Fellow pastor and blogger John Quincy Hooks has graciously invited me, along with a couple other members of the SBC Today team, to participate the last two weeks in his internet radio program, Baptist Talk. I appreciate his kindness in inviting us to join him, and I enjoy the wide-ranging discussion that unfolds.
Going into the episode we recorded this week, I knew that John was interested in discussing the statements of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, statements she made during the opening of the church’s general conference last week in California. I think I caught our host somewhat by surprise when I led off by saying that, based on the article I had read on the bishop’s comments, I agreed with a good portion of what she had to say.
Schori is quoted in the story as saying that the idea that a person can be saved through a sinner’s prayer of repentance is “the great Western heresy: that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God.”
Now I obviously don’t agree with all of the presiding bishop’s sentiments, nor really with the thrust of what she clearly intended to communicate. She is surely lamenting those who have left the Episcopal Church, and suggesting that they are, by that action, cut off from salvation. Now I don’t think she is saying that salvation can only be found in the Episcopal church, but she is pretty clearly suggesting that an individual cannot find salvation outside “community.” I believe that in itself is heresy, convinced as I am by scripture that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” So let there be no misunderstanding here: in my view, there is much wrong about what the bishop said. But I believe that there is also something right.
In my most recent post, I identified the high value of individualism in our culture as a threat to our proper understanding of what the church ought to be. The danger is that we begin to think that we don’t need the church in order to live in right relationship with God, and it is in this that the bishop’s words resonated with me. In his first epistle, John writes, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers.” (1 John 3:14 HCSB) I am convinced that what John is referring to here is the fellowship of the church, and that one of the evidences of regeneration in the life of the believer is the desire to be in fellowship with God’s people in the local church.
No doubt the presiding bishop would get this exactly backwards. Her paraphrase of the verse quoted above would likely be something along the lines of, “If we love the brothers, we will be able to pass from death to life.” Of course, she would mean something entirely different by life, something entirely different by death, and in no case would she ever use the word “brothers.” But I think that is the essence of what she would teach on this subject, that salvation is found only as one finds his or her place in community with others. This, I believe, is the great error in what she says.
But I do appreciate her identification of the idea “that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God” as “the great Western heresy.” Please understand that in my agreement with this sentiment, I am not simply recycling Cyprian. I reject the idea, contained in his work De unitate ecclesiae, that “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.” We do not receive our salvation from the church, but rather through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross at Calvary. It is possible for someone, having heard the gospel, to come to saving faith in Christ, yet refuse to be obedient by joining a church. But we give evidence of our salvation when we joyfully enter into covenant relationship with God’s people in the local church, and those who would refuse to do so have every reason to wonder whether they have truly “passed from death to life.”