Is the Church an Instrument?

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In several articles (see the most recent here), I’ve been interacting with Mark Galli’s series “The Elusive Presence,” which makes the point that in our zeal for doing good things for God, our love and passion for God himself has been eclipsed.

I resonate with this diagnosis of the malaise within evangelicalism. At our best, evangelicals constitute a renewal movement within our denominations and churches. Losing “the love we had at first”—the problem for one of the seven churches in Revelation—is something we must always guard against. Mark is right to sound the alarm that our activity for God can easily replace a vibrant relationship with God.

Where I part ways with Mark is in his broad and ill-defined understanding of the “missional church” as the culprit, as if missional thinking is an activity-generating philosophy that leaves us exhausted. Mark’s fundamental issue with the missional understanding of the church is that it makes the church an instrument for a larger cause (whether it be evangelism or social work or the vague notion that we “make the world a better place”).

Church-Centered Resurgence?

In the previous article, I gave an overview of how the church came to be conceived of as “missional” in the first place. It wasn’t through an emphasis on missionary activity but through the understanding that God himself has a mission the church is invited to join. The mission of the church is grounded in the missionary heart of God. David Bosch, last century’s influential missiologist, went so far as to say there’s no way we will return to a more church-centered understanding of the mission.

He was wrong. We’ve seen pushback in recent years against the missional conception of the church in favor of something more church-centered. Mark Galli is not alone in questioning the helpfulness of Lesslie Newbigin’s vision of the church as the sign and instrument of the kingdom.

Simon Chan and the Church as Instrument

Consider the work of Simon Chan. His Liturgical Theology makes the case for the church being not the instrument of God’s mission but the expression of it. Chan believes that the trajectory set by the missio Dei conversation has major ramifications for how we see ourselves. Just as the New Testament offers us a variety of images for the church (flock of God, family of God, first fruits of the new creation, the temple, the body of Christ, and so on), each with their own array of imaginative connections, so also our conception of the church as “instrument” vs. “expression” will matter in how we shape our common life together.

Crucial to any ecclesiology is the question of how the church is to be understood in relation to creation. Is the church to be seen as an instrument to accomplish God’s purpose in creation, or is the church the expression of God’s ultimate purpose itself? The way we answer this question has far reaching implications. If the church is essentially instrumental, then its basic identity can be expressed in terms of its functions: what it must do to fulfill God’s larger purpose. But if the church is God’s end in creation, then its basic identity can be expressed only in ontological rather than functional terms.

Church Precedes Creation

Chan believes an instrumentalist view of the church comes from a specific reading of the biblical narrative—usually the linear creation-fall-redemption-consummation narrative. The church is the “covenant people of God” who fulfill “God’s original purpose in creation.” The church becomes a means to an end—fulfilling God’s original design. Chan believes this reading of the Bible that prioritizes creation doesn’t go back far enough.

The church precedes creation in that it is what God has in view from all eternity and creation is the means by which God fulfills his eternal purpose in time, the church does not exist in order to fix a broken creation; rather, creation exists to realize the church. God made the world in order to make the church, not vice versa. The church is not an entity within the larger culture but IS a culture.

Anabaptist Contribution

This insight from Simon Chan resembles Mark Galli’s statement that the purpose of the church is not focused on the world, but that God’s purpose for the world is that it be invited into and become part of the church. Although Chan is a Pentecostal theologian and Galli is an Anglican, there’s an Anabaptist sensibility present in this conversation. Stan Hauerwas and Will Willimon’s classic, Resident Aliens, make this point from a different angle.

The call to be part of the gospel is a joyful call to be adopted by an alien people, to join a countercultural phenomenon, a new polis called church. The challenge of the gospel is not the intellectual dilemma of how to make an archaic system of belief compatible with modern belief systems. The challenge of Jesus is the political dilemma of how to be faithful to a strange community, which is shaped by a story of how God is with us.

Being vs. Doing

So what form does mission take within this understanding of the church as a countercultural community? It focuses on being something in the world rather than doing something in the world. Hauerwas and Willimon critique the whole idea that the church works for peace and justice, just like Chan questions the notion that the church is an instrument for wider purposes.

We argue that the political task of Christians is to be the church rather than to transform the world. One reason why it is not enough to say that our first task is to make the world better is that we Christians have no other means of accurately understanding the world and rightly interpreting the world except by way of the church. . . . It is Jesus’ story that gives content to our faith, judges any institutional embodiment of our faith, and teaches us to be suspicious of any political slogan that does not need God to make itself credible.

Hauerwas and Willimon believe the activist impulse of the church does not fulfill its true mission. Activists focus on the world first, with the church as instrument. The Anabaptist vision imagines the world being changed by the church being the church.

Chan and Newbigin

That brings us back to Chan, who—like Mark—believes the church’s basic identity is to be found “not in what it does but in what it is.” But then, in a twist, Chan appeals to Newbigin (the father of missional theology in evangelicalism!) to make this case:

The church’s primary mission, then, is to be itself, which is to be “Christ” for the world. The church by its faith and life becomes, in Newbigin’s words, “the hermeneutic of the gospel”; that is, by being true to its calling as church, the church explicates the gospel in the world.

That brings us back to where we started—back to Newbigin and the “missional movement” that comes under Mark Galli’s critique. In the next column, we will see that Mark’s prescription for abandoning missional theology is not the good medicine for evangelicalism’s disease.

This is the fifth column in a series. See the follow-up posts below.

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