From several conversations I have had recently, I have been questioning the nature of the church. There seems to me to be two general concepts as it regards the Body of Christ. Church-as-force and church-as-accident. These are imprecise terms and only serve to illustrate the very general distinction between these two camps.
The church-as-accident (CAA) camp believes that the church is merely the aggregate of all believers in Christ and imparts no power or authority to her. Just as citizens under a monarchy do not share in the power of the crown, members of the church do not share in the authority of Christ. We are bound together by our shared belief, but these bindings are relatively weak and do not illicit a strong identification between individuals. CAA is, of course, the position held by most Protestants and historically, it has long believed that the church fell away shortly after the 1st century and corrupted the Apostolic deposit. Only with the Reformation was the truth restored. In the CAA view, God did nothing to protect the church in the intervening centuries and if the truth was preserved, it was preserved only by a tiny minority that existed under the institutional & corrupt church's radar. CAA views any development of extra-biblical doctrine or ideas as heretical and believes that every belief must have a warrant found in scripture.
The church-as-force (CAF) camp believes that the church is more than just the sum-total of believers in Christ, and that God does give her authority and power, even if only in a limited sense. The ties that bind the CAF are much stronger, since every citizen does, in some small way, share in the authority of Christ, hence there is a higher sense of mutual purpose and connection. It seems to understand the church much more as a body - interconnected and interdependent. Which leads the CAF, unlike the CAA, to have a very low tolerance for division within the church, since such division leads to severing parts of the body. For the CAF, God never abandoned his church and it has enjoyed the uninterrupted headship of Christ from the time of the Apostles. The development of the canon and all her doctrines are the direct result of God's activity in the church, and hence, are not heretical and do not require an explicit biblical warrant, coming as they do from the source of the Bible's authority - God himself.
Formerly, I was a whole-hearted member of the CAA camp, but the problems inherent in this view are becoming increasingly manifest to me. It is ahistorical and creates certain paradoxes that have not been reasonably reconciled for me. For instance, if the church fell away in the 2nd century, how can we trust the canon that was not declared until the 4th? Or how can we accept the doctrine of the Trinity, since it too was formulated by heretics and unbelievers? It also raises unsavory questions about God - why did he not protect his church? Why would he allow such error to enter his body? Some have stated or implied we should not question God on this matter, but it seems to me a very reasonable set of questions to ask about God's promises to the church.
From this thought process and discussion, I am starting to realize that God demands we accept the church on his terms, not our own. I may want more historical support for some of the practices found in traditional Christianity, but I cannot let this alone drive my decision. Which is what this basically comes down to for everybody. It is a decision about the nature of the church and God's activity in her. Either God allowed his church to fall into grave error, or he didn't. The church is either incidental to his purposes or integral to them. We either accept the church as she has come to us through the centuries, or try to fashion our own - with all that either decision implies about God and ourselves.