As Fr. Stephen Freeman has so eloquently put it, “For human beings, the Church is what salvation looks like.” This is a frightening thought for some and a downright scandalous notion for others. There is a virulent strain of American Protestantism that has imbibed enlightenment individualism and America’s anti-institutional bias and has turned those things into a kind of anti-gospel that proclaims that the Christian faith is all about me and Jesus, one on one. “It’s a relationship, not a religion.” To a certain degree, that sort of talk is understandable, despite being ill advised. It is a reaction against the perception that the Church is corrupt, which, of course, she is. The Church is filled with sinners. How could she not be corrupt? And people tend to like Jesus even if they straight up hate the Church. So why not emphasize Jesus and de-emphasize the Church? Why not join the bandwagon and throw stones at the Church with everyone else, using that as an opportunity to talk to our fellow stone-throwers about Jesus? “You should give Jesus a try, my friend, because He’s nothing like the Church. He’s all about love, not judgment. He’s a true friend, not an angry patriarch.”
In the first line of Samuel John Stone’s nineteenth century hymn, The Church’s One Foundation, we learn that “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.” You cannot escape from the Church if you want to be a Christian. Jesus does not have a saving relationship with you. He has a saving relationship with His wife – Yes, Jesus does have a wife, and no, this has nothing to do with possibly fraudulent fourth century Gnostic scraps of papyrus. His wife, His bride, is the Church. “From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride; with His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.” This is how we are saved. Jesus paid the bride price for us. He married us. We are His. His blood was spilled for us. “By water and the word” – the washing of Baptism and the preaching of the Gospel – we are married to Him.
When Jesus was asked about marriage, He pointed to God’s creation of man and woman in Genesis and said that when husband and wife come together the two become one flesh. They are joined inseparably, intertwined with each other. “Therefore what God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). This is the kind of joining that exists between Christ and His Church. The two are one flesh. That doesn’t happen in some sort of individualistic way. I am not the Bride of Christ. We are the Bride of Christ. We are one flesh with Him whose own flesh was crucified and killed, whose same flesh rose and ascended. If there is no one flesh union with Christ, than there is no way for Christ’s work on the cross to actually be applied to us, which means that if there is no Church, there is no hope.
We Make a Lousy Bride
We should not romanticize the Church. There are times when the Church can be thoroughly awful. Christians do terrible things to each other. We rip each other apart with our desires and our rampant self-interest. Being an Anglican today is to bear witness to this on a profound level, but it’s nothing new. Since the days of Arius, and even before, the Church has been about the business of pulling herself apart, allowing sin to devour her from the inside out. This was certainly true in Stone’s day. The Church’s One Foundation was written largely as a response to the Collenso Affair, a moment in the development of the Anglican Communion in which it seemed that false doctrine and willful, rampant individualism would tear the Church to threads. “Though with a scornful wonder men see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” This lyric describes the Church in our own day as easily as it describes the Church in Stone’s day. The Church is always under attack, from without and from within. But that doesn’t change the fact that Christ is one flesh with His bride and that this makes being one with the Church the only way to be one with Christ, unless we plan to make Christ into a polygamist. We cannot simply say to one another, “I have no need of you” (1 Corinthians 12:21). We do not have the luxury of abandoning the Church so that we can just be with Jesus. That would be like saying, “Well, I’ve messed up a lot and been mean and slept with other people, so clearly the answer if I want to save my marriage is to demand a divorce. Only then will I really be able to spend time with my spouse.”
A Scandalous Idea
Stone’s hymn was originally part of a series of hymns he wrote on the Apostle’s Creed. The Church’s One Foundation was meant to be an explication of what we mean when we say, “I believe in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.” The other hymns in the series have all fallen into obscurity, but this one has survived. I don’t think that’s just because it does a nice job of grounding us in the Trinity or because it has such a lovely tune from Samuel Sebastian Wesley attached to it. It has survived because it expresses, perhaps better than any other hymn before or since, the way in which being the Church saves us. It’s not simply that we are one with Christ, but that we are one with Christ as His Bride. This is why the Church’s doctrine concerning marriage is so important, why it can never be simply a second tier concern. How we understand marriage, drawing on Ephesians 5, affects how we understand salvation itself. We are saved because we are united to Christ, but also because we receive Him as a husband, allowing Him to adorn us in the purity He has won for us through His blood.
This is also why the hymn is a scandal to many people today. When I was being ordained a deacon, I was fortunate to be given the bishop’s blessing to pick my own hymns for the service. The first hymn on my list, and the dearest to my heart, was this one. The dean of the cathedral–who we might call an Enriching Our Worship sort (an apt title if there ever was one, given the myriad ways in which that particular set of liturgies has encouraged us to worship ourselves more thoroughly)–continually questioned this choice, even going so far as to scrap it from the program and replace it with another hymn using the same tune, an error which I caught and brought to the bishop’s attention and which he graciously corrected.
But why was it so hard for her to hear that hymn? She made it clear that her problem wasn’t with the tune. The words are what bothered her. All of that language about blood atonement and being a ransomed bride. It set her teeth on edge, as well it should. We cannot hear words like this and call them true while simultaneously pretending that the Church is a place where we experiment with building our own “spirituality.” On this point, American Evangelicalism and Mainline Protestant Liberalism are both indicted in equal measure. The Church is not where we build our tower to the Lord. It is where He showers us with forgiveness and makes us holy.
The Quintessential Anglican Hymn
Though this hymn is only a century and a half old, it is a fitting one for Anglicans to sing and it is no mistake that an Anglican wrote it. Our tradition threaded a needle in the sixteenth century that seemed impossible for so many other Christians to achieve. While the medieval Roman Church elevated the Church as an institution to the point of deity, the Churches of the Reformation generally went to the opposite extreme, stripping the Church down to the point that there was hardly anything left of her at all. Anglicanism upheld the faithfulness to Christ and Scripture that was at the heart of the Reformation while also insisting upon the real, tangible, and necessary ongoing life of the Church as the only place in which Christ comes to us. Flawed as we are, the maintaining of both the episcopacy and a theology of national churches has kept us from totally giving away the store. We need bishops to form churches. We cannot simply invent a new church from scratch. No matter how corrupt the Church becomes, we need a tangible connection with her past in order to ground us and unify us in the Word. Otherwise, no matter how pure our confession of faith, our attempt to invent a new church and graft it onto the old will fail. Christ has only one Bride. We are either one with her or we are not one with Him.
Happily Ever After Starts Here
We are not free floaters seeking spiritual thrills. We are a bride, and often an unruly and ungrateful one at that, but we are being saved anyway by Christ. That is our calling. It is our election. It is our everything. We cannot be Christians without the Church. We cannot join those throwing stones at the Bride of Christ and expect to be saved ourselves. We might as well bash our heads in with those very same rocks. We shall be the Church victorious, but only when He has purified us, washing away all arrogance and individualistic conceit, and replacing it with His own holiness. He will claim us. We will be His. And that is nothing to be ashamed of. It is, in fact, something to glory in.