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Six Theses on Ecclesial Social Engagement

I spent a good portion of last year exploring issues of the church, civil society, and public theology. Since then some of my thoughts about the relationship between the church, civil society and the state have crystalized in certain ways. It is in the interests of sharing and dialoging about those thouthgs that I offer the following theses.

1) The primary social-political task of the church is to embody the pluriform, multifaceted message of the gospel in concrete ecclesial publics, manifesting a unified, visible and missionally oriented common life in the midst of the world.

Inherent to an ecclesiocentric approach is the task of the embodiment of the gospel in Christian community. It was first and foremost the reality of the common life of the Christian community, not a program of political or social reform (at least as commonly understood) that engendered the revolution sparked by Christianity. The unity, visibility and misionality of the church is central to the public witness of the church. While some may see this as apolititical, such a criticism depends and an impoverished notion of politics. As John Howard Yoder has observed, “To say that any position is “apolitical” is to deny the powerful (sometimes conservative, sometimes revolutionary) impact on society of the creation of an alternative social group.” To the extent that the church faithfully embodies a dynamic community that lives in light of the eschatological work of Christ, it will itself stand as an engagement of culture, a light to the nations.

2) The church’s most significant contribution to other publics lies in its ability to unmask ideology and idolatry and embody a public-political alternative grounded wholly in God’s trinitarian self-giving in Christ and the Spirit.

The supreme power of the church’s public witness lies first and foremost in its ability, grounded in the missions of Christ and the Spirit to be a community that unmasks ideology and idolatry. Whether the ideology of the day is consumerism, capitalism, socialism or caesarism, the church’s first form of engagement lies in being an embodied witness to the fact that these idolatries and ideologies have been defeated by the cross of Christ. As Lesslie Newbigin states eloquently,

If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society, if Christians are to occupy the “high ground” which they vacated in the noonday of “modernity,” it will not be by forming a Christian political party or by aggressive propaganda campaigns…It will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and expose all areas of life to the illumination of the gospel.

3) Central to the church’s social-political vocation in the world is its commitment to faithful worship of the Triune God apart from which there can be no justice in the fullest sense of the word.

Worship, on this account is the most political act of the church. Embodied in the church’s worship is a living witness to the redemption brought about by Christ and the Spirit. Far from being apolitical, or otherworldly, in its liturgy the church does not flee from the world, but rather engages in a particular way of “doing world.” The worship of the church rehearses the trinitarian drama of salvation and draws the church into that same drama. Encapsulated in worship are Sacraments and the Word through which the Spirit continually forms the church to be the community that is created to be in Christ. In and through orthodoxia, right worship, the form of Christ, his justice and his peace are continually received by the gift of the Spirit. As Aidan Kavanagh says beautifully, “if the incarnation of the Logos was God enhumaned, the church is God in Christ enworlded.” In the worship of the church the redeemed world appears embodied in microcosm bearing witness to the as yet unredeemed world regarding the destiny of creation and the possibilities for social and political life made possible through the self-giving of God through Christ and the Spirit.


4) The insights of Christian theology cannot be applied to other publics in any manner which bypasses the reality of the church as a distinct public in its own right wherein the commitments of Christian theology are concretely embodied.

The church is the public that participates in the soteriological telos of the trinitarian missions. This is what distinguishes it from all other publics. In light of this there can be no immediate application of the insights of Christian theology to other publics. The social implications of God’s self-giving in the cross of Christ and the nature of the trinitarian God as communion are not simply a social theory that can be extrapolated to the world for application. Christ is certainly present outside the church, and the Spirit works throughout the world to convict of sin, righteousness and judgment (Jn. 16:8-11). Intimations of the kingdom are indeed possible outside the church. Nevertheless, it is through the church that the wisdom of God is displayed to the powers (Eph. 3:10) it is for the church that all things have been put under Christ’s feet (Eph. 1:22), indeed the church is the very fullness of God’s presence in the world (Eph. 1:23). This reality cautions against any approach that would seek to offer a theological social theory that bypasses the centrality of the church.

5) The proper form of ecclesial social engagement with other publics will take the form of allowing “theological fragments” to be brought to bear on contemporary society in a fundamentally dialogical and non-coercive manner.

If there is to be no unmediated social theory extrapolated from Christian theology, how then may theological insights be applied to the wider society? Duncan Forrester perceptively argues that rather than a totalizing social theory or overarching theory of justice, Christianity’s most potent contribution to the wider world lies in offering “theological fragments.” The church should not “be ashamed of offering in public debate ‘fragments’ of insight.” In a fragmented culture, it may often be through fragments of theological truth-telling and truth-doing that we are able to encroach on the wider society and boldly, humbly and non-coercively seek to bring the particularities of the Christian faith to bear on public policy and effect social change. What is crucial is that we come with theological insights and practices, not as concepts to be thrown around in marketplace of ideas, but rather a socially-embodied witness that is ever ready to offer insights the flow from the visible life and practices of the church. Such a non-totalizing and contextual approach “might make us cautious about regarding theology as some grand, coherent theory rather than a series of illuminating fragments which sustain the life of the community of faith which nurtures them, and claim also to be in some sense ‘public truth’.” Such an approach does not seek to be disjointed or cacophonous as the language of fragments might suggest. Rather, it emphasizes the eschatological reserve that must characterize Christian political action in the world. Such an app
roach offers a non-final hope for peace and justice in this world while recognizing that true peace and justice are possible only where the Triune God is truly worshipped and ultimately only possible in the final descent of the City of God.


6) An approach, grounded explicitly and unapologetically in the ecclesial public as a distinct social-political reality has more potential for positive impact on the world than conventional forms of public theology.

Finally, against those who fault an ecclesiocentric approach for being sectarian and fostering an ethic of withdrawal, there is a strong case to be made that the substantial strides for justice and peace that have been witnessed in history owe more to just such an ecclesial frame of reference than to a program of public theology. The witness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, fueled as it was by the theology and leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the prophetic politics of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the peaceful fall of the Soviet bloc largely through the work of Pope John Paul II in Poland all bear witness to the power of theology self consciously forged in the church to be a force of radical social change. That these events were complex and multifaceted is beyond question. Nevertheless, a strong case can be made for understanding these and other events of social change as being grounded in the reality of the church, its worship and proclamation.


Further Reading (page #’s are for the above quotes):

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 106.

Walter Brueggemann, Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988).

Aidan Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1992), 52ff.

Frank Senn, New Creation: A Liturgical Worldview (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000).

See Reinhard Hütter, Suffering Divine Things: Theology as Church Practice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 158-159.

Duncan B. Forrester, Christian Justice and Public Policy (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), 202.

John de Gruchy, Reconciliation: Restoring Justice (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).

Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Stanley Hauerwas, “Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., Remembering,” Wilderness Wanderings: Probing Twentieth Century Theology and Philosophy, (Boulder, Co: Westview Press, 1997).


6 Comments

  1. GoobyNelly wrote:

    Hey Halden,
    Thanks so much for this post.
    I especially love this point:
    “Worship, on this account is the most political act of the church.”
    Our mutual friend, David, has brought me to his church, The Well. I was ecstatic to hear this church affirm their mission to worship God first and foremost, and to be reading Scripture and praying together. Worship is thus affirmed for its own sake, but also serves as the foundation for the missional-doings in the world (most members of this church are social workers, who thankfully do not romanticize social justice). Just thought I’d brag a bit.

    While I’m not inclined to give the dog a bone, right-wingers are whining that we (whoever we are) don’t spend enough time critiquing the left. Given our current context, it’s difficult to satisfy them. However, I’d say that #4 applies most specifically to the Religious Left:

    “The insights of Christian theology cannot be applied to other publics in any manner which bypasses the reality of the church as a distinct public in its own right wherein the commitments of Christian theology are concretely embodied.”

    I would say that this is where Wallis’s project fails. Indeed, the title “Religious” or “Spiritual” progressives indicates just how much the Church could hamper the project.

    In lieu of this thesis, I’m curious what you think of Milbank’s “theology and social theory” project, and whether or not he is ecclesially-centered enough.

    Also, is Aidan Kavanaugh related at all to William Cavanaugh? Just thought I’d bank on a type-o.

    Thursday, September 7, 2006 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    No, Aidan Kavanagh is no relation to Bill Cavanaugh. Kavanaugh’s works have been around for a while and are classics in liturgical theology.

    As to Wallis and the new religious left, I think your exactly right. Though, I think that thesis applies equally to the religious right. Both seek an unmediated social theory based on Christian theology that bypasses the church as the locus and embodiement of the realities and possibilities proclaimed in Christian faith.

    I do also have Milbank in view as you percieved. His work, in my opinion absorbs Christ and the church into his overarching neo-platonic metaphysics. Thus, while he’ll talk about the trinity, Christ, the church and participation at length, he utilizes those concepts (for him, I think that’s all they are, concepts) within the framework of his wierd brand of platonism. Though I don’t want to discount all his insights. Theology and Social Theory is an incredibly brilliant work and his critique of the “the secular” is excellent. Its just that all his solutions are wrong. To put it as bluntly as possible.

    Thursday, September 7, 2006 at 5:07 pm | Permalink
  3. D.W. Congdon wrote:

    Superb work, Halden. Once I gather myself to write more posts in the very near future, I will comment on these theses for sure. Excellent stuff.

    The implicit critique of RO throughout is quite nice, and much needed. However, I think you might do well to add a thesis which states up front that the basis for the church’s social engagement rests on the Holy Spirit’s presence which is constitutive of the church’s very being. In other words, you speak about the church, but I think it would be helpful to make sure the church itself is first grounded as an event by the triune God.

    Also, your discussion of worship is very good, but I would like to hear more about the role of proclamation and witness. Barth so stressed the proclamation of the gospel in the spoken Word of God, and I think it would be helpful to add this.

    Finally, what about the language of “narrative”? I find the concept of the church as an alternative narrative tradition (a la McIntyre and Hauerwas) a very helpful concept. Cavanaugh’s discussion of the Eucharist as a spatial story/map is also quite useful.

    Thursday, September 7, 2006 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    David,

    I think the issue of the church’s reality being grounded in the work of the Spirit was what I was trying to cover in thesis 2:

    “The church’s most significant contribution to other publics lies in its ability to unmask ideology and idolatry and embody a public-political alternative grounded wholly in God’s trinitarian self-giving in Christ and the Spirit.’

    Also, in the section on worship I tried to emphasize that is was through the Word and Sacrament that the Spirit forms and transforms the Christian community, so I take that as including the reality of proclamation and mission.

    But, yes those are all important emphases that need to be given their importance in discussions of issues such as this.

    As for narrative, I’m not sure why I didn’t bring that in, but it would certainly fit. I think my orientation in this was more vertical, namely how the self-giving of Christ and the Spirit constitutes the church as a distinct public rather than on how the public emerges through the work of Christ and the Spirit in history as narrated in Scripture.

    But yes, if I were to expand this into tweleve theses I think theses on 1) issue of narrative, 2) the work of Christ, 3)the work of the Spirit, 4) baptism, 5) the eucharist and 6) proclamation would all be in order.

    Thursday, September 7, 2006 at 7:16 pm | Permalink
  5. Benjamin Bush Jr. wrote:

    You may want to add another book in your study of politics, Rulers of Evil, by Tupper Saussy. You can order one at tuppersaussy.com Its a finely crafted work.

    Wednesday, September 13, 2006 at 1:09 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Pseudo-scholarship and flagrant anti-catholicsm? No thanks.

    Wednesday, September 13, 2006 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

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