Scot McKnight has provoked copious debate on Jesus Creed in characteristically economical fashion by asking people what they think of the eight marks of a “true church”, by which is meant a church that conforms to the teachings of the New Testament, as defined by Mark Driscoll:
- The church is made up of regenerated believers in Jesus
- The church is organized under qualified leadership
- The church gathers to hear preaching and to respond in worship
- The church rightly administers the sacraments
- The church is spiritually unified
- The church is holy
- The church is devoted to fellowship
- The church is committed to Jesus’ mission
Apart from a hint of neo-Reformed authoritarianism, this is all rather unobjectionable, disappointingly so—at least until you start reading between the lines, as many of Scot’s respondents do.
But, unobjectionable though they may be, these eight marks still somehow miss the point of the New Testament presentation of the church. Why? Because definitions such as this are grounded not in a reading of the New Testament as it offers itself to us as a historical text but in an ecclesiology —that is, in a self-sufficient, self-validating set of theological propositions, in an abstracted account of what the church is or ought to be. They are attempts to define a particular type of modern church, as is apparent from the emphasis in the first point on “regenerated believers”, since only the Reformed or post-Christendom church has any real notion of unregenerated church attenders.
The whole approach, reflected quite consistently in the ensuing discussion, is based on the assumption that the New Testament contains a blueprint for the “true” church as it should exist at all times and in all places. Given this methodology Driscoll’s particular set of eight characteristics is difficult to fault, but it entirely excludes the narrative dynamic that is so prominent in the self-understanding of the New Testament churches. There is one brief reference to the “story” of Israel, which must be disappointing for Scot, and the words “narrative”, “eschatology” and “day of the Lord” do not appear in the comments at all—though I admit I haven’t read them all carefully, and the ideas may be there in other words, but probably are not.
The belief that Jesus would come to deliver or come on the clouds is a central element in the New Testament account of the churches—both of the followers of Jesus in Judea and of the Jewish-Gentile communities of the empire. What were the defining characteristics of the church in Thessalonica? What got them noticed? What was said about them? What set them apart? That they had stopped worshipping idols, that they now served the creator God, and that they were waiting for Jesus to deliver them from the coming wrath—and not one of these “marks” is mentioned by Driscoll.
For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thess. 1:9–10)
Communities such as this existed in the light of the firm conviction that something would happen in the foreseeable future—in a historically realistic future—that would dramatically transform their status in the world. They were remarkable for the fact that they had set their sights on a coming day of the Lord. We cannot give an adequate definition of the “true church” in New Testament terms without mentioning eschatology, and dependent upon that, prophecy.
The problem is that the “true church” is being defined by people who are the product of the church—the pastors and teachers whose role is to preserve and perpetuate the modern construct. Scholars and students of the New Testament are subject, admittedly, to their own lamentable biases and blindspots, but it remains possible to take a sufficiently critical—and self-critical—vantage point from which we may discern the New Testament churches for what they were.
I think that if we were to set out to describe the New Testament churches and not merely justify the modern church, we would come up with something rather different:
- The churches had a sense of being in continuity with the story of Israel, in particular of being true heirs to the promises made to the patriarchs.
- The churches believed that they would be saved from the coming wrath of God against both Israel and the nations by virtue of their faith in the atoning value of Jesus’ death.
- The churches were set apart from “unregenerated” Israel by their experience of the powerful, liberating working of the Spirit.
- The churches defied the controlling powers of their world in the firm belief that Jesus, who had been given the name which is above every name, would come to judge the nations and deliver them from their enemies, including the last enemy, death.
- The churches identified with the suffering and vindication of Jesus, particularly through baptism and regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
- The churches were marked by a strong sense of solidarity, characterised by self-giving love and the exercise of spiritual gifts, not least in the face of persecution and suffering.
- The churches embodied in their life and practice the conviction that the national God of Israel would soon show himself to be the God of the whole world.
- The churches sought to embody in their life and practice, within the constraints imposed by a continuing sinful nature, the possibility of new creation—for example, by acting justly, and by transcending patriarchalism.
But once we bring this powerful narrative dynamic into play, we also have to consider what would be the nature of the “church” or the “people of God” beyond the eschatological horizons of the New Testament, after judgment and restoration, after the coming wrath of God against Jew and Greek alike. What would be the distinguishing marks of the post-eschatological people of God?
Historically this is first a question about the church of European Christendom, which had to define itself in relation to imperial power. Driscoll’s entirely apolitical definition would have been of limited use for this purpose, but that is another matter.
But we are now not only the post-eschatological church but also the post-Christendom church, and I would argue that if we are to be true to the narrative, historically contextualized nature of the New Testament churches, we also have to define ourselves in relation to our own narrative-historical context. It is not enough to read the New Testament narratively. We also need to read ourselves narratively.
This is not to say that there are no theological continuities with the New Testament churches: we are still heirs to the promises made to the patriarchs, we confess Christ as Lord and saviour of the people of God, we associate ourselves with the narrative of his suffering and vindication through baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we are a people of the Spirit and not of the Law, we embody new creation, and a lot more.
But it should also be a key mark of the “true church”, the people of God today, that it is acutely conscious of its present place in the narrative, as it struggles to retain a foothold after Christendom, after modernity, in the throes of globalization, bewildered by pluralism, bedevilled by sexual anarchy, sold out to consumerism, in fear of an environmental catastrophe, not knowing whether to go forwards or backwards. The New Testament was a prophetic church that knew what God was doing. We aren’t. We don’t.