Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to post some thoughts that hit all around the question of the self and the Christian community. This has been particularly interesting for me during this season of Lent, when much of the “superfluous” is “stripped away” to see the human condition starkly.
I recently mentioned one of the two sermons that I heard this past Sunday, which was the second season of Lent. Before the sermon about wrath, I heard a congregationally-specific sermon about restoration (this in light of things I made some mention of here). I was surprised by how pointed it was (and always positive, which was nice). Using Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians, the speaker encouraged us to “restore gently” those who had gone astray.
I found myself wondering, though, about the full destination of the restoration. I have no doubt that there is something rooted in personal relationship and faith. At the same time, though, I can’t help but feel that we in the contemporary church settle on “restoration” as a matter of program readiness or parish busyness. And while those things definitely overlap with the deeper things of God and Christian community, they are not the true root and core. (Or, as Tozer might say, they are the fruit and not the root).
I found myself thinking of C. S. Lewis’s “Membership,” found in The Weight of Glory. The talk got some great airplay recently in Alan Jacobs’s How to Think (where he wonderfully contrasted it with another Lewis talk in the same collection: “The Inner Ring”). From the first paragraph:
We [Christians] are forbidden to neglect the assembling of ourselves together. Christianity is already institutional in the earliest forms of its documents. The Church is the Bride of Christ. We are members of one another.
And so whatever else it is, restoration is deeply about membership . . . but a membership that is more significant than monthly dues paid or a card stamped, swiped, or punched. On some level or another, it’s downright mystical (and yet not that mysterious, really).
Throughout the essay, Lewis walks the fine line between self and community, perhaps as two sides of the same coin. Because as much as you might be yourself, you are only truly yourself when you are found in the communion of saints. Lewis asserts:
The very word membership is of Christian origin, but it has been taken over by the world and emptied of all meaning. In any book on logic you may see the expression “members of a class.” It must be most emphatically stated that the items or particulars included in a homogeneous class are almost the reverse of what St. Paul meant by members. By members ([ Greek]) he meant what we should call organs, things essentially different from, and complementary to, one another, things differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity. Thus, in a club, the committee as a whole and the servants as a whole may both properly be regarded as “members”; what we should call the members of the club are merely units. A row of identically dressed and identically trained soldiers set side by side, or a number of citizens listed as voters in a constituency are not members of anything in the Pauline sense. I am afraid that when we describe a man as “a member of the Church” we usually mean nothing Pauline; we mean only that he is a unit— that he is one more specimen of some kind of things as X and Y and Z. How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself. The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter; she is a different kind of person. The grown-up brother is not simply one unit in the class children; he is a separate estate of the realm. The father and grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incommensurables.
I have thought of that word, collective, often as I have tried to navigate church life as an adult. The church can be many things to many different people: institution, family, collective, community, body, program, parish. It can be all of these or none of these at a given moment, I suppose. The question for those of us who come together in the name of Jesus is to discern and act upon as full of a picture of the Body of Christ as possible, to be members of one another not just of one other organization.
Next Time: A little more from “Membership”