Leaven in the lump, and tares amongst wheat
The parable of the wheat and the taris is sometimes mistakenly offered as a biblical justification for the resigned acceptance of error in the church. The problem has an ancient root.
Ed preface: The following was penned prior to the Church of Scotland's General Assembly debate on human sexuality in May 2011. The article describes the Augustinian concept of the 'visible' and 'invisible' church which has some validity. However it is a philosophy which is not beyond question and can be pressed into service as a flawed rationale in tolerating error.
In a brief New Year reflection a passing reference was made to pending conflict in the church (using the lower-case ‘church’ as a term which the man in the street would employ to describe organised churchianity). Of course is always fairly safe to predict conflict in the church as it is ever a mix of committed but often differing views on this or that matter of life and/or doctrine.
In the latter half of the 20th century and more so in the first decade of the 21st much upset has been centred around the issue of human sexuality. However the problem which underlies much of that debate – and so many others – is rooted away back in the time of the early church fathers.
The two-church philosophy
As a theological concept attributed to St. Augustine (354-430AD) the notion of a co-existent ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ church was formulated. Basically the view suggests that the ‘invisible’ church is the body of true believers (throughout all the ages) whereas the ‘visible’ church is composed of and represented by organised churchianity at any one point in time.
The concept was later and expediently reaffirmed and insisted upon at the time of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. It was – for the reformers – a convenient way of explaining how the Roman Catholic church – the ‘visible’ church could be so corrupt whilst the Protestant church (part of the ‘invisible’ body of saints) could aiming at purity.
Unfortunately while the concept of visible and invisible church is valid there is a problem. Scripture tells us that there will always be an element within the company of believers that do not really know the Lord (Matt. 7:21-24 et al) and, because it is neither possible nor permissible to judge the affairs on any one person’s heart, there will ever be a mix in the ‘visible’ church of the saved and the unsaved. And this situation inherently carries a perennial and powerful predisposition for strife.
But the real problem arises when there is an acceptance within the visible church of those in leadership positions who are clearly unsaved.
Thus we have a situation today where there are extra-biblical teaching from pulpits (including now, clergy who are actively and openly gay) and un-biblical lifestyles and doctrines in leadership positions. And if these problems are not bad enough in themselves, the even greater problem is that this situation is tolerated – even accepted willingly.
Within the Church of Scotland there is currently turmoil over the matter of sexuality, but this is just the merely the most recent – albeit very serious – manifestation of the ‘visible and invisible’ concept. Historically the Kirk has been a ‘mixed bag’ of belief and unbelief and, notwithstanding the difficulties of separating out these two components, we have – and not just in the C of S – created, or at least allowed, a situation which is becoming explosive.
To illustrate ‘where we are in all of this’ a church in Scotland (it matters not which one, it could be any which are governed by elders) called a minister who – in perhaps a way that had not always been the case – clearly and robustly taught the Word of God. Now whilst change at any time can be unsettling, change of this nature invariably creates a reaction; sometimes it can be a violent one. In this particular situation, the level of unrest was such that an elder felt led to write to his fellow congregational leaders in the following terms:
An elder's view:
‘Some things I know, and some things I wouldn’t presume to know. But of what I do know, I know this: that the full gospel of God is being preached in [Name of Church]. I am convinced that [the preacher’s name] has been given to us by God to facilitate the working out of his plans and designs in this place. A rejection of this ministry would, in effect, be a rejection of God’s plans and purposes for our congregation.
There are those, however, who reject such a view. They do not see the necessity for the depth of commitment that is being preached. Enough for them to quieten their conscience with a milder and less demanding form of Christianity [churchianity – Ed.]. But would they shut heaven’s door in the face of those who seek to enter, because they find the Gospel’s meat too strong for them? Because they themselves have no hunger for their God, would they deny others the means by which they may seek his face? It is their right to refuse the Way, but never theirs to deny such means to others.
If it is not our desire to be at the forefront of God’s work in the Highlands, then it is our portion to be discarded as the wood of the vine, set aside; rejected, as unfit for purpose.
As for myself, what can I say, other than that the Spirit of God has touched my heart. I am drawn onwards by a power beyond myself. My bridges are burned; I cannot turn aside, nor tarry with the faint-hearted. If we are ever to progress as individuals or as a congregation, it is necessarily dependent on a steady and ever growing commitment to Christ. To reject this step is to reject progress, for our God will not pour his grace into a heart which does not fully belong to him.
We as a congregation have reached a crossroads, and nowhere does the road need to be illuminated more than at the point at which it forks. God is reaching out to us, he is offering us a place in his purposes, a rich and fulfilling destiny awaits us.
Let us not reject the joy of being God’s fellow-workers because we are afraid of moving out of the comfort zone.
If the ‘visible’ church is to at all strive towards the ‘invisible’ ideal then there needs to be a rigorous response to what is clearly unbiblical in the former. Much grace is needed; humility is needed; wisdom is needed; but essentially Truth needs to be upheld, protected, preached and lived.
And when the latter becomes a priority we can expect sparks to fly. The fire of God not only brought birth and blessing at Pentecost but they are also the means of refining the metal and purifying the bride – the true ‘invisible’ church. The process is painful, but the commitment to it is essential. What remains to be seen is whether there exists courage for the task in hand: a willingness to ‘moving out of the comfort zone’. And all this for His glory in the ‘invisible’ church – the pure body and bride of Jesus Christ.