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Ekklesia, Metaphors for the Church, Anabaptist Ecclesiology, and a Changing World

The Challenges of a Changing World

Contemporary society finds itself in the midst of change and transition.  Of this there can be little doubt.  The reality of these changes has been made evident in numerous ways:  the collapse of communism, the magnitude of technological advancements, the expansion of communication industries, moral decay and decadence, the mistrust of centralized governments, economic instability, and the destruction of the environment. In his book The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler summarizes the tremendous changes taking place in human society as it experiences a transition from the philosophical tenets of the Enlightenment to what we have previously defined as—for lack of a better term—postmodernity.  Toffler writes:

A new civilization is emerging in our lives…This new civilization brings with it new family styles; changed ways of working, loving, and living…Millions are already attuning their lives to the rhythms of tomorrow…The dawn of this new civilization is the single most explosive fact of our lifetimes.[i]

Toffler is describing a period of transition from modernity to postmodernity.  Social scientists call this period of transition a paradigm shift.

Like postmodernism, the term paradigm is a much used (and perhaps overused) word—particularly in academic circles.  Unlike postmodernism, however, this term is a much easier word to define.  For our purpose paradigm is best understood as an archetype—as the overarching perspective from which most people interpret the world.   It is the worldview—the collection of beliefs about life and the universe— held by an individual or a group by which they make sense out of their existence.  This being the case, a paradigm shift is a dramatic alteration in those commonly held beliefs and assumptions.  In other words, a paradigm shift is the demise of one worldview and the birth of another.

Human society is currently experiencing such a paradigm shift.  The resulting turmoil has caused tremors in nearly every corner of human life—including the church.  This time of change and shift is proving to be a tremendous challenge to contemporary church as it seeks to fulfill it missional mandate.  The death of modernity and rise of the postmodern era have severely called into question the traditional philosophical and sociological supports of the Christian religion. In many ways, contemporary Christians feel like foreign missionaries in their own land.  In his book Congregational Megatrends, Jeff Woods addresses this feeling of confusion within the church, saying:

Futurists have predicted it.  Philosophers have pondered it.  Pastors have reacted to it.  Church members have experienced it.  “I am talking about the SHIFT.  The CHANGE.  The dramatic movements that are taking place in our churches.

Things don’t work like they used to.  The church is changing.  Evangelism is different.  Discipleship is different.  Ministry is different.  People don’t come to church for the same reasons they once did.  People don’t worship like they use to.  People don’t have the same loyalties, the same devotion, or the same sense of spirituality.  At times, everything in the church appears to be different.[ii]

Why are things so different now for the church?  The reason is simple.  For good or for ill the church—its structures, missions, ministries, and doctrines—have been greatly influenced by the worldview of modernity.  As such, with the collapse of this paradigm, the church now finds itself in the throes of  chaos.  For this reason the church sees itself as largely irrelevant and ill-prepared to fulfill its mandate in the budding postmodern era. Providing direction to the church in the midst of this turmoil is the primary goal of this paper.

The Church in a Changing World

 The first step is providing the direction for the church in the midst of this changing world is to address the issue of ecclesiology.  What is the nature and mission of the church in the world?  What is its identity, purpose, and mandates?  For those who operate from an Anabaptist perspective, these questions of ecclesiology are of utmost importance.

It ought to be made clear that when we discuss the topic of ecclesiology we are not simply talking about issues of church polity and structure.  We are probing something far most basic. We are in agreement with Anabaptist theologian Thomas Fingers who has written:

While the Bible says little about the church structure, it speaks often about the activities, attitudes, and relationships which characterize the church.[iii]

Our primary purpose in exploring the issue ecclesiology, therefore, will not be to develop new congregational structures, programs, or policies.  Our purpose will be instead to examine the activities, attitudes, and relationships that should mark a congregation as the community of God.   When this foundation is firmly in place, the church will be equipped to develop the structures, programs, and policies that will be responsive to postmodern era.

The Identity of the Church

 What is the nature of the church?

Without a doubt, the word church finds common usage in our society—especially among those who made claim to be adherents of the Christian religion.  Yet despite its common usage, there is still widespread disagreement over what the word means.  The most widespread misconception about the church in contemporary Western society is the notion that it is primarily a building—a structure in which believer’s meet to worship God. In addition, others also misinterpret the church to simply be one human institution among many, all competing for the loyalty and allegiance of the contemporary individual.  Though such ideas are prevalent, they simply do not reflect the essence of the church’s identity either from a biblical standpoint or from the traditional understanding of the church articulated by theologians throughout church history.

If the church, then, is not a place to gather nor a human institution, what is it?  What is the nature of the church’s identity?  Stanley Grenz, writing from an Anabaptist perspective, explores this foundational question of ecclesiology in his book Theology for the Community of God.  He sets forth his understanding of the church by appealing to three concepts that describe the church’s fundamental nature: covenant, kingdom sign, and community.

The church, we assert, is a people standing in covenant, who are a sign of the divine reign and constitute a special community.  In short, the church is the eschatological covenant community.[iv]

 

The Church as Covenant People

 In his interpretation of the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith, Paul Erb writes:

The church we belong to—what is it?  It is made up of all those people who believe in Christ for their salvation.  There has always been more than one of them. Each believer who is drawn to Christ and opens his heart to Him finds that others too have done the same.  They have the same faith, the same Savior and Lord.[v]

In 1534, Anabaptist theologian Bernard Rothmann wrote:

The true Christian congregation is a gathering large or small that is founded on Christ in the true confession of Christ.  That means that it holds only to his words and seeks to fulfill his whole will and his commandments.  A gathering thus constituted is truly a congregation of Christ.  But if this is missing a gathering cannot in truth be called a congregation of Christ even if it has the name a hundred times.  That this is true and that the proper knowledge of Christ is that he is the true Lord and only Savior and Redeemer and that this is the basis of the Christian gathering, the Scriptures confirm in abundance…It is necessary to remain on this foundation.[vi]

In 1527 Leonhard Schiemer, a former Franciscan Priest, wrote:

Church or ekklesia is a gathered congregation of people which is built on Christ and not the pope, emperor, etc.  Nor are the stone houses and towers church.  Paul says you are no longer strangers but fellow citizens and members of the household of God built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.  For the prophets all had the spirit of Christ.  That is why Christ is the cornerstone, whom the builders of the house of God cast out as a prophet.  But this true sign of the holy Christian church is spoken against everywhere.[vii]

 

What each of these Anabaptist writers has in common is the assertion that the church is neither a structure made out of bricks and mortar nor an institution created by human polity.  On the contrary, they view the church as a group—a community—of people who see themselves as standing in a relationship with the God who has saved them.  In addition they also see themselves in relationship with one another because they are joint heirs and recipients of that grace.[viii]  This understanding is central to the Anabaptist doctrine of the church and is supported by the word ekklesia—the term most often used in the New Testament to designate church.

Ekklesia—The Called Out Ones

The most common designation for the church by New Testament writers was the term word ekklesia.  The word appears one hundred and twelve times in the New Testament.[ix]  The term arises from the use of the Greek verb kaleo (which means to call) and the preposition ek (out of).  On an etymological basis, therefore, “many theologians conclude that the idea of the called out ones inheres in the resulting noun ekklesia.”[x]

Originally ekklesia was a secular not a theological term.   Basically it referred to the citizenry of a Greek community “called out” into an “assembly” for the purpose of taking care of the affairs of the city (Acts 19:32, 39).[xi]   When the early Christians employed the word ekklesia to describe themselves, they no doubt perceived themselves as being “called out” of the world and into the assembly of God’s people.  They now belonged to God.  They were, by grace, God’s covenant people.

In addition to this secular usage, the word ekklesia was also used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scripture (the Septuagint) as the translation for the Hebrew word qahal (assembly in English).  This was the most common word used by writers to refer to Israel as the people of God (see for example Deuteronomy 9:10). The use of this term was therefore very important to the first Christians who were, after all, Jews who used the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  It allowed them to see a continuity between the Old and New Testaments and to see their movement as a continuation of the work God began in the wilderness with the nation of Israel.[xii]  They stood as heirs of the covenant.

The conception of the church as God’s covenant people—as God’s ekklesia—has been played an important role in discussion about the doctrine of the Church.  Stanley Grenz writes:

The choice of ekklesia as the designation of the Christian community suggests that the New Testament believers viewed the church as neither an edifice nor an organization. They were a people—a people brought together by the Holy Spirit—a people bound to each other through Christ—hence, a people in covenant with God. Above all, they were God’s people.[xiii]

Biblical Metaphors for the Church

The use of the term ekklesia as a designation for the church in the New Testament confirms that the first Christians saw themselves as God’s covenant people.  In addition, many of the New Testament metaphors for the church confirm this designation and offer additional insight into the nature of the church.[xiv]  Three of these metaphors include:  people (or nation) of God, body of Christ, and fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

(1)  People (or nation) of God.  We have already noted that the term ekklesia was used by the first Christians for the purpose of giving them a sense of continuity and connection with the people of Israel.  These first Christians saw themselves as heirs to the covenant God had made with the Israelites in the wilderness.  Like the Israelites before them, the church believed it had been chosen by God to fulfill the mandate of reconciling all humankind to God’s self.[xv]  The importance of this connection is also emphasized by the biblical metaphor that identifies the church as the people of God or the nation of God..  There is, however, one important distinction.  One does not have to become a Jew in order to become one of God’s people.  Bill Leonard writes:

In Galatians, Paul insisted that faith in Christ, not circumcision or conformity to the law, incorporated an individual into the people of God (Galatians 3:1-7).[xvi]

In addition, Stanley Grenz declares:

Just as Israel had been chosen to be the people of God—God’s nation—so now the New Testament church enjoys this relationship.  Despite the profound similarity between the two, there is also one important difference.  No longer is status as God’s nation based on membership within a specific ethnic group.  Now people from the entire world are called together to belong to God; the church is an international fellowship comprising persons “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).[xvii]

The biblical metaphor of the church as the people of God is very important because it links all Believer’s together as recipients of God’s grace and into a community that has been call together to fulfill God’s purpose in the world.

(2)  Body of Christ.  One of the most significant New Testament metaphors for the church is the declaration that the church is the body of Christ.  While the previous metaphor expressed the continuity of the church with the work God began with the Israelites, this metaphor sets the church apart as unique.  What makes the church unique?  Bill Leonard writes:  “They are in Christ; they belong to Him; they are part of His body, the church.”[xviii]

Of course we are not speaking here in an ontological sense.  The church is not literally the “body of Christ.”  This metaphor is to be understood in a participatory and representative fashion.[xix]  Through the church Christ continues his soteriological work in the world.  As Christ’s body the church exists for the purpose of doing Christ’s will in the world—in a sense to be His continued presence among humankind.  Anabaptist theologian Art Gish has written about this aspect of the church, saying:

…the very nature of Jesus Christ is body:  historical, concrete, and incarnated.  This reflects the biblical understanding of body which refers not merely to flesh and bones, but to one’s total personhood and character.  The point is that Christ is a body.  We are a body because we belong to Jesus and derive our existence from Him.[xx]

In essence Anabaptists understand the metaphor of the church as body of Christ to indicate that they are a continuation of the incarnation—the “present historical expression of Christ’s life and ministry.”[xxi]

(3)  The Fellowship of the Holy SpiritThe power of the church does not lie within the polity, programs, or structures of its organization.  Nor is the life of the church a natural by-product of the hearts and minds of those who make up its membership roster.  The church was created through the movement of God’s Spirit,[xxii] and its continued life and power is present due to the indwelling of the Spirit.  Paul Minear has observed, “Wherever the church is spoken of as the saints, the power of the Holy Spirit is assumed to be at work within it.”[xxiii]

There is some connection here with Old Testament theology.  In the Old Testament we discover that the spirit of God was present in special ways in certain dwelling places—the tabernacle and the temple.  What is different in the New Testament is that the focal point of the Spirit’s activity has changed.  Instead of dwelling in special structures and places, the Holy Spirit now resides within the fellowship of a special people—the church.[xxiv]

In what way does this image impact the nature of the church?  Baptist church historian Bill Leonard offers the following summary:

First, it means that God Himself is the author of the fellowship.  No one can acknowledge that Jesus is Lord except through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).  Second, the Spirit frees the church to live according to the gospel.  “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set (you) free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).  Third, the Spirit provides the gifts which contribute to the fellowship.  The gift of the Holy Spirit makes possible the gifts of the Spirit within the church (1 Corinthians 1:7; Romans 1:6; Ephesians 4:11). Fourth, the fellowship experienced in worship is the work of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:42-47).  There is no true Christian worship without the Spirit’s presence.  Fifth, the unity of the fellowship is the work of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:2-7).  The church is the creation of the Holy Spirit.  As the church gathers, it does so with a faithful recognition that the Spirit is present.[xxv]

 

The Church as the Sign of the Kingdom

  We have identified the church as a covenanting community.  It is important to say, however, that as a covenant community the church is not the culmination of God’s work or intention in creation.  The church always points beyond itself toward God’s larger intention for the world.  By referring to God’s larger intention in creation we are making reference to the concept of God’s reign in the world—the kingdom of God.  Understanding the connection between the church and the kingdom of God is of central importance if we are to develop a proper understanding of Anabaptist ecclesiology.

The Kingdom of God

What is meant by the kingdom of God?  The investigation of this subject could fill volumes of theological treatises—in fact, it has.  The scope of this paper is not broad enough to explore all the biblical and theological nuances of this important subject.  Instead, I will draw upon the writing of Stanley Grenz to offer a biblical framework for understanding the kingdom of God as it is widely understood within the Anabaptist tradition.  To understand this presentation it is important that we be able to differentiate between de jure (in principle) and de facto (in fact) rulership.

Lying behind the Bible narrative is the idea that as creator, God is de jure monarch; the kingship belongs to God by right.  Because God created everything, God possesses the right to rule over all creation.  Consequently, the entire universe is the kingdom of God or the realm of God’s dominion de jure.  In principle the entire universe constitutes the realm over which God exercises kingship.  According to the biblical drama, however, what is true de jure is not yet fully de facto.  God has given human the privilege and responsibility of acknowledging his rule.  In our sin, however, we have rejected the kingship of the Creator.  Thereby we have erected an enclave of rebellion in which another—Satan—appears to reign.  As a creature, this de facto ruler is a usurper, for he does not possess the right to rule that is God’s alone.

The biblical story focuses on Jesus who came as the bearer of the claim of God to rulership and the one who embodies the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection demonstrate God’s claim to rulership.  Through his exaltation, Jesus has been installed as Lord of the universe.  This demonstration of God’s rulership entails the demand that all persons acknowledge God as sovereign.  Some obey that demand—confess Jesus as Lord—and thereby enter the kingdom of God.  Similarly, as the principles of the kingdom permeate human society, the kingdom of God is also present.

The biblical drama of the kingdom climaxes by moving from the past and present to the future.  Although the kingdom is here, this presence is partial and not yet consummated.  For this reason there remains a future, eschatological aspect of the kingdom.  One day all persons will acknowledge the lordship of Jesus (Philippians 2:10-11).  Likewise one day the principles of God’s kingdom will be universally actualized in the new human society that God will inaugurate.  At that time, what is God’s by right (de jure) will also be true in fact (de facto).  The entire universe will be the realm of God’s rule.

In short, the kingdom of God is both present and future…Hence, the kingdom is a “sphere of existence” in which people are called to live.  It is an incorporation into God’s powerful invasion of our world.  As such it consists in doing the will of God (Matthew 6:10; 7:21-23), and it demands a radical decision (13:44-46).[xxvi]

 The Kingdom and the Church

What is the nature of the kingdom in relation to the broader context of the kingdom of God?  To draw upon Grenz’s assertion, the church is a community of persons who have placed themselves by faith into the “sphere of existence” where God is acknowledged and obeyed as sovereign.   As such, by confessing Christ’s Lordship and by obeying his teachings they (as community) become a sign of what life will be like in the future when God’s de facto rule is firmly and forever established over all creation.  This links ecclesiology to eschatology.   The identity of the church is directed toward the ultimate and unavoidable consummation of God’s kingdom. Again we refer to Grenz:

In contrast to all platonic conceptions which look to the eternal past, the dynamic understanding suggests that the church is constituted by its future destiny as related to God’s reign.  Believers enter into covenant with God and each other so that they might be an eschatological community, the fellowship that pioneers in the present the principles that characterize the reign of God.  Hence they point the way toward the kingdom.

Consequently, the identity of the church in the world does not focus merely on bringing into the fold those whom God elected before the creation of the world.  Rather, at its heart is the goal of modeling in the present the glorious human fellowship that will come at the consummation of history.  The church, therefore, is a foretaste of the eschatological reality that God will one day graciously give to his creation.  In short, it is a sign of the kingdom.[xxvii]

 The Church as Community

When New Testament writers referred to the assembly of the church they used the Greek word ekklesia.  When they referred to the characteristics or attributes of that ekklesia, however, they most often used the Greek word koinonia.  We will examine the meaning of this word as we seek to understand the nature of the Christian community.

 

Koinonia—The Nature of Christian Community

Contemporary Christians have been rather casual in their interpretation of the word koinonia.  For many it simply means fellowship in the sense that a congregation has a pot-luck supper or occasional church picnic.  In its New Testament usage, however, koinonia means something much more profound.  The word means “to share in,” “to be in communion with,” “to be in partnership with.”[xxviii]  What is the foundation of this “sharing,” “communion,” and “partnership?”  It is the community’s covenant with God.  By grace human beings are brought into a relationship with God.  This relationship is then extended toward others—especially those in the household of faith who share in that covenant with God.  Bill Leonard puts it like this:

The relationship which characterizes koinonia  is closely related to that of covenant, involving a dual partnership with God and others persons. Koinonia begins in a relationship with God…The community of the church is based on the common union which Christians share with Christ.  The church, therefore, is a spiritual koinonia gathered around Jesus Christ.[xxix]

This assertion draws us to the role of the Holy Spirit as the one who consummates the work of the triune God.  Koinonia exists in the ekklesia only as a result of the Spirit’s presence.  To elaborate on this theme, Grenz summarizes the grand sweep of God’s purpose in creation.

The Father sent the Son in order to realize God’s eternal design to draw humankind and creation to participate in his own life.  In conversion, the Son gives us the Spirit, who causes us to be the children of God.  But this filial status is exactly the relationship the Son enjoys with the Father.  Through conversion, therefore,  the Spirit—who is the Spirit of the relationship between the Father and the Son—constitutes us as brothers and sisters of Christ.  Thereby he brings us to share in the love the Son enjoys with the Father.  Through the Spirit, we participate in the love that lies as the heart of the triune God.[xxx]

Koinonia, then, is not simply one concern or aspect within the church’s wider ministry—it is central to its very nature.  Only when the nature of its community is truly marked by koinonia can a congregation honestly call itself church.  Only when the nature of the community is marked by genuine koinonia does the community serve as a sign of the kingdom.[xxxi]  The church is to be the very embodiment of koinonia—it is the very embodiment of the love and relationship at the heart of the triune God. Koinonia, therefore, is a nonnegotiable characteristic of Christ’ Church.  The grace that is received from Christ must be offered freely to others.[xxxii]

Expressions of Koinonia in the Church

We have defined koinonia as the nature of the ekklesia.  We have also rooted koinonia in the work of the Spirit to bring individuals into community through their conversion to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  If this definition is correct, then how is koinonia expressed in the life of the church?   For many in the contemporary church, koinonia is nothing more than that feeling of affection one has for fellow church members during the Sunday morning ritual of the “passing of the peace.”  For the Anabaptists, however, there must be concrete expressions of this koinonia. 

Anabaptists have taken for their model the expression of koinonia found in the Book of Acts:

Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:21-47 NIV)

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.  With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all.  There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.  (Acts 4:32-35)

To understand how koinonia expressed itself in the early church, consider the manifestations of fellowship, partnership, communion, and sharing asserted in these passages.  We are told that the believers were “together.”  They had “everything in common.”  They “sold their possessions” and gave to “anyone who had need.”  They met daily (not weekly) for worship “in the temple courts.”  They shared meals together “in their homes.”  None felt jealous, envious, or taken advantage of—instead they had “glad and sincere hearts.”  The Book of Acts makes it clear that the sharing of one’s home, one’s possessions, and one’s very life were visible expressions of the spirit of koinonia in the church.

When the Holy Spirit came upon the early Christians, they were liberated from selfish greed.  They were more joyful in giving than receiving.  Why?  For at least two reasons.  First, sharing was a natural response to the love they had come to know and experience in Jesus.  Second, they understood that the properties in their possession were not their own, but had been entrusted into their stewardship.  Ultimately their possessions were really God’s possessions—since they had placed themselves of the sphere of God’s sovereignty.  By sharing their possessions, then, they illustrated their claim that Jesus Christ was their Lord and revealed their fellowship to be a sign of God’s kingdom.

As is well known, this vision of a koinonia church—of a Christian community that functioned from a community of goods—has been gradually lost in wider Christendom.   What developed in its place was an institutional and sacramental church.  Nevertheless, pockets of this expression of koinonia have remained throughout the centuries—to one degree or another.  In monasteries the communitarian model of the early church remained—a continual protest against a secularized church.   For many centuries groups like the Hutterites have modeled this lifestyle in their communities of faith.  In Latin America one of the most important aspects of “basic ecclesial  communities” has been the community of possessions and a rejection of materialism.  In many respects, base communities are contemporary expressions of Anabaptist ecclesiology.[xxxiii]  Other expression of this ecclesiological perspective can be see in religious communities such as Church of the Messiah, Koinonia Partners, Patchwork Central, Sojourners, and Voice of Calvary.[xxxiv]

The Purpose of the Church

 We have defined the church as an “eschatological covenant community.”[xxxv]  By this we means that the church is an assembly of those who have been called out by God to be God’s covenant people, placing themselves under God’s authority in order to be an eschatological sign of the consummation of God’s kingdom.[xxxvi]  Stanley Grenz summarizes this description of the church, saying:

It consists of a people in covenant.  This covenant people pioneer in the present the principles that characterize the future kingdom of God, thereby constituting a sign of the divine reign.  As the covenant people who anticipate the future consummation of God’s intention for humankind, the church is a community.  The fellowship of believers seeks to reflect for all creation the nature of the triune God himself, namely, the love between the Father and the  Son which is the Holy Spirit.  In short, the church is the eschatological covenant community of love.[xxxvii]

With the nature of the church thus established, it is now necessary for us to define the church’s purpose.  As a community with a specific identity given it by God, it stands to reason that the church would also have a divinely appointed purpose.

To understand the purpose of the church we must first explore two preliminary topics.  To begin with we must examine God’s purpose in creation. In addition we must also examine God’s purpose in human history.  These two issues are foundational to understanding God’s purpose for the church.

God’s Purpose in Creation and Human History

What was God’s purpose in establishing the created order?  The biblical writers seem quite clear on this point.  God’s intention for creation was that it serve as a witness to the glory and majesty of God.  Psalms 19:1 declares:  “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”  Likewise human beings, as an integral part of creation, were also created to bring glory to God.  According to Jürgen Moltmann, however, human beings have a special two-fold vocation in the created order.  First, they are commissioned to represent God to creation as God’s appointed stewards.  Second, they are to give all creation a voice in the praising and glorification of God.  Moltmann writes:

As God’s image, human beings are God’s proxy in his creation and represent him.  As God’s image, human beings are for God himself a counterpart, in whom he desires to see himself as if in a mirror.  As God’s image, finally, human beings are created…to reflect and praise the glory of God which enters into creation, and takes up its dwelling there.[xxxviii]

Unfortunately humankind have not lived up to its created purpose. The presence of sin has prevented humankind from adequately glorifying God.  What is sin?  Sin is a rebellion against and rejection of God’s purpose for our lives and the created order.  “We demonstrate human sinfulness in our unwillingness to acknowledge God’s authority and in our selfish and irresponsible disregard for our ecological environment and our fellow creatures, both animal and human.”[xxxix]As such, sin not only affects the human condition, it also affects the entire universe.  All creation now suffers as a result of human sinfulness—as affirmed by the Apostle Paul who wrote:

The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  (Romans 8:19-22)

 

The discussion about the human condition, however, does not end with sin.  Since God’s glory is not being expressed in creation, God decides to remedy the problem.  What is God remedy?  God’s remedy is grace.  Grenz writes:

As recipients of God’s grace in Christ, we are the people whom God purchased for the sake of God’s glory.  Paul clarified that this was the goal of God’s action in extending grace to sinful humans:  God predestined us to be adopted into his family “to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Ephesians 1:5-6).  God has included us “in Christ” so that we might live “for the praise of his glory” (1:11-14).[xl]

 God’s Purpose for the Church

We have said that the church is a covenant community called forth by grace.  We have said that by its present life together in the koinonia of the Spirit, the church serves as a as a sign of God’s eschatological kingdom.   These factors considered it stands to reason that God’s purpose for the church is to bring glory to God.  In a guide to Baptist beliefs and practices, Stanley Grenz declares:

…we are redeemed in order to glorify God and to be a showcase of the grace of the one who saved us in Christ (Ephesians 1:5-6, 11-14; 2:6-7).  If the purpose of creation as a whole and the purpose of God’s saving activity in history are related to God’s glory, then it would follow that the fundamental purpose of the church is the same, namely, to bring glory to God (Ephesians 3:10-11, 21).[xli]

Obviously the purpose of the church to serve as an instrument to show God’s glory will have a comprehensive affect on its corporate life, structures, polity and disciplines.  Central to this conviction will be the assertion that the primary motivation for all plan, goals, and actions will be the desire to glorify God.

The Church’s Mandate

We have said that God’s purpose for the church is that it bring glorify to God.  Now we must explore another question: How does the church accomplish this purpose?   To answer this question we must again remember the church’s identity as a community of individuals who have placed themselves under the sovereignty of God.  This implies that the only way that the community can properly fulfill its purpose is through obedience to God.  To be specific, the church must obediently seek to fulfill the great mandate entrusted it by its Lord.  As it is faithful to this task, the church does indeed glorify God.[xlii]

What is the mandate of the church?  In the New Testament writings there are in essence three primary aspects of God’s mandate for the church.  These three aspects are each focused in a different direction.  One aspect of the church’s mandate is God-directed.  Another is community directed.  Still another is directed toward the world.  These three aspects of the church’s mandate are worship, edification, and outreach.[xliii]

Worship

The etymological root of the English word worship is “worthship.”[xliv]  When the church worships, it is showing God respect. It is attributing worth to God. It is focusing its attention on the one who gathers the church together as a covenant people of grace.  When the church worships it is acknowledging God and the Creator and itself as a creation; it is acknowledging God to be the Giver of all good things and itself to be the recipient of God’s blessings.  In worship the church declares the worth of God to the community of faith.  Ralph Martin defines worship as “the dramatic celebration of God in his supreme worth in such a manner that his ‘worthiness’ becomes the norm and inspiration of human living.”[xlv]

Worship, especially in the Anabaptist tradition, is a community act.[xlvi]  Vernard Eller identifies the church as a caravan walking together toward a common destination.  Its primary concern is the relationship of the people and whether they are heading in the right direction.  Worship then is not the dispensing of blessings, but rather a conversation of all members of the caravan with its leader concerning the “deployment of people and checking the maps.”[xlvii]  Art Gish expresses with this basic premise, writing:

We respond to the light and worship God not as isolated individuals, but as community.  Worship is an expression of the community, the response of the community to what God is doing in the community and in the world.[xlviii]

What are the various elements of the community’s acts of worship?  Thomas Fingers mentions four:  praise, hymns and confessions, prayers, and offerings.[xlix]  In addition to these we would also add the community’s involvement in symbolic acts.[l]

Praise  is central to the practice of worship.  The word comes from the Latin word meaning “value” or “price.”  To praise God, then, is to declare God’s value and worth.  This declaration takes many forms including dance (Jeremiah 31:4), the offering of testimonies (Psalm 66:16-17), and silent meditation (Psalm 46:10).  Music, however, is the most commonly recognized form of praise in the church’s worship.

Hymns and Confessions refer to the specific songs and declarations of God value and worth. Hymns and Confessions articulate the community’s corporate response of faith to the saving acts of God. They recite the acts of God on behalf of the covenant community.  Such hymns and confessions are found throughout the New Testament.  They speak about Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation.  They are not merely outbursts of emotion, but thought out and developed declarations of God’s work in Christ.  A prime example of a New Testament confession is the hymn Paul penned to the Philippian church:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,  but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:5-11)

Prayer is essentially a dialogue between God and people—especially those who are a part of God’s covenant community.  Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish prayer from hymns, confessions, and other acts of praise.[li]  In addition to these, however, prayer also takes on other forms including petition and intercession.  As such, it is a community event.  Though taking place within the heart of the one at prayer, it directs the person toward God who has called the community into being and who promises to take care of the communities needs.

Offerings are those tangible expressions of gratitude we extend toward God for the many blessings and provisions we have received through the provisions of divine grace.   They are illustrations of the community’s claim to be a sign of the kingdom of God, a symbolic representation of what life will be like when everyone and all things bow at the feet of Jesus in humble submission.  For this reason, the giving of offerings ought never be considered merely to be the means to finance the church’s activities.  On the contrary, the giving of offerings are a witness to the eventual consummation of the kingdom.

Symbolic acts are those sacraments (in Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Wesleyan traditions) or ordinances (in other Protestant and Anabaptist traditions) that represent some theological conviction held by the community.  Among most Anabaptist traditions there are three primary symbolic acts. The Eucharist serves as a symbolic representation of God’s new covenant of grace offered to all humankind through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Baptism serves as a symbolic representation of the individual’s decision to convert to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and become a witness to the kingdom of God.  The washing of feet points to the work of the Spirit bringing together individuals into a community.  As such, these three symbolic acts point to the church’s identity as a eschatological covenant community.

Edification

Not only is the church commissioned to attribute worth and glory to God, it is also mandated to edify one another—to care for and build one another up.  Edification consists of church members ministering to one another so that together they all might mature in the faith.[lii] To the church at Rome, Paul wrote: “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification”(c.f. Romans 14:9) To the church at Ephesus he wrote:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13)

These words admonishing the church to edify and build one another up in the faith illustrate an important truth that Anabaptists have historically been able to identify with.  The demands of discipleship are extremely difficult and absolutely demand that mutual support, encouragement, and sometimes correction be found within the community that shares the same vision of what God is doing in the world.  According to Eberhold Arnold, this was the pattern left for the disciples by Jesus.  As Arnold described it,

Just as Jesus wanted His close friends, His disciples, to be always close to Him, so His Spirit urged the early Christians to be close to one another so that together they could live the life of Jesus, so that they could do the same as He had done for them.[liii]

There are two basic means by which the edification mandate is accomplished.  To begin with there is the process of physically meeting the material needs of others.  As stated earlier, this aspect of community life is of utmost importance to the Anabaptist tradition.  In their attempt to model themselves after the pattern set by the first Christians, the Anabaptists advocated the surrender of one’s personal possessions for the good of the community and edification of the saints.  An example of this advocacy in seen in the writing of early Hutterite leader Ulrich Stadler.  After addressing the need for unity in the church under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, Stadler writes:

Now if, then, each member withholds assistance from the other the whole thing must go to pieces.  The eyes won’t see, the hands won’t take hold.  Where, however, each members extends assistance equally to the whole body, it is built up and grows and there is peace and unity, yea, each member takes care for the other. In brief, equal care, sadness and joy, and peace (are) at hand.[liv]

In addition to caring for each other’s physical needs, edification also involves giving attention to meeting other’s spiritual and psychological needs.  Grenz writes, “The ministries of burden lifting (Galatians 6:1-2), intercessory prayer (James 5:16), and encouragement and admonition (Hebrews 10:24-25) are to be practiced.”[lv]   There are a number of means by which the church carries out this aspect of the edification mandate.  These include preaching, teaching, counseling, discipleship groups, visitation, and the exercise of church discipline.[lvi]

Outreach

The third mandate of the church is directed toward the world—toward those not a part of the community.  The assignment of the outreach mandate is twofold.  The first is to serve to the world.  Patterned after the servant example set by Jesus (Luke 4:16-21), the church is mandated to serve humanity.  Obviously such outreach will involve social ministries such as feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, aiding the poor, and caring for the sick and destitute.  In addition, the church’s outreach must also involve social action.  By social action we mean moving beyond the binding of wounds toward the task of being “advocates of the wounded by attempting to foster structural changes in society.”[lvii]  As such, addressing issues of unfairness and injustice in society are not beyond the scope of the church.  On the contrary, the church is a sign of the kingdom, it cannot avoid addressing concerns related to social injustice and public immorality.

In addition to service, the outreach mandate of the church also involves the task of evangelism.  Of course evangelism is a hallmark of the Anabaptist tradition.  Milton Rudnick has written:

No Christians of the Reformation era were more committed to and active in evangelism that the Anabaptists.  The Great Commission (see Matthew 28 and its parallels, Mark 16 and Luke 24) became central to their theology, especially their understanding of the church, as well as the agenda for their lives…With great conviction and courage Anabaptist laity as well as leaders proclaimed the Gospel to those around them, and they traveled far and wide with that message.[lviii]


[i] Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave, (New York:  Bantam, 1980), 9.

[ii] C. Jeff Woods, Congregational Megatrends, (Washington, D.C.: Alban Institute, 1996), 5.

[iii] Thomas N. Fingers, Christian Theology:  An Eschatological Approach, vol. 2 (Scottdale, PA:  Herald Press, 1989), 226.

[iv] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, (Nashville, Tennessee:  Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1994), 604.

[v] Paul Erb, We Believe:  An Interpretation of the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith for the Younger Generation, (Scottdale, Pennsylvania:  Herald Press, 1969), 36.

[vi] Walter Klassen, comp., Anabaptism in Outline, (Scottdale, Pennsylvania:  Herald Press, 1981), 106.

[vii] Ibid., 104.

[viii] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 605.

[ix] Bill J. Leonard,  Layman’s Library of Christian Doctrine, vol. 12, The Nature of the Church,  (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press, 1986), 42.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Trent C. Butler, ed., Holman Bible Dictionary, (Nashville, TN:  Holman Bible Publishers, 1991), s.v. “church.”

[xii] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 606.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Paul S. Minear suggest that there are between eighty and one hundred different biblical metaphors for the church in the New Testament.  Images of the Church in the New Testament, (Philadelphia:  The Westminster Press, 1960), 17.

[xv] E. Glenn Hinson, The Integrity of the Church, (Nashville, Tennessee:  Broadman Press, 1978), 46.

[xvi] Bill J. Leonard,  Layman’s Library of Christian Doctrine, vol. 12, The Nature of the Church, 45.

[xvii] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 607.

[xviii] Bill J. Leonard,  Layman’s Library of Christian Doctrine, vol. 12, The Nature of the Church, 47.

[xix] Art Gish, Living in Christian Community, (Scottdale, Pennsylvania:  Herald Press, 1979), 31.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid., 32.

[xxii] Acts 2

[xxiii] Paul Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament, 137.

[xxiv] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 608.

[xxv] Bill J. Leonard,  Layman’s Library of Christian Doctrine, vol. 12, The Nature of the Church, 50.

[xxvi] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 619-20.

[xxvii] Ibid., 623-624.

[xxviii] Bill J. Leonard,  Layman’s Library of Christian Doctrine, vol. 12, The Nature of the Church, 43.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 629.

[xxxi]Ibid., 624.

[xxxii] Bill J. Leonard,  Layman’s Library of Christian Doctrine, vol. 12, The Nature of the Church, 44.

[xxxiii] Thomas N. Fingers, Christian Theology:  An Eschatological Approach, 243.

[xxxiv] For a wonderful expose on these five intentional religious communities read Luther E. Smith, Jr., Intimacy and Mission:  Intentional Community as Crucible for Radical Discipleship.  (Scottdale, Pennsylvania:  Herald Press, 1994.

[xxxv] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 604.

[xxxvi] Stanley J. Grenz, The Baptist Congregation:  A Guide to Baptist Belief and Practice. (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania:  Judson Press, 1985), 19.

[xxxvii] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 633.

[xxxviii] Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation:  A New Theology of Creation and the Spirit of God.  (San Francisco, CA:  Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985), 188.

[xxxix] C. Norman Kraus, God our Savior:  Theology in a Christological Mode.  (Scottdale, Pennsylvania:  Herald Press, 1991), 130.

[xl] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 634.

[xli] Stanley J. Grenz, The Baptist Congregation:  A Guide to Baptist Belief and Practice, 20.

[xlii] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 638.

[xliii] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 637-664.  Mennonite Theologian Thomas N. Fingers offers almost the same observation identifying the three aspects of the church’s mandate as worship, fellowship, and mission.  See Christian Theology:  An Eschatological Approach, vol. 2, 248.

[xliv] Helmut Harder, Guide to Faith.  (Newton, Kansas:  Faith and Life Press, 1992), 106.

[xlv] Ralph Martin, The Worship of God. (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1992), 4.

[xlvi] Art Gish writes:  “It has been said that while Roman Catholics gather to receive the sacraments and Protestants to be instructed from the Bible, those of the believers’ church tradition meet to visit with each other.  Or to put it another way, while Roman Catholics need to see an altar to worship God and Protestants a pulpit, those of the believers’ church need to look into the face of other Christians.”  No doubt this is a rather generalized stereotype, but it is correct in the implication that a particular understanding of the nature of the church will have an effect on the understanding of worship.  For the Anabaptists worship is a community event.  See Gish, Living in Christian Community, 245.

[xlvii] Vernard Eller, In Place of Sacrament.  (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Eerdmans, 1972), 31.

[xlviii] Art Gish, Living in Christian Community, 251.

[xlix] Thomas N. Fingers, Christian Theology:  An Eschatological Approach, 321-329.

[l] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 644.

[li] Thomas Fingers, Christian Theology:  An Eschatological Approach, vol. 2, 327.

[lii] Stanley J. Grenz, The Baptist Congregation:  A Guide to Baptist Belief and Practice, 21.

[liii] Eberhold Arnold, The Early Christians.  (Rifton, N.Y.:  Plough Publishing House, 1970), 18.

[liv] Walter Klassen, comp., Anabaptism in Outline, 108.

[lv] Stanley J. Grenz, The Baptist Congregation:  A Guide to Baptist Belief and Practice, 21.

[lvi] Of this list, the Anabaptists are most known for their emphasis on church discipline.  Anabaptist communities hold themselves accountable to the vows and commitments they make as followers of Jesus Christ.  When a member falls at some point, they are disciplined by the community.  The purpose, however, is for the edification of the individual and the community—so that all might mature in their commitments.  See Marlin Jeschke, Discipling in the Church:  Recovering a Ministry of the Gospel.  (Scottdale, Pennsylvania:  Herald Press, 1988).

[lvii] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, 661.

[lviii] Milton L. Rudnick, A History of Evangelism.  (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1984), 93.

 

 

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