The much reviewed and debated book, Resident Aliens (Abingdon, 1989), which I wrote a great deal about last week, prompted deep emotional reaction in me when I first read it back in 1990. Now, twenty-two years later, I have re-read the book with new eyes. These new eyes are the result of my missional-ecumenism, grounded in a deep theology of unity that says Christ’s mission is carried out by the whole people of God working together in deep relational love [Your Church Is Too Small, John H. Armstrong (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010)].
One of the core arguments the authors of Resident Aliens make is that “the church doesn’t have a social strategy [because] the church is a social strategy” (43). It is this idea that I want to explore with you for the next several blogs.
The nub of this argument is that the church has never really found it difficult to be in the world. The real problem has come when the church did not understand how to be in the world. I have come to embrace this provocative assessment of ministry and mission and believe the implications for our present “captive status” to culture is immensely important. Indeed, I believe that because the church has rarely understood that its DNA is really the missio dei, the mission of God in the world, we flounder in the present moment searching for a way forward. I heard a pastor speak to this, in a different setting, at our recent ACT3 Network Chicago area Unity Factor Forum. Understanding our unity in Christ’s mission he said, “We have discovered that the church’s real problem in our city is not a saturation issue but rather it is a partnership issue.” My heart profoundly resonates with this perspective. We have plenty of church just not enough partnering in the mission of Jesus. We desperately need the church to recover the gift of oneness and then to live as one people in the missio dei.
The church’s concern, at least when it comes to the world, is fairly straightforward at this point. It is to discover how to be in the world and for what purpose. It cannot help but be public by the sheer fact that Christianity is a very public faith when it is truly believed and practiced. There is very little about following Jesus that is private in terms of how we Americans define and understand the meaning of private.
One of the most disturbing tests that the church faced in the twentieth century was the rise of Nazism in Germany. It is safe to say that the German Church failed this test and the results of their failure were colossal. The church in Germany was a willing accomplice in the nation’s approval Hitler. When he needed to control the German nation and lead the populace into Word War II the church played an open and supportive role. The authors of Resident Aliens state this point simply and starkly by concluding: “The capitulation of the [German] church to see things clearly and to call them by their proper names, sends a chill down the spine of today’s church” (43). Yet there, in the midst of massive political and spiritual confusion, some Christians still retained a vision of what the church was called to be in the world. This stance represents, I believe, one of the best ways we have to understand the spiritual, social and political role of the church in modern culture. This “small” church within Hitler’s Germany was rightly called “The Confessing Church.” The supporters even wrote a confession of faith to describe their stance: “The Barmen Declaration” (1934). This public and political expression of the church was neither “liberal” nor “conservative.” It was not “tribal” or “separatist.” It was faithful. It was faithful in times when so few saw how the church in the world had truly failed the missio dei.
The twentieth century’s greatest theologian, Karl Barth, wrote “The Barmen Declaration,” a short confessional stance that sought to see the German context clearly under the judgment of Christ, the Lord of all, which included his being the Lord over the German state! In “The Barmen Declaration” it was written:
8.10 – 1. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14.6). “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. . . . I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved.” (John 10:1, 9.)
8.11 Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.
8.12 We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
We later read these simple, clear and compelling words:
8.16 – 3. “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body [is] joined and knit together.” (Eph. 4:15,16.)
8.17 The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance.
8.18 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.