Is the Church “Christ on Earth Today”?

Where can we see Jesus today? For many Christians, the answer is simple: We see him in and through his church. Since the Scriptures speak of the church as “the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:12, 27; Eph 1:22-23), we should see it as an extension of Christ’s own activity in our world today. 

But then what about when the church behaves in horribly un-Christlike ways? When it abuses its power or neglects Christ’s commands? Are we to say that Christ himself was involved in doing evil? “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor 1:13).

Lutheran theologian Ian McFarland offers a helpful perspective here. He says that if we’re going to talk about the church being “where we see Christ on earth today,” then we ought to qualify that by limiting it to those times when the church is performing “sacramental actions.” [1]

That is to say, the way in which Christ makes himself present in and through the church is through the sacraments. It is only in its capacity as steward of the sacraments of Christ that the church most fully represents him to the world; not in the day-to-day foibles and flaws of individual Christians, nor in the systemic abuses of a given denominational authority.

If we were to say that the church itself, in everything it does, represents the acts of Christ himself, then we’d be implicating the Lord in all kinds of wrongdoing. Every time the church, as the church, exercised its spiritual authority to, for example, enact a crusade, or cover up a sexual abuse scandal, we’d be saying that “Christ on earth” did those things. Which is problematic, to say the least.

The church is indeed the “body of Christ”; it is his instrument for working in this world. But that doesn’t mean that everything the church does, Christ does. It is only when the church acts sacramentally — that is to say, when it does those things through which Christ has promised to channel his grace by the power of the Holy Spirit — that the church acts as Christ’s own instrument on earth.

I believe McFarland’s argument is, in some sense, just putting a more precise point on a distinction that I think most Christian traditions would make when they speak of the church representing Christ.

Even a church without sacramental theology (like most congregational evangelical churches) would say that of course Christ is not involved in churchly abuses; but he is involved in things like baptism and communion — along with preaching, praise and worship, prayer, etc. 

What those churches often don’t realize is that when they make just such a distinction, they are (in a limited sense) using a kind of underdeveloped sacramental theology. I believe this shows us just how necessary the concept of “sacrament” is whenever we think theologically about Christ’s presence in his church, and therefore if Christian communities ignore such theological vocabulary it is to their own detriment.

So what are the kinds of sacramental acts through which Christ is present in the church? There are many. McFarland lists the three that are most central in his Lutheran tradition: baptism, communion/Eucharist, and confession. I would add others, but I would also suggest we should picture them along a spectrum. Some acts are more overtly sacramental (greater mediators of Christ’s presence and blessing) than others.

That spectrum would range from those acts which are intensely and obviously sacramental, which most overtly manifest Christ’s presence. These would be the two gospel sacraments instituted by Christ himself: baptism and holy communion/Eucharist. Only these two acts are explicitly said in Scripture to be physical means by which believers participate in Christ (in some way; there is debate among Christians as to the mechanics of it all).

Lower down on the scale would be other acts which are described in Scripture as being channels of grace and blessing from Christ. Things such as corporate praise, the preaching of Scripture, the exercise of spiritual gifts, confession and reconciliation, and acts of sacrificial service. Finally, at the lower end of the spectrum, I’d put those more general indicators of the Holy Spirit’s presence, like displays of Christlike character, acts of care for creation, participating in Christian fellowship, etc.

Viewing sacramental acts along a spectrum like this helps us distinguish those things that are richly laden with explicitly Christian spiritual activity, like baptism and Eucharist, from those that are more commonplace. It also, I happen to think, helps curtail the tired old debate between various Christian traditions over how many “sacraments” there are. Confession, marriage, ordination and the like can indeed be sacramental acts, conveying the spiritual blessings of Christ’s presence in real and life-changing ways. But not everybody gets married or ordained, and nowhere does Scripture hold up marriage or ordination as special means of union with Christ’s presence. So those shouldn’t be treated on the same level as baptism and Eucharist, but they can indeed be seen as sacramental (that is, physical channels of Christ’s spiritual grace and presence).

So, what’s my bottom line here? In a nutshell, I’m saying that if you want to affirm that Jesus is present in and through the church, but you also want to deny that Jesus is implicated in the church’s misbehavior, then you need sacramental theology. You need a way to distinguish those acts which have the stamp of Christ’s grace and presence from those that are merely human. The rich vocabulary that Christian theologians have been making use of for centuries to elaborate this distinction is the language of sacrament.

If your particular church or denomination is averse to using the language of sacraments, it’s important to know why, and to look for the ways in which it still nonetheless uses sacramental ideas to explain Christ’s presence in his church.

[1] OnScript podcast episode, “Ian McFarland – The Word Made Flesh,” republished Oct 27, 2022. Discussion of Christ’s presence in the church begins around the 51-minute mark.

Categories: Ecclesiology & Missions, sacraments

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Thanks for this post. I’ve been trying to blossom my faith, coming back to the heart of Christ. I really needed this today!

    Liked by 1 person


  1. Is the Church “Christ on Earth Today”? Yes and No – My Journey and Thoughts

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