Category Archives: Church and World

Christian Responsibility During Election Season: Finding a New Political Consciousness for Churches

[A version of this same post appeared yesterday over on the Missio Alliance blog and can be read here.]

Last week, the Republican and Democratic primaries were held here in the state of South Carolina. I voted, but as I did so, I had the odd feeling that I was acting in a way that was totally divorced from my faith community and any collective sense of citizenship in God’s kingdom. I think this is because when it comes to Christian political responsibility, the role of the church is to make followers of Jesus who witness to an alternative way of being in the world together. The act of voting, privilege and duty that it is, just doesn’t have very much to do with this.

There are political ideals that many of us believe in: freedom, equality, justice, peace, and so on. But these are abstract principles that remain empty without the concrete practice of political and economic organization. Then there are the politics of Jesus: resistance to violence, solidarity with the poor, the neighborliness of the good Samaritan, and the commandment to love even our enemies. This ethical vision simply does not get incarnated at the ballot box. But what I sense in the church still, mostly, is a preoccupation with partisan, personality, media-driven politics that continues to privatize spiritual formation and mission, while at the same time holding up the last defenses of a dying Christendom and of mainstream, American evangelicalism.

Bernie Sanders has talked about the need for political revolution, and it actually looks like the United States is on the verge of having one. Donald Trump’s bewildering success testifies to this maybe even more so than the growing acceptance of the option for “democratic socialism.” There are things about both ends of the partisan spectrum that are resonating with self-identifying Christians. On the right, for example, people are tired of the inefficiencies, fiscal irresponsibility and bureaucratization of big government that has come to characterize so much of the political process. On the left, there is growing indignation about racism, classism, sexism, discrimination against LGBTQ folks, and ecological destruction. And both sides actually seem fed up with the control that money has over elections and legislation. It is not hard to see the justification for any of these attitudes. Insofar as one’s citizenship is seen in terms of the responsibility for the affairs of the state, these are all valid concerns that demand people’s attention.

As a Christian, though, and as a pastor, my concern is about the political consciousness that is being cultivated in the church itself. Christian political consciousness simply doesn’t strike me as very public or social at this point in time. Of course, my church context has predominately been white, middle-class and broadly evangelical, and so I’m sure that’s part of the reason for this. Nevertheless, it’s as if there are primarily two options: 1) find your side, and further participate in a culture of either conservative or liberal theological and political ideology, or 2) don’t talk about it and keep faith and spirituality merely interpersonal, or at most expressed through international mission work. This is what many pastors feel they have to do in order to prevent division in churches.

I do not think there is a clear or simple third way beyond these two chooses, which is why so few churches have found one. The other option is very difficult, and I believe it can only happen over a long period of time within a community that is committed to deep, Jesus-shaped confrontation with the issues that are facing its locale.

A Different Kind of Political Revolution

The political theorist Sheldon Wolin argued that democracy is not a fixed state form, but a political experience in which ordinary people are active political actors. Right now, this kind of democracy has been significantly compromised by the disciplinary force of individualism in our culture, as well as by consumerism’s control of our desires. A majority of Christians in this country still too often equate political involvement with partisan allegiance for the purpose of securing a more Christian way of life. As long as this persists, the church’s witness, posture and political participation in the world will continue to be co-opted, along with everyone else’s, by nationalism, militarism and above all, by the free market.

Christians have the chance to model a new political consciousness that is ecclesial and eucharistic in nature, and that challenges the grip that the dominant liturgies of our society have on people. James K. A. Smith describes how these liturgies have captured our loves and distorted them in accordance with rival exemplars to Jesus. The church must begin to imagine itself as an alternative community with a collective political witness that resists the formative allure these liturgies have on us — liturgies that seek to orient our hearts and direct our unconscious dispositions toward violence, fear, anger, greed and short-term gratification.

I believe God is calling Christians to be partners in making a new economic and political reality altogether. It takes the form of a micro-politics of what God makes possible. There’s no secret formula for this. We already know what it could look like. It’s going to mean embracing interdependence and investing in our neighborhoods — getting to know our neighbors and having them over for dinner. There will need to be more community gardens, after-school programs, farmers’ markets, credit unions, and support of local business cooperatives. It will require reaching across the segregated lines that still divide our gentrified and suburbanized cities.

Currently, most of our residential areas and patterns of life are constructed to keep us separated from each other. New shared work spaces and intentional living communities designed to make our daily lives intersect more can combat this. What better public-private entity than the church to facilitate these kinds of efforts? This is why David Fitch has called pastors “community organizers for the Kingdom.”

At the same time, piety itself and ordinary church practices like worship are also politically significant, because social transformation is a natural byproduct of spiritual transformation. The mistake is made, however, when as Christians we do not also recognize and appreciate the church itself as a political body that lives, breathes and moves in the public sphere. We are not simply dispersed as individuals into secular society throughout week after worship services to live Christianly. We are together a political and cultural, communal presence, with a common faith that sows the seeds of God’s good and beautiful social order in the world.

This election season is probably only going to get uglier and more painful from here on. I’m not saying that we should ignore it. In fact, it can be used as an opportunity to generate meaningful conversations and action for the common good. But the partisan, candidate-focused dimension of it is consuming much of our time and energy, and I’ll be the first to confess this! I find myself reading and sharing articles every day, usually instead of attending to how I might be part of a better political future right where I live. So my prayer is that the Spirit of God would grant us the political consciousness of Christ’s coming reign, for this is the different kind of political revolution into which God has invited us.

Exodus, Exile and Resurrection: Living Beyond Tribalism and Individualism

[This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance Blog.]

The beauty of the Bible has as much to do with what it tells us about human nature as it does to do with what it tells us about God. Indeed, the story of salvation only makes sense when we see the various dimensions of the human person and experience with all of its flaws and struggles that Christ has come to redeem. It starts with the most simple and obvious needs and moves to the deepest and most mysterious longings.

Exodus: The Cry of the Poor and the Oppressed

As human beings, we simply cannot flourish apart from certain basic material provisions. Food, clothing, shelter, a balanced life of work, recreation and sleep are essential. Beyond this, we also crave relational connectivity with others to feel secure and known. These material needs cannot be separated from our spiritual lives, but they are distinct and usually prerequisite for most people to live with a higher sense of identity and purpose.

Thus, it seems fitting in retrospect that the most formative narrative for the Jewish faith and memory was that of the Exodus. If not a liberator for slaves and the oppressed, then what is God? This is an absolutely central aspect of who God is, and Jesus confirms this with his first public words in Luke 4, reading from the Isaiah scroll. So we see that freedom from material bondage is the most foundational and urgent dimension of salvation.

The problem is that one can be liberated, politically and economically speaking, and still have a prideful, tribal consciousness. The Exodus story paints a picture of an enemy in the Egyptian people, and for good reasons. And God seems to have given Pharaoh plenty of chances, but was killing the first born of every Egyptian really necessary? It shouldn’t surprise us then that long after the Exodus, well into the period of conquest, judges and kings, Israel continues to have enemies whose blood stains the hands of their God more often than we would like to admit. We learn that if material liberation is not accompanied by spiritual liberation, even God’s people can start to look like Egyptians. Maybe imperial ambition and violence are a human phenomenon, and not just an Egyptian one? This is what brings downfall upon the Jewish monarchy and ultimately leads to the period of Exile. God’s response to the cry of the poor and oppressed came around full circle through the prophets to judge even the chosen people themselves.

The sobering lesson is that victims can all too easily become victimizers, and the oppressed become the oppressors. This doesn’t lessen the force of the cry of the poor and the marginalized in the face of injustice. We should always be people of Exodus. What it does, however, is reveal to us that human beings need something more to live for than political empowerment and economic well-being.

Exile: Losing and Finding our Identity and Purpose

Exile is scary not just because of the loss of power and privilege, but because with these losses also comes the threat of a much greater loss: the loss of identity and purpose. This again reveals the inadequacy of meeting merely material and even relational needs. For humanity, there is also a deeper sense of yearning for identity and purpose that can only originate from something beyond the concern for self, tribe or in-group. Many people and many Christians, however, fail to see that the identity and purpose to which they are called is bigger than this. Naturally, then, the loss of privileged identity and power of purpose produces special cause for human lament.

For the last few decades, Christians in the modern Western world have begun to experience what I think could be called a time of Exile. The Enlightenment did not deliver on its promises. Rather, it has had a dark side all along that in the 20th Century finally started to plainly show itself, and Christendom itself has collapsed with it on all sides.

One of the effects of this exile is the rise of individualism. The cohesiveness of group belonging is undermined, the purpose of the collective is muddled, and individuals are left to seek out meaning and identity for themselves instead of being told who they are by their tribe. In our context, these are outcomes of both globalization and postmodernism. What might it look like then for Christians to flourish in exile or come out of it living as a resurrection people?

The Resurrection Life

There are at least three ways that Jesus calls us beyond both a tribal and individualistic identity, and to a greater purpose in God’s Kingdom:

  1. First, against tribalism, God called for the inclusion of Gentiles in Christian communion. As non-Jews, it’s easy for us let this one slide assuming it doesn’t apply. Much like the Jews who were afraid that their religious identity was already under too much attack, however, we too as Christians have a tendency to circle the wagons and put up barriers so that outsiders do not interfere with our ways of doing things. So who are today’s Gentiles that our churches are excluding? For whom are we making the life of faith and discipleship such an undue burden?
  2. Secondly, for the individualist, the cross bears witness to the social and corporate cost of even seemingly insignificant, individual sin. It was not just the sins of the brutal and dominating Roman Empire that put Jesus on the cross, or the hypocrisy of the ruling, religious elite. It was the betrayal of his friends and the fear of otherwise good people falling into complacency (disciples sleeping in the garden), the fickle movement from fight to flight (Peter), and the love of money or comfort (Judas?) that delivered Jesus over to his killers. It’s not that any of Jesus’s friends could likely have prevented the crucifixion, and Jesus himself knew what was coming and even offered himself up willingly. But the point about the root of apparently harmless, individual sin still stands. It’s all caught up in the web of forces that ultimately lead to the worst of suffering and injustice. From the silence of churches in Germany during the Holocaust and the apathy of moderate, white Christians during the Civil Rights movement, to evangelicals uncritically supporting a “War on Terror” in the name of national security, which led to the killing of thousands upon thousands of Iraqis who had nothing to do with 9-11, individual sins once added up prove to be much more egregious than we normally realize.
  3. And third, Jesus tells us all, in our in-groups and as individuals, to love our enemies. This is not something that the Israelites had heard before. They had been told to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, and they had certainly been given very specific instructions about caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow and the immigrant, but loving enemies raised the Jewish law to an unprecedented level, and it revealed for the first time the heart of God in a final and unanticipated way.

So powerful is God’s love for us that it didn’t stop even when we became his enemies. God is not giving us a commandment that God himself hasn’t kept. God didn’t send someone else to die for us. In Christ, God in person came on a rescue mission, bearing the weight of the world’s sin that was directed at him by his own. It is only this kind of love that is stronger than death, and only this kind of life that leads to the resurrection. Maybe, then, this kind of love, and this kind of life, is what it means to be truly human.

How to Fear Not and Love Your Neighbors: Church Barriers to the Gospel and the Great Commandments

This post originally appeared on the Missio Alliance blog yesterday.

I heard it said once that the heart of Jesus’ teaching is pretty well summed up in these two commandments: Don’t be afraid, and love your neighbor as yourself. Of course, simple as this sounds, we soon figure out that nothing could be more difficult. This is all the more true given the way that Jesus defines neighbor (i.e., even your enemy), and given that fear is often more deeply rooted than we care to admit.

It starts with subtle worries about every day things from bills to pay, job security, and health to retirement, but then grows deeper into anxieties about rejection, loss, pain, loneliness, failure and the absence of purpose. The root of this fear is that as both finite and free, human beings have natural limitations, but infinite expectations and pretensions. This leads us to become self-conscious about our insecurity, which in turns produces the anxieties just mentioned. Anxiety inclines us to seek control of our own lack of certainty and security, of which there is never enough, and so we are driven to chase after these things to the detriment of others. Generally we either 1) abuse our freedom by grabbing for power, or 2) flee into our finitude via sensual indulgence (these are the sins of the older and younger brother in the Prodigal Son parable, respectively). In other words, fear and anxiety are what stand in the way of us actually loving our neighbors.

But this still leaves the question of “what is the remedy?”

This is one of the reasons that Jesus went to the cross. In order to set us free, Jesus had to demonstrate that the fear that comes from all the suffering and death that the world can cause is ultimately misplaced. Jesus faced these fears. His will was one with God’s, and thus the faithfulness and love of God were fully incarnated and lived out in him.

So great was this love that it overcame sin, death and suffering, and without conditions. God’s grace was made manifest and available in such a powerful a way that not only humanity’s future, but that of the whole cosmos, changed course. This is the incredible good news that Christians claim. And let’s not pretend that it isn’t a bit outlandish. It can’t be rationalized. For many, it’s an offense and a scandal.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that some people are only interested in Jesus for his teachings rather than who we as Christians believe he was and what he did. But the truth is, the teachings of Jesus are simply not enough to set us free. They are indispensible, but not sufficient. “Fear not” and “love neighbor” are beautiful sentiments and ideals for which to strive. Even non-Christians seem to know this, which can only be attributed to the image of God that remains somewhere latent in the nature of every human being. But as mere intentions, fearlessness and love will never be realized apart from a hope and transformation that comes only from God.

For this reason, the church that fears not and loves neighbor has to also be the church that believes in and trusts the good news. You can’t have one without the other. Jesus’ life is not just a moral example, even if it is also that. The problem though is that so many Christians are left to choose between either

  1. a church whose gospel is only good news to a few, and whose version of love only manages to suppress fear rather than overcome it — either because it’s too exclusive, or because the kind of love it portrays is little more than a courtroom deal with sin;
  2. or a church that equates the gospel with Jesus’ teachings and hence tries to care about the things Jesus cared about and obey his teachings, but fails to do this because of sin, and therefore doesn’t really have good news at all.

Because of this, the door is wide open in these times for a church that believes in the kind of love that actually casts out fear and, set free by the real good news, enables the love of the world and everyone in it. There are barriers to this though, as I’ve suggested, and I will mention two of them.

First, for churches, there is always the barrier of idolizing church growth. The temptation to pander to the consumer is as prevalent in churches as it is in the marketplace. In Protestant churches in North America, we’ve seen this played out in two major ways. In an effort to reach a generations burned out on denominational church, initially there was the rise of the seeker-sensitive church. This was a deep, deep cultural shift in evangelicalism — so deep, that even when many emerging church leaders broke away in disillusionment with it to do something different, many of them ended up making the same mistakes, only this time they did so by catering to millennials rather than Gen-Xers. In both cases, discipleship was in many cases too quickly sacrificed on the altar of reaching culture.

Some Christians interpreted this phenomenon by deeming it a yet another instance of theological liberalism. I do not think this is the real issue. Theologically speaking, conservative and liberal Christians are, as best I can tell, equally prone to neglect discipleship and real spiritual discipline — the former by holding on to personal morality in the area of sexual purity and finances, and the latter by directing efforts outward toward social justice and identity politics (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc). Neither of these emphases necessarily lead to a mature Christian life.

So in addition to the idol of church growth, churches have erected the barrier of theological ideology. This does not mean, however, that Christians should stop caring about all the things I just mentioned (sexual purity, social justice, etc.). What it means is that we have to change the way we care about those things, and, to become more sensitive to the things we should care about in addition, and that we’ve neglected.

Now, some churches might think that they’re immune to these issues because they’re more “moderate” or “diverse.” Except in churches that are skilled at good listening and mutuality through real dialogue though, much evidence of moderation and diversity tends to be superficial. Deep moderation and diversity means really dealing with and talking about these issues. It means growing in self-awareness and epistemic humility. Many churches that think they’re moderate or diverse remain that way only because they tend to avoid hard conversations.

As one might expect, both of these barriers, idolizing church growth and avoiding hard conversations, have their origin in fear, which keeps us from truly loving people. It is indeed very good news, then, that the gospel gives us the power to break down both of these barriers by fearing not and loving our neighbors.

Social Media, Sabbath and Silence: Three Ways to Counter Misshaping Cultural Currents

This is a repost from an entry I made on the Missio Alliance Blog last month, and it has also been curated on the Baptist News Global Perspectives Page:

The community group that I co-lead in our church has recently been talking about and experimenting with how to better spend our time and money on what matters most in God’s economy. At this point, we’re not very ambitious, but I think that’s a good thing for now. It’s easy for me to lose sight of the little ways in which we are called to be faithful. I enjoy thinking about the big picture — about the global economy, the ecological crisis, and geopolitical conflicts. Of course, Christians need to be involved in and concerned about these things. It’s just that I’ve learned how much my own personality is prone to introversion, abstraction and disembodied faith. I’ve learned that I need practices and people to keep me grounded and focused on the tangible responsibilities in my own little life. So we’re helping each other ask, what are the areas and opportunities for change right in front of me?

Last week we assigned three simple tasks, each of which is intended to challenge the cultural currents that are misshaping not only the church’s engagement with its mission but also community life in general in our society today.

First, in an effort to free ourselves from the cultural currents of our polemical political climate, some of us agreed to take a social media fast, and re-think the way we use social media altogether. On the surface, this seems like a harmless way to simply disconnect for a time and enable reconnection through face-to-face relationships. While that is certainly part of the goal, there is more to it than that. In her book Blog Theory, Jodi Dean has argued that social media is actually part of a force of what she calls “communicative capitalism.” This force functions to capture critique and resistance, and reformat it back into the social media circuit only to then have it broken up into smaller bits. At this point, the smaller bits of thought and insight can still be shared, but not in such a way that adds up to anything that might aid us in understanding, critically confronting or restructuring our present life. Dean explains that the

“deluge of images and announcements, enjoining us to react, to feel, to forward them to our friends, erodes critical-theoretical capacities — aren’t they really just opinions anyway? Feelings dressed up in jargon? Drowning in plurality, we lose the capacity to grasp anything like a system. React and forward, but don’t by any means think.”

One of the purposes of a social media fast then serves to cut us off from the pressure release valve that is clicking, “liking,” “favoriting,” “sharing,” and “commenting.” Notwithstanding the irony of writing about this through the medium of a blog post, the hope is that our time away reveals not only our egoistic tendency toward self-promotion, but also the drive to minimalistic, low-risk involvement in relationships and in the public sphere. The ultimate aim of such a practice is the transformation of politics and culture itself, but it has to start with our own individual, daily lives.

Secondly, we invited each other to take a real, 24-hour Sabbath. Of course, Sabbath is always an important practice for Christians to observe, but it is especially fitting in our culture today for at least two reasons. In the first place, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Sabbath is not simply a pause. It is an occasion for reimagining all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity.” Sabbath makes time and space for people to become related to each other once again as people. It’s a shift from commodity-centeredness to covenantal relationship. So it serves us personally to be more richly related corporately.

In the second place, this invitation is reciprocated to others when we encounter them. Sabbath-keeping shares Sabbath. According to Sam Wells and Marcia Owen,

“Those who learn … stillness find that their lives become a Sabbath for those who encounter them. … Their lives become an embrace of the qualities and gifts in those around them that others have been too busy or too threatened or too self-absorbed to see and encourage. Their lives become an invitation into a place of depth, but an exhilarating invitation because it is depth without fear, depth as an adventure in which you are expecting to be met by God. Their lives become a place and a time of renewal in which others rediscover who they are and who God is.”

The end goal is to signal toward a new economy, a new environment, and a new creation. But again, it starts with the church actually becoming a pacesetter for this alternative rhythm of rest — one that counters busyness and consumerism, and one that rehumanizes our relationships.

Finally, we were instructed to spend anywhere from five to twenty minutes a day in stillness and silence. This could be a time for meditation or contemplative prayer, but regardless, the aim is the same: powering down what Thomas Keating has aptly called our “emotional programs for happiness.” We all have a pre-programmed self that is governed by instinctual values and conventional ideas. Unless recalibrated, this program will run us into some form of legalism or individualism. Silence and stillness — not just of body, but of thought — begins the journey of installing a new program. It takes patience, discipline and plenty of failure before this program gets fully uploaded and running, but God’s economy won’t operate on the version of that program that we were born with.

Just like fasting from social media and observing Sabbath, practices like meditation and contemplative prayer are not only intended to further our own spiritual formation. They are meant to grow us into our authentic selves, and into our authentic voices. Only then can the church participate in its mission in a way that shapes, rather than gets misshaped by the dominant culture. Cynthia Bourgeault talks about the mission behind stillness and silence in this way:

“The world will never listen to an arrogant voice that pronounces from a position of power and privilege. The world will listen only to the authentic voice that speaks from a place of deep sensitivity and openness to the real wisdom that is already present in the hearts of people who do not find a place in the church.”

This is not a battle cry to make our faith more palatable to the cultural currents. Practices like those just described are hardly accommodations. They are tools to help us live our faith faithfully enough to actually be heard.

Nor as a church are we supposed to “right” the “wrongs” in the world. There’s plenty that needs to be done to address the problems in the world for which North American Christians are more than partly responsible. But if we don’t start with disciplines that are as simple and concrete as these, we’ll never get anywhere.

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.

Simon Chan on Liturgy and Church between the World and God’s Kingdom

When Schmemann argues that the liturgy itself expresses a concrete, primary theology, he also specifies what the nature of that theology is. Speaking of the worship of the early church, he says, “It was born out of the Christian vision and experience of the World, the Church, and the Kingdom, of their fundamental relationship to one another. That it so say, in the very act of assembling (church) on the Lord’s Day (world) to break bread (kingdom), the church is concretely expressing its understanding of and realizing the intimate connection between church, kingdom and world. But this fundamental relationship can be maintained only if the church does not lower the eschatological tension of living in this age and in the age to come. Eschatology sustains the mission of the church. The moment it resolves the tension either by becoming totally immersed in this world or by divorcing itself from the world, it ceases to be the true hope of the world, even when it is involved in all sorts of “mission” activities and programs.

liturgicaltheoIn the liturgy, the church straddles the kingdom and the world and maintains its dual orientation toward both. Von Allmen compares this dual orientation to the heart’s pumping blood to keep the body alive. At worship the church keeps a “diastole” beat toward the world and a “systole” beat toward God. These two poles, Von Allmen further argues, are preserved in the application of two key terms to the church’s worship: Eucharist and Mass. Eucharist “connotes . . . a movement . . . of gathering together, of assembly to become an offering of praise for that which God has does in Jesus Christ for the world’s salvation.” Mass, on the other hand, is the movement of going into the world when the celebration ends.These two words describe the very movement of the Church in the world, the pulsation of her life in history.” The Supper is the “center” from which the church goes out to the world and to which it returns from the world with its “harvest” to offer to the Lord.

If we use different imagery, the liturgy may be compared to a journey – a journey from this world to the heavenly kingdom and back to this world. In the language of the liturgy, Word and sacrament are bounded by two other acts: the gathering and sending forth. As Christians leave the world to come together, they are “on their way to constitute the Church . . . to be transformed into the Church of God.” The biblical paradigm for this journey is the Mount of Transfiguration. The disciples separated themselves from the world and ascended the mountain with Jesus Christ and then returned to serve. But the basis is the ascension of Christ. In the eucharist prayer (the anaphora) the church is raised up to heaven to join in the heavenly liturgy: “We have entered the Eschaton, and are now standing beyond time and space.” It is from there that the mission of the church begins; from there that Jesus set the Holy Spirit to constitute the church as his Spirit-filled body; from there that, after being give spiritual food, the church returns to the world – back “time” – to love and serve the Lord. pp. 82-3

Von Balthasar on Political Theology and the Church’s Role in God’s Drama

When Jesus is tried, he is asked about his disciples and his teaching.  His answer is: “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together; I have said nothing secretly” (Jn 18:20).  The scenes of the Acts of the Apostles take place in the same public arenas, which is why both the trial of Jesus and the testimony of the Apostles become political issues.  By opening up an horizon beyond the immediate horizon of the state, they indirectly limit the latter and subject it to an eschatological critique.  A king who is not of this world but acts in utter seriously on the public world stage is bound to be involved in the political drama.  The only question is, in what sense?  Does not Buddha too subject the whole theatre of the world and the state to a similar criticism, but in his case by projecting into onto an apolitical horizon?  And as for Judaism and Islam, do they not push the political dimension beyond itself and dramatize it by infusing it with a messianic and eschatological motive power?  Christianity stands strangely elusive between these two approaches, or beyond them both; this gives it a highly distinctive dramatic tension which is only inadequately expressed by the word “political”.  The Kingdom Christ announces as the fulfillment of history stands at the door; both individual and community have to live with all their attention fixed on it, bending all their spiritual powers toward it, but it is from God that it comes; it does not emerge from within history as the result of human effort…

The life of Jesus — contrary to [some] Jewish hopes, contrary to the messianic models of his time and contrary to the accusation which led to his death sentence — was devoid of any political claim to power, nor did it prematurely institutionalize features belonging  to the eschaton. The Christian as such may be utterly deprivatized, commissioned to act publicly as an assessor on the world stage (1 Cor 4:9; Heb 10:33) — and in this sense [she] maybe political: all the same, [her] existence cannot be classified in secular terms, and [she herself] cannot grasp it in its totality, and so the Christian cannot be simply put int o the “political” pigeonhole.

Politics concerns [the Christian]: as a “member” under Christ, the Head, [she] is in profound solidarity with each of the Lord’s least brothers [and sisters] and must realize that [she] has an inescapable responsibility for the conditions under which they live.  In this more-than-human, specifically Christian responsibility, which is rooted in Christ’s solidarity with every last sinner and poor [person], there can be no self-complacent community of Christians, no closed Church.  The Church is essentially planted in the field of the world to bear her special fruit in it and from it; she is mixed in with the world’s dough to leaven all of it; but just as the Church can only be herself in going beyond herself to the world, so, on the other hand, the world is designed, retrospectively, from the eschaton, to transcend itself in the direction of the Kingdom of God (1 Cor 15:25ff.).  At this very point the Church becomes the world’s substantial pledge of hope that bursts all bounds, although her leaven, which continues to ferment in society and presses for worldly power to be used in the service of justice and peace, is powerless in itself.  Or, in Paul’s paradox, it is only strong when it is weak (2 Cor 12:10).

The impotence of the Crucified in death, which remains the inner shape of even the most vigorous Christian life, can never be manipulated to “amorize” humankind.  The dramatic situation in which the Christian is consciously, and the world and its history are unconsciously, involved goes far beyond the category of politics. It complements the latter with a dimension which, depending on how one looks at it, can be described as ineluctably tragic or utopian (whether in a meaningless or meaningful sense) or as ultimately bringing reconciliation.  If the “political” is to claim relevance to the issue of ultimate meaning — and it cannot do so unless it is prepared to give up applying valid norms even within the temporal sphere — it must consent to being taken beyond itself and set in relation to this dramatic dimension of human existence, which attains its highest tension only in the Christian reality.

TheoDrama: Theological Dramatic Theory, V. 1, pp. 37-40