Saturday, September 29, 2012

Being Church

When it comes to church, there is often a very understandable desire to try to get underneath the programmes and activities to discover what the church really is in itself.  If we stripped out all of the busy-ness, what would be the essence that remained?  I suspect that very often this sort of thinking comes from people who are weary of the constant round of rotas and commitments that is generally implied by membership of an active evangelical church.  In so far as it offers a corrective to our tendency to make church all about bustling around - to Martha rather than to Mary - this desire is very helpful.  Nevertheless, it contains within it a potentially serious error about what church is.

Technically speaking, this is a conversation about ontology - what 'being' is, and what it means to exist.  In classical thinking, ontology was often conceived of in static terms; behind the activity, and perhaps even behind the particular properties, of a thing or person was the essence, the thing or person itself.  Those who take the position outlined above are, probably unwittingly, subscribing to this view.

The desire to just 'be church', without all the activity, is entirely understandable.  But it is neither practical nor helpful.  Churches do not 'exist', in the sense of having an essence which can be defined apart from their activities.

More broadly, neither does anything else.  Continental philosophy after Heidegger has helpfully pointed out that the classical tradition is wrong, at least in so far as it has regard to persons.  Persons do not simply exist; they exist themselves in particular ways, in choices and actions, and cannot be abstracted from these choices and actions.

The church cannot simply 'be'- a local church cannot simply 'be' - because the church is not at all a natural association of people.  It is born of two (divine) actions, and continues to exist in two (human) activities.  God calls the church together, and God sends the church out; the church comes together, and the church goes out.  A church at rest is not a church.  It has ceased to hear the call of God, and has lost the sense that it comes together at his command; it has ceased to obey the sending of God, and has lost the sense that it must go.  Whatever we might call the group of people who continue to assemble, it is not a church.  It is an arbitrary assembly, born of human will, and not obedience.  The church is defined by action.  "Verbs are the circulatory system of the church" (Eugene Peterson)

Whenever a church gathers, if it is a true church gathered in obedience, it is at the centre of a two-stroke movement.  People have been called together; when the meeting is over, they will be sent out.  The call to worship and the dismissal that bookend the church gathering are echoes of the essential movements of the church.  The gathering to worship is the centre, the taking of breath between the coming and the going which must always characterise church.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


At Magdalen Road Church we have just begun a series looking at the book of 1 Peter.  The relevance of the book for contemporary life is already obvious.  One of the things that I've been reflecting on since Sunday morning is the use of the word 'exiles' to describe the (almost certainly Gentile) Christians of first-century Asia Minor.  The word is poignant, and resonates through Scripture.

But it is hard to pin down.

I distinctly recall, as a student, trying to work out what it meant that Christians are 'exiles' in the world.  I had, and to a certain extent certainly still have, an unduly literalistic mind.  I wanted to fit the idea of exile into my biblical and systematic theology.  I wanted to understand exactly what part of the OT was being recalled here, and exactly how it could be that the exile has lasted beyond its apparent end (with Cyrus) and what must be its actual end (with Jesus).  It mattered to me, partly because I wanted to live in line with Scripture, but largely because I wanted to get everything neat and tidy.  And 'exile' vexed me as a concept, because it didn't seem easy to fit with the broad Scriptural narrative, or with other NT descriptions of the Christian life.  Exile was a result of sin, but sin is dealt with now, so how are we exiles?

Now I tend to think that the effort to pin things down in this way is hugely misguided.  There is a place for precision in theology and in Scripture reading - it is important! - but it must not be allowed to crush the actual way in which Scripture communicates.  When the apostle Peter calls his readers 'exiles', it is, I think, not so much a label describing them as an image that will resonate with them.  It recalls Psalm 137, and the terrible sense of homelessness, of a hostile surrounding, of the cry for justice and salvation.  It recalls Jeremiah's letter to the exiles, instructing them in how they should live in this hostile environment, blessing those around them, working for the common good, and waiting for the Lord.  It recalls Daniel's prayer of repentance and faith, seeking God's fulfilment of his promises to Israel.  And there are lots more.

The point is not that Christians are in exactly the same situation as the Jewish exiles.  It seems to me that the language is used rather to capture the mood; to convey what it feels like to be a Christian in this last time.  This exile of ours is not like the OT exile; they looked back to Jerusalem and wept for their sins, we look forward to Jerusalem and rejoice in our salvation.  But still, there is that waiting, that sense of being in a hostile world, that alienation - and exile captures it perfectly.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Great Commissions (2 of 2)

The second way to understand the two Commissions is the standard in Reformed circles, as far as I can tell.  The view is that the first (Genesis) Commission still stands, and is still basically definitive for our understanding of God’s intentions for humankind, even fallen humankind.  Human beings are still commanded to fill the earth and subdue it, with every advance in culture, science, and technology which this implies.  Christians are to be particularly involved with and interested in these things, since they receive them not only as the apparently obvious ingredients of a satisfying human life but also as the command of God.  This is not at all to deny that the fall has marred every aspect of what human beings do in response to this Commission.  It is, however, to say that the command still stands nonetheless, and that it ought to be obeyed, despite the fact that it can never be obeyed perfectly.  Something of value will be kept in all human striving that corresponds to this Commission.  The concept of common grace generally comes into play here.

The second Commission is understood against this background.  Given the broken nature of creation following the fall, the first Commission cannot be fulfilled, in the sense of fully and perfectly executed, but human beings alone.  God must step in to make it possible again, and he does so in Christ.  Christ’s work is about the redemption of all creation, and its restoration to its original potential.  Therefore, Christians are bound not only to engage in first Commission work, but also to join in the second Commission task of preaching Christ, through whom alone the first Commission can be fulfilled (eschatologically, for the most part).  As an aside, a good introduction to this view is the little book Creation Regained by Albert Wolters.

This view also has much to recommend it.  Not least, Christians who hold it are likely to live more interesting lives than those who hold the first view, and this may well have the effect of making their evangelism more effective; their engagement with the ordinary work of humanity has the potential to commend the gospel.  Independently of this, they are surely correct to see more in Genesis 1 and 2 than a wistful memory of a long-dead world.  With this perspective, advocates of the second view are equipped to avoid the secular/sacred divide that more or less inevitably follows from the first view.  Still, I’m not sure this view has it completely right.  I worry that it has the potential to make the gospel of Christ merely a means to an end, and the lordship of Christ a secondary rather than a primary concern.  This is a danger, not an actuality - I don’t think people actually go this far, or at least not explicitly.  But I think it is a valid concern; the gospel is not an afterthought.  Add to that, I’m not sure the framework of creation restored can contain the eschatology of the Bible - the end promised to us seems, to me, to be much more than the beginning.  

The third view, which is mine and therefore saved to the last so that it seems more impressive, rests on the insight that chronology is not always the key.  The second Commission, on this view, is really the first, and the first is the second.  To clarify, we’ll call them G-Commission (for Genesis) and M-Commission (for Matthew).  Rather than seeing G-Commission as basic, and M-Commission as a necessary addition in the face of sin, the third view sees M-Commission as basic.  The spread of the kingdom of Christ, through the evangelization of the nations, is - and always has been - the central purpose of everything that exists, including human beings and everything that they can do or produce in conformity to the G-Commission.  This is not to devalue the G-Commission; rather, it is to provide it with a secure place.  Although advocates of the second view see value in both Commissions, I do not know how they can hold them together.  It seems to me that either one or the other will necessarily be without foundation and arbitrary.  It is all very well to say that the G-Commission is still in force, but I wonder what that can even really mean after the fall.  And I wonder what relation it can really have to the M-Commission.  By contrast, this third view holds the two together because it sees the fulfillment of the G-Commission occurring as, and only as, human creativity is brought under the lordship of Christ.  This does not mean that cultural artifacts and the like which are created without reference to Christ lose all their value; it simply means that Jesus is Lord over them whether their creators like it or not, and so they can brought in some way - whether by appreciation or critique - within the orbit of the church as the community which knows and bows to his Lordship in the here and now.  (This involves a rethinking of common grace; it is not a kind of basic grace which is independent of the gospel grace of Christ - rather it is the overflow of the gospel, or perhaps just the gospel as it applies to those who do not know it or acknowledge it).

I think this is a better way of understanding the relationship between the G-Commission and the M-Commission.  It keeps the main thing - the Lordship of Christ and its recognition amongst the nations - as very definitely the main thing, and it securely grounds everything else by relating it to this great divine project.  It fits better with the shape of the doctrine of creation, as I understand it.  Most importantly, I think it lets us live as Christians - set free from every concern which is not Christ, whilst recognising that Christ means more than we might initially think.

(It occurs to me, at the conclusion, that this whole post is probably just a way of saying that I am a supralapsarian; if that doesn’t mean anything to you, lucky you).

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Great Commissions (1 of 2)

Reading chronologically is not always the best help when it comes to Biblical interpretation.  Thanks to a stimulating Awayday with Magdalen Road Church, where Julian Hardyman helped us to think through what it really means to live for Jesus every day, I've been mulling over the relationship between Matthew 28 and Genesis 1-2, and in particular what Julian called the Two Great Commissions.  It seems to me that there are at least three ways of seeing the relationship between these two Commissions, and that the one we pick will have a huge effect on what we think it means to live as a Christian.

Firstly, the two Commissions - what are they?  The first, chronologically speaking, is the instruction and permission found in the two creation accounts in Genesis.  This could be called the creational mandate, or the cultural mandate.  Humanity is to expand and advance, both numerically and in terms of control over creation.  They are to steward the resources of creation, making responsible use of everything that God has given them.  This will involve creativity, craftsmanship, thought.  Humanity is commanded and permitted to thrive, and to enjoy the fruits of their gentle work within the world that God has made.  The second Commission, and the one which is more commonly referred to by that name, is the sending out of the Apostles, and through them the Apostolic Church, to bear witness to Christ, making disciples who are baptised and taught to follow everything that Jesus has said.  This Commission, unlike the other, is delivered to a limited group of people, although the intended beneficiaries are not limited.  In a way, it too involves expansion and advancement in numbers and in ways of being community together for the world.

The first way of understanding the relationship between these two Commissions is to say that the latter nullifies the former.  Genesis 1 and 2 stand as testimony to God's original intention for humanity, but after Genesis 3 there is nothing left of that intention.  The fall raises an impenetrable barrier between that world and our world (a cherub with a flaming sword, perhaps?) which makes it useless for us to even think about the mandate of Genesis 1 and 2 except in the context of reflection on what we have lost, and therefore how much we need Christ.  Those who hold this viewpoint tend to think that evangelism is the only worthwhile thing to be doing - everything else being simply the necessary prerequisites for evangelism.  If you have ever heard someone use an argument like ‘what does it matter what great works of art we create when there are people going to hell all around us’, they probably hold this view of the relationship between Genesis 1-2 and Matthew 28.  (The wonky eschatology follows on logically).

I think this viewpoint has a lot to recommend it (it used to be mine).  It takes the fall seriously, it takes seriously the fact that we cannot even imagine a world in which work was always blessed and human effort was not constantly subject to futility.  It also takes seriously the urgent need for the gospel to go out.  However, I am convinced that this is not the biblical view.  For starters, in both Old and New Testaments, numerous activities are endorsed and commanded which bear no relation to evangelism, the extension of the church, or the plucking of brands from the fire.  Moreover, this view of the relation between Genesis 1-2 and Matthew 28 (or, indeed, the rest of the Bible) implies that God has abandoned his creation to destruction, choosing to save a few souls from the wreck.  That just doesn’t fit with the declared intentions of God for his creation in Scripture.  Genesis 1-2 still matters for more than just a reminder of what we have lost.

The other two perspectives to follow shortly...