Christian churches come in many flavors. If we are to pick a church and stick with it, as opposed to the common Christian practice of switching churches like people pick their new favorites restaurants, then which characteristics or touchstones might we look for to guide us? I have in mind six touchstones which I will describe below. For simplicity I also have in mind the main “flavors” of Christianity to be Protestant (and its many variants), Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox.
As a Protestant I was trained to see right doctrine as the primary , evidential touchstone of faith. Sola fide—”faith alone” in the right doctrine—was the bedrock of salvation. Where one went to church was ultimately based on what doctrine was preached from the pulpit; that was the key discriminator of any church, so I was taught. Sola scriptura—”scripture alone” as the only source of right doctrine—followed as a very close second in importance. I still tend towards placing a heavy emphasis on doctrine, faith, and scripture, though what doctrines I believe have changed over the years. How tightly I hold on to various doctrines has also changed. And I do not believe in sola fide any longer, and I do not hold to sola scriptura. (Let me say, however, that I do like the spirit of sola fide and sola scriptura. I like emphasizing the importance of faith and scripture. I just think the doctrines are wrong.)
I now see the CHURCH as a living, breathing, even changing thing—it is a body after all. Yet I know there must be something changeless and fundamental about the Church. Practice is important. Right doctrine is also critical, and the Truth should be preserved, but Protestantism has destroyed much of that foundation by systematically dismantling the pillar and ground of truth. (see 1 Tim. 3:15) This our inheritance who have been raised Protestant. This is a harsh perspective certainly, but we should all be greatly troubled by the profound dis-unity produced by the Protestant Reformation (which I see more as a rebellion than true reformation). If we look at the fruit we have produced then we should grieve this particular aspect of our history. I grieve that I have played a part in that dis-unity.
As I try to get a handle on what I believe, why I believe it, and what Church I should follow (Roman Catholic, one of the many Protestant variants, or Eastern Orthodox), I realize my Protestant training has left me unprepared to make such a choice. What criteria do I use? What are the key characteristics of the visible Church? I’m sure there are many who would be eager and willing to offer an answer, for they have it all bottled up, but that’s exactly the kind of certainty with which I grew up and which I am leaving behind—not because I dislike certainty, for I love it, but that the further I go in the life the more I realize there is a great mystery behind all our certainties. I want to follow Christ, to be like Him, and to have my life be an exhibit of love for Him. Something I have learned over the years is that following Christ is a far more mysterious and dangerous project than we typically assume.
With this in mind I see six possible characteristics or touchstones of the Church that seem to speak to me and offer guidance. They are: Liturgy, Theology, History, Unity, Authority, and Mystery. This list began with a couple of good friends who say “history, mystery, authority” is their elevator pitch as it were of why they converted to the Catholic Church. I have added liturgy, theology, and unity to that list because I find they must also be there for me. What I think about these things, and what I discover in light of these touchstones, perhaps will guide me.
Note: Faith, love, hope, righteousness, goodness, holiness, virtue, etc., are not listed below because, though they are also touchstones of the visible body of Christ, they are primarily of the individual. They are, as it were, assumed in the list below. I also have not included the sacraments as a touchstone, though they should also be assumed. Perhaps the sacraments are really just a part of each touchstone below.
The six touchstones:
Liturgy is made for us and we for it. By liturgy we infuse into our souls the truths we claim. Liturgy fits with the classical education model as well (something important to me) for liturgy is about the ordering of the soul, the whole person. We learn by memorizing, by practice, by repetition, by meditation, and through application. The body, and not just the mind and emotions, must be involved in learning. But liturgy is also an act of unity. We practice our liturgy with others, in solidarity, in love. Liturgy can be simple or complex, old or new, though wisdom and experience might find a balance. To deny liturgy, or to denigrate liturgy, or to ignore liturgy is to turn from the true nature of man, which is to turn away from God the creator of man’s nature. Which church offers the best, most fitting combination of man’s nature with liturgy? Which church seeks an “ordering” of the whole being in its liturgy?
Theology is the pursuit of understanding God and promulgating that understanding in both orthodoxy and orthopraxy. We should all pursue an understanding of God, though most of us are not called to be Theologians in a formal sense. So, on the one hand theology can stand for a particular orientation towards God, and on the other hand, those beliefs and practices that flow from that orientation. Theology here can also stand for the dogmatic cosmos that each Christian group or church claims as truth. Which church offers the best dogmatic cosmos, the best harmony of doctrines, the best total theology, that explains our experience and makes sense of what we know, how we should live, and what it means to be the Body of Christ?
History is the knowledge of where we come from, but also the debts we owe to those who came before us. History is the rich tapestry of accumulated experiences mystically present in the simplest of actions. History is the substance of our commitments and obligations in the light of past and future saints and martyrs. History is the voice of monuments calling us to the true richness in the historical and ever present body of Christ. Which church best presents and preserves the substantial history of Christ’s mystical body?
Unity is the solidarity of believers regardless our natural tendencies towards disunity. Unity is the demand of love in light of Christ’s death and resurrection. Disunity is a result of hate and pride, the result of the fall, evidenced first in the blaming of Eve by Adam and then second in the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. Because of our fallen state disunity should come as no surprise to us. However, staunch, systematic, historical disunity may be a sign of the hardness of one’s heart, either as a kind of self-righteousness cloaked in dogmatic arguments or as a kind of complacent inertia. Which church best represents the movements of unity, embracing the universality of faith (and the diverse experiences of faith) in light of a holistic dogmatic cosmos? Which church seems to offer unity rather than demanding disunity?
Authority is the servant. As Christ told his apostles, to be a leader one must be a servant, even by becoming the least of all. The purpose of authority in the Church is to do the will of the Head (Christ) by serving the Body (us). One does not gain authority by claiming it, but by being anointed. But why authority? We are sinners, we are dis-unifiers, we are hard-headed. We need to be held accountable by something or someone with more authority than ourselves. This is the way God designed the world and us in it. It is a part of human nature to need, and ultimately thrive within, the bounds of temporal authority outside ourselves. And we need that authority to be visible, present, conforming to our human needs. To think otherwise is vanity. Which church best offers the guidance and solidity of authority so necessary in light of our weaknesses, in light of our disunity, in light of our vanity? Which church is the better servant of our striving for holiness and the kingdom?
Mystery is the nature of being. The heart of sainthood is a mystery. God is a mystery. Though He has revealed Himself to us, He remains beyond our grasp. Be we, who are made in God’s image, also are mysteries. Worship, prayer, and love are mysteries. What Christ did on the cross, and what the Holy Spirit does in our hearts are also mysteries. We can know what has been revealed, and be confident in what we know, including God’s existence and goodness, in Christ being the Son of God, in the story of salvation God has been telling since the beginning of time, but we also bow before God because He is “I AM”, the One who is, the source of being, a mystery. What church embraces a pervasive desire to know God and yet fully embraces mystery? What church has both a rich intellectual tradition and is simultaneously filled with mystics? Which church most consistently cries out: “Be a saint”?
Now I am both blind and optimistic. I will deny things that are there and see things which are not. How I answer the questions above may be very different than how others do. I may romanticize one “version” of Christianity over another, while someone else will do the opposite. While we should always desire Truth, we must realize the answer is not that we attain (or believe we have attained) Truth, rather that God has us in His hands. We are saved by God’s grace not because we have attained Truth. Of course we must seek Truth, but love is greater. We cannot “bottle up” our Christianity, for to be a Christian is to be a “little Christ” as it were, and Christ is the Word, the Son of God, the light of the world, a man, a mystery. Christ cannot be bottled up. That is why, though God has us as only He can have us, we work out our salvation in fear and trembling. Thus I propose the six touchstones above both provisionally and tenuously.