|Baptistry - St. James Avebury, UK|
I have finished my Easter sermon series on the rich and complex vision of salvation present in Scripture and in the traditions of the church. While there is much more that I could say about salvation, I had to bring the series to a close. But, thinking back on that series, I felt like I needed to at least take note of the role that the church plays in process of salvation.
As Cyprian put it in the third century, "Outside the Church there is no Salvation." In part this is due to the fact that the church had control of the sacraments, which were seen as the means of grace. How else would you gain access to baptism and the Eucharist, but through the church. Since Cyprian placed a major emphasis on the role of the bishop (and thus the clergy), effective sacraments required clergy (who were in fellowship with the bishop, whose lineage was supposed to be linked to the apostles themselves.
As a Protestant and member of a tradition that doesn't have bishops in that sense, in what way is the church necessary to salvation? I ask the question because the church has suffered a lot of bad press in recent years. The pollsters tell us that the non-affiliated are the fastest growing religious group in the nation. It won't be long before they surpass evangelicalism as the largest "religious" category. Most of these non-affiliated aren't atheists. They might describe themselves as agnostic, but most see themselves as being spiritual in one sense or another. They have a concept of the divine, but don't feel any real need to affiliate with a religious community to make this a real experience. They have their own spaces that "feed them." Many are eclectic, taking a bit from this group and a bit from that. As for church and salvation, they see no need for the first and aren't sure what the second means.
Here's my question: if church is not important, let alone essential, to spiritual wholeness, then how does a person experience the divine? That is, without a community and traditions and even theology, where do we draw the substance of our faith experience? While I draw from Scripture, that Scripture has been passed down to me through time by the church, that is by communities of faith that have not only preserved the text but interpreted it for me. Not all interpretations are the same, but I'm not alone in my interpretation. I may have the freedom to decide how to interpret, but I don't do this in a vacuum.
I'm reading this book about Karl Barth's Christological Ecclesiology (Cascade, 2013). In this book by Kimlyn J. Bender, Barth's developing understanding of the church is laid out in some detail. Barth is an interesting theologian because he makes use of a dialectical style. Thus, the church is both invisible and visible. It is event and institution. I knew this already, to some degree, but Bender makes it clear that Barth has a penchant for congregationalism. When we talk about the church and its role in the spiritual life, we need to recognize (in my view) that at base the church is a local community. A denomination may have distinctive views and practices, but church is experienced as a local community. If the church has any role in salvation, it would seem to me that it would play out in the local sphere.
Is the church the locus of salvation? In some ways I think it is, though probably not in the way it's usually understood. The church is an event in time and place where we experience God in the presence of others who gather together in the name of Jesus, whom they name Lord and Savior. Is it the only place? That is not for me to say!