I promise I'm getting towards the point of this lengthy excursus into ecclesiology.
The more discerning reader will have noticed that the two aspects of our unity mentioned in my last post relate pretty directly to the Reformation distinction between the Church as catholic (universal) assembly and the church as local congregation. Despite some theological difficulties with this distinction, it seems to remain valid. All those who are united with Christ are united with the Church catholic, which is the Bride of Christ. However, as it is impossible to discern an individual’s connection to Christ, so it is impossible to state with exactitude the limits of the catholic Church. The unity is real and God-given, but it is not visible in itself.
All those who are united by a common experience of the Spirit and a common faith, however, are called to form local congregations as visible expressions of the catholic church. This unity is visible because based on things that can, to an extent, be discerned by Christians. Of course, this visible unity assumes invisible unity, just as the gift of the Spirit and unity in the one faith assume a common union with Christ. In fact, the reason we unite with those who share our faith and our experience of the Spirit is that these things provide evidence that we are already united with them on the basis of our mutual unity with Christ.
It follows from what we have said about the impossibility of discerning with precision the boundaries of the catholic Church that there may well be those with whom we have visible unity but with whom we are not, in fact, spiritually united – in other words, there will be those within the congregations of our churches who are not, in fact, united with Christ. This is not something that we could ever ascertain for certain. Furthermore, the New Testament does not encourage us to give it too much thought. We are encouraged to unite with all those who testify to their experience of the Spirit and hold the same faith. Only God can look deeper than this. Therefore, we should not be suspicious of people in our churches, or in other churches, who appear to share the Spirit and the truth. Rather, we must look on them as brothers and sisters and unite with them accordingly, leaving the final judgement to God. If we are called to be suspicious of anyone, it is of ourselves.
It is important to recognise at the same time that the New Testament does not encourage us to be so charitable as to assume that those who do not share our experience of the Spirit and do not hold to the faith entrusted once for all to the saints are nevertheless really united with Christ. We are directed to the marks of visible unity – the Spirit and the truth – and not to speculation on a person’s spiritual state.
My interim conclusion is this: visible unity must be based on the visible marks of unity given us in Scripture. To go beyond this in trying to unite more broadly is presumption. It assumes that in the absence of the evidence that God has told us to look for, we can nevertheless discern whether someone is united spiritually to Christ. That seems to me to be a claim to knowledge that only God has. On the other hand, to refuse to unite with those who share in the visible marks of unity seems equally presumptuous, as it involves declaring ourselves to be disunited from those who show the evidence of being united to Christ that God has told us to look for.
Tomorrow I plan to wrap this up with a few more practical comments.