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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Mark Driscoll and the marks of a "true church"

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.

Comments

Andrew, thanks for your stimulating posts. You write that we are a post-eschatological church, in what sense is that so since we remain a church of the end times? Thanks.

Thanks, Matt.

Here’s how I see it. I work with a simple three horizon schema. New Testament eschatology is dominated by two historical horizons: the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and the defeat of pagan imperialism - in effect, the victory of the church over Rome. By “post-eschatological” I mean that we have moved bey0nd these horizons, so we should not attempt to define ourselves as though we were still in living in the narrative-historical context of the early church. We are not. We are not in the chaotic “end-times” that marked the transition from second temple Judaism to the age of Christ’s rule at the right hand of the Father.

Our horizon now, insofar as our situation is described by the New Testament, is the final judgment of the dead and the renewal of heaven and earth. This horizon is very much on the outer edge of the New Testament’s view of the future, but it looms much more significantly for us, not least because we fear a global environmental crisis. (I’m not suggesting, of course, that that global warming is bringing on the end of the world!)

So we live now not in the light of a coming victory over classical paganism, accompanied by the ending of persecution, the vindication of the early believers, and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations, but in the light of new creation. What we stand for now, under Christ as king, in the power of the Spirit, is the conviction that our God will ultimately make all things new, that he will have the last laugh.

Hi Andrew, I think you are continuing to clarify for me your understanding of the church in the world today, and I am trying to reorient myself for a moment into that. Reading your posts are indeed challenging, but I find myself like a car at a STOP sign, with my GPS saying to me (it has a voice!) “Recalculating…..” But I cannot afford to stay at a stop for long. Right now I sit in the midst of a Muslim community, trying to help them (and me!) see an actual difference between the Muslim Ummah and the Christian Church.

Previously I mentioned to you my “contextual Anabaptism,” that from where I sit in the American scene, the need to challenge the church here to a move from its incredible parochialism - with its fear and paranoia towards all things “un-American” - to a vision of that “unshakable Kingdom,” or “new creation” and the confidence of it that should issue in the patient endurance of obedience. But then again, I may be parochial in that most Christians in the rest of the world don’t have this problem.

Back in the 80’s and 90’s, when I was “young,” we were willing to “nuke the world” for a way of life. Incidently, that is God’s world we were willing to nuke for a way of life. Not Jesus’ mission, but a way of life we were willing to equate with that mission. Self preservation and Self definition defined by the geo-political nation state carried the day among Christians. We might think globally for a moment. but still could not comprehend the success of that mission without American ideals attached to it, along with the necessity to maintain them.

So, I do see the contextuality of the church in the world, and the need to read historically, but I also see recurring themes in that history present themselves over and over again. One that is predominant is how our power of the Spirit given in the power of Jesus’ resurrection and the hope it engenders can allow us to frame our lives in a cruciform way that, like Jesus’ obedience, strips the powers of this world of that arrogance of “necessity” that allows them to justify their ways and means and continue to destroy God’s creation. Christians will continue in the illusion of worldly wisdom and its self-destruction if they don’t at least see this in their Lord’s ways.

When I see Christians outside the West waiting for their “Christendom” to appear, thinking of it as that unshakable Kingdom, I worry that all we are going to get is more of the same nonsense in new dress. And it is why I continue to have a problem of seeing in that “defeat of paganism” you mention anything but the triumph of a paganizing of the church. I tend to sense we’ve gone from Christianized pagans to Paganized Christians.

Mark

When I see Christians outside the West waiting for their “Christendom” to appear, thinking of it as that unshakable Kingdom, I worry that all we are going to get is more of the same nonsense in new dress. And it is why I continue to have a problem of seeing in that “defeat of paganism” you mention anything but the triumph of a paganizing of the church. I tend to sense we’ve gone from Christianized pagans to Paganized Christians.

It seems to me, though, that if the church isn’t corrupted one way, it will be corrupted another. Christendom may or may not have been avoidable, but it’s the only narrative we have—that’s what the church was for 1600 years, whether we like it or not. The people of God has always had a hard time differentiating itself from the world, and I imagine always will. So yes, there probably will be “more of the same nonsense in a new dress”. That is why we are always reliant on grace, it is why we have Christ as king, it is why we have prophets and anabaptists to call the people of God back to the ideal of a new creation.

‘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.’

Brilliant… Thanks Andrew… I would love to hear more from you about how we recover that prophetic nature and voice.