What Is the Church?

I have long said that a weakness of evangelical Christianity is that it does not really have any way to account for what the church is and is not. Generally you will hear something like, "It is the invisible and non-institutional body of all true believers in Christ." That's nice I guess, but there's a real problem. That sort of thinking is found NO WHERE in the Bible. Yep. I said that. NO WHERE. Here's a pastor I respect a great deal taking a stab at explaining Paul's theology of the church:

Just as we can trust God because God has no agenda that is not for our good, so we can trust the church because it is the sort of community it is, a community of active peacemaking and peacekeeping in which no one exists in isolation or grows up in isolation or suffers in isolation. The slogan of the church's life is "not without the other"; no I without a you, no I without a we. Yet that doesn't mean that the identity of the church is a herd identity, with everyone's individuality submerged in the collective. The difference between the I and the you remains real difference—otherwise there would be no challenge about it. You may have noticed that few churches are characterized by drab sameness; when people try to create a herd mentality in the church, whether in a local congregation or in a wider institution, sooner or later it tends to break down dramatically.

So believing in the church is really believing in the unique gift of the other that God has given you to live with. The New Testament sees the church as a community in which each person has a gift that only he or she can give into the common life. We Christians are so used to the imagery the Bible uses, especially the great metaphor of Christ's body, that we forget just how radical and comprehensive is the vision of a community of universal giftedness. The ancient world had sometimes used the image of the body to describe a society in which there were different functions, a very natural use for such language. But it was left to Christians to reconceive this in terms of different gifts, and to draw out the further revolutionary implication that the frustration of any one member is the frustration of all because then there is something that is not being properly given. Someone has not been granted the freedom to offer what only that individual can give to the whole.


--Rowan Williams

I also like that there is an account here for the community and the individual in God's plan and in relation to salvation and the Kingdom work. I think that this factor of individual-community is one of the key failings of Islam. I also think that this kind of individualistic church-theology (or ecclesiology) that evangelicals preach is a reason that we have not seen more converts from Islam. We need to recover an older, more community-based understanding of the church. It is not just a detail. It is not just a secondary benefit to salvation. It is part and parcel of God saving us and glorifying himself in the world.

Here is the rest of the sermon.

Comments

Kelly said…
Geez, every time I read your blog my mind is stretched a little more! (smile) Not so much painful as challenging.

Question: Are you saying that "the church" should be thought about in terms of a locality or city-community rather than globally? I get the individual/collective thing, and I understand from scripture that "the church" never referred to specific congregations within a community - the Church at Corith (as opposed to the Churches at Corinth) and so on. But what is the difference between that and what you are proposing?

This is a topic I feel I can discuss with some knowlege - wish I could do so with the Muslim topics as well. Still learning, though.

Hope you and your family are rested :)
E. Twist said…
Hey Dude,

Thanks for sending this to me today. I like the excerpt you put on the blog. I'll have to say that I don't think Rowan goes far enough. It seems to me that one can easily take his ecclesiology (at least in this short essay) to be "invisible" in the sense that it isn't marked by any extrinsic reality, but simply through interpersonal bonds of affection. The focus here is still on the humanum; the church is where persons are participating in appropriate measures of exchange.

I want to say that this is an important aspect of Church but always in progression towards the ongoing incarnation of Christ in the Eucharist.

e.
Abu Daoud said…
Hi Erik and Kelly, good remarks.

First Erik: Yes, but he moves on to the Eucharist and baptism shortly if you read the whole paper.

Kelly: "Are you saying that 'the church' should be thought about in terms of a locality or city-community rather than globally?"

I think you can go either way, and i think that Biblically you find both of those ideas.

What I am proposing very specifically is that the way we talk about the church and who is not a believer is pretty harmful to our witness. We look at individual congregations and say things like, 'they are spiritually dead.' Or (my favorite) they are Christians but in name only. Or further still, Christians but not saved.

There are times when we can kick people out of the church (excommunication), and those are pretty clear in the NT: a) notorious sin and a refusal to repent, and b) teaching of a fundamental heresy regarding salvation.

So then how do we get to the point where we look at that church with all the old folks in it, and say they are 'spiritually dead' because...well, why? Our reasons are usually very weak: ttheir music is not moving. The preaching is not very good. They don't have a EDGY and RELEVANT ministry. You choose.

So by using our words like this we have already destroyed that unity: wether it is the unity of The Church in San Antonio, or The Church in Puebla, or The Church in Corinth.

Well, those are some initial thoughts. Let me know if that makes any sense :-)
E. Twist said…
I did read the entire paper and felt that he embedded the Eucharist with meaning in as much as it was a communal act. It surely is, but it is the Eucharist which makes the community, not vice versa. Rowan believes the "gatheredness" of the church is its preeminent quality. But it seems that anytime you put the focus on either the gathering or the sacrament you miss the point. It is a marital union that even Paul in the end saw as a great mystery. The focus on gatheredness makes it seem as though the Church (bride) is in the position to force Christ's hand in the relationship. An act of unbridled causality.
Abu Daoud said…
Erik said:

>>The focus on gatheredness makes it seem as though the Church (bride) is in the position to force Christ's hand in the relationship. An act of unbridled causality.

This is a fascinating observation, but I'm not sure what you mean. Or rather, I'm not sure if I understand what you think you mean. (Isn't that always our problem?)

A guess a related question would be what you think about Communion celebrated individually, something Catholic monks do, but Anglicans generally do not.

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