by Nathan R. Kerr, Ry O. Siggelkow, and Halden Doerge
In a recent conversation on this blog regarding an important review, by Ry Siggelkow, I (Nate Kerr) suggested in the comments that to think rightly what it means to say that “mission makes the church,” that mission as lived proclamation of and witness to Christ’s Lordship is indeed constitutive of the church’s existence in the world, we will need to engage in a thoroughgoing reconsideration of the church’s relation to the world in light of the apocalyptic inbreaking of the Kingdom of God that happens in the historicity of Jesus Christ. In the course of those comments I offered to write a “guest post” in which I gave some indication of what I think those reconsiderations might entail. This is that post—which has come together with more than just a little help from my friends, Halden and Ry. Together we offer these reflections in hope that they may contribute to the task of theology in the service of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We should like to begin these brief reflections with an oft-quoted passage from the conclusion of John Howard Yoder’s Body Politics:
The believing body is the image that the new world—which in light of the ascension and Pentecost is on the way—casts ahead of itself. The believing body of Christ is the world on the way to its renewal; the church is the part of the world that confesses the renewal to which all the world is called. (Yoder, Body Politics, 78)
This passage and others like it from Yoder’s oeuvre have been the impetus for a number of contemporary modes of “ecclesiocentric” construals of the Kingdom of God in relation to the world. The church’s missionary thinking, so the argument goes, is ecclesiocentric just to the extent that the church ontologically precedes the world and, ultimately, supercedes the world with respect to the Kingdom’s eschatological fulfillment. As the late twentieth-century theologian and missiologist J.C. Hoekendijk has argued, however, such “church-centric missionary thinking” is itself a false start. For from within such ecclesiocentric thinking, Hoekendijk claims, the call to mission, or evangelism—that is, the call to proclaim and to embody “the gospel”—often turns out to be “little else than a call to restore ‘Christendom,’ the ‘Corpus Christianum,’ as a solid, well-integrated cultural complex, directed and dominated by the Church” (Hoekendijk, Church Inside Out, 15). That is to say, the church aligns itself with the Kingdom and against the world by way of the production of its own alternative, habitable culture. As John Flett has convincingly argued, mission thereby becomes tied inextricably to the extension of this “culture”; this culture, this particular way of life, just is the gospel that is proclaimed, and the church’s missionary relation to the world cannot but be a function of its own culture—gospel proclamation turns out to be a matter of the church’s propagation of its own way of life, and evangelism a mode of integrating the world into this particular habitable culture. Thus, on such an ecclesiocentric reading of the church-world relationship, the church is most missionary precisely at that point at which the church is most intentionally “self-regarding” (Hauerwas). And herein lies the reason why we must insist upon resisting such an understanding of the church as ontologically “prior” to the world as such, in relation to the Kingdom: viz., it presents us with not only an ecclesiologically but missiologically idealist logic—such an intentionally self-regarding conception of mission requires the construction of another (“the world”) as productive and reflective of its own identity.
The problem with such an ecclesio-concentric understanding of the church’s relation to the Kingdom and the world, says Hoekendijk, is that it misconstrues the basic scriptural sense in which the kingdom of God is first and foremost the Kingdom for the world. The Kingdom is oriented from beginning to end towards the oikoumene—the whole world.
For this oikoumene the Kingdom is destined; world (kosmos/oikoumene) and Kingdom are correlated to each other; the world is conceived as a unity, the scene of God’s great acts: it is the world which has been reconciled (II Cor. 5:19), the world which God loves (John 3:16) and which he has overcome in his love (John (16:33); the world is the field in which the seeds of the Kingdom are sown (Matt. 13:38)—the world is consequently the scene for the proclamation of the Kingdom. (Hoekendijk, Church Inside Out, 41)
In short: “Kingdom and world belong together.” The order of God’s economy is thus “God-World-Church, not God-Church-World” (71). This is the order of God’s own missionary existence in Christ. And by participation in this missionary existence of God, we must give new expression to the church’s own missionary existence: the order of this existence must be that of Kingdom-World-Church, not Kingdom-Church-World.
What we should like to propose, then, is that the quote from Yoder with which we began these reflections should be read through the perspective of this alternative Kingdom-World-Church order. Precisely as such, we might better come to understand the implications of Yoder’s insight that mission has to do with coming to “see the church in relationship to the world rather than defining ecclesial existence ‘by definition’ or ‘as such’” (Yoder, Royal Priesthood, 78). The church only exists as “living from and toward the promise of the whole world’s salvation.” (Yoder, Priestly Kingdom, 12).
As such, the church thereby exists as one dimension of a thoroughgoing apocalyptic realism. That is to say, the church exists insofar as it is constituted by the manner in which, in the apocalypse of Jesus Christ, “the reality of God has entered into the reality of this world,” proving victorious over the fallen powers of this world for the sake of this world’s salvation (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 54). What really matters, then, for the church, is its mode of participation “in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today” (55). And that reality is without reserve that of the apocalyptic rectification of all things to God in Christ. That event of apocalyptic rectification is constitutive of reality itself; and the event of the church takes place firmly within that reality of the reconciled world “that is real only through the reality of God” disclosed in Jesus Christ (54). The church thus exists as an ergon Kyriou (a work of the Lord), which means to say that the church exists for the sake of the unique and special share that it is given in the cosmic meaning of the sovereignty of this world’s living Lord. But precisely as such the church does exist, and its existence is precisely that of a special function and task. As to the nature of that special existence, function, and task, we should like to conclude these reflections. We shall do so by putting forward some provisional theses on the existence, nature, and task of the church. There could be more, of course, and these could be articulated with more depth and precision. But these are, after all, mere theses—and provisional at that.
Thesis 1: The church is an event within the event of this world’s apocalyptic transfiguration. This is a midrash on Robert Jenson’s insight that “the church is neither a realization of the new age nor an item of the old age. She is precisely an event within the event of the new age’s advent” (Jenson, Systematic Theology, 2:171). The church is an apocalyptic event just to the extent that she lives from the Ascension and Pentecost, and so towards the second advent of Jesus Christ. Thus the church can never fail to see itself as inhabiting this apocalyptic space. Or rather, the church’s whole mode of being is “timed” by God’s own apocalyptic act of invading the world, transforming it, and redeeming it. As such the church, in every aspect of its life, abides at the intersection of the old age and the age to come. The church lives in saecula saeculorum precisely and only at this indissoluble interstice of God’s redemptive and life-giving invasion of the world of sin, suffering, and death.
Thesis 2: The church’s primary task is apostolic. The church exists as a function of Christ’s own singular apostolicity; that is, its existence is a matter of its participation in Christ as the “sent one” (Heb 3:1). “The church has no other existence than in actu Christi, that is, in actu Apostoli” (Hoekendijk). The church thereby exists to serve the ministerium Verbi incarnati (Barth)—the church’s share in the apostolicity of Christ consists in its being sent out by the power of the Spirit to proclaim the euangelion of Jesus Christ to the world. In this sense, the church’s “priority” with regards to the world is that of a distinctively apostolic precedence.
Thesis 3: The euangelion of Jesus Christ, as Yoder puts it, is “not a religious or a personal term at all, but a secular one: ‘good news.’” As heralds and witnesses to this gospel the church’s visibility is thus “not a cultic or ritual separation, but rather a nonconformed quality of (“secular”) involvement in the life of the world” (Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 39). The apostolic mission of the church is secular because God’s apocalyptic act in Jesus Christ abolishes religion. The proper starting point for Christian reflection lies not with the nostalgic lament that “once there was no secular” (Milbank), but in the genuinely liberative good news that in Christ “there is no longer religion.” From the standpoint of God’s apocalyptic act in Christ religion is “unbelief” (Barth). Religion is “the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human manufacture.” The apocalyptic inbreaking of God in Christ does not affirm the “world-in-itself,” but rather ruptures and suspends the religious distinction between the “sacred” and the “profane” (and between “church” and “world,” as such). The new antinomy created in the coming of Christ is not between the “secular” and the “religious” but between apocalypse and religion. It is God who apocalyptically comes to the world in the sending of his Son and his Spirit to liberate the church, and indeed, the world, from enslavement to religion. And so Paul can confidently proclaim: “It was to bring us into the realm of freedom that Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1).
Thesis 4: Christian worship does not lie in a realm outside of religion. To seek a direct correspondence between leitourgia (“the work of the people”) and divine action is to forget that worship itself is a “perpetual factory of idols” (Calvin). Furthermore, such easy correspondence risks fetishizing and instrumentalizing worship. The problem is structural and runs deep; in truth, the very discipline of “ecclesiology” is prone to idolatrous self-aggrandizement. Thus the critique of religio strikes at the very heart of Christian worship. The occasion for sin occurs preeminently as leitourgia—the “work of the people” to self-justify, to strive to stand aright before God. Indeed, worship is the site marking our deepest estrangement from God. But this is not the final word! In Jesus Christ, God decisively wills to be God-for-us and so our idolatrous “work” becomes the site of our reconciliation with God. Reconciliation occurs not as exchange or production, but as a gratuitous event of grace. In this event the Spirit “takes up” our “work” to stand aright before God and transforms and transfigures our prideful attempts to “make a name for ourselves.” Our worship only becomes true praise, then, as our “work” loses track of itself under the great pressure of God’s own doxa. Such doxa happens as the event of God’s grace evokes gratitude “like the voice an echo.” Indeed, “Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightening” (Barth, CD IV/1, 41).
Thesis 5: Dispersion, or diaspora, names “the truly ecumenical reality of the church in this world” (Stringfellow). The church’s first ecumenical reality is to exist as a priest among the nations. Here mission and ecumenics are shown to be inseparable. True Christian unity is inseparable from the realization of the koinonia of the whole world with God that Jesus Christ has actualized. It is for this reason that the church cannot itself be considered a “home” or as constitutive of an alternatively “habitable world” (Hauerwas), for the Christian vocation is to be in the world, without reserve—that is, in the one whole world whose true reality is to be reconciled to God in the one whole Christ. It is as such that the church realizes the truth of its “catholicity”—the fullness of koinonia in the apocalypsis Iesou Christou.
Thesis 6: It is as Lord of all humanity that Christ is rightly to be understood as Head of his body, the church. The true body of Christ (corpus verum) is thus in reality all of humanity crucified and resurrected with Christ, and so reconciled to God in him (Aquinas; Barth). The church in via is thus “but a part of the larger Body of Christ” (Nicholas Healy). So the church “is” the body of Christ as precisely and paradoxically what it “is not,” in itself. And so to make use of the image of soma Christou for the church is not ontologically to prescribe what the church is, but rather to remind the church continually that precisely as such it is not an end in itself.
Thesis 7: Jesus Christ alone is constitutive of the church’s sacramental existence. And Christ is so constitutive as in his priestly office he himself is sacramentally given for the whole world’s transfiguration in the singular event of his cross and resurrection. The ultimate reality (res) of which the church is a sign and for which she is given, then, is nothing other than the mystery of the world reconciled to God in Christ. “Sacrament” is thereby the language by which the church is given to communicate that for which she exists, as also the praxis whereby the church is plunged into the heart of the world and given to live for that reality—the coming Kingdom of God—which she is not in-itself (McCabe). The sacraments are neither constitutive of an alternative social program—a polis, as such—nor are they constitutive of an alternative mode of production, or the expression of an alternative “technology of desire.” Rather, the sacraments are but ways by which Christ gives the church over to a dispossessed readiness for service (disponibilité) in the world. As such, the language and practice of the church are sacramental to the extent that they are utterly dependent upon the active presence, by the Spirit, of Christ’s ongoing reconciling and transfiguring presence in the world, which must continually be received afresh by the church from the world (as from without), as both judgment upon and justification of its existence. To affirm the church’s sacramental existence as such is thus to affirm that “the Church would be lost if it had no counterpart in the world” (Barth). Or, to put it another way, the language of sacrament is but the difficult work of learning “all that is involved in refusing to say that the dominion of God over his world is manifested here but not there” (MacKinnon).
Thesis 8: At the heart of the church’s existence is the claim that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). This world reconciled to God in Christ is the “new humanity” for which the church is sacramentally given. Our baptism is baptism into this new humanity precisely insofar as it is a baptism into the reality of this world’s transfiguration. It is this transfigured world, moreover, that provides the context for the practice of the Lord’s Supper. The eucharist, then, is not the ritual means of “inhabiting the church,” but rather the way by which the church inhabits the whole world (oikoumene) in grace, joy, and hospitality. It is the whole world reconciled to God in Christ to which we are opened in communion. And so it is the sacrament of baptism, as entrance into this world, that carries with it the imperative of open communion—without conditions! “With the gospel goes an open door” (Hoekendijk).
Thesis 9: If the world reconciled to God in Christ is that for which the church exists, then the church is visible precisely at the point of such reconciliation—the church is visible as an event of this world’s apocalyptic transfiguration. This is a “very special visibility” indeed (Barth). For according to such visibility what one sees is a liberation of this world from the old age of sin and destruction and a liberation for participation in the new age inaugurated in Christ. The visibility of the church then occurs precisely in the reconciling and liberating event in which “we no longer regard one another from a human point of view” (2 Cor 5:16). The church is thus made to be a visible sign of reconciliation in the world precisely in the event of being conformed, given over by the Spirit, to God’s new creation brought about in Christ. But one only sees this transfiguration and liberation of the world by believing the church—that is, by way of faith in the gospel of the Kingdom which it proclaims for the whole world.
Thesis 10: As such, the church is visible not by way of its ritual or cultic separation from the world, but by way of is kenotic solidarity with the world. Such solidarity with the world happens as a matter of concrete kenotic, cruciform obedience to the way of its Lord in this world. To be in such solidarity with this world is to struggle with the oppressive and sinful powers of this world by being given over to a mode of living and suffering and dying with the victims of these powers that embodies and proclaims in its very living and suffering and dying a hope and a joy and a celebration that these powers can neither produce nor control. Sent out in the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ the church stands in concrete solidarity with the oppressed peoples of this world.
Thesis 11: Such kenotic, cruciform solidarity in obedience to the way of the cross leaves no room for the church to be anything other than the “church of the poor.” The church’s kenotic solidarity with the world thus occurs as solidarity with the poor. As Jon Sobrino reminds us, “The mystery of the poor is prior to the ecclesial mission, and that mission is logically prior to an established church” (Sobrino, No Salvation Outside the Poor, 21). Or as Moltmann puts it, “It is not the Church that ‘has’ a mission, but the reverse; Christ’s mission creates itself a Church. The mission should not be understood from the perspective of the Church, but the other way round.”(Moltmann, Church in the Power of the Spirit, 10). With the Catholic bishops at Medellin, the church must reaffirm and exercise the “preferential option for the poor.” This “preferential option” is not simply one of many tasks of the church—it lies at the center and heart of its mission. In fact, it is its mission, because this is Christ’s mission.
Thesis 12: The “church of the poor” is in fact the one genuine “church for others” (Bonhoeffer), which lives, simply, by giving its property away. Such is the “ecclesieccentric” existence that the “Christeccentric” (R. Coles) relation of God’s Kingdom to the World calls us to. It is precisely by way of such “ecclesi-eccentricity,” moreover, that the church happens as not only sign but also a foretaste of that new creation, that Kingdom to come. If the way of God’s eternal life as revealed in Christ just is the way of an eternally outgoing, self-giving love, then it will have to be thus in the church. Only as the church throws its life away in love for the other, only as the church loses itself completely in the world for which God’s Kingdom has come, might the church be given to happen as an event within the event of that world’s transfiguration. Only as such, in precisely this kind of solidarity with the world, might the church be given—in the event of this world’s transfiguration—to see and to taste that love by which alone she mysteriously lives, that love that shall reign forever when God will be all in all.
Thesis 13: Existing as we do in the “crater” of God’s own singular action in Christ (Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 36), the church lives utterly by prayer. The incursion of God into the world of sin and death breaks open our failed history, liberating the world from its bondage to death. As such, the church, which lives as a sign of this event, awaiting its consummation in the Parousia, can only be ultimately understood as a communal event of lived prayer that is created by the Spirit who bears us in our weaknesses, “with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8: 26). God’s apocalyptic invasion of the world in the sending of Jesus and the Spirit does not create a stable, habitable place from which we as the church might grasp for ourselves a mode of intellectual or political coherence and control. Rather, this radical grace leaves us in the same place as the Son of Man who has no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58). And it is precisely in this being upended and unhanded that the church exists as prayer. “The true church is thus co-extensive with the community of true prayer” (Forsyth, Soul of Prayer, 54). As a people “timed” by the apocalypse of God in Jesus Christ, who live solely by the grace of the Spirit who conforms us to Christ, the church can embody its calling only by throwing itself in faith upon the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Thus we can finally only speak of the essence of the church in terms of lament, intercession, and doxology. To seek more than this is ultimately to seek another gospel altogether.
These theses are, quite clearly, only the rudiments of a beginning, the fragments of a hope that strains the bounds of theological articulation. The God with whom we have to do in Jesus is truly “exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we could ever ask or think” (Eph 3:20). These theses, such as they are, are here simply to be offered in the fullest sense of the word. Let anything in them that does not speak truly of the gospel of Christ perish and be forgotten forever. The three of us seek, in our discussion, prayer, and writing together to do nothing more than to become transparent to the liberating gospel of Christ, crucified and risen.
As such we hope that in the very doing of theology under the authority of the gospel that we may be given, by the Spirit to be conformed to Christ’s kenosis, his self-expending life given for us and for our salvation. We agree with the words of Donald MacKinnon: “To live as a Christian in the world today is necessarily to live an exposed life; it is to be stripped of the kind of security that tradition, whether ecclesiological or institutional, easily bestows.” It is precisely this exposed life, a life which, in prayer, desires nothing more than transparency to the way of Jesus Christ, that we seek. It is our desire to move forward in the task of theology in the service of the gospel precisely in this mode of kenosis, prayer, and weakness. With MacKinnon “we can only hope that because a false dream has yielded or begun to yield to a temper more deeply perceptive of the mystery of kenosis, we will be a little better prepared to recognize our frailty, and that it is in genuine weakness that our strength is made perfect: in genuine weakness, not the simulated powerlessness of the spiritual poseur” (MacKinnon, Stripping of the Altars, 34, 39).
And so we move on together, praying without ceasing that God will have his way with us in the task of theology in the service of the gospel. At the heart of our common work is the passionate conviction that, in Christ, God has truly brought about a new creation which exceeds and transcends all our attempts to control, regulate, and manage our lives through the various configurations of the power of death. We offer all of this, then, in the spirit of doxology. With Paul, we can only end in praise of the One who has set us free:
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive a gift in return? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen. (Rom 11:33–36)
 See John Flett, “Communion as Propaganda: Reinhard Hütter and the missionary witness of the ‘Church as Public,’” Scottish Journal of Theology 62 (2009) 457–76.
 On the apocalyptic nature of reality in Bohoeffer’s work, see Philip G. Ziegler, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer—An Ethics of God’s Apocalypse?” Modern Theology 23/4 (2007) 579–94; see also Ry Owen Siggelkow, “The Lamb that Was Slain is Worthy to Receive Power: Christology, Apocalyptic, and Secularity in the Ecclesiologies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Howard Yoder” (MA Thesis, St. Paul Seminary, University of St. Thomas, 2009).
 Ziegler, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” 585–87.
 Karl Barth, CD I/2 302.
 See especially J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1997), and “The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians,” Interpretation 54/3 (2000) 246–66.
 See Matthew Myer Boulton, God Against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology through Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
 See Nicholas Healy, “Practices and the New Ecclesiology: Misplaced Concreteness?,” International Journal of Systematic Theology, 5/3 (2003) 304.
 For more on the nature of the church’s life as being solely one of opened possibilities see Robert W. Jenson, Story and Promise: A Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 81–82.
This article has been posted at The Other Journal. It is available at:http://www.theotherjournal.com/pages/blog-detail.php?ID=951&category=4
To clarify a misunderstood point, we never meant for them to be published as an “academic article” and taken as such, and their connection with Ry’s review of Dan Bell’s book and for the purposes of directing people at TOJ who would be interested in conversations related to that review and some of the TOJ content, was the reason that they were published in the first place. Because their publication at TOJ has led in some cases to their being taken and read as a fully edited and reviewed academic article (which was never meant in the first place), they have been moved to the blog section of TOJ.