Church Militant theology and the politics of our time

Monday, January 23, 2017

When I was a devout child in my small-town Episcopal Church, I learned all about the Church Militant, the Church Expectant, and the Church Triumphant. As I remember it, the Church Militant was described as the church living on earth in the present. The Church Expectant, we understood, was all of us joined together with the saints in heaven, joyfully awaiting the Last Day. The Church Triumphant, we learned, will come into being with the culmination of all things in the arrival of the eternal City of God “coming down from heaven” as in the book of Revelation. Even as a child I always thought these were wonderful concepts and they remained with me.

Samuel G. Freedman, who writes the “On Religion” column for The New York Times every other week or so, has brought these terms to our attention in a new context:

(I am not an expert on these matters, but I surmise that the medieval [perhaps even earlier] terminology must have been altered after the Reformation. If the medieval Roman Church called the middle stage the “Church Penitent,” that would have summoned up images of Purgatory, and would have been rejected by the Reformers because of the significant abuses [prayers to the saints, and especially indulgences for sale] of the concept of Purgatory as it was then understood. I imagine that the Church of England must have changed the designation of the second stage to “Church Expectant.”)

As Freedman points out, “Church Militant” never meant the Crusades or any other kind of armed or enforced assault on others in the name of Christ. But it should not be reduced to an individualistic interpretation either. The church is a body, indeed it is the Body of Christ, and its corporate nature appears in the world as a force on the socio-political stage, like it or not.

In the  context of the present, then, this surely means a pro-active stance against false interpretations of the gospel. I am committing myself for the foreseeable future (God being my helper) to try to be of some use to fellow Christians in the imperative to resist evil (I Peter 5:8-11). Surely that is one of the meanings of “Church Militant.” I will continue to argue that one of the imperatives for the church in this new atmosphere is vigorously to denounce the hijacking of its most important theological affirmations by political and ideological interests

The easiest way to do this is what I am doing now, i.e., putting something on the internet to be read by like-minded “followers.” That requires no particular courage. It is simple enough, and relatively free of cost, to use a website to point out the misuse of the concept of the Church Militant by ideologues. It is far more challenging, and more perilous to navigate the cultural and political battlefield in the context of teaching, preaching, and worship in the local congregation. When you are looking out at the faces of people whom you know to have different political convictions, it is tempting indeed to take the line of least resistance.

I attend worship in many different congregations. In recent months, and especially since the presidential election of 2016, I have noticed two contrasting styles.

1) The prayers and sermons are studiously chosen, or appear to be, for their non-controversial nature. The messages are carefully phrased to avoid any sort of offense to anyone. They essentially come across–to me, anyway–as bland and anemic.

2) In some other churches, equal care is taken with prayers and preaching, but there is a slight bit of an edge. No political references are made, no political parties are alluded to, no candidates or office-holders are mentioned, but very specific affirmations are made, in the prayers and sermons, concerning strong biblical imperatives such as “justice in the gate” for the downtrodden and voiceless (“the widow and orphan”); embrace of the “sojourner” (foreigner, stranger, refugee); care for the sick, the forgotten, the voiceless, the powerless; and God as “no respecter of persons.”  In other words, there can be no mistaking the subversive nature of the gospel even if politics are not mentioned.

Actually a good argument can be made that the most powerful preaching is addressed to a mixture of people, rather than to a convocation of the like-minded.  Preaching to the like-minded requires no particular care or nuance. It does not acknowledge the presence of Others–who, in the case of the recent election, may actually be members of one’s own family. The same effort should be made in the congregation as in the family; that is to say, with unconditional love and yet with conviction about the centrality of certain core beliefs that cannot be surrendered in the name of superficial unity.

(Parenthetically, it must be said that the Roman Catholic church has often been good at this, because, unlike the Protestant churches, it has a teaching magisterium (teaching office) that, however much flouted in the observance, is particularly assertive about biblical social values, with its strong official stand for immigrants, the working class, economic justice, and “works of mercy” in the public sphere.)

 It is remarkable how much Dietrich Bonhoeffer is admired and quoted by Christians of all theological and ecclesiastical persuasions. Everywhere I go, especially in “conservative” churches, he is cited reverentially, and his resistance to the Nazis is almost always mentioned. Yet the idea of resistance is not drawn out and linked to our present situation. Bonhoeffer’s letters, essays, and prayers from prison have an unmistakable political significance, and when that is brushed out, the gift of his life is diminished.

For what it is worth, since no one can do everything, and indeed one can only do a very few things well, I am committing myself to “majoring” in three issues:1) arresting climate change, if that is still possible; 2) truth in all matters, including especially resistance to the perversion of language; and 3) preaching and teaching gospel-centered resistance.

Thank you, readers, for your interest in my offerings. May God correct them where they need correcting, and may he strengthen his church for the battles to come.

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