In his Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner has an interesting section in which he argues that church should not be seen as simply a secondary help in the Christian life (I can’t tell you how many Christians I’ve talked to who make church out to be a sort of “advice column” to their relationship with Christ). Instead, Rahner says, God acts toward his people through the church. The church is God’s action; His objective, concrete, act of grace. For this reason, Rahner says explains that the church is necessary, and not optional. It is primary, not secondary.
Christianity is essentially ecclesial, and not just a secondary way or from the viewpoint of the social or pedagogical aspects of religion. The church as such belongs to Christianity, at least when Christianity really becomes conscious of itself and when it intends to maintain continuity of a real history of salvation and has to prolong this continuity. Church is more than merely a practical and humanely unavoidable organization for fulfilling and satisfying religious needs. Christianity as the event of salvation, as God’s act upon us and as man’s response to God’s ultimate self-communication, is ecclesial…
Christianity is essentially more than an affair of [man’s] own subjective and pious dispositions and his own religious consciousness, and is more than the objectification of this. From this perspective church means the church which makes a claim on me, the church which is the concreteness of God’s demands upon me. Basically this concreteness is to be expected precisely if Christianity is not a religion which I create, but rather is the event of salvation which God bestows upon me by his own incalculable initiative. And if this salvific event as an act of God is not merely to come to me in the ultimate depths of conscience, but rather in the concreteness of my existence, then the concreteness of this God, who makes demands upon me and who is not my discovery or creation, is Jesus Christ and his concrete church makes demands upon me in the same way. (pg 347)
Rahner makes an astute observation that if Christianity is more than “pious dispositions and… religious consciousness”, which is certainly is (though not less), then there must be something concrete about the way God interacts and disposes himself to his people. And how does God act concretely toward his people? Through the church. Through the church, God condescends and acts savingly, graciously, toward us.
Karl Adams agrees with Rahner. And he goes a step further. He says,
Christ the Lord is the real self of the Church. The Church is the body permeated through and through by the redemptive might of Jesus.
Meaning, it is through the church that we necessarily encounter God in Christ. Why? Because it is in the church, through the church, that Christ communicates his grace.
Adams goes so far to say that we should see the church and Christ as indistinguishable:
Christ and the Church: the two are one, one body, one flesh, one and the same person, one Christ, the whole Christ.
So then, it is through the church that we encounter Christ, because the church is Christ. Augustine himself articulated that in the church we encounter not a (only) mass of individuals, but we encounter the whole Christ. Augustine says that “Christ is not simply in the head and not in the body, but Christ whole is in the head and the body”. What he means here is that the church is totus Christus, the “whole Christ”.
So then, through the sacraments, preaching, body life, church discipline, et al, we not only encounter random spiritual disciplines; we encounter the whole Christ. As Rahner says, God acts by way of this objective reality, this thing we call the church. And so, the church herself is the whole Christ, God’s saving activity.
Because of this, church should be something more than just a social club. It should be something more than just a weekly sermon. It should be something more than just consumerism. If Christianity is ecclesial, then we must expect to encounter Christ in his body. We must expect to submit to Christ himself through the local church. Local ecclesiology is therefore no mere option. If we wish to do the will of God in Christ, it is necessary that we be in his body, under his authority, in the local church.
Karl Adams says,
Is not all human exercise of authority tantamount to a usurpation? Yes, if it be merely human, it is. For every merely human governance necessarily rests on might, whether it be the tyranny of an individual or the despotism of a community. Only in theocracy is a man free from men, for he serves not men but God. Therein lies the secret of that child-like obedience, so incomprehensible to the outsider, which the… [believer in Jesus] gives to his Church, an obedience whereby he freely and cheerfully submits his own little notions and wishes to the will of Christ expressed in the action of authority; an obedience whereby his own small and limited self is enlarged to the measure of the great self of the Church. That is no corpse-like obedience or slave mentality, but a profoundly religious act, an absolute devotion to the Will of Christ which rules the Church, a service of God. And so this obedience is not cowardly and weak, but strong and ready for sacrifice, manly and brave even in the presence of kings. It is faithful even to the surrender of earthly possessions, yes, even to the sacrifice of life itself, offering itself to the Christ who lives in the Church.