In the latest installment of the Church and Postmodern Culture symposium on Nate Kerr’s book, Christ, History and Apocalyptic D. Stephen Long has posed some interesting questions about what conceiving the church as an “apocalyptic event” means in regard to some distinct questions about ecumenical ecclesiology and the church’s practice of mission and discipleship. I take these sorts of questions to be quite important, and as such, I’d like to take them up in turn here and see what kind of fruit can be garnered by engaging these important inquiries. Here is the first question:
Does the Church as apocalyptic event have any stake in disciplining its members on questions of sexuality, abortion, fetal tissue experimentation, unjust practices of war (at least), participation in torture, racism, sexism, etc? Should there be means to do this?
Fundamental to an apocalyptic definition of the church is the claim that the church exists purely as an aftershock, a sign, a response to God’s prior inititum in Christ. The church “has” its being precisely in its reception of this event through the ongoing mission of the Spirit who makes Christ’s singular reality–as the embodiment of God’s own trinitarian agape–present ever and anew amidst the contingencies of our own history. As such, the church’s own social reality is fundamentally one of struggling to apprehend the gravity and volume of God’s apocalyptic invasion of the world in Christ. The shape of the church’s social life is one of constant attention to the event of Christ and the meaning of this event–always being made present everanew by the Spirit–for how we shape our common life in response to the way in which God has unleashed his transfiguring agape into the world in Christ.
So, in regard to the specific questions listed here, the answer is clearly a yes. All of these examples constitute instantiations in which the principalities and powers of death attempt to exert rule over the world. Given that their rule and hegemony has been decisively broken through the invasion of God’s agape in Christ’s death and resurrection, the church is called to live free from such tyrannies. The call to the Christian church, which exists solely through the Spirit’s act of uniting us to Christ’s agape, is to order our lives in accordance with the very particular pattern of self-abnegating, generative love that Christ himself embodied. Such a life would, of necessity inform the church about how it must order and discipline its members’ lives in regard to these issues. The singular agape of Christ is not contentless, it is irreducibly particular and concrete, and this Christic concreteness is made present to the church in the Spirit as the church seeks to discern how to live into Christ’s agape, how to live as Christ lived, free from the powers.
The means to do this must, of necessity be grounded in the church’s fundamental posture of prayer and supplication. The church has no power to free itself from the rule of the powers, it can only receive the freedom that Christ has actualized in the cross and resurrection through the gifting of the Spirit who makes that freedom present (cf. 2 Cor 3:17: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”). Thus the means that the church has to discipline and order its members must be shaped by the practices of prayer and discernment, and be administered in the spirit of Christ’s agape, through non-coercive appeal and entreaty. Excommunication, as the last resort in cases where members of the church persist in refusing to live according the freedom of the Spirit, constitutes the church’s resolve to live solely on the basis of the shape of God’s agape. When the church says the definitive “no” to practices such as these it is doing so on the basis of its “yes” of faith to God’s liberating agape. The church, then as an apocalyptic event has its being in, though the Spirit, being caught up into the freedom of Christ’s agape. And this freedom liberates us from the tyranny of practices such as these. As Paul says, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom 8:15-16).