In a post I wrote a while back on the New Monasticism, I had a lengthy discussion with a Roman Catholic interlocutor that eventually became largely about the issue of apostolic succession and how that relates to the differences in protestant and Catholic ecclesiologies. In the course of that discussion here was one of the comments that he made:
I was listening to some Catholic talk-radio thing one time, and a guy who said he was a Neo-pagan called in to excoriate the host for what “Catholics did to my community in the Middle Ages.” By “his community”, he meant European folk-spiritualists who had been persecuted. I thought to myself, “In what way is this modern day man a ‘member’ of that ‘community’? If by reading some books he comes to hold 100% of the same opinions as did they, does that make him a ‘member’?”
Is the ‘Church’ a collection of teachings? Or a continuous collection of people? Or a continuous collection of people who hold to certain teachings?
I think this question is excellent. I was hard pressed to answer it at the time, and I think I am now even harder-pressed to answer it. The crux of the issue seems to come down to the following issue: does the existence of the church derrive from a continuity of doctrinal belief with the ancient church or does it depend on more than that? Is it enough for us to simply believe what we think that the apostolic church believed, or must we have some sort of organic and historical connection to the apostolic church through some sort of tangible succession?
I am curious to hear what protestants might say in response to this question. Can we just “become” a church when we read the Bible and decide we believe what we think the early church believed? The constant cropping up of “emerging churches” populated largely by evangelicals who are disenchanted with their experience of denominations and/or independent Bible churches seem to be a clear example of this kind of thinking. They insist that the are going to be “ancient-future” Christians who are a continuation of the apostolic church even though they’re generally just a bunch of twenty and thiry-somethings who get together and decide that their ideas about what church should be are the best. How is that different from the neo-pagan in the comment above? Or does it matter? Is the reality of the church merely something that exists wherever certain things are believed? I can’t help but conclude that such an ecclesiology is very vaccuous and I’m not sure I see a truly viable protestant alternative to such an ecclesiological deficit. So I suppose the real question is whether or not it is posible to have an ecclesiology that is at once protestant and “high”. And on that point I’m at a loss as to a fully satisfying explanation.