[Note: I am attempting to keep these SBD installments under 2000 words each, but that is–of course–quite inadequate for the topics covered. Consequently, these contributions are more programmatic than they are explanatory or defenses of the positions stated. You may access the whole series at my Serial page.]
“Church” is not necessarily a popular word in the early 21st century. Whether it is modern individualism, or postmodern personalism/pragmatism, or Evangelical revivalism/theology that stresses personal (private) relationship, or the brokenness of much of what passes for “church” in the West, ecclesiology is often treated as a theological addendum disconnected from soteriology or a recommended but unnecessary dimension of Christian discipleship.
When ecclesiology is framed by post-Pentecost issues of form, polity and liturgy (Acts 2 through Jude), it devolves into denominational hair-splitting about who is right and who is wrong. But when ecclesiology is framed by the theodrama (the story of God in redemptive history), it participates in the history of the kingdom of God in the world. Originating from God’s creative act, typified in the history of Israel, rooted in the ministry of Jesus and anticipating the eschatological community, ecclesiology is rich with Christological and soteriological meaning.
God Creates Community
Ecclesiology lies at the heart of both the intent and goal of the divine project. The Triune God created a community to image its own communal life and participate in God’s care for and development of the cosmos. The divine project draws humanity into the communion of the Triune relationship so that humanity might be one in God and God dwell among them within the creation.
When humanity exalted itself to heavens and decided to make a name for itself, God called Abraham and choose his descendents as his people. They were the assembly (church) of God in the world. Israel was God’s people and Yahweh was their God, and Yahweh dwelt among them (Leviticus 26:11-12). Israel, the new creation of God, was to serve the nations as a light of God’s kingdom—an alternative to the way of the nations—and draw the nations to Yahweh.
When Israel chose the way of the nations rather than living as God’s people, Jesus of Nazareth appeared as the faithful remnant of Israel—the true light among the nations. God became flesh in Jesus and dwelt among humanity. His purpose was not to call individual, isolated disciples into relationship with God, but to gather a people from every language, tribe and nation who would become the one people of God.
Church is the community of believers whom God has called out of darkness into the light of the Christ’s kingdom. On the ground of God’s work in Christ and gathered by God, disciples of Jesus in various localities throughout the creation covenant together to follow Jesus into the world for the sake of the world. The community (church) of Jesus is an alternative community that invites the broken world to embrace a new way of life—the way of life for which God created humanity.
Ultimately and finally God will redeem creation and dwell with the redeemed in a new heaven and new earth. Then the dwelling of God will be with humanity and God will be their God and they will be the people of God. This eschatological community will reflect the diversity of human history (every language, tribe and nation) and the fullness of redemption as both creation and bodies are animated by the Spirit of God.
Theological Definition of the Church
The church is the reality of God’s redemptive presence in the present age. We may summarize this point through three metaphors present in the New Testament documents.
The church is the presence of Christ in the world through the Spirit. The church is the Spirit-filled people of God who represent Christ before the world. It is the body of Christ in whom the Spirit of God dwells. As the body of Christ, it is his presence in the world. Christ is present and fills the earth through the church. Just as God sent Jesus as his presence in the world, so Christ has sent us. As the body of Christ, the church follows Christ into the world and fulfills the ministry of Christ.
The church is a holy fellowship of God’s people on earth—an alternative community. The church is a community of believers—a pilgrim people seeking the fullness of the kingdom of God in the world. The church is the body of people who live together in covenant with God united by the Spirit who dwells within them as they express their love for God in community with each other. This is a community that is in the world, but not of the world; a holy people who belong to God and to each other. It is a koinonia (fellowship) and the shared reality is their communion with the Triune God which is experienced through the indwelling Spirit as they love each other.
The church is a manifestation of God’s kingdom on the earth. The church is, in its intent, heaven on the earth as it anticipates the fullness of God’s kingdom and is a present sign of God’s reign in the world. It is the place where the will of God should be done on earth as it is heaven. God reigns through the presence of his people as they live worthy of the gospel. While a manifestation of the kingdom, but the church also anticipates and prefigures the kingdom’s ultimate unveiling at the second coming of Christ when God’s people will dwell in a new heaven and a new earth. The church, therefore, anticipates and hopes in the future of God’s kingdom which Jesus will bring with him when he comes again.
The Mission of the Church
It is God’s present purpose that the church should proclaim the mystery of Christ to the powers of the world and embody that mystery as a community of faithful disciples.
The mission of the Jesus Christ is the mission of the church. Since the church is the body of Christ and represents the presence of Christ in the world, the mission of Jesus Christ is the mission of the church. The church learns its mission and role in the world from Jesus Christ. He was sent by God into the world, and now the exalted Jesus sends the church into the world. Jesus formed a community of disciples to fulfill the work of God—to continue the work he began.
The mission of Jesus was to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God. “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43). His ministry is the “good news of the kingdom of God,” that is, that the kingdom of God has come near and when the kingdom comes near the brokenness of the world is healed. The curse—the brokenness of creation—is reversed.
The “kingdom” is not the structures and organization of an institutionalized church. Rather, the kingdom is the reign of God in the world; when God reigns and overcomes the curse, when God reigns and destroys fallen barriers, when God reigns and overcomes diseases, demons and death, when God reigns and reconciles people groups, when God reigns and the poor and oppressed get justice.
While the “good news” (gospel) of the “kingdom of God” includes the death and resurrection of Jesus, that death and resurrection are the means toward the end of the reality of the kingdom of God. That kingdom reality is “good news.” It is the good news that God intends to redeem, renew, and restore the creation and the human community. God does this through the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus; these are means by which God inaugurates, implements and consumates the kingdom.
The mission of Jesus was to practice the kingdom of God in the world. Just as Jesus declared the message that the “kingdom of God is near” (which is the “good news of the kingdom”) and healed the sick (reversing the curse), his disciples follow him into the world to announce the nearness of the kingdom and to participate in curse reversal. Disciples proclaim the good news of the kingdom and heal the sick (practice the kingdom of God). As instruments of the kingdom, they are a means by which God reigns in the world for peace, healing and reconciliation. Disciples participate in the mission of Jesus to reverse the curse as the kingdom of God grows and fills the earth. Disciples proclaim the reality of God in the world as they work for healing and reconciliation.
Practicing the kingdom of God is a way of talking about a communal discipleship which is a mode of living in the world for the sake of the world. Acts 2:42, for example, is one way of describing what it means to practice the kingdom of God as a community. The description reaches back into the ministry of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke and projects forward into the rest of Acts. Acts 2:42 is a practical “hinge” between Luke’s two narratives. Just as the church continued to teach and do what Jesus did concerning the kingdom of God (Acts 1:1), each of the particulars of Acts 2:42 were part of his ministry—teaching, community (fellowship), breaking bread and prayer. The church continues what Jesus began.
Practicing the kingdom of God is a mode of communal spiritual formation, a mode of communal sanctification. These are communal habits by which the people of God are formed and shaped into the image of Jesus—to be like the Jesus who ministered in the Gospel of Luke, that is, to be the body of Christ in the world.
What Jesus began to do, the church continues to do. The church is called to proclaim and pursue a healing and reconciling (including ethnic and gender reconciliation) ministry in the world as witness to the presence of the reign of God in the world. The mission of the church, as the mission of Jesus, is to reverse the curse—to participate in the divine agenda to heal what is broken, reconcile what is divided, and release people from oppression (whether political, sexist, racial, economic, etc.). The disciples of Jesus do this just as Jesus did it—through suffering, peace, serving, forgiveness, and seeking.
The church reflects the life of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. The church is the dynamic organism, the body of Christ, which exists in the world to be Christ in the world, to represent Christ in the world. The church fulfills the mission and ministry of Christ to the world.
The church is the fellowship of God’s people who, having committed themselves to the mission of Jesus, covenant together to love God, each other and the world. Called into the communion of God’s own life, the church lives within that communion as a community rather than as isolated and disconnected individuals. The church as community is not option but the experience of God’s own communal life.
The church is the holy community of God’s people who praise God, serve others and proclaim God’s redeeming message. The church is a community of disciples who follow Jesus into the world for the sake of the world.