
That conversation often surfaces our endemic hyper-individualism, not spirituality. We realize that in our flight from the IC, we seek a larger world ... neither personal isolation nor the fenced fraternity, but a community. Real community is not filial piety, but a commonweal coming from different and differing parts of society.
2. We also explore this question: in reshaping our lives in reaction to IC, how are we continuing to unconsciously absorb the power of the institution. When you step outside the institution, where you where do you find a common song? What happens when you aren’t regularly present with the other, yet singing the common song of praise, poetry and thanksgiving … to Whomever? Even the naturalists need this and can experience it.
Our liturgy is replete with Psalms. Psalms are the cry of the human heart in anger, joy, grief. Without those expressions, something in our lives is going to shrink. Eventually those experiences become indiscernible. This happens when you lose language for your mortality (or you have to make it up) or love or birth or thanks or sorrow or joy.
Brad: For those who still relate to the ecclesia as a gathering in some form, what’s the path to health and reform?
David: Well, first it’s not just about shrinking down ecclesia into prophets of protest, while ditching the priesthood. You need to critique and you need praise. We worship. Even when it’s dislocated, even when it’s idolatry, we still worship and need to worship. The prophets and priests are both required to hold that tension.
Unfortunately, the anti-IC crowd can be very puritanical. Why? Because their “pure” sense of things actually means “my personal pure notion is enough for me.” But is it?
The truth is that our self-understanding is all based in relationships or the lack thereof. Yes, the victims of religion may need to leave for a time of detox. But their victimization may also become their identity and if so, they will create a script that you must sign onto or you have no voice.
Brad: What’s the antidote?
David: The antidote? We have a counter-narrative. Our own victim-scapegoat story at the center of our culture: the Cross. When the ecclesia gathers, it gathers around that story, that gospel, that center.