Is the Church Jesus? Arguing for a Closer Relationship between Jesus, His Reign and the Church, and being alright with that!

christ-surrending-the-keys-to-st-peterWarning theological post. May require some familiarity with theological jargon. Sorry :

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.

 

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18 comments on “Is the Church Jesus? Arguing for a Closer Relationship between Jesus, His Reign and the Church, and being alright with that!
  1. Stephen Edwards says:

    I gave a more nuanced critique of you along similar directions in my thesis that I passed along on exactly this matter of missionary ecclesiology.

    My point was that yes we do need something of such an aspect of ecclesiology – but the colonialism is chastened (somewhat) by focusing also on the practice of repentance (more explicitly in terms of how practices for you are ontological determinative for Gods work in extending the incarnation).

    Not too mention – the other key way this is balanced is on the recognition that the church cannot be simply a voluntary society (even if on one level it is). I think such a sociological shift (with all its implications) is how we can begin to look at church-christ-incarnation relationships helpfully.

    But then I said a lot of this when we met for breakfast in hamilton :) . Im still hoping (!) That my thesis is another one of those things you are ‘just waiting’ to ‘get around to’ ;) .

    Much appreciation though for your continued thoughts nonetheless!

    Stephen edwards

  2. Christian Amondson says:

    Hey David,

    Sorry again that we missed each other at EP this summer. I do appreciate you taking the time to respond to the review. It’s been a while, but I think I’m still familiar with the trajectories of the book, my review, and the comments.

    One of my first memories was going with my father to purchase a VCR; it must have been around 1979. He loved that thing, and loved his new ability to tape old movies. So, from the age of three on, I was educated in the ways of Abbot and Costello, W. C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, and above all, the Marx Brothers. I’ve seen every one of their movies at least 10 times. Which is why it’s odd that it wasn’t until I was in my twenties watching Annie Hall that I first “heard” what has become my most favorite Groucho Marx line: “I would never want to join a club that would have someone like me for a member.” There’s a certain irony here, in that I am membered to a very small intentional house church. Be that as it may, I this quote really illumines what I consider to be one of a core ecclesiological and Christological truth: I am marked by sin; whatever I think is true is at best incomplete, which means that I have not yet arrived, which means that I need others who are different from me if I’m going to get any closer to being saved.

    I’m glad that at the end of it all, you and I agree that it’s not theologically sound to say that Jesus is the Church; that is, that there is no distinction and no surplus to the Jesus’ relationship to the church. I would probably want to push back against your claiming of the Christus Prolongatus (I would also mention that I never attributed this position to you or Geoff and am aware that it is an ancient one). I think it is certainly a defensible position, but it is one that would certainly present a discomfit for someone claiming an Anabaptist ecclesiology. Alas, that really is a side point. The main point, and my primary reason for stating things so starkly in the review, is that to say we extend Christ at the very least means that we have to be very, very careful with how we articulate what exactly this means. And this is where I think your book really missed the mark.

    To get back to Groucho, you argue in the book and in this post that you are making room for the kingdom to become manifest (or “break in” as per the language used in the book). And you say this happens when you submit to God by performing certain practices. The problem, though, is that in the vast majority (if not all) of your concrete examples of what this looks like have little to do with submission (real submission, that is costly and that displaces us from the control we are used to wielding in our own lives). Every example is one where some “other” is bettered through encountering you or your church.

    This probably could have slid by, but you explicitly invoke language of mutual submission.

    Again, I stated before (not sure if it was in the review or the comments) that I was open to hearing how you didn’t live in a way where submission was one sided, but that for whatever reason you just failed to include examples of that in the book.

    So, my point was not to make a general theological argument that any notion of being Christ’s Body or participating in Christ’s presence or even the Church somehow (mysteriously) extending the incarnation automatically leads to colonialism. My point was to say that it can, and given the examples you and Geoff chose to include, your book turned out to be a very clear example of this (please see the review for citations of the most egregious of these examples).

    This is why we need to be very, very careful when we say we are extending Jesus into the world. Because we often can just end up becoming the Borg in Jesus Name, calling socio-economic and cultural assimilation the in-breaking of the Kingdom.

    I guess, at the end of the day, it would have helped the book had you included some real, gritty examples of how you and Geoff were confronted and transformed by the presence of Jesus in some of these people who you tell us you helped. Cause if Jesus isn’t present to “us” in and through the other, the different one, the one who “just haven’t seen/or participated in it [God in Christ taking the whole world] yet,” then I’m afraid we don’t have much hope aside from creating insular little clubs with members just like us.

    Peace to you,

    Christian

  3. Dale Lature says:

    Wow. I was up super early this morning, and picked up to read some more William Cavanaugh in Migrations of the Holy. I happen to be in Chapter 7, “the Church as political”, and he spends a good deal of that chapter on this exact subject. Add Cavanaugh to your ” I’m not the first to speak of the church like this ” list.

  4. David Fitch says:

    Stephen Edwards … two words for you “Bright Spot” … next time I’m in Hamilton … see you there!! to discuss more.

  5. R.O. says:

    Why do people think that the ecclesiologies of Balthasar and de Lubac are in any way consonant with Anabaptism?

    • Christian Amondson says:

      I do believe it is the new trend (new being rather old now) to pick pieces of a theology that “seem good to me” and throw them all together. Hauerwas was the main forerunner of this for many-a-folk, but I think that committed anabaptists have shown how this is problematic (being a High-Church Mennonite, that is). Peter Dula is the prime example. See his “For and Against Hauerwas Against Mennonites.”

      The problem is that such a posture is one that does not attend well to the very serious differences in these positions, differences that stand out to others who are deeply committed in one of those particular traditions.

    • David Fitch says:

      Ask Hauerwas how he can be an Anglican? Or why he considers himself a high church Mennonite? These are worlds some parts of academic protestant theology never get to.

      • Christian Amondson says:

        See above. Would highly recommend you read the Dula article. The cherry picking of elements from various traditions is a particularly protestant/evangelical issue. Seems like Emergent tried to make that explicit. Perhaps one of the things you have in common with them?

      • R.O. says:

        It’s not so much the “cherry-picking” that bothers me. The issue runs much deeper I think. I really do think it is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Anabaptist theology.

  6. Jimmy says:

    How does your idea of extending the incarnation sit alongside the claim that Christ “sitteth at the right hand of the Father”?

  7. R.O says:

    I mean, it’s as if Anabaptism is taken to be, ironically, a form of radical Catholicism, instead of radical protestantism.

    • David Fitch says:

      R.O. … I think there’s a bit of confusion here in your statement. Like, most of us are not denominational Anabaptists, we’re Neo-Anabaptists appropriating some of its best insights into the nature of church, mission, Christology etc for post-Enlightenment/post Cartesian cultural challenges. In this regard the learned insights of nouvelle theologie by Hauerwas, Duke etc… does not conflict with any attempt to claim some kind of purist historical derivation, because there is no such claim.

  8. R.O says:

    Also, curious to know how Zimmermann debunks colonialist critiques given the fact that his most recent book is one long defense of the renewal of Western culture.

  9. Dale Lature says:

    I need to turn off email notifications from this thread, but the “Manage Your Subscriptions” link doesnt seeem to take me to the right place to do so. Could I be manually removed?

  10. Clayton R. says:

    I don’t think this view of the Church got lost in Christendom, so much as it got lost in increasingly weak Protestant ecclesiology (ecclesiology generally weakening with each Protestant schism). However, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church still hold to basically the same ecclesiology they always have, so I don’t get the claim that you are recovering a lost understanding of the Church. Also, I think a good argument can be made that Christendom is the logical consequence of this ecclesiology.

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David Fitch
Betty R. Lindner Professor of Theology
Northern Seminary
DMin in Missional Leadership
Prodigal Christianity
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