Lesslie Newbigin on the Church

The following is an outline of Lesslie Newbigin’s lecture at Holy Trinity Brompton Church in May of 1995.  I’ll be posting a few more of these in the coming weeks.  I’m making these outlines available to read along with the audio of the lectures, which will be posted soon at saintpeters.me:

I. Thesis: Christ has created a place where sinful men and women may nevertheless be accepted by God and enabled to live and rejoice in his presence.

  • The Church is continuation of the ministry of Jesus who received sinners, and who ate and drank with them. The Church is that place where that still happens
  • The Church is an integral part of the gospel. Nobody becomes a Christian simply by studying the doctrines of atonement and justification by faith and then looking for some place to make contact. Rather, in one way or another, the work of the Holy Spirit draws us into some kind of existing Christian fellowship. The Church precedes our faith.
  • Moreover, the gospel is not a set of disembodied ideas or words. It is always a concrete reality in history, a given reality, and the context for that reality is the Church.

II. Unity of the Church

  • Ecclesia, the Greek word for Church, was a secular word that described the assembly of all the people in the Greek city-states. So, Gentiles could understand it. It literally means “the calling out of the people” or “assembly.” When used in the NT, then it is not just an “assembly” though, but the “Assembly of God.”
    o The same word is used for an individual local church and the whole church. The early church did not make a distinction. Paul spoke of the churches in terms of their area (e.g., Asia). It is not that the individual churches are branches of the Church. Rather, the church is that act of God gathering people together, in each place and in all places. it’s a dynamic picture, through Jesus Christ, gathering people into this place of atonement.
    o The church is never designated by any other adjectives than by the name of the place and by the one who calls it. Location and God’s name. That’s it. (e.g., The God of Jesus Christ in Charleston/Mt. Pleasant).
    o We are not “Peter’s party,” “Paul’s,” “Apollos,” etc. This is carnal and dismembers the body of Christ, Newbigin says. The church in each place is the catholic church (little ‘c’). Where God is, it is not a branch, but the Church. It is of the very nature of the church then that it is One, just as God is One.

III. Disunity in the Church

And yet we come to the sad story of disunity through history of the church. The main divisions are (approximately every 500 years — see Phyllis Tickle’s The Great Emergence):

  1. The 4th and 5th centuries, churches outside of Roman Empire that could not take part in the theological discussions which defined the nature of Christ, became separated (e.g., Armenians, Assyrians, Copts, Ethiopians). A tremendous political divide when Roman and Persian Empires.
  2. The Great Schism (1054)
  3. The Reformation (1517)
  4. 19th century U.S. church history: the development of the idea of a denomination, and the proliferation of so many different denominations in the US.

From these divisions, we can discern that there are three great emphases in the Christian Church, which are not mutually contradictory, even though they’ve become separate and are often unnecessarily in competition:

1. Catholic
2. Protestant
3. Pentecostal

1. Catholic

  • The Church is defined in part by its valid historic succession.
  • The church was chosen by God/Jesus, not the other way around. So we do not “choose” it.
  • But this consecration by apostles/bishops does not exempt the church from falling into error/sin/etc. Lineal descent is not the only mark by which the true church is known…

The Catholic Church can become lifeless.

2. Protestant

  • The reformers made the point further that the church is something created by the living Christ, through the sacraments and the Word, the Gospel, and is more dynamic, not just historic. This led to tremendous renewal but also division.
  • The danger is that it neglects that which the Catholic emphasis affirms. It makes the church almost too dynamic, something that happens moment after moment, rather than something that is an historical reality given by God.

The Protestant can have no sense of unity even if lively. Over-dependence on correct doctrine leads to continuously dividing.

3. Pentecostal

  • Correct doctrine, sacraments, and succession are important, but the living power of the Spirit may still be absent. This is what Pentecostals emphasize.

The Pentecostal runs the danger of emphasizing experience and the autonomous individual without sufficient attention to what is it that we are experiencing (subjectivism, relativism, feelings… the Methodist/Wesleyan Church tended this way, historically).

In sum, we need all three to be the “true” church. Each is valid. Each is in the Scripture, but each taken by itself can lead to the loss of substance.

IV. How to Overcome these Divisions?

We cannot escape the force of the words that Jesus used (John 17) about being One that the world may believe. We cannot escape the imperative of unity, however much we may be disappointed by the difficulties we face.

  • Each of us is bound to confess that the church we belong to is the one, true church, because it’s the one by which we came to know Christ. The temptation is to look at other and say they lack something in one of the three areas.
  • There is an important difference between saying that something is a proper mark of the church and saying that it is essential!
  • Again, the church only exists by God’s grace, and not by people’s fulfillment of any of the conditions for the church. So the way that we restore unity in the church is that we accept one another as God seems to have accepted us — as we are.
  • We must first acknowledge the many ways we fall short of God’s purpose for the church. And then, only then, can we seek to correct, reform, build up one another in the faith.
    o The is very different from the kind of easy-going way that some are inclined to take, in which we simply stop after acceptance. We must not continue in sin that grace may abound. God’s grace is not so that we can carry on the way we are. That is unthinkable.

About the present situation, we can make three observations (church in Europe, primarily):

1. stubborn intransigence of the Roman Catholic Church is still a tremendous power, but is facing very severe internal contradictions.
2. Mainline Protestant churches are in decline.
3. The main growing churches are evangelical and charismatic.

  1. The Anglo-Catholic wing of the church of England was the strongest wing, had the best scholarship, leadership and so on when Newbigin was growing up. And evangelicals were a relatively small and frightened minority. The position today is almost exactly the opposite. But a major strength of the Catholic church is its stress on the objective reality of the church as a given through the sacraments. This is to be celebrated. The importance of the Eucharistic service, for instance, does not depend on its relative meaningfulness to you and me. So he suggests that we have to begin to express our unity in very informal ways across the board! This is a great challenge to us at the present time.
  2. Newbigin declares that the real issue that divides Christian in “this country today” is not between Protestants and Catholics, or Evangelicals and Pentecostals/Charismatics. Rather, it is between those who believe [trust!?] that there really is a gospel and a God-given reality of good news, and those who do not… And whether there is faith that “here” (in the church), there is the place of atonement, vs. those who say it’s just opinion, experience, etc., with no real gospel. Catholics, evangelicals and Charismatic hold in common this belief, which distinguishes them from many other Christians who have simply lost it, namely, that there is a real gospel.
  3. Either we are built up in our life in Christ through the Eucharist, or we are judged, but there is an objectivity reality there, and we need to recover our sense of that, in the face of the subjectivism/relativism in our culture, because it is the evangelical and charismatic parts that are at this time so strong and confident but in danger nonetheless of losing this important component.

V. In Conclusion, getting back once more to the historic reality of the Christian Church:

  • Whether it is popular or unpopular, big or small, is relatively unimportant.  People talk about the Church in the media as if it is a fairly marginal phenomenon only interested in gaining popular. The only question the media asks is whether they are going to be more popular or not, and that is it. According to Newbigin, this is absurd.
    o The church has outlived empires, philosophical systems, totalitarian systems, everything about public thinking, etc. These will be phantoms half-remembered twenty years from now. But the church will still be there.  This given reality needs to be at the center of our thinking as Christians.
  • That the church is this body of sinful men and women, whom God calls Saints — this is what matters. Because God has made us his own. That is the whole meaning of atonement.
    o Because the church is always a bunch of sinners. It is very easy to become completely pessimistic about the church, but we have to be both realistic and faithful, knowing if God has called us saints, made us his own, given us his gift of atonement in Jesus Christ, then that defines who we are. Above all, let’s not escape with this idea of a merely invisible Church. Invisible means we get to choose who we think is in and out. But that is not the church.
  • The Church is defined by its center, not its boundaries. When we define it by boundaries, we get into all kinds of legalism. Is a person absolutely committed to Christ, and the Christ that we encounter in the Gospels? The church is constituted by its relationship to Jesus Christ. And how can you reconcile what you say and do with Jesus. .
  • That the Church be a sign, an instrument and a foretaste of the kingdom of God. The Church is not itself the kingdom of God, but neither are they completely separate. When we separate the two, we’re susceptible to turning the Church into an ideology, a program, or political utopia.
    o A sign points away from itself, to something that is not itself, but is nevertheless a reality. It may be an instrument of God for doing the will of the King. Because it’s a sign and instrument, it’s a foretaste. And because it’s a foretaste, it can also be a sign and an instrument.
  • The church is in communion with the saints who have gone before. This is an element we are in danger of losing in the reformed, Protestant churches. We are in communion with those who wait for the resurrection and the coming of the new heaven and the new earth.

2 thoughts on “Lesslie Newbigin on the Church

  1. Richard and Mike

    Hello, Bill! Mike Morrell asked me to contact you because he really appreciates your blog and thinks you’d be an excellent candidate for his Speakeasy Blogger Network. Do you like to review off-the-beaten path faith, spirituality, and culture books? Speakeasy puts interesting books in your hands at no charge to you. You only get books when you request them, and it’s free to join. Sign up here, if you’d like: http://thespeakeasy.info

  2. Mike Karim

    Bill, Mike Karim, of Fuller, here. On Nov 13-15, we’re hosting the 2014 Missiology Lectures, and it’s a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the publication of Newbigin’s GPS. Shenk, Karkkainen, Sanneh, Flett, Meek, and Yeh: all plenary speakers. Hope you can join us! Call it an excuse to get over to Claremont! Website should be up within a couple weeks.

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