I didn’t expect four words, that at first caused me so much trouble, to become central to my faith. St. Cyprian of Carthage is thought to have been the first to use them, in the third century. They’ve been affirmed by great leaders and councils of the church throughout history. But when Pope Francis used them two years ago, the words were perceived by some as a special blemish on his growing appeal: Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (“Outside the Church there is no salvation”).
When I first heard those words many years ago, they seemed exclusive, arrogant. Do they mean, I wondered, that I’m damned unless I’m a member of the church – specifically the Roman or Orthodox church, where the words are central to faith? Do they mean there’s no way to God except through Jesus Christ and the Christian church? It seemed that way to me when I first heard those words.
I grew up in the curious part of the Bible Belt where the Midwest meets the Mid-South and faith was mostly about other people’s expectations. There were standards of belief and behavior to be observed if one was to be included in the right social circles, and the church was the arbiter of those standards. Measure up, or be left out. Believe the right things and practice faith in the right way, or pay the price. The message was subtle, but that didn’t make it less coercive.
Then John and Charles Wesley helped me understand that Christian faith, and the relationship between salvation and the church, is about something very different. They helped me understand that faith is about belonging more than about believing; it’s less about conformity, more about community.
In a sermon called “Catholic Spirit” – today he might title it “Universal Spirit” – John Wesley noted the obvious: We don’t all believe alike, and we don’t all practice our faith alike. But, he wondered, may we not love alike? If your heart is as mine, he said, give me your hand. If in the center of our being we seek a renewing, life-giving relationship with God, then let’s lay aside our differences of opinion and of practice and affirm and help one another in our common journey.
What God was doing in Jesus, St. Paul wrote, was restoring all the fragmented parts of the world and all the diverse peoples of the world to our original, unified relationship with God and with each other (2 Cor. 5:19). God wasn’t creating a system of beliefs to which everyone would agree, and God wasn’t establishing a pattern of practices that everyone would follow; God was reestablishing a unifying, sacred community in which everyone would belong.
Our relationships in the human community are essential to our relationship with God, so much so that, according to Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, if I come to offer a gift of thanks to God and remember that my relationship with my brother or sister is broken or strained, I’ve got to stop, reconcile with my brother or sister first, and only then return to offer my gift of thanks to God (Matt. 5:23-24).
Community – the reality that we belong to one another in a sacred relationship – is the seventh and maybe the most important pillar of my faith. Faith is always personal, yet it is never private. It always affects my relationship with others, and it is always affected by my relationship with others. Every one of us has an essential stake in the relationship that every other one of us has with God. That’s how closely we are bound together in community.
Our connection in community doesn’t mean there’s no room to be alone. Jacob was alone when he wrestled with the angel at the River Jabbok and received a new identity and a new name, Israel. But his wrestling in that solitude was preparation for his reconciliation with his brother Esau, from whom he had long been estranged.
Moses was alone in the wilderness when he encountered God in the burning bush, but the purpose of that encounter was to send Moses to rejoin his people and lead them from captivity to freedom. Moses was alone again when he spoke with God on Mount Sinai, but the purpose of that encounter was for God to make a gift to the people Israel: a covenant that would govern their life in community.
Elijah was alone in the wilderness when he heard God speak to him in whispers, but the purpose of that encounter was to send Elijah back into the world to set right a broken political system. Jesus was alone with God for forty days in the wilderness as he sorted out his values and made crucial choices about the direction of his life, but that was prelude to his return to the world, where he would call people to a different way of living.
God calls us to community not so we will have friends and family who will take us in when no one else wants us, and not so we’ll have a comfortable place to which we can withdraw from the assaults of the world, although those are two really nice fringe benefits. God sets us in community so we will have a place in which to seek and find God (Acts 17:26-28). God calls us into community as a laboratory in which to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12-13) and in which we are to provoke one another to do what God calls us to do (Heb. 10:24).
And God calls us to community so we can model a way of life that’s different from how the world lives, so we can invite people to a different way of life that is healing and life-giving. People will sometimes say the church should be run like a business. That may be the final perversion of the church as the body of Christ. The church should not be run like a business; the church is here to transform the world so that business is run like the church – not the petty shrines to local culture that many congregations are, but the body of Christ, the present incarnation of the living God.
Finally, we are called to a community that is meant to disappear, to dissolve back into the world. In John’s Revelation, the final depiction of the new Jerusalem, the holy city of God that will come from heaven at the culmination of history, is a city where there is no temple, no steeple, no visible, identifiable sign of organized religion (Rev. 21:22). It is a community in which God is spread beyond all boundaries and distinctions.
Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. Outside the divine community into which God is reconciling all of us, outside the community in which God chooses to dwell incarnate, there is no healing relationship with God. And the good news is that finally no one will be left out of that divine community. That’s a pillar of faith I’ve learned to count on.