One of the books I’ve been studying from this semester is Avery Dulles’ Models of the Church. There are so many different types of church around today but Dulles sifts through these to identify six “models”. This isn’t about use of music or sacraments or clergy or building or numbers but about the very heart of the answer to the questions “what is church?” I’ve found it really fascinating and useful in my thoughts about church and hope to share some of this with you.
Church as Institution
I think the most important point which Dulles makes for me here is that Institutional Church does not equal institutionalism for “institutionalism is a deformation of the true nature of the Church”. It does mean that the Church is a “perfect society” with a government and constitution which members are accountable to. The Institutional Church exists to teach, sanctify and govern through their hierarchical system of governance.
In Vatican I (the 20th ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church, 1869-1870) it was declared that the “Church of Christ is not a community of equals” – i.e. the Church authorities have rights over the laity. This is a dangerous slope to step upon. Paul acknowledges that there is a hierarchy of gifts: “And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:28) but he says that all people are necessary for the working of the the Church: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:12) We are all under one God, saved by one death and resurrection and now living in one Spirit. Surely therefore, within the capabilities of our gifts, we all have equal rights to minister? 1 Peter 2:9 says “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you“. It is very easy in this model of Church for the clergy to become/exercise a new legality. The focus can be on them and not on God. The can exert power that should not be theirs and their “followers” can suffer because of it.
This model does, however, have a strong history within the Church and as such links the past and present in an emphasis on origins which gives the believers a better sense of stability and corporate identity. I think this model worked particularly well for the Church when it was able to exercise governance and influence in every aspect of life. There was no separation of Church and state and this model enabled the Church to impose an authority and control which kept everything in order. Of course, we are now more aware of the dangers of this and “laity” are more likely to be seeking independence. We are also aware that it is not entry to or membership of the institution which saves and understand that only where there is space for personal reflection and exploration can we expect personal, saving faith to grow – we cannot merely enforce belief.
The Church of course, if it is to be any kind of large organisation needs a structure but the institutional and organisational aspects of the Church must be held in tension. As Dulles writes:
“The institutional elements in the Church must ultimately be justified by their capacity to express or strengthen the Church as a community of life, witness, and service, a community that reconciles and unites men in the grace of Christ”.