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What Is The Church? A Brief Beginning
A Personal Note Or Three
A newsletter origin story. On what the not-right question is here. Some forthcoming reading.
Silence By Day, Holy Hands By Night
This question of the newsletter “What Is the Church?” is a lifelong preoccupation. Let me explain.
For the better part of thirty years now, I’ve been part of the Baptist world. But it came because of now-familiar dynamics in the Methodist church: how do we understand the resurrection of the dead? How do we read the Scriptures? It was familiar dynamics, present in many denominational circles at the time, that led us out of Methodists and toward the Baptists. And while the occasion for leaving was not great, I now see it as part of a larger peregrination, a lifelong habit of remaining in places fully aware that there were other places within Christendom to belong to.
As much as we had been a part of the Methodists, there were other churches.
My mother grew up going to Hargis Baptist Church in Montgomery, Louisiana, population of less than 1,000. My dad was a lifelong Methodist, at Noel United Methodist Church, in Shreveport, Louisiana. They were married at Hargis, and so, lived ecumenism took root in our family. Both of them were involved with the charismatic renewals of the 1970s, and so, churchgoing as a family took an unconventional turn of belonging not to one church, but to two.
For years afterwards, we attended Noel UMC by day, the church in which I was confirmed, the church my father grew up in. And at night, we attended Word of Life Fellowship, a non-denominational charismatic congregation. It was at Noel that I learned the Apostles’ Creed, which we recited weekly, and it was there that I knelt at the chancel to receive Communion. It was at Word of Life that I first spoke in tongues, where I felt the fire of the Spirit in inexpressible ways.
In seminary, I attended briefly a PCA church before moving to a Baptist church, where we stayed for 12 good years and two very hard ones. In Florida, we tried to be Baptist and failed, finding home in an Evangelical Covenant Order Presbyterian church, while I taught at a non-denominational evangelical university, and taught on occasion for other churches and found a place of meditation in a storied Episcopal church on the coast.
In my work today, I work primarily among Baptist churches, and meet regularly with a collection of ministers from various backgrounds: nondenominational charismatic, neo-Reformed, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist. I teach a class on various intentional Christian communities, wrote a book on church community in conversation with a Lutheran, and teach at a university founded by the Churches of Christ.
I ask questions, and find many answers, some satisfying, some elusive. And always, the question of what the church is follows.
Seeing the Whole, and Finding No Home
My formative training was in historical Christian theology, and for the first several years of my career, as I taught primarily courses in doctrine and systematic theology, I became increasingly impressed that it was the moral life that I wanted to spend my time thinking and teaching on. And so, the last seven years have primarily been that: a transition into teaching, writing, and thinking about the moral life, with theology my framework.
But the questions of ecclesiology have always been there. When I co-wrote A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence, part of the allure for me was how this witness to nonviolence was worked out across Christian traditions and argued for from within various ecclesial logics. When I wrote my first book, Bodies of Peace, the premise was that ethics was shaped in tandem with one’s commitments about the church. And now, I am working to finish a long-standing project on how the doctrine of the church in the 20th century changed, and what we might learn from it.
While my future, I think, lies with the world of Christian ethics, theology—and particularly, the doctrine of the church—is the drumbeat in the background. It remains an animating question, and one to which my answers have changed.
Call it a habit that cannot—must not—be broken.
The Questions Worth Asking
This will rarely delve into, if at all, the question that you may be asking yourself: “Why church?” As Kirsten Sanders has written, this is the wrong question, I think, in that it prioritizes the utility of what churches are: do churches make a difference for justice? do churches make some sort of measurable impact in the world?
Increasingly—and I say this as a theological ethicist who deeply cares about such things—I think this is the wrong question to ask. If you’re looking for something to renew democracy, a nonprofit or Twitter-based figurehead is probably going to give you a more direct way there. This is not to say that Christianity, and ecclesiology more specifically, don’t speak to this: it’s just getting the cart before the horse.
The question for the Christian is not why church, as if being a part of Christ’s body were an optional feature of belonging to the work of God. The question is not why church, but what is this thing that I have been called to belong to? What does it look like? And why does it look like so many things?
Heidegger once said that you can either live within a world or examine it, but that you can’t do both at the same time. This is incorrect, I think, but what it does mean is that any analysis of the question is always partial, always non-objective, always a pursuit of truthfulness by the searcher. One need not give up on church in order to understand it, but it does mean that in pursuing answers, one must be willing to be changed by the search.
So let’s begin.
In future installments, I’ll begin offering some starting points for sorting this out. We’ll work slowly, without hurry. I hesitate to offer starting points, in that most ecclesiologies, as I’ve noted, are written from within: they presume a starting frame that governs their exposition, even if they want to disagree with their own frame.
That being said, one could do worse than beginning with Harper and Metzger’s book, Karkkainnen’s introduction or this two-volume set by Roger Haight. None of these are my favorites, in that none of the venture a strong argument, but they do offer a helpful map.
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