I won’t go through all the links, but if you’ve traipsed through the blogosphere in recent weeks you may have noticed a series of volleys involving Carl Trueman, Darryl Hart, and Bill Evans (among others) on the subject of transformationalism. It’s an important discussion and one that has taken place before.
Case in point: I found James Bannerman’s chapter “The Church in Its Relation to the World”–in volume one of The Church of Christ (1868)–to be some of the sanest and wisest 13 pages I’ve read anywhere on the subject.
Bannerman begins by putting our subject in the proper context. The work of the church in relation to the world has everything to do with the work of Christ in relation to the world. This work Bannerman understands to be “His purpose of grace;” that is, “the work of conversion and sanctification and preparation for heaven” (81). No longer on earth, Christ has left behind “a twofold agency” to which he has entrusted this task.
First of all, Christ has supplied us with his Spirit to carry forward the “work of spiritual recovery and redemption among men, which He Himself, when on earth, had only begun” (82).
Second, Christ has left us the Church, with its work of Word and sacrament, to be “another instrument in the hand of Christ for carrying forward and accomplishing His purpose of grace on earth” (82).
In short, the work of Christ on earth was one of recovery and redemption, and to continue this work after his ascension into heaven, Christ left behind the Spirit and the Church.
The Mission of the Church
Setting up the question as he does, you have some idea where Bannerman is heading with this discussion. But he does not settle for vague implication of this or that truth. He gets more specific and asks the exact question which seems to bedevil so many Christians today: “What, then I ask, is the mission of the church, and its office in relation to the world?” (83). Great question, no? We would do well to pay attention to Bannerman’s three responses.
“In the first place, the Christian Church, in reference to the world in which it is found, is designed and fitted to be a witness for Christ, and not a substitute for Christ” (83). The church, Bannerman argues, is a visible and outward witness joining with and confirming the internal and invisible work of the Spirit. The preaching of the church proclaim aloud the divine truth of Christ and the ordinance (or sacraments) of the church a public testimony for Christ. In word and sacrament, the church is, along with the Spirit, “the standing and perpetual witness on the earth on behalf of a Saviour” (84).
Importantly, Bannerman insists that the church is “fitted to be a witness,” but is “neither designed nor adapted to be a substitute for Christ” (84, emphasis in original). Christ is in heaven, no longer present on earth; we are not meant to be a substitute for him in his absence. In fact–evangelical proponents of incarnational ministry notwithstanding–it is Catholic ecclessiology which reckons the church to be a permanent incarnation of Christ. Bannerman is adamant that the church is forever pointing upward to Christ in heaven, not embodying his presence on earth. We are ambassadors, not substitutes.
“In the second place, the Christian Church in the world is an outward ordinance of God, fitted and designed to be the instrument of the Spirit, but not the substitute for the Spirit” (87). Recall that the Spirit and the Church are the twofold agency of Christ on earth. It has pleased God, Bannerman maintains, to conjoin outward ordinances with internal effect, visible organization with invisible influence, ordinary means with supernatural grace. The church is, in a special way, the residence of the Holy Spirit, and through the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments the Spirit’s work is carried out.
The church, then, is fitted to be the instrument of the Spirit, but is not a substitute of the Spirit (89). In the Catholic system grace is dispensed through the sacraments ex opere operato (“by the working that is worked”) regardless of personal faith. The church acts as a kind of substitute for the Spirit, the power and efficacy of spiritual recovery residing not in the Spirit but in the ordinances of the church. Strangely enough, the Roman system is not all that different from the extreme pragmatists and Finneyites in evangelical circles who expect the Spirit to work so long as we push the right button and pull the right levers.
“In the third place, the Christian Church in the world is fitted and designed to serve as a means for effecting the communion of Christians with each other–not to be a substitute for the communion of Christians with their Saviour” (91). One of the great ends to be accomplished by the church, Bannerman argues, is the union of disciples into one fellowship. Instead of an individual Christianity, the church gives us a social Christianity. We care for each other, pray for each other, exhort one another, love one another, and by all manner of privileges enjoy a fellowship the world cannot enjoy and does not understand.
So once again, the church is fitted as a means of communion among Christians, but not as a substitute for communion with Christ. We are not joined to the church so that we may be joined to Christ. Rather, we are joined to Christ; and therefore, we ought to be joined to one another in the church. The church does not, and cannot,”stand to the sinner in place of Christ” (92). We have direct and immediate union with Christ through his Spirit.
Some Christians in discussing the relationship between the church and the world have little patience or careful ecclesiology like Bannerman offers. But it is essential for understanding our relationship to culture and what exactly your local church should or shouldn’t be concerned to accomplish. If Bannerman is right, Christ’s ministry in the world was to save sinners, bring them into fellowship with another, and see them safely through to their heavenly home. This does not describe everything he ever did, but I believe it is a fair summary of Christ’s relationship to the world. God sent his Son into the world so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
And if the Spirit and the church exist as the twofold agency of Christ, left by our Lord to continue the work he began, then it stands to reason that the church’s relation to the world would be similar to Christ’s, provided we understand that we can never replace Christ. The church is no substitute for Christ, or the Spirit, or for immediate union with Christ. Rather, our role as the church–in relation to the world–is to bear witness to the saving power of Christ, to exercise the appointed means whereby the Spirit redeems and sanctifies, and to join in one body for mutual fellowship and support those who have been joined to Christ.
Does this mean Christians should be indifferent to suffering in the world? Or pursue irrelevance in their neighborhoods and in their workplaces? No and no. But I dare assert that Bannerman’s doctrine of the church makes more eminent sense, and is more plainly biblical, than contemporary notions whereby the church is called upon to be something it cannot be and do something it cannot do.