What is the Church? (John Gunson)

  (30 January 17)

What Is The “Church"? (And What Is SoFiA For?)




by John Gunson



One description of SoFiA is that it is “not a church”. Many members of SoFiA, and many more senior members of Australian society, were once church attenders or church members but have left the churches because they seem no longer relevant to life, and because they persist in expressing their story in outdated and no longer believable language and thought forms. For many, ’church’ was not a happy or helpful experience.

Progressive Christianity, a comparable movement to SoFiA, exists for much the same reason as SoFiA, though most of its members, including clergy, still remain in the churches, while rejecting ancient theologies and liturgies but seeking a relevant and contemporary way forward.

But what is it we are rejecting? What is the church?

My experience tells me that very few people, including church members and attenders, and the church’s leadership, know the correct answer to that question.

One of the key findings of the Progressive Christianity Movement is that Christianity (as it is expressed in the main-stream churches, and many of the fundamentalist and sectarian versions) took a wrong turn in the first few centuries of its life. Unfortunately this wrong turn was codified and institutionalized when the Roman Emperor Constantine adopted as the State religion the pesky, counter cultural, troublesome, but fast growing Jesus way/ Christian movement that was suffering heavy persecution as a consequence of its opposition to Rome.

The Roman gods, and any other gods espoused by the various parts of the Roman Empire, were replaced by the Christian God by Imperial edict, with the new religion becoming the official religion of the vast Roman Empire. All citizens were required to convert, attend worship, etc. Christianity had conquered half the world at one stroke of the Imperial pen. Thus began the era of Christendom, with church and state in lock-step, with Imperial money supporting the church, and great cathedrals and ’churches’ built for the worship of God and the administration of the sacraments. The early ’churches’ which were gatherings or companies of people were translated into buildings and an institution. An ethical society was turned into a religion.

The Constantinian settlement also codified what had been a fairly fluid Christian faith in a new creedal statement (the Nicene Creed) at a council of church leaders in 325 CE called by the Emperor, where he forced unity of doctrine on the churches, either expelling or executing the few brave dissenting bishops. The dominant theological concepts of the time (largely derived from the Greek philosophy of that era, and expressed in archaic and arcane language) defined Christianity for the next 1700 years. But while Progressive Christianity rightly rejects this outdated theology, it fails to notice that the Constantinian settlement introduced a new and institutionalized form of the church which focused on buildings and gatherings for the worship of God, which continues unquestioned today.

Perhaps the original form of ’church’ may well have relevance for today, and may even appeal to SoFiA members as the next step in their search.

Let’s try to uncover the original ’church’. ’Christianity’, one of the world’s great religions, is a derivative of the Jesus Way or the Point of View Jesus movement, but, since Constantine, it has borne very little resemblance to its origins. The best New Testament scholarship today, through textual study of the New Testament and other early documents, and in the context of the 1st century CE, is able to differentiate the earliest strands of tradition from the later interpretations of the Jesus story that make up most of the New Testament and are from a time half to one century after the life and death of Jesus.

The earliest records tell us that Jesus (a Jew, not a Christian) was a healer, an ethical teacher and a prophet of justice, confronting the poverty and oppression his people were suffering under the occupation of the Roman empire, and the complicity of their own religious leaders. He gathered into people’s homes the oppressed and suffering to give them ’healing’, and then sent them out to ’heal’ and help others in need. His teaching challenged the oppressive social and political institutions and practices of his day. He had no intention of starting a new religion and in fact was openly hostile to his own religion, and its priests and leaders. He would have rejected any suggestion that he was Messiah or Son of God.

After his death his ’followers’ gathered in house groups in which they rehearsed his teachings and supported one another and new members in living out the Jesus way in their daily lives. These were “ethical communities” not religious communities. They were not about the worship of God and no sacraments were administered. Often they shared a common meal, (later to be transformed into a sacrament of “the Lord’s supper”).

These gatherings were called ’ecclesia’, the Greek word for a gathering or assembly. Early ’Christians’ (or more correctly people of “the Way”) didn’t “go to church” or “attend church”, but themselves were the church (the ecclesia). So, it is indeed time to reject Constantinian ’Christianity’, a world religion which replaced the Jesus Way. Fortunately the Jesus teaching was kept alive within orthodox Christianity, even though subservient to God-worship and theology, and muted and confined to personal behaviour — since its social and political ramifications were unacceptable to a church in bed with the authorities.

Part of the attraction of SoFiA is that, like the Jesus Way, it is a “gathered fellowship” in a harsh, hostile and individualistic society, where examples of community are hard to find. But, for me, as I have said in a previous article, SoFiA is, and ought to be, a transition organization for people, (not a destination), helping us move from religion to ethical community, where we go beyond “discussing the big questions of life” and move on to “being the ethical community”, reaching out in practical ways to those damaged and disadvantaged by society, and acting to bring justice into that society.

In fact, the most important of “the big questions of life” is not “Why are we here?” or “Is there a purpose to life?” or “Does God exist?”, but “How should we live?”

It is time to resurrect the real ’church’, i.e. to join together in “ethical communities”, to support and strengthen one another in this much more difficult task; and perhaps take the original Jesus and his ’Way’ seriously, rather than endlessly discussing “the other big questions of life”, except for those needing help in the transition from Church to ethical ’ecclesia’; and that is what SoFiA is for.   


In his last talk at Melbourne SoFiA, the late Rev Canon Dr Nigel Leaves lamented that SoFiA had failed to live up to its promise. It was still nothing but a talk-fest. It had not become the religion of life. Or even an "ethical community" as John Gunson has so succinctly put it. I have a different attitude. In an open group, like Melbourne SoFiA, we find there are diverse and often conflicting viewpoints on most issues. Following our discussions of the big questions of life, involving a variety of possible solutions to present-day social and environmental issues, each participant is free to decide to take action, if they wish, by joining one or more of the dozens, hundreds or thousands of action-groups around each issue. In my opinion it is these action-groups themselves that are possibly John Gunson's "ethical communities". Or, if he prefers, they perhaps are the "gathered fellowships", "ecclesia" and "churches".

Posted by David Miller

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