What is the church and what is it for? In the West we live in a post-Christendom and increasingly post-Christian world whose fundamental beliefs are secular humanist. The great public symbols of Christian authority have been cast to the ground and trampled under foot. The last vestiges of a Christian culture are being slowly erased. The referendum on same-sex marriage in Ireland taking place today is an immediate illustration of the point. This is a profoundly challenging situation for the church, and in my view we are generally finding it very difficult to reconstruct a credible and workable identity and purpose for ourselves in this brave new world.
In biblical terms, however, you’d think the answer was pretty simple. The church is the community of those who have been saved by Jesus’ atoning death. Its purpose is to preach the gospel and support the faithful as they make a life-long journey of sanctification and discipleship until eventually—unless Jesus returns first—they get to heaven.
What’s wrong with this definition of the church and its mission?
What’s wrong is that there is no story to it. It assumes that the basic blueprint is given in the New Testament, and that the most we can do in the course of history is reform the church and restore it to its pristine New Testament condition.
This generates two types of difficulty for us. First, it is at odds with the overall narrative, historical and eschatological character of scripture. Why should the story of Israel come to a standstill when we get to the New Testament, leaving us with a bunch of systematic definitions? Or to put it another way, why does eschatology matter so little in our thinking about the church?
Secondly, a systematic definition of church and mission does not help us understand or address the particular historical challenges faced by the church today. We are not a community on the cusp of Jewish-Gentile transition, daring to defy pagan empire. Things have moved on since then.
What I want to suggest here is that the Bible gives us a simple but compelling narrative definition of the church as that community which is entitled to claim the promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs. Let me explain.
The beginning of new creation
To start with, if we are going to take into account the whole biblical narrative, and not just a truncated section of it, we need a larger and more dynamic category than “church”. The Bible tells the story of the “people of God”, beginning with a set of promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs. What we have in the New Testament is not the beginning of something quite different, to which the Old Testament story is at best an extended preface. It is a controversy over who has the right, at a time of great crisis, to inherit those promises.
The promises look backwards to creation and forwards to the continuing historical existence of the descendants of Abraham in the midst of the nations. Abraham is the beginning of a new creation: God will bless him and make him fruitful; his descendants will multiply and will fill the land that God will give them (Gen. 12:1-2; 15:5; 17:1-8; 22:17-18; 26:4; 35:11; cf. 1:28). But his family will also be a potent, catalytic presence in the midst of all the families of the earth, for better or for worse: the creator will bless those peoples which bless the family of Abraham and he will curse those peoples which dishonour the family of Abraham (Gen. 12:3).
For the most part, in the Old Testament this narrative is merely presupposed; it is submerged. But importantly, it surfaces in the narrative of the restoration of Israel after exile. At this critical juncture, when the historical existence of the people is in jeopardy, the promise to Abraham is reaffirmed (Is. 51:1-3; cf. 2 Kgs. 13:23; Ps. 105:8-11). The righteous are fearful and unsure of the future, but they are told to look to Abraham, the quarry from which the stone of Israel was cut. The Lord will hold fast to his promise to bless Abraham and multiply him, and the wilderness of Zion will be made like Eden, “her desert like the garden of the Lord”. The people of God begins as a new creation, and it re-begins as a new creation.
Who can claim Abraham as father?
But at the opening of the New Testament story, Israel faces destruction: “the axe is laid to the root of the trees”; and it is no longer so obvious who is entitled to claim the promises made to the patriarchs. John the Baptist warns the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to him not to take for granted their right to claim descent from Abraham:
Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. (Matt. 3:8–9)
Jesus’ prophetic ministry to Israel can be characterised in the same terms. He radically redefines who in Israel is entitled to claim the promises made to the patriarchs—not those at the top but those at the bottom, not the insiders but the outsiders, not those who are first but those who are last.
The rich man will be cut off from Abraham and will suffer the judgment coming on complacent Israel; but the wretched Lazarus is “carried by the angels to Abraham’s side” (Lk. 16:19-31).
When the “sinner” Zacchaeus repents of his avarice and promises restitution, he is saved—in the sense that he is reaffirmed as a “son of Abraham” (Lk. 19:8-9). At this moment of dire eschatological crisis for Israel, it is those Jews who repent and bear the fruit of repentance who will be entitled to claim that they are the true descendants of Abraham, inheritors of the seminal promises made by the creator God to the patriarchs. These are the people who can expect to have a future as the people of God.
I have argued before that the parable of the prodigal son should also be read in light of this narrative: the father to whom the younger son is restored following his rebellious and reckless venture is not God but Abraham (Lk.15:11-32). The parable concludes with a feast, and elsewhere the climax of God’s current purposes for Israel is pictured as a banquet, at which those who have found acceptance will sit at table with the patriarchs (Matt. 8:11; Lk. 13:29; 14:15; 22:30).
It is those of faith who are sons of Abraham
The controversy takes on a different aspect, however, after the resurrection of Jesus, as the significance of this extraordinary event is proclaimed to the peoples of the Greek-Roman world.
In the Gospels, in the face of the coming catastrophe of God’s judgment against Israel, the issue is who in Israel will survive the wrath of God to share in the future life of the people of God. It has very little to do with the Gentiles.
But for Paul a bigger, more far-reaching question has supervened: who will share in the rule of Israel’s God over the nations? It is not those who keep the Jewish Law who will inherit the world but those who believe that YHWH raised Jesus from the dead and has given him all authority and power in heaven and on earth (cf. Rom. 4:13-15; Gal. 3:7-9). The Law brings wrath on the people of the Law. But in Jesus God has demonstrated his commitment to the promises that he made to Abraham (cf. Rom. 3:21-22). Those who believe in this act of righteousness—whether Jews or Gentiles—will share not only in the new life of the people of God but also in the coming “victory” over imperial paganism.
For Paul, therefore, the “church” is that community which has inherited the promises made to Abraham. It has done so not on the strength of observance of the Jewish Law but by its belief that the creator God raised his Son from the dead and gave him authority to judge and rule over the nations. It is, therefore, the community which eventually will be vindicated when the nations confess that Jesus is Lord.
The narrative context is different, the eschatological implications are different, but the basic principle remains fixed, which is that God will not under any circumstances, at any time, renege on the promises made to Abraham. The church is simply the beneficiary of that faithfulness.
The church and Abraham today
If we try now to bring this narrative definition of the people of God up-to-date, I suggest that there are two main conclusions to be drawn by the church after Christendom.
First, it means that as the people of God, as inheritors of the promises made to Abraham, we must be prepared to “confess” the whole biblical story—publicly, faithfully, with exegetical honesty, with hermeneutical candour.
The core events of the New Testament—the death and resurrection of Jesus, the inauguration of the church—are meaningful only as part of, and as a continuation of, that story. The fundamental theological significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection is not that people are saved but that God holds true to the promises made to Abraham. We are affirmed as heirs to the patriarchs precisely because history makes things very difficult for us. This argument, by the way, informs my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans before and after Western Christendom.
Secondly, it means that the church must understand itself as a people called to be new creation in the midst of peoples, nations, cultures and civilizations which have systematically denied priority and preeminence to the living creator God. That remains a potent, catalytic and ambiguous presence—we might call it “mission”. In the post-Christendom, post-imperial, globalizing context we have good reason to re-humanize and re-socialize what it means to be “church”—that is, we should recover the full scope of created life. But we do so always out of loyalty to, and for the sake of, the living creator God, who dug out a people for himself from the quarry of Abraham. This, as it happens, is the argument of my book Re: Mission: Biblical mission for the post-biblical church. Just so you know.