“We give thanks that each congregation, where Christ is present through faith, is truly the church, affirming as well that God’s church and God’s mission stretch from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth.”
There is a paradox at the heart of the Christian understanding of church: Each local congregation of baptized believers in which the gospel is preached and the sacraments celebrated — each local community where Christ is present through faith — is truly the church, not simply a denominational branch office. It is a sign or embodiment of the universal church in that particular place. This local congregation, however, cannot be whole unless it is in living relationship with other local congregations.
The universal church is not simply an aggregate of local communities; it is a “communion” — a fellowship, a sharing — of local congregations, each of which is truly church.
You see the paradox. The local church is the universal church in each place; and the universal church is the communion of local communities. This paradox, found in Reformed and Catholic traditions alike, is also central to recent ecumenical discussions about the nature and mission of the church.
Since our “Restructure” in the 1960s, Disciples have been trying to live this relationship between local and universal more fully. Prior to Restructure, we were “congregational” in polity, meaning that each congregation was understood to be autonomous. Only the local gathering of believers, we would have said, is truly the church.
But if we take the Bible seriously, no part of the church can be autonomous! Paul is unambiguous in 1 Corinthians: The community of Christ’s followers is like a body in which “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’.... If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Congregations, like the bones and organs of a human body, are wonderfully diverse; but they also need one another in order to be whole.
In the 1960s, Disciples developed structures for expressing the interdependence of congregations (each of which is still truly the church). Regions are not offices alongside the congregations, they are congregations in mission together in a particular place. The general church is not an office in Indianapolis; it is an expression of the relationship between local and universal, especially through the regular assembly of Christians who worship and serve in local communities.
But in one of the ironies of history, just as Disciples were working to become more interdependent, the American church as a whole was, sociologically speaking, becoming more congregational! We were surely correct, theologically speaking, to emphasize the covenantal bonds that tie Christians to one another. But we have been trying to live this out at a moment in history when such bonds have been weakening all across the church. To put it succinctly, we became a “denomination” right when denominations began to lose their coherence. It is no wonder that we have struggled in recent years to say what kind of church we are!
The “mark of identity” printed above reflects the paradox of local and universal I have been describing. It also echoes the language of our denominational mission statement: “To be and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ, witnessing. loving and serving from our doorsteps ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).” Just as each congregation is truly the church, so each congregation is truly an outpost for mission. We don’t just participate in mission by sending money overseas; we are the universal church in mission in our place.
At the same time, what happens in the Congo or India happens to us, and vice versa, because each local community is an inseparable part of the whole. Most of us can’t be in the Congo, but the body of Christ is there. And as a result of our denominational and ecumenical relationships, we are able to participate in God’s mission to the ends of the earth. As the Vision Team suggests, this is surely a reason to give thanks.