When Is a Not-Church a Church? When It's an "Ecclesial Community"

Pope Benedict XVI continues to make things as clear as he can for his own church and for everyone else. So now we have another document from his pen, following on the “Dominus Iesus” document of 2000, that makes sure we all know that there is only One True Church. And a predictable uproar has followed.

But I think we kinda already knew Rome thought that, no?

I remember being formally invited to ceremonies celebrating graduates at the provincial university at which I used to teach, ceremonies held by a constituent college of that university run by Jesuits. We were welcome, as members of the Department of Religion, to robe up and take full public part in these events–except for taking communion. Only Roman Catholics could do that. We Protestants didn’t much care for that policy and didn’t attend. But we knew where the Roman church stood: over there, in the communion line, without us.

Most of us already knew that the Roman church was insistent on everyone recognizing the primacy of the Pope. Anyone paying attention to the resistance of Catholic priests to millions of Latin American conversions to Protestantism knows that those priests seem powerfully convinced that the Roman church is the North Pole, and any step in any direction is a step South. So what’s new?

Furthermore, what’s so upsetting? Many leaders of Protestant churches have been quoted in the media saying how dismayed they are with this statement, claiming that it somehow hurts their ecumenical conversations with Rome. But how? Benedict & Co. (and it’s a pretty big “Co.”) are only saying what the Vatican said at its most reformist council, the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. Even in the documents issued by that breath of fresh air, as Pope John XXIII put it, we non-Catholics are but “separated brethren.”

Yet isn’t that an interesting phrase! Protestants and Orthodox are not members of true churches, but we are acknowledged to be truly Christian and used by God in the mystery of his salvific plan for the world. In line with this view, this new document uses the phrase “ecclesial community” to describe our non-churches.

But what is an “ecclesial community”? Remembering that ekklesia in Greek is the root of our word “church,” we find that Rome has pronounced Protestant and Orthodox communions to be, well, “churchy communities.” And that’s entirely consistent with Rome’s outlook: without a Pope, without a proper apostolic succession of bishops, without right (Catholic) doctrine, without a correct understanding and administration of the sacraments–well, how much can Protestants and Orthodox expect? It’s actually quite generous of the Pope to call us “churchy.”

So I’ll settle for that, as an ecumenical evangelical Protestant. Rome has come a long way since it simply pronounced anathemas on Luther and my other Protestant forebears.

Indeed, I’d be glad if the Latin American bishops would ease up on the evangelicals and grant that they are, at least, “churchy.”

And I recall that in the Protestant sects among which I grew up, many of whom congratulated themselves (with mutual exclusivity) on being the One True Church, the Roman Catholic Church was not called “churchy”–except in this sense: the Church of the Devil.

So, Brother Benedict, in the spirit of what many are failing to see as your generous acknowledgment of the genuine Christian elements in other denominations, I’m glad to extend the right hand of fellowship and say that you and your kind strike me as “churchy,” too.

0 Responses to “When Is a Not-Church a Church? When It's an "Ecclesial Community"”

  1. Paul T

    How do you reconcile your comments in this entry with your comments in the previous one? Isn’t the Pope’s position the natural outcome of a religious perspective that accepts that there is a possibility of “correct” or “true” descriptions of the divine?

    Furthermore, how is your assertion that “I trust, then, that my friend will see that his belief that salvation “requires” the work of Jesus Christ is, of course, orthodox Christianity…” any less problematic then the Vatican’s traditional assertion that “outside the Church [Roman Catholic Church] there is no salvation” or even historically valid when even within orthodoxy there is no agreement on what the “work of Jesus Christ” is (or was) and specifically what it accomplished or even agreement of what the word “salvation” means? I would ask you to reconcile your statement with the words of Luke’s gospel where immediately after Zacchaeus responded to Jesus’ economic challenge Jesus said: “Today salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:9). What specific “work” of Jesus was required to effect Zacchaeus’ salvation? Jesus had not even died let alone been resurrected. Even if Jesus knew exactly what was to come and why, no one else did. All the gospels are unanimous in their assertion that even the closest of Jesus followers were devastated after his death. What would Zacchaeus have understood “salvation” to mean?



  2. PaulT

    I should have been clearer in my second sentence. It should read:

    Isn’t the Pope’s position claiming that the RCC is “the one true Church” the natural outcome of a religious perspective that accepts that there is a possibility of “correct” or “true” descriptions of the divine.

    If it is possible to be “churchy” and part of God’s family but not be part of “the one true church” why is not possible to be “related to God” and not be part of “the one true relgion”?



  3. John Stackhouse

    Again, Paul raises a nest of questions. This is why I teach whole courses on theology: many questions connect with each other, and take time to untangle and even understand properly, let alone respond to!

    So I’ll simply say here that I don’t see the problem. The Pope and I agree (now there’s a phrase!) that some statements are true and others are false, while yet some others are more true and others less true. We agree, that is, that propositions can describe what is real, more or less well.

    So because we agree on that formal point, we then go on to disagree materially on just which propositions belong in which categories. His conviction that the proposition “The Pope is the Vicar of Christ” belongs in the “True” box is met with my judgment that it belongs in the “Mostly False” box–“mostly,” I say, because all Christians are indeed vicars of Christ in a modest, but important way, and so is he. But most of what the Roman Catholic Church means by “vicar of Christ” I think is mistaken.

    So I think you’re right, Paul, that the Pope and I each draw lines and say “in” and “out.” We just disagree on where to draw them.

    And so do you, I dare say, since I doubt you include certain villains in your inclusive circle of affirmation, whether child molesters, perpetrators of genocide, and so on.

    As for your contention that “within orthodoxy there is no agreement on what the ‘work of Jesus Christ’ is”–well, that’s true in terms of emphases and details, but it’s just not true in terms of general contours. Orthodox Christians recognize a number of common themes in salvation through Christ, as any chapter on “Christianity” in a reputable world religions textbook would show.

    Lastly, the language of “this day” or “today” or “at hand” in Jesus’ ministry all has to do with his own personal presence, his advent. He is salvation, and he came to Zaccheus’s house.

    But Jesus is also doing something, not just being something, and thus he completes his public ministry, commends his disciples to God and to each other, goes to the Cross, and only then says, “It is finished.”

    The apostolic preaching then says (as in Acts 2) that God vindicates the work of Christ in his resurrection and ascension.

    So clearly the Zaccheus story needs to be interpreted in its place in the larger narrative. Salvation DID come to his house in the person of Jesus and in his household’s warm reception of him. But Jesus needed to die on the cross for the sins of the world, to defeat the enemies of God and the world, and to open our way to salvation–because if he didn’t need to, then he didn’t need to. And then why did he? Especially after specifically asking the Father in Gethsemane to spare him?

    That’s all I can say now. But maybe you and I can get in a systematic theology class together and sort all this out further, Paul!

  4. John Stackhouse

    In his second post, Paul asks whether one can be rightly related to God and not part of Christianity, let alone a particular denomination (“one true church”). I agree that one can: that’s what inclusivism says, orthodox or otherwise, as I outline in my previous post.

    It is HOW one is relating to God that matters, and that is not fundamentally a matter of one’s professed religion, but of one’s encounter with God via the Spirit and what happens in that encounter.

  5. bgeerdes

    Protestants and Orthodox are not members of true churches

    Actually, I believe the Pope said the Orthodox are “true churches”, just “damaged” by their not acknowledging the primacy of the Pope.

  6. John Stackhouse

    Yes, I think that’s right. They’re “true churches,” but “wounded” by their failure to acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope.

    –Which made me think that, by Roman Catholic standards, they’re not QUITE true churches, since they get wrong this fundamental matter of polity, theological method, sacramentalism, and more.

    But now I’m disagreeing with the Pope over the implications of Catholic teaching, and that’s perhaps a little further than I’d like to go…!

  7. GeoFee

    Citing Pope John XXIII, Prof. John wrote: “…non-Catholics are but “separated brethren.:

    “Separate’ defines a line of demarcation; considered metaphorically, we may say a wall of division. On this side of the wall is ‘us’. On that side of the wall is ‘them’.

    There is, from my perspective, no such line of demarcation in Christ. Yet we find lines of inclusion and exclusion drawn all over the map of freedom; which is the gospel of Jesus Christ in Spirit and in Truth. Phrases are claimed and elaborated to expound definitional securities. The perennial incursion of that ‘other seed’ sown in the dark of night; precepts pronounced to establish principalities for the obtaining of powers. All presided over by that one whose strange work it is to incite division (dia bolos)by resort to accusation (satan).

    Does Jesus not lead us beyond the bi-polar to the universal? In a context rife with territorial dispute and boundary managment, Jesus freely crosses each and any line of exclusion. In this the love of God is liberated to include each encountered other along the way.

    The memory of Ezra and Nehemiah prohibited communion with Samaritans. There may have been charitable voices admitting such as “separated brethern”. Jesus stops at no such half way point. Again and again Jesus crosses lines drawn to exclude so that those excluded may be included. Jesus does a certain violence to the ‘wall’. This work makes definition of inside and outside impossible. Where that work persist may we not suspect the absence of Jesus? Even if that work is undertaken in ‘the name of Jesus’?

  8. GeoFee

    A slight editorial modification of the last lines in my last paragraph to overcome the ambiguity of my syntax………

    This violence, the cross writ plain and large, makes definition of inside and outside impossible. Where that definitional work persists may we not suspect the absence of Jesus? Even if that work is undertaken in ‘the name of Jesus’?

  9. John Stackhouse

    I’m not sure what GeoFee means, but if you mean that Jesus didn’t draw any lines between “in” and “out,” then we are reading the Gospels differently. Jesus spoke about hell a lot, and I think he was very clear that some would be going there while others wouldn’t be, that some were “out” (as in “outer darkness”) and some were “in” (as in “in the Kingdom”).

    Jesus broke down various barriers, yes, so that all would have access to the Kingdom, regardless of sex, race, class, etc. But then the crucial distinction is between those who do, indeed, enter the Kingdom and those who don’t. Universalism is a heresy and simply a bad way to read the Gospels–so the Church has said, and so I agree.

  10. preacherman

    How will this effect the unity movement? How will Catholics view Evangelicals? Will it cause the to not talk to us at all? Their children to play with ours? You see I live in a town that is highly hispanic and cathlic. How will this effect the town do you think? Do you think it might cause a bigger Spiritual divide within the community? I appreciate you thoughts.

  11. Paul T


    You are right that Jesus spoke quite directly about hell (Of the 18 direct references to hell or eternal fire in the NT (NIV) Jesus makes 14 of them) but in every one of them Jesus either turned someone’s rhetoric back to the accuser (i.e. he used the Pharisees’ own teaching to condemn them) or claimed that some might be in danger of hell as a result of some specific actions they (or we) do or do not do – anger at brother, eye or hand cause you to sin = danger of hell (Matthew 5:22-29), rich man condemned to hell for ignoring poor Lazarus (Luke 16:23), parable of the sheep and goats: Those who did not feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, look after the sick and visit those in prison = condemned to eternal fire (Matthew 25:31-45) among others. I cannot find even one instance in any of the epistles or the gospels of someone being condemned to hell for believing the wrong thing, rejecting any specific teaching or doctrine about Jesus or as a result of the wrath of God for the non-elect. I see absolutely nothing, especially in the gospels, that indicates that it is the expected end of the unredeemed. It is my opinion that Jesus used hell primarily as a rhetorical device but in any case it seems irrefutable to me that to the degree that Jesus believed in a literal hell, he also believed in a works based salvation. As you said earlier, you can’t have it both ways – you cannot believe in salvation by grace and that a literal hell is the destination of those who do not accept the gift of salvation, at least not if you want to use the words of Jesus.

    There are some passages in John’s Revelation that appear to be pretty hostile to non-believers, but we must remember that John’s Revelation was written to believers (the seven churches) and not non-believers. Apocalyptic writings in general and the book of John’s Revelation in particular were written to encourage believers under threat to remain loyal to their community and God by continuing to resist the siren call of empire and uses a great deal of vivid imagery and rhetorical skill to accomplish this. In particular it uses commonly understood symbols of the day, specifically Greek mythology, for this purpose – i.e. Hades, a Greek God of the underworld, is frequently referred to in Revelation. Unless we are prepared to believe that John accepted the literal truth of Greek mythology I do not see how we can literalize his writings. In my opinion the Book of John’s Revelation was, and is, an important book that emphasizes that God is on the side of the weak oppressed and is opposed to the might and domination of empire. It gives us great guidance as to how and why to resist the lure of empire, but it is a great mistake to treat it as a foundation for systematic theology or even worse to treat it as a prophetic vision of the future.

    But just to lighten the tone:

    For the literalists out there.

    The temperature of Heaven can be rather accurately computed. Our authority is Isaiah 30:26, “Moreover, the light of the Moon shall be as the light of the Sun and the light of the Sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days.” Thus Heaven receives from the Moon as much radiation as we do from the Sun, and in addition 7 x 7 (49) times as much as the Earth does from the Sun, or 50 times in all. The light we receive from the Moon is one 1/10,000 of the light we receive from the Sun, so we can ignore that. The radiation falling on Heaven will heat it to the point where the heat lost by radiation is just equal to the heat received by radiation, i.e., Heaven loses 50 times as much heat as the Earth by radiation. Using the Stefan-Boltzmann law for radiation, (H/E)^4 = 50, where E is the absolute temperature of the earth (-300ºK), gives H as 798ºK (525ºC) as the absolute temperature of heaven.

    The exact temperature of Hell cannot be computed. However, Revelation 21:8 says “But the fearful, and unbelieving … shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.” A lake of molten brimstone [sulphur] means that its temperature must be at or below its boiling point, 444.6ºC.

    We have, then, that Heaven, at 525ºC is hotter than Hell at 445ºC.

    Now you know



  12. John Stackhouse

    Paul, I’m afraid I’ve lost the thread of your remarks. It seems to me like we’re embarked on a string of Q&A such that something I say reminds of you of something else and off we go on another round!

    I admire your independence of mind, your clarity of expression, and your interest in theology. But I can’t keep up with one new topic after another!

    This exchange shows me again the value of truly systematic theology, theology that helps us see the particulars in terms of a paradigm, a whole, even as we critique and improve our paradigms by subsequent revisiting of the particulars. What I read you to ask has been asked often before, of course, and has been answered equally often before–in terms of weighing Scripture with Scripture and trying to come to the most coherent and cogent interpretation of it all. But that takes a lot of work, both on the particulars and on referring them to the overall paradigm and, as I say, I can’t keep up the pace of one thing after another!

    Maybe we can revisit your latest question sometime, but for now I’ll just say that you mustn’t argue from “sins will condemn you” (Jesus’ point) to “good works will save you” (which is not Jesus’ point, I daresay). For that matter, “works” manifest inward conditions of heart that themselves matter as to one’s eventual destiny, as Jesus says elsewhere.

    But that’s all I can manage for now! As I say, it would be great to have you in a class, and if you can’t come to Regent, I hope you’ll find a school in which you can get these questions systematically answered.

  13. GeoFee

    John Stackhouse writes: “I’m not sure what GeoFee means, but if you mean that Jesus didn’t draw any lines between “in” and “out,” then we are reading the Gospels differently. Jesus spoke about hell a lot, and I think he was very clear that some would be going there while others wouldn’t be, that some were “out” (as in “outer darkness”) and some were “in” (as in “in the Kingdom”).”

    Who, listening to Jesus, would have guessed a Samaritan would find entrance where a Pharisee would not? Certainly not those walking in the light of Ezra and Nehemiah! There was an orthodoxy to be respected. What an offence the open heart of Jesus must have represented to the righteous keepers of rubrics deemed necessary for inclusion. Paul’s quarrel with the Galatians is perennial.

    Has God torn down the wall of division only to build it up again? I think not. It is written: whosoever wills may come. The way is open. There is no hindrance. That some defer or refuse does nothing to negate, let alone overcome, the perfect love of the creator for the creature.

    What is it in us that insists on the declaration: “On my side there is good and on the other side there is evil.” Just saying it here I taste the strange fruit on my tongue.


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