In all the deconstructing and rethinking of church practices that seems to be going on today (a good thing in and of itself), it seems that sometimes we get to the point of thinking about whether God really needs the church to fulfill his purposes for this planet. To put it slightly more theologically: How does the church as the people of God fit into a missional theology?
Gerhard Lohfink wrote a book awhile ago called Does God Need the Church? Here's a quote that answers very much in the affirmative, that the church is central to the mission of God:
the world. There must be a place, visible, tangible, where the
salvation of the world can begin: that is, where the world becomes what
it is supposed to be according to God’s plan. Beginning at that place,
the new thing can spread abroad, but not through persuasion, not
through indoctrination, not through violence. Everyone must have the
opportunity to come and see. All must have the chance to behold and
test this new thing. Then, if they want to, they can allow themselves
to be drawn into the history of salvation that God is creating. Only in
that way can their freedom be preserved. What drives them to the new
thing cannot be force, not even moral pressure, but only the
fascination of a world that is changed" (p.27 – emphasis mine).
I saw this quote on Dave Fitch's response to Frank Viola over the missiology/ecclesiology issue, and I was prompted to remember a blog post from over two years ago, where I discussed the questions Simon Chan asked in the first chapter of his Liturgical Theology:
he asks the question of whether the church is to be primarily
understood as the instrument through which God will accomplish his
purpose in creation, or rather the expression of that purpose itself.
Is the church here to work for the fulfillment of God's purpose in
creation, or is the church itself the fulfillment of God's purpose in
creation? If the church in the instrument of God's purpose, then we
understand it primarily in functional terms; what it does. But if we
understand the church as itself the expression of God's purpose, we
look at the church in ontological terms; what it is…
But what if the church is both the expression of AND the
instrument of God's purpose in creation?
Which seems to be what Dave Fitch is saying when he argues that ecclesiology IS missiology and vice versa.
In the end, I think that any paradigm that seeks to place missiology "ahead of" or "prior to" ecclesiology (ala Hirsch) is problematic, because the church always ends up being provisional and/or optional.
To put it bluntly: Yes, God needs the church.
Great thoughts. You capture, so concisely, how I’ve been thinking on this topic. It helps make it more clear for me.
The other problem with putting missiology ahead of ecclesiology is that it can tend to devalue people and communion, because of the emphasis on purpose or function rather than mutual affection.
Thanks for the book recommendation, too. I look forward to mining its pages.
Erin Kutnow says
So, I might have missed it in there, but I am wondering what is the working definition of “the church”. Is it the people of God, wherever they may be found? Or is it anytime that those people are gathered together (in a specific time and place)? It seems the definition will change the conversation a bit, eh?
Disclaimer: fuzzy brain at work here
Erin Kutnow says
oops, i might have sent that twice ben. sorry
Benjamin Sternke says
I guess I would say that the definition of the “church” is the people of God wherever they are, but they are never more the people of God as when they are gathered together in his Name to worship.
David Fitch says
awesomely said … man do I appreciate your putting it like this.
Adam Langley says
I’m new here. Was linked to this post via David Fitch’s blog. I hope you don’t mind me intruding.
Please forgive me if I’m being ignorant, but it seems much, much more “problematic” to me to think of God as *needing* anything than it is to think of the church as ending up “provisional and/or optional.” It is a problematic dilemma of which I am sure anyone can spot: How can God, a perfect being, *need* anything?
In our theology of the missio Dei, it seems clear to me that a paradigm of Divine abundance would be far superior to a paradigm of Divine need.
This is a model of abundance that seems to make more sense to me. It seems to make more sense to me that God doesn’t need the Church (the corpus Christi) in the process of re-creation and redemption any more (or any less) than he would need the Adam (the imago Dei) in the process of creation. As I see it, it was not out of a lack in Himself, or a ‘need’ for human co-creativity that he created the Adam. It was out abundance, out of the overflow of God’s joy and (“It was good”) pleasure in His creative activity. Out of the excess (not need), He wanted to share this joyful vocation of creativity with humanity.
As there seems to be a striking analogy between the imago Dei (the Adam) and the corpus Christi (the Second Adam), it appears also that this analogy might hold true between the missio Dei via imago Dei and the missio Dei via corpus Christi. It would likewise not be out a lack or need that God in Christ missions through the Church. It is out of excess and abundance of joy. We are graced by the overflow–not recruited because of the need–to be participants in the joyful, life-giving re-creativity of Christ.
At least that’s what seems to make sense to me. But this is, of course, based on a chain of reasoning into which I could not go in depth here.
(I left this response on David’s blog too. Forgive me also for being lazy with a cut-and-paste!)