Eucharist, Half-Measures, and Outsiders

Yesterday I attended a Ukrainian Catholic church. I’ve had a growing appreciation for liturgy for several years now, and I was intrigued by their worship, but I was very distracted. I was angry, and surprised at how angry I felt. I even left for a while to cool off, but it didn’t really help. The people were lovely, but that seemed to make it worse. I realized after a while that this feeling went back a long way.

When I was in Bible college I had to attend worship services from other denominations to see how their worship differed. My good friends, Bill and Anna, attended a Catholic church in a neighbouring town, and invited me to their church for the assignment. Bill and Anna were always hospitality incarnate, so I was only a little surprised to find that they had arranged for me to interview the priest in his parsonage before the service. The priest was very nice and welcoming, though his chain smoking threw me off a bit (the good Pentecostal that I am). He indulged my questions about their worship, and when the service started he introduced me to the whole congregation. I felt almost overwhelmed with welcome.

Except when I didn’t.

There were a few things that put me off that day, and threw off the sense of welcome that I had received. There were a few distinctions, and they all had the same point: I was welcome, but I was still an outsider.

It started when the priest asked me, in his parsonage, where I was baptised. I had been baptised at a Christian Missionary Alliance church, but I made sure to explain that I was a Pentecostal, attending a Pentecostal Bible college. He seemed not to hear me: “Christian Missionary Alliance?” He paused. “Yes, but now I’m P-” He resumed: “Oh yeah, I don’t think those guys are heretics. They’re okay.” He said it with a smile, but with complete seriousness. I wasn’t sure how much I appreciated his “approval” of my Christianity. When he introduced me to the congregation, it was as a missionary from the Alliance church.

This threw me off. When I was baptised, it never occurred to me that I was being baptised to a particular denomination. I was being baptised with Christ, dying to self and rising to new life. I had been taught that it was merely a symbol to identify myself with Christ and remember his death and resurrection, but however my theology of baptism has changed since then, the intent was still the same: I belong to him now, and where he goes, I go. I could have been baptised in a sewer by hobos, and it would have meant the same to me. I understood when the priest asked me the question that he understood baptism as an initiation into a particular church, but I was still taken aback by it – that my baptism had to be questioned, that it was in doubt. To me, it was the same as questioning my faith, my confession, my Lord himself. I knew that no offense was intended, but it bothered me nonetheless, and blunted the effect of his hospitality.

At the time, this bothered me more than not being able to receive the Eucharist during the service. My grandmother is Catholic, so I had been to Mass a few times, and I was taught back then how to receive a blessing instead. The priest on this particular Sunday was very genuine in his blessing of me, and I felt honoured. Besides, Catholics eat wafers that taste like envelopes. Plus, I knew I disagreed with transubstantiation (that the host is transformed into the literal body of Christ), and had read that the ritual involved was a kind of idolatry. I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on that point, but I was fine with not participating.

In the intervening years, being denied the Eucharist that day has bothered me more. It was bad enough that my type of Christianity was questioned in regard to my baptism, but I realized that even though I had “passed” that test, I was still an outsider. For several years now, the Roman Catholic Church has formally recognized most denominations of Christianity, Orthodox and Protestant, but only halfway. Instead of being heretics, we’re now in “imperfect communion”, meaning that we might go to heaven as long as our beliefs are orthodox, but we’re still not really Christians. Some formulations of this doctrine also imply that we’re only this kind of half-Christian so long as we’re ignorant of the doctrines of the “one true church” (the Roman Catholic Church), rather than having rejected them. So regardless of my devotion, my learning, my works, my wisdom, any exhibition of the fruit of the Spirit, even miracles, I’d only be half a Christian to them, and be denied the Eucharist. Still an outsider. Even if my baptism is recognized (which isn’t always the case).

My discomfort with being an outsider among Christians has increased the more I learn about the nature of the Eucharist, and of sacraments in general. I’ve come to understand Christianity as being primarily our participation in the life of Christ: partaking of the Eucharist is partaking of Christ himself, the Bread of Life. I’ve come to understand that sacraments are actions which embody Christ, making him known by making him take up space: in the Eucharist we take Christ’s body into our own, and are united to it. Exclusion from the Eucharist is exclusion from unity with Christ in the mystical and sacramental sense as well as the communal sense.

My hurt over this (because it goes way beyond mere discomfort!) increased even more when I learned more about the Catholic understanding of justification and sanctification. They believe that, being flawed and sinful people, we are incapable of receiving God’s grace fully. As we receive grace, we are transformed by it more and more into the likeness of Christ, so that the more grace we receive the more grace we’re able to receive. And we receive grace primarily by participating with the church, particularly in the sacraments, of which the Eucharist is generally thought to be the central or chief. So even if the Catholic Church recognizes my baptism, my doctrine, my character and intent, and my ethics and works, so long as I’m not officially Catholic I am barred from participating in the sacrament that unites me with Christ and his church, and which imparts on me the grace I need to grow in grace and ultimately be perfected toward my salvation. Not only am I not able to be recognized as belonging to Christ, but I’m denied the means of improvement in that regard.

So yesterday, when four or five people went out of their way to introduce themselves to me after the service and invite me into the fellowship hall for snacks, I politely declined. I didn’t want coffee cake, I wanted the Bread of Life. I was angry, but more than that, I was hurt. Their kindness, their genuine generosity and hospitality, had been completely undermined. No matter how “welcome” I was, I could never be more than a guest there. Suddenly, even the kindest people seem condescending, and I wonder if they shake their heads when I leave and pray for my lost soul. They might, they might not, and it probably wouldn’t be condescending even if they did, but it’s hard to recognize the kindness of people who are part of an organization that systematically excludes you.

***

Today as I thought about this, I suddenly made a connection. In some small way, I can begin to understand what it must feel like to be female, or gay, in a Protestant church today. Well, in any church, but I’ve picked on Catholics enough.

Yesterday my own church was talking about those verses in Timothy – you know the ones. They’re in the Bible, and I don’t doubt their importance or their status as holy scripture, but there’s an interpretation of those verses that has been dominant for a very long time, and is responsible for making women second-class Christians who are considered unworthy of speaking, teaching, or having any authority over any man, regardless of evidence of spiritual gifts, wisdom, or calling. This interpretation, if we were to take it seriously and follow its implications, even implies that Eve’s sin was of a different nature than Adam’s, that women have a different type of salvation than men (saved through childbirth, so nuns and spinsters and barren women, or the wives of impotent men, are out). If this is the case, what is the nature of a woman’s relationship to Christ? How does he represent her, and how is she united to him? Can she really even be called a Christian, or is she somehow less of a Christian?

Even outside of that passage’s interpretation, there’s still systematic sexism in the church. Denominations who officially interpret such verses differently, unofficially still don’t promote women in leadership, or promote leadership to women. We have no expectations of women, we provide few opportunities to women, and when we do, few or none step up. Then we say “well, women just don’t want to be in leadership,” and we go back to grooming young men for the pulpit (but never to be a kids’ pastor, that’s women’s work!). Women can be saved, but all too often, they’re still outsiders.

And what about homosexuals? In many churches they’re not just outsiders, they’re considered the enemy. In some churches they’re accepted provisionally, in a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell type of way. They can get along fine so long as they’re “passing” (i.e., don’t appear to be too gay, and keep any relationships under wraps, so that nobody will suspect them and embarrass the church), or if they go through therapies to repress or reverse their homosexuality.  Other churches proudly welcome openly gay congregants, but require vows of celibacy, exclude them from ministry, and/or refuse them marriage. On this issue, even some of the most generous and welcoming churches have some pretty big holes in their hospitality. I realize now why there’s such thing as “gay churches” – because a church where a gay person can worship God and not feel like an outsider must be very, very hard to find.

I don’t know what I think about gay marriage from a theological perspective, but I do know that most of the Christian church has failed to recognize how serious our systematic exclusion of homosexuals is. Sin can break fellowship, it’s true – but we’re all guilty of that. When it comes to fellowships being broken over homosexuality, it’s not sin that does so, it’s us. We could acknowledge our own sin, forgive them for theirs, and worship Christ together, but instead we insist on their otherness even when we recognize them half-way.

So I still don’t know what I think of the theology of gay marriage, and I’m pretty confident in my theology of women in the church (and specifically in ministry), but I know that I can’t in good conscience push someone out of fellowship with God. I know that I’m sick and tired of half-measures that half-recognize half-Christians and completely ruin our unity. The hospitality of Christ is not exclusive. Outsiders: come on in!

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The Bible: Text, or Work?

I just started reading Francis Watson’s Text, Church, and World, and already in the introduction he’s dropped some bombshells. He begins by defining the three terms in the title, starting with “text”.

A “text” is not a “work” – both terms refer to a written document, but the term “work” implies an emphasis on the author communicating a message, whereas “text” emphasizes the role of the interpreter or interpretive community. We might refer to a book as the work of an author, but we might also refer to it as the text of an interpretive or religious community; I doubt we’d see reference to a book as the work of a community, unless the whole community had a hand in writing it, and if we speak of the text of an author we’re probably referring to that author’s influences.

Of course, Watson uses very different terms to describe the difference between text and work (he’s a bit wordy), but I hope I’ve captured the idea.

Of course, the Bible is both work and text. Someone wrote it, after all, and they definitely had a point (or else, why would they write it?). On the other hand, we can’t really read the Bible without reading it as a text, in the context of thousands of years of religious interpretation and tradition in our community of faith. The point is that our interpretive frameworks will treat it as one or the other, and it’s difficult to emphasize both at the same time.

Watson mentions the quest for the historical Jesus, which at its base is trying to get to the reality behind the text: scholars in this tradition recognize that the gospels, like all historical accounts, are quite selective about what they report, and want to unearth as much of the reality of what occurred as possible. The whole historical-critical approach emphasizes the “work” aspect of a book. Watson thinks that they’re mistaken about the true nature of the Bible – that is, he sees it as “text”.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who emphasize the Bible as text: we read the Bible as members of the Church, in light of (and even in continuity with) two thousand years of interpretive tradition. For Watson, it means that we must take theology into account in our hermeneutic (he’s arguing in this book for a method of theological hermeneutics), but taken further it implies a Roman Catholic hermeneutic, in which tradition is held up (almost) as high as Scripture as being authoritative for Christian doctrine.

In between these two ends of the spectrum seems to be where Evangelicals camp out. In The Hermeneutical Spiral, which was the textbook for the hermeneutics class I took in both college and seminary, Grant Osborne emphasizes that interpreters need to figure out what a book meant in order to figure out what it means – that is, we need to check out the original author’s intention in their original context in order to discern an appropriate interpretation for our own context, which may include our Church community and tradition. In light of the difficulty of being accurate in our understanding of the original context and message of a work, scholars since the 1970’s have been emphasizing the final form of the Bible – that is, we need to read scripture in light of its relation to itself, reading each book as it relates to all of the others, in the order and collection that we’ve received them (this is called Canonical Criticism). This is a move from “work” to “text”, though how far that move is can depend on where the interpreter sees the Spirit at work: does the formation of the canon to Scripture’s “final form” represent the Spirit at work in the councils of the early church, or does it represent the Spirit at work in Christian tradition up to the present day?

Theological interpretations have more room to breathe if we take a “text” view of the Bible, whereas historiography is more central if we take a “work” perspective. Is either perspective right? What do you think? Is the Bible primarily a “work”, or a “text”?

EDIT:

Reading on, Watson describes the “Church” element of his title, and this also reflects on his view of the Bible as “text”. Those who see the Bible as “work” emphasize the original intended meaning of the author, a point which has much to do with the genre in which the author chose to communicate. But because the Church is the central place in which the Bible is read and interpreted, Watson says, the primary genre of all of the biblical texts becomes that of “holy scripture” – that is, the original genre of the work is subordinated to the text’s position and function in the Church, which is to be read aloud as part of the worship of the church, and interpreted through a sermon. The very fact that it is interpreted by a sermon after it is read suggests that there is interpretive freedom – otherwise, wouldn’t the text just speak for itself and not require a sermon? (This has been argued.)

I’m torn about all of this. If we take seriously the role of the Holy Spirit in guiding the Church and preserving the meaning of the Bible, then we should be Catholics, and embrace this approach wholeheartedly. Obviously we are not all Catholics, and tend to reject the notion that tradition is entirely trustworthy or authoritative, Spirit or no. This fact alone troubles me deeply, and I think it’s a point that Pentecostals haven’t done nearly enough to explore. But if we don’t agree that the Spirit affirms all of Christian tradition, then Watson’s approach seems to be saying “this is right because this is how we do it” rather than saying “we do it this way because it is right.” I’m interested to see how he navigates this balance without arguing for Catholicism.