On Being the Church in the World

NOVEMBER 2008: ESSAY

by Eugene Roberts

While I am not a disciple of Abraham Kuyper, the discussion generated by Steve Mathonnet-Vander well (“Reformed Intramurals,” February 2008) and the responses of John Bolt and Jeffrey Sajdak (“A Kuyperian Reflects on Father Abraham” and “The Fourth Act,” June-July 2008) did nudge my thinking. I share Mathonnet-VanderWell’s disappointment that Bolt’s response demonstrated little theological engagement, and I agree that if we Christians are not “overtly theological” in our relationship with the larger community, we have little to say. Bolt falls into the trap of using scripture to validate ideology, the very charge he makes against his opponents. With that in mind, I would like to expand upon two themes: first, the way neo-Calvinism’s grounding in the creation story affects its understanding of the role of the church; second, the way that the “great theater” metaphor which this discussion has invoked falls short of doing justice to the Trinity.

Simon Chan, in Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (IVP 2006 ), draws a helpful connection between our ecclesiology and our understanding of the creation story. In a discussion of the “ontology of the church,” he asks the key question: “Is the church to be seen as an instrument to accomplish God’s purpose in creation, or is the church the expression of God’s ultimate purpose itself?” (21) How we answer that question will make all the difference in the world. If the former is true, then biblical history will be understood in a linear “creation-fall-redemption-consummation” narrative, as described by Jeffrey Sajdak (“The Fourth Act”). This classical understanding of Genesis 1-3 assumes that God created a perfect universe with the expectation that human beings had the ability and opportunity to maintain that perfection. It was only after the sin of Adam that the redemption narrative becomes necessary. In this narrative God is the impartial judge who seems to have no personal stake in the outcome. Yes, he provides an opportunity for salvation in Christ, but whether the majority will accept that gift is entirely up to them or, if we are to be true to our Calvinist roots, such salvation is only offered to the limited number of the elect as an act of divine mercy. Within this narrative, the church’s purpose can only be to serve as the means for carrying out God’s purpose, which is to return creation to an Edenic state. The church is thus a “subspecies of creation and must discover the clue to its identity within the created order.” (Chan, 22)

But if God’s original purpose is found in the creation account, why does the Old Testament say so little about that account? Would it not be more in accordance with the biblical story to see creation not as the purpose but as a backdrop for God’s elective grace? On this understanding, humans are not creatures whose reason for existence is to see if they can measure up to the demands of a righteous God, but rather creatures who have been given life in order that they might enter into a relationship with their Creator that is grounded in mutual love and affection for one another and for the creation as a whole. If the church is the expression of this elective grace, then the church’s identity, as Mathonnet-VanderWell suggests, is to be found not in what it accomplishes but in what it is. In Barth’s terms, it is “the people of God in world occurrence.” (Church Dogmatics IV.3.2) The church has an eternal existence as what Chan describes as a “divine-humanity” because of its “organic link with its Head, Christ.” (23) The church, this divine-humanity, does not, then, derive its purpose from the creation, as the place for the gathering of the righteous; rather, the creation derives its purpose from the church.

This church will not see its role as encouraging people to make room for faith in their lives, but rather will invite them to leave their lives in the world and be given new lives in a new creation, the Kingdom of God.  This church will model for the world what God’s intention is for all of creation, based upon its relat ionship to its head, the Lord Jesus Christ. Its purpose will be accomplished not by over powering other creeds or ideologies but by being the presence of Christ i n the world, doing the things that Jesus did: hea l i ng the sick, freeing the captives, giving sight to the blind, seeking and saving those who are lost. Right here appears the great danger of church participation in so-called “faith-based” social services that Bolt and Barack Obama seem to endorse. Such activities make the church an instrument of the state, a utilitarian vehicle for accomplishing the goals of a humanly conceived agenda (after all, even the post office has gotten into the food collection business!) rather than a community that demonstrates the transformational power of its Christian witness. Our goal can never be simply to be good neighbors, although that is a worthy thing. Our goal is always to be the presence of Christ in the environment in which we find ourselves.

Then too, our understanding of Christ must always be Trinitarian. Although Mathonnet-VanderWell rightly identifies the problem with having an image of Christ as the “fixer,” his metaphor of the theater, whether in his three or Sajdak’s four acts, shares with the neo-Calvinist approach in general a failure to clearly articulate a Trinitarian understanding of the Godhead. As Shirley Guthrie argues in Always Being Reformed: Faith for a Fragmented World (WJK 2008), the Trinity must be always understood as acting in unity. The theater metaphor emphasizes the classical idea that while God the Father rules over all people, the whole of creation, the work of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit resides only in the church. But as I read scripture, there is only one God, and all of God is involved in everything God does. We may associate different works with one or another of the three persons, but we cannot separate them. If the works of the Trinity cannot be divided, then the sovereign power of “God the Father Almighty” cannot be separated from the self-giving, suffering love of God in Jesus Christ–our crucified Lord–or vice versa. Nor can the church commit itself either to triumphalistic ministry that seeks to fix everything that’s wrong in the name of the liberating power of God, or to a passive ministry of presence that seeks only to live in solidarity with suffering, oppressed people.

Too often our church language leaves people with the impression that Jesus Christ himself is a response to the “fall.” On this notion, if humans had not sinned, Jesus would not have been needed and so God would have remained a monad, or perhaps a dyad, rather than becoming a Trinity.  It follows, further, that Jesus is the one responsible for salvation in the face of the unmerciful righteousness of the wrathful God of creation. I am not suggesting that this is what neo-Calvinists believe, but it is the impression that our language often leaves. But the first chapter of John’s Gospel makes it clear, to the contrary, that Christ exists from the beginning, that “all things came into being through him.” The author of Ephesians interprets this to mean that salvation was the plan before the creation was actually formed (Eph 1:4).

Jesus himself makes it plain that when we see him–“the fixer,” “the rtist,” the reconciler–we see the whole of God. Therefore, to propose, as Sajdak does, that the “real story” is about the Christ who “reconciled the Creation with the Creator” is to separate that which cannot be separated. I would argue, following Bart h, that the “real story” is about the way that God has called people into unit y with Christ so that they may become the vehicle through which the reign of God becomes present in transformational power. Yes, there will be a fourth act, but by our witness as the people in whom Jesus is made present through the Holy Spirit we are called out and sent forth to witness to that both present and future reality. Christians not only await the arrival of the heavenly Jerusalem; they work towards its inbreaking now, in the divine-humanity.

While the Westminster Shorter Catechism is indeed correct that the “chief aim” of human beings is “to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever,” the life of Jesus demonstrates that the Trinitarian God’s chief aim is to enjoy his creation, including an intimate relationship with humankind. To that end, the “repairman” did in fact do something monumental. As the Gospels make clear and Paul further explicates, the Reign of God has come near in Christ and the “new creation” is now a reality. Bolt suggests that this “reality” is unrealistic, “triumphalist and perfectionist.” But what he fails to acknowledge is the New Testament understanding of the eschatological age as beginning with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That does not mean that the church should marry the state, but it certainly means that Christians have a role to play in holding the state accountable in its work. How will the state know what is required of it unless the people of God demonstrate and agi ate for kingdom values?

It is possible to live differently in this world. Matho net-VanderWell rightly reminds us that the state is always part of the world, and as such, can never mimic the kingdom. The first task of those who live in the Kingdom of God on earth is always going to be that of the loyal opposition–to unmask the hypocrisies and ideologies that describe any human attempt at governing.

Eugene E. Roberts is Pastor Emeritus of Brighton Reformed Church in Rochester, New York.