Realistic expectations of what the church is and will be

In a really well written article in Themelios by Uche Anizor that draws together various ecclesiological strands of Colin Gunton’s thought from multiple sources, we see some really practical outworkings of what the church is and should be and will be in the light of a robust doctrine of the Trinity.  Anizor writes, “Gunton’s relentless attempt to root the nature and calling of the church in the being and action of the triune God opens up a way for a more concrete and realistic perspective on the church than is common, while offering a potentially more fruitful starting point for ecumenical dialogue regarding the nature of the church.”

“a more concrete and realistic perspective on the church than is common.”

We all know things could and should be better; some are disillusioned to the point of desertion; others remain but function in a spiritual wilderness akin to the effects of Ritalin; whilst yet many more recognise a “concrete and realistic perspective” is the only way to live in reality and eschew fantasy.

Thus Anizor opens with these words,

“Conflict in relationships is often rooted in inappropriate or unmet expectations. This commonplace wisdom regarding everyday relationships is no less true of one’s relationship to the church. Our conduct and feelings toward the church are governed largely by our expectations of what the church should be. These expectations, furthermore, are rooted in our understanding of the church’s nature. Ministers who weekly find themselves disappointed with the failings of their congregations would do well to attend to their understanding of what the church is. Laypeople who find themselves regularly frustrated with their community’s shortcomings are advised to do likewise. Disappointment (among other negative feelings) often flows from unrealistic expectations, which sometimes betray an unbalanced view of the church. Therefore, a healthy understanding of the nature of the church is of utmost practical import. Is the church the kingdom? If not, what is it? In what ways, if at all, is the church (and actual churches) a sign of the new Jerusalem? How can we theologically describe this imperfect reality we call the “church”? Colin Gunton provides one helpful response.”

The way forward is offered positively thus,

“First, we examine three related areas that contribute to a fuller understanding of the trinitarian heart of his ecclesiology: (1) the ontology of the church, (2) the place of pneumatology, and (3) the role of a proper Christology.  Then we provide a constructive appraisal. The hope here is that Gunton’s contribution might help free pastors, teachers, and congregants to live and serve in the church with a love and compassion rooted in realistic expectations of what the church is and will be.”

The essay really weaves a fantastic theological tapestry integrating the Pneumatological, Christological and Ecclesiological threads.  We need to know who this God is before we build on ecclesial foundations.  That is why I enjoyed the comments right at the end just before the conclusion, aimed at those pastors and lay people who are tempted to disillusionment at the ontology of the Church:

“Pastors and laypeople, then, should not expect more of the church than is appropriate for what it actually is. In light of Gunton’s trinitarian ecclesiology, the church is this or that communion of broken but freely relating individuals drawn together in Christ, which by the Holy Spirit is given the time and space to become what it is meant to be. Disappointment and disillusionment come when the eschatological dimension of the church’s being is not sufficiently taken into account. When a congregation does not rise willingly to the challenge of the sermon, or take active part in the church’s ministry, it merely demonstrates its reality as a creature between the times. When it is difficult for newcomers and old-timers to find meaningful fellowship, or when supposed hypocrites abound in the community, the imperfection of the church’s humanity is accented. The church is an imperfect and incomplete sign of the present and coming kingdom of God; it is a Spirit-endowed human reality. It is with these eyes—those able to view the present state of the church in light of its appointed telos—that we are to relate to the body of Christ….”

“Disappointment and disillusionment come when the eschatological dimension of the church’s being is not sufficiently taken into account.”

“…Furthermore, once rightly oriented to the church’s anthropic nature, every member is thus to function as an instrument of the Spirit’s eschatological perfecting of the church. Christians within concrete congregations are called to be the means by which God’s ends are accomplished in the church. For example, we are summoned to a certain attentiveness to the “priestly” obligations we have toward one another, chiefly, to minister the Word of God. According to Luther, it is this “unofficial” ministry of the Word that leads to and sustains the reformation of the church. Indeed, if all believers are priests, and priesthood is defined primarily by the ministry of the Word, then a properly functioning priesthood leads to the pervasive presence of God’s Word amidst his people. Luther’s concern was that by limiting the priesthood to a select few, we weaken the capacity for the Word of God to correct and shape the church. Therefore, in one sense Luther democratizes access to and ministry of the Word, but not to the exclusion of ordained ministers or to encourage individualism. Rather, he delivers the Word of God to every believer so that each is made responsible for the encouragement, comfort, and discipline of others, and all this for the sake of the entire church. “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” is thus an eschatological directive: if the church is to move toward what it will be, every Christian must take seriously his or her role in reforming or, better, conforming the church to the likeness of Christ, and pastors must prepare them for these works of ministry.”

It is the Person and work of Christ, the on-going work of the Holy Spirit and an eschatological telos that will provide “realistic expectations of what the church is and will be”, so that we are all more free to love and serve with the gifts the Father has given each person, that the City of Humanity may dwell in the City of God as the redeemed People of God.

Am I shocked by sin in the church?  No.  I am bored by sin, but never shocked (i.e. I expect it; I assume it).  Does it diminish God?  No.  It diminishes us, but it is God who takes our fallen diminishment and raises it up with Christ.

The church is a mixed bag, of course the wheat and weeds grow together.  Therefore, we know, there are people who “want religion” to bolster whatever they lack in their ontological/psychological/sociological arsenal.  So what!  Love them!!  They may want to be as one parading around in a righteous cloak of religiosity, but as Henry David Thoreau reminds us so memorably, “I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit?”  Inward transformation is the thing, not the tomfoolery of religious impressions.  The Church is full of both kinds, and we are called, in Christ to love and serve them both in the Gospel, because that is what the Trinitarian God of the gospel is like.

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One thought on “Realistic expectations of what the church is and will be

  1. Oooo interesting stuff here. What a challenge to us all. I thought at first this might be an article for him indoors but no. Quite the reverse me thinks. Need to read again!

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