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David Fitch, Hirsch and Frost, and the de-ecclesiologization of mission

David Fitch has posted a series of articles presenting a thoughtful and constructive critique of the emerging/missional church. He looks at Peter Rollins’ deconstructionist approach to scripture and warns that it risks de-incarnationalizing the Word of God; he raises concerns about Brian McLaren’s de-eschatologization of the kingdom of God; and in the third article he argues that the sort of approach to mission advocated by Alan Hirsch (pictured) and Michael Frost in books such as The Shaping of Things to Come has a potentially de-ecclesiologizing impact on the relationship between church and society. There is also a helpful introductory post: ‘The Three Potential (ideological) Traps of Emerging Missional Theology.’

Here I want to pick up on the third argument and suggest that while in the short term there is an important debate to be had regarding the tension between a radical missiology and a cautious ecclesiology, there are long term changes taking place (both historical and theological) that are likely to necessitate a more radical reappraisal of the biblical narrative and how it forms the self-understanding of the people of God.

The problems of putting Christ first

What Fitch means by the de-ecclesiologizing of the church is not simply that Hirsch and Frost have a strong anti-institutional bias when it comes to defining what church is. His concern is rather that the practice of the church may become disconnected from ‘any continuous work of the incarnate Christ in history as extended in the forms of the church by the Holy Spirit’. Hirsch and Frost like to argue that Christ shapes mission and that mission then shapes the church. But this is where the danger of de-ecclesiologization presents itself:

Implicit in this formula is that we (anyone) can know/encounter Christ determinately apart from the ongoing form of the church. The continuous forms of the church, including Eucharist, the preaching and interpretation of the canon of Scripture, the fellowship of the gifts, are therefore dispensable for Mission. Jesus forms the church directly in Mission and the church is de-ecclesiologized in Mission.

I have to say, I have never really understood the argument that the mission of God precedes the mission of the church – that we are merely playing catch-up. The fact that we so often find it necessary to translate the notion into Latin as missio dei only serves to reinforce my suspicion that it is something of a voguish theological figment. It seems to me that both in the Old and in the New Testament God is overwhelmingly preoccupied with issues internal to the life of his people. Scripture is the long and extremely complex story of how the Creator God brought into existence a people for his own possession and how over the centuries he struggled to keep them righteous and obedient in order that (presumably) they might be, through their concrete existence as a people, a blessing or light or witness to the nations. There is very little to suggest that YHWH was independently at work amongst the nations – and when he is, as in the case of Cyrus, for example, it is generally for the purpose of executing his intentions vis-à-vis Israel.

When it comes to the New Testament, God sent his Son into the world in order to save his people from the disastrous consequences of their sins. Once saved, or being saved, that people was sent or driven out into the Greek-Roman world to lay claim to the empire in the name of Christ. But there is nothing to suggest that the ‘mission’ of God was somehow independent of and prior to the mission of the church – though it is certainly correct to say with respect to the New Testament that the churches took their shape from the task of proclaiming to the nations the good news that Jesus has been ‘declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead’ (Rom. 1:4). Indeed, it is a central part of Paul’s argument in Romans that communities of believers, made righteous by their trust in the story of Jesus, constituted a sign to the corrupt pagan world (and of course to Judaism) that YHWH would sooner or later displace the old gods.

Equally I would argue that the calling of the people of God now to be ‘new creation’, a redeemed humanity, precedes and gives definition to the existence of that people. So I would put first not christology but the vocation (perhaps even the ‘election’) of the people of God, which demands a righteous, God-centred community life, which indeed demands Christ, on the basis of which the people serves in context as an example of and catalyst for blessing in the world. Israel failed to be a light to the nations not because it sought to be attractional rather than incarnational – in fact, the eschatological ideal in Isaiah is precisely to be attractional. Israel failed because it was not righteous.

The rather too wild Messiah

Fitch objects that in prioritizing the direct, personal, almost mystical encounter of the believer with the ‘wild Messiah’, Hirsch and Frost have effectively discounted the role of the historic church as the proper medium though which Christ is communicated to the world.

The danger here is that Christians are left without a basis for our very connection to the ongoing presence of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit in the Triune history. We become a bunch of individuals seeking a personal mystical experience of Christ via our own interpretation of the gospels. We become individual worshipers of a self-described Jesus devoid of the means to be immersed in the work of the Triune God in the world.

It seems to me that the more serious shortcoming of Hirsch and Frost’s book ReJesus is the abstraction of Jesus from the narrative of Israel and the predicted future of his disciples – and given that, it is perhaps not surprising that the historic church should also be eclipsed. But I think, in any case, that there may be a better way not only of accounting for the tension between missiological reform and the historic existence of the church, but also of providing a coherent biblical underpinning to the task of rethinking the identity and purpose of what we call the church.

Beyond Christendom

What Fitch appeals to in resisting the wild-eyed individualism of Hirsch and Frost’s missiology is specifically a Christendom understanding of the people of God as ‘church’, shaped originally by the alliance with imperialism, by the co-option of the biblical narrative into the worldview of Hellenism, the progressive rationalism of theology and its consolidation in credal and systematic forms – a church which has become fundamentally dependent on coherent ecclesial definition for identity and praxis. This paradigm is currently disintegrating – slowly, but I think surely. The emerging/missional church is probably only an early, tentative, experimental reaction to this disintegration, an attempt to instate a new self-understanding in the ideological vacuum left by the failure of a comprehensive model that no longer gives adequate account of shape to the church in the modern or postmodern world.

My argument would be that we exist first not as ‘church’, not subject specifically to ecclesial definition, but as a people that has its origins not in Christ but in the calling of Abraham to be the progenitor of a new creation, to be blessed and to be a blessing to the nations and cultures of the world. A narrative-historical reading of the New Testament would then suggest that the ‘church’ or ‘churches’ built on the foundation of Jesus Christ were eschatological communities that would, on the one hand, ensure the survival of the people of God through judgment and re-formation (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10-15) and, on the other, bear concrete, corporate witness, through their faithfulness, their integrity, their righteousness, their love, their unity, their monotheism, to the ‘political’ sovereignty of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who had raised his Son Jesus from the dead and appointed him as judge of the old order.

Those transitional communities became the established church of Western Christendom in its multiplicity of forms, just as the families that left Egypt and made the difficult journey to the land of Canaan became national Israel, with its defining symbolic structures of king, temple, capital city and Law. The national paradigm came under judgment and, after a new ‘exodus’, a new journey of transition, was replaced by the Christendom paradigm. The emerging/missional church is a sign that we sense that we are again in transition, we are again exiles in search of a new ideological home, a new self-understanding, a new identity.

Fitch is absolutely right to stress the importance of a ‘source of political formation in the world’ and to warn that without the ecclesial structures individuals are likely to ‘gravitate around compelling causes, which often can be used and manipulated for ulterior purposes’. But if we are indeed emerging ‘from the rubble’ not just of evangelicalism but of Western Christendom, we may well have to adapt to a ‘liminal’ or transitional or ‘exilic’ mode of being, to much more fluid and uncertain practices, while we slowly and no doubt falteringly develop a fundamentally new post-imperial, postmodern paradigm for the existence of the people of God in the world.