Welcome to #ATLT, At the Lord's Table: A Conversation, a series of over 50 posts from varying authors about the beautiful, mangled Church. Look for at least two new posts every Monday through Saturday between January 25th and February 22nd. Join us in the conversation? See you in the comments.
In Augustine’s Confessions, the bishop-to-be describes an exchange between two men, Simplicianus and Victorinus. Victorinus reads and studies Scripture thoroughly, and has just privately confided to his friend that he now believes himself to be a Christian, though he has not said so publicly.
Simplicianus answered: “I shall not believe it nor count you among Christians unless I see you in the Church of Christ.” Victorinus asked with some faint mockery: “Then is it the walls that make Christians?” He went on saying that he was a Christian, and Simplicianus went on with the same denial, and Victorinus always repeated his retort about the walls.
Is it the walls that make Christians?
My answer, when I first read this, was “no.” I was quite pleased with Victorinus’s reply – who is Simplicianus to say whether Victorinus is a Christian or not? The Church isn’t about a building, it’s about the people gathered inside, worshipping God. Bricks and mortar can’t contain worship; if anything, church should be boundless. If Victorinus says he’s a Christian, then the truth of his confession lies between him and God. Christ makes the faithful Christians, not walls.
Is it the walls that make Christians?
The answer, though Simplicianus never utters it, is “Yes.”
Indeed Christ makes faithful Christians, but he makes them by means of walls. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, he tells his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I command you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20, NASB). He commands his disciples to make disciples, but he also gives them a threshold: baptize them. Victorinus is a good disciple – he has “investigated all the Christian writings most carefully and minutely.” But he has not crossed the threshold laid by Christ: he has not been baptized. In crossing this threshold, we are branded with the Cross; it is by these waters we enter the Church. There’s a reason that fonts are placed just inside of cathedral doorways.
While baptism is the threshold, orthopraxy – right action – composes the walls of the church. After Jesus tells the eleven to make disciples and baptize them, he says to teach them to observe all he commanded. His followers are to be bound by the cords of disciplined action. Where the Law of the Old Testament constrained them, he cinches it tighter: “You have heard that it was said… but I say to you…” He welcomes us lovingly, but “His eyes are a flame of fire,” purifying us and commanding us to be transformed, bound in love (Rev. 19:12, NASB). Paradoxically, these bounds make us freer, so that we too may pray, “In Thy service lies perfect freedom.” G.K. Chesterton offers this image in his book, Orthodoxy:
We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall around the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.
I remember these words when I begin to fear the walls of the church. Fear that they could become the topiary walls of a country club, keeping those not-in-the-club out of my bubble of pleasantries. Fear that they could become the unrelenting walls of a castle, set bitterly against all outside. And some days they seem that way. But the walls of the Chruch are not these sorts of walls; they are walls of joy and communion.
What happened to Victorinus? “Quite suddenly and without warning he said to Simplicianus … ‘Let us go to the church. I wish to be made a Christian.’ Simplicianus, unable to control his joy, went with him.”
I love the Church’s walls; I love them for the safety and wildness they bring. Within these walls we sing and play. Over this threshold we are each beckoned by Love.
Grant Shellhouse is a Senior at Baylor University studying Theology and Literature. He enjoys, among other things, the music of Bruce Springsteen, breakfast, second breakfasts, dancing (usually poorly, flinging his lanky and lengthy limbs around), poetry, and concerts. Grant was born in Texas and has lived there his whole life, though he thoroughly enjoys traveling when he can. He is currently working on a thesis about contemplative prayer and the Virgin Mary; and although he is unsure of what's next in the long run, he hopes to teach after he graduates in May. Grant blogs here.