Category Archives: Authority

A perspective on the post-Vatican II changes to the Mass

I find this video fascinating, strangely so. Clearly it’s an edit of several key scenes from a film, so I don’t know the film ends or what it’s actually trying to say. Nonetheless, these scenes seem to articulate well some of the arguments for the traditional Latin Mass, and the mindset behind some of the changes sought in the “spirit of Vatican II.”

The film is called “Catholics” and aired in 1973, based on the book of the same name by Brian Moore.

Director: Jack Gold
Writers: Brian Moore (screenplay), Brian Moore (novel)
Stars: Trevor Howard, Raf Vallone, Martin Sheen

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Not yet perfected in unity: Church divisions in the U.S.

I am wondering how divided the Church is, or at least how divided Protestantism is today. I am reposting this from June 28, 2012. At that time I was on my way to becoming Catholic, and Church disunity was one of the primary reasons for my abandoning Protestantism. But do people even care much anymore about denominations? Are not the majority of Christians today mostly just choosing a kind of buffet-style evangelicalism? Even a lot of Catholics seem to essentially be merely post-modern pop-evangelicals in their faith and merely post-conciliar Catholics in there actions. And yet, perhaps this means we are even more divided than ever with each individual representing their own, personal denomination.

This was originally posted in June 2012.

“The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, so that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” (John 17:22-23, NASB)

I continue to be astounded by the number of Protestant church divisions in this country alone (not including divisions elsewhere). For most of my life I’ve only had vague notions of these divisions, and never considered them as serious. I have also lived mostly with the view that they can be ignored (because I believed they are someone else’s problem) and all I need is faith and the Bible. Now I am inclined to see these divisions as having informed my thinking more than I realized, as deeply troubling, as a testament to the questionable “fruit” of the Reformation, and I want to seek resolution for my own faith and life.

The following set of images gives a high-level overview of some of the more obvious divisions we find within Protestant/Reformed churches in this country. I understand there are many more divisions than listed here, but I think this is enough to choke on for now.

American Christian branches
to European founded churches

Click on the first image to begin the slide show:

These images came from a slid deck I found on a Catholic apologetics web site.

The copyright for the slides are held by:
Peterson, Susan Lynn (1999).
Timeline Charts of the Western Church.
Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI

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Baptism references

A recent discussion prompted me to think again of some posts I did on baptism. My friend was emphatically saying something like we all know baptism isn’t necessary, etc, etc. I know very well how deep that thinking goes for many Protestants, and the context of the discussion wasn’t good for challenging assumptions, so I just let it be, but I know now that baptism is necessary. I also believe that God works with people where they are, and that one’s conscience is fundamental, so I’m not particularly worried. Still, it’s good to refresh one’s memory from Holy Scripture and be ready for possible future discussions.

This post was originally publish April 26, 2011.

Sermon of St. John the Baptist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1566

The following citations come from the English Standard Version (ESV) translation. The purpose of this list, for me at least, is to gather in one place as many of the scriptural references on baptism as I can so that I might begin to understand the place and meaning of baptism in the life of faith. If I have missed any biblical references, whether directly mentioning baptism or whether pointing to baptism metaphorically or symbolically, please let me know.

John baptizes:
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:1-2)

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:4-5)

And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3)

Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:5-6)

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7)

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. (Luke 3:7-8a)

John points to Jesus:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:11)

“I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:8)

As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Luke 3:15-16)

They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:25-27)

Jesus gets baptized:
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11)

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)

“I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:33-34)

Jesus baptizes:
After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison). (John 3:22-24)

Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” (John 3:25-26)

The nature of John’s baptism?
“The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?'” (Matthew 21:25)

“Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” (Mark 11:30)

He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” (Luke 20:3-4)

Jesus’ teaching on (or related to) baptism:
Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized . . .” (Mark 10:38-39)

“I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.) (Luke 7:28-30)

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (Luke 12:49-51)

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:15-16)

And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:4-5)

Baptism in the first generation church:
“. . . beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:22)

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (Acts 2:37-40)

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41)

But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. (Acts 8:12-13)

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 8:14-16)

And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:36-39)

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. (Acts 9:17-19)

“. . . you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed” (Acts 10:37)

“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 10:47-48a)

“And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'” (Acts 11:16)

“Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.” (Acts 13:24)

The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” (Acts 16:14b-15a)

Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. (Acts 18:8)

He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. (Acts 18:25)

And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. (Acts 19:3-6)

And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name. (Acts 22:16)

Paul on baptism:
By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:2-4)

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. (1 Corinthians 1:13-17)

For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4a)

For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:13)

Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf? (1 Corinthians 15:29)

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27)

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12)

Peter on baptism:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (1 Peter 3:18-22)

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No slapping matter (or is it?): Thinking about Synods and Encountering Christ

soumela_nicaea_nicholas

An irate Bishop Nicholas slaps troublesome priest Arius across the face at the First Council of Nicaea

Some brief, and probably uneducated personal thoughts on the Synod on the Family, but first…

…and with humility…

There is a lot of discussion and vitriol flying around these days about the family and the Church. It bothers me. Two frequently narrow-minded religio-political groups — Liberals and Conservatives — have been squaring off over questions of divorce and remarriage and the receiving of the Eucharist — and other important matters of marriage, sex, faith, and the Church. I say narrow-minded because Christ is neither liberal or conservative, and neither is the Church. As Christians we know this. At one time or another I have been in both camps (I still am I guess). Nonetheless, I wonder…

Could all this hullabaloo over these tendentious and tender issues be God’s way (perhaps by way of Pope Francis) of calling the Church to account? The Church, frequently in the actions of its members (but not in its dogma), in recent decades (maybe longer), has again and again turned away from the foundational teachings on family and sexuality. Catholics do whatever they want it seems. This is well documented. There’s a lot of interest from all “sides” in the synod and its outcome for these very reasons. What this all means and where it will lead I cannot really say — and a lot of smarter people than I have much to say about these things anyway.

The conservatives, who are people of good will, and who are worried the liberals will get their way (there’s a lot of worry going around), should at least realize the “battle” was lost a long time ago — at least on a cultural/historical level, for God, of course, has lost nothing — and they have also been part of the problem. They may be “conserving” dogma, but some concept of a past culture is probably not worth conserving in some significant sense, at least in terms of a past “golden age” of Catholicism — though I could be wrong. We live in this culture, we are culture, culture is a living, moving thing. I sense many feel the conservatives are only interested in a kind of old-fashioned mono-culture — whether this is actually true I cannot say. However, bulwarks can seem like too much Soviet architecture, and it didn’t take long for many, even good-willed Catholics (or their children), to abandon the conservative project. How did the project “lose” so quickly and so completely? I suggest the Church’s presentation of its core teachings on sexuality and marriage for the past 150 years or so has taken too much for granted, was content too much with externals, and was not sufficiently evangelical in its approach or its language, did not bring Christ first, etc. If your average Catholic cannot articulate the Church’s understanding (and I mean understanding, not merely a recitation of the “rules”) on these issues what does that say? I believe this has caused untold suffering. I could be wrong.

Bishops should bring Christ to others first. Some do. Perhaps most do, I can’t really say. But the world needs Christ and the world seems to say the Church only brings them rules and dry theological presentations of human passions. (This synod could end up being another example of this. Let’s pray it isn’t.) I get that the world rejects Christ too, but shouldn’t it be more clear the world is actually rejecting Christ and not the Church — if that’s the case? It’s complicated, but let’s not accept easy excuses.

And the liberals, who are also people of good will, should realize they are just as much a part of the problem of causing great suffering amongst the faithful as everyone else. Tenderness and mercy is good, truly very good, but they go inextricably together with truth as well. (The same could be said to conservatives.) It’s not a 50/50 proposition — trying to find a nice balance between truth and mercy, between hard reality and tender compassion. It’s a 100/100 proposition — total truth and reality along with total mercy and compassion. (Again, one could say the same to conservatives.) We cannot turn away from our human nature, from the way we are designed, and not suffer. We cannot reject God’s natural will for our lives and not suffer. [Side note: If you are a Christian then you believe God exists and is your creator. Meditate on that.] But we are all at fault, for the real problem of our society, as it has been with every society before us, is our deep and profound brokenness. We must not let our pride prevent us from seeing this. I raise my hand as a guilty offender; I am broken and prideful.

Bishops should not hide the truth from anyone, thinking that truth is too difficult to handle right now — for that person. Bishops who refuse to bring truth, keeping it hidden, are snakes. Gentle smiles and soft hugs don’t make for genuine healing if there is not also truth in those hugs and smiles. Our souls are desperate for love and truth. Tenderness without calling for repentance is a hollow emotion. I can’t say I know any bishop who does this, but I can imagine. Oh that every prince of the Church were an icon of Christ!

And I am constantly confused on these issues. It is easy for me to say, “Who am I to judge.” (Only I do judge all the time and without mercy.) I am forever figuring out how to make good and right judgements, to see clearly, to know what is true. I pray for wisdom. There are people of all stripes whom I love — and love all too poorly. We’re all carrying heavy packs on this pilgrimage. I pray we are going the same way. Pray for me, a stumbling and wayward sinner.

Consider: It is better that we are prodigal sons who eventually find salvation than older brothers and end up in Hell. Think about it.

I do believe that Christ is calling us all to Him — every one of us. We are not being called first or foremost to dogma or to rules or to tradition — even if those things are good. Honestly, I love dogma, but… We are being called to Christ. To Him alone. We must risk that, and let others have the freedom to risk that as well. We do not come to Christ if not in freedom. That includes everyone, not just you or me.

Unless we solve the problem of our brokenness, of this principle of sin within us, we cannot find true joy — and we cannot solve it. We just can’t. Only in Christ can we find the answer to our soul’s longing. That is the gospel, that is the good news. Only by His blood, by His love, in His resurrection, and through His mediation do we have hope and reality of salvation, of our own resurrection. Only by the grace of God do we live. This is not a liberal or conservative issue. Neither “side”, separately or together, has the capacity to contain the radicality of the good news of Christ.

Be neither liberal or conservative, be a radical follower of Jesus Christ. This may mean being open to an encounter with Him — I’m sure it does. Is it not true that we mostly encounter Christ through encountering other people? Are you willing to take that chance? I hope I am — fear and trembling folks, fear and trembling.

I see in Pope Francis a man who brings the evangelism of encounter, and the world is crying out YES! Sadly I read and hear a number of catholics behaving like some of those baddies in the Gospel accounts — they grumble, they worry, they don’t see that their fear is blazoned on their sleeves. There is the constant parsing of the Pope’s every word, fretting over every action, and more grumbling that he is too confusing, sending the wrong message (“What will they think?!” “They’re bound to take that in the wrong direction!!” “Look who he’s meeting with, he’s sending the wrong message, doesn’t he see that?!!”). I get it, the Pope is sometimes confusing to many people — though I have yet to find him so. Some Catholics, sadly quite a lot, are saying the vilest things about the Pope. I think the Pharisees said the same things about Christ. Can’t you just hear it: “He is muddled and confused, and confusing others. Did he really say that?! My God, save us. He is leading us to schism. He wants schism. Just like a Jesuit to play a devil’s game. He’s not a real Pope. Pray for his death.” (Death?!! Yes, some “Catholics” have even said they want him dead. Can you imagine?) I’m not defending anyone, not even the Pope. His naysayers may prove to be right. I just wonder if something is happening (that’s not really the right word, not a strong enough word) according to God’s plan that is calling the Church, and its leaders to account — and in the process bringing about a renewal of sorts (perhaps a re-formation?). So the tensions are good. They point to something meaningful going on. Usually only in suffering do we gain wisdom. Only through struggle do we find the truth.

Anyway, I love this Pope. I don’t expect perfection from any man, but I do find in him a kind of icon of Christ to the world, and not just in his office, but in his words, actions, and person. Think about that. If true, what do our reactions to him say about us? We should examine our hearts if we find him displeasing. Again, I’m not defending the Pope. I could be blind.

So finally, about the synod… I suppose all this is my way of saying I sometimes (secretly) hope the Synod on the Family becomes a big, knock down, drag out fight. I hope true colors fly, and the truth emerges from the smoke. It seems about time the bishops wipe the genial smiles off their faces and they point some fingers and throw some zucchettos — maybe even overturn some tables. Of course I want them to behave with all the of the virtues in full force (love, courage, etc.). They should act always in love — sometimes not being nice is the loving thing to do; sometimes it means to stop hiding their true feelings and ideas under thick theological speak and formalisms. The Pope said to “speak clearly.” More importantly, if there is a crisis, then act like it’s a crisis. This is not, should not be, a political fight. It is a fight for the Church, for the Bride to be ready and perfect and lovely for the Groom when He returns. May Christ be glorified — and decorum be damned, if necessary.

Not to tell anyone what to do, but pray if you care.

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Relationships of the Early Church Fathers

Here is my attempt to find some clarity on the relationships between the early Church Fathers, and how they connect back to Christ. I welcome feedback.

Early Church Fathers.001

There are some who want to believe that once the last Apostle died the church quickly went off the rails, fell into a kind of darkness, and did not begin to emerge again until the Reformation. This is silly bunk, and those who believe it tend to need it to be true so they can justify their own positions. This diagram points towards a more accurate, and “hermeneutic of continuity” understanding that sees the development of doctrine occurring right from the beginning as the Apostles handed down the Tradition of the Church to the next generation, which then did so for the next. That is one reason why, when curious Protestants go looking for their kind/style of church in the early years of Christianity, before the Catholic Church took over and ruined everything, they find the early Church was very Catholic. This is not proof that Catholicism is right and Protestantism is wrong, but merely points to the fact that the Church has always been Catholic.

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“listen even to the church”

church in the fog

Jesus said to His disciples: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, ; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)

What is this church of which Christ speaks? Is this just any group of believers, and cohort of Christians however loosely connected, a particular instance of group-faith organized around a pastor? Is this church invisible or visible? Is it any group aligned around a particular Truth or set of truths? And who determines that Truth? And how is one to “listen even to the church”? Who is speaking? And then, if one is to be treated “as a Gentile and a tax collector” does that mean to be kicked out of this church? Is one excommunicated? If so, who enforces that? Who sets the rules? And if it is important that “that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses,” does that not mean this is similar to a kind of legal proceeding? If so, should there be some standard practices, some formality, and some final arbitration and/or judgement? At what point does the judgement come to an end? Where does the buck stop?

Also, I does seem clear in this short passage we, in fact, do have something that is called “the church”, and there is an inside and outside to that church. And that a sinner in that church, who refuses to listen to the church regarding his sin, should be considered out of fellowship with that church and treated as such. Consider, this is a sinner who has sinned against another individual. That individual brings up the sin to the sinner in private (it is a private matter), who then refuses to see it. Then a couple more people from the church come to the sinner, who still refuses to repent. Then again it plays out before the church in some way. And the conclusion? Because this sinner has sinned against an individual, he is out of fellowship with the church. The whole church.

In order for this to happen there has to be a visible church at some level. There has to be something that can be pointed to, described, understood as the church. And some way to say what is not the church. There also must be a way for the church to speak, and thus for some level of authority under which all in the church must live. It does not seem that either anarchy or even democracy are good enough, though perhaps all may participate at some level in decision making. And the process here clearly begins with the individual, then the small group, then the church. It is a kind of flow through a hierarchy, rising from the intimate, local interaction to a larger appeal, to eventually to some final level of authority. But the individual is always, even at the personal, private level, in relation to the church – though this is not the same as an invasion of privacy, or a controlling force. This can get tricky given how all of us are sinners. Of course, local bodies must be the ones that take care of business, but in the New Testament we get the sense that all these individual local churches are to be understood as part of the larger whole church, the catholic church.

If that final level of authority is merely the congregation, with perhaps their particular interpretations of scripture, then what truly is the end of obedience, and what truly is the purpose of excommunication? Is it just a punishment, a loss of some friends, getting kicked out of one church to then go to another? The goal, of course, is not about saving the church, but about the soul of the sinner, to “gain a brother” as Christ says. But the context here is clearly not the “me & Jesus” kind of Christianity so popular these days. It is not merely about this brother repenting, but repenting in order to be in the church, to be in fellowship. The question, then, is what does it truly mean to be in the church? Is this merely a personal choice thing, or does it matter at all? Is it only a matter of how you feel? Can you switch at any time, choosing a church like choosing a different favorite restaurant, switching chefs and a new menu. Or is one’s eternal destiny at stake? And does it matter which church? Are you willing to take the gamble?

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“The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.”

A few thoughts on accepting the authority of the Church, regardless of its sinful members, as a means of coming to terms with the right place of Holy Scripture and Marian doctrine.

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Recently I added my two cents to a blog post where the poster posted part of a letter he had received from a Protestant reader of the poster’s books. This Protestant was struggling with the poster’s arguments for the Immaculate Conception (the Mother of Christ being born without sin) and the Assumption (the bodily taking up of the Virgin Mary into Heaven at the end of her earthly life). The Protestant, interestingly, is married to a Catholic and claims that he and his wife share most all orthodox Christian beliefs, but he cannot find clear scriptural teaching on either of these two Marian doctrines. I think I know his struggle, and I felt compelled to write the following:

Whether this is the issue for the reader or not, the question of Church authority played a big part in my dealing with Catholic teaching about Mary, and whether I would accept that teaching or not. So this is more of a personal response.

Having been in Protestantland for a few decades, and only just recently come into the Church, I can say I feel the reader’s pain. And the “show me where in the Bible” response just makes so much sense. But then I wrestled with the issue of authority and the Church won (I’m deeply happy to say). However, the Church “winning” is not to set the Church against the scriptures, rather it is to finally place the scriptures in their proper place, neither above nor below, but as part of the Church. And, though it is my responsibility to use the rationality God gave me as I seek the Truth, it is not my place to decide doctrine apart from the Church established by Christ and animated by the Spirit.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the best approach is to have an “I trust the Church, where else am I to go” attitude. This is not a blind, turn-off-my-brain approach, for it is also scriptural. Rather, it is about following Christ; it is about avoiding the “I refuse to believe unless I see it with my own eyes” attitude and, instead, to carefully and prayerfully trust. But that’s the issue isn’t it? The Church is full of sinners, has many troubling parts of its history (past and present), that to trust the Church seems like something only a fool would do – at least to someone on the outside looking in. I’ve been there.

Mistrusting the Church often arises from a “you shall know them by their fruits” perspective, and to some this clearly damns the Church. It takes a lot for a Protestant to accept the authority of Christ propagated through His Church, through the bishops and popes, and through all that sinful detritus that seems to clog the works. I find myself clinging to the words of Chesterton: “The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.” If we cannot accept that, then we will not accept the Church as the authority, binding and loosing, preserving and carrying forward the gospel as handed down and developed from the beginning.

But the authority of the Church is one of the great gifts of salvation history given to us. It is, in fact, a great relief. And if the Church has such authority then one should bow the knee to Christ by accepting what the Church declares as true in morals and doctrine – including its teaching on the Blessed Mother. Call me a fool, but I praise God for the Magisterium.

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Filed under Authority, Catholic Church, Dogma, Protestantism, Theology, Tradition