Thursday, August 27, 2009

Church unity as a circle

It seeking to understand Church unity, it’s tempting to think a circle, where people inside the circle are part of the Church, and people outside the circle are not in the Church. The Church is one, because it is one circle.

However, thinking of the Church as one circle is a bit more difficult when you try to actually decide who is in and who is out of the circle. And it also raises the question of how big should the circle be?

We could have a small circle, where the Church may include only those people, for example, who belong to the Roman Catholic Church. But even with a circle this small, perhaps it is not small enough. What about lapsed Catholics? What about those who go to communion once a year, but fail to even think about Jesus the rest of the time? What about those who do not even believe in God, but continuing going to church to keep the family happy? Should our circle be smaller?

We could have a large circle that includes the whole world. But presuming we don’t want our circle to be quite this large, what about a circle that includes everybody who claims to follow Jesus. But maybe this isn’t quite large enough? What about those people of other religions who have never heard the name Jesus, but who live a life that is more in keeping with Jesus’ commandments than those who claim to be Christians?

And speaking of those who claim to be Christians, can all of them really be said to be a part of the Church? Many cults claimed to be following Jesus. There are some people who have thought they were Jesus.

Another approach is to say the Church includes those people who have certain beliefs or who follow certain practices. Do you believe in a Trinitarian God? Do you believe Jesus rose from the dead? Are you baptised? Do you have communion? Kind of like a Church check-list, if you like. I sound like I’m making fun of it. But it does have a lot to recommend itself. It’s not too small a circle that it only includes one denomination. It’s not so large that it includes a whole range of people who say they’re following Jesus, but who have very warped ideas of who exactly Jesus is.

Although I like this kind of circle, it does have problems. For one, there are a number of people who consider themselves members of the church, may even be part of mainstream denominations, and yet cannot tick all the boxes. Maybe they haven’t been baptised. Maybe they can’t take communion. There are also people who do not believe in a physical resurrection of Jesus. Are these people Christians? I’m not sure. But they still think they are part of the Church. Does anyone have the right to tell them they don’t actually belong? I’m not sure about that one either.

I tend to favour the larger circles, rather than the smaller ones. I would rather a definition of Church that includes people that aren’t really Christians, rather than one that excludes those that are. In the Parables of the Wheat and the Tares, Jesus says that they should both grow together and they will be separated at harvest time. And so maybe, as we seek to understand what the Church actually is, the aim should not be to exclude anyone. But instead to let God decide who belongs to His Church and who doesn’t.

But in saying this, it is also important to remember that the Church has a centre. That centre is the truth and that centre is Jesus Christ. One can be part of the circle and yet be very far from the centre.

Perhaps it is more helpful to think not of a circle with definite boundaries. But as a centre that radiates outward. Kind of like a sun. Anyone who is orbiting around the sun is part of the church. But some are closer to the sun (or the Son) than others. Some receive more of its light. That sounds patronising, but it has to be true. If there is one truth, and very many different understandings of that truth, then some have to be closer to the real truth than others.

So when we include people in our definition of Church, that is not to say that their understanding of Jesus is as good as any other understanding of Jesus. It is to say that they are may be part of the one Church, but they may also be far away from its centre.

(Image details: Nicolaus Copernicus - The Heliocentric Solar System. Image is in the public domain. Courtesty of Wikimedia Commons.)


  1. Have you ever read The Shack? One of the cool ideas Young writes involves fractals. If you were to stand inside one, it would look like total chaos with all kinds of strange mish-mash of colors, shapes, movement, etc.

    Anyway, when I read this, I looked up "unit circle fractal" to find a video because I think a fractal circle may be the best symbol to use to represent the Mystical Church. It's basically a fractal shape that revolves around a single unit circle. In our case, Jesus.

    Probably a far-fetched analogy, but here it is anyway:

  2. I have read The Shack. To be honest, I didn't like it at all. I read it because my friend (who doesn't usually read) kept raving and raving about it. But I didn't think it was that good. Maybe my expectations were too high.

    I had a look at the video, and can understand the analogy between that and the Church. Kind of nice to think, too, that is was so beautiful. Maybe the Church looks like a bit of a mess from where we stand, but is actually really very beautiful from God's point of view.



Bookmark and Share

Blog Patrol