What do we mean by ‘The Church?’
By David Chronic
WMF “Position Papers” do not necessarily represent the opinions of the entire WMF community, but seek to articulate alternative positions on issues of mission and spirituality. The starting points for these papers are the WMF identity statements and WMF’s commitment to living out these principles in daily life and ministry.
This article was originally printed in two parts in The Cry: Vol. 12, No. 3 and No. 4 (Fall and Winter 2006).
Today we find ourselves in evangelical communities, conferences and discussions that talk a lot about the church but rarely define what they mean by church.i When Word Made Flesh (WMF) started out, we too were thinking more about a theology of mission (missiology) than about a theology of church (ecclesiology). At an international evangelical forum a few years ago, a doctor of missiology praised me for recognizing our lack of an articulated ecclesiology. Not knowing whether I was being ridiculed or commended, I grew a bit embarrassed. But I was encouraged when I later learned that the church fathers had never developed an ecclesiology. It wasn’t until after Constantine that the church began to articulate its theology of church, which wasn’t fully worked out until the Reformation. Unfortunately, evangelical Christians have not taken up the charge to develop a fresh ecclesiology in light of historical changes and new contexts.ii
Because WMF interacts with many church denominations, churches in different cultures and various understandings and perceptions of church, it is important for us to know what we mean by church. Specifically, we need to outline what the direction and constitution of a church is, how the church engages in mission, how Christians from different churches relate to one another and how the church relates to the poor.
The Church in the Image of the Trinity
One cannot define “church” by looking at what the church is but must rather look at what the church is called to be.iii In the Bible we discover that the vision and hope of the church is in the kingdom of God.iv The church is not equated with the kingdom of God, nor is the church the custodian or possessor of the kingdom. Rather, the kingdom of God is the orientation, goal and life of the church. The kingdom of God is not contained by the church but presses it beyond its frontiers.v The reign of God is the raison d’être of the church. “The meaning of the church does not reside in what it is but in what it is moving towards. It is the reign of God which the church hopes for, bears witness to and proclaims.” vi
Synonymous with the “kingdom of God” in Scripture is the “New Creation.”vii God says, “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The renewal of all things is the fulfillment of the kingdom of God, when the Triune God comes and indwells His people and His people indwell their God (Revelation 21:22). The mutual indwelling of the Trinity and his people in the New Creation fulfills Jesus’ High Priestly prayer, “That they all may be one; even as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). The consummation of life in God brings full salvation, justice and restoration. We will eat of the tree of life eternally, sin and death will be defeated, and all tears will be wiped away. All things will be made new! This eschatological hope of the people of God is the ultimate reference point of the church. viii
While the New Creation is the reference point for the church, “two or three gathered in Jesus’ name” is its starting point. The Triune God who indwells His people says that “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am present” (Mt. 18:20). Through Jesus’ promise, the gathering is a sacrament of Jesus’ presence.ix The gathering in the name of Jesus represents not only a visible, concrete and local church, but also an icon of the Trinity.
The church is constituted by the Son through the Holy Spirit. Under the headship of Jesus and indwelt with the Holy Spirit, the church is a sacrament of the Triune God. St. Irenaeus said, “The Son and the Holy Spirit constitute the two hands through which the Father touches us, embraces us, and always forms us after His image and likeness.”x The Son assumes humanity, bringing God to humankind and humankind to God. The Holy Spirit conforms Christians to Christ and pours Himself out upon the church (Romans 8:29, Acts 2:4). The Spirit baptizes each believer, showering every one with spiritual gifts. In mutual service each member employs their gift for the edification of the whole. As we follow His way, we participate in the life, death and resurrection of Christ: a Eucharist celebration.
The Church in Mission
Just as the church’s being reflects the being of the Trinity, the church’s action reflects the action of the Trinity. Because God is a missionary God, His people are a missionary people. We do not affirm, in the first place, the church’s mission but God’s mission. “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfill in the world; it is the mission of the Son the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.’xi As the Father sends the Son, so the Son sends His people into mission (John 20:17-23). As the Father pours out His Spirit, so the Spirit empowers us for mission (Acts 2). To participate in mission is to participate in the movement of God’s love toward people, since God is a fountain of sending love.
“The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.”xii One cannot speak about the church and mission but only about the church in mission. There is a church because there is mission, not vice versa. A church is born through mission and lives by mission. xiii
Jesus reveals Himself in the world through His body. Jesus is the Word, contextualized anew in each culture and setting through His church. “It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community.” xiv The whole core of biblical history is the story of the calling of a visible community to be God’s people, His royal priesthood on earth and the bearer of His light to the nations. The church is the community called to be the living interpretation of God’s story, the hermeneutic of the gospel.xv The church exegetes God’s vision for the world by incarnating His story in the world. In this way, the Word is spoken in every language in which the church is rooted and contextualized for every cultural situation in which the church lives.
The context of receiving God’s Spirit and mission is the whole community of disciples (Acts 2). Mission is not the calling of a few but of the whole church. Because church and mission belong together from the beginning, “a church without mission or a mission without church are both contradictions. Such things do exist, but only as pseudo-structures.”xvi This is one reason why we resist the para-church paradigm. This paradigm claims that the church has a specific domain cut out from the world in which its pastors or priests serve the spiritual needs of its congregation. Christians may work as Christians outside of the church sphere, but that is “para,” or alongside, the church. This unfortunate mentality drives a thick wedge between church and mission. In contrast to this paradigm, we affirm that the church is missionary by nature. The life of Christians in the world is missionary. The church goes out into the world through its members. The church is not confined by the walls it constructs. That is why churches can be planted in non-Christian organizations, business-places and sub-cultures through the presence of Christians who gather and serve together in the name of Jesus. Although Christians may need to work within the para-church mentality, it is a concession to a disobedient church, not a model for the church.
Some have attempted to work beyond the para-church paradigm, comparing communities such as WMF to monastic orders.xvii Although there are reasons to resist this comparison, there is one strong similarity to monastic orders that we do affirm, namely, our vision of the future. In contrast to the institutional church’s vision that saw the future as the continuation of the present and the establishment of the kingdom of God in the church, the monastic tradition saw the future in radical discontinuity with the present reality and the church as a sign but not realization of the kingdom. The institutional church’s hope for the future legitimized their actions, claims and power in the present. The monastic
communities denounced that power, its claims and its legitimacy. Today, that which equates with the institutional church believes in the continuation of the present. Although the future will bring great calamity and destruction, the church’s power in the present will be transferred to its power in the future. Thus, the institutional church defends its power in the status quo.
Like the monastic orders, WMF has a different view of the future. Signs of the kingdom of God are breaking into this world as a pledge and foretaste of its consummation when God will renew all things. The monastic communities call the church to read and explain these signs but not to control them, because all power belongs to the Lamb. Because the kingdom of God subverts all other ultimate claims to power, the monastic communities qualify and at times denounce other claims to and use of power.
The church’s waiting in the present is characterized by its hope for the future. The church is the messianic community that proclaims the Messiah, lives under His anointing and anticipates His return.xviii The church is also messianic in its hope and prayer. We cry, “Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus!” We look to the Messiah’s coming for the complete liberation of humanity and creation, the real exodus from sin and torment, and the real return from exile. The hope of the church is based on what God has already done in Jesus and what He has promised to do. We anticipate (prolepsis) the future promises of God through our present experience.
The church anticipates the return of the Messiah in suffering love. Jesus held out His wounds to his disciples and said to them, “As the Father sent Me, so I send you” (John 20:21). The church is the body of the crucified Christ. Just as the Son was sent bodily into the world, so Jesus sends His body into the world with the promise that it will bear the wounds of suffering love.
The messianic community also anticipates the Second Coming by prophetically pointing to the “not yet.” We articulate the heart of God and express the emotion of God for salvation, justice, holiness and renewal in the world. The disciples of Christ call these things that are not as if they already were (Romans 4:17). This is the prophetic nature of the church.xix But a world that rejects the Light and chooses the darkness reacts violently against the prophetic. Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20). We are the body of Christ and therefore bear the marks of persecution (2 Timothy 3:12).
The messianic church is composed of the royal priesthood of believers. God has plucked us out of the kingdom of darkness, making us priests in the kingdom of His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). The church fulfills that calling of humanity to do God’s will on earth, thus spiritualizing creation, and to offer creation back to God as glory to His name. It is not only cultivating personal relationships with God that characterizes our ministry as priests, but cultivating the indwelling of God’s glory in all the earth. In anticipation of the transfiguration of the cosmos, we minister to God in continuous worship so that the earth may be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). This is our overarching mission to all the nations. The content of priesthood consists of evangelizing, discipleship, pursuing justice, pursuing holiness, ministering forgiveness and prayer. Priestly prayer is based on communion with the Triune God.
Prayer without ceasing means a constant communion and with contemplation on God every moment. It means sitting in His presence, listening to His secrets and receiving power, will and direction for service. It is also the place where our heart delivers back to God in intercession the world in desperation. The heart prayer of priests to God also takes the form of protest. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” as a protest against hunger and a confession that God is our Provider. We pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” as a seditious act to all those on earth with opposing wills. And we pray, “Our Father in heaven,” because we are called together in community and partnership to live as one family.
The Church in Partnership
In WMF, a Christian from one local church is sent into mission among the poor, where he or she becomes a member of a different local church. The connection between the sending church and the receiving church is built through relationship. The church is not simply the total number of individual believers but rather a community of persons. Whereas individuals are defined in terms of separation and autonomy, persons are defined in relationship. The church is composed of beings in relationship.1 The Spirit births fellowship between believers and the Triune God and among the believers themselves (1 John 1:1-4). This is not assimilation to one but integration into fellowship with many. When the Spirit was poured out on the church at Pentecost, the curse at Babel of confusion and division was reversed. However, the reversal did not indicate the uniformity of one language but rather the diversity of many languages. In diversity, the church was united in a common understanding, revelation and purpose.
WMF’s ministry among the poor is through partnership with national believers. We understand partnership as what the New Testament writers call koinonia: fellowship, sharing together, communion.
The koinonia was demonstrated by the breaking down of human divisions. In the New Testament, the word for church is ekklesia, which means “called out.” The church is called out of families, societies and nations. It is called out to give ultimate allegiance to the Triune God; therefore, all other allegiances are subverted and reconfigured. The church gives a new sense of belonging that relativizes other bonds.2 The church is called out to be a New Family, a New Society and a New People. As members of a new family, gender, social, economic, ethnic and generational barriers are broken. In the church, gender is revolutionized: Women are not the lesser or second but equally receive the gifts of the Spirit, and men no longer use their power to dominate but rather to serve women. In the church, social relations are relativized: The slaves are treated as free with no distinction in social status, and each relates to the other as servant. In the church, the economy is redefined: The “haves” use their assets to lift up the “have-nots” so that he that had gathered much had nothing left over; and he that had gathered little had no lack (2 Corinthians 8:15). In the church, ethnicity is qualified: One ethnic group does not stand against the other, but rather they come together in cultural diversity forming a new culture. In the church, generations are bound together: The old and the young are not divided, but rather generations make up God’s people together in continuity with past generations and with the consideration of future ones. In the family of God there is no longer division because of male and female (gender), slave and free (social status), poor and rich (class), Jew and Gentile (ethnicity) or old and young (generation), but in Christ they are one (Galatians 3:28).
The New Testament word for household is oikos, which is the basis for every church: two or three gathered in the name of Jesus, otherwise stated, the family. The family of God is not confined to one household. In the New Testament we do not see one church over or against another, although there were doctrinal differences and even potential divisions within the church. We see the ekklesia (church) used to address various oikoi (household churches) of a single city in Revelation (1:11). From this we can gather that one church does not have priority over another and can therefore hold to an ecumenical equality of different church expressions while rejecting any normative ecclesiological position that one local church holds over another.
The relationships between Christians build relationships between churches, which is called ecumenism. Some evangelicals find the word “ecumenical” to be frightening, preferring terms like “interdenominational,” but we fear that which we do not understand. WMF approaches ecumenism from two angles: the biblical revelation and the missionary context.
“Ecumenical” means universal, worldwide, catholic, sobornic or general. Its etymology comes from the Greek oikos, meaning household” or the basic political and economic cell of society. This root word is found in oikonomos, or economy, and oikoumene, or the wide world. The “house” (oikos) of which Jesus is Lord and which is to be kept in order (oikonomos) according to His will, is called the world (oikoumene), and those who dwell therein are called katoikountes.3
In the Bible we see that the church is to be ecumenical, meaning one universal church. Jesus, in His high priestly prayer, asks the Father to make the church one as the Father is one with the Son (John 17:21). This is not a prayer for uniformity but a prayer for union and togetherness in diversity. This unity is not the realization of the church but a gift from the Father. This unity is not based on accord or commonality but on Jesus, who constitutes our unity. More specifically, the church’s unity is through participation in the unity of the Godhead: “I in You, You in Me, and they in Us” (John 17:21).
The Bible also teaches us that we are members of the Body of Christ. There is one body under one head: Jesus Christ. The church’s unity, then, is in our submission to Christ and in our functioning as His Body. Ecumenicity is defined, therefore, in terms of its center, Jesus Christ, and not of its margins. Though the church’s unity falters, there is the biblical promise of unity that will be fulfilled in the eschaton.4 All things will be summed up in the Head (1 Corinthians15:28). God’s presence will indwell His people (Revelation 21). This unity is the promise for the church and the goal after which the church must order its present life and behavior.
The church is also ecumenical in that it is called to go into all the world (oikoumene) (Matthew 28). Christians are called to make God known through loving one another: “That the world will know that You sent Me” (John 17:21). This is where unity meets the mission field. Can a divided church present a credible message to a wanting and watching world? The answer is that division and competition in the church are obstacles to the world’s coming to faith in Jesus Christ. Not only do we come to the mission field with the problem of a fragmented church, but we also come as the church to a context in which other expressions of church are already present. We are delighted to find Spirit-filled and Christ-led believers. We meet them in Pentecostal, Baptist, Brethren, Orthodox and Catholic churches. But it is the one Spirit that fills us and the one body of which we are members. Denominations are adjectives for certain expressions of church that are particular to a historical and geographical context. Though we are constantly challenged by the different expressions of church, we strive to enter loving relationships so that the world will know that the Father sent the Son.
The loving partnerships of the church ought to impede and oppose the fragmentation, segregation and isolation that translate to suffering and death for the poor in the world today.
The Church and the Poor
The poor, marginalized and powerless compose an important constituent of the church. The poor and excluded hold a special place in God’s heart; therefore, they hold a special place in the heart of His people. “Yahweh executes justice for the orphan and widow, and shows His love for the stranger by giving him food and clothing” (Deuteronomy 10:18). “Yahweh performs righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed” (Psalm 103:6). “Yahweh raises the poor from the dust, He lifts the needy from the dung heap to make them sit with nobles and inherit a seat of honor” (1 Samuel 2:8). Because of God’s bias toward the poor, the church is biased toward the poor, being family for the family-less, advocating for the powerless and standing against oppression. The church lives under the anointing of Jesus to “preach good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).
The church’s priority for the poor also follows Jesus’ promised presence among the poor. Jesus said that whatever we do to the hungry, thirsty, ill, naked, estranged and imprisoned, we do to Him (Matthew 25:40). This, in the first place, is not an invitation to works of mercy but a call to faith in God’s promised presence. “The apostolate says what the church is. The least of Christ’s brethren say where the church belongs.”5 The church is present to the least because Jesus is present in the least.
The church is called to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). Part of this apostolic mandate is “only to remember the poor.” The Apostle Paul replies that this was “the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10). The church celebrates God, who “chose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him” (James 2:5).
In fact, the church has not historically been wealthy. The only wealthy church is the one sanctioned by the state. For the first three centuries, the church was poor, marginalized and powerless.6 Paul reminds us, “Consider your calling, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish and weak things of the world to shame the things which are wise and strong” (1 Corinthians 1:26-27). To become a Christian often means the loss of privileges and suffering under the hand of oppression, but the church embraces this suffering in following Jesus: “though He was rich, yet for our sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
The church’s preferential option for the poor subverts the world’s value system. The church is always tempted by the world’s values of sex, money and power. In Christ, the church finds the counter-cultural commitments of celibacy/chastity, poverty/simplicity and obedience/submission. The church also stands among the victims sacrificed on the altars of the world’s value system: the poor. Those sacrificed to the idols of sex are the prostitutes and sex slaves. Those sacrificed to Mammon are the destitute and malnourished. Those sacrificed for power are the downtrodden and oppressed. In its witness to the poor, the church expounds the values that conform to the Kingdom of God, which brings salvation, freedom and life.
We are the Church
Gathered in the presence of Jesus, indwelt by the Spirit, directed toward the New Creation, we participate in the Triune fellowship of love and endure as a living icon of the Trinity in the world. Glorifying the Lord unto the margins of the earth and anticipating His future filling of all the earth with His glory, we are the messianic church in mission. Standing against divisions that break humanity apart, committing to live together in loving relationships, and imploring His unifying presence in us, we are the church in partnership (koinonia). In relationship among the poor and revolutionizing the world’s value system, we are the church seeking to minister to Jesus in the “least of these.” In the power of the Spirit and through the presence of Christ, we passionately desire to be the radiating people of God that burns to do justice, loves to do mercy and walks humbly with our God.
Endnotes Part 1:
i I use “evangelical” for the following reasons: 1) The overwhelming majority of WMF as well as most of WMF’s supporters and readership call themselves evangelical; 2) There is no “evangelical” ecclesiology, which is one of the reasons that we need to articulate a position paper like this; 3) “Evangelical” is quite difficult to define. In American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction, Mark Noll makes use of a major and sophisticated survey conducted by the Agnus Reid Group of Toronto that looked at evangelical constituencies in 33 countries. The “evangelical” beliefs revolved around four points: crucicentrism (God died for you on the cross and made a way for forgiveness), Biblicism (the Bible is the inspired word of God), conversionism (I have committed my life to Christ), and activism (it is important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians). The important thing that the survey discovered was that Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox respondents affirmed these beliefs. This may muddy the water for denominational distinctions, but I think “evangelical” can be a point of bringing together churches from various traditions.
ii See John G. Stackhouse, Jr, Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion?
iii In this section I am following Miroslav Volf’s After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.
iv On the kingdom of God, see “What Do We Mean by the “Kingdom of God?” http://www.wordmadeflesh.com/learn/the_cry-suggestedreadingp1.html
v Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, p. 22.
vi Hans Kung, The Church, p. 96.
vii The eschatological vision of the New Creation is described in Revelation 21:1-22:5, Isaiah 65:17-25, and Luke 4:18-19.
viii See Volf, p. 128.
ix Ignatius of Antioch said, “ubi Christos, ibi ecclesia” (“Where there is Christ, there is the Church”), which importantly specifies that it is not the church that confers the presence of Christ but the presence of Christ that confers the church. The church, therefore, is not simply a social entity. Rather, it is theo-anthropic: Christ is the head, human beings make up the body, and the Spirit indwells them.
x Irenaeus Adversus Haereses 4.4.
xi Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, p. 64.
xii Emil Brunner, cited in Lesslie Newbigin, A Word in Season, p. 11.
xiii David Bosch, Transforming Mission, p. 370.
xiv Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God, p. 4.
xv Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society, p. 222.
xvi David Bosch, Transforming Mission, p. 372.
xvii The following could also be said of Ralph Winter’s sodality (missionary band/modality ecclesial structure) proposition; see Winter’s “The Two Sructures of God’s Redemptive Mission,” http://www.uscwm.org/mobilization_division/resources/web_articles_11-20-01/Two%20Structures%20for%20Mob%20/two_structures.html. While the terminology is helpful, one still asks what is the connection between sodalities and modalities?
xviii 2 Corinthians 1:21
xviv Galatians 6:17; I Thessalonians 2:15
Endnotes Part 2:
1 See John D. Zizioulas. Being as Communion. New York: St. Vladimir, 1985.
2 See Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians. New Haven: Yale, 1983, p. 85.
3 Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit. p. 173. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).
4 Eschaton refers to the ultimate climax of Christians’ future hope for when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ (Rev 11:15), for when God makes all things new (Rev 21:5), and for when God is all in all (1 Cor 15:28).
5 Moltmann. The Church in the Power of the Spirit, p. 129.
6 See Justo Gonzales. Faith and Wealth. San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1990.
- Scripture in this paper is quoted from the New American Standard.