There are two main models of, or ways of thinking about, the Church. What I mean is that people have beliefs about who the Church is and what her mission is, and this influences how they go about the business of “being the Church” or “being a disciple of Christ.” The model a person holds is normally unspoken, but influences how they act and perceive things related to the Church and the rest of the world.
The first model is that the Church is like an army in camp behind a walled fortress which has separated from the world. It is filled with the holy and perfect and strives to remain separate from the things of this world. To be a part of the Church is to be perfect, or nearly so, and to no longer intermingle with the world which may corrupt us.
I would argue that this model of the Church is very prevalent in our time, and has been throughout history. In the early New Testament Church, there were groups such as the Novatianists and Donatists who believed that if a person sinned or lapsed from the faith that he could no longer be a part of the Church. This is the “once saved, always saved” sort of view.
Against this view were people like St. Augustine who articulated a second model of the Church. Augustine said that the Church was composed of sinners who have received forgiveness of these sins on account of Jesus Christ. The people of the Church are still sinners in this life, because we still live in a fallen world, but they are also saints of God, since they have been redeemed from the eternal consqeuences of this sin by God’s grace on account of Christ. This grace is received by faith. That is, a person is saved simply by taking God at His Word that he is saved.
In this second model, then, the Church is not an encamped army which is separate from the world. Instead, the Church is in the world, serving as God’s army of redemption, on the move to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all people. The Church then goes to where the sinners are in order to reach them. This may require the people of the Church to get grimy and dirty, much as Christ did, in order to be in the places where sinners are found. And if someone falls away from the Church, there is always forgiveness to be found there, and a people happy to receive back a fellow sinner into their midst.
So, the first model is like an army in camp while the second model is like an army on the march. So, this helps to understand a verse such as Matthew 16:18 where Jesus says, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The view implicit in this verse is of an army in march (the second model), isn’t it? The gates of hell will not stand up to the assaults of the Church, because Christ – her head – has already conquered hell and death and sin.
Likewise, in Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The operative word is “go.” Go to people and tell them about Jesus. The Church is not an army encamped behind walls, anxiously awaiting the end of the world. No, instead, the Church is an army on the march, taking back territory which was seized by the enemy and spreading God’s grace and restoration to all people.
To conclude, I believe the correct model of the Church is the second one, and that the Church is therefore like an army in march, the Church militant, proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all she encounters and helping to preserve and better the world until Christ returns at the resurrection.
This model fits in well with the idea of vocation, which I’ll cover next time.
(Image is of Baptism of Augustine by Ambrose of Milan (Gozzoli, 15th century). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Benozzo Gozzoli – Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49706)