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Why the Church?
By Robert W. Wall, Joel B. Green
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2015 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Why the Church?
The title of this book raises a common but hard question: Why the church? Many have attempted to answer it. Even a cursory review of their various responses notes that this question is typically prompted and shaped by a range of different intellectual postures forged in various social worlds. Each response may suggest a different approach to a study of the New Testament's response to this question.
For example, the question "why the church?" may well be asked by those believers who are disaffected with the institutional church. Some sociologists have even pegged this group as an entire generation that has migrated into a post-Christian era with a firm perception of the church's cultural irrelevance or naiveté. "Why the church?" is a typical question asked, then, by believers of a certain age with a shrug of their shoulders, whose observations of the church's declining public role or role in their own lives have left them spiritually unfulfilled and intellectually indifferent.
Similar to other seminarians, in a poll we took of our incoming students, more than 80 percent expressed no interest in becoming members of the clergy. Most came from "nondenominational" congregations without any connection to other congregations held together in formal institutional structures, a common discipline, and confession of faith. These students are more entrepreneurial, interested in start-ups and ad hoc ministries of one kind or another. It has become increasingly difficult to speak of scripture as the "church's book" or of an approach to its interpretation as "for and of" the church to students so rootless and restless.
Familiar reasons are sometimes given to explain why this disaffection with the institutional or denominational church has happened. In a recent study of current trends within the religious world, George Barna observes that the decline in church attendance, especially noticeable among educated young adults, is due to a perceived disconnect between the social patterns and intellectual interests of the church culture they have experienced growing up and the nonreligious world in which they now work and live. Surveys tell us that they still believe in God and even in the Bible's characterization of God. Many claim to practice prayer and believe in life after death, even if they do so only to the extent that it doesn't cross the line into superstition; mystery is fine but magic is not. Despite the evident influence of new and functional atheisms about the way in which Christians think about their faith, these surveys suggest that the reasons are less intellectual than they are existential. Their growing disaffection is for a particular kind of faith community, not for the community's faith.
Barna's survey includes "nomadic" Christians who are no longer attending church. This book aims to put their dis-ease to rights. For example, the failure of the church to speak into the "real world" in which most live and work may be challenged by the biblical vision of a missional church. At the same time, the church sometimes presents and even demonizes the social world as corrupt, making it at odds with the everyday experience of most people. The result is the impression of a "straw man" gospel that is largely irrelevant to the real questions most Christians ask: So "why the church" when one's churchly experience is thought optional or a waste of time? A more careful description of the workplace and neighborhood may help guide the application of scripture's teaching about the church to the church. This is also true when people are surveyed about their theological education. Studies reveal that most Christians come to church only to find that God has gone missing from the pulpit or from educational programming. In a word, the church, by and large, has failed to catechize its membership in the theological goods of the faith. So first, the problem of the church is not its material presence—it's not unhip architecture or even the church's presumed civil role within the public square. The problem is not edificial but spiritual: for many, the church is not a place where they go to find God.
The so-called new atheism is a mostly political movement whose press releases by famous pundits and entertainers have far outstripped its now waning influence. But the hard question remains: What do these skeptics tell us about the status of today's church, since their rejection of God is rarely for purely intellectual reasons and is more typically rooted in an experience of church or its membership? Perhaps it is a general apprehension of the public church that allows the movement's intellectual leaders (e.g., Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett) to get away with uncritical, inaccurate caricatures of theism, as though it is the source of all that is wrong with modern culture. They ask "why the church?" with scorn and ridicule. Unfortunately, many educated believers have found that the church is unable to explain adequately the relationship between faith and science/reason, at least in a thoughtful way that would help them negotiate their Christian faith in a secular workplace or public classroom where the veracity of a strictly secular worldview is assumed. Naturalism or materialism, to some disaffected believers, seems to be a better intellectual explanation of the real world than the kingdom of God.
The popular definition of true religion has less to do with theological beliefs and more to do with lifestyle issues. In part, this is due to the investment of social media as brokers of religious discourse in the economy; the central topics of social media concern the ethics of human relationships. The perceived problem is not only the inability of many communions to speak in decisively biblical ways into the many hot-button social issues that confront the membership of any public institution (e.g., war on terror, homosexual marriage, immigration reform, or gun violence) but also the inherently discriminating effect that applying the Christian gospel will surely have. While the global church is "catholic" by every meaningful index, it is also exclusive in its core beliefs and traditional practices. Precisely as a public institution, the church's life in the world is distinguishable from other institutions. For a growing number of young believers, shaped by an ethos of tolerance and inclusivity, then, their conflict with the exclusive character of their faith has turned some against the institution itself.
The liberal ethos of modernity, of course, is naturally suspicious of traditional authorities, especially when they may derail or shortchange the individual's freedom to make his or her own choices. The canons and creeds of Christian faith draw boundaries in a way that place any transgressor outside its embrace. Indeed, scripture's objection to those who doubt God does not play well in a modern world where this very thing is celebrated as a growing-up experience. The purpose of this book does not include some heady prognosis for this dis-ease, but it will seek to construct a NT conception of God's people that will help address, if only implicitly, the practical concerns of disaffected Christians.
The second problem is theological, mostly Protestant, and concerns the lack of an ecclesiology to underwrite the community's grammar of faith. For all of the interest recently vested by professional theologians in a dogmatic explanation of "church," especially to explain new global phenomena such as Pentecostal/charismatic movements or ecumenical/interfaith dialogue, there is noticeable inattention given to it in ancillary, often contentious, discussions of Christian beliefs. The question "why the church?" may therefore be asked by puzzled students with a scratch of their heads, who wonder how ecclesiology might contribute to discussions about the authority of the church's scripture, the economy of God's salvation, or God's mission in the world to establish God's kingdom on earth as it now is in heaven.
If God's people formed the NT in order to help form itself into the church, then it follows that, in a sense, all of the NT is ecclesiology; its study implicates readers in a range of discussions that concern what it means to belong to God's people and to believe and behave as they ought. The crisis is not only that the lack of a robust ecclesiology in these various theological discussions impoverishes them intellectually; the crisis is also existential, since the failure to treat scripture's address, which is ecclesial, subverts its formative role in shaping a community who continues to experience the risen One and to proclaim him in word and deed for the world.
This book responds to the neglect of this topic for those students in search of a biblical understanding of the church, and perhaps then on this basis to lead them in the spiritual renewal of their congregations. What scripture animates is a vision of God's people, not a blueprint of congregational renewal or clergy reform but an inspiring witness of God's providential sojourn with God's people that cultivates in its readers the wisdom necessary to think and respond to the demanding vocation of being the church in and for our own day.
Does God Need the Church?
As important as it is to consider different reasons why people might question or defend their need for the church, more pertinent is the theological question as to whether God needs the church, especially one whose failures are notorious! Isn't even the suggestion that our omni-God should need anything outrageous? Still more ludicrous is that God should require the services of a stumbling, bumbling church that only gets in God's way! And yet any student who prepares to study scripture's conception of the church must face this challenging question: Why does God elect and bring a particular people into existence to love and treasure and to commission and call? After all, God, being an omni-God, doesn't act without good reason. Why the church?
Three broad lines of argument may be useful in sketching an answer to this question: the church provides a home for a covenant-making God, the church actively participates with God in a shared mission to save the world, and the church bears passive witness to the gracious operations of a sav-ing God.
Church as God's Home
We should agree that the persona of the triune God is sociable. We observe this in the intimate, familial manner of the Son's address of the Father according to the Gospels: Jesus calls God "Father" and God calls Jesus "beloved Son." They enjoy each other's company and seek to work together in common projects. Not surprisingly, then, we gladly observe that God needs a home in which to dwell with God's adopted children; the church provides God with such a home. Ephesians 2:22 stands as a stunning witness to this belief. An interpersonal God needs a home and a family with whom to fellowship and love and from whom to receive worship and love. Moreover, especially John's apostolic tradition speaks of believers as God's birth children (not adopted) in whom God abides forever. It strikes me that the more active roles in which the church engages on God's behalf are deeply rooted in this primary idea: the church provides God a place to dwell in full deity and doxological praise.
Church as God's Partner
The book of Acts begins with a succession story that moves the ministry of the risen Jesus, who is soon to depart into the heavens, into the apostles-led, Spirit-filled messianic community that he leaves behind. What is clear from this opening story in Acts is that God does not intend to end salvation's history with the risen messiah's ascension; the Lord's departure, rather, marks the beginning of "the last days" (cf. Acts 2:17) leading up to God's final victory over death. In fact, the Spirit's promised baptism, soon to arrive with light and sound effects at Pentecost, purposes to empower the community's membership to continue what the departed Jesus had begun to do and say (Acts 1:1, 8). While God's reign was brought near and established by Jesus's messianic mission, its future is heralded and even anticipated by the church's ongoing mission in his absence. The narrative of Acts cultivates the sense that the church is a necessary feature of the economy of God's salvation, not merely the human agent of God's saving grace in the world. The church provides public testimony of the real results of God's grace to herald its final triumph in a new creation. The reader may allow, then, that the church as the earthly body of the departed Christ is presently needed as both agent and witness of God's saving grace until Christ returns.
However, the question of whether the church's existence is necessary to the missio Dei is rarely benign, asked by the naïve but serious student interested in tracking down a topic of evident theological importance in the NT. In an increasingly post-Christian world, this question is asked with deep suspicion even by thoughtful Christians: Why is the church necessary? Certainly God, being God, doesn't need anyone or anything to do what God has promised to do according to scripture. But if the believer responds that God doesn't need the church to accomplish the work of salvation, then one is allowed to cast suspicion on the continuing relevance of scripture, the sacraments, or any ecclesial practice that we might otherwise consider providential in the economy of God. Christianity would devolve into a spectator sport, awaiting God's magical performances and nothing more.
Church as God's Witness
In his important book, Gerhard Lohfink famously asks, "Does God need the church?"—an evocative question asked rhetorically and firmly, assuming an affirmative response. Lohfink admits that it is not self-evident that God should require anything from anyone—that a sovereign God should need the church is nothing short of miraculous because, he argues, participation with God is both consistent with the nature of who God is and aligns with scripture's witness to God's saving activities in the world.
I would note that Lohfink's argument doesn't turn on the missional church's agency as a broker of God's salvation during the absence of the ascended Christ, even if the portrait of God's people in Acts may allow for this; rather, the church is needed precisely because God needs a people to freely choose God's grace in order to demonstrate (or "proclaim") the way of salvation in healing creation with integrity (cf. Eph 3:8-13). Indeed, there are alternate ways of dealing with creation's brokenness, and these are evident in the biblical story of creation. Stories of deception, violence, mob rule, and Babel, all found in the opening chapters of Genesis, indicate different political approaches in ordering a broken creation. Apart from God's grace, however, the world would still be populated by those who are "not a people," still shrouded in darkness outside of God's "amazing light" (1 Pet 2:9-10). But enabled by and reliant upon grace, God's own people are preserved through time as the instantiation of "God's life-giving and enduring word" (1 Pet 1:23-25).
The narratives of two mighty acts of creation in making the world (Gen 1) and electing Israel (Gen 12; Exod 19–20) explain why God needs the church's partnership in sustaining the economy of grace. The plotline of God's creation, introduced in Genesis 1, follows a week of mighty acts beginning with a formless and darkened earth and ending with a hallowed earth filled with a surplus of "very good" creatures. As such, the biblical story of creation is a narrative of grace-filled redemption that depicts the material transformation of a real place. Of course, the reader may well imagine that God, being God, could have executed this creative act in any number of ways and for any number of different ends. But this biblical narrative of creation testifies that the creator-savior of the universe did so by commanding the earth to participate in the creative process, and so the earth did (Gen 1:11-12); and then by making humankind in God's likeness to fill and steward it to the ends of the earth (Gen 1:26-28), and so humankind did so, although with limited success.
Two elements of scripture's opening narrative introduce nonnegotiable beliefs about the nature of God that may help explain why one might allow that God "needs" the church. Not only does a wholly gracious God exist prior to all things, whose word is necessary not only to their creaturely existence but also to their redemption as active participants in a "very good" world, but also God chooses to collaborate with those creatures so that they participate in God's creative, redemptive work. Christians also believe that in creating humankind in God's own image, God made humans free to make similar choices. For us to participate with God in the economy of grace requires a decision to do so, and people are made "very good" but hardly "perfect"! The risk of God's doing so is quickly made clear, since the earth God once observed as very good is soon filled with evil (Gen 6:11-12). The motion of history and the movement of redemption within it is an exercise of risk management, since the freedom God grants humankind at creation is never withdrawn. God's intuition to redeem what is formless and lifeless and to choose to do so in partnership with creatures that are free to choose to remain formless and lifeless is a central feature of the history of salvation according to scripture.
Excerpted from Why the Church? by Robert W. Wall, Joel B. Green. Copyright © 2015 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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