When we talk about the nature of the church, where do we find its fundamental unit? Is it the congregation? Is it the denomination? Is it something beyond the congregation? Is it visible? Or is it invisible? If I were to venture a guess, I would say that most people who call themselves Disciples of Christ, would claim that the "fundamental unit" is the congregation. In fact, I have often thought in this vein. But is this true?
Wm. Barnett Blakemore, one of the key contributors to the theological foundations of what became the restructured Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), notes that this idea that the congregation is the "fundamental unit" is a 20th century concept. In the 19th century Disciples would have probably spoke of the individual being that "fundamental unit." Blakemore suggests taht Disciples face two important questions. The second has to do with the locus of power, a conversation that I'll leave for a later post. The first question has to do with the definition of this "fundamental unit." [W. Barnett Blakemore, "The Issue of Polity for Disciples Today," in The Revival of the Churches (Panel of Scholars Reports, vol. 3), Wm. Barnett Blakemore, ed, (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1963), pp. 66-67.]
If those who call themselves members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) seek to offer an answer today, we might want to take a look at what is written in The Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The Design is, for a lack of a better word, our constitution. It is the definitive document that guides our life together -- at least in theory. The Design begins with a Preamble, which functions as a quasi statement of faith, but following up that statement there are two important paragraphs that define the nature of the church, and the Disciple place within the church.
1. Within the whole family of God on earth, the church appears wherever believers in Jesus the Christ are gathered in His name. Transcending all barriers within the human family, the one church manifests itself in ordered communities bound together for worship, fellowship, and service; in varied structures for mission, witness, and mutual accountability; and for the nurture and renewal of its members. The nature of the church, given by Christ, remains constant through the generations, yet in faithfulness to its nature, it continues to discern God’s vision and to adapt its mission and structures to the needs of a changing world. All dominion in the church belongs to Jesus, its Lord and head, and any exercise of authority in the church on earth stands under His judgment.
This statement sets the church we call the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in a context that extends The Design, follows upon the words of Thomas Campbell, one of our Founders. It is clear from reading the Declaration and Address, which unfortunately I don't have at my desk as I write, but Blakemore notes that "For Thomas Campbell it is the whole Church of Christ on earth, comprising all those in every place who do profess Christian faith and obedience, which is essentially and intentionally and constitutionally one. For him this one church necessarily exists in local assemblies, but it is not made up of those local assemblies. it is made up of the whole body of professing Christians" ("Issue of Polity," p. 68).
So, whatever else we call church has its foundation in the "fundamental unit" that is the church found in every place and everywhere that Christ is names as Lord. Congregations, Regions, Denominations are important expressions, but they are not the fundamental unit.
Thus, The Design continues:
Within the universal Body of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is identifiable by its testimony, tradition, name, institutions, and relationships. Across national boundaries, this church expresses itself in covenantal relationships in congregations, regions, and general ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), bound by God’s covenant of love. Each expression is characterized by its integrity, self-governance, authority, rights, and responsibilities, yet they relate to each other in a covenantal manner, to the end that all expressions will seek God’s will and be faithful to God’s mission. We are committed to mutual accountability. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and constantly seeks in all of its actions to be obedient to his authority.
If congregations are not the fundamental unit, and I've become convinced that they're not, then how do we experience these various expressions of this one church that expresses itself in a variety of visible forms? In The Design we speak of covenantal relationships, but how do these function? Disciples often speak of these three expressions (previously manifestations) as having their own integrity -- that is expressed in this definition. We speak in terms of each of these expressions being equal to the other, so there's no hierarchy involved. The congregation isn't a subsidiary of the national/general church. To use a Trinitarian term, it is its own person, though it shares substance with Region and General expressions. I will talk more about the Trinity and our polity in a later posting, but hopefully this makes sense.
Whether you're Disciple or not, I hope we can have a conversation about what makes church church!