(Not backdated: I believe I wrote this in my final year at seminary, as a part of the work required for graduation (1987). Looking it over, I don’t find much to argue with myself over, after all this time.)
MY THEOLOGY OF THE CHURCH
by Robert C. Buehler
This paper will present what may best be described as a suggestive summary of some themes in my understanding of the church; its nature, origin, purpose, function, task and hope. To say that one is going to present a theology of the church presupposes that the subject-matter at hand has something to do with God; to say my theology (of anything) presupposes that I am going to talk about how this subject-matter relates to my own experience and/or understanding of God. For someone in the Christian tradition to speak of a theology of the church, therefore, necessitates speaking of God as such, and involves the whole range of theological issues. There are thus many different ways this topic could be approached, only a few of which may be touched on here.
The primary focus of this paper will be the church as the community of faith. To further explicate this focus, the church will also be discussed as a divine-human organism, and as the herald of the reign of God. As a statement of one who comes from a tradition which has emphasized personal experience of faith as constitutive not only for personal salvation but for the life of the church as such, and who wants to contribute to the continual renewal of that emphasis, this discussion must find its beginning-point in terms of personal experience; but as that experience, both for this writer and for church members throughout Christian history, becomes understandable first of all in light of the stories of Jesus (already a curious enough observation), it is with the Jesus of those stories that we will begin. Ecclesiology is impossible without Christology.
A. Christological Foundation
The church, the community of faith, finds its origin both historically and existentially in Jesus, the man of faith. It is Jesus who came preaching repentance and teaching about the kingdom of God. The call, baptism, temptation, ministry and message — dare we say even the method — of Jesus, all have their counterpart and continuing effect in the call, baptism, temptation, ministry, message and method which is to be found in the church. Just as Jesus, in all his divinity, must be understood precisely in his humanity, so the people of faith must understand themselves, for all their humanity, in light of the divine nature brought to light in Jesus. A theology of the church must therefore begin in a theology of incarnation.
First something must be said about the relationship of the human and divine in Jesus, a topic that dominated intellectual discussion for two or three hundred years in early Christian times. When Jesus walked this earth, all that he did, whether preaching, teaching, healing, exorcising, praying or raising the dead, he did as a human walking in faith. At the same time, in all that he did, whether eating, sleeping, spitting on the ground, or praying for release from his trials, he did as the present reality of God. There can be no contradiction between these two assertions, which taken together involve the idea that in him God manifested his power among men. This is what it means to say that he was both human and divine. Much modern preaching and teaching, if it gives any credibility at all to the stories of the extraordinary deeds or wisdom of Jesus, slips into a heresy at this point which should have been done away with in the Christological controversy. To assume or imply that Jesus as the God-Man (strange formulation; why do we not say, Divine Human, or Human God? If these latter two sound offensive, then does the first mean anything at all?) acted as human at one moment and as divine at the next is to deny the full mystery of the Incarnation. In the same way, those who are born of the Spirit participate together both as the community of faith, fully human, and as the holy dwelling-place of God. The mystery of God, namely Christ, becomes the mystery of the Church, which is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (see Colossians 1:26-2:3).
Jesus, then, is the pioneer of faith for the church, which is also both human and divine. Just as he is understood to be both human and divine, the same must be said for those who in his name are called to “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). The given-ness of Jesus’ unity with and commission from the Father is repeated in the given-ness of the unity of believers, and thus that of the church, with Christ through the Holy Spirit. The metaphors of the church as a body of which Christ is the head, and of the church as a building of which Christ is the living cornerstone and whose members are built together as living stones, point to the unity of function between the man of faith and the community of faith. It should be clear that this community is to be understood not as an organization nor an institution but as living divine-human organism.
The ministry of Jesus is characterized by the announcement of the Kingdom or Reign of God. This proclamation was closely connected with his activity in the demonstration of the character of God’s Reign through acts of healing, as well as with his activity as a teacher. In the same way, the Reign of God is to be heralded through the church’s proclamation, acts of service and healing, and teaching.
B. The Community of Faith as the Continuing Incarnation of God
Little has been said thus far that would imply any distinction between the characteristics of the church and those of an individual believer. This has to do with the characterization of the church as organic rather than organizational; strictly speaking, where faith is operative, even in a single individual, the life and ministry pioneered by the man of faith is being manifested. This is not meant to imply that individuals who live in faith do so merely as isolated units, but rather that in each individual the entire community of faith is represented. There is no difference between becoming a person of faith and gaining membership in the community of faith. The two are not even different steps in the same process; they are merely different ways of talking about that process. There does appear, however, a real distinction between the man of faith (Jesus) and the community of faith with respect to the organic life of each in relation to God; for though each individual believer represents the whole community, none in fact is the whole community. The question remains of how the community functions both as an aggregate of individual believers and as an organic whole. It is in terms of this organic function that we must speak of the unity of the community of faith.
The community of disciples which Jesus had gathered around himself found itself, in the events of Easter and Pentecost, celebrating the continuing reality and hope of the Kingdom which he had given them, not merely in the sense of an abstract perpetuation of his teaching but in the power of the living reality of his person. This living reality of the risen Christ became the central focus for the life and preaching of faith in the community. It was through this apostolic community and its preaching that Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom became the universal gospel of salvation; thus, each individual believer in Christ, no matter how unique and immediate his experience, is indebted to the preaching of the apostolic church. Integral to this preaching, however, in both its origin and its goal, was the presence and promise of the Holy Spirit. There are thus at minimum two foci, a divine and a human (historical) one, to the unity of the church conceived as an aggregate of individual believers. The human focus is this historical connection with the primitive as well as the contemporary community of faith. The divine focus is a matter of an inner and spiritual reality, and like salvation itself, like the living presence of Christ himself, is accessible only to faith. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in the depths of the human spirit, uniting the individual human with the divine and thereby with all other individual humans for whom the same is true.
For the church conceived as an organic whole there are similarly two foci. In each local congregation the Spirit whose fruit is love, joy, peace, self-control, etc., manifests a diversity of gifts which operate not only within each but among all the members for the common good. One focus is on the charismatic nature of the life of the congregation functioning as an organism drawing life and purpose and coordination of activity from the Spirit that animates it. Leadership here is dynamic and functional, and characterized by service. The other focus, the human and visible, concentrates on the form taken by that coordination of activity, seeks to understand it, and all too often to predict it, control it. From this we get the organizational, institutionalized church, characterized by offices which tend to transform themselves from positions of service to means of advancement and self-perpetuation. It may (possibly) be necessary that such structures emerge first as vehicles for the Spirit’s activity; as earthen vessels, however, they from time to time need to be broken so as not to be confused with the treasure they contain. It is the constant and recurring change from within, known in Christian history as the move to reform and renewal, by which the life of the Spirit can be glimpsed in history. In this also the local congregation shows itself a microcosm of the whole.
The point should be made here that in terms of the organic life a f the church the individual believer functions as a participant in the local congregation and in the universal community of faith, even if the local congregation is (or seems to be) manifested primarily by way of an institutional structure that largely conceals rather than reveals the spiritual treasure within. It is not suggested here, however, that such structures themselves form members of some larger organic unity, or that unity should be sought in the mutual modification or rebuilding of the fossilized remains of once-living manifestations of the Spirit. The life and the unity is to be found, not in the organization but in the community, and specifically in the faith of the community. Jurgen Moltmann said it well (1975:343):
Every congregation gathered together in one place is one in Christ with every other congregation gathered together in other places and at other times….*
Let me add, that every member of any particular congregation is already a member of every other particular congregation. In this sense there is no geographical or formal or confessional limitation on the statement that if any member suffers, all suffer, and if any rejoices, all rejoice. To state in few words the character of this community of faith, it is this: Just as much as the relationship of believers to God is a matter of personal faith, historical or philosophical arguments notwithstanding, so is the divine nature of the relationship of believers to one another equally a matter of faith, and thus at once both a gift and a divine command: unity exists in both the indicative and the imperative, and always in terms of the individual and the fellow-believer, the individual and the congregation, the individual and the whole church. In each case unity is a matter of personal commitment and trust, something that cannot be built into the structure of an organization but must be received from and offered to God.
C. The Herald of the Reign of God
To what purpose, then, this community of faith? Jesus came proclaiming the already present and soon-to-appear reign of God, which he, “anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power,” manifested by “going about doing good, and healing all who were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him” (Acts 10:38). The community of faith came proclaiming the present and soon-to-appear reality of the exalted Christ. to preach Christ is to preach the Kingdom, for it is in him that God has entered the world and begun to reign. We should not look, then, for the marks of the church, but for the signs of the Kingdom. Rather than looking for cultic rituals and formal worship, we should look for love as strong as death, for good news coming to the poor. We should look for healing, for reconciliation, for joyous celebration in the presence of acknowledged sinners. It is such things as these that indicate the presence of Christ, and the in-breaking of the reign of God. It is to effect these things, and not for the mere perpetuation of a cultic fellowship, that the Holy Spirit is found administering a diversity of gifts. The unity, holiness, universality and apostolic character of the church are to be found in this already-present and soon-to-arrive reign of Christ, proclaimed by word and deed and the willingness to die.
*Moltmann, Jurgen. 1975: The Church In The Power Of The Spirit. New York: Harper & Row.