The Rev. Pat Barker
Trinity Church, Searcy
Oct. 30, 2011
A Roman Catholic theologian wrote a book some time ago entitled “Models of the Church.” He claimed that there are various models in peoples’ minds that shape their expectations of and responses to the church. His list of models included: institution, communion, sacrament, herald, and servant. There are other models of course.
For example, I remember a man once telling me bluntly that the church is a business. Then again, Paul refers to the church as the household of faith, that is, a family. Augustine calls it a hospital for sinners; others think of it as a school.
While each of these models or images may highlight a true aspect of the church, none comprehends all that the church is and does. Furthermore, our models can clash. Compare, for example, church as business and church as family. A moment’s reflection will tell us that behaviors appropriate for a business aren’t always and without further ado appropriate for a family. You can’t fire a brother, for example; at least you can’t fire him as a brother.
It often helps to know if someone is operating according to a different model of church than you are. For then you can see their “odd behavior” not simply as odd but as conforming to a different model from the one you are using.
One way to resolve the conflicts that emerge from different models of church is to have a governing model, let’s call it, one that gives context and so sets the limits for the others. For me, this model, or image is that of a redemptive community.
When used in the church, “redemption” is a metaphor. It’s one of several in the New Testament that describe the effect that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have for us. Its non-metaphorical meaning is the purchased freedom of a slave. When the New Testament claims that Jesus has redeemed us it means to say that he has bought our freedom with the price of his life. The price of the slave’s freedom is called the ransom.
As all metaphors do, this one breaks down when pushed too far, like for example, who was paid the ransom, and so on. The point of the metaphor simply is: Jesus death effected our life situation in the way that payment of ransom redeems, sets free a slave.
Within this model of Christian experience, a reasonable question to ask is: “Now that I am free, what do I do?” One resounding New Testament answer is: “Stay free.” As Paul put it, “For freedom Christ has set you free.” When Paul wrote this he was encouraging the church not to submit to the confining rules and regulations of the Jewish law, as some were saying that they must. But staying free in Christ could also mean not submitting to the confining dictates of narrow minded and self-serving goals. In either case, we stay free by becoming the person that God created us to be.
According to this model of the church, we are a community of freed slaves. Consequently, one mission of the church should be to help us live freely in Christ. The decisions we make as church, then, should be governed by what will further the redeemed freedom that is the Christian life.
This is in part what Matthew had in mind when he recorded Jesus’ words about calling no man father or rabbi and so on. He was saying in his own way what Paul was saying about freedom in Christ. The freedom of the Christian community precludes a domineering hierarchy. The Church is a profoundly egalitarian community. It is a community of brothers and sisters, all of whom are equally subject to one parent—God—and one teacher—Christ.
The subjection to one another that exists in the Christian community is voluntary, being a free response to the love of Christ that sets us free. For example, Christ’s love as manifest in his death for us perpetually sets us free from the divine condemnation that our sins would otherwise incur. This is symbolized every Sunday in the Eucharist, where his death is proclaimed as freeing us from our sins by forgiveness. It is within the context of this freedom that we serve others.
To claim that the church is a fellowship of equals is not to say that the church is to have no identifiable organizational structure. It is to say that this structure, this skeletal frame of the body exists to serve and protect the life of this community of equals.
Nor is it to say that a trained ministry is redundant. Individuals do need to be educated in the tradition to guide and encourage the community. But the community as a whole is the Body of Christ and equipped by the Spirit for ministry in terms of each individual’s gifts and opportunities.
But alack and alas, just as was the case in Jesus’ day with respect to the scribes and Pharisees, so today, ecclesiastical structures and its office holders tend to undermine the primacy of the community of equals. In fact, at times in its history, the church has so confused its nature and priorities that the community comes to serve the hierarchy and its operational structures rather than the reverse. This is precisely not the community Matthew understood Jesus to be creating. Indeed, the usurpation of the ministry of the people of God by a cadre of professionals bleeds the life out of the church.
The great evil of this is not only that people get bossed around, but that the freedom that marks the redeemed community is denied, if not in so many words, then in its practical effect.
For example, it is commonplace in the Episcopal Church to call priests “father” or “mother.” No one can deny that this is in flat contradiction to Jesus’ words that we read today. There may be ways to work around it, but there can be no denying it.
However—and I hasten to add something I would typically say back in the day when I naively thought it did some good to have this conversation—it is not just the words of subservience that Jesus warns against here; it is also the spirit of subservience. For example, a Christian can call his minister “Brother” and nevertheless relate to him more subserviently than any high church Anglican ever dreamed of doing. These hierarchies exist everywhere, and it matters little what words are used.
To be specific, I think the ambivalence that wafts in and out of these dialectics of freedom and order, service and honor shows itself in what you call me—at least what you call me to my face: “Father Pat.” The “Pat” part suggests the familiarity that belongs to a community of equals; the “father” part belongs to the hierarchy. There are important nuances in this that I will save for another time. So, let me just say: for what it is worth I don’t care what you call me as long as you show me the respect as a child of God that you have a right to expect from me.
Again, these organizational structures are not bad in themselves; they can prevent chaos in the community. But what often happens is that those ensconced high up in them forget that they are intended by Christ to structure service in the fellowship of equals where greatness is not marked by command and public honor but by self-effacing helpfulness.
Well, I’m not sure if I got off the track there or not, so let me conclude with this. Through no grace or merit of our own, we are disciples of Christ. We are all students in a community of redemption created by God out of Christ’s death and resurrection. We are learning in this community what redemption in Christ means. Whatever else it may be, our life together is a faith education in the meaning of Christian redemption, of what it gives us and what it asks of us. We are disciples learning who Christ is and who we are by experiencing the redemption he brings. Whatever else the church may be, it is this. If it is not this, while we may still call it the church, it’s fair to ask what good it does.