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.
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