***Note: I am precising Oliver O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics this week here at Mere-O. I hope you will work through the challenging and provocative theological ethic that O’Donovan articulates.***

Chapter Eight: The Freedom of the Church and the Believer

Section Two, the central section of Resurrection and Moral Order, has been about the subjective appropriation of reality. In it, O’Donovan has highlighted the crucial relationship between freedom and reality and worked to explain the nature of divine authority.

He then turns to the final locus of authority in the Christian’s moral life, returning to the theme of freedom. Yet his interest is no longer the freedom of the individual per se, but rather the freedom of the Church, which in her hearing of and obedience to the Word of God, also experiences the freedom of moral action. His concern is this chapter is to articulate an ecclesiology that is appropriately authoritative.

O’Donovan’s emphasis that the Church hears and obeys is subtle, but important, for it acknowledges the “community of the faithful” as a part of the gospel life, rather than as simply a messenger of the gospel to individuals. If the Church is simply for the redeeming of individuals, then when all the individuals have been redeemed, the Church would no longer exist. As O’Donovan writes, “If, on the other hand, the community does not merely speak to mankind but is the mankind that is spoken to, then the human response to God must display not only individual freedom but collective freedom.”

Of course, not all ecclesiologies are like the one O’Donovan articulates here. O’Donovan labels ecclesiologies that construe the Church not as a hearer of the Word of God, but as the bearer of the Word of God, as ‘angel-ecclesiologies.’ In contrast to these, O’Donovan contends that the Church’s proclamation of the Word of God is its ‘secondary movement.’ It does so only after hearing, which is the human position.

The chief culprit of angel ecclesiologies with respect to Christian ethics is their propensity to establish what O’Donovan terms the ‘evangelical law,’ which “mediates Christ’s moral law to the individual and enable[s] him to reach conscientious decisions.” It is “the community-law which Christ is supposed to have given for the government of the church’s life, and which it has been the task of the church to reapply in subsequent ecclesiastical legislation and administer by means of its discipline, both by excommunication and by the lesser disciplines attendant upon the confessional.” In other words, the individual has “no encounter with the moral authority of Christ than that which is provided for him by the tradition of church law and discipline.”

O’Donovan highlights four objections against this ‘evangelical law’, which seems to be similar to Catholic moral theory (and potentially could be applied to the Orthodox Church as well): (1) drawing legislation from Christ’s moral teaching necessarily minimizes them, (2) referring back to the tradition (even as a protective measure) potentially denies the “direct claim of God’s word,” (3) it brings the individual back into bondage.

Though it isn’t clear whether O’Donovan agrees with the previous three objections, he sets out a fourth which is his own and, I think, the most interesting. (4) O’Donovan contends that the ‘evangelical law’ and its insistence that the Church stands only as an ethical authority “denies us the recognition that the church is itself a moral agent with its own freedom, that it has its own obedience to the word of God and its own public life to order in accordance with the gospel.” As such, it makes church discipline meaningless. In the middle ages, church discipline shifted from a public focus to a private, entailing that all disciplines issues must be justified on the grounds that it was better for the individual. But such discipline issues may not always be justified on those grounds. Rather, church discipline “exists to enable the church to live a public life of integrity.”

O’Donovan attempts to walk between the Scylla and Charibdis of handing the Church total authority over the individual and removing its authority entirely. On what grounds does the Church have authority over individuals, and is there a limit to such authority? O’Donovan writes: “The freedom of the community to render corporate obedience to the gospel is the ground of its authority over the individual member. At the same time, his individual freedom to render obedience to the gospel in immediate responsibility to God defines the limits of the community’s authority over him.”

In other words, when the Church is compelled to discipline an individual, it has authority over that individual on the basis of its responsibility to uphold its own corporate witness to the world. But it can not mediate the gospel to an individual, nor can it compel an individual to transgress the boundaries of the gospel.

In this schema, there is obviously going to be tension and disagreement. What happens when the freedoms of the Church and the individual are in conflict? Such disagreements, argues O’Donovan, stem from sin and misunderstanding. While the final restoration of relationships happens in the eschaton, the church and individual can begin to experience “living together in love.” The fulfillment of their freedoms consists in finding “their finding fulfillment in each other.”

Until then, O’Donovan highlights the Patristic distinction between command and counsel as a way of articulating the tentative nature of the Church’s position. Some things could be recommended to individuals, but not assigned as a duty, such as “the renunciation of worldly possessions and of marriage.” Those who followed the recommendations would receive more crowns in heaven, but those who did not committed no sin.

O’Donovan rejects the Patristic (and subsequently Medieval) association of the distinction between command and counsel with heavenly rewards, on the grounds that it drove “a dangerous wedge between divine command on the one hand, and the ultimate realities of good and evil on the other.”

But the distinction contains a deeper truth, as there is an area of the moral life that the Church must inevitably remain silent upon, for it is primarily hidden from the Church’s view. In the instance of vocation, a man may be called to be celibate and still marry, thus acting disobediently. However, such an action may be done without the Church’s knowledge.

Because of this, O’Donovan contends that the church may counsel a man, but not command him in his moral decisions. “Counsel, indeed, is the church’s most characteristic form of address to the individual because it respects his status as one whom God also addresses directly, and whose particular decisions are partly hidden from public gaze.” In pointing to the truth, however, the Church counsels with authority, which is different than the role of the psychological counselor. “[The Church] communicates the authority of revelation, by which its own words are authorized, and places itself alongside the hearer in obedience to that authority.”

The nature of the Church, however, extends beyond this counseling authority. Because it is not yet in heaven, it has structures and rules—it is an institution, and hence acts with a type of political authority as well. That is, it can coerce if it has to. But it coerces only on the grounds of the last judgment, as in the act of excommunication, which “pointed to the gulf which must exist eschatologically between one who refused God’s word and the redeemed community which lives by it.”

The church’s authority, then, is both didactic—concerned with understanding—and political, or concerned with obedience. Hence, in the realm of appearances—for the Church is a public entity—it must act with a provisional authority to disclose the eschatological reality, through both excommunication and reconciliation. Because it cannot fully reveal the eschatological reality, and does not even know it, its signs are only provisional—but they a witness to that reality nonetheless, and what’s more, a witness that the Holy Spirit has authorized.

Other posts in the series:

Series Intro
The Created Order
Eschatology and History
Knowledge in Christ
Freedom and Reality
The Authority of Christ

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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