What is the church and what is it for? A dynamic definition

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.

Excellent summary, Andrew. My own conclusions, which have emerged from a Pentecostal discipleship and latterly missiological perspectives closely echo your conclusions in this post.

Contextual missiology, in particular, convinced me that cultural insiders must lead the way in articulating, practically and theologically, the incarnation of the Messianic Community (“Church”)—the ongoing story of the People of God in that particular context. This was a hard-fought-for conclusion posited by Shoki Coe, a Taiwanese theological educator, in the late 60’s, early 70’s, when African and Asian nations were becoming politically independent.

Your articulation of the issue of the Fatherhood of Abraham and who has the right to claim this is a very helpful, iconic way to link the OT, NT and ongoing stories of the people of God. 

I would add that the belief that the creator God raised his Son from the dead and gave him authority to judge and rule over the nations became the critical determinant of covenant faithfulness (i.e. who is faithful to the covenant and thus “righteous”). This contrasts with the former crtical determinant of following God’s Teaching (“Torah”)—the boundary markers, or at least the interpretation, of which Y’shua revised, before Paul received his revolutionary revelation of what faithulness to the new covenant required. Helpful?

@John Clements:

Thanks, John. Good comments. I agree with your statement about covenant faithfulness but I would set it in an apocalyptic narrative context. I think judgment and rule over the nations is seen as a future event leading to a new political-religious reality. For a first century Jew or Gentile to be justified by faith meant that at some point in the future they—or the believing community to which they belonged—would be found to have been in the right. It’s a very simple idea. Were they right to believe that God had given Jesus all authority and power? They and the world would have to wait and see. Christendom, in my view, historically speaking, was the concrete vindication of the faith of the early church in the Greek-Roman world.

Kevin Holtsberry | Fri, 05/22/2015 - 20:17 | Permalink

Very helpful. I am giving a book talk at church this summer on Re: Mission (having already led a small group discussion on the book for 6 wweks)

My question is where do Jews and the People of Israel fit into this story? Both now and in the vision of Paul. Are Jews who don’t believe in the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus still part of the people of God? Are they somehow still chosen or set apart?

@Kevin Holtsberry:

Excellent! So how did the small group discussion go?

As I read the New Testament, there is only one place where hope is entertained for Israel following the judgment that would be the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. That is Paul’s argument in Romans 11:17-32, where he considers the possibility that judgment would lead to national repentance, belief that the future lay with Jesus, and restoration to the rich root of the patriarchs. Paul didn’t live long enough to see whether this would happen or not. It didn’t. I make this case in The Future of the People of God and in “Will all Israel be saved? Hurtado and Wright”.

Beyond that, perhaps a more pragmatic case could be made to the effect that the Jews continue to bear witness to the God who created all things, chose Abraham, brought his people out of slavery in Egypt, gave them the Law, and so on. But we will keep running up against Paul’s view, on the one hand, that the Law can only condemn this people to destruction because of sin, and on the other, that Jesus has been made king over the people of God.

What good does it do for the church to say, somewhat condescendingly, that Israel is still somehow chosen but forever under condemnation? Are the Jews asking for that dubious concession?

@Andrew Perriman:

I’m leading a small group at my local church called Community and Faith in a Postmodern Culture. I tried to prepare them for Re: Mission by working our way through NT Wirght’s How God Became King but I have to be honest it was still quite a challenge.  The group, only half a dozen or so people, lean toward the liberal mainline (American obviously) perspective (with a couple of standard evangelicals) but are still immersed in the individualistic, dehistoricized, life application priority, approach to scripture and so balked quite a bit the narrative/historical paradigm.  They did, however, appreciate the fresh light the book shed on scripture and the close exegesis and contextual explanations.  We will have to see if being exposed to new ways of thinking opens up new possibilities.  So far I have had a hard time growing the group.  Will look to start up again in the fall.

Thanks for the flushing out of your thoughts on the place of the Jews in the story of the people of God.  I struggle with this aspect a but I confess. As it seems like the ongoing faith of the Jews sits awkwardly with the narrative/historical reading.  If the law brings condemnation, what does that look like once we are past the war on Rome and judgement on the nations?  Perhaps I am trying to wrap everything up too neatly.  The history of Christianity and Judaism doesn’t make the discussion any easier.

I need to re-read The Future of the People of God.  The book, like its subject, is rather dense … ;-)

One thing Abraham’s story gives me as I think about the Church and her life in the world is the Blessing to the Nations Test (BNT).

Are the things that we’re doing being a blessing to those outside the church or being a plague upon them?  Are we making their world more just or less just?  Are we bringing them reconciliation and restoration or condemnation?  Are we isolating ourselves from them to retain our own purity or herding them into the wedding feast?  Are we supporting corrupt power structures or challenging them?  Are we working to heal social ills or ignoring them (or supporting them!)?

It’s hard to be a blessing to the nations.

peter wilkinson | Tue, 05/26/2015 - 09:50 | Permalink

I picked this up on a link, not realising it had sent me to Postost, and I was thinking how much I agreed with it. Not that the Irish referendum is really calling into question the position of the church as suggested. The church will survive, and continue to grow and prosper, though it might not look quite the same as we have become used to. It will just have to have a better scriptural reading of the passages on which it has traditionally based its erroneous reading of gay marriage and the gay issue generally.

So I was agreeing with the post wholeheartedly, even down to the reading of the gospels, in which the forthcoming destruction of the Jerusalem and temple is foregrounded. Even to Paul’s reading of the Lordship of Jesus over the gentile world as a response to a new and perhaps unexpected contextual development of the inclusion of the gentiles in the people of God (though hardly unexpected to Paul, given his Isaianic mandate to do announce just that).

It started to unravel for me towards the end. The story is not, in my view, the story of God’s unwavering commitment to the promises made to Abraham, though that is an essential load-bearing element of the story, which I’ve always emphasized in contributions to this website. Rather, the other way round, the promises made to Abraham point to and find their fulfilment in Jesus, and only in relation to Jesus (not Abraham, primarily), do the promises find their fulfilment in the people of God.

So the transition of Jesus from being a prophet who foretells the destruction of Jerusalem and temple to becoming Lord of the gentiles (and the gentile world beyond the Roman empire) needs a better explanation than is provided here. Was Jesus’s contextual horizon really bounded by AD 70, and was Paul really looking at an entirely new, different and unexpected contextual horizon?

I think a better way of seeing things, which would be entirely consonant with the very finely expressed drift of the post, would be to see the kingdom message of Jesus being understood more clearly in the story of Acts as it rolled out (book-ended by the kingdom theme as declared at the beginning and end), as the kingdom of God in the entire earth, not simply in Israel. This was, of course, part and parcel of the original promises made to Abraham in the first place. Genesis 12;3, 17:16; 22:18 etc.

Otherwise, yes, I’m on board with this. And the Irish referendum is a message to the church to wake up and smell the coffee, and get a better scriptural understanding not only of the verses on which it bases its erroneous views on gay marriage, but also of its calling to champion the rights of the oppressed everywhere, as it eventually and grudgingly began to do with slaves and women.

Read time: 8 minutes