Sunday 17 June 2012

What should the Christian convert do about 'church'? Are denominations necessary?


For a Mere Christian such as myself, denominations can seem like a problem.

(a Mere Christian being one who does not believe that any of the Christian churches or denominations has an unique access to salvation; but rather that there is a vital core of Christianity distinctive to none and shared by at least several).

The first tough question after becoming a Christian is, which church should I join?

Or even - do I really need to join a church? And if so, must it be one church or could it be several?

(I mean by church, the actually existing human institutions. Naturally, all Christians are members of the mystical Church of Christ.)


My present understanding is that the institutional churches, the various denominations, are necessary - but not for everyone.

Only some institutional churches are real Christian institutions, but these do not follow the lines of the broad denominations.

Thus there are real Christians in tiny groups such as home churches or the catacomb Orthodox church of Soviet Russia; and most of what goes on in the major institutions (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican etc) is not real Christianity.

So, in this regard, my fundamental attitude could be described as Protestant: salvation is possible, has happened, in isolation.


On the other hand, I believe that a real institutional church is of truly vast help to the individual in  the process known as 'theosis' or sanctification - the movement towards communion with God which may occur during human life on earth.

I believe in the reality of Saints, the special nature of Priests, real presence at the Eucharist and so on - which is a Catholic stance.

Salvation is possible without these helps, in my understanding; but sanctification is held back: Christians are kept at a lower level of holiness for lack of these Catholic helps.


So my tentative conclusion is that denominations are not essential in ultimate terms, but in practice they are potentially of critical value - a value that is mainly qualitative rather than quantitative - a matter of the level of holiness of Christian life on earth.

So that the highest level of sanctity occurs in a real Catholic society of which my prime example would be the Byzantine Empire, secondary examples Anglo Saxon England and Holy Russia, also the ages of faith in the Holy Roman Empire of Western Europe.

It can be seen that Catholicism is essentially 'Roman' - but remembering that Constantinople displaced Rome as capital when the Empire became Christian. Nonetheless, Catholicism is necessarily spiritually linked with Ancient Rome.


However, this implies that the highest level of sanctity is therefore not possible to most people in most places throughout most of history.

Most inter-denominational battles now, in the West, are therefore of very secondary importance to salvation; and discernment over the reality of Christianity within denominations now properly takes centre stage in our spiritual lives.


Still - the problem for the new convert remains.

CS Lewis could recommend simply joining the nearest branch of any denomination, preferably (for convenience) the denomination where you had been raised or the normal national church - that that will not do any more, since this is likely to get the new Christian insidiously and covertly de-converted and made into merely a Christian-flavoured, vaguely-spiritual Leftist.

It is quite possible that a sincere new Christian convert will not 'fit' into any available real Christian denomination if the criteria are applied strictly; yet, of course, if he had been born and baptised into that denomination there would be no question about expelling him.

Thus the existing major denominations artificially raise barriers to the new Christian convert; barriers which were not found when the Church was young, and a person could become a Christian 'in minutes'.

On the other hand, in this world it seems to be helpful for the strength and cohesion of denominations (and therefore for the level of theosis) when they are much more exclusive in their practice than can be justified in theory.


So, what is to be done?

Perhaps the best is to detect and home-in-on any real Christianity in the vicinity; and take it as far as can be gone with honesty.

If a denomination 'will not have you' as a full member on this basis, or you cannot for various reasons satisfy the training-process; then it may be possible to be associated with the church but as an attending rather than a full member.


The alternative is perhaps to find a real Christian church, or the nearest approach, and obediently do whatever they say is necessary to become and remain a full member.

Yet it may be that traditional Christian 'obedience' is not possible in 'the end times' which we live in (this was the view of Fr Seraphim Rose) - and 'discernment' becomes the major necessity (despite that discernment is so easily infected with pride).

It may be that obedience will be used against a real Christian to lead them out of real Christianity and into one of the mass of pseudo-Christian heresies which characterize the leadership and majority of the major denominations.


What then for the Mere Christian?

Perhaps it will be necessary to focus less on denominations and more on the qualities of actual people.

Assist Real Christians, as individuals, especially as groups, wherever they may be found; and if you cannot resist then at least do not actively-support the fake-Christian-subversive majority.


The good is the enemy of the best - but when the best is not possible, we must settle for the good.

Holding in mind that neither we as individuals, nor the society to which we necessarily belong, deserve the best.

Quite the opposite.

Gratitude that we do not necessarily get what we deserve is something well worth contemplating.


John Fitzgerald said...

Some churches are quite nice places, my suggestion would be to get together with friends and hold your own service. It could come down to a territorial thing but in England who do the churches belong to?

Bruce Charlton said...

@thorshammers - that may be very good in itself, but it is a club, not a church.

Plus, of course, it is probable that a new convert will not know many or any like minded people; and his existing friends would probably not be of the same cast of mind.

buckyinky said...

As I read your entry here, in some places it seems like you despair because you would like to be assured that you would be entering a denomination (your term) in which you would have access to the highest sanctity possible, but are not able to obtain that assurance.

I understand moving very slowly in such situations, but it resembles something like paralysis as I read your thoughts here. Of course one may be proven shortsighted down the road, but should entering into something we recognize as good right now be obstructed by the suspicion that there might be something better?

The idea that certain societies in history had higher sanctity is an unfamiliar idea to me. I understand some societies being structured in such a way that the individuals in those societies find sanctity a more obvious path, and therefore the likelihood that a greater number traverse this path of sanctity. The societies you mentioned may be good examples of these. But one's inability to live in such a society precluding, ipso facto, one's ability to achieve a fuller sanctity is something I have a hard time grasping. Living in such societies may more naturally point an individual toward the path of holiness, but just because it is more difficult for those of materialistic, modern societies to find this path does not mean it is any less available to them. The greatest commandment can be lived out by the individual regardless of what the government, culture, or the rest of society is doing to encourage or discourage it.

My apologies if I have entirely misunderstood you, or am being too bold.

Bruce Charlton said...

@buckyinky - "The idea that certain societies in history had higher sanctity is an unfamiliar idea to me."

It is unfamiliar in the West to talk in such terms - yet it is obviously true (how could it not be?), and it is what is implied by discussions concerning social morals, laws etc.

It is hard to recapture for oneself the traditional understanding that the fact we are 'in it together' places constranist on what can be achieved by an individual - not just ourselves but others.

If you read some Eastern Orthodox history, history of Saints etc, it is amazing to see the high level of devoutness which existed in some times and places. I mean a high average level, but perhaps more strikingly a high peak level - with Saints and near-Saints of a kind which does not anymore exist.

buckyinky said...

I agree, certain societies had a higher number of people attaining greater levels of sanctity than other societies in history. In this my statement was confusing, that it was unfamiliar to me that certain societies had higher sanctity. I guess I was trying to emphasize the disposition of the people in such societies rather than the abstract idea of the society itself. I see, though, that by society you mean the people.

I guess what I am having a difficult time understanding is what the Byzantine empire, Anglo-Saxon England, etc. have to do with your relationship to Christianity. The fact that our modern societies are inferior to these vis-a-vis Christianity may keep you from attaining a higher degree of sanctity than you would have, but does it not all come down to, as the Scriptures frequently ask, What doth the Lord require of thee? Does He require of you a degree of sanctity that circumstances beyond your control make impossible for you to attain?

It is in this way that I do not understand your emphasis on past great Christian civilizations.

Bruce Charlton said...

@bi - I am interested by the past because I find such meagre resources in the present - also that the consensus of the (holier) past can settle some uncertainties and disputes where (almost) everybody nowadays is wrong.

Ariston said...

a Mere Christian being one who does not believe that any of the Christian churches or denominations has an unique access to salvation; but rather that there is a vital core of Christianity distinctive to none and shared by at least several…

This is my essential issue with the "mere Christian" position, especially as defined within the C.S. Lewis book. It manages to be a very rigorous denominational stance, while masquerading as one that is not. Indeed, the very act of not joining a church places you in yet another denomination; though obviously one that is unorganized. It reminds me of nothing so much as the stance of the denomination most of the churchgoing part of my family belongs to: the Church of God.

The problem is that there are some core issues with the stance because it absolutizes things that are true, yet incomplete. Of course there is grace wherever Trinitarian baptism and the recognition of Christ as God, but that does not make for the expanse of the Church as founded in the New Testament. The problem is that taking the New Testament seriously enough about these issues leaves some real questions regarding others: The Eucharistic language of John 6 is perhaps the most serious.

JRRT Reader said...

Interesting thoughts, Dr. Charlton. I'd appreciate your views on the following matters, if you are still following this post.

One problem on a practical level with "Mere Christianity" is that none of the denominations which I believe to be on the right path (broadly, Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and probably the more traditional elements within Anglicanism) actually seem to approve of or preach "Mere-ism", but rather tend more toward claims of exclusivity. For example, Orthodoxy does not approve of Branch Theory.

Another issue is that one might well have to reject some part of the culture inheritance of the West depending on which tradition he elects to follow. A Catholic might have to adopt views on, let's say Dostoyevsky or Gogol, which carry certain reservations due to their Eastern Orthodox nature, whereas becoming a member of an Orthodox Church would carry at least some critical overtones of the culture produced in the West since the schism of 1054.

If you have any thoughts on these matters, I'd be interested to hear them.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ariston "The problem is that there are some core issues with the stance because it absolutizes things that are true, yet incomplete. Of course there is grace wherever Trinitarian baptism and the recognition of Christ as God, but that does not make for the expanse of the Church as founded in the New Testament."

That's very well expressed.

There is this strange apparent paradox that what is sufficient is incomplete - or perhaps has a variety of possible completions.

And all actual completions (actual institutional churches, at any point in history) are themselves necessarily flawed, corrupted, biased, partial.

I recognize again and again that Christianity is a middle path - and both extremes must be rejected: that each individual Christian is sufficeint must be rejected, and that the actual institutional church is always necessary must also be rejected.

It is hard to be more precise, I find.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JRRT - "none of the denominations which I believe to be on the right path (broadly, Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and probably the more traditional elements within Anglicanism) actually seem to approve of or preach "Mere-ism", but rather tend more toward claims of exclusivity."

Yes indeed.

It seems to me that an institutional church cannot be strong without exclusivist claims at some level - although they can be phrased in quantitative terms, rather than qualitative and all-or-nopthing: as in saying we are the best, or easiest, or surest, or highest path to salvation - or even 'the best for you'.

That is more or less what I believe to be true. Seraphim Rose said something along these lines too - that other denominations were partial and perhaps valid, but he was unsure about them.

I do find it striking, however, that all proper Christian denominations do have an element of *implicit* mere Christianity, in that (except at the height of denominational clashes) they regard other denominations as better than non-Christianity or atheism - which would imply a quantitative aspect.

So - in conclusion! - I think that the problem lies with human limitations, and our proneness to dichotomous thinking where we reduce a problem to a forced choice between opposites.

If humans could think and *feel* quantitatively then there would perhaps not be a problem...

Anonymous said...

"The good is the enemy of the best."
Is it ironic? Voltaire's words are: 'The best is the enemy of the good', meaning that if you want to do too well you risk not doing well at all, or make things worse. However, as I have little respect for Voltaire's atheistic views, your take might be better since, speaking of sanctity, one should certainly not settle for good enough if the best can be hoped for.

Bruce Charlton said...

From a comment by Ariston:

"As someone who converted to Christianity as an adult (mentally and legally, though not emotionally) from a once–committed atheism ... I couldn't get over the evidence of the NT: It does not matter how imperfect the Church is, it is still necessary; it is only in the Church that anyone finds salvation.

"Once again, I think John 6 is really important here; if you take that chapter seriously (and there is no reason not to, despite Protestant exegesis which claims it is figurative when the language is unlike any figure every used by Jesus elsewhere in the Gospels— he repeats himself on this, using stronger language), you have to resign yourself to the fact that Eucharistic communion is necessary.

"Now, as it is there are really three options, and one of those is (in my opinion) bogus: You have the Orthodox, the Catholics, and those Old Catholic bodies and their offshoots (like the Continuing Anglicans of the US, who got their orders from the Polish National Catholic Church). I think the utter disarray of the latter is pretty strong evidence against it (saying this as someone with a lot of affection— it was in the Anglican Continuum that I received baptism), though no one who has experienced life on the ground in Catholicism or Orthodoxy can say it is perfect. Catholicism is, of course, in utter liturgical chaos.

"Whether or not that has to be so is an open question, but I certainly do not think the issue is valid reception of Holy Orders or even deficient theology, rather, there was a leadership who lacked the backbone to reign in the madness. (Organizational failure began early some places.)...

"Contrary to the poster above, there is such a thing as letting the perfect be the enemy of the good; expecting the Church to be perfect is no less mad than the Communist who thinks man will be perfect after the pure revolution. Perfection waits."