The Church is an Ethic a Liturgy and a Real Presence

One of the key moments in Alexander Campbell’s break with Presbyterianism and denominationalism came when he returned his communion token, unused, to the coffers of the Presbyterians. The token, issued by the Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian Churches, was a ticket of entry showing that the bearer had been duly tested and approved by the clergy to gain access to the Lord’s Table. The tokens were a form of “salvation currency” as the bearer was declared a bona fide Christian (to be denied a token was to lose access to body of Christ). The tokens became sacred objects, some even requested they be put in their coffins at death, and they were a means for clergy (who came to view them as their personal possession) to accumulate power and insure their own station. The system originated with John Calvin and spread to Protestant churches all over the world, including the U. S. The particular thing which may have plagued Campbell, as he purposely put himself at the end of a line of 800 some communicants, was that he realized that his new friends among the Scottish reformers would not qualify for the Lord’s table as they were not of the right party.[1]

Tokens were for Campbell what indulgences had been for Luther, as he came to see the tokens as exemplifying “man-made judgments fostering division among Christians.”[2] Where a group presumes sole possession of the body of Christ this is the point by which they create a currency of power so as to enrich themselves by lording it over their fellow man. The Popes and prelates, of every brand, can regulate access, appoint priests, and presume hierarchical power, by virtue of presuming to secure the body of Christ. Just as the ring of Tetzel’s coins set Luther against Roman Catholicism, Campbell threw the coin into the plate and renounced Presbyterianism and every ecclesiastical body that proclaimed itself the only doorway to God. As Thomas Grafton has described it, “The ring of that token, as it fell from his hands, like the ring of Martin Luther’s hammer on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral, announced the renunciation of the old church ties, and marks the moment of which he forever ceased to recognize the claims or authority of a human creed to bind upon men the conditions of their acceptance with God.”[3] His refusal to be bound by shackles devised by man became the impetus to a unity movement based on the brotherhood of all believers.

Part of the problem in the development of this Movement is that Campbell’s break with the Presbyterians did not result, as in his theology of baptism, with a robust theology of communion. In the Restoration Movement the Lord’s Supper has often been reduced to a simple memorial to the death of Christ.[4] It is true, Campbell railed against this sort of necrophilia: “mourners to the house of sorrow” and “as sad as a funeral parade,” in his estimate.[5] Campbell pictured the Supper more as a real supper: Christ “did not assemble them to weep, and wail, and starve with him.” “No, he commands them to rejoice always, and bids them eat and drink abundantly.”[6] The table is a moment of fellowship “in his presence” and “in honor of his love.” Nonetheless, in John Mark Hicks’ estimate, due to Campbell’s common sense (Lockean) epistemology, “The Lord’s Supper is more of an ‘argument’ for the gospel rather than the experience of divine communion.”[7] Where transubstantiation or consubstantiation would put the body of Christ in circulation in a human economy, Campbell tended to put it out of circulation entirely.

Two problems converge then in a single question: how is Christ’s presence freely mediated to us through the Lord’s Supper? Where it is not free, the body of Christ becomes subject to an anthropocentric or human centered hierarchy, and where it has been declared free in the Restoration Movement, anthropocentrism enters into the event itself as it is reduced to a mere memorial. In the first instance, the Church becomes a human barrier to free access to God and in the second instance the Church becomes inconsequential to salvation. As Hicks puts it, “The Assembly has become something we do for God and/or something we do for each other rather than primarily something God does for us.”[8] The Church might be said to have the body of Christ (locked within) or to have an ethic (doing something) but there is a distance or separation in this having and in this doing. The conceptualization of the Church, then, is the problem and seemingly the underlying problem in a correct understanding of “true presence.”

Paul, in I Cor. 3:13, equates the Corinthian Church with the temple, which means that to understand how the Corinthians are the true temple it may be necessary to get straight the point of the tabernacle and temple.  One might imagine that the fulfillment of the temple is to get the rituals right. To properly spread the incense, to ring the bells, to say the incantation in the proper way. But, of course, the rituals of the temple are not perfected/fulfilled in better rituals properly performed in the Church. That is, we might imagine that Paul’s whole point is to get straight on how they should perform in worship – or how they should take communion (a point he is coming to). “We need better liturgy – better public performance of worship – we need to coordinate our incantations and then we will conjure up God’s presence through priests, smoke, and mystery.” Though Corinthians might be read simply as an attempt to correct behavior through proper liturgy, this is to put asunder the ecclesiological ethic at the heart of Paul’s practical salvation. The Jewish temple pictured a coming reality in which access to God would no longer be ritualized, institutionalized, or mediated through law (and all of the accoutrements of the temple that went with law). The temple was a cosmic representation, a microcosmos with God at the center, in which cosmic reconciliation is pictured. The equation of the Church with the temple means God’s presence is not simply externally accessible, it is abiding and continuous: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Co 3:16 NASB).

The “you” here is the corporate body and the book as a whole is a call for the Corinthians to turn from their notion that the gospel is concerned with individual spiritual fulfillment. Their misrecognition of the body of Christ is not simply a problem they have at the Lord’s table. They have failed to recognize that God’s Spirit is not given to individuals but to the community and this has caused division. Paul explains that it is on behalf of this community that all are to exercise their spiritual gifts – and this constitutes the ethic of love. The blessing and gifts of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.), by definition are received through others (Paul’s picture of the gifts coordinated in the body of Christ). The Spirit dwells in you corporately, Paul is warning them, so that if you divide you lose Christ. As Richard Hays points out, “To read this . . . as though it spoke of the Spirit dwelling in the body of the individual Christian would be to miss the force of Paul’s metaphor: the apostolically founded community takes the place of the Jerusalem temple as the place where the glory of God resides.”[9] Corinthians calls them, throughout, to an “ecclesiologically-centered ethic.” As Hays puts it, “God transforms and saves a people, not atomized individuals. . . Thus, to do ‘ethics’ apart from ecclesiology is utterly unthinkable for Paul.”[10]

At the same time, this is a warning to those who would presume to control access (by claiming Paul, Cephas, or Apollos, as a means of exclusion of others). Paul warns, they are in danger of destroying the temple. “If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are” (1 Co 3:17 NASB). Paul warns the sectarians that they are in danger of ultimate condemnation. Division, the presumption of control by human means, is the ultimate sacrilege. The proper response to the presence of God is not to delimit it (through Paul, Cephas, etc.) or to presume to control it (through human wisdom). The proper response is to be fully animated by this presence by being “like minded.” “You are the Temple” means the temple is now enfleshed and to be lived out. So ethics, worship, and God’s presence, are enfolded into this new living temple.

Jesus had predicted a worship “in spirit and truth” and Paul describes his Gospel as the accomplishment of this Spiritual worship.  He is the minister of “a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit” (2 Cor 3:16). Jeremiah’s prophecy (31:33) is fulfilled: “You are our letter. . . written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Co 3:2–3). The word is now embodied in the life of the community, which both Paul and Jeremiah explain, means there are no longer judges (I Cor. 4:5), elites, or even the need for teachers (Paul says, you may have tutors): “No longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother…for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” “Neither in Jerusalem nor in this mountain will you worship” – to confine – localize, delimit or control this worship in Spirit, in Paul’s estimate, will mean a man’s work is burned up (though he may be saved but “only as by fire”).

Paul provides, in himself, an example of how this new liturgy or worship works. He refuses to deal with ethical problems by appealing to the Jerusalem council, the apostles, or by simply appealing to his own authority. He appeals instead, to the spiritual discernment operative in the community. The will of God is open to the discernment of all through the transformation of their minds (Rom 12:2) “so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other” (1 Co 4:6). Paul explains in Galatians that the baptized are “one in Christ Jesus” and are no longer divided by ethnicity, social status or gender (Gal 3:28), as they are part of a new family. The danger with Peter and the Jews, is that they would presume the privilege of ethnicity – a cultural imperialism in regard to Jewish identity over Gentile identity.[11] The temple community is to embody an alternative mode of identity, not one of imperial superiority but of loving sacrifice; “Present your bodies [plural] as a living sacrifice [singular], holy and well-pleasing to God. And do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom 12:1-2). The marker of this new community is not to be found in the rituals it performs but in the ethic it enacts, the law of love it displays. The point is not who has proper control, power, and tradition, but who loves rightly. Paul’s appeal is not to something extrinsic to what they have in Christ, “Now I appeal to you brothers and sisters, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you might be in agreement and that there be no divisions (schismata) among you, but that you be ordered in the same mind and in the same opinion” (1:10). The innate capacity to enact the love of Christ so as to be of one mind is the primary marker of this new temple people.

True church is identified by this unifying ethic – it is definitive of the Church (the point Paul is building toward in his love chapter). The Church is not constituted by rituals, rights, or liturgies, or a hyper-spirituality, disconnected from this ethic. The ethic is the worship and the worship enacts the ethic. So, discerning the Lord’s body (ch 11) is not simply to notice the cracker and remember the death or to recognize that bread has magically become flesh. It is to recognize the brother and sister as part of the body of Christ and to act accordingly. Eucharistic celebration is not to think really hard privately – it is to love rightly. Paul will provide several examples of how this love maintains unity (e.g. it regards the needs of the weaker brother; it acknowledges those without during the communion meal; Paul foregoes receiving financial support from the Corinthians (though he explains he has this right)).  He draws out the principle of putting the interest of others above one’s own in a passage that echoes the kenotic sacrifice of Philippians: “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all” (1 Co 9:19, ESV). The point, even for the Apostle is not an overt exercise of rights and authority: “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak” (1 Co 9:22, ESV). As one of the strong, this is how he wants the strong to act, “not seeking my own advantage, but that of many” (10:33, ESV). This is not a top down hierarchy but a corporate body dependent on discipleship and imitation: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Co 11:1, ESV). One cannot legislate, institutionalize, authorize, control, or delimit this work. No one judges, Paul says, as God through Christ is in control.

To paraphrase Paul, “So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox, or Anglican, or Protestant; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” The Church in Corinth would denominationalize behind various leaders so that there would be Pauline Christians, Apollos Christians and Cephas Christians. Paul is telling them not to play that game. Paul didn’t die for you and you were not baptized into the name of Paul. All things belong to you in Christ – but what human institutions would do is try to restrict access.

The sectarians say, “You must be of Paul or Cephas, Eastern or Western, Protestant or Catholic, you must be baptized in this order or that. Only our group has the body of Christ. If you will submit to our rules, our authority, we will apportion a little bit of the body to you. But we control access to the body of Christ, with our authority, with our hierarchy, with our tradition, and we have determined who is worthy and who is not. Not all things are yours – you must come through our notions of do not taste, do not touch, fast on this day, pray in this way. If you do not recognize this council, if you do not understand the procession of the Trinity in this way, then we will not have you. The true Christians are those we have identified – if you have not received our stamp of approval or token you are not of Christ.”

One must wonder if the great temples of Rome, Constantinople, and Canterbury, and the hierarchies attached to them are the sort of enduring temple Paul is envisioning. Could it be that these are the wood, hay, or stubble, which will be burned up? On the other hand, to disconnect salvation from the body of Christ available in the ecclesia is to reduce the Church to a human organization devoid of the life-giving Spirit. In either instance, man has presumed to put his understanding, his associations, his wisdom, in the place of God.  Paul’s warning stands: “If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him” (1 Co 3:17). Recognize you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you and enact this understanding through sacrificial love.

The Church does not “have” this ethic anymore than it “has” the body of Christ. It is this ethic and it is this body.

[1] Leroy Garrett, Our Heritage of Unity and Fellowship, p. 23

[2] Restoration Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 3, 1995.

[3] Thomas W. Grafton, Life of Alexander Campbell, p. 40-41 I am following the article by Al Maxey on his website

[4] “There are three such memorials: the Lord’s Supper, Baptism and the Lord’s Day. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial of his death, Baptism is a symbol of his burial, and the Lord’s Day celebrates his resurrection.” Carey Morgan, “The Place of the Lord’s Supper in the Movement,” Cennential Convention Report, ed. W. R. Warren (Cinncinati: Standard, 1910) 464. Though it has been assigned a place of importance in practice (weekly observance and one of the “indispensable provisions of remedial mercy” in Campbell’s explanation).

[5] Alexander Campbell, “A Restoration of the Ancient Order of Things.–No. VI.: On the Breaking of Bread–No. I,” Christian Baptist 3 (1 August 1825) 176.

[6] Alexander Campbell, Christian System, 2nd ed. (Pittsburg, PA: Forrester & Campbell, 1839) 340. See John Mark Hicks, “Stone-Campbell Sacramental Theology” accessed at…/10/…/stone-campbell-sacramental-theology-rq.doc.

[7] Hicks, Ibid.

[8] John Mark Hicks, “Stone-Campbell Sacramental Theology” accessed at…/10/…/stone-campbell-sacramental-theology-rq.doc.

[9] Richard Hays, “Ecclesiology and Ethics in I Corinthians,”

[10] Hays, Ibid.

[11] Hays, Ibid.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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