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The Church in Public or the Church as Public?

Much ink is constantly being spilt on the nature of the “public role” of the church.  I have a few problems with the way that such discussions of “public theology” are often framed, however.  The main issue is that the church is not “public” by virtue of participating in a somehow wider “public sphere” where it must lobby for justice, rather is itself a public in the fullest sense of the word. As Reinhard Hütter argues, the church is itself a distinct public by virtue of the fact that “the triune God has bound his communion to the ecclesiastical koinonia.” Through the missions of the Son and Spirit in the trinitarian economy of salvation, God binds his own life of triune communion to the social reality of the church, constituting it as a distinct public, and distinct social and economic space. Moreover, “what distinguishes it from other publics and makes it recognizable as church” is the fact that the church participates in the soteriological telos of the trinitarian missions.

Understanding the church as a public has the virtue of preserving the uniqueness of the church as a social reality constituted and rendered as a public solely through God’s trinitarian missions. Thus the church is not simply part of a wider polis, nor simply another alternative polis, but rather a “polis sui generis” which fundamentally transcends standard conceptions of the public and the political. This understanding encapsulates the radically social nature of the church wherein the dichotomies established in secular political life are transcended. Hütter shows particularly well how the NT conceptions of the church included the imagery of both polis and oikos. The radicality of this lies in that such social divisions were central to the politics of the world into which Christianity was born. Women, slaves, and other marginalized groups were excluded from the polis and confined to the oikos. Yet the radical public nature of the church lay in the fact that it was at once described as polis and oikos. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).

The church explodes alternative conceptions of the public and the political by being an embodied, public reality instituted by Christ and constituted by the Spirit. The public character of the church is shaped thus by a “christological corporeality and pneumatological creaturliness.” By virtue of being established by Christ through his formation of a community of disciples the church bears a distinctly visible, public character. Likewise, through the mission of the Spirit who meditates Christ, the church is constituted “in the Spirit” as an ongoing social reality wherein the divisions broken down by Christ continue to be purged from the life of the church, embodying and experiencing the truest form of liberation: participation in the Triune life through Christ in the Spirit.  Any discussion of the nature of the church’s “public role” must start from a proper understanding of the distinct public that the church is.  If this is not done, our “public theologies” are more likely than not to simply become ways in which the powers that be subvert the ecclesial mode of being in the world to which we are called in Christ.

5 Comments

  1. Hi Halden,
    I like your (and Hütter’s) dismissal of the current ground rules for “public theology.” But where does Hütter speak of the church’s mission to the world? As I read him (and I read him only once, so perhaps I missing something), the Church’s mission lies in its own existence in communion with God. There is no orientation of his ecclesiology to the world. His ghettoization of the Church is really reflective of a ghettoization of God.

    Following Barth in IV/3.2 (but its mentioned in II.2 when talking about the Election of the community as Israel and Church), the Church’s existence lies in its missionary or apostolic nature. Our communion with God is determined by God Himself, who so loved the world that he sent his only Son (John 3:16). The Church is given the vocation of witnessing to the reconciliation of the world to God through its whole life – its inward and outward movements. While it’s all well and good to describe the Church as Public, we can only do so by first seeing God as Public, as publicizing Himself through Christ (revelation). God has his being in this publicizing (act), and the Church follows this particular God into the world by the power of the Spirit.

    Hütter’s picture of the Church as koinonia with God reflects a Christendom model that still manages to focus on the church’s being as receptor of the beneficia Christi. Such a picture is partially true (there are benefits indeed), but it fails to deal with the Church’s missionary nature as attested to in Scripture. His account is rather anxiety-driven by trying to make the Church stand out as a unique culture in the midst of a pluralism of cultures. Hütter ends up using sacraments as a witness, which are by nature meant only for believers, which means that no one from outside can come in. So it’s bad enough that Hütter renders the Church as a social club which advertises itself – but he ends up denying membership by the very practices which are supposedly attractive.

    All of this is coming from my class with Prof. John Flett, who taught a class called “The Church as Public: The Ecclesiologies of Lindbeck, Hauerwas, Hutter and Barth.”

    Speaking of beneficia christi I’ve gotta go read Luther’s Freedom of the Christian. Hope this was a helpful comment.

    Tuesday, January 29, 2008 at 2:45 pm | Permalink
  2. IndieFaith wrote:

    Just wondering if you experience or recognize tangible expressions of this sort of characterization of church around you. To what extant and how far has (your experience of) the Western church been removed from this possibility?

    Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 12:07 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Chris, I agree that perhaps Hütter could speak more of the missional nature of the church. Though, since he’s really only produced one major book on the topic, I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt. His writing on hospitality is also germane to any criticisms of “ghettoization”, I would think.

    Indie, I do indeed experience the church in this way, though I am the first to acknowledge the brokeneness and fragmentary nature of the church in the West. I hope that characterizations of the church such as this one are not read simply as descriptions, but as constructive contributions towards the process of healing that the church so desperately needs.

    If you’re interested in more stuff about my own ecclesial location, I suggest you check out some of my “pages” and some of my posts on the New Monasticism.

    Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  4. IndieFaith wrote:

    Thanks. I come from a Mennonite background and have had some involvement in small community expressions of church.

    A quick question. Do you consider the political order parallel (with whatever qualifying difference) to ecclesial order?

    Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 5:22 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    I don’t know if “parallel” is how I’d want to describe it. However, I’d deny that there are autonomous “spheres” which the church and the state occupy that are seperate from one another.

    Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 10:48 am | Permalink

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