Imagining an emerging ecclesiology

Traditional biblical ecclesiologies mostly assume that the pattern for the life and purpose of the church is directly and sufficiently established in the account of its genesis that we have in the New Testament. Jesus gave the movement its initial impetus by calling and teaching the first disciples; Pentecost and the preaching of the apostles added an expansionist dynamic; and the teaching of Paul and other New Testament writers gave concrete definition to its communal life.

That pattern always requires new contextualization – the emerging church today is understood by many to be simply the recontextualization of the New Testament pattern in a postmodern cultural setting. But the general relevance of the original model – within the framework of a broadly evangelical theology – is rarely questioned. What the church was, it is now, and ever shall be. It seems to me, however, that this very flat, two-dimensional understanding of how the form of church today is determined by the form of the New Testament church must be challenged in two important respects, the first basically exegetical, the second historical.

First, the more we understand the New Testament as the product and expression of a particular historical (but prophetically interpreted) narrative about the place of the people of God in the Greek-Roman world, the more we are likely to question the supposed universality or normativeness of the form of community that is described in it. We will have to ask to what extent the agenda, organization and self-understanding of the early Jewish community in Judea or the later hybrid Jewish-Gentile communities in the pagan world were determined by, and contingent upon, the story which they found themselves in. There is, at present, a significant theological undercurrent pulling us in this direction (think ‘new perspectives’), and we have to ask what its implications will be for faith, mission, ecclesiology and piety.

My view is that the meaningful historical horizons of the New Testament were – from the perspective of the modern interpreter – rather limited. For Jesus it was the expectation of divine judgment on Israel in the form of a devastating war against Rome that dominated his outlook and set the eschatological context for the ‘ecclesiology’ of his followers. For the churches in the Greek-Roman world it was the mounting challenge to paganism and the anticipated public vindication of the suffering community over its enemies that determined the character and scope of its ‘ecclesiology’. What I think we learn from 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, for example, is that the apostles were building not generic churches but specifically Christ-like communities of a type that would survive the impending fires of persecution, the ‘impending distress’ (cf. 1 Cor. 7:26). These were, for want of a better word, ‘eschatological’ communities, and we cannot assume that their constitute a way of being church that is normative under post-eschatological conditions.

In other words, New Testament ecclesiology is not flat and static but dynamic, responsive to missional and eschatological context – and I would argue that if the missional and eschatological context changes fundamentally, it becomes inappropriate to assume a simple ecclesiological continuity with the New Testament. The early churches embodied as communities the prophetic conviction that the God who had raised Jesus from the dead and given him the name which is above every name would eventually judge, defeat, and displace the gods and divine rulers of the ancient world. That dynamic, prophetic ecclesiology culminated in Constantine’s recognition that this new faith indeed had the spiritual and theological resources to back up its claim to express the will of the one true Creator God. From that point ecclesiology had to adapt to a radically different state of affairs… and the rest is church history.

Modern ecclesiologies, despite their professed adherence to the New Testament pattern, are for the most part still the product of this adaptation. But here we come to the second challenge: we are becoming increasingly aware that the Christendom paradigm is in a state of collapse, buckling under the combined weight of modern rationalism and postmodern irrationalism. This is becoming, in fact, a rather commonplace perspective. Even Neil Cole’s very practical book about church-planting (it just happens to lie to hand) begins with the observation that the ‘church 2.0’ paradigm of post-Constantinian Christianity is being slowly phased out as a major upgrade to the operating system, church 3.0, takes shape.1

Put in these terms, Cole’s argument about organic missional-church movements seems rather anti-climactic. It may have some real transitional value, but I suspect that it lacks the breadth and boldness of theological imagination to define a credible and sustainable post-Christendom existence for the people of God. But the general point is correct: an emerging ecclesiology has to take into account both the contingency of the New Testament argument about the nature of the church (well, Cole wouldn’t agree with that) and the extent to which it is implicated in and affected by the massive failure (‘failure’, of course, needs to be carefully defined) of European Christendom.

What follows, then, is an idiosyncratic and merely suggestive attempt to sketch the shape of an emerging ecclesiology in the light of these considerations. It may come across as too theoretical and too dense to be of much immediate practical use, but my view is that we will not arrive at good, durable, practical, user-friendly solutions until the larger theological re-orientation required at the end of the age of Christendom has been thoroughly understood.

1. A post-Christendom identity

The first point to make, therefore, is that the emerging church must understand its present circumstances in relation to the long story of Christendom, which may be characterized positively as the story of the people of God driven primarily by the prophetic impulse to lay claim first to the pre-modern and then to the modern world in the name of Christ. It is not enough to frame the re-emerging church now as post-modern, or post-evangelical, or even as a ‘second Reformation’. These perspectives are too restrictive. The challenge – at least in principle – is to deconstruct the entire theological-ecclesiological paradigm of Christendom and then, albeit tentatively, to imagine a new way of existing in the world. This will be a bottom-up process, the result of a slow, contested transformation of the collective mind of the church rather than of imposed policy or populist strategizing.

2. A sense of narrative existence

The identity and purpose of the post-Christendom church, I would argue, will be determined not primarily by whatever ecclesiastical tradition or theological system or dogmatic formulation lies nearest to hand but by a vivid sense of narrative continuity with a people whose origins are to be found in the story of the invitation to Abraham to be the father of a humanity loyal to the Creator God. On the one hand, this is an assertion of loyalty to scripture; on the other, it is an attempt to disable the controlling effect of the Christendom programme and mindset. The effect will be, on the one hand, that the post-Christendom church will have a stronger sense of its concrete existence as a distinct people group; and on the other, that theology will have a stronger diachronic axis and will be focused less on the salvation-story of the individual and more on the vocation-story of the community. It is only as we begin to inhabit this new narrative world that we will be able to free ourselves from the grip of old formulations and conceive new vehicles – even dogmatic, systematic, and creedal vehicles – for communicating the faith of the people of God.

3. A renewed theology

Having developed largely as a reaction against what has been perceived as a stifling modern reductionism, the emerging church as we have known it has been driven by pragmatic considerations. It has been characterized by the preaching of the gospel in a ‘postmodern’ idiom, the development of broader, ‘incarnational’ forms of mission, the prioritizing of community and relationships over programmes and the routine of Sunday worship, and so on. There has been an underlying realization that these pragmatic changes are not without profound theological import, but the emerging theological conversation has been a chaotic one – its output has been sometimes quite radical, sometimes patently and powerfully biblical, sometimes disappointingly conventional, sometimes just plain confused. This is probably unavoidable and probably not altogether a bad thing, but the theological task has to be taken seriously. Theology and practice have to interconnect better than they do; the theological wars of the Christendom era need to be transcended; emerging churches have to be determined learning communities.

These seem to me to be among the necessary marks of a credible post-Christendom theology: 1) a chastened, realistic hermeneutic that recognizes the limitations and peculiarities of historical and religious knowledge; 2) the narrative-historical recontextualization of the core terminology of gospel, judgment, faith, salvation, justification, heaven and hell; 3) the recovery of a defining narrative for the people of God that reaches back to the calling of Abraham and understands the story of Jesus as an intrinsic development of Israel’s history; 4) a sense of the realistic continuity between New Testament eschatology and the experience of the church as it expanded beyond Judaism into the pagan world; 5) the embrace of the full creational scope of the church’s existence in the world; 6) a theology of marginal missional existence for the sake of a suspicious, secular, and pluralistic culture; 7) a willingness to renew theological discourse, to re-examine and restate the classic doctrinal formulations of European Christendom; 8) critical and prophetic insight into the current condition of global humanity; and 9) a coherent grasp not only of the present but also likely future challenges to an emerging post-Christendom worldview.

4. Christ as firstborn of all creation

The post-Christendom church will need a christology that presents itself primarily in historical-narrative terms. There are various ways in which this might be done, but I would construct it something like this: beginning with a new account of the humanity and historical existence of Jesus as prophet and agent of Israel’s transformation, we follow an apocalyptic course by which the archetypal martyr – the first of many brothers – is vindicated and comes to embody in himself (perhaps even retroactively) the victory of YHWH over the gods and divinized rulers of the Greek-Roman world; and we arrive, finally, at the recognition that prefigured in this concrete victory over death is not merely the defeat of paganism but the renewal of all creation. The Christendom church constituted the outcome of the victory over the gods of the ancient world. For the post-Christendom church now to be in Christ means that it embraces both the historical narrative of Israel’s salvation and the future hope of the final defeat of evil and death and the renewal of all things.

5. The Spirit of prophecy and the renewal of creativity

For the modern church the presence of the Spirit has been understood, largely in reaction to the anti-supernaturalism of secular modernity, as a sign of the living reality and presence of God. A narrative-historical theology would highlight the contextual significance of the Spirit in the early church, on the one hand, as the Spirit of prophecy poured out on all Israel in advance of judgment (cf. Acts 2:14-21); and on the other, as the power that would enable threatened communities of disciples to overcome opposition and fear and be vindicated on the day of Christ’s parousia (cf. Rom. 8:12-39).

In the post-Christendom context we should expect the communal experience of the Spirit to have similar prophetic and formative dimensions. First, the prophetic Spirit of God speaks directly to the historical context – the internal crisis of the collapse of Christendom, and the external crisis of global hubris and excess. Secondly, the Spirit of God will empower the post-Christendom church to re-invent itself as an authentic counterpart to a profligate global culture – as renewed creation, as dispersed, networked, deregulated, fractalized communities of worship, creativity, justice and peace.

6. A missional relation to culture

The post-Christendom church will have a natural missional orientation, not because it needs to recover lost ground or maintain a critical mass or justify the continued existence of the institutions of Christendom, but because it understands itself to be an entity that is always on behalf of the Creator God, for the sake of others.

The dynamic which we typically call ‘mission’, however, should arise from a thorough reconsideration of the calling of the people of God both in general and in contextual terms. In the first place, the church finds its calling in the original summons to Abraham to be blessed as new creation and to be a blessing to the nations and cultures of the world, which may be broken down into prophetic, priestly, compassional and catalytic categories.

But the church must also ask what exactly constitutes ‘good news’ at this juncture, in relation to the two crises which loom over it. It is misleading and unhelpful to think of the ‘gospel’ as an unchanging universal proposition regarding personal salvation. It is always, in the first place, a contextualized, macro-level statement about the intentions of the living God in relation to his people. Jesus’ gospel was an announcement regarding the impending reform of Israel; for Paul it was the ‘good news’ of the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant people, or the stark and outrageous announcement that God would sooner or later overturn the pagan world and give the nations as an inheritance to his Son, whom he raised from the dead. If we are to emulate the vision and ambition of the early church, we need to understand in what way the current ‘eschatological’ transition, which may also be a matter of far-reaching reform, constitutes the good news of God to his people and to the world.

7. Global rather than imperial modes of existence

The post-Christendom people of God will organize itself according to the conditions of its calling and existence. National Israel was structured in such a way as to define and safeguard its existence as a chosen people in the midst of more powerful and often hostile nations. This existence as a nation under a king provided the ‘kingdom’ theology that became so crucial for the New Testament, when the Jews’ existence as a nation was under threat. After the eschatological transition of the early centuries of the church, the people of God organized itself on an imperial scale and with imperial aspirations, corresponding to the theological conviction that Christ had inherited the nations.

The church is now having to develop a new mode of existing in a post-imperial, globalized, volatile, pluralistic, technological society. There must be something in the response of the emerging church to this context that gives concrete expression to the renewal of post-imperial, globalized, volatile, pluralistic, technological community. The post-Christendom church will be cosmopolitan, creative, far-sighted. It will express itself less as a universalizing religion, more as a self-contained people or culture – and with a better sense of proportion. The emergence of a post-Christendom church will relativize the conflicting traditions of Christendom, but it will also take ownership of and assimilate the complexity of its histories; it will have to be generously, appreciatively, but also progressively and imaginatively ecumenical; the old distinctions will be absorbed into a new prolific, inventive, expressive diversity.

8. Openness to an inconceivable future

The emerging church will need the imagination to continue to assert the possibility and plausibility of new creation under conditions of massive cultural disruption, whether for the better or for the worse. We can expect scientific and social changes to take place that will profoundly challenge our worldview, our religious imaginations, and our faith – as has been the case, indeed, since Copernicus. If it is not to retreat again into an isolationist mentality, the post-Christendom church will need to draw upon the immense resources of the re-creative Spirit in order to discover in its corporate life genuine and sustainable counter-possibilities to the secular imagination.

  • 1. Cole, N., Church 3.0: Upgrades for the Future of the Church (2010), 6-9.