Over the past three years I have come to a new appreciation of the objective, external nature of Christianity. As I have found myself emptied of physical, mental, emotional, and yes, spiritual strength, the glorious reality of the externality of the work of Christ on my behalf, the truly alien righteousness, has paradoxically warmed my subjective experience of Christ in ways never possible before when I sought to create subjective spiritual experiences. Which is not to say that I count my subjective experiences as of any weight. Similarly, I appreciate the objective, visible, nature of the church more than ever before.
I know that John Williamson Nevin is a little controversial in some circles, but these words from his introductory essay to his book, “The Mystical Presence,” have clarified for me the true nature of the church and the necessity of its external expressions. These words are an intro for his teaching on the Lord’s Supper, but I find them a fit intro to the nature of the church itself.
The relations of this inquiry to the question concerning the true idea of the Church, will easily be felt by every well-informed and reflecting mind. If the fact of the incarnation be indeed the principle and source of a new supernatural order of life for humanity itself, the Church, of course, is no abstraction. It must be a true, living, divine-human constitution in the world; strictly organic in its nature – not a device or contrivance ingeniously fitted to serve certain purposes beyond itself – but the necessary, essential form of Christianity, in whose presence only it is possible to conceive intelligently of piety in its individual manifestations. The life of the single Christian can be real and healthful only as it is born from the general life of the Church, and carried by it onward to the end. We are Christians singly, by partaking (having part) general life-revelation, which is already at hand organically in the Church, the living and life-giving body of Jesus Christ. As thus real and organic, moreover, Christianity must be historical. No higher wrong can be done to it than to call in question its true historical character; for this is, in fact, to turn it into a phantasm, and to overthrow the solid fact-basis on which its foundations eternally rest. It must be historical, too, under the form of the Church; for the realness of Christianity demands indispensably the general life of Christ, flowing with unbroken continuity from the beginning as the medium of all particular union with him from age to age. Then, again, the historical Church must be visible, or in other words, not merely ideal, but actual. The actual may indeed fall short immeasurably of the idea it represents; the visible Church may be imperfect, corrupt, false to its own conception and calling, but still an actual, continuously visible Church there must always be in the world, if Christianity is to have either truth or reality in the form of a new creation. A purely invisible Church has been well denominated a contradictio in adjecto; since the very idea of a Church implies the manifestation of the religious life, as something social and common.
The whole conception that the externalization of the Christian life is something accidentally only to the constitution of this life itself – a sort of mechanical machinery, to help it forward in an outward way – is exceedingly derogatory to the Church, and injurious to its bearings on religion. An outward Church is the necessary form of the new creation in Christ Jesus, in its very nature, and must continue to be so, not only through all time, but through all eternity likewise. Outward social worship, which implies, of course, forms for the purpose, is to be regarded as something essential to piety itself. A religion without externals, must ever be fantastic and false. The simple utterance of religious feeling, by which the spirit takes outward form, is needed, not for something beyond itself, but for the perfection of the feeling itself. Forms, in this sense, not as sundered from the inward life, of course, but as embracing it, enter as a constituent element into the very life of Christianity. As a real, human, historical constitution in the world, the outward and inward in the Church can never be divorced, without peril to all that is most precious in the Christian faith. We have no right to set the inward in opposition to the outward, the spiritual in opposition to the corporeal, in religion. The incarnation of the Son of God, as it is the principle, forms also the true measure and test, of all sound Christianity, in this view. To be real, the human, as such, and of course the divine also in human form, must ever externalize its inward life. All thought, all feeling, every spiritual state, must take body, (in the way of word, or outward form of some sort,) in order to come at all to any true perfection in itself. This is the proper, deep sense of all liturgical services in religion. The necessity here affirmed is universal. The more intensely spiritual any state may be, the more irresistibly urgent will ever be found its tendency to clothe itself, and make itself complete, in a suitable external form. Away with the imagination, then, that externals in Christianity, (including the conception of the visible Church itself,) are something accidental only to its true constitution, a cunningly framed device merely for advancing some interest foreign from themselves. To think of the Church, and of Christian worship, as means simply to something else, is to dishonour religion in the most serious manner.