Several months ago Englewood Review of Books published an extensive review of Prodigal Christianity by Christian Amondson. It was a negative review. There were several theological misses in it. Nonetheless the review articulated a common criticism of the book (and the criticism I’ve been getting for years). To put it concisely, Amondson complains that I (and Holsclaw) make the church equal to Jesus. In making the church the extension of the incarnation, we come dangerously close to colonialism: i.e. making the church the owner of God’s power in the world. We in effect make God’s Mission the work of the church. It becomes something we do. I suggest that Prodigal Christianity does almost the exact opposite of what Amondson charged.
Amondson argues that Prodigal Christianity’s “account of the church as the extension of the incarnation short-circuits” our ability to differentiate the work of God from the work of our own hands. Mission becomes our own agency. We take power into our own hands. Amondson chastises us by saying “there’s just one problem with this formulae: the church is not Jesus.” To me this is another take on maybe the single most important theological issue for the missional movement in N America: the relationship between mission and the church, missiology and ecclesiology, the church and the Kingdom.
Prodigal Christianity does articulate a much closer relationship between the church and Jesus, the church and the Kingdom, than is common within ‘progressive’ Christianity. We do view the church as the extension of the incarnation. I make no apology for that. But one only read Prodigal Christianity a bit more carefully than Amondson to dispel the notion that we see the church as equal to Jesus. Instead we argue that the church is the means by which God extends Christ’s presence into the world. When we gather, submit to Him and His reign, in a particular space and time, we are filled with His presence, and His reign becomes visible. This need not happen only in worship. Indeed I argue it happens in the neighborhoods, or wherever Christians inhabit themselves. Nonetheless, there is an inescapable close linkage between the church and Jesus, the church and the Kingdom, because by definition, we who submit to Christ are the church and that submission makes space for Jesus’ reign to become visible.
Some may wonder: well does this not still put too much power in the church’s hands? NO, because God’s power in Christ only comes as we submit to and surrender (our control) to God in space and time. This is the nature of incarnational community. This is the nature of the incarnation itself. It is the humble vulnerable submission of the Son to the Father in all things for His work in the world (Phil 2). This is the core of what the book means by the word “prodigal.” Because, the church is an extension of the incarnation, we as a people can never enter the world in any other way as via the incarnation, i.e. humbly vulnerably as God has come in Christ. To in any way take a posture of worldly power is to deny the incarnation and deny the very power of God having come in Christ. The posture of ‘usurping’ power (any coercion or violence) denies God, rejects His reign and His power cannot be present.
In ch. 7 of Prodigal Christianity (as well as the last chapter of End of Evangelicalism?) we outline how this incarnational posture is part of several practices of being God’s people in the world. The Lord’s Table, reconciliation, proclamation of gospel, and being “with” the least of these (to name a few) are all practices that require first submission to Jesus as Lord and King, and submission one to another, from which His presence becomes manifest. These practices all invite the world to join in as we live peace, reconciliation, Eucharist and gospel in and among. These practices shape a church that is neither static and possesses Christ and His power, nor dispersed everywhere where we have no idea where Jesus is. Instead, the church is a social dynamic whereby people gather under His lordship and His reign and in so doing His power, His authority, indeed His very presence becomes manifest (materialized) in our midst as a witness to the rest of the world where God in Christ is taking the whole world (1 Cor 15:25) – they just haven’t seen/or participated in it yet. Far from Mission and Kingdom being something “we” do as the church, it is something God does through us as we make space for Him through submitting to Him (the very opposite of taking power/effort into our own hands)
So to put Amondson’s concerns to rest, “the church is not Jesus.” Yet the church is the very extension of Jesus into the world as it submits to His reign and makes space for His real presence among us. I’m not the first to speak of the church like this. Von Balthasar, Henri deLubac, and several patristic fathers have explicated a Christus Prolongatus understanding of the church. Amondson thinks this view of the church is new? No, it’s quite old. It just got encrusted (and lost) in Christendom. I think there is enough in Paul’s most popular nomenclature for the church (the body of Christ”) to understand there is a closer relationship between the church and Jesus than Amondon’s dismissal was willing to admit.
I’ve been derelict in responding to Amondson’s review. I just haven;’t gotten to it. But this review is important because I believe this ecclesiological issue is important to the future of the missional church in North America. Too often, a missional ecclesiology has meant no ecclesiology. Too often a missional ecclesiology has meant Christians getting together and working hard for God’s Mission of justice in the world and burning out. Too often a missional ecclesiology has meant a decentered church and a dispersed Holy Spirit (what I have called a Wild Goose chase). But in the view of Prodigal Christianity (and more importantly historic Christianity and the Bible J), the church is sent out as the very presence of Jesus making space for His Kingdom to become visible, this Kingdom where God is already at work bringing the whole world into reconciliation with Himself.
What’s your view of the relationship between church and Jesus, church and Kingdom? How about the church as the extension of the incarnation? Like it? Problems?
P.S. For those interested in a thorough debunking of colonialist critqiue, as well as the apocalypticist critique and the immanentist post modern critique of the Christus Prolongatus , I encourage you to read Jens Zimmerman’s excellent Incarnational Humanism, especially ch. 5.