Church as eschatological community (part 2)

This is the belated second part of my write up of a talk I gave at Community Church Harlesden a few weeks back. In part one I argued that what we find in the New Testament is not a generic or standard or universal definition of church but a definition of church as historically contextualized, eschatological communities. An eschatological community, as I use the term here, is a community that is called to respond to an eschatological crisis—by which I mean a radical historical challenge to its identity or even existence. My argument is that in order to survive the crisis of defeat by the forces of modernity and post-modernity the western church needs to recover a sense of being part of the story of the community of God’s people, with a past, a present, and most importantly a future.

In the talk I outlined a six stage process by which churches develop as eschatological communities. I’ll try to fill that process out a bit here, but I have to admit that it still falls some way short of a practical programme. Also, I’m not suggesting that we should buy into the language and conceptuality uncritically—I put it forward primarily as a way of thinking about the current circumstances of the church in the West in relation to the narrative of scripture.

1. The community turns from idolatry

This is probably the most radical and perhaps the most important step. An eschatological community turns its back on the idolatries of its culture.

This is not typically where either ecclesiology or missiology begins, unsurprisingly—we are so deeply immersed in our culture that we have a hard enough time just identifying our idols, let alone disengaging from them. We recognize in principle that personal repentance precedes personal salvation, but what the eschatological paradigm appears to require primarily is the repudiation of a bankrupt worldview or belief system: the Thessalonians turned from idolatry to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son to rescue them from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:9-10).

We should not de-historicize this language. I would argue from Paul’s speech in or on the Areopagus, from Romans 1-2, and from Revelation among other texts that this “wrath to come” is the judgment of Israel’s God against the Greek-Roman world, which is morally corrupt because it is idolatrous. Personal sin is ultimately traced back to a systemic repudiation of the Creator and the worship of alternative, manufactured gods (Rom. 1:18-32).

An eschatological community, therefore, needs to clarify its dissociation from the fundamental alternatives that ground our culture’s antagonism or indifference towards the living and true God.

[pullquote]It is a radical step, but it is not an argument for extremism or fanaticism.[/pullquote] On the one hand, Paul does not seem to have thought that the repudiation of idolatry was incompatible with respect for complicit social structures (Rom. 13:1-7). On the other, rejecting the idolatries of western culture is bound to take incomplete and partly symbolic forms. Churches can make limited prophetic commitments—to befriend the marginalized and disreputable, to develop concrete expressions of community in defiance of the forces of fragmentation and isolation, to give extravagantly, to walk resolutely down the escalator of upward mobility, and so on—as a sign, not least to ourselves, that we stand for a different way of being human. 

2. The community confesses that Jesus is Lord over this idolatrous culture

Much missional thinking these days takes its inspiration from the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels. There is some point to this. The post-Christendom church is naturally drawn to the Jesus who found himself rejected by the establishment, who reached out to the lepers, the unclean, the demented, the prostitutes, the pariahs and the miscellaneous sinners who inhabited the fringes of first century Jewish society. This is one of the ways in which the modern church has instinctively endeavoured to come to terms with its shockingly diminished standing in the world.

The eschatological paradigm, however, looks not to Jesus according to the flesh but to the exalted Lord, who suffered at the hands of both Jewish and Gentile authorities but now rules at the right hand of the Father, and will do so until all his enemies have been destroyed, the last enemy being death (1 Cor. 15:25-26).

I see three broad Christological conclusions to be drawn from this, though what they mean in practice needs to be worked out. First , if it makes any sense at all to say that the dominant secular-materialist worldview is subject to judgment—at least, that it should not be regarded as normative or unassailable—we should “confess” that judgment has been given to the righteous one who is seated at the right hand of God.

Secondly, the paradigm affirms that it is the crucified and risen Lord who safeguards the integrity of his people at a time of threat or crisis. So Paul affirms that Christ Jesus died, was raised, is at the right hand of God, and intercedes for his persecuted brothers—and nothing shall separate them from him, not tribulation, distress, persecution, hunger, exposure, danger or the sword (Rom. 8:34-35).

Thirdly, whereas within the apocalyptic outlook of the New Testament he is the king who will sooner or later defeat the political-religious enemies of the people of God, for the post-biblical church the resurrected Jesus embodies primarily the renewal of all things—new creation. The eschatological crisis that we are confronted with is not a political-religious crisis—it is a global, creational crisis. For the argument see [amazon:978-1842275450:inline].

3. The community experiences the reality of this realignment through the Spirit

The Spirit of prophecy gives the community a shared vision for what God is doing in the world. The Spirit of the new covenant is the ground for a communal righteousness. The Spirit empowers churches to fulfil their eschatological vocation. The Spirit is the presence of God in the midst of his new creation. This is not the domesticated Spirit of a self-absorbed charismatic movement. It is the Spirit of God transforming, remaking, his people in history, wehether we like it or not.

This reliance on the Spirit of God completes the trinitarian shape of an eschatological community: its members have collectively agreed not to serve the gods of the age but to serve instead the “living and true God”; they have done so on the assumption that authority to “judge” the world as we know it has been given to Jesus, who will reign at the right hand of God for as long as is necessary; and their response to what God has done arises out of an experience of the Spirit of God, which has been poured out for the sake of the eschatological purpose. 

The distinctive point to stress here is that if the church does not fully embrace the eschatological purpose, it will only imperfectly experience the power of the eschatological Spirit. I would suggest, for example, that if the church is called to witness to the possibility of new creation, it should expect to experience the Spirit above all as an imaginative, creative, inventive, subversive force. The art collective seems to me a good heuristic metaphor for the church as a prophetic eschatological community. 

4. The community publicly and prophetically embodies God’s future reality

The early churches were a concrete, public sign first to Israel and then to the nations that the God of Israel was about to take control of things—that the kingdom of God was about to collide with the kingdoms of this world. As communities of the Spirit of prophecy they pointed to coming judgment, both against Israel and against Greek-Roman paganism. They were equipped to survive the social and political disorder that would attend the transformation—martyrdom is almost to be understood as an intentional sign of the victory over death, of the inevitability of the fulfilment of God’s reign. But they also embodied in themselves the potential of God’s new future.

Eschatological communities today will draw on the final hope of the renewal of all things. But the biblical paradigm suggests that this hope needs to be brought backwards into the real world, worked out concretely in the sphere of the social and political. This would be a witness against the current dominant modes of social existence in the West, but it would also be potentially a lived out vision of a realistic, foreseeable alternative future.

I would make the general point again, however, that the modern church does not know how to narrate its own existence. The modern church has, by and large, a cyclical or repetitive mindset—Sunday after Sunday, liturgical year after liturgical year, evangelistic campaign after evangelistic campaign. [pullquote]We do not think narratively. We do not bother to tell our story—either the story leading up to now or the story leading on from now.[/pullquote] The church is an eschatological community precisely when it becomes aware of its place in the historical narrative about God and his people. 

5. The community is built to fulfil the eschatological purpose

The burden of both Jesus and the apostles was to build communities—of disciples, of believers—which would make the long journey down the narrow and difficult path leading to life. From Jesus’ perspective this was a journey through the trauma of the end of the age of second temple Judaism towards the moment when his friends, brothers, followers would be publicly vindicated and a new “Israel” established. For Paul it was a longer and no less painful journey through to a wider second horizon of the collapse of classical paganism and the confession of Jesus by the nations. Only communities that exhibited a radical righteousness and integrity, that trusted fully in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, that persevered in the face of opposition and delay, that were convinced that not even death could overcome them (cf. Matt. 16:18; Rom. 8:35-39) would make it to the end of the road.

I suggest that the church today, at least in the West, is having to make another long and arduous journey of eschatological transition, but is currently ill equipped for the task. We have very little sense of where we are going, we are having to drag a weight of ecclesiological tradition behind us, we are deeply divided, we do not know how to move beyond age-old quarrels, we find it painfully difficult to deal with the schizophrenic tension between faith and reason.

According to the paradigm, therefore, the task of church leaders must be to ensure that communities are fit for eschatological purpose—on the one hand, that they have the resilience to survive the eroding forces of modernity/postmodernity; on the other, that they have the resources to maintain a credible and consistent witness to the reality of a good creator God in the context of the large-scale social, cultural and intellectual shifts to which we are subjected.

6. The community exists for the sake of the glory of God

The question that lies at the heart of the New Testament narrative is not: How are people to be saved? It is this: How would YHWH, the God of Israel, show himself to righteous, trustworthy, true, in the eyes of the powerful idolatrous nations that for so long had dominated his people? The salvation of a remnant of Israel, the inclusion of Gentiles, the outpouring of the Spirit, the vindication of the martyrs—these developments are part of the historical narrative which forms the answer to this question.

It seems to me that we are in a similar situation today, except that we have not grasped as clearly as Paul did that fundamentally in this whole crisis it is the reputation—the glory—of God that is at stake.

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Thanks for following up on this thread-it helps. I have been actively trying to think of ways I can begin to introduce this type of thinking and process into my church. Which is a Methodist church with a mix of mainline and evangelical elements.

I think it starts with learning to tell the story of scripture rather than pulling out verses and offering either therapeutic homilies or doctrinal lessons.  It is only when we are thinking of ourselves as the people of God called and set apart to be a light to the nations within history, and a narrative, not outside of it can we start to ask the right questions.

I think calling out the culture and admitting our failure (against the forces of modernity and secularism) is the hardest part.  Many churches seem fine with challenging culture when it comes to hot button social issues or controversial doctrines but much less so when it comes to materialism and welcoming the outcast and those that makes us uncomfortable.

I think it starts with learning to tell the story of scripture rather than pulling out verses and offering either therapeutic homilies or doctrinal lessons.

I think that’s right. It is a matter of bringing a different frame into focus, and the best way to do that may well be simply to tell the story of scripture as a story continuous with the story of the church—and indeed with the story of humanity. It’s a matter of showing people that the narrative works, holds together, rather than of telling people that they should think differently. There will still be a need to preach on doctrinal and pastoral issues, but the frame is the historical one rather than the theological one.

I enjoyed reading both segments of your post.  I am not a biblical scholar or an avid reader of books on theology, especially if they are on  (or outside) the margins of orthodoxy.  I will need to think more about this subject, but it seems to resonate with me on the first reading.  I am very frustrated with many churches that seem more like social gatherings that have no impact outside the church doors, and where people are left with their idolatry unquestioned or opposed.

I firmly believe that sound doctrine is essential and that unsound doctrine in a local fellowship should be challenged.  However, I do see that most churches do not acknowlege the history of God at work through His people for His glory.  My church in Michigan does better at it than many that I am familiar with.  It is just now rising to the task of preparing “the church” to deal with the increasingly ungodly culture we live in.  I pray that there will be a day when self-indulgence will be questioned and extravagant giving will be encouraged.  Getting our hands “dirty” in the process and facing persecution and loss are part of the whole, but are not yet much talked about.

Thanks again.

Great post, with lots to think about.

However, I think that some of the traditional church practices such as the liturgical year and sacraments could actually help the 21st Century church better understand where it came from and where it is going.

When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are participating in a meal that has ancient roots in the story of the people of God — from the Exodous to Christ’s passion and to the future reality that we will one day be in the new creation with God himself dwelling in the midst of us.  

When we follow the liturgical year, we are joining with the church universal in the life of Christ, and remembering that we are a people under God who have gone through, and in many cases continue to go through, the cycles of suffering (such as lent) and then vindication (Eastertide).  

In your view is there any room for liturgy and sacrament in these eschatological communities or is this part of the excess ecclesiastical weight that needs to be shed?

In your view is there any room for liturgy and sacrament in these eschatological communities or is this part of the excess ecclesiastical weight that needs to be shed?

I think the problem with tradition may not be so much that it is redundant or a dead weight but that it’s inert. I see no reason why traditional aspects of church practice such as liturgies and the sacraments should not be brought to life again to speak prophetically, not only to the church but also to the world, within the frame of the narrative.