Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Part I: Historical Church


(The purpose of part I of the ordination paper is to provide a way for the student to share his present grasp and understanding of the teaching and traditions of the Christian Church down through the ages and to relate this to his own theological perspective.)

I always try to go with the simplest answer. When Asked what The Greek word used for “church” in the New Testament, “ekklēsia” just means “assembly, congregation, council.” In other words, a church is a group of people, a community. This entails everything it means to be human—being sinners and yet a little lower than angels. The church, like humanity, is a living paradox, limited and sinful yet hopeful and the continued incarnation of Christ on earth.

I have no need of Nestorian ecclesiology, which is the error dividing the church into two distinct things or states of being: namely the heavenly and invisible and the earthly and temporal. I instead favor a unified view that it is in the church’s best interest to focus on the here and now knowing that grace flows from God and everyone makes it to “the Pearly Gates.”

For too long the church has had no purpose and has been content to rest on its old answers. It felt that if it challenged too much, it would alienate people, lose its members, and die. It has done the opposite, and this has alienated people, lost the children and grandchildren of its members, and started the downfall of the church. The institution as it is cannot stand, and it must be resurrected into something new. The church should become a new institution that is localized and flexible. The church should be controlled by its members and guided by its pastor. This model is a side by side model, not a top down nor a pastor leading and people following. If someone stumbles, the best position to be in to help is at the person’s side. A top down model is not the model Jesus used. He never brandished his power, he led by serving. It has been shown that the pastor out front will focus on the supposed destination and will not check to see if anyone is following his or her lead.

This church I have in mind is not a religious institution. "I want you to set aside the notion of the Christian religion, because it's a contradiction in terms. You won't learn anything positive about religion from Christianity, and if you look for Christianity in religion, you'll never find it. To be sure, Christianity uses the forms of religion, and, to be dismally honest, too many of its adherents act as if it were a religion; but it isn't one, and that's that. The church is not in the religion business; it is in the Gospel-proclaiming business. And the gospel is the good news that all man's fuss and feathers over his relationship with God is unnecessary because God, in the mystery of the Word who is Jesus, has gone and fixed it up Himself. So let that pass" (Capon, Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace 163). Instead it is a practical institution. It does not spend time on high theological language and theories because Christ talked in everyday language and images. “When Jesus told his parables to the people, his disciples asked, ‘Why do you talk to them in riddles?’ And his answer was: ‘So they won’t catch on. Because anything they could catch on to would be the wrong thing. As Isaiah said, seeing they don't see and hearing they don't hear, neither do they understand [Matthew 13:10-17]. That’s why I talk to them like this: because I don’t want them to have little lights go on in their heads. I want to put out all the lights they’ve got, so that in the darkness they can listen to me.’” (Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox 78-79).

Above all, the church needs to be relevant and simplistic, giving a new and unexpected light to the world that is both warm and inviting as it is bright and blinding. The church should be practical and full of purpose. Its purpose should not be to prevent people from sinning or to tell people what to do. God in Jesus did not prevent sinners from sinning. He went around forgiving them right and left. If the church wants to represent him, it should not misrepresent his methods. Instead the church should focus on forgiveness and healing.

The church should not rest. It should always seek answers to questions it knows will never be solved completely. The church should know where it comes from but be “theologica reformata et simper reformanda”—reformed and always reforming. It should not seek the answers as much as the correct question for any given situation.

The church should take joy in the gift of the scriptures. It should not place claims that the Bible itself does not claim nor that our Jewish brothers and sisters make (as they have had the TaNaK longer). Thus the scriptures are not inerrant, infallible, or to be taken literally. Gifts are to be loved, celebrated, and used responsibly and with great care.

The church should not be an enclave of refugees from the world; it is the sacrament of God's presence in the world by the mystery of the incarnation. It looks just like the world but with a slant and twist that turn everything upside down. It is at once totally familiar but totally disorienting. The church should exemplify what H. Richard Niebuhr labeled “Christ Transforming Culture.”

The church should not await a “second coming of Christ.” Christ has already come again. He was born into this world (the first time) and then again at Easter (the second time). Christ comes again every time a stranger is fed, a prisoner is visited, and the least of these being cared for (Matthew 25:31-46). The Gospel of Thomas states, “His disciples said to him, ‘When will the rest for the dead take place, and when will the new world come?’ He said to them, ‘What you are looking forward to has come, but you don’t know it.’” (Gospel of Thomas #34). Nor are we waiting for the kingdom of God, for Jesus said, “If your leaders say to you, ‘Look, the (Father'’) kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the (Father’s) kingdom is within you and it is outside you” (Gospel of Thomas #3). We are awaiting the completion of the kingdom of God, which God will finish, but we must seek to do God’s will and do our part.

The ideal plan for the church is best laid out in Matthew 7: 6-12 as reframed in the Message: “Don’t be flip with the sacred. Banter and silliness give no honor to God. Don’t reduce holy mysteries to slogans. In trying to be relevant, you’re only being cute and inviting sacrilege. Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn’t a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing. You’re at least decent to your own children. So don’t you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better? Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.” This view gives a whole new spin on sin and salvation and the sacraments.


Ian said...

Good stuff Luke. Here's some wee thoughts (given that I realise I'd be counter-productive on the spiritual stuff).

ekklesia - One of the odd things about the apostolic church was their terminology. They repurposed very secular terms. Ekklesia could be best translated 'town council' it wasn't 'congregation' in the sense we think today. That deliberate breaking with cozy notions of the scope or purpose of religion sounds like what you're getting at. The ekklesia was the body that got called when something needed deciding or something needed to be done.

nestorian ecclesiology - in the wider sense this is Augustinian too (c.f. De Civitate Dei), and it is through Augustine that this viewpoint has weighed heavy on the church. I like your twist (against Augustine) that it is the here and now that is the real one though.

Should be "semper reformanda" - though I like the image of a simpering reformation ):D?

LOVE the Gospel of Thomas quote. You, sir, are a class act for putting that in your ordination paper!

Yael said...

I also like the quoting of different sources other than the standard fare, the bringing to light those almost totally lost and ignored pieces of tradition.

Now the religion part, that's hitting one of my buttons so I'm just going to overlook it. Besides, I'm sure it is safe to say that the odds of finding someone like me on your ordination board are not high.

Anonymous said...

Great post - I actually agree with almost all of it!

(a) Church - I see a living and vibrant community of people - sharing and pushing a vision of a better world

(b) I actually agree with the religion vs. faith contention - well I have to - I have no religion but I have faith. I also do see a contention that does exist there - between traditions and movement forward (and the hindrance traditions can play in that)

(c) 2nd coming idea - I like that - we are working on the kingdom as is - the 2nd coming may have already happened (can't say I have thought about this much). I can get behind the idea though - since the focus is what grabs my attention - 'here and now'.

(d) Side notion vs. a top down model - 100% agreeance! I am so sick of authoritarian church that has lost it's relevance in a society that questions the motives of such leaders now.

(e) Matthew is my favorite gospel BTW - and I would say the best passages for Christian direction come out of chaptres 5-7 - I think at the end of 5 is the 'perfection' passage - which is about human equality and inclusion!

Love it - and I don't critique what I love...unless it cheats (kidding).

Bryce said...

While ekklēsia may mean council, assembly, etc., the deeper root of the Greek is ek + kleō = "I call out" -> "that which is called out." I point this out because the Church is, for me personally, not just a social club of folks who decided to assemble, but also contains an element of being called out from their milieu to be something more in the world than the sum of their parts... It is God who does the calling.

The other thing that comes to mind for me here is that the Church includes the great "cloud of witnesses" or the "fellowship of all believers." Some of them we don't experience in our particular place and time, but I have to think, in a very real and mystical sense, that their efforts -- past and future -- are in concert with those that we see now.

"The institution as it is cannot stand, and it must be resurrected into something new. The church should become a new institution that is localized and flexible.

My first impression here, after your comment regarding the downfall of the church, is that for you the Church and the institutions of humans known as "churches" are one and the same.

If God is sovereign (a big if, as I haven't seen your statement on the nature of God yet -- but you do claim Neo-orthodox leanings, so maybe it's not too big an if), then I wonder whether the Church is able to experience downfall. This doesn't appear to align with God's purposes for the redemption of the Creation...

Now institutional churches fail every day. And the UCC may well be on the same road... But I believe that the Church is more than just an assembled group of folks... Do you think that the Church can ultimately fail?

"...the gospel is the good news that all man's fuss and feathers..."

With your commitment to language that is gender complementary or neutral, a "[sic]" may be in order behind the word man's in the quote. :-D

"It should not seek the answers as much as the correct question for any given situation."

I like this a lot... Great turn of phrase...

Bryce said...

BTW, I didn't start by mentioning that I think these parts that I've read so far are really good. I jumped straight to the criticism, but you're doing great, Luke!

Bryce said...

I said:

the deeper root of the Greek is ek + kleō

It should be ek + kaleō


Luke said...

thanks all for your comments!

Bryce you bring up really good points i need to consider and insert into the paper to make it clearer where i'm coming from. like for example "the church cannot stand as it is today." meaning that i see the church as complacent in many areas and seek a renewed energy in it. i don't think it will ever fail completely, it can't, you're right there.. but we can really, really, REALLY screw up the message and purpose of the church. that would be, in my view, a place of grace and empowerment. a home and a recharging station to go out.. like you said to me the other night, and i'm gonna squirrel it in the paper somewhere:

"Act like the coming of the kin-dom depends solely on you.... pray like it depends solely on God." (is that a good paraphrase?)