Israel and the Church: reclaiming the continuities

Generally speaking, most ecclesiological thinking has tended to overemphasize the discontinuity between ancient Israel and the church.  There are many reasons for this, some of which explicitly and intentionally emphasize the discontinuities, and some of which do so in an implicit way.  This overstress on the differences between Israel and church can lead to a static understanding of the church, which misses out on the dynamic, historical nature of the people of God, and thereby leaves us less sensitive to questions of renewal and reform.  I would suggest that thinking more intentionally about the continuities between the church and Israel can help to recover a more biblical understanding of the people of God.

My perspective on this question has been greatly influenced by George Lindbeck’s argument for an “Israel-like” view of the church.  I’m not going to summarize his work here (though maybe I should do that another time), but if you are interested in what he has to say, I would recommend reading the following two essays: “The Story-Shaped Church: Critical Exegesis and Theological Interpretation,” in Scriptural Authority and Narrative Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 161–78; and “The Church,” in The Church in a Postliberal Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 145-165.

First of all, why is it that Christian thinking about the church has overemphasized the discontinuities between Israel and church?  I would suggest four significant reasons, though their are probably more.
  • An idealized, platonic understanding of the church.  This is particularly true of ecclesiologies which place great stress on the “invisible church” (that is, the elect, known only to God) as the “real” church.  If the “real” church is invisible, then the historical, visible church can be undermined as “unreal” or unimportant.
  • A triumphalistic view of the church as holder of the keys to salvation.  If the church’s role in mediating salvation is stressed too much, such that the church itself is seen as possessing the fullness of the means of salvation (rather than serving as God’s instrument), then it becomes easy to play off the “triumphant” church against the unfaithfulness of Israel in the Old Testament.
  • Divisions among Christians leading to different groups claiming to be the “true” church.  The triumphalist tendency in the Christian church has only be exacerbated by divisions.  In a situation of division, ecclesiology has often become about proving that your church is complete and lacking in nothing, in comparison with other churches.  Again, this can easily lead to a presumption that we are above the failures of Israel.
  • Some forms of supersessionism and dispensationalism.  Obviously, supersessionism in all forms is going to stress the discontinuities between Israel and church, since supersessionists argue that the church as replaced Israel as God’s people.  The most extreme form would be dispensationalism, which, in arguing that Christians and Jews live under different “dispensations” of God, are able to justify strong discontinuities between the Israel and church.

So, what then, am I proposing regarding the continuities and discontinuities between Israel and church, scripturally speaking?  Clearly, from a Christian perspective, things have changed for the people of God post-resurrection.  But how much has changed, and what hasn’t changed?

First, what are the discontinuities between Israel and church?

  • Pentecost marks the beginning of a greater fullness of the Spirit, poured out upon all (Joel 2:28-32 / Acts 2).
  • Jesus Christ offers a more complete revelation of God than was available to the OT people of God (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 1:1-4)
  • The church is given a universal mandate to evangelize the world (Matthew 28:16-20)
  • The sacrificial worship and priesthood of OT Israel are replaced by Jesus’ work on the cross (Hebrews 10)
  • The church is not intended to be a nation with a theocratic civil government, but a dispersed community of exiles, spread among every nation (1 Peter 1:1-2)

What are the continuities that I believe should be re-emphasized?

  • The church is still a historical and visible community of persons.
    • It is not an “idea”; the church is a real, living human community, with a history of ups and downs, successes and failures, faithfulness and apostasy (Acts 5; Revelation 2-3)
    • The church is still a communal entity. Though salvation is personal it is not individualistic.
    • The people of God can still be seen as a people on a journey – a pilgrim people headed towards the new creation (1 Peter 2:11)
  • The church is still subject to judgment under the lordship of Christ. This judgment is not only a future event, but is reflected in the church’s historical life, here and now. Judgment begins with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17).  NT Christians viewed OT history as their history, and took warning against unfaithfulness (1 Cor. 10).
  • The church is still a holy and priestly people, witnessing in word and deed to the world about the faithfulness of God (1 Peter 2:9-10).
  • The people of God still need a Saviour. The church is not, in itself, the fulfilment of Israel; Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Israel; he is also the fulfillment of the church; we find fullness in him, not in ourselves (Eph. 1:3-10)

If we take these continuities to heart, several implications will follow.  These are thoughts which I try to keep in mind as I think theologically about the church.

  • Though the church enjoys a greater fullness of the Holy Spirit, we are still fallible and capable of unfaithfulness, as was ancient Israel (1 Corinthians).
  • Because the church is historical, it always exists in a particular time and place, as a particular community embedded as a bodily presence in a particular culture.  Being rooted in a specific time and place, then, is an essential aspect of the church’s identity.
  • Though Christ has taken our judgment upon himself, he still disciplines his people as their Lord, just as the people of Israel were disciplined.  That is to say, all forms of “triumphalism” should be rejected.  Being “in Christ” and having the Spirit’s presence does not imply automatic blessing – it may also mean judgment, rebuke, and discipline (1 Cor. 11:32).
  • Finally, we should expect to see periods of decline and renewal in church history, and we should attune ourselves to these dynamics.  This is part of our journey as the living, breathing, embodied, historical and visible people of God.
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The Limits of Legitimate Diversity in the Church

When people ask me about my thesis topic, I usually just say I’m working on the question of unity and diversity in the church.   I think a non-specialist can make some sense of that, whereas “the theology of ecclesial charisms” is a bit obscure.

But even the question of “diversity” in the church is more complicated than it first appears.   In the past few decades it has become standard practice in ecumenical circles to state that diversity is essential for true unity.  This is certainly true.   But it begs the question, “What kind of diversity are we talking about?”  Does all diversity contribute to unity?  Of course not.  There must be some limits to the kind of diversity that is acceptable, as well as the degree of diversity that will be tolerated.    While there is general agreement that unity requires diversity, there is little agreement among the churches as to what constitutes legitimate diversity.

Part of the issue is simply naming the different kinds of diversity that already exist in the church.  I’ve come up with a list of six categories.  These are not mutually exclusive, but interrelated, with many of the categories impacting on one another:

1. Doctrinal diversity.  For many people, this is the first kind of diversity that comes to mind.  How much diversity of doctrinal formulation is acceptable? Can we distinguish “essential” doctrine from “secondary doctrine?  On what basis?   This involves  important questions about the nature of human knowledge and language.  To borrow the categories from George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine: if you have a “propositionalist” understanding of doctrine, you will approach questions of doctrinal disagreement from a very different perspective from those who operate from “experiential-expressivist” presuppositions.

2. Ethical/moral diversity.  This is becoming a hot-button issue between the churches, as debates continue regarding human sexuality.  Are there ethical issues on which diversity in the church is unacceptable? Are diverse views regarding moral and social issues a secondary consideration in comparison to doctrinal diversity, or are they of equal significance? To put the question more directly, are moral issues church-dividing?

3. Cultural / historical diversity. Some differences between churches are based on context.   People in different cultural or historical contexts will, to a greater or lesser degree, proclaim the Christian faith in different ways.  How much cultural variation in doctrine, worship, polity, and morality is acceptable?  A related question: is it acceptable for churches to be formed on the basis of ethnic, cultural, or socioeconomic status? (Here we might consider H. Richard Niebuhr’s demonstration of how denominations simply mirror social divisions in The Social Sources of Denominationalism, and compare his argument with the “homogenous units” approach of the church growth movement).

4. Denominational/confessional diversity.  Are denominations an acceptable form of diversity? I think most protestants simply assume they are, but theologically this is a very debatable issue.  Under this category we must consider a) the “institutional” separation of Christians in different organizational structures and the challenges this creates for recognizing one another’s ministries, sacraments, etc., and b) the various “identities” that emerge from the distinct denominational histories.  Are these a threat to unity or do they contribute to it? In short, what is the proper place of denominational distinctives?

5. Liturgical diversity. Do we need standards / rubrics for worship?  The major Christian traditions have very different perspectives on this question.  Again, some simply assume that diverse worship practices are normal, while others feel that common worship ought to be something which unites all Christians.  Historically, this has been a very significant question, and has led to some schisms (i.e., the Puritan objection to Anglican forms of worship).

6. Missional diversity. Can different Christian groups have “distinctive missions” or distinctive vocations, or are we all supposed to have the same mission? On what basis and in what situations can such diversity be justified? As examples, we might think of Salvation Army ministry to the marginalized, or Mennonite peace advocacy, etc.   At first glance, it seems fine to simply affirm that Mennonites are a “peace church,” and therefore they should pursue their mission as peacemakers.  But Mennonites don’t believe in peacemaking because it’s a Mennonite distinctive: they believe in it because they believe it is part of the Christian gospel, and so they think all Christians are called to be peacemakers.  Still, might there be other vocations which are specific to a certain part of the church?

In relation to all of the above, there are multiple questions which need to be asked, such as:  Are our differences mutually exclusive, or potentially complementary?  Are the historical reasons for separation between churches still significant, or should we try to forget about them in an attempt to appreciate one another’s distinctive contributions? Do diverse groups need to apologize to one another and repent for past divisions?  Once they have apologized, does the apology turn church-dividing issues into healthy diversities?  To what extent can the diversity of the New Testament canon provide insight into these issues?

I’m throwing all these questions out there as a way of suggesting that it’s not enough to simply say, “Diversity is essential for unity.” If we stop with the simple affirmation of “diversity” in general, we will end up giving legitimacy to all of our differences – as if all diversity was good in and of itself.   While it’s true that unity requires diversity, that truth should lead us to a much bigger set of conversations, involving all the issues above, and probably many more.  If we want unity as well as diversity, we’ve got to tackle the tough question of the limits of legitimate diversity.

What is an Institution?

I’m thinking through the relationship between institution and charism right now, and one of the more frustrating aspects of the debate is the lack of consensus regarding the meaning of the word “institution.”

Some authors don’t bother to define the term at all, but seem to assume a certain common sense understanding of institution.  My problem with this is that the “common sense” understanding of institution in our contemporary context is typically very negative.  People today are very skeptical of institutions of all kinds, and religious institutions are no exception.   While I’m aware that some institutions can be terribly repressive, twisted, and dangerous, I don’t think these tendencies are inherent in institutions per se.

Then there are some who do take the time to define institution in such a way that it tends toward a negative characterization, because they frame institutions primarily as agents of control and coercion.

Gotthold Hasenhüttl was an influential voice in the mid twentieth century, cited authoritatively by people like Hans Küng and Leonardo Boff (who were, in turn, very influential at the popular level).  Hasenhüttl defines institutions as follows:

“An institution is a changeable, but permanent, product of purposive social role behaviour which subjects the individual to obligations, gives him formal authority and possesses legal sanctions.” [from “The Church as Institution,” in The Church as Institution (New York: Herder and Herder, 1974), 15]

He goes on to describe institutions as “instruments of power,” and calls upon the church to reinvent itself and work towards “the institutionalization of freedom [from] domination (an-archy)” (17-18).

In Boff, this translates to a playing off of “the institution” versus “the community,” arguing that the former must serve the latter:

“We refer to the organization of this community with its hierarchy, sacred powers, dogmas, rites, canons, and traditions…The institution does not exist for itself but in service to the community of faith.” [Church, Charism and Power, 48]

I think these definitions of institution are too narrow.   Institutions aren’t simply agents of control with formal laws and coercive power. They exist on a continuum which is much broader and more ambiguous than these perspectives imply.

In this broader understanding, which takes its inspiration primarily from Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, institutions are simply stable patterns of social interaction. They could be huge governmental agencies or international businesses, but they could also be a recurring encounter between two persons.   All social interactions are subject to habituation, and when interactions between persons are habituated over time they become institutionalized – that is, they become stable patterns of social interaction.

Berger and Luckmann’s definition is as follows:

“Institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors. Put differently, any such typification is an institution.” [The Social Construction of Reality, 54]

There are, of course, many nuances to their account which I won’t address here, and some of them may not sit well some Christians.   But their insights have been taken up and incorporated into some theological accounts of ecclesial institutions, such as Miroslav Volf’s After our Likeness, and George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine.

The point of adopting this perspective is to underscore the fact that social life is inescapably institutional, and therefore the Christian life (because it is inherently social) is inescapably institutional.

“The essential sociality of salvation implies the essential institutionality of the church. The question is not whether the church is an institution, but rather what kind of institution it is.” Volf, After Our Likeness, 235.

In other words, there never was and never will be a “non-institutional” church.   The fact that the church has certain institutional features does not mean that it has compromised or fallen from a primitive state of charismatic freedom.   From a Christian perspective, rather, ecclesial institutions are no threat to true personhood and freedom, but are divinely-ordered means of grace through which our true personhood and freedom is restored through incorporation into the body of Christ. Christian fellowship, worship, ministry, sacraments, and the proclamation of the word are institutions which confront us as a verbum externum. This point is brought out well by Lindbeck in his comparison of religion to a cultural-linguistic system:

“To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and of Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms.  A religion is above all an external word, a verbum externum, that molds and shapes the self and its world, rather than an expression or thematization of a preexisting self or of preconceptual experience.” Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 34.

Ecclesial institutions are stable patterns of human interaction in the church through which the Spirit calls us to be conformed to Christ. They are certainly open to abuse and distortion, but this is not because they are institutions, but because they are patterns of interaction among people who are redeemed by Christ, but who continue to struggle with sin.