What Is The Church and Why Does It Matter Essay

First_Presbyterian_Church_of_Redmond_01Keeping with the theme of some of my school essays, I am sharing one I wrote for my Intro to Christian Theology 2 class combining black liberation theology with some Bartolome De Las Casas, mixing in some disability theology and finishing off with Steve Kimes and John Howard Yoder. Best part, I got to quote from the new Mennonerds book “A Living Alternative.”

Introduction                                                                                                                                                   

From the beginning of creation, God has designed humanity to be in relationship with Him. This God-human relationship, founded in the Garden of Eden, finds its fulfillment in the atoning death and resurrection of Christ, and ultimately awaits its final consummation in Christ’s second coming. Those who fully engage in this God-human relationship are part of a collective body known as the world-wide Church. However, oftentimes, the question can be asked, “What is the Church and why does it matter”? Thus, this paper will seek to answer this question, by exploring the theological, historical, and contemporary realities that surround it. Particular attention will be given to specifically defining the twenty-first century Western church. Ultimately, this paper will make the case that the Church is the visible expression of Christ’s body. This body exists in order to quell injustice, prophetically speak out on behalf of the marginalized, and promote a world of peace and justice.

Creation

Although the institutional Church did not exist until the book of Acts, the creation account exemplifies how from the beginning of the world, God created humans to be in relationship with Him and with each other.   Displaying His abiding love, God created a perfect world, in which no sin, death, or destruction existed. He then commanded that humanity live in loving relationship with Him, by worshipping and serving Him. Furthermore, having created humanity in His image, God extended His love equally to all. On this point, John Ruskin Clark shares how “a generalized concept of love as a power of attraction is the dynamic of creation. Love is an integrative principle that creates durable relationships in a novel form or order.”[1] God’s love, first displayed at Creation, then subsequently continued on through His covenantal relationship with the Israelite nation until it finally reached its climax in the atoning death and resurrection of Christ. Through this re-establishment of the covenant, Christ extended His mercy, grace, and salvation not only to the hearts of the Jewish people, but to the Gentiles as well.

The creation account is imperative when answering the combined question “What is the Church and why does it matter?” because the relationship between God and humanity established at creation carries on throughout history. Existing as a prophetic voice, the Church seeks to emulate this same type of loving relationship with the world, embracing each individual as a unique creation of the Divine. Thomas Aquinas boldly asserted, “the Church is universal with respect to the condition of people, because no one is rejected, whether master or slave, male or female.”[2] This quotation illustrates the Church as both a sanctified body and a body that calls others out regardless of their position: for all are invited to be co-labourers with Christ.

Sin and Sacrifice  

Although the original creation was marked by perfect love, Adam and Eve chose to succumb to sin and embrace their selfish desires, rather than remain focused on God. This resulted in eternal separation between the Creator and His creation. Humanity was now subjected to death – the consequence for evil deeds. Until Christ came to this earth as the ultimate sacrifice for that punishment, humanity was incapable of being fully restored to right relationship with God. Nevertheless, God in His mercy did not abandon His people, but rather chose to become a human being so that creation could once again be renewed. Thus, Christ incarnated Himself in order to bring about the salvation of the world. Reflecting on this historical truth, Alister McGrath explains how Irenaeus saw “the entire process of salvation from the first moment of creation to the last moment of history, [as] the work of the one and the same God. There was a single economy of salvation, in which the one God – who was both Creator and redeemer – was at work to redeem the creation.”[3]

By dying on the Cross, Jesus     brought about justification for all of humanity. F. D. Macchia conveys how this justification draws out aspects of God’s faithfulness, liberation, and justice. This emphasizes the deliverance of humankind from the bondage of sin and oppression, and focuses on “setting things right between Creation and God.”[4] This theology shows how the freedom offered in Christ seeks to restore the creation to its original state of wholeness.

Someone who illustrated this concept of justification in her own life was Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) who received multiple visions explaining how redemption conquers sin and became empowered to reject injustice as a result. In her essay, “Julian of Norwich,” Shelly Rambo relates how Norwich received numerous visions from God which she wrote down in the book The Revelation of Divine Love. For Norwich, these visions were more than personal encounters; instead, they were a clarion call to persistently “witness to the wounds suffered at the hands of injustice.”[5] According to Rambo, one of Norwich’s most significant visions was the final one she received of the wounded servant. This vision came in response to her struggle to understand the effects of sin and culminated in her awareness that sinful humanity must rely on Christ’s death, to restore them to the original state God had intended in creation. In Christ’s atoning death, God draws humanity back to Himself despite their sinful morality. In response to this love, the Church exists as the visible manifestation of God’s love and is compelled to tell others about this saving grace both through words and actions.

The In-Breaking of the Holy Spirit and Pneumatology                                                                         

The traditional concept of church traces its history back to Acts 2. On the day of Pentecost, thousands of people were gathered together, when suddenly Christ’s disciples were able to speak in unknown languages. This resulted in thousands being converted to the Christian faith. From this point on, the Church grew exponentially, marked by several periods of revival throughout its history. This miraculous event of tongues also established for the early Christians that one of the key aspects of the Church must be evangelism and witness. This was propelled forward by Jesus’s command prior to His ascension into heaven (Matthew 28:16-20).

Recounting its Biblical and historical implications, Kirsteen Kim declares, “a theology that starts from the participation of the church in God’s mission cannot fail to point out that the church was conceived in the context of the mission of Jesus Christ, in which His disciples and the early Christians were called to take part.”[6] Essentially, this means the Church was created and continues to exist largely because of its missional focus. Thus, what began as a small, marginalized faction of the Jewish faith eventually resulted in the conversion of many nations and individuals so that today Christianity is the largest religion in the world.

Today, particularly those of the Anabaptist tradition largely view mission in what is called Kingdom theology. This theology teaches that the Church is created to be a visible sign of God’s love and justice, and that consequently, humanity should engage in acts of social justice in order to help establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Manfred Marquardt describes Kingdom theology in this way: “The Kingdom of God is present, because Jesus is present. Jesus is the autobasileia, the personal embodiment of the Kingdom of God.”[7] He then relays that although the second coming is a future event, “God’s reign enters into the lives of human beings already in the present, evoking a new awareness of God’s presence and bringing forth practical consequences.”[8] According to Marquardt, this type of theology embodies a liberation from oppressive structures; re-affirms one’s commitment to love Christ and her desire to live according to His reign; and encourages acts of service and mercy.[9] This Kingdom theology also encompasses liberation theology which promotes the equality of often overlooked people groups. The case for liberation theology will subsequently be laid out throughout this paper.

Given that the Church is called to seek out injustice and liberate the marginalized, this sense of Kingdom theology is pivotal to understanding that this is the Church’s main function. David Wesley notes, “mission is the most identifiable aspect of the body of Christ…the very nature of the Church.” Thus, Kingdom theology is a vital aspect of Church life, for it embodies the very essence of the Great Commission and establishes a practical way for ushering in the Kingdom of God on this earth.[10]

Relating back to the story of Pentecost and the book of Acts, it is evident that the early Church was built upon the foundation of sharing the Gospel with those who had never heard it told before. Even today, the Holy Spirit continues to equip His Church by giving them spiritual gifts, in order for them to witness more effectively.

Creation and New Creation: The Role of Eschatology in the Church                                                           

Despite humanity’s sinfulness in destroying the original covenant between God and creation, God is merciful, and so He repeatedly draws His creation back to Himself. Subsequently, the Church is tasked with the responsibility of visibly revealing this truth to the world. Expounding on Gregory of Nazianzus’s teachings, Matthew Thompson states that the Holy Spirit is the One by which humanity moves closer to God and thus is redeemed in the “on-going process of salvation not just for humankind, but of all of creation.”[11] Thompson explains how “the Spirit completes the work of salvation in the creation that was polluted by humanity’s irresponsible flight from God, from love” by Christ’s atoning death on the Cross.[12] He later implies that the Eschaton, or the ending of this present age, will be “the final point of convergence between God and the world as the Spirit draws the two closer together. Then comes the Kingdom…”[13]

For Wilhelm Richebacher, mission is an eschatological activity in which the Church acts as the visible sign of God’s Kingdom, rather than simply a means of conversion.[14] Thus, the mission of the Church in this present day remains to co-labour with Christ in the renewal of God’s covenant and thereby act as a sign and witness of this truth to the world.

The Church’s Witness Today

The twenty-first century climate in the West poses many challenges to the institutional Church. Despite the Church’s call to remain faithful in restoring the former creation (especially by giving voice to the marginalized) it still faces the pressures of a society which promotes individualism, apathy, and affluence. Recognizing this reality, M.F. Bird observes the challenge that remains for the Church to understand how it can continue to be the Ekklesia, the “called out one” who witnesses and declares “the eschatological age of redemption that [will] burst upon the world.”[15] In order to understand the uniqueness of being “called out,” today’s Church must realize that it is not self-sustaining and thus must discern God’s voice, while also recognizing that evangelistic approaches have changed over time.

Firstly, the Western church must understand the unique challenges Christians in the twenty-first century face as a result of sweeping liberalism and pluralism. In his essay, “Becoming the Oppressed Church Again,” Steve Kimes poignantly states, “religion, including Christianity, still plays a role in American thoughts, but it is less and less significant. In fact, there is growing hostility toward Christianity.”[16] Kimes then lists three specific trends that are affecting the North American church of today: a decrease in church attendance, a disinterest in religion (which does not appear to have answers to the questions society is asking), and an increasingly negative view of Christians due to perceived immorality.[17] Kimes suggests that although in the 1980s Christians were generally viewed by non-Christians in mostly positive terms, today, the majority of Christians are seen by their non-religious peers as being intolerant, hypocritical, and judgmental.[18]

Secondly, the Church must recognize that it cannot survive on its own apart from God. This means that God must be at the center of all the Church’s programs empowering and equipping them. B.A. Gerrish notes in his book Thinking With the Church that Christians must be conscious of their finiteness and thus depend on “the creative causality of God.”[19] This means that ultimately humans are not capable of controlling their own lives without chaos ensuing, due to their being weak and fallible creatures. Instead, humanity must place its full trust in the Almighty who can order the lives of individuals in a way that will edify and bless both Him and them. In order to embody this, the Church must be reminded of David Wesley’s words that “mission is God’s nature and God’s activity (the Missio Dei) and furthermore, that the church is the missionary.”[20]

Lastly, the Church must understand how current mission approaches do not necessarily reflect historical understandings. In Theology in the Context of World Christianity, Timothy Tennent explains how over time, Protestantism shifted from being a largely European belief to a much wider reality.[21] He suggests that “what we further need to recognize is that the Christian faith is not only culturally translatable, it is also theologically translatable.”[22] According to Tennent, this means that the Church must then find ways of engaging in numerous new geographical contexts.

Application                                                                                                                         

Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder states, “the Church exists primarily as a critical witness to the world.”[23] If this is to be the case today, then it is necessary for the Church to affirm the Gospel within a pluralistic society. Recounting the socio-religious climate of the early Church, McGrath notes how Christianity first existed within a polytheistic culture in which it was imperative to “distinguish the Christian god from other gods in the religious marketplace.”[24] With this understanding, the Church must discover how to relate the Gospel to those who embrace different religions. Additionally, the concept of Liberation theology and its close connection to Kingdom theology is relevant for today’s Church. It can help in showing the Church how to respond to marginalized people groups such as the disabled, people of colour, and the Native American population.

Although people with disabilities are often overlooked within society, the Church is called to accept and support these individuals. Steven Fettke writes, “in creation God provides our animation or ‘life force’ that identifies us as who we are.”[25] This life-force sees the Holy Spirit in every individual regardless of her ability to fully articulate a deep theological awareness. Fettke maintains that in a similar way, the Church should also become inclusive to all people because God has created each individual in His image.[26]

Furthermore, Christians are called to end the racial division of marginalized people groups such as the natives and the blacks. Two individuals who have been instrumental in this prophetic witness to the world have been Bartholome de Las Casas and James Cone. Hjamil Martinez-Vazquez shares how Las Casas served “as one of the most adamant defenders of indigenous rights…a prophetic voice in the struggle to confront the empire with new theologies.”[27] A former Spanish colonist, Las Casas became compelled to renounce an oppressive system which “enslaved the indigenous population.”[28] Instead, Las Casas chose to treat the Amerindian people with dignity and equality, believing that the Christian faith should also be made accessible to them. With this new mindset, Las Casas confronted violence and injustice, advocated for human rights, and thus became a hero to the native people.

In a similar way, James Cone, a contemporary black theologian, tirelessly fights against the oppression of his people and is a leader in developing liberation theology. Linda Thomas and Dwight Hopkins write that Cone, rooting his thinking in the creation account, believes that the monopolization of power and privileges for certain individuals based on their skin colour is entirely against God’s original plan for equality.[29] Today, discussions of racism are held in various Christian communities in the United Stated, having been influenced by black liberation theology.   In Indiana, these discussions are particularly needed.   Although Indiana has made improvements in their treatment of black people, it still remains a racially divided state. For the most part, black individuals must still contend within a largely white social and political structure. Finding inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr., black liberationists seek to identify with “the oppressed blacks of America” and to interpret the Gospel of Jesus in light of the black condition.[30] They believe that the liberation of the black community is God’s doing.

Conclusion                                                                                                                                                        

The Church exists as the collective body of Christ – established for the sake of mission and evangelism. From its inception, the Church has sought to reclaim the very creation that was originally marred through the fall of humankind. Boldly proclaiming the in-coming Kingdom of Christ, Christians are invited to join God in His reconciling mission to this earth – proclaiming a reign of peace, justice, and hope. This proclamation often takes place in very practical ways such as through working alongside the marginalized population, continuing to witness even in a pluralistic culture, and maintaining hope in the restoration of this earth. Christians are called to build the Kingdom of God on this earth, while being aware that today’s evangelistic efforts are different from previous ones. When all this is accomplished, the Church will be better able to reflect the dignity and beauty of Jesus Christ. And in doing so, will leave no doubt in people’s minds as to what the Church is.

 

Bibliography

Aquinas, Thomas, “The Catholicity of the Church,” in The Christian Theology Reader, edited by Alister McGrath, 415. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Bird, M. F. 2006. “`A Light to the Nations’ (Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6): Intertextuality and Mission Theology in the Early Church”. The Reformed Theological Review. 65 (3): 122-131. Clark, John Ruskin. 1979. “The dynamics of creation”. Journal of Religion and Health. 18 (2): 139-143.

Cone, James H. 1990. A Black theology of liberation. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Fettke, Steven. 2008. “The Spirit of God Hovered Over the Waters: Creation, the Local Church, and the Mentally and Physically Challenged, A Call to Spirit-led Ministry”. Journal of Pentecostal Theology. 17 (2): 170-182.

Gerrish, B. A. 2010. Thinking with the church: essays in historical theology. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

Kim, Kirsteen. 2010. “Mission Theology of the Church”. International Review of Mission. 99 (1): 39-55.

Kimes, Steve, “Becoming the Oppressed Church…Again…” in A living alternative: Anabaptist    Christianity in a post-Christendom world, edited by Joanna Harader and A.O. Green, 49. New York: Ettelloc Publishing, 2014.

Macchia, F. D. 2001. “Justification through New Creation: The Holy Spirit and the Doctrine by Which the Church Stands or Falls”. THEOLOGY TODAY -PENNSYLVANIA-. 58: 202-         217.

Marquardt, Manfred, “The Kingdom of God and the Global Society,” in Wesleyan perspectives  on the new creation, edited by: Douglas M. Meeks, 162. Nashville, Tenn: Kingswood    Books, 2004.

Martinez-Vazquez, Hjamil, “Bartholome de Las Casas,” in Empire and the Christian tradition: new readings of classical theologians, edited by Don Compier, Pui-Lan Kwok, and Joerg    Rieger, 169. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.                                                                                                                                                                                         McGrath, Alister E. 2011. Christian theology: an introduction. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.:     Wiley-Blackwell.

McGrath, Alister E. 1998. Historical theology: an introduction to the history of Christian   thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Rambo, Shelly, “Julian of Norwich,” in Empire and the Christian tradition: new readings of classical theologians, edited by Don Compier, Pui-Lan Kwok, and Joerg Rieger, 169. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007.

Richebacher, W. 2003. “Missio Dei: The Basis of Mission Theology or a Wrong Path?”      INTERNATIONAL REVIEW OF MISSION. 92 (367): 588-605.

Tennent, Timothy C. 2007. Theology in the context of world Christianity: how the global church        is influencing the way we think about and discuss theology. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan.

Thomas, Linda and Dwight Hopkins, “Voices from the Margins in the United States,” in The       twentieth century: a theological overview, edited by Gregory Baum, 205.Maryknoll, Ny: Orbis Books, 1999.

Thompson, Matthew K. 2010. Kingdom come: revisioning Pentecostal eschatology. Blandford   Forum, Dorset, U.K.: Deo Pub.

Wesley, David, “The Church As Missionary,” in Missio Dei – A Wesleyan Understanding, edited by Keith Schwanz and Joseph Coleson, 21. Kansas City, Mo: Beacon Hill Press of       Kansas City, 2011.

[1] John Ruskin Clark, “The Dynamics of Creation,” Journal of Religion and Health 18 (2): 140.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, “The Catholicity of the Church,” The Christian Theology Reader (2011): 415.

[3] Alister McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 237.

[4] F.D. Macchia, “Justification through New Creation: The Holy Spirit and the Doctrine by Which the Church Stands or Falls,” Theology Today 58.

[5] Shelly Rambo, “Julian of Norwich,” in Empire and the Christian tradition: new readings of classical theologians, ed. Don Compier, Pui-Lan Kwok, and Joerg Rieger (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 169.

[6] Kirsteen Kim, “Mission Theology of the Church,” International Review of Mission. 99 (1): 41.

[7] Manfred Marquardt, “The Kingdom of God and the Global Society,” in Wesleyan perspectives on the new creation, ed. Douglas M. Meeks (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 2004), 162.

[8] Marquardt, “Kingdom of God,” 162.

[9] Marquardt, 163.

[10] David Wesley, “The Church As Missionary,” in Missio Dei – A Wesleyan Understanding, eds. Keith Schwanz and Joseph Coleson (Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2011), 21.

[11] Matthew Thompson, Kingdom come: revisioning Pentecostal eschatology (Blandford Forum: Deo Pub, 2010), 73.

[12] Thompson, Kingdom, 74.

[13] Thompson, 74.

[14] Wilhelm, Richebacher, “Missio Dei: The Basis of Mission Theology or a Wrong Path?” International Review of Mission. 92 (367): 593.

[15] M.F. Bird, “‘A Light to the Nations’ (Isaiah 42:6 and 49:6): Intertextuality and Mission Theology in the Early Church,” The Reformed Theological Review. 65 (3): 126.

[16] Steve Kimes, “Becoming the Oppressed Church…Again…,” in A living alternative: Anabaptist Christianity in a post-Christendom world, eds. Joanna Harader and A.O. Green (New York: Ettelloc Publishing, 2014), 49.

[17] Kimes, “Oppressed,” 50.

[18] Kimes, 50.

[19] B.A. Gerrish, Thinking with the church: essays in historical theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2010), 83.

[20] Wesley,Missionary, 23.

[21] Timothy Tennent, Theology in the context of world Christianity: how the global church is influencing the way we think about and discuss theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 1.

[22] Tennent, Theology, 16.

[23] Cited in Joon-Sik Park, Missional ecclesiologies in creative tension: H. Richard Niebuhr and John Howard Yoder (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), 5.

[24] Alister McGrath, Historical theology: an introduction to the history of Christian thought (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 2.

[25] Steven Fettke, “The Spirit of God Hovered Over the Waters: Creation, the Local Church, and the Mentally and Physically Challenged, A Call to Spirit-led Ministry,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology. 17 (2): 173.

[26] Fetke, Spirit, 173.

[27] Hjamil Martinez-Vazquez, “Bartholome de Las Casas,” in Empire and the Christian tradition: new readings of classical theologians, eds. Don Compier, Pui-Lan Kwow and Joerg Rieger (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 202.

[28] Martinez-Vasquez, “Bartholome,” 202.

[29] Linda Thomas and Dwight Hopkins, “Voices From the Margins in the United States,” in The Twentieth Century: A Theological Overview edited by Gregory Baum (Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 1999), 205.

[30] Cone, Black Theology 5.

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