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.