Tuesday, April 21, 2009

1.2 The "Platonic" Church

This is the second section of Chapter 1: "The Myth of the Ideal Church."

The first section was "1.1 The Good Old Days."

1.2 The "Platonic" Church
Plato was a philosopher who lived several hundred years before Jesus came to earth. He believed that if you look at a group of things, say a bunch of horses, you could find certain essential or universal characteristics they all had in common. For example, horses have four legs. They have manes and long flowing tails. They neigh and gallop.

Plato suggested that standing behind all these different horses I might encounter was the ideal horse--the boiled down, core idea of a horse. To him, any particular horse you might see with your eyes on earth is simply a copy of this ideal horse that you know with your mind. Plato thought this ideal horse was far more real than any particular horse you might actually see or touch.

It is true that most horses have certain common features--not least the same basic DNA. But most of us today might find it a little strange to suggest that some pruned down idea of a horse is more real than a horse you might see running in a field. A real horse for us has a certain size and a certain color. It might have a particular personality and tend to behave in a certain way. And what if a horse gets in a terrible accident and loses one of its legs entirely? What if it gets a disease that makes all the hair in its mane and tail fall out? Has it stopped being a horse because it has lost one of the key elements of my ideal horse?

The myth of the ideal horse is a bit like the myth of the ideal church, the "Platonic" church, if you would. In practice, we only find particular churches, not the ideal church. Yes, the ideal church is unified. Yes, the people in the ideal church love each other. The ideal church reaches out to the world around it and cares for any it can. It teaches and disciples. It does its best to follow God's will for being and living in this world.

But in the real world, these ideals are played out in specific contexts--in different cultures and different situations. You show love differently in different cultures and in different situations. You will need to reach out to your surrounding context differently in different times and places. You will need to teach to different questions in different cultures and disciple differently.

A particular horse has a specific size, shape, and color. And a particular church, even a particular denomination, will end up having specific teachings and practices that differ from other particular churches. It will baptize or not baptize in certain ways. It will take communion or not take communion in various ways. Throughout church history, groups have tended to tell themselves that the way their group taught or practiced things was the truly biblical way, that they were the church just like the New Testament church. Indeed, today there are over 30,000 such churches who say such things, while differing wildly at times over what they think the New Testament church was like.

I made up a story once to illustrate some of this diversity. Sally was born when her parents were attending a Roman Catholic Church, so she was baptized soon after birth as an infant, by sprinkling. But then her parents switched to a Greek Orthodox church, where she was rebaptized three times by immersion, still as an infant, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Then in high school she started going to a Baptist church, where they insisted her two earlier baptisms did not count. She had not been old enough to know what was going on. So she prayed the sinner's prayer and was baptized again, certainly by immersion.

In college she went to a Lutheran church, where the pastor was horrified to find out she had been baptized not only twice, but three times already. He recalled that the Lutherans had killed re-baptizers back during the Reformation. Finally, as a young woman, she started attending a Friends church, where she was almost afraid to ask what they did. When she mustered up the courage, the soft-spoken, pacificist pastor told her calmly that he did not believe in water baptism.

The conclusion seems inescapable. Any group that claims to be simply the church of Christ, the disciples of Christ, the church of God, a non-denominational church, or even the catholic church is deceiving itself. At best we might speak of an inter-denominational church or a catholic church. An interdenominational church might allow most forms of baptism or might do communion in more than one way. But even to allow such variety is to disagree with those traditions that insist it must be done a particular way. A catholic church might model its practices after the common practices of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, which of course then would distinguish it from many practices in Protestant churches.

And what would a church without specific understandings of the Bible and theology actually teach? As soon as it teaches a particular understanding, it has aligned itself with a particular stream of Christianity that differs from the others. What we find in reality is that we can identify the particular tradition of a "non-denominational" church fairly easily, simply by looking at what it teaches, how it structures itself, and what its key practices are.

At this point someone will protest that I am simply laying out the need we have to get back to the early church, to the ideal church of the New Testament. We need to peel off all the additions of tradition that have accrued over the centuries, they might say, and get back to the pristine, pure church of Acts and Paul. But hopefully this is the point where what we are saying will really begin to sink in.

The churches of the New Testament were also particular churches in particular contexts! Yes, they were closer to the fountainheads of the church: Jesus the resurrected Lord and the dispensed Holy Spirit. But they also lived out the ideals of the kingdom in their ancient contexts. They too were horses of a different color, shape, and size. They were not some shapeless, formless, colorless, universal essence of a church. They were the church living out the gospel in their times and places--and those times and places were not our times and places. [1]

If we do the same things they did--say greet our brothers and sisters in Christ with a holy kiss--we often will not be doing the same things they did. We might get a slap today instead of a smile. The meanings of words and actions at a particular point in time is a function of context and culture far more than something that carries over to all times and places. It is foolish to pattern our practices on the early church without due consideration of the difference between their time and our time, without carefully considering what the true family resemblances are.

The problem with the Platonic idea of the church is thus not the hope that all churches will share some common characteristics. The problem is that in the real world we only have particular churches at particular times and places. And do we really want to say that groups like the Quakers are not really part of the church because, like the horse with three legs, they do not normally practice baptism? Does God consider them a part of His kingdom?

The problem with the myth of the ideal church is that it more often than not serves as a way for a group or group of reformers to pretend that they are the ones who know what the ideal church is (and that it is they). The myth manages to say such things to itself because it does not look at the particular churches of the New Testament, which differed even among themselves in various respects. Instead, it looks into the words of the New Testament as into a mirror and, not surprisingly, it sees itself.

Over the centuries, thinkers have improved on Plato's theory of ideas, I believe. For example, how do you recognize a member of my family, the Schenck family? Certainly there is DNA for those in my family who are not spouses or adopted. But is there some essence of a Schenck, an ideal Schenck?

Certainly a number of us Schencks (not me of course) are quite free to share their opinions on things rather outspokenly--and not always with enough prior thought. Certainly many of us like to eat. A good number of Schencks have, shall we say, robust figures that perhaps betray a Dutch heritage filled with lots of bread and mashed potatoes. Some of us have biggish noses and others big ears. Some of my cousins at least seem rather tall to me.

But there is no ideal Schenck. Apart from DNA, there is no common set of characteristics we all share--particularly those who have married into this assortment of Schencks. There is no Platonic Schenck, just a loose set of Schencky characteristics and family resemblances. [2] Some of us have some of them, and some of us have others. But none of us have all of them.

In the same way, God's church has taken on such specific variety in specific contexts over the centuries that we cannot really speak of the ideal church beyond generalities. When it comes to concrete practices, different churches and denominations have their strengths and weaknesses. Infant baptism, for example, captures the fact that God's grace is on a person before they even know it, and God would accept the child if it died in infancy. Nowhere in the Bible is it clearly forbidden and theological arguments can be made to defend it. Believer's baptism captures the importance of an individual confession of faith and the washing of past wrongs knowingly done. The Bible never insists it be done this way, but theological arguments can be made to defend it.

There is thus no definitive voice in Scripture on how or when to baptize. There is no ideal church on this subject. We only find particular churches that either baptize or do not, who baptize infants, believer's, or both. There is no clearly Christian choice here given church history to the present, which includes the Reformation.

What we have instead are family resemblances between churches. Most churches baptize, even though there are a few churches where the horse has lost a leg. But these Christian horses come in different sizes, from the Shetlands who sprinkle to the Clydesdale's who fully immerse. But they are all horses. They are all part of the "invisible" church. But in the real world we only see them "in flesh," incarnated. All real churches are incarnated churches.

[1] This fact also betrays the slight of hand we often perform when we read the Bible as words written to all times and places. Words simply do not mean the same things in all times and places. When we assume that the words of the Bible have always meant the same thing and have always applied in the same way, we are in effect presuming that our way of reading them is the way people in other times and places have always read them. But of course this is not the case.

[2] The idea of family resemblances as a more accurate way of defining a group than a set of universal characteristics largely derives from the early twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.


Bill said...

"It is foolish to pattern our practices on the early church without due consideration of the difference between their time and our time, without carefully considering what the true family resemblances are.I think that's a bit too strong, albeit qualified as usual. It seems to me some practices of the apostles in church-rearing, if you will, are in need of much consideration today. Sure, the holy kiss example is easily dismissed. But the present day practice, commonly practiced, of having a CEO-board model for church leadership has no precedent in the NT "DNA" or "family characteristics".

Surely it is not ideal to suggest a horse, or a Schenck, should have fully functioning limbs, tourso and bodily systems, all fitly joined to their heads?

(Though I think it goes without saying that your baptism illustration is spot on. Then again, I've never been personally uptight about baptism.)

Thanks for another well written post.

Ken Schenck said...

I have no doubt that the reason I am not as bothered by strong CEO type leadership as you are Bill is because the leadership of the Wesleyan Church is not domineering and has rarely manipulated the people. I'm sure that if I had experienced carnal, power hungry bishops who, the people be cursed, were going to do it their way, I would be much more guarded in the way you suggest.

I hope I do not deceive myself into thinking that the "generous" approach to ecclesiology I am suggesting does not fly flat in the face of rigid denominationalism even as it urges me to tolerate those in such denominations with their particular practices.

The bottom line, we'd be glad to make a friendly space in the Wesleyan Church for all you out there who are looking for the benefits of an umbrella denomination without a power hungry episcopacy. :-)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we should define the Church by what God says, and not dictate our thinking of what the Church is, based on some heathen philosopher’s cockeyed view of the world! We would have far less disagreement in the Church, and what the Church is supposed to be, if we took off the shackles of humanistic restraints.

If the ideal Church is a myth, an ideal heaven is a myth also, and God along with it. If Plato’s idea of the “Forms” is true, then there can only be one of anything. While I would agree with the idea behind a Restoration Movement, one cannot entirely disregard history, read the Scriptures and information of the Early Church with the 21st Century mind, and find a perfect consensus on everything. Can we separate ourselves from our own baggage completely? No! Can we know with laser-like precision exactly what was being taught, with all cultural implications and language nuances? Probably not! But we can try! In fact, we must try! God sets forth an ideal; He is no idiot that gets His jollies at watching pathetic men strive to do the impossible. The ideal Church exists in the mind of God. He gives His intent to us in His Word. Plato has no answers for us; God does!

Allow me to say that using the idea of an “ideal” does not necessary place one into Platonic thinking. One does not need Plato to arrive at that conclusion. If one is arguing that the Church is flawed, and the Church has always been flawed or contained flawed people, I doubt if anyone would disagree. On the other hand, it is no excuse for passivity and acceptance of the sorry excuse we call the “Church” today! What the Church is, is not what culture dictates, but what God defines! Proof of this is God’s rebuke to the overriding flaws of the Churches in Revelation. There is a point of departure where a Church in its error ceases to be a “Church.” On the other hand, we have the reduction to the essentials in the general letter to the Ephesians (not specified to any single Church,) but a positive letter to those that would reflect the essentials of God’s intent for the Church. I have no doubt that a Church can be above reproach, yet differ in a non-essential with other Churches. There can be unity, but until we get to heaven, there will not be uniformity.

I will say that your writing is well stated and thought provocative. I would however suggest that it is an inevitable outcome that if we start with man’s ideas, we will end with man’s thoughts; not God’s. I do not get any encouragement in believing that God is a defeatist, or that His ideals are not realities. The perfect Church is no myth.

Anonymous said...

"the leadership of the Wesleyan Church is not domineering and has rarely manipulated the people."

Without a doubt, history reveals a consistency that the Early Church held to a form of Episcopal ecclesiology. Even Pope John (Wesley), as people referred to him, had a heavy hand on the Movement that he led.

I personally tend to a Presbyterian model which pushes power down a bit, but evades a Congregational democracy which can be fickle on truth. The Wesleyan Church departs from Wesley on the issue of ecclesiology. I tend to believe that the Church would benefit from more direct leadership. Not that I would give credit to a form of Church government as the driver of revival, but would observe that all great revivals have centered on individual leaders; most of which, whether loosely or stated, held to an Episcopal ecclesiology, either is practice or in fact.

One can take great pride in the accomplishments of the Wesleyan Church. But if a history of the Church Universal were written today, how much would have been written about Pope Wesley and his contribution to the cause of Christ, and how much would be written about the contribution of the Wesleyan Church “which is not domineering and has rarely manipulated the people."?

An Episcopal form of government does not equate to “domineering” and “manipulation.” It certainly has the potential to degrade into that, but due to historical results, I am unwilling to dismiss it hat-in-hand. Scripture, reason, tradition, and especially “experience” does not seen opposed to Episcopal oversight and honor.

Got to get to work! Catch you all later!

Jonathan Parsons said...

Anonymous, I think you are grossly equivocating what Ken means by "church." As I understand it, Ken is speaking of the "church of practice" or the "church with the lowercase c" if you will. You seem to be talking about the Church as the "body of Christ" which is the spiritual Church. If you are, I would agree that the true "Church" is flawless as the true body of Christ, but that isn't what Ken is talking about. While under Christ in the Church there is no Greek, Jew, male or female, the church of practice is dramatically diverse. As far as practice is concerned, to say that there is an "ideal" is naive, due to the fact that every church of practice is contextualized by its environment. THAT is what Ken is talking about.
You also reveal your misunderstanding of Plato's philosophy, but that doesn't even matter, simply because of the fact that it was used as an example of how we think about the church.

Mark Schnell said...


It would be great if you would put your name to your strong comments. They seem similar to some of the ones that Keith Drury has deleted lately.

If I'm wrong about Keith's site, forgive me. But how about a name?

Bill said...

Ken, I like your response. You're definitely the most appealing Weslyean I know. "You do thy service well." :) However... ;)

What bothers me about the CEO model is not that some abuse the position more than others. What bothers me is the fact that - not true for all but for far too many - that "laymen" are essentially paying professionals to be the church on their/our behalf. I believe even the most gracious CEO's feel a tinge of inherent dominance (and benevolently wish it wasn't there). All too often, it is tantamount to Christianity by proxy.

Anyway, my point at the moment was just that some efforts to "pattern our practices on the early church" have nothing to do with cultural differences. Any true "family resemblances" are going to crop up in each generation. There are, of course, spiritual *and* 'human' characteristics as well.

Thanks for the interaction.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

The Platonic model of the church was its attempt to be the universal. But, since history has proven that humans always define and refine their understandings differently for many reasons..we seek our "ideal" at our "defeat".

The ideal is the human, as this is the universal. But, what is the "human" that is the queston today, as science cannot define what that is...so we are left within our "cultural understandings" and think they are universal!

Anonymous said...


It would be great if you would put your name to your strong comments. They seem similar to some of the ones that Keith Drury has deleted lately.

If I'm wrong about Keith's site, forgive me. But how about a name?”


Only cowards delete postings when they have no answers! You don’t need a name, though I am not the one over at the other site that was dismissed when they apparently threw out an unanswerable challenge. Ideas stand on their substance, not on the name that is appended to them. Only a cultist would place a name above ideas and substance!

Spiritual weaklings don’t delete, but only ignore challenges when they are too overwhelmed to dialog about comments.

Those that seek to elevate themselves to the status of Cult Leader, rely on family members and friends to defend them when they have no answers.

I see little to respect here. A bully-pulpit is apparently what you want, and you can have it!