“The Church”

It seems clear to me that at least some interpretations of the Christian message imply forms of human community that many would find to be desirable. It also seems clear to me that Christian communities have traditionally been called “churches.” Hence, to talk about the normative Christian community as “the church” and to list off its desirable and appealling characteristics makes perfect sense.

What bothers me is that so many contemporary theologians seem to be taking the illogical next step of saying that since the normative church that we imagine to be the natural consequence of the Christian message is desirable, it is therefore imperative that those wishing to actualize the Christian message be loyal to some or other actual existing organization putting itself forward as a church. Even worse is claiming that since the imagined normative church has certain properties, therefore the actual existing things that call themselves churches tend to have such properties as well.

In place of this very typical move, I propose that we put forward the normative form of community as desirable, then make an objective assessment of whether any given community is approaching actualizing that normative form, or even making a good-faith effort toward doing so. Surely some churches are, but a frank observer would most likely conclude that the vast majority are not. Furthermore, it seems likely that such an investigation would reveal that those that are coming close to actualizing the normative form of community tend to be relatively autonomous and responsive to local conditions, as opposed to conforming to some broader bureaucratic form such as the Roman Catholic Church — indeed, many Catholic parishes that are doing a good job are likely doing so despite their affiliation with the bureaucracy and may even find themselves to be seriously at odds with that bureaucracy. (I choose the Roman Catholic Church not to single it out as uniquely bad, but because it is so often put forward as the “realest” church, particularly among “church”-oriented Protestants.)

With this in mind, the most realistic options would be to either track down and join one of the relatively small number of communities that seem to be actualizing the normative form of community or to attempt to start such a community oneself. Such an approach may well smack of liberal individualism and thus seem to duplicate the very social structure we are presumably trying to offer an alternative to — I’ll admit it! And yet the reason for breaking with liberalism isn’t simply for its own sake, but for the sake of actualizing another model of community, implied by the Christian message, that we find desirable. Since the point isn’t simply to stick it to those liberal individualists with their “free choice” and “independent discernment,” then, there is no real reason to embrace an authoritarianism centered upon some particular organization putting itself forward as a Christian church — unless, of course, we believe that the Christian message is first of all about authoritarianism, which seems to me to be a strained interpretation to say the least.

In other words, theologians interested in Christian community — and who isn’t? — should be looking for “the church” or trying to create it. At the very least, they should admit that it is an open question whether there exist any concrete actualizations of the theoretical construct they are calling, in a nod to tradition, “the church.”

[This post owes much to a paper given by Josh Davis at the Wesleyan Theological Society meeting several years ago.]

9 thoughts on ““The Church”

  1. Amen. Well said. I have been in my own work trying to identify the most important practices of the local church (in the work of Rowan Williams and John Howard Yoder) and am now looking at recent sociological work that tries to identify churches that are “doing church well.”

    Is it growth and baptisms? (Ed Stetzer, Comeback Churches)
    Cultivating spiritual maturity? (Willow Creek’s Reveal and Follow Me and Randy Frazee’s Connecting)
    Or is it reaching outsiders? (UnChristian)
    Or is it some other intangibles? (Gibbs and Bolger, Emerging Churches or Jones, The New Christians)

    The four practices I draw from Williams are these:
    The (1) practice of moral discernment oriented by martyrdom, (2) participation in the sacraments, (3) the standing under the authority of Scripture, and (4) the practice of communicating the Good News.

    Though less comprehensive, I think I would prefer to go to church where not only are the minimum requirements addressed–see also Miroslav Volf’s After Our Likeness for minimum requirement to qualify as a church–but where the church is firing on all cylinders. John Howard Yoder describes well the thriving church:
    (1) Binding and Loosing
    “The law of Christ” “the Regel Christi—the Rule of Christ,” “loving dialogue” “reconciling dialogue”
    (2) Disciples Break Bread Together / Eucharist
    (3) Baptism and the New Humanity / Baptism
    (4) The Fullness of Christ / Multiplicity of gifts
    (5) The Rule of Paul / Open meeting

    I can’t resist also adding these quotes. If the church isn’t doing much, we must try to improve it or start better ones.

    “The reason Christians are formed into communities is because of God’s work to make a people to serve him as Christ’s witnesses. The congregation is either a missional community–as Newbigin defines it, ‘the hermeneutic of the gospel’ (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, 222ff.)–or it is ultimately a caricature of the people of God that it is called to be.”
    Darrell L. Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 136.

    “If we ask, ‘What is God doing in the world in the interval between resurrection and parousia?’ the answer must be given, for Paul, primarily in ecclesial terms: God is at work through the Spirit to create communities that prefigure and embody the reconciliation and healing of the world.”
    Richard B. Hays, “Ecclesiology and Ethics in 1 Corinthians,” Ex Auditu 10 (1994): 32. Cf. 31-43.

    “As an apostolic Church the Church can never in any respect be an end in itself, but, following the existence of the apostles, it exists only as it exercises the ministry of a herald.”
    Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4/1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), 724.

    all the best,

    Andy Rowell
    Doctor of Theology (Th.D.) Student
    Duke Divinity School
    Durham, North Carolina
    Blog: Church Leadership Conversations http://www.andyrowell.net/

  2. Adam:

    It seems to me as if the need to construct or to create an ecclesial ideal is just the obverse of presuming that ideal as as institutionally or structurally given. How are both of these not just two movements within a certain ecclesiological idealism?

    In that respect, it is important that we think of the church neither as a given datum of history itself nor as as something to be made by way of our own constructions of history. The church rather is the gift of that life together that is to be received anew each moment as we follow the living, resurrected Jesus into the world. In this sense, we will do well to remember that Josh’s final appeal in that paper was not to the construction of an alternative “church,” but rather to mere discipleship — Nachfolge. (He was quoting Certeau, but could just as well have been quoting Bonhoeffer.)

  3. This is actually a question I address in the last chapter of my master’s thesis. Here’s a bit:

    “The Church is not simply a place toward which any who so desire, or are so persuaded, can move; it is not merely a safe haven to which the refugee may come. The Church, in fact, is not a place at all. The Church is a space that is demarcated by the itinerant journeying of a body of mission who goes to the refugee and the dispossessed. This body of believers does not abandon the body that has disappeared by their perpetual departure, however, but, like the women at the tomb, perpetually quest after the absent Christ, continually asking along the way: ‘Do you know where they have taken my Lord?’ Interrogating every proper place, every institutionalization of the gospel, this contemporary mystical body marks out the site that awaits the healing and restoration that God alone can give by tactics of dispossession. Faceless and nameless, the dispossessed Christian Church, branded by the world as poor and weak, goes to and identifies with those who have nothing, the poor and the weak….The mission of the Church to become poor does not thus search after a new enclave upon which to stand or a site from which to speak—a new possession—but simply seeks conversion to where Christ is going in this world. The conversion that results from Baptism turns us to the dispossessed visage of this world, to those disinherited faces who are no longer visible to the world’s eyes.”

  4. Nate, I didn’t intend to say that we should create the church as something that would henceforth be a given. Every instance of this form of community will wind up being more or less fragile and questionable. If I’m still too focused on human works for you, then maybe it’s just a matter of being a weird kind of Wesleyan-Catholic rather than a Calvinist.

  5. Adam,

    Thanks for this post. As a theologian in training, and a deacon in training in the ELCA, I agree that theologians should be doing (or trying to do) what they’re saying in their actual church/parish. Let me tell you: it’s hard! But I won’t grumble too much.

    I agree that church is something we do and something God does. However, I find it strange that we’re in agreement here but you seem to despise any form of “institutional” church. The RCC does not “put forward” their claim to church in some mere human sense; they actually believe that their being the church is the primary means (not the only means) of how God acts in the world.

    It seems that we can avoid the problem of appearing voluntarist and liberal in our “church seeking” by simply seeking after truth. Truth must be in play when it comes to church, but, of course, this requires “criteria” of some sort. Eschewing truth, especially in ultimate senses, and I don’t necessarily think this is what you’re saying here, is part of liberalism and voluntarism.

    I do worry at times that a focus on the church’s holiness, which is legitimate, ends up being a reduction of the four marks of the church given in the Nicene creed. This is the more specific point, I made at Kerr’s paper in Rome, incidentally.



  6. Thanks for the post.

    I share virtually all of these sentiments, and find that the more simplistic and foundational works on the Church, exemplified in my view by Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, are also the most rewarding and accurate. There is not very much we can or should say on the general level, it seems to me, before looking at local conditions, as you say.

    After all, as Bonhoeffer would emphasize, Church exists where God has put it; and furthermore Church can exist just as much in a prison of two or three people as it can in an official building full of professing free persons.

  7. Adam,

    I read your website often, but this post confuses me. Who decides what is “normative”? Is it theologians who may or may not have a stake in a community?

    I am the pastor of a Catholic parish and I try to bring the people closer to Christ, but trying to slog through everything they are concerned with is sometimes daunting. How often are we even speaking in Christian terms? And yet… what else is there?

  8. I am an Anglican, and love the formalism and tradition of those churches. I am often struck by how distant and inauthentic the social ( “fellowship” arrgh!! ) aspect is. And I imagine the tangible community of the Early Church. What a contrast.
    But really, can we attain that ideal in our modern cities? Only in a small town could community be concievable. And when one drives through such a town, what does the multiplicity of church buildings tell one? Likely division, not community.
    So, as a practicing Anglican, what am I left with? Not a real community of neighbors who see one another on the street, at barbecues, in the post office. Just a set of believers who take communion together in memory and anticipation of community.

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