Updates on the Journey (2): Sacraments and Local Church Autonomy

Almost exactly three years ago, when I had first arrived at Yale, I wrote about the theological journey as I had seen it thus far, reflecting on the doubts I had about the “evangelical worldview” I had grown up with and looking ahead at how I might move beyond the boundaries of evangelicalism.  

Now, having completed my time at Yale and just beginning to settle into my time as a pastor in the United Church of Christ (and soon beginning the UCC’s official process of discernment!), I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on my own spiritual journey, sense of calling, and how I would articulate my own faith.  In the coming days and weeks I hope to share some of those reflections in a new series I’m calling “Updates on the Journey.”

Today, I’m picking up on the question I left off with last time:  How did I move in my time at Yale from exploring Episcopaliansim to self-identifying as a Congregationalist?

Where I Was Then  (The Journey There)

I grew up in a medium sized non-denominational church that was “elder-led,” meaning a panel of between 4 and 8 elders met regularly to shape the course of the church’s life, occasionally holding “town hall” meetings to discuss major decisions with the broader church.  For a long time, I just assumed that’s how all churches ran.

Then I went to college, studying– I thought– to become an evangelical pastor myself and I had a few experiences working with local baptist churches in and around Birmingham, AL.  These churches were “committee run” and major decisions had to be put to congregational wide voting, which, in addition to being a new experience for me, also afforded me the chance to have a serious crash course is the reality that the internal politics of churches can sometimes be horribly, horribly nasty.

Painting, 14th century, Flanders. Rogier van d...

This all happened about the time that I was beginning to question whether or not the Bible could really serve as our sole theological authority and entering a phase in which I thought that perhaps “tradition” should hold the foundational role in theology.  And if that was to be the case, I reasoned, it probably meant that the church should be led and governed by bishops.  Which had the added benefit, I thought, of eliminating these nasty, politically charged committee meetings.

The first hang-up that I came across in dealing with this new model of church organization was the question of whether or not a single bishop, namely, the Bishop of Rome, should hold the final authority in such church structures.  Perhaps revealingly, I found that I was too suspicious of such a centralized authority, and instead took to the arguments of early Eastern theologians who claimed bishops should rule with “equality,” not with deference toward Rome.

Having cleared this hurdle, I now felt comfortable within the broad tent of the Episcopal Church, not convinced that being out of communion with Rome was a death blow to my orthodoxy.

I’ve said to a few of my Episcopal colleagues that if I’d gone to seminary in a “low-church” episcopal environment, that probably would have been where the story ended.  But I went to Yale, where the Berkeley community leans pretty heavily in the “Anglo-Catholic” direction.  And while I have a great deal of respect for my many friends and colleagues who find Anglo-Catholicism deeply meaningful, I ultimately found that this was not my cup of tea (or gin and tonic, as the case may be).

Where I Am Now (Almost Back Again)

My shift in thinking emerged from the combination of two different streams in my studies at Yale.

First, while at Yale I became a bit more “Reformed” (which my friends at Southeastern will probably find highly amusing) on one particular point: the importance I place on divine autonomy.

And second, a great deal of my time at Yale was spent studying the philosophy of existentialism, which has had a significant impact on the way I understand both the theology of the sacraments (including ordination) and of how I think about church organization.

One of the most important themes of the New Testament, I believe, is that God cannot be backed into a corner by human expectations.  Jesus defies the messianic expectations of his followers, ushering in a different kind of kingdom.  He reinvents the rituals of the Mosaic Covenant when he establishes a new covenant grounded in his own death and resurrection, completely shocking even his inner-circle of disciples.  The Holy Spirit further confounded the expectations of the early church, leading first Peter and then Paul on missions to the Gentiles which completely mixed up the boundaries of race, gender, and socio-economic class in ancient Roman society.  God, it seems, does many things we do not expect.

Underlying all of this, I think, is a basic principle of divine autonomy:  We humans cannot control God.  No ritual, no prayer, no rite, no physical object can be used to bind God to anything God does not freely choose to do.

A second, equally important theme of the New Testament is the emphasis on encouraging unity within the church.  Whether it be Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one” or Paul’s lengthy theological arguments that Jews and Gentiles are equal in Christ, this theme is extremely prevalent throughout the writings of the New Testament.

Stained glass window depiction of a thurible, ...

I think both of these themes have powerful implications when it comes to how we understand the sacraments.  God has promised, through the words of Jesus in the gospels, that in the presence of the community gathered we find the presence of God.  That starting point leads me to reject the idea that in the worship of this gathered community, in which God is already present, we can further obligate God to show up in some special way by the institution of certain rites and rituals.  I find any such suggestion to be problematic for two reasons.  The first is that it denies the autonomy of God (who has never promised that whenever we say some particular words something magical will happen in the elements of communion or some ontological transformation will take place in the person we are blessing or praying over).  The second reason I find such “sacramentology” problematic is the often not-very-hidden assumption that in order for the Holy Spirit to show up in our worship the rites and rituals must be done the “right way,” thus creating a mechanism for dividing the Christians who have it right from those poor unfortunate souls who are only half-way there (and living on a prayer).  Such a divisiveness strikes me as being entirely contrary to the point of Paul’s discourse on communion, for instance, which is located squarely in the middle of a discussion on the importance of maintaining the unity of the Church.

What I find to be a more compelling notion of the sacraments, informed by the philosophy of existentialism and trying to take seriously Paul’s notion that the eucharist is both a demarcation of the church’s unity and a proclamation of the gospel, is the idea that the sacraments function as a proclamation to ourselves of our identity as Christians.  When we partake in the eucharist, we are publicly declaring to ourselves who we are and why we are gathered as a united community in Christ.  When we recite our baptismal vows, we are publicly declaring to ourselves the identity we have found through our faith.  When we pray over a person in the midst of an ordination ceremony, we are publicly declaring to ourselves who God has called them to be.  The rites themselves do not invoke some special presence of God– God is already present.  Nor do they induce some change in the person– the Holy Spirit has already done that long before we get to the point of celebrating it in ritual– or the elements– the real work of the Holy Sprit is in us, not the bread, wine, or water.  What the sacraments and rites of the church do is publicly declare our faith, proclaiming it to ourselves to remind us of who we are and why we are gathered.

I’ve half-jokingly referred to this theology of the sacraments as “Zwinglian.”  I’m not really sure that label works in a historical sense (I’m not simply saying the sacraments are about “memorializing” Jesus, for instance), but I’m not sure any other label is closer.

Hand-in-hand with this “Zwinglian” sacramentology, which pretty officially makes me not an Anglo-Catholic, I’ve come to believe that one of the chief purposes of the church is to be a community which grounds the faith of its members.  If the proclamation of the faith in the sacraments is a communal event, and if their message is largely about the establishment of a new community grounded in unity and love, then it follows that we need a community to be part of for our faith to take root.  And what I’ve come to believe, again informed by the philosophy of existentialism, is that this community has to essentially be a local one.  Abstract notions about a church-universal in which we all take part are helpful when thinking about certain issues.  But generally, on the level of individual faith and discipleship, we need a concrete community which embodies the faith we are proclaiming.  And that means a local, gathered body.

First Congregational Church, Central Square, K...
First Congregational Church, Central Square, Keene NH (Photo credit: Keene and Cheshire County (NH) Historical Photos)

What I’ve come to believe is so important about this concrete, local community is the way it functions for helping us with the task of “meaning-making.”  I think the existentialists have it right that we are incapable of truly living without a clear understanding of the world which guides our lives and gives us a sense of direction.  And, I think they are right that ultimately, “meaning-making” is an act of faith.  In that way, “meaning-making” is a process uniquely suited to the church.  In a world increasingly driven by the consumeristic mantra “greed is good” and the overwhelming pressure to compete and succeed, the quest for developing a more rich and full understanding of the world and our place in it has generally been pushed to the side in favor of developing the raw analytic skills necessary to “solve” the problems which impede us from maximizing our profits, speeding up our internet connections, and becoming the first person to say or do something no one had ever thought to say or do until ten minutes ago.  In contrast, the church can be a place where we ask, together as a community, about the meaning of life, about the way we relate to the world, and about what it means to have a relationship with God.  But for that process of “meaning-making” to really be “meaningful,” it needs to be grounded in the concrete realities of a particular community and the people who make it up.  Meaning-making, or faith, cannot be dictated from a bishops office a hundred miles away, or even by the guidance of a select few individual within a much larger community.  It needs to be grounded in the actual existential reality of those who are living it out, no matter who they are or where they are on the journey.  Faith ultimately must be grounded in a concrete, local community, ugly committee meetings and all.

Having developed a sacramentology that is essentially “Zwinglian” (even if not actually Zwinglian) and an ecclessiology that holds as essential the grounding of faith in the local church community, I came to the conclusion that I am undeniably a Congregationalist at heart.  And so the next step for me in my journey became finding a congregation to call home, which I have done at Saugatuck Congregational Church!  Now that I am at Saugatuck serving as a pastor who hopes to help others engage in the “meaning-making” process I described above, I have two more important questions to answer.  First, what exactly leads me to believe that I am called to be a pastor?  And second, what does my own sense of “meaning” or “faith” look like?  Those are the questions I’ll turn to in later installments of our “Updates on the Journey” series.

Suggested Link From Amazon.com:


Evangelical Theology: An Introduction




5 thoughts on “Updates on the Journey (2): Sacraments and Local Church Autonomy

  1. @..”Faith ultimately must be grounded in a concrete, local community, ugly committee meetings and all…” >> Indeed..I’m on my church’s Parish Council & I’ve found though , that with clear laid out bylaws, the meetings don’t have to be ugly..Nothing for the good of the church congregation gets accomplished when just ugliness(among humans..) happens regularly…Enjoy reading your perspective & your growth process..I’ve not been able to articulate my life journey experiences in Faith and prior; in quite this manner. Much of my testimony is beyond my skills in being able to put into words..I just do my best to show and live it in my actions..I’m very much a practicing Catholic; but I respect others who chose to practice different religions..Matters not , in my opinion, for we all serve the same God. What I have discovered though is it is indeed a life learning experience..Look forward to reading future installments of your journey.

      1. Be encouraged and know that yes! more than ugliness is happening in some churches/congregations/communities across our country..I’m a part of one that is doing far more good works than I can list here..From feeding those in need twice a month to supplying scholarships to youth for their higher education..Very wide net cast indeed. And needed.

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