One of the central issues in ecclesiology today concerns what makes an ecclesiology “adequate” or “sufficient” enough to do the perceived work that an ecclesiology is supposed to do within an encompassing theological vision. For example in With the Grain of the Universe, Stanley Hauerwas makes the following comment about Barth’s ecclesiology: “If the world is not necessarily lost without the church, then it is by now means clear what difference the church makes for how we understand the way the world is and, given the way the world is, how we must live.” (p. 193) This comment is related to his overall question directed towards Barth, namely “whether or not Barth’s ecclesiology is sufficient to sustain the witness that he thought was intrinsic to Christianity.” (p. 39)
This whole way of putting the matter raises an important question: What exactly makes an ecclesiology “sufficient”? Hauerwas’s comments here imply two things. First, that ecclesiology must be able to sustain a certain form of the church’s witness. Second, that the church must somehow be ontologically necessary to the world’s salvation if it is to have significance. Here, I think Hauerwas leaves himself open to critique on the issue of Christology. Is his quest for an adequate ecclesiology — a vision of the church that is able to address the problems facing the church in modernity — leading him to improperly conflate the theological roles of Jesus Christ and his gathered community?
Think on the sentence from Hauerwas above. What sense does it make for us to speak of an ecclesiology being sufficient to sustain the witness of the church? Does not the church’s witness rely solely on the Messiah who is the One witnessed to? Surely the church’s own self-understanding and self-articulation will always be inadequate to sustain the witness to which Christians are called by the Crucified and Risen Lord who calls us to follow him, leading us where we did not wish to go. Rowan Williams offers precisely the right corrective to any vision that would too easily assimilate Jesus and his community of followers in his helpful portrayal of the Resurrected Christ who appears and disappears, who cannot be held onto, but who always lies beyond the grasp of those he calls.
The only thing that sustains our witness is the object of our witness, Jesus Christ, the ascended Lord of history. To attempt to look inward, to our own moral effort, or ways of narrating our identity as the ecclesial community for the power to sustain us in our mission, is to compromise it already. Or, to put it in Pauline idiom, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, who made us adequate as servants. . .” (2 Cor 3:5-6a).
Whatever it means to measure what makes an adequate ecclesiology, it cannot be its conceptual resources for securing a persisting vision and identity for ourselves. Indeed the very attempt to make such visions of identity secure constitute a preeminent temptation for the church. The church is called to embrace a posture of foolish dislocation, of sojourning vulnerability that eschews attempts to find its sustenance within any resources of its own. The church is called, not to recognize the granduer of itself, of its narrative, of its gifts as the sustaining architecture of its witness. Rather the church is called to recognizes its vacuity, its fundamental emptiness, and only so to become an open vessel for the fullness of the Spirit’s Pentecostal presence which engrafts us ever and again into the singularity of Christ’s transformation of history in the cross and resurrection. The only way to determine ecclesiological sufficiency is on the basis of this Christocentric theological definition.