In Let’s Talk, Volume 1, Issue 4, Philip Hefner addressed the question, “How is the Church Necessary for Salvation?” by describing the church as God’s well of possibility.” I found his description not so much objectionable as tame, perhaps because it lacked a specific reference to the death-embracing and death-defying sacrament of regeneration. The word “well” suggests water, yet not once did Hefner mention baptism.
When Cyprian of Carthage asserted that “Outside the church there is no salvation,” he said this because the church has baptism administered by the apostolic minister, the bishop or pastor. Writing at the time of the Decian persecution and the Novatian schism, Cyprian in North Africa developed a hard-nosed point of view against which even Pope Stephen of Rome cringed. Pope Stephen held that baptism performed by the lapsed or by heretics was valid. Cyprian argued that apostates (those who lapsed from the faith under persecution) and heretics (not only those who taught false doctrine, but also those who split from the church over disciplinary and procedural issues, like Novatian) had placed themselves outside the church, the body of Christ, and therefore did not have the sacraments of Christ. About Novatian, Cyprian wrote, “We are not interested in what he teaches, since he teaches outside the Church. Whatever and whatsoever kind of person he is, he is not a Christian who is not in Christ’s church.” Since the church has the sacraments of Christ administered by apostolic bishops, the church is the mother who gives birth to Christians. One cannot have God for a Father who does not have the church for a mother. Therefore “outside the church there is no salvation.”
While we too might cringe at this rigorous view, there is an element of truth in Cyprian’s perspective which the church catholic has embraced even while applying a charity that seemed lacking in Cyprian’s presentation. Baptism is a rite of passage from the life of this world, whose way is sin and whose destiny is death, to the life of the world to come, whose way is holiness and whose destiny is eternal life. The church as an eschatological community, called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace, ever struggles against worldly systems, fleshly desires, and evil powers.
It is a betrayal of the Church’s calling to become identified with the cultures or ways of life of this world in “people’s churches,” whether they are the Scandinavian folk churches, the German Christian movement which marched to Hitler’s drum beat, the consumer-driven megachurches of affluent suburbs, or the ethnocentric communities of urban ghettos. It is a betrayal of the church’s destiny to embrace the ideologies or intellectual captivities of society, whether these are communist, fascist, liberationist, liberal political correctitude, white supremacist or Afro-centrist.
As the community of the incarnate Word, the church must reach out to cultures and engage in dialogue with ideologies, but it does so either to transform them or to confront them with an alternative way of life and world view. The church is God’s well of possibility” not for its own sake, but “for the life of the world.”