It seems clear to me that at least some interpretations of the Christian message imply forms of human community that many would find to be desirable. It also seems clear to me that Christian communities have traditionally been called “churches.” Hence, to talk about the normative Christian community as “the church” and to list off its desirable and appealling characteristics makes perfect sense.
What bothers me is that so many contemporary theologians seem to be taking the illogical next step of saying that since the normative church that we imagine to be the natural consequence of the Christian message is desirable, it is therefore imperative that those wishing to actualize the Christian message be loyal to some or other actual existing organization putting itself forward as a church. Even worse is claiming that since the imagined normative church has certain properties, therefore the actual existing things that call themselves churches tend to have such properties as well.
In place of this very typical move, I propose that we put forward the normative form of community as desirable, then make an objective assessment of whether any given community is approaching actualizing that normative form, or even making a good-faith effort toward doing so. Surely some churches are, but a frank observer would most likely conclude that the vast majority are not. Furthermore, it seems likely that such an investigation would reveal that those that are coming close to actualizing the normative form of community tend to be relatively autonomous and responsive to local conditions, as opposed to conforming to some broader bureaucratic form such as the Roman Catholic Church — indeed, many Catholic parishes that are doing a good job are likely doing so despite their affiliation with the bureaucracy and may even find themselves to be seriously at odds with that bureaucracy. (I choose the Roman Catholic Church not to single it out as uniquely bad, but because it is so often put forward as the “realest” church, particularly among “church”-oriented Protestants.)
With this in mind, the most realistic options would be to either track down and join one of the relatively small number of communities that seem to be actualizing the normative form of community or to attempt to start such a community oneself. Such an approach may well smack of liberal individualism and thus seem to duplicate the very social structure we are presumably trying to offer an alternative to — I’ll admit it! And yet the reason for breaking with liberalism isn’t simply for its own sake, but for the sake of actualizing another model of community, implied by the Christian message, that we find desirable. Since the point isn’t simply to stick it to those liberal individualists with their “free choice” and “independent discernment,” then, there is no real reason to embrace an authoritarianism centered upon some particular organization putting itself forward as a Christian church — unless, of course, we believe that the Christian message is first of all about authoritarianism, which seems to me to be a strained interpretation to say the least.
In other words, theologians interested in Christian community — and who isn’t? — should be looking for “the church” or trying to create it. At the very least, they should admit that it is an open question whether there exist any concrete actualizations of the theoretical construct they are calling, in a nod to tradition, “the church.”
[This post owes much to a paper given by Josh Davis at the Wesleyan Theological Society meeting several years ago.]