In 1956 a group of British theologians chose to honor the twentieth century’s greatest theologian, Karl Barth, with a collection of Essays in Christology. They chose this theme because Barth was a champion for high Christology but also because but because the editors and contributors believed the very heart of Christian theology was Christology, the doctrine of Christ. I believe we can learn something vitally important for this decision.
Interestingly, in 1966 the same group, now including English-speaking colleagues from around the world, decided to honor Barth’s eightieth birthday with a collection of essays. This volume was on diakonia, or the service and ministry of the church. The order of these two major works is critical, at least to my mind. First comes Christ, always and in every circumstance. Second, comes the church, its service in mission and orderly arrangement and practice.
Make no mistake about what I am saying here. These two truths – Christ and the church (its order and mission) – cannot be separated. Nevertheless, the first ought to always precede the second in our thinking and teaching. The reason this is true ought to be be self-evident to Christians who have read the Bible for long.
Yet what seems abundantly clear to simple Bible readers, as well as careful theologians, has not been so evident to churches and leaders. Consider Vatican II, the most important theological gathering in the twentieth century. Following Vatican II it is a demonstrable fact that matters of church structure and polity took center stage in the discussions and life of the Catholic Church.
During this same time Protestants (i.e. during the last 50+ years) were given to almost every subject but Christ. More traditional, and older, Protestant churches have given themselves to debates over sexuality and political response to global problems while more evangelical (newer) churches have given themselves to a growing debate about “church growth” linked to grander plans for marketing and growing larger and more user-friendly churches.
In my morning paper yesterday (Daily Herald, 01/05/14) there was a front-page story about the star of the popular “Duck Dynasty” television series speaking in an area mega-church. The report referred to him getting a “standing ovation” after he gave a “sermon.” (I didn’t know he was a preacher!) 2,500 attendees “laughed at Robertson’s anecdotes about family members and were moved by stories about his own failings.”
I have no interest in the controversy over “Duck Dynasty” that has played out in the media over the last few months. I have a profound interest in the health of the church and what we focus upon in our public worship. (The church, in this particular instance, referred to the service in which Robertson spoke as “worship.”)
My point here is not complex. You can attend worship in most churches and hardly ever hear the name of Jesus or Christ except as a “filler” for the vaguest notions of who he is or what his life and lordship mean to the world.
Church structures are important. This is particularly true for those who casually dismiss them, as an increasingly large number of evangelicals do. But there is no justification either in Christian tradition, or in the present historical context, to not make Jesus Christ of paramount importance. Liturgical renewal, ministerial life (including the issue of celibacy for Catholics), our response to the sexual revolution and same-sex marriage in particular, abortion, war and the public debates over immigration and poverty, are all important issues for Christians and churches. But even when appeal is made in these debates, and at times it is made, to the gospel what is said has little to do with the life and person of Jesus the Messiah.
What I am saying is really quite simple. Most of what the church is teaching and saying these days has very little to do with the person of Christ. If this is true I have to ask: “How truly Christian is out theology and life?” Can we not agree that what pertains to Christ is the heart of Christian faith. And can we not further agree that when we hear so little of Jesus owe should conclude that what we understand as Christian is quite far removed from the very person from which this movement gets its name? Could we have substituted a movement in morality and ecclesial practice for Jesus? It would not be the first time this has happened in 2,000 years.