I’ve said, in an earlier essay, that I no longer buy the idea that there is no salvation outside the church.
For centuries, it has been claimed that to be Christian, you had to be a part of the church, and more specifically, you had to be a regular, conventionally-participating member of the local congregation. I even made pretty strong claims supporting this in my Ph.D. dissertation. (Note to UK friends: my home country uses “dissertation” as the term for the final product of doctoral research, and “thesis” for the master’s degree requirement. You reverse it.) It’s one of the very few areas of William Temple’s theology from which I’ve departed in major ways since I started reading his work almost twenty years ago.
I think the old extra ecclesiam nullus salus is a kind of weird idea for many reasons. First, it seems to contradict the biblical claim that “the Spirit blows where it will” (John 3:8): God can work outside the confines of the institution. To make the claim that a person cannot be “saved” (and I’m no longer sure exactly what is meant by that, either–another essay for another day, I suppose) apart from visible participation in earthly ecclesial structures, goes against John’s gospel in ways I can’t accept. Add to that John 10:16, where Jesus claims that there are sheep “not of this fold”, and the problems mount. Even Augustine of Hippo (not exactly the theological liberal’s first choice of authority) did not hold to this. His claim was that “many whom God has, the church does not have; and many whom the church has, God does not have.“
Institutions are important–but I’ve come to think of all institutions as places of transition. Very few of the most useful and positive human institutions draw people in and never send them back out unchanged. Perhaps the only institutions which one may enter without the expectation of eventually leaving in a better state are places of palliative care for the dying, and maximum security prisons where one is put for a life sentence without hope of parole.
Not exactly the kind of thing I care to associate with an institution that holds out the hope of eternal life. Most churches do not have a sign that says “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here“. But that is what extra ecclesiam nullus salus implies–you’re stuck here forever, and you’re going to be in even deeper trouble if you make the attempt to leave.
Of course, the churches don’t have barbed wire or towers with snipers stationed on top, ready to shoot-to-kill if you try to leave. But the threat of eternal separation from God if you “leave” the temporal fellowship is, for many, enough of a threat to keep people in line as good obedient conventional church members.
Early in my transition to being Past Christian, I used to think extra ecclesiam nullus salus was an expression of over-confidence. Perhaps, centuries ago, when the church was a much more socially prestigious and powerful entitiy than it has become in the post-industrial western world, it was. Church and secular society, up until the Reformation (at least) were so intertwined that separation from the community of the faithful made participation in civic life nearly impossible. The attitude, although most classically Roman Catholic, was carried over to the churches that were no longer under papal authority. One can hardly imagine Puritan Massachusetts as a place where separation from the holy community made life easier. And it had to be the right holy community. Protestants in Catholic regions were suspect and considered dangerous; same with Catholics in countries where the rulers were Protestants. And God only help Muslims in Christian lands–and Jews just about everywhere.
When I viewed this as ecclesiastical arrogance, it made me angry. Now it makes me sad. Because it has become, for me, an expression of an extreme lack of confidence.
A confident church would not be so very worried about a certain fluidity in its membership, where individuals waxed and waned in their participation in conventional church activities and commitments. If the church was truly confident that it had done a good job of developing Christian character and devotion in those who came in, it would be far less worried about what happened to them when those same people left, for a season or even for the rest of their lives.
When a person is baptized in the Episcopal Church, the officiating minister takes holy oil andmakes the sign of the cross on their forehead, saying the words
“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”
Even if the ritual actions and material signs (the sign of the cross, the holy oil) are not used in every denomination, I would be surprised if any baptism carried the expressed or implied message:
Only if you stay in the church. THIS church.
The words of the Baptism service are an expression of confidence that once Christ has a person (and really, who does Christ not have?), that person cannot be excluded from the love of God.
Why does the institutional church not trust its own rites more?
A confident church would know it had its job of instruction and character formation that it need not worry about a person’s relationship with God if s/he were to absent him or herself for a while. It would not have to threaten a person with the fear of eternal separation from divine presence if that person failed to worship, tithe, serve the congregation in conventional ways. A confident church would make fewer demands on its graduates, knowing that they would continue to be good followers of Christ outside the institutional settings.
In short, a confident church would trust its own work more than it does. It would see the idea of “no salvation outside the church” not as words of love, but as words of desperation. It would see the most loving thing it could do as releasing its people into the world, to do the work of God that was not necessarily done under the watchful, nervous eye of Mother Church. It would set its people free.