The Church is part of God’s World! (not above it but apart within it))

Since my next (and probably my last) placement isn’t due to start until the last Sunday in November and I only have one class a week at New College this year I currently have plenty of time for reading and thinking. I have two writing projects in hand, both chosen by me. Both of them have significant ecclesiological elements, so it looks like what I think about, given the choice, is the nature and purpose of the Church, which isn’t a bad thing for a minister in formation to think about, I guess.

My term paper for Church and Ministry: Biblical and Historical Foundations is looking at  the way in which the Book of Jeremiah treats the relationship between Israel and Babylon with the aim of drawing lessons for the relationship between the Church and non-Christian (secular) political power (government). This assumes that analogies may be drawn between Israel and Babylon and post-Christendom Church and State. Clearly I will have to argue for this to some extent and something that has surprised me in investigating this is how little work seems to have been done in this area.

The way in which the Old Testament should be handled in an ecclesiological context seems to have been subjected to very little systematic investigation. Given the centrality in the New Testament and early Church of the idea of the Church as the inheritor and continuer of Israel’s mission, and the prevalence in early modern British (both English and Scottish) thought of the idea of the Reformed nation as the modern Israel one would have expected there to be much more.

Vatican II used the title “People of God” very extensively as a way of referring the the Church, but while this invocation of the Israelite inheritance has achieved a degree of ecumenical currency it appears (as far as I can see) not to have been subjected to much careful analysis, especially as regards to how it implies one should orient oneself to the Old Testament record of the history of Israel’s ordering if itself and of its relationship to its surroundings.

Yoder would appear to be the most important thinker who has tried consistently to orient his ecclesiology using models drawn from Israel but I’m unconvinced by his approach, with its stress on opposition to Empire and on pacifism. That seems to me a very partial account of the Biblical testimony. Both Isaiah and Jeremiah seem to me to offer the idea that non-Israelite power can be an instrument in the hand of God so that legitimate political authority is not confined to those within the Covenant.

The implication for the contemporary Church seems to me to be that the inclination of many of its leaders to see themselves as called to political action or statement should be treated cautiously. There is a tendency towards abstract moralising in many of the statements that emerge from this impulse of a kind I find deeply unhelpful.

The complexity of modern political and economic life is such that it is not straightforward to determine what is the most appropriate or even most just course of action and the implication that it is obvious what  morality demands of government or other actors is of no real help. It is not obvious and it is imperative that the analysis of likely consequences is an aspect of decision making calling for the use of real and scarce technical expertise. This does not mean that the only kind of government one should accept is the “technocratic” one being adopted as a response to the profound crises in Italy and Greece but it does mean that governments who reject technocratic input are profoundly irresponsible and that those who opine without regard to it are similarly (although to a lesser extent) so.

Similar thoughts inform my work on the debates on ordination and sexuality within the URC. In the same way that I think we should respect the relative autonomy of government and economy as aspects of God’s providential rule so I think we should take common moral thinking seriously. I remain unconvinced that Christianity has an distinctive positive moral teaching. Jesus’ own moral teaching represents not a break with Second Temple Judaism but the articulation of one strand within it. Similarly the ethic that is developed in the Pauline Epistles is not identical with what we can reconstruct of Jesus’ probable teaching and is strikingly at home in a Hellenistic-Judaic context.

Since the Apostolic period the accepted moral teaching of the Church has continued to change and develop (while always having a degree of plurality, especially in an ecumenical context) and this development has consistently exhibited a strong relationship to the development within the societies the Church as inhabited (albeit for much of this time the distinction of Church and social world has been a functional differentiation within something like an organic whole).

I see no reason why, post-Christendom, this should stop. Christians are called on to be moral (righteous) people but there is no reason to believe that the only source for learning what this means is Scripture or our own tradition.

Our distinctiveness comes not from the positive content of moral codes but rather from our understanding of the significance of these codes (which we refer to God and especially to our relationship to God rather than to nature or reason) and from our response to moral failure (where our pattern of repentance and forgiveness again centred in the God relation and in God’s free action in an unmerited grace). There is no reason in our history to think we have a special access to what right action would look like and plenty of reason to think that the word we are given to speak is one that draws attention to the implicit knowledge all have of the impossibility of such right action. We can afford to recognise this impossibility because we have heard the good news of God’s gracious redemption.

  1. Peter Redshaw said:

    My head is spinning a bit by the end of this but I like the way it calls on some actual brain
    power to process it!

    • Oh, well, I decided to indulge myself and write in a stream-of-consciousness way about what was on my mind. I know this sort of thing is always a bit tricky to read (unless you’ve written it yourself) and I’m grateful to you for making the effort!

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