Re-centring our church: the quest for a stronger unity

Posted: February 21, 2012 by J in Church, Theology

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Is it possible for us to find a stronger unifying idea or story – stronger, that is, than ‘we believe in the authority of Scripture’? (see previous 2 posts)

It may be possible, but I wonder if the definition of ‘us’ might change if we achieved it?

Wellsie has suggested ‘united with the world in wretched sin, united with the world as mysterious recipients of God’s grace, and united with Christ by his Spirit?’

That’s not that different from what I had in mind. Let’s go with that for a bit, see where it gets us. There’s a few things worth saying about it:

First, it’s a story. Our sin and misery, a gift from a gracious God, redemption through his Son and Spirit.

A story gives a powerful framework for unity and community: everyone thinking and living in broadly the same direction. A sense of shared future.

Second, it’s personal. We’re not coming together around an abstract idea (like ‘authority’ or ‘the 5 points’), we’re gathered around someone – God, the Father, Christ and the Spirit. In other words, it’s a centre that’s relational from first to last. Belief in the Bible may imply relationships, or it may not. But embracing this gospel story of God’s Trinitarian action towards us, certainly means connecting with God at a personal level. This adds an extra dimension to the strength of the unifying centre. The kind of strength that comes not just from conviction, but from loyalty, and even love.

But this relationality also introduces an unpredictable element into things: personal relationships are not static things, and are not all the same. The God we come to is not stationary and predictable, but free and sovereign in all his relations.  His Spirit is not given like a fixed amount of liquid, which remains stored up in the believer, but is constantly moving, blowing through church and world, sometimes more, other times less, producing life in all its variety. The God of the gospel is a God who does new things. Variety and change are implied by this kind of unity around a person.

Third, it’s a story in which we’re free to look bad. ‘United with the world in wretched sin’: that’s a great load off our shoulders, not having to be the last repository of all that’s faithful and true in the world, not having to be the ones with all the answers to the world’s problems. There’s another person who can be that for us even if we are a bit mouldy – another three persons, in fact. Quite liberating, really.

Fourth, the story has the potential to generate a high level of cohesiveness and direction in the lifestyle of a community gathered around it, because it is focussed on the here and now. The Heaven’s Gate sect with their plans to be collected by flying saucers, probably didn’t achieve a vision that gave much guidance for the complexities of everyday life – family, work, finances etc. But the gospel story tells of God’s action towards us and our world. It’s about his arrival in this world, in real space time history. It calls on us to reshape every area of life around the reality of the King’s arrival, of the Spirit’s coming. That gives a unifying set of parameters for Christian living.  Those who share a basic commitment to the advancement of God’s kingdom in the creation are going to find a lot of common ground in the business of living in this world – common ground firm and broad enough to embrace vast differences in how that commitment is expressed. The arrival of the King is a story with so much unifying pull at the level of practice, that it should minimise the need for unity to be imposed from without. And within it a great deal of diversity should be possible. It gives a big picture with enough complexity, colour and variety, that everyone can find a place to take part. God’s kingdom is a big country!

Even more promising, the story is itself inherently one about unity. This is not always the case in foundational myths or stories. Hitler’s narrative of a master race, for example, hardly had a unifying effect on the world! But in this story, God is regathering and reconciling everything and everyone under his Son, King Jesus, by the restorative working of his one Spirit. He is creating one new people united to Christ, where in the past there was division. In other words, the gospel happens to be a powerfully unifying story in its content.

It seems like Wellsie may be on to something.

And in fact, at our church we are attempting to develop a community re-centred around these things: the Trinitarian action of God in redemption, as described in the apostles’ creed; and also a vision statement that basically interprets that action as the coming of God’s kingdom, and commits us to participating. In other words, we’re trying to put the gospel story at the centre of our church life, and make it our story and the source of our unity. In fact, we’re trying to storyify everything.

And negatively: we believe the Bible, and use it all the time, but we don’t make a big deal about the doctrine of Scripture. It’s not in the top three things we want to say about ourselves or about God. We focus on the content, more than the nature of the artifact. It’s not our core unifying principle.

We’re hoping that this will shape us into a truly centred community. We’re hoping this centre will have enough gravity to unify us strongly – unified enough to be comfortable with a lot of diversity. We’re trying to develop a fairly hands-off leadership style where church members are encouraged to have ideas and develop goals and ministries on their own initiative (but always in fellowship). And where everyone is encouraged to teach us the word of God, no one has a monopoly on ‘the right view of things’.

It’s early days for us, and these things don’t come naturally. But so far the signs are good.

The main objection to this sort of foundation for a community is obvious: it’s not that useful for keeping people out! How are you going to distinguish yourselves from non-evangelicals?

I agree that this is an issue. One interesting thing will be to see how it goes when practising Christians from other traditions want to join us. That’s started happening already, but it’s too early to report much on results. But as a preliminary comment, I can say that it definitely has got a lot harder to keep them out!

  1. Well done Jonathan! It usually takes several years for young evangelical pastors to turn into 19th Century German liberals, but you’ve seemed to make the transition in a little over 12 months. There must be some sort of cash prize for that effort!

    Facetious jokes aside, might I suggest that this line of thinking has been attempted before and found wanting. Letting “story” and communal confession drive your doctrine of Scripture (or lack thereof)…are you REALLY sure you want to go down that path?

    • Jonathan says:

      Ah, I see that ze gairm is up! Ve are unmasked! Zat Luke has discovered our true identity. Untie ze Zeppelin, mein Liebchen, it’s time ve make our escape!

      Slightly more seriously, brother, it’s great to have your comments. In this case, I’m a little surprised by the joke. Afraid I’m just not well-informed enough to get the connection. What is it about my proposal that reminds you of 19th century liberals?

      It’s nice to have someone here who’s better read than us, esp in the realm of history. But you need to spell things out in words of one syllable for us dummies. You say my line of thinking has been attempted before and found wanting. Could you fill us in a little – who attempted what, and who found it wanting? Which path is it we’re going down?

      I wonder if there was a little confusion about the last point: ‘letting story…drive your doctrine of Scripture (or lack thereof)’. I wasnt intending to talk about things driving our doctrine of Scripture – did I talk about that by accident? And what was there in my proposal that suggested a ‘lack’ of a doctrine of Scripture. Sounds like a fairly serious assertion – perhaps you could explain?

  2. I suppose that my comment comes from a number of points. Please note that I don’t think that this is where you currently ARE, but it is where your line of thinking eventually LEADS YOU:

    1) The concerns that prompted your thinking about Unity In Community are similar to those that drove people such as Schleiermacher and Ritschl. Doctrinal statements are nowhere near as effective for building community as piety and positive vision. If clear doctrine stands in the way then it can be pushed to the periphery and eventually redefined. Remember that the 19th Century Germans were all Romantics – rationalism interfered with the religious affections and so an alternative pathway was the only solution.

    2) Your nomination of “story” as the unifying factor sounds eerily similar to Schleiermacher’s “feeling of absolute dependence”. Note that for Schleiermacher this “feeling” was not just an emotion, but a force that drove his entire Christian life. Whether you call it “absolute dependence” or “story”, what you are in fact building is a community centred on human reflections on human experiences of God. While these experiences are in line with traditional understandings of common confessions you have no problem, but when they are not it becomes problematic as you don’t have a foundation to challenge someone’s “story”.

    3) What you say about the use of the Bible would have given Hodge and Warfield heart attacks. Your statement that you build community on the Trinitarian redemption activity found in the creed simply begs the question. What stops “the nature of the artifact” turning into something like my cookbooks (sources [sauces??] of great ideas, but with the freedom to play around with the measurements to suit my personal experiences/tastes)?

    As I read your post I have the emotion of a maths teacher who can see the kid has got the right answer but the working out is all over the place. This may be because I have totally misunderstood your meaning, but I fear There Be Crocodiles In These Waters. Perhaps one day we can discuss over schnitzel and wheat beer!

    • Jonathan says:

      Struggling to follow you, Luke.

      On 1. Schleiermacher et al felt that “Doctrinal statements are nowhere near as effective for building community as piety and positive vision. If clear doctrine stands in the way then it can be pushed to the periphery and eventually redefined.” You say my concerns are similar. How so? To say that some doctrines can be used divisively (as I did) is not really the same as saying that doctrine itself is divisive, is it? Would you really call the gospel story of God’s Trinitarian action in redemption, a non-doctrinal centre? Is it really to be equated with ‘piety and positive vision’ and ‘the religious affections’ rather than with ‘doctrinal statements’? Can’t see it, brother. What do you mean when you say ‘doctrine’?

      On 2. In your view, a church unified around ‘God’s Trinitarian action bringing in the kingdom’ as a centre for church unity, is effectively ‘a community centred on human reflections on human experiences of God.’ Really?? Nothing revelatory in God’s Trinitarian action in the gospel, would you say? You compare this ‘gospel narrative’ centring approach with Schleiermacher’s founding faith on ‘feeling’. Can’t see it, brother. Seems like a bit of a leap. Wouldn’t you say the gospel story gives a bit of a ‘foundation to challenge someone else’s story’? I find it does that pretty well.

      3. You feel I’ve begged the question of ‘What stops “the nature of the artifact” turning into something like my cookbooks?’ I.e. you want a clearly defined doctrine of Scripture. So do I, Luke, but my post wasn’t about that. We can have that conversation some time, but this wasn’t it. To say the doctrine of Scripture is not the unifying centre, is not to imply that we have no doctrine of Scripture, is it? If I say the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is not in the top five things I want to say to the world, would you conclude that I don’t believe in the perseverance of the saints?

  3. If you are treating Trinitarian action in redemption as a doctrinal centre then I fail to see how you believe it could by nature be an stronger centre than “authority of Scripture” or any other abstract confession. You claim that it it makes the centre more “personal”, but surely Scripture is personal as it derives its authority from the Incarnate and Resurrected Word.

    You are absolutely correct in saying that a doctrine of Scripture is not what we are called to preach to the world. But if we are to preach God’s Trinitarian action in redemption we need to be prepared to face the foundational questions “How do you know that?” and “Why should I care?” It just seems a little odd to me that you are attempting to “storyify everything” while being more than a little vague on the place of the doctrine of Scripture (surely the source of the story) in unifying the church community. If you want to make Wellsie’s definition as the “stronger idea”, I won’t challenge it, I think it’s great! But I don’t think that you can do it justice (particularly not in the way you propose) if you allow your doctrine of Scripture to stand as loose as you imply.

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