Monday, October 19, 2015

Thinking about the Church Today



          Thesis One: Everyone knows the church is in trouble in North America.

Thesis Two: Change, significant change, is required. We all know that too.

Thesis Three: That change needs to be thought all the way down (i.e. to the very structure, form, and theology of the identity and vocation of the church). Not all know this or want to know it. This failure dilutes or vitiates their efforts at change.

These simple theses lie at the heart of the church’s struggle to cope with our changing culture without and the dysfunction within. However different the symptoms, churches genuinely searching for faithful responses to the world today, face the challenge of a complete and courageous rethink as sketched above. Nothing less will suffice.

Such a rethink takes us back beyond the beginning of creation. There in the mystery of eternity past the triune God[1] – himself the fullness of love, fellowship, and community – determined to share his life –that fullness of love, fellowship, and community – with creatures. So he created a world on which they could live and he with him.

The creation stories in Genesis 1-2 signals this divine intention by styling the creation as a cosmic temple. The creation is structured as a temple.

-The uninhabited lands outside Eden correspond to the outer Court of the Gentiles.

-Eden corresponds to the Holy Place.

-The Garden in Eden corresponds to the Holy of Holies where God dwelt.

          Humanity was to serve God as priests in his Garden/Holy of Holies and his royal representatives in the larger world as God sought to extend the boundaries of his Holy of Holies to make it coextensive with the world he made.

This divine intent, embryonic in the creation stories, is displayed in all its glory in the final vision of the Bible in Revelation 21-22. There the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to the new creation. Its shape is a cube. The only other structure in the Bible cubic in shape is the Holy of Holies in the temple. That the New Jerusalem is coextensive with the new creation confirms this picture as the fulfillment of the Genesis 1-2 stories. The case is clinched when Revelation 21:3 declares that God himself comes down from heaven and find his home with his creatures. And there is no temple in the new creation (Revelation 21:22)!

The fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose (Ephesians 3:11) is life together between God and his people forever on the new creation (earth as it should have been apart from sin).

The nature and being of the church is rooted in God’s desire to have a creation full of humans to live in love, fellowship, and communion with throughout the ages.

Even after sin derailed God’s purpose and unraveled God’s good creation God remained committed to his purpose. He called Abraham and Sarah out of their paganism and promised to raise up a family through them, bless and protect them, and use them to bless everyone else (Genesis 12:1-3). Here is the origin of God’s people (the church).

Now only a fraction of the world’s people, God’s work in and through them, will now be the focal point of human history and destiny. In a world that still rejects God and revolts against his rule over them, God begins his counter-revolution to reclaim and restore both creature and creation to his original design for them with this family.

Elect to be God’s people for the world! Abraham and Sarah’s family would soon learn that being the chosen people of this God meant serving, sacrificing, and serving others, even those others that did not know them, disliked them, or sought to destroy them. To be God’s people means to be his subversive counter-revolutionary movement (SCRM). Through this family God intends to demonstrate to the world the way of life he intends and offers to all and embody the demand and claim of God on all (Deuteronomy 4:5-8).

Though Israel failed to be the people God called them to be, but through their rebellion and even exile, he never gave up on them being such a people. Even in the exile this call of the elect to serve, sacrifice, and suffer for others is summed up in the mysterious and compelling figure of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53.

The people of God is called, commissioned, and equipped to be God’s Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement.

            Jesus, the one faithful Israelite, lives out the life of love and loyalty to his Father all humanity was intended to. He took on the mantle of the Suffering Servant and was in his person the family God promised Abraham and Sarah to bear God’s blessing to the world. In Jesus God found his SCRM!

          By raising Jesus from the dead God validates and vindicates Jesus and his way of faithfulness as the way he desires his human creatures to live (and die). By faith we entrust ourselves to Jesus and become his people, children of Abraham as Paul puts it (Galatians 3:7). And if children of Abraham, then participants in God’s SCRM.

          This side of the cross, this side of the decisive, climactic work of Jesus to reclaim and restore humanity to its creational design (royal priests), the church’s task is to live out this victory and continue to expand the boundaries of God’s temple in a not-yet-fully-redeemed world.

          The best analogy to our existence as God’s SCRM is the situation of Allied forces in the European theater of WWII after the decisive battles at Normandy. Those battles turned the tide in the war there. We call them D-Day. After them the outcome of the war there was no longer in doubt. But the fighting continued for another year. The Allied forces liberated Nazi occupied areas and rooted out remaining Nazi strongholds. They continued battle-ready and on full alert. Some of them were hurt and died before the peace was fully in place. We call that V-Day.

          As participants in God’s SCRM, we are in the same position. We live out of his victory (cross and resurrection, D-Day) and carry out Jesus’ kind of liberation of enemy-occupied territory and root out remaining strongholds of enemy resistance (2 Corinthians 10:1-5) till his return, our V-Day.

In Christ the church takes up the mantle of God’s SCRM acting now from Christ’s victory and toward his return.

            In a world turned away from God in revolt and rejection, the life God in Christ has demonstrated as God’s own life is no different from the life we would have lived had we not rejected God. It’s that very life that takes its specific shape (cruciform) from the conditions it encounters. The same serving and seeking the interests of the other before our own that landed Jesus on a cross as a treasonous would-be political liberator, will mark his life as the Son of Man returning in glory (Luke 12:35-38)!

          So living as God’s SCRM is not different than living as God’s people apart from sin. It is that very life lived under the condition of sin and revolt.

-That means we will be subversives, “insurgents for the Prince of Peace” as Ken Medema styles us in one of his songs, infiltrating communities one by one, building relationships and sharing life with their inhabitants, demonstrating the victory of Jesus in that place and among that people.

-And it means we will be counter-revolutionary, set against the attitude, actions, patterns, and systems inscribed into our life together and working as far as possible for ways of ordering life that more appropriately reflect God’s will for human life and is our future at the full coming of the kingdom of God.

I use both subversive and counter-revolutionary deliberately even though both tend to have opposite political connotations. The former is presumed more ”liberal” and the latter more “conservative.” I use them together to confound such notions and to keep my proposal from being pigeon-holed in our current misleading categories. I hope these terms together hold open one’s view my proposal of God’s SCRM to evaluation rather than foreclosing on it.

Participating in God’s SCRM is the new life promised us in Christ. It takes its cruciform character from the conditions of life in a not-yet-fully-redeemed world. This is our salvation!

            I believe what I am calling God’s SCRM is the DNA of God’s people all through the biblical story. A group of people cannot be God’s people without living as his SCRM. In a multitude of forms – a group of families, fugitive escapees from Pharaoh, wandering nomads in the wilderness, a nation united and divided by kingship, a people in exile, and a people oppressed by a foreign overlord in their own land – serving God as his SCRM was always their baseline identity. And I submit we must rediscover this DNA today if we hope to be a church. 

          Short of this, ideas and plans to revive, renew, or remake the church are just so much spitting in the wind.

          Discernment as to the best form, structures, strategies to be a subversive counter-revolutionary movement is the basic task of any congregation. This is that rethink of the church from the ground up I mentioned earlier. This discernment will search for a useable past in the history and heritage of the church that might help us discover a useful future.

          There is a “thin tradition,” one “not much loved” by the church as a whole (as Jürgen Moltmann put it), that embodies this ecclesial DNA we have identified. It’s called the “theology of the cross.” Martin Luther is the theologian who recovered and freshly articulated this biblical insight at the time of the Reformation of the 16th century. Since then, though this theology is present in nearly every tradition’s official theology, it is largely ignored and transmuted into its opposite, a theology of glory. This latter way of seeing the gospel and Christian experience

“operates on the assumption that what we need is optimistic encouragement, some flattery, some positive thinking, some support to build our self-esteem. Theologically speaking it operates on the assumption that we are not seriously addicted to sin, and that our improvement is both necessary and possible. We need a little boost in our desire to do good works…. But the hallmark of a theology of glory is that it will always consider grace as something of a supplement to whatever is left of human will and power.”[2]



The theology of the cross, on the other hand, the theology I am claiming we must recover, internalize, and practice,


“defines life in terms of giving rather than taking, self-sacrifice rather than self-protection, dying rather than killing. It reorients us away from our natural inclination toward a theology of glory by showing that we win by losing, we triumph through defeat, and we become rich by giving ourselves away. Of course, our inner theologian of glory can be counted on to try to hijack the theology of the cross and make it a new, more reliable scheme for self-improvement. But the theology of the cross happens to us and in spite of us. For the suffering person, this is a word of profound hope.[3]



Let’s return to my three theses above:

Thesis One: Everyone knows the church is in trouble in North America.

Thesis Two: Change, significant change, is required. We all know that too.

Thesis Three: That change needs to be thought all the way down (i.e. to the very structure, form, and theology of the identity and vocation of the church). Not all know this or want to know it. This failure dilutes or vitiates their efforts at change.

In my judgment, this struggle between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross constitutes the main reason for the trouble the church is in today in North America.

The theology of the cross is the change require for the church to regain its integrity and authenticity in our culture. But this will be an extraordinary struggle because, as we all know all too well, everyone wants change but few of us want to be changed.

The theology of the cross as the DNA of the church must become our baseline, sideline, and goal line for what counts as church in its forms, structures, witness, and preaching.

This is where thinking about the church today must take place if it is to happen at all!



[1] The church confesses the mystery of the triune nature of God and thinks from it to all other reality. “In his eternal being and in all his activity, the one God is always and at the same time the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” A Declaration of Faith PCUSA, ch.5. 
[2] Tullian Tchividjian, http://www.christianpost.com/news/theology-of-glory-vs-theology-of-the-cross-78119/#gvBOeUA3wUvm3aeE.99
[3] Ibid.

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