This blog post is one in a series containing responses to the denomination's proposed ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise." These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. This piece is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director, Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology.
There are two ways of approaching identity, not least the identity of the Christian Church. One is ontological. What is its essence? How is it rooted in the essential characteristics of the God who called it into being? This is the approach taken by the document of the Faith and Order Committee of the United Methodist Church entitled Wonder, Love and Praise.
I’d like to suggest an alternative approach, which is genealogical: seeking out the identity of the church by inquiry into the process by which it was brought into being.
Such an approach might appear to begin with the calling of Jesus' disciples to their task of continuing his ministry and going into the world to declare the gospel of his death and resurrection. Yet in truth we must begin further back. Jesus, in describing his mission, continually references the prophets of Israel and even Moses. Paul sees the origins of Christian faith in Abraham. And the Jerusalem council looks to God’s covenant with Noah as the way in which to understand a Gentile Church. And of course, there is Hebrews 12. In short, a genealogy of the Christian church should begin with God’s creation of the world through the calling of Israel into being.
Beginning with the Old Testament, and there is no space for a fuller discussion here, has been and will continue to be extraordinarily fruitful for the self-understanding of the Church as it faces the challenge of unity and diversity. This is because among other things we will find in that story two themes: first the demand the Israel be pure, and second the demand that Israel accept and include those beyond its borders who bring with them precisely the danger of impurity. It isn’t a matter of ambiguity. Israel must accomplish two things that in human terms appear contradictory: to remain utterly faithful to God and free of anything that violates God’s law, and to be utterly faithful to God and be continually engaged with the nations who are both the realm of impurity, and the realm of God’s saving action even for Israel. And it is a story in which the demands for purity and inclusion play out quite literally through genealogies, leading up to the mixed genealogy of David and ultimately Jesus.
It is moreover a story that continues through the ministry of Jesus as he and his followers continually address their own insider/outsider status in relation to what was in his time an international Jewish community emerging out of ancient Israel. What it means to be in continuity with Israel yet different from Israel was a question of identity both communities wrestled with as they came to understand themselves in relation to one another.
Yet as important as the story of Israel becoming Judaism is to Christian identity, the self-understanding of the Church as the means by which the ministry of Jesus continues in the world is more encompassing.
To understand the church as the Body of Christ continuing the ministry of Jesus the Christ we must begin with that ministry. This includes not only his preaching and teaching, but his self-declarations (The Son of Man passages for example) his miracles, and his death, resurrection, and ascension. These lay the groundwork for understanding the ministry that Jesus commands the apostles to fulfill, and thus represent both its purpose and the conditions under which the church will evolve as it realizes that purpose. Again, a full exploration of the relevant passages exceeds the bounds of this short essay, but can be reasonably summarized by saying that the mission of Jesus was to both proclaim and enact the nearness of the Reign of God wherever and whenever he was present. Indeed, he can be recognized as the Lord of God’s Reign, the Christ because in his words and deeds he manifests that specific form of Lordship associated with God’s Reign and no other.
Passages in which Jesus then sends his disciple to continue his work (Luke 10) help clarify how the mission of the church is both the same and different from that of the Christ. The disciples are not lords, they are servants, or perhaps better in English stewards, since as servants they have authority from their Lord. (Luke 7:1-9, Luke 9:1, 10:19) We recognize the collective identity of the disciples through the ways in which they imperfectly enact their stewardship of God’s ruling authority. The story is the basis for understanding their imperfect identity with Jesus Christ.
Those passages in which Jesus commands the re-enactment of his death and resurrection, and thus creates the ritual that constitutes the inner life of the fellowship of apostles (Mark 14:12-21) clarify that picture further. While it belongs to Jesus alone to offer his life on the cross, it belongs to the church to remember and re-enact the passion. This reminds us, along with the Pauline accounts of what he received and passed on, that presence of the living Christ within the Body of Christ arises out of faithful obedience to his command, which precedes theological reflection on the relationship of presence to ritual. (I Corinthians 11:23-26)
The post-resurrection commissioning through which Jesus explicitly sends his apostles out into the world gives us a deeper understanding of how the proclamation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection will become central to enacting the Reign of God. (Matthew 28:16 - 20, Acts 1:8) Their obedience, and failures of obedience, as they live a life in mission then give a distinctive shape to the identity of the apostolic church that emerges both from the apostolic stewardship of the growing body of disciples and their witness to the death and resurrection until his return. (John 21:15-25, Acts 2:15 - 36, I Corinthians 11:26, Romans 8:15-027)
Eventually, if we trace the genealogy of the Church through the various churches as they appear in the New Testament, and the emerging theological expressions of their self-understanding (I John 3 for example, but in some sense the entire New Testament corpus taken as a whole), we begin to get a full sense of what it means to be church. It is rooted in the command of Christ, the enacted fidelity of the apostolic founders of the apostolic church, and the experience in the life of a church of the presence of the resurrected Christ as it engages in faithfully continuing that mission.
Each of these the two approaches I have mentioned, ontological and genealogical, has its merits. Each has its place in the ongoing self-discovery by the Church of its identity. But I would argue that in our time, with the more general cultural ways of understanding identity focusing on narrative, a genealogical approach will be more fruitful than an ontological approach. It will be more accessible as well to those who possess only, or primarily the scripture read inductively as a resource.
Put more simply, if we are learning what it means to faithfully follow the command of Jesus Christ together it may become easier for us to go to church together.