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The church for the world?

August 27, 2015

I remember reading years ago that Christians have things turned around when we say that the church exists for the world, that rather the world exists for the church. Jesus came to build his church, and it is his church that will abide with him forever, not the fallen world. I was intrigued by the idea but also felt cautious. Won’t that make us self-centered? Might it condition us to be puffed up and think too highly of ourselves?

According to Simon Chan, that idea is correct, says Dennis Okholm in his review of Chan’s Liturgical Theology (2009; Okholm’s review can be found here). I haven’t read Chan’s book, but it’s now on my reading list.

Okholm’s review is brief, so I’ll just try to whet your appetite with a few quotes. He writes:

I usually think of the church existing to serve the world, and there is truth to that sentiment. But Chan is right to say that it is more biblically and theologically correct to say this: “creation exists to realize the church.”

I should have known this. My favorite New Testament letter is Ephesians, and Paul makes it very clear in the first chapter (v. 4) that God had his covenant community in mind before the world was even created. And the Swiss theologian Karl Barth taught that the covenant is the “internal basis” of creation while creation is the “external basis” of the covenant, which, to put it in simpler language, means that creation is simply the stage on which God’s plan to be in a covenant relationship with his people gets played out. . . .

This has important implications for the way we think about us—about church. . . .

It . . . means that the church is not to exist as a counter-culture, but that the church is a culture (an alternative culture if you’d like). And as long as ACNA—or any other church, for that matter—sets its agenda as a counter to something else (even a “liberal” denomination from which it broke), that “something else” will be determining ACNA’s identity.

It is right to want to avoid becoming puffed up and self-centered. But such concerns can be allayed by reminding ourselves that we participate in the church by grace alone, and that it is our call and duty to be active participants in building Christ’s church to his glory by reaching out to the world around us as Jesus did and by discipling all who join us. We don’t decide our doctrine in pragmatic terms, by worrying about what might possibly come of it. If it’s true, it’s true, and if anything needs to be adjusted, it should be our attitudes. We can be reminded every week in the liturgy (or by some other means in non-liturgical churches) that it’s ultimately about Jesus and the church he died to create. The church isn’t simply a means to the end of reaching the world, but is rather the place where people in the world should want to find themselves. It’s our job to help them get there.

Okholm’s caution about the church not existing as a counter-culture is also important. This attitude sets us up to watch what “they’re” doing and do otherwise, to restrict the engagement of our minds, hearts, spirits, and energies to reacting rather than to proactively carrying the light and showing the way forward.

I’ll be interested to see how Chan fleshes all this out.

From → The church

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