A Church Shaped Salvation

Though it’s unpopular to say, it is nevertheless true that there is no salvation outside of the Catholic Church. The difficulty, of course, is unpacking what that means. Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox priest who was an Anglican once upon a time, does an excellent job in this magnificent and beautiful post. I encourage everyone to read this. Twice.

A few extracts…

The Scriptures describe the Church as the “Body of Christ,” the “Pillar and Ground of Truth.” It is nowhere described as a mere bene esse (something given to us only for our “well-being”) much less as a mere locus of “fellowship.” As much as it is possible to say that Christ died for our sins, it is also necessary to say that Christ died that the Church might be born. It is an inherent part of His resurrection. For human beings, the Church is what salvation looks like (if that disturbs you then it should serve as a barometer for how deeply the inroads of heresy have made their way into the Divine teaching on the Church).

Indeed, we are quite scandalized by this today. The idea of Church being the locus of salvation is folly to the general public and heresy to many Protestant Christians, particularly those who have not bothered to read what the Reformers actually have to say on the subject. But what Fr. Stephen writes here is accurate. If we are being scriptural, we must be centered on the Church, not because we who are in the Church are at all important or superior to anyone else, but because the Church is the context within which we are saved through life in Christ. One can hardly read the Catholic Epistles, or Ephesians, or Hebrews, or even Romans without coming to that conclusion. In being grafted into the Church, we are grafted into Christ. Anything less is a false gospel.

St. Paul tells us in his writings that “God made [Christ] to be sin, that we might become the righteousness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:21). That same “exchange” is continually happening in our lives. The Church is the locus of this change (or certainly the arena in which it takes place). Thus every gathering of the Church, whether for Eucharist or for Council, inevitably means an assembly of sinners, those who, at best, have become righteous with the righteousness of Christ (though not their own). Our sins do not constitute the Church, but the Church offers sacraments that precisely confront us at the point of sinfulness and brokenness (confession, healing, the Eucharist, Baptism, etc.).

The great objection to a high view of the Church is that such a view seems to make salvation to be dependent on frail and sinful humanity. But this is a failure to understand what the Church is actually for. Flannery O’Connor once wrote that “Many come to the Church through means which she does not allow.” The Church is where Christ is. And Christ is risen, but His wounds remain. In the Church, our sinful, impatient, selfish ways are continuously being transformed by His cross. The problem that many people have with the Church is that they assume a bottom up, anthropological model. In that model, the Church is wherever we are when we are worshiping Christ. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The Church is where Christ has brought us into Himself and empowered us to worship Him. Thus, to deny the Church is not simply to distance ourselves from the sinful heart of man. It is rather to put ourselves in the center of the universe and to turn Christ from an agent of grace into a tool that we use. Jesus becomes the Force from Star Wars, an energy, perhaps benevolent and perhaps not, that can be harnessed for our purposes. Many Christians view the sacraments this way, as some kind of spiritual candy that God doles out whenever we press the right button. God becomes the secret ingredient in the sacraments, while we are the actors who actually bring that ingredient to life. But we are not the ones who are at work in the sacraments. God is. The Church is constituted by Jesus, and the sacraments are brought to efficacy by Him, not us.

And so it is in the life of the Church that “one can only be saved.” In the life of the institution one can do any number of things (even in the name of Christ) that have nothing to do with Christ nor the Kingdom of God. The key is for none of us to lose his way. The easiest of all the “lost ways” is to idealize the Church or its history (and its institutions) and mistake those for the Kingdom of God itself…

It is the manifestation of the crucified Christ, I suspect, that makes many people judge the Church incorrectly, or fail to see it for the fullness that it truly is. The mystery of the fullness of the Church (“the fullness of Him that filleth all in all”) is that this fullnes of Christ, this Pillar and Ground of Truth, is manifest to us as the Crucified Christ.

Like the disciples who questioned Christ after the resurrection, we too expect Christ to manifest Himself in some form of glory, of triumphalism. But such is not the case – nor, I suspect, will it ever be so. The revelation of God on the Cross is the same as the revelation of Christ in the Resurrection, if we have eyes to see – and both are the fullness of the revelation of God. The crucifixion of Christ is no mere “sideshow” in the economy of salvation, but it the very fullness of the manifestation of God.

And herein lies both the beauty and the difficulty of the Church. If we expect the Messiah to arrive in glory, and mistake glory for worldly power and glamor, we are sorely disappointed. We expect a Jesus who is an action figure, a kick butt kind of superhero who bloodies the noses of His enemies if He lets them live at all. But the Jesus whom we encounter is the Crucified One. He isn’t almost complete on the cross. He is in His glory on the cross. There is beauty on the cross, even amidst the ugliness. Jesus bloodies Himself instead of us. And in so doing, His blood becomes the very balm that we need.

So when we come into the Church, we enter into a body that is crucified. We take on the wounds of Christ, even as His blood cleanses us. But because that’s not what we expect, because we want the triumphalist Christ, we decide that we can have the next best thing by building the triumphalist Church. Institutions become the Church for us. We worship ourselves. We try to capture Jesus in the Church, rather than seeing that the Church is itself Jesus’ Body, in which we are captured by Him and made His own forever. And these idols that we build within the Church become the very idols which prevent others from being able to perceive the truth, that it is in the Church that we become one with Christ.

The Anglican Communion is failing right now institutionally, but our failure is not about our institutions. It’s about our lack of understanding what it means to be the Church. As we seek to build new structures in Anglicanism, which are desperately needed, we must first remedy the ecclesiological deficiency that has led us to this point. Either we are a part of the Catholic Church, or we are our own creation, a fellowship of dwindling institutions. The choice is not between a fictitious perfect Church and a workable fractured one. The choice is between the Church of the crucified, glorified Christ and hell.

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2 Responses to A Church Shaped Salvation

  1. Matthew Nelson says:

    I don’t disagree with the post. But, the problem as I see it is that there is not much Church around. I really don’t see Christ manifested in most of what passes as “church.”

  2. Fr. Jonathan says:

    This is true, and it’s a great and terrible burden. Much of what happens in the Church has nothing to do with Church. Much of what happens in the Church may have the name of Christ but is not generated by Christ but rather by us. Much of the leadership of the Church is corrupt. All of that is true, and yet the Church remains the place of salvation, because Christ is truly present. The one place that the word “sacrament” is used in scripture, it’s in reference to the Church. She is the great sacrament, in that she reveals Christ. That revelation comes forth in the sacraments and in the doctrine as it pertains to the scriptures. It comes forth in the confronting of sin by Our Lord, even in the midst of the Church, even when those who would call themselves the Church have lost all sane notion of what that actually means. This is paradoxical, but then so is the crucifixion.

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