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3. The Spirit and Community: A Historical Perspective

This essay surveys the ways in which Spirit-led community has been understood at different times in Christian history. After explaining the basic principles of medieval Christendom, it examines the ways in which Protestantism has developed a doctrine of the invisible church, which is manifested in visible ecclesiastical institutions to varying degrees. It concludes with a challenge to Evangelicals to re-examine their basic assumptions in an effort to find new ways to build Spirit-led communities today.

The Biblical Background

Any discussion of the historical relationship between the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and ideas of community must obviously begin with the New Testament, which records how the Christian Church began and in the process lays down the basic principles that have provided the general guidelines for subsequent developments. Of course, a historical perspective on this must consider how the New Testament was actually used in apostolic and sub-apostolic times, not what can be read out of it today. To say that the early Church made a selection of its inheritance and emphasized some things more than others is not to claim that it somehow failed in its mission, nor is it to say that that pattern must be the norm for all time. Without passing judgment on the first Christians, it is only reasonable to suppose that in any generation there will be certain tendencies and biases in biblical interpretation which are difficult to classify as right or wrong in an absolute sense, but which are no longer held today in quite the same way. The modern reader need only consider what the apostle Paul says about celibacy (for example), and compare it with the practice of the modern Protestant churches, to realize just how true this is.

For the early Church, the most noticeable work of the Holy Spirit in building the Christian community was undoubtedly the way in which he was seen to have broken down the barriers between Jews and Gentiles, making them both one in the body of Christ. To many of us, who do not normally think of religion as an aspect of ethnicity, this does not seem especially striking, but the evidence of the New Testament suggests that it caused a major upheaval at the time, particularly among Jewish Christians, who were not always prepared to welcome outsiders. We should not forget, for example, that Paul’s epistle to the Romans was occasioned by this very thing, and that it is in this context that his argument for justification by faith alone is set. Furthermore, the means by which the Spirit achieved this unity was baptism: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether we are Jews or Greeks or slaves or free we were all made to drink of the one Spirit”(1 Cor 12:13), or again: “making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you too were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph 4:3-5). Whatever we may think of baptism today, we probably do not assume that it will be the means of breaking down social and economic barriers. But for the first Christians, to be baptized in the Spirit was to put off the old man, with its ethnic and social limitations, and to become a new creation in Christ. From the very beginning, Christians were aware that they constituted a new society, a community which was in the world but not of it.

This awareness had very practical implications for the way in which Christians were expected to live. They were no longer subject to the provisions of the Jewish law, but this did not excuse them from having to develop their own distinctive lifestyle, one which would reflect the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. To put on Christ meant to cease living as the other Gentiles lived (Eph 4:17-32). To achieve this, the first requirement was a new attitude, according to which people would seek to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Christians were told, for example, that they must tell the truth, and not try to deceive one another. They were called to “put away every kind of bitterness, anger, wrath, quarreling, and evil, slanderous talk” (Eph 4:31). Instead of that, they were to “be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ also forgave you” (Eph 4:32). This radical change of behavior was the direct result of the fruit of the Spirit at work in the lives of believers (Gal 5:22), and it made a deep impression on contemporaries. “See how these Christians love one another” (cf. Epistle to Diognetus, 1) was a common remark among pagans, even if Christians themselves (like modern readers of Paul’s epistles) were often more aware of their failings in this area than of their successes.

Another factor which distorts our perception of the early Church is that today, when we read the New Testament, we tend to apply the language of holiness, predestination, and election to individual believers first, and only secondarily to the community. But this was not the way it appeared to the first Christians, who never used the word “saint” (a{gio" [hagios], used substantivally) in the singular in the NT, except generically (as in “every saint” in Phil 4:21). They believed that they were a holy nation, a special people, God’s chosen ones. The responsibility of the individual was to conform to this pattern. so that he or she would be considered as worthy representatives of the group. Holiness was not just a sign of separation from the world; it was also the mark of belonging to the new community being forged by the Holy Spirit.

Within this community, the leaders were to behave in exactly the opposite way to what was found among pagans. They were to be humble, to be servants of all, and to outdo one another in love and service. Hospitality was a particularly important part of this; Christians met in each other’s homes, and welcomed missionaries and other travelers who were about the Lord’s business. Incidentally, this duty of showing hospitality remained extremely important for centuries, even after Christianity had become the dominant religion and it was no longer possible for individuals to practice it on the same scale. When that happened, the duty of hospitality devolved on the official representatives of the Church—the clergy and (above all) the monastic communities. The hospital, as its name suggests, had its origin in this very tradition. The Christian Church was meant to be a caring community, demonstrating the love of the Spirit in practical and social ways.

One of the most intriguing features of this community building was the way in which the Holy Spirit gave different gifts to different members of the Church, for the mutual edification of the body. Modern readers of the New Testament are only too familiar with 1 Cor 12-14, which is the main passage dealing with this subject, but once again it is important to recognize that there is a key difference between the way most of us read that passage and the way it was understood by the early Christians. Today, we start with individuals and their gifts, and try to figure out how they can best be harmonized in a functioning community. But the early Christians began with the community and its needs, looking for the gifts to be given as and when they were required for the common good. It was because speaking in tongues made the smallest contribution to the common good that it was regarded as the least (i.e., the most dispensable) of the gifts, which is not what we usually find today in charismatic circles. When the exercise of particular gifts caused conflict, the answer given by the early Church was not “you in your small corner and I in mine,” as it often is today, but “what makes for the upbuilding of the body?” The apostle Paul did not hesitate to tell people to refrain from exercising their gift if it was going to provoke dissension in the congregation!

The Experience of Catholic Christendom

As the Church expanded and became an established part of the wider society, it was inevitable that some of the features that characterized its early years would undergo a transformation. We have already seen what happened in the case of hospitality, which became institutionalized during the middle ages, though the ideal was never abandoned. As numbers increased and Church members were no longer close friends, worship services became more ritualized, with the result that spiritual principles like the maintenance of peace came to be symbolized by specific gestures. Human nature being what it is, there were many occasions when these gestures were very hollow, and eventually such ritualism fell into disrepute because of the hypocrisy that surrounded it. But it should not be forgotten that to a large extent this was the inevitable fruit of growth and that those who developed these ways of expressing fundamental Christian principles were trying to preserve them in a new situation, not wanting to abandon or corrupt them. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the Church became the framework in which society generally functioned. That created a situation in which, on the one hand, it was very difficult for non-Christians to function normally, and on the other hand, it was almost impossible for the Church to maintain its high standards of community life. On the first point, Western European society came to accept that membership in it was defined by baptism. Jews, being unbaptized, were excluded from it, and were often forced to live in ghettos, when they were not expelled altogether. Heretics and schismatics were regarded then as rebels would be today, and they were persecuted accordingly. The Reformation did not really change this situation, at least not in the short term, which explains why independent Protestant congregations were often persecuted by Protestant state churches, as well as by Catholic ones. In Great Britain, for example, there was no legal toleration of non-state churches until 1689, more than 150 years after the Reformation, and members of those churches did not acquire full civil rights until 1828-29, more than 50 years after the American revolution had introduced religious freedom, based on the complete separation of Church and state, into the thirteen colonies.

On the second point, the medieval Church did what it could to maintain standards, even though its success was often patchy at best. For example, the Church tried to introduce something called “the truce of God,” which forced warring armies to cease fighting during times of special religious observance. Ideally, of course, Christian Frenchmen should not have been fighting Christian Englishmen at all, but the Church was never able to stamp out warfare altogether. It did, however, manage to impose certain standards of treatment for hostages and captured prisoners, and it was occasionally able to prevent an outbreak of hostilities by timely arbitration. This may all seem a long way from the New Testament command to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, but it gives some idea of the complications that arose when the attempt was made to apply such principles across an entire society, in which everyone was expected to be Christian.

As far as its internal life was concerned, the Church institutionalized the work of the Holy Spirit in ways which can be classified under three headings—authority, doctrine and ministry. Of these three, authority was the most fundamental. The Bible was the Church’s main constitutional document, given by the Holy Spirit for the government of the Christian commonwealth. If something was laid down as mandatory in scripture, then it had to be applied in the Church, though this was not as simple a matter as it might seem. Much of the Bible was interpreted allegorically, and large parts of it were hard to codify for general consumption, even if its basic principles were clear enough. How, for example, do you go about loving your neighbor in a feudal society? As time went on therefore, it was inevitable that a subsidiary body of law would appear which would fill in gaps left by scripture and apply its teachings to new situations. This law emanated primarily from the great Church councils, though the decretals of popes and the sayings of the major Church fathers were also accorded normative authority. By the thirteenth century there was a large and functioning body of so-called canon law, which contemporaries regarded as a gift of the Spirit to the Church, enabling it to maintain order in an increasingly complex society.

The interpretation of this body of law was entrusted to the clergy, and particularly to the bishop of Rome, whose position in the Church became ever more exalted as time went on. It would be no exaggeration to say that in the medieval Church, discussion of the spiritual gifts concentrated very largely on the papacy, which came to be perceived as the repository of the Spirit’s charismatic teaching authority. All other ministries had to be validated by the papacy in order to function legally, a system which inevitably made reform very difficult, since any criticism at the grassroots level would in some sense be an attack on the supreme head of the whole organization. Ordination came to be regarded as a sacrament in which the Holy Spirit was given to the ordinand to enable him to exercise the spiritual gifts needed for his ministry. The personal character and spiritual life of the clergyman were secondary considerations, because his spiritual power was a gift exercised in the context and by the license of the institutional Church, not something bestowed on him as an individual. Few things, in fact, were harder for the medieval Church to cope with than the assertion that a man (or a woman) was inspired by God outside the framework of the Church. Joan of Arc may have been an extreme case, but the accusation that she was inspired by the devil was logical, given the presuppositions of the system. It was no accident that the prophetic voice could only be heard on the fringes of the institutional system, and that as time went on suppressing it was often the only way the institution could continue to function. Thus we find that whereas Francis of Assisi was eventually able to make his voice heard in the early thirteenth century, 150 years later John Wycliffe was silenced, and the same thing (or worse) would have happened to Martin Luther if he had not managed to break the mold altogether.

In matters of doctrine, the medieval period was also a time of growing systematization, as can be seen from the work of men like Thomas Aquinas, which is very different in style and presentation from that of the fathers of the early Church. Once again, this was perceived by contemporaries as the work of the Holy Spirit, which helped Christians absorb the challenge presented by the rediscovery of Aristotelian philosophy. That systematization of this kind often led theologians to discuss questions which scripture did not touch (such as the temperature of hellfire) and which later generations were to make fun of, must not detract from the essential aim of the exercise, which was to preserve the body of Christ and extend its mission to every corner of human life and interest. A system has to be all inclusive for it to work, and if it leads to theological speculation which goes beyond what is wise or well founded, that is a small price to pay for the benefit of security which it offers to those who accept it. The middle ages initiated this development, but it would be idle to suppose that it is dead today—many churches, not least those of a conservative Protestant type, have a similar devotion to systematization which characterizes their theology, and a similar tendency to speculate theologically beyond what the evidence warrants in the interests of consistency.

In the wider sphere of Church discipline, authority in matters of doctrine was also given to Church councils, and (in the West) it was eventually located in the papacy. A conflict between these two conceptions of authority divided the Eastern from the Western Church in the eleventh century, and that division has never been overcome. Four hundred years later, a similar conflict broke out in the Western Church, but the popes of the time were able to neutralize the trend towards conciliarism, which proved to be too unwieldy and inefficient a system to be able to function effectively, and by 1450 the movement towards a declaration of papal infallibility in matters of faith and morals was well underway, even if it was not to be proclaimed officially until as late as 1870. All of this process, it must be repeated, was regarded by those involved in it as the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the Church, and interpreted by them as a necessary evolution in the context of the Church’s growth and expansion.

The Reformation

The increasing inflexibility of the medieval system, coupled with a series of crises in the institution of the papacy which greatly undermined its effectiveness and its prestige, prepared the way for a massive overhaul of the Church’s structures. This was actually attempted on several occasions, and by 1500 almost everybody agreed that far-reaching change was necessary. It is tempting to see the Reformation as the housecleaning of the corrupt medieval Church, but this is too simplistic an explanation of it. Luther and his followers were not just interested in putting the system right; they were fired by a different vision of what the Church was all about. It was this that ultimately lost them the support of humanistic reformers like Erasmus and produced a split in the medieval organization that has never been healed.

At one level, the Reformation produced relatively little change in the Church. It remained an institution which was theoretically coterminous with civil society, and it was not possible for any individual to participate fully in that society if he or she did not belong to the officially recognized local church. A break with the papacy meant no more than a transfer of the authority previously granted to the pope to the secular ruler, who became responsible for Church government and even for establishing doctrine. Even when religious toleration was eventually—and grudgingly—granted by the secular authorities, the position of the state church was not substantially altered, and in countries where a religious establishment remains, that position is still more or less in effect today. This creates an anomalous situation in which it is accepted that the Church may be governed by people who do not belong to it, even in the most formal of senses. But few Christians are comfortable with the idea that the Holy Spirit would work through unbelievers in order to establish the worship and doctrine of the Church, and this particular, if admittedly unintended, result of the Reformation has become an embarrassment to those who are forced to live with it.

But at the same time there has been a different dynamic at work within Protestantism, which has helped even the Protestant state churches to avoid the kind of polarization between Church and state which characterized many Catholic countries for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is the view that the Church is essentially an invisible community, or as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer expresses it, the mystical company of all faithful people. Once this view took hold, the institutional Church could be regarded as an external shell, a vehicle which might be useful for the mission of the Church in the world, but which was not essential to its existence. The doctrine of the invisible Church is a key tenet of the Reformation, and sets Protestants apart from other Christians in ways which are not always fully recognized. Protestantism, for example, can fragment (as it has) into an apparently endless number of denominations without losing its fundamental unity. However great the rivalry between Presbyterians and Baptists (to take but one example) may sometimes be, there is always a sense in which they are prepared to work together in interdenominational organizations like the Bible Society and so on. In many cases, parachurch societies have had a greater influence on the spiritual formation of church members than the denomination to which they happen to belong. Even in places where denominationalism does not really exist, such as the Lutheran countries of Scandinavia, it is still true that the most lively groups in the church have drawn their spiritual sustenance from so-called inner missions, evangelistic organizations which seek to convert people who are nominally church members, but whose beliefs and level of commitment leave a good deal to be desired.

Furthermore, it cannot really be said that this belief was not one that emerged gradually as Protestantism developed; in essence, it can be found from the very beginning. For example, the Lutheran Augsburg Confession of 1530 says in Article 8: “Though the Church be properly the congregation of saints and true believers, yet seeing that in this life many hypocrites and evil persons are mingled with it, it is lawful to use the sacraments administered by evil men according to the voice of Christ: The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat (Mt 23:2).” It is obviously not true that the intention of the Article is to support the ministry of unworthy men, but the tension which it reveals between the ideal and the real is so great, and expressed in such strong language, that it is hard to imagine how anyone with even the slightest degree of reforming zeal could possibly live with such a situation for long. The Article in effect gives an open invitation to those who take their faith seriously to seek to root out the hypocrites—after all, Jesus did not exactly tolerate the activities of the scribes and the Pharisees, and after his death and resurrection, the newly-formed Church moved out of their orbit altogether!

In England, slightly later, we find Article 20 of the Forty-two Articles of 1553 (recycled as Article 19 of the Thirty-nine Articles of 1571), which states: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly administered…” It is obvious that although the emphasis is placed on the visible Church, the way in which that is recognized depends entirely on spiritual principles which derive essentially from the invisible body of Christ. Once again, there is an implicit invitation to make the visible community conform to these spiritual principles. It is true that a subsequent Article (27 in 1553; 26 in 1571) provides for the spiritual inadequacies of the Church’s ministers, and reminds us that their work is not compromised by their failings because they are the servants of Christ, but the emphasis is clearly on the need to ensure that the ministry be as blameless as possible. It is in this sense that Article 24 of 1553 (23 in 1571), which says that only properly ordained persons should be permitted to minister in the congregation, must be understood. Although it certainly upheld the authority of the visible Church, the underlying understanding was that only suitable men would be chosen and appointed in the first place. That is not made clear in the Article, but it is perfectly obvious from the Ordinal (1550), on which the Article was based.

As the doctrine of the primacy of the invisible over the visible Church began to sink in, many Protestants came to the conclusion that a large percentage of Church members were not really Christians at all. Baptism could no longer be understood as entry into the Christian community in anything but a formal sense. If it was accompanied by faith, then fine, but even so it was the faith which counted, not the sacramental rite. Without faith, baptism was at best a waste of time and at worst blasphemous. The same applied, mutatis mutandis, to all the other sacraments and rites of the Church. Even ordination meant nothing without the unction of the Holy Spirit, with the result that Protestants have grown used to a situation in which many official pastors are reckoned to be spiritually dead (or even heretical) by a sizeable proportion of the Church’s membership, while other people who are officially laymen are accepted as Spirit-anointed preachers and teachers. In exceptional cases, it can even happen that someone like Billy Graham, for example, may acquire the status of a pan-Protestant spokesman without any official recognition at all. This occurs because a sufficiently large percentage of Protestants agree that Billy Graham has received a spiritual gift of preaching, teaching, and evangelism to which the official recognition of the institutional Church has nothing further to contribute.

Given this situation, it is hardly surprising that the work of the Spirit in building community is a problem for Protestants in a way that Catholics and Eastern Orthodox find hard to understand. As far as they are concerned, the pattern of the institutional Church is the work of the Spirit, which overrules the inadequacies and sinfulness of particular individuals. Protestants place little faith in the institution of the Church, with the result that the charismatic credibility of the individual minister or Church member acquires much greater weight. A Catholic priest who falls into notorious sin only rarely shakes anyone’s faith in the Church, but a Protestant evangelist who falls in the same way can have a much more devastating effect on his followers. As far as most Protestants are concerned, a preacher who does not lead a holy life does not preach in the Spirit, and they are quite prepared to abandon such people to their own devices and look for spiritual sustenance elsewhere.

The Puritan Tradition

The existential situation of the Protestant churches more or less since the time of the Reformation is well known, and it has contributed strongly to what may loosely be called the Puritan tradition. Its classical doctrinal formulation is the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), whose Chapter 25 has this to say about the Church: “The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, and of their children, and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” Here it is perfectly obvious that the invisible Church defines the visible one, and indeed, it is hard to see precisely what the difference between them is. In principle, there is not meant to be any difference at all, and if there are unworthy members of the visible Church, then it is presumably the duty of the Church’s ministers to convert them (if possible) or, if not, to discipline and root them out.

The essence of Puritan ecclesiology is that the Holy Spirit is the author and sustainer of the Christian community, which does not exist without him. Outward forms and symbols may have their uses, but if they do not reflect an inner reality they can and therefore must be dispensed with, because then they have become deceptive and even blasphemous. Certainly, any individual believer would be justified in abandoning such things, and might even be urged to do so by those who think that an ungodly ministry or congregation can do them nothing but harm. At a deeper level, Puritans of this type are always ready to pick up and go, because in their heart of hearts they know that the perfect Church does not exist here on earth. The best they can do is to minimize the corruption they find, and remain within a particular fellowship as long as it does nothing which might offend their sensibilities. Experience, however, shows that offense of this kind is given fairly often, and so it is not unusual for churches to split from time to time, with members who are not satisfied with the spiritual tone of the community going off to found a purer one. These people will naturally assert that the Holy Spirit is responsible for their actions, and the history of Protestantism contains enough examples of successful schism to give a certain plausibility to this claim. To take but the most prominent example, how many Anglicans would dare to say that Methodism is a wicked schism that has never been blessed by God? It is not the purpose of this chapter to debate the theological foundations for such beliefs, but rather to look at the historical consequences that they have had. For better or for worse, it is in the Anglo-Saxon world that Puritanism (in the sense outlined above) has developed most extensively. It first appeared in the sixteenth century, when it was largely an attempt to reform the Church of England along more purely Calvinist lines. As such it was a pressure group within the Church, rather than a theological challenge to its existence. However, that began to change in the late 1580s when some of the more radical Puritan types started to preach what is now known as separatism. They believed that the visible Church could never be reformed as it should be, and that the only answer was for the saints to leave it and establish their own communities. After a number of false starts, and not a little persecution from the authorities, a group of these separatists took the final plunge and left England altogether—for the New World. Arriving in what is now Massachusetts, they set about trying to establish a model Christian commonwealth, in which the power of the Holy Spirit would be fully manifested in every aspect of life.

The subsequent history of that experiment is sufficiently well known to give us pause. Even in New England, where every colonist was meant to be a saint, a perfect society could not be established. It soon became necessary to institute a system of surveillance, so that deviations from the accepted norm could be rooted out. Those who could not (or who would not) conform to expectations were imprisoned, expelled, or simply encouraged to leave. Not surprisingly, most of those who suffered in this way were convinced that they were the true carriers of the Spirit, and that their persecutors had betrayed the original vision. A similar, if somewhat less dramatic, process occurred in England, especially after the triumph of Oliver Cromwell in 1649. Under his commonwealth government, the rule of the saints proved to be just as onerous as it did in New England, and it had the same fissiparous results. By the time it ended, the godly were divided into a dozen sects, each of which claimed to be in possession of the real truth.

The Puritan experiment in government was a disaster, but at least it proved that their vision of the Church was incompatible with political stability as long as the Church was expected to play an important role in secular life. In the long run, one of the most important results of their failure was to be the separation of Church and State in America and the granting of freedom of worship in Britain. This went a long way to resolve the problem of outside interference in the Church’s internal affairs, but of course it did nothing to solve the Puritan dilemma. For in spite of what some extremists tried to claim, the corruption of the Church was not the result of its state connection. It was an internal problem, rooted ultimately in the sinfulness of every human being, and manifested in the lack of discipline and spiritual lethargy that were evident to any careful observer (and remember that most Puritan ministers were specialists in the art of careful observation). Some extremists were moved to think that human sinfulness could be done away with, and this produced the doctrine known as perfectionism. Even as great a man as John Wesley was tempted by this, and towards the end of his life he apparently came to believe that he had had a second blessing from God which enabled him to be totally free from sin.

Few have ever been tempted to go quite that far, but other solutions to the problem have been canvassed, and some of them can scarcely be regarded as more orthodox than that. One of the most common of these has been the tendency to target certain things, like outward dress and behavior, as signs of holiness, and to confine one’s interest to them. For example, conservative Protestant churches have spent an enormous amount of time and energy fighting the evils of dancing, drinking, smoking, card-playing and so on, on the assumption that such activities betray a community which has rejected the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Whether true holiness can ever be made visible is doubtful, but most Christians in the Puritan tradition have acted as if this were both possible and necessary. Secular critics never tire of condemning the hypocrisy of this, pointing out (for example) that many of these so-called fundamentalists will invest in the stock market but campaign vigorously against bingo on the ground that the latter is gambling. On a more serious level, it is not difficult to demonstrate that churches of this kind have often been very strong in areas of the world where there has been open and scandalous social injustice—in the American South for instance, or in South Africa. When this sort of thing happens, the impression is given that the only way holiness can be achieved is by defining it so narrowly that large areas of human life are simply left out of account.

Another way of dealing with the problem, which is usually connected with the sort of moralism just outlined, is what has come to be called revivalism or restorationism. The two things are not identical, but they are closely related and belong to the same theological frame of mind. The underlying belief is that the Holy Spirit descends on God’s people at periodic intervals in order to convict them of their backsliding and bring them back to him. Historically speaking, there is no doubt that religious revival has frequently taken place. And everyone would agree that it has left strong traces in its wake. The entire Evangelical movement is ultimately the product of the great eighteenth-century revival, and churches in the Methodist and holiness traditions owe their origins to this phenomenon. Restorationism merely takes this idea one stage farther, claiming that the Holy Spirit periodically inspires Christians to recover the Church as it was in the New Testament, and the churches which are founded as a result of this conviction are naturally—in the eyes of those who belong to them—the only ones in which the Spirit is truly at work today. That these bodies are in reality little different from any other conservative church, being distinguished only by an exceptional degree of conservatism in certain selected areas (e.g., the passive role of women, the rejection of instrumental music, etc.) is immediately obvious to outsiders, including many who would be otherwise sympathetic to their general position. But this does not seem to make much impression on the restorationists themselves, who are convinced by their own experience that the Holy Spirit has created their communities in a special way for a particular purpose. Often indeed, they refer to each other as Christians, brethren, or believers, on the implied assumption that others who are not of their persuasion do not really count. This is the authentic spirit of Puritanism taken to its logical extreme. Most conservative Protestants do not go that far, but anyone who has been touched by the Puritan spirit will feel the pull of this approach, and will either be attracted to imitate it to some degree or to combat it as a major threat to a more moderate (and fundamentally more compromising) position.

Conclusion: The Evangelical Dilemma

Our survey of historic Protestantism has revealed that the Reformation distinction between the visible and the invisible church, and its clear preference for the latter, which in effect is allowed to become the yardstick by which the purity of the former is measured, has produced a strong Puritan tendency which has manifested itself in different ways over the years but which reflects what is essentially a single approach to the question of the Holy Spirit and community. That is to say that the ideal Church is one in which the Holy Spirit’s sovereignty is revealed, not only in the preaching and teaching ministry, but also in the life and behavior of the membership. However much it may be denied by those who hold this position, there is really no room in such a vision for weaker brethren—those who cannot live up to the required standard ought not to be there at all. If by some fluke weaker brethren actually make it into the Church, they can only be evangelized, disciplined and (if all else fails) thrown out. They cannot be tolerated, for the simple reason that a little leaven leavens the whole lump, and if some people are allowed to get away with lower levels of commitment it will not be long before the entire Church goes the same way. This is what is supposed to have happened in the late middle ages, it is what has certainly happened more recently to the mainline Protestant denominations, and it is what will inevitably happen to anyone who tries to relax the traditional standards. Most Evangelicals today, whether they like it or not, are to some degree inheritors of this approach to spiritual life in the Church community. Even those who reject and deplore it are chiefly noticeable for the fact that they go out of their way to break the taboos they have grown up with—they seldom if ever present a viable or attractive alternative to what they perceive to be wrong.

All this presents us with a dilemma. On the one hand, we are committed to an ecclesiology which gives more importance to the invisible Church than to the visible one. This principle is undoubtedly right as far as it goes because man is basically a spiritual being, created in the image and likeness of God, and the gospel is essentially a spiritual message—of conviction of sin and of redemption by the shed blood of Christ. But on the other hand, we are also committed to making the invisible visible in the world—as a witness to those who do not believe. This witness has a dual purpose, which is to glorify God and to win others for Christ. Experience has shown that attempts to produce a spiritual community by exclusion do not work, and are more likely to have the opposite effect on outsiders from the one intended. But if we fail to preach that a Spirit-filled Church must demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit we shall soon fall back into the very ritualism and institutionalization which the Reformers revolted against. How then can we achieve purity and holiness without becoming narrow and legalistic? How can we receive and accept spiritual blessings without condemning those who have not shared our experience and without splitting the Church? Can there ever be a purely Evangelical church, or are Evangelicals better off being prophetic voices in mixed churches of a broader theological complexion? And if we choose to go that route, where do our first loyalties lie—to other Evangelicals or to the non-Evangelical elements in our own denominations?

These are the challenges which face us today as we look for ways of building a Spirit-filled community life. They arise from the past, but it has to be confessed that history is not all that encouraging to those who may be trying to resolve the dilemma outlined above. We have to admit that keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace has never been easy, and it has seldom been achieved for long outside the confines of fairly narrow groups. What we now need is to ask ourselves whether this is the only kind of viable fellowship which is possible in a fallen world, or whether there is a way in which as Evangelicals we can demonstrate that we really were all baptized by one Spirit into one body.


Related Topics: Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit)