Monday, January 22, 2007

The Christian's Ontology

Ontology is about the nature of being or existence. To get the Christian life right, one must have the correct ontology.

Most North American evangelicals have an individualist ontology. Each individual person has a relationship with Christ. This is the only ontologically real aspect of Christian existence. In this view, the church is no more than a voluntary association of individuals who are in union with Christ. The church is a practical arrangement. The church is secondary to my relationship with/faith in/union with Christ.

The problem with this ontology is not that it is completely false. The problem is that it is a half truth. Individual Christians are each in union with Christ. However, what makes this ontology false is that the picture is incomplete. It is more correct to say the church is in union with Christ. Each individual who is baptized into Christ shares in this union the church has in Christ. This might be called a corporate ontology.

Much of the consumerism that plagues evangelical churches is rooted in this misconceived notion of a Christian's ontology. With an individualistic ontology in place, the church becomes a place where my "walk with Christ" is strengthened. The church exists to meet my spiritual needs. When this is wedded with the alternative religion of consumerism then this error is compounded to an egregious degree.

But a Christian's ontology is corporate. I do not have a relationship with Christ. I have a relationship with Christ and the church. Faith in Christ and faith in the church are one act of faith. This is why the fathers and reformers declared extra ecclesiam nulla salus - outside of the church no salvation.

Another error that intersects with an individualistic ontology is a misunderstanding and misapplication of the idea of the invisible church. When ancient theologians developed this idea, they were wrestling with the tension between the church in history and the church in perfection at the eschaton. The invisible church is the church we don't yet see because Jesus has not returned to reveal himself and the sons and daughters of God (Romans 8). But that important and helpful idea has devolved into the church being understood as everyone who has a relationship with Jesus apart from any actual historic and visible community. If I believe in Jesus I can consider myself part of the "church" even if I am out of communion with the visible church marked by word and sacrament. Thus there is no need for life in the visible church unless it helps "my walk" with Jesus. Read George Barna's Revolution for the most extreme example of this error.

The church existed proleptically in the incarnation. Now it exists as a visible and historic community with recognizable marks. It is the body of Christ. To follow Christ as Lord one must be in visible and vital union with the Church. This is why every Sunday we say, "We believe in one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church."

1 comment:

+ Alan said...

Amen. I say it again, Amen. Good solid stuff there Father Pete.