Over the last few years, I’ve become convinced that one of the major weaknesses of Christianity as practiced is that most Christians consider Christianity to be centered in Christ. It shouldn’t be. Rather, Christianity should be centered in the Church, of which Christ is the head. Christianity centered in Christ results in either too little Christ, too individualistic a Christ, too impotent a Christ or even the Christ of civil religion.
Many will protest, perhaps, that the Church is an all-too-human institution. That it is, but one nevertheless ordained by God for witness and mission in the wake of Christ’s death and resurrection. Anyway, we weaken and make all the more fallible that precious institution when we center Christianity in Christ. For when we do that, we don’t fully allow Christ to lead his Church. We can’t truly be the Body of Christ, unless Christ is our head, and by that I mean the Church’s head. When Christianity is centered in Christ, Jesus becomes my personal guru. Then I will participate in the Church to the extent that what you believe about your personal guru matches what I believe about my personal guru. At the point of diverging views, my arm doesn’t need your leg because I have my own little Jesus tucked under my pillow.
No wonder that so many people believe you don’t have to be in church to be a Christian. Here I didn’t capitalize “church” because those non-goers don’t regard it highly enough for it to have a big “C” in its name. When salvation is reduced to “going to heaven when I die” it is understandable that many folks don’t see church as relevant to salvation. They aren’t really thinking of God saving and transforming the world, but only of whether or not they will “get theirs.” Maybe they will, but in the process they will have to watch the world continue to groan. Wars will continue. Famines will be an ever-present reality. Greed will rule. They might even make that simplistic statement that “if only everyone were a Christian the world would be at peace.” Only it won’t, because they will erroneously believe that one is a Christian when one accepts Christ. One may be saved when they accept Christ, but they are a Christian when 1) they are in and of a church that agrees to be part of The Church as headed and led by Christ, and 2) they are part of a church that seeks to enact Christ. Is it really possible to believe in Christ but not in the Church?
Not being entirely in command of proper theological expression, I’ve probably expressed myself inexactly. On the other hand, I think I have explained why so many who claim the Christian faith offer so many prayers that are so parochial. Further, if Christianity were centered in the Church, perhaps American church people would average more than a 3% tithe and we wouldn’t have the embarrassing United Methodist minister (whom I won’t name) who actually wrote in a comment that the church was getting sidetracked by minor issues such as social justice and mission work.
Imagine for a moment that a very popular person is elected president or prime minister, only to find out that his or her powers have been greatly diminished by the abolition of government. Then, the leader could have followers, but no mechanism to govern, no institution through which to enact programs. Of course, Christ is God, and God’s ultimate purposes can’t be thwarted by human shortsightedness. In the meantime, though, the human condition will continue to be that of great suffereing and injustice.
As to our faith, that is what should be centered in Christ — not in Christ alone, but in the Triune God. And then if we truly place our trust in the Savior of the World and the Lord of All Creation, wouldn’t/shouldn’t we also trust that Christ will lead through the Institution he ordained and not merely via a ragtag collection of folks each with their own personal “Jesus”? Of course, we will still have differing Scriptural and theological understandings. However, as Richard has written (sort of, I think), our unity isn’t ultimately in agreement, but in Christ. Christ is the unity.
In a nutshell, here’s my proposition:
Center your faith in Christ, but center Christianity in the Church.