I've been having a difficult conversation with a friend and I mentioned the inconsistencies of the Church, his response was that the Church isn't inconsistent but the people who represent the Church are. That got me thinking. What is it that we think the Church is?
First off there is really no Church (Catholic/Universal/Transcendent) but there are traditions, lots of traditions. And each of them has distinctives that set it apart as well as ideas rooted in a consistent whole. There is some degree of similarity in doctrines, practices, values and structures. However, it would be hard to say that any of that is consistent. And this extends even within the tradition itself. Even traditions that hold a romantic notion of historical preservation cannot square that with the historical reality. But really that isn't the argument.
The argument is that the Church is something transcendent, immutable and unchangeable. In modern terms this is an assertion that the Church is an Ideal. But how does that stack with reality?
Part of the problem is that Church has an institutional reality. We could simply say that the Church is the people, period. And while our answer must never separate the notion of Church from the lived reality a Ecclesia, or the people called together, to miss the structural reality of Church as institution is to deny an aspect that is also a lived reality. Where we can challenge this idea is how we understand the institutional character of Church.
One common way that the Church is over Idealized (in its institutional form) is by conflating it with the Kingdom of God. If we say the Church is the Kingdom then we cannot permit anything but that it is a perfect institution - albeit imperfectly realized. But there is no real scriptural basis for such an assertion. A Kingdom implies the expressed reign of a monarch. The Church, as institution, hardly appeals, with any consistency, to the King in matters of structure. Rather the Church as institution has modeled governance on existing patterns in other, often dominant, communities. To the point where most modern churches value a democratic approach to governance. This is hardly consistent structurally, even within a single tradition. There is definitely a relationship between the Kingdom of God and the Church, but it is that the Church is called into existence by and for the Kingdom of God. In this sense the Church is the servant of the Kingdom, which allows us to acknowledge the human aspect of Church.
A larger issue with conflation is that if the Church becomes the transcendent ideal of the Christian hope - where does that leave the King? Much as many Protestants have made the Bible their idol, elevating it as the ideal, other Christians have made the Church their idol, elevating it as ideal. If the Church itself is untouchable and already perfect then why do we need anything else? This was the problem Jesus faced with the Jewish authorities - they had structures that gave them confidence and so had missed the heart of their religion - they no longer needed God. I think we should be wary of any assertion that salvation is secured through anything other than the work of Christ through Jesus' death and resurrection. If we learn anything from the First Testament it is that we love the surity of idols.
Does this mean though that the Church is necessarily inconsistent? I wouldn't assert that it is by necessity inconsistent, but that in reality it is inconsistent, and in every way we can imagine that word. But that shouldn't disrupt our faith and confidence in the Church as a profound work of God in and for the world. I would draw our attention to the idea of unity. If there is a consistent longing in Jesus' instructions for the Church it is unity.
Unity is not the same thing as uniformity. Uniformity is actually a form of oppression. Unity, on the other hand, is a form of community with diversity. Even if you have peaceful uniformity you cut off modes of expression. You impoverish the whole. And you do not have real community. Unity never requires consistency, nor does community for that matter. What is required is a desire to be something together that is great than is ever possible when we are alone. This is worth thinking through because it is counter-intuitive to the structures of society - many of which, as we already mentioned, are translated into the structure of the Church.
Unity also doesn't imply a soft-relativism. Unity requires the difficult task of working through difference to a better understanding. Unity only functions when we respect a high ideal of authenticity but reject the notion that we can ever escape our context and that context, those things that we respond uniquely and authentically too, can and should be challenged. Tradition, including structures can and should be challenged. And doing so is how we move towards a better vision of society and community. This must include such dominant structures as the Church. If we somehow exempt the Church from this, then our hopes for real unity will always be dashed.
I say this because as a theologian who has had influence in my denomination on structure - this is the serious consideration to be taken. When we build structures and traditions, we need to recognize that it is, and has always been, us who have created them. We do so to honour God. And we believe that God helps us in creating structures that touch the world in the contexts we build them. But the institution is always a human creation. And so we can always do it better.
That doesn't mean we ditch tradition, nor do we shatter the institutions. These are the historical building blocks of a true future. But when we rest on these structures, we run the risk of becoming captive to our ideals instead of letting ideals grow to meet the challenges of the future.