Neuhaus on the church

February 27, 2012

It’s always a pleasure to read something (a book, article, blog post) that gives words to thoughts I’ve been having or an idea I’ve been wrestling with. At one and the same time it assures me that I’m not alone and that there is some hope of finding a way forward in the midst of a struggle. The person who recommends such a resource is an invaluable friend to whom a great debt it owed.

Recently Allan Poole (Pastor of Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church) recommended the late Richard John Neuhaus’s Freedom for Ministry.

I’m less than a fourth of the way through the book so I’ll refrain from a sweeping endorsement. However, I will tell you that the first chapter of the book is a gem. In “The Thus and So-Ness of the Church,” Neuhaus reflects on the tension we ministers experience when we hold together the “church of faith” with the “church of fact.” There is a gulf between the Church as it is and as it ought to be.

Ministry takes place firmly in the church as it is. Recognizing this is one of the keys, I am sure, to faithful ministry over the long haul. Writes Neuhaus, “But, you say, you cannot love the real church [the church of fact] because it is so unspeakably unlovable [petty, self-absorbed, sometimes heretical, etc.]. But what is the “real” Church? It is a great error, I believe, to think that only what now exists is real. To view the Church in terms of possibility and promise is not to depart from reality but to encompass the greater reality” (14).

What a breath of fresh air like for an idealist like me! The church is rent asunder and distressed by heresies. It can be petty, tyrannical, apathetic, and cruel. It is an institution, an organization, and prone to all the problems that beset such as this. However, it is also the bride of Christ:

What is the Church of which we are called to be ministers and for which we are to have love unbounded? It is the Church that “Christ loved…[he] gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27). That is the real Church. And that real Church is in continuity with, inseparable from, this empirical, existing Church with which we are so deeply and so rightly satisfied. (15)

Neuhaus powerfully names the tension I have been living. He continues: “To love the Church, then, is to help it become what it is” (15). The central element of the pastoral calling, then, is to help the church live into its identity as the bride of Christ and to do this in the way of love. What a calling!