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Twelve Theses on Ecclesial Practices

I offer these for discussion. Anyone who’s talked with much about theological topics knows how important I think ecclesial practices are for the shaping of the church’s life and for growth in the Christian faith. These are not meant to be exhaustive in any way, but as discussion starters that will help fill out a further and more complete discussion of ecclesial practices and their importance.

  1. The church is constituted as the body of Christ through Holy Spirit as a visible, tangible social reality which is called to bear witness to the Kingdom of God to the world through proclaiming the gospel and embodying the life of the Kingdom, made present in the church through the power of the Spirit of Christ.
  2. As a visible social reality, the church is marked by concrete core practices that emerge from and shape its life as the people of God. Most centrally these practices consist of the observance of the Eucharist, the practice of Baptism and the proclamation of the Word of God. Flowing from these practices are other central marks of the church that have been variously identified by different traditions. Minimally, they consist of prayer, forgiveness, reconciliation, confession, singing, study of the Scriptures, church discipline, hospitality to the stranger, generosity and care for the poor.
  3. All of the church’s practices, insofar as they are practiced in faithful conformity with the message of Scripture and the way of Christ are entirely the work of the Holy Spirit who transforms the church into the image of Christ enabling and effecting all of the church’s practices and witness.
  4. Church practices are to be ruled and measured by the canon of Scripture, the ecumenical creeds of the church and the discernment of the local congregation, exercised under the guidance of the Spirit.
  5. The church is a fallible human community that is constituted as the body of Christ solely through the power of the Holy Spirit who brings persons into communion with God and one another through Christ. Only insofar as the Spirit constitutes, sustains and enlivens the church’s practices are they binding and transformative.
  6. Church practices, constituted by the work of the Spirit are the central vehicle through which Christians are formed and transformed in their pursuit of discipleship and through which they are conformed to the image of Christ.
  7. The church’s practices are central to the church’s task of rightly remembering the story of Israel and Jesus as the drama of God’s ongoing action in which our lives are shaped and formed. The church’s worst enemy is forgetfulness. Church practices are exercises of embodied memory in which Christians are trained to rightly remember the work of the Triune God in the world through Christ and the Spirit.
  8. The church’s practices are embodied anticipations of the life of the Kingdom of God made present by the power of the Spirit. In and through ecclesial practices, the church tastes of the abundance of God’s gifts as the eschatological Kingdom of God is made present proleptically in the here and now through the work of the Spirit of Christ.
  9. In an age of individualized, interiorized spiritualities and the prevalence of a Gnostic, otherworldly form of Christianity, it is crucial for the church to recover the importance of ecclesial practices for the shaping of Christian life. In contrast to the ethereal spiritualities of contemporary society and the Gnostic tendencies of much of modern fundamentalism, the church must reassert the bodiliness and corporeality of its life which takes shape through the Spirit’s work of causing the church to “suffer” the practices that mark the life of discipleship.
  10. The embodied practices of the church are the central means through which Christians are empowered by the Holy Spirit to locate the totality of their identity in Christ. The practices of the church re-member the body of Christ and continually re-form it through the work of the Spirit to truly be the church in the world, bearing faithful witness to the lordship of Christ.
  11. The practices of the church of the are the central locus of the church’s resistence to the idolatorous principalities and powers of this age. Through the work of the Spirit in the practices of the church, the church is formed into a body capable of resisting the modern idolatries of consumerism, capitalism, globalization, sex, the family and the nation state.
  12. This emphasis on church practices as central for contemporary ecclesiology does not deemphasize the doctrine of justification by grace, nor does it make human action an autonomous mediator of divine action. Rather it locates all authentic ecclesial action within the sphere of God’s gracious Trinitarian self-giving in which, through his kenotic outpouring of love, God graciously makes himself present through Christ and the Spirit, constituting the church and establishing it and its practices through his sustaining word of grace. All church practices are but the bodying forth of God’s gracious gift of himself through Christ and the Spirit. The Triune God alone is the agent of redemption and transformation in the church and the world.

6 Comments

  1. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I really like this a lot, especially number 11: “The practices of the church of the are the central locus of the church’s resistence to the idolatorous principalities and powers of this age. Through the work of the Spirit in the practices of the church, the church is formed into a body capable of resisting the modern idolatries of consumerism, capitalism, globalization, sex, the family and the nation state.” I am new to ecclesial theology, but what I’ve read I’ve found very powerful. The concept that the ecclesial practices of the church are political is compelling. I recently preached a sermon at a Baptist church in New Brunswick on hospitality. I was a guest preacher (and they obviously really didn’t know anything about me) so I kept it somewhat noncontroversial. So, I preached on the politics of hospitality (but I didn’t use the word politics). This was the first time I had really explored the political aspects of ecclesial practices in any depth. Of course, I could easily see how something like the practice of hospitality is political, but when it comes to other more “private” practices of the church it becomes more difficult for me to understand. For instance, Cavanaugh’s view of the eucharist as resistance to violence is powerful, but how this actually plays out seems ambiguous.

    Perhaps it becomes more clear when the eucharist is actually practiced while one is conscious of these ideas.

    Since coming back to SSU, I’ve been around more evangelicals than usual. It is astounding to see that there is virtually no concept of public faith, and there certainly is no framework for ideas about the public nature of practices such as communion and baptism. Christianity is a private, internal religion. How does one communicate ideas about public aspects of Christianity and Christian practices when there simply is no framework for it?

    By the way, Halden, I am loving your blog. Someday, we’ll hook up in person for a pipe and a home brew and some good discussion. Until then…the blogosphere is here. Peace.

    Thursday, August 31, 2006 at 8:31 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Yes, we will need to hook up at some point. Hopefully I can make it to the midwest eventually. I’ll be in Chicago at the end of September, but I won’t be able to break away to go anywhere.

    And does “home brew” mean that you make your own beer??

    Another great book on Ecclesial practices is Reinhard Hutter’s Suffering Divine Things. And you’d probably love Daniel Bell’s Liberation Theology after the End of History. Superb critique of capitalism there.

    Thursday, August 31, 2006 at 9:40 pm | Permalink
  3. bcongdon wrote:

    Speaking of politics and modern idolatries (“capitalism, globalization, …the nation state”) I wonder if you also see idolatry in environmentalism, feminism, and communism?

    Thursday, September 7, 2006 at 10:11 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Sure, most isms contain idolatries and the ones you mentioned are not exceptions. The ones I was focusing on are ones that I believe that Christians in the West have particularly accomdated themselves to. That is why I menioned them.

    Most Christians in the West don’t seem to be quite so seduced by communism and given idolatrous overconcern for the environment. Rather, the isms that I mentioned are the ones that we so often idolize. That’s why I focus on them. Because that’s where the need repentance predominately lies.

    Friday, September 8, 2006 at 6:01 am | Permalink
  5. bcongdon wrote:

    Yes, some Christians in the West idolize capitalism and globalization. Other Christians, maybe in the church next door, idolize environmentalism and feminism. In my town (Olympia, Washington), more churches tend to the latter than the former, but this might not be a typical town. We all need to examine ourselves.

    Friday, September 8, 2006 at 5:49 pm | Permalink
  6. Simon Chan wrote:

    I just came across your site quite by accident as I was looking up on Barth’s ecclesiology. (My next project is Pentecostal ecclesiology.)I noticed that you quoted from my book Liturgical Theology. From the authors you mention, I think we have a lot in common. Your theses on ecclesial practices pretty well sum up my own thinking on the subject. Keep up the good work!

    Sunday, January 7, 2007 at 10:51 am | Permalink

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