The Church can be too big, growth is not always appropriate, God sets the size of the Church.

  1. The Church is not called to encompass the whole world and everyone in it. This is one of the truths embodied in the doctrine of double predestination: some are called into the Church and some are not.
  2. The only good reason for anybody to become a Christian, to enter into the body of Christ in the Church is because they have a vocation to it from God. Any other motivation or cause is illegitimate and cannot lead to membership in the Church invisible.
  3. God’s plan for salvation is not for individuals to be freed from the fallen state of creation and the consequences of that state. God’s plan is, through Christ, to redeem the whole cosmos and everything in it.
  4. There is no salvation apart from that remaking of all that is. No-one can be saved before and separately from the coming of the kingdom, of God’s direct and complete rule, at the end of time, at the eschaton.
  5. In the time between the incarnation and Christ’s return in glory we inhabit a mixed and ambiguous state, in which we are still separated from God by sin but have the promise of forgiveness and restitution and through the Spirit can enter into the kingdom through our being joined to Christ.
  6. The Church, the body of those so joined, exists only in this time between. It belongs both to the age that is passing away and to the kingdom that is coming. It has a thoroughly mixed and ambiguous being. It will pass away with the fulfilment of the promise.
  7. To wish for the Church to encompass all that is has the two aspects that correspond to this mixed nature. It expresses the proper yearning that finds words in “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”. It is a desire for God’s unlimited and absolute rule and is thus part of what it means to follow Christ. However it also expresses resistance to that rule: the Church will only exist as long as God’s kingdom does not come. The kingdom is not the extension of the Church but its abolition.
  8. A consequence of these features of the relationship of Church and kingdom is that we have to be careful about how we think about our evangelism. It is right and proper to share the good news about Jesus and to invite others to become part of the Church. We have to avoid certain dangers, however. It is idolatry to identify the Church and the kingdom or salvation with being part of our institutions. It is sinful to fall into any idea that the coming of the kingdom is our task (even partly) rather than the fulfilment by God of God’s promise.
  9. The Church has specific and definite (even if wide and hard to delimit) tasks, set for it by God. It continues the work of the apostles, representing Jesus and under his authority. It is to accept hospitality from the world on his behalf; it is to carry on its exemplary work of healing, as a sign of the kingdom’s character; it is to proclaim what has been done and what has been promised by God in Christ; above all it is to be the site of his presence as the new temple.
  10. Other institutions and other people have other tasks and the Church should be careful of taking these on, both because by doing so it intrudes and distorts (as it does where any kind of theocracy threatens) and because in so doing it will be led to neglect its own proper duties.
  11. In particular the Church should be wary of too close an involvement (positive or negative) with civil power. To take general political stances is (in most cases) a temptation to be avoided by the Church (or indeed churches).
  12. Individual Christians will, of course, have their political identities as members of the polities to which they belong. They should not confuse this with their Christian identities. Those who disagree politically can and should worship and pray together.
  13. This enables and also is a consequence of the “sectarian” character of the Church. As a mixed body in a mixed age the Church cannot, indeed must not, encompass the whole of human kind. It is a body called apart, to represent and embody the coming age.
  14. It follows from this that the “right” size for the Church is something of a mystery. It must be big enough to be able to carry out its functions properly (but this might not be very big, few would argue that the apostolic Church was too small to be what it needed to be). It must not be so big as to merge with the fallen world and lose its separate and distinct character (one way to understand the necessity of the Reformation is that it needed to reestablish the separate identity of the Church).
  15. The Church can be too big, growth is not always appropriate, God sets the size of the Church.
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4 comments
  1. Ray Adams said:

    You lost me about point 13. Can people separate their Christian identity from other identities (political and otherwise)? What if the church exists in a place where minorities are being persecuted, and identifies with their struggle (e.g. Dalits, Karen tribal people)? I agree that the Church’s core identity is other than these, but are we not also called to be incarnational of Christ in the midst of struggle – which will mean at times risking being wrong for the right reasons? I have known Christian congregations to have identified with opposing groups (sometimes separate language groups) – and though they have been challenged by their unity in Christ to seek a better way – they have felt their ‘bias’ has been a legitimate part of living the gospel.

  2. Our identities are complex and composite. In particular our new creation in Christ (our Christian identity) is never completed. Politics itself, in all its forms, is a part of and mark of the fall and can never be sufficiently sanctified to be “Christian” (this is a key insight of Bonhoeffer’s). As soon as we enter the realm of political action we move into a sphere where Christian standards cannot be achieved. This is not to say that our transformation by the Spirit is irrelevant there, just that to make it part of the Church’s mission inevitably works against the achievement of our core task,

  3. S said:

    Hm. A few questions suggest themselves:

    How would someone tell whether they have a vocation to enter the Church? What if they had such a vocation but decided instead not to enter the Church? (What advice would you give either to someone who is trying to decide whether to join the Church, or someone who has been a member of a church for years and is wondering whether to keep up with it?)

    If the Church has its tasks but these tasks ultimately do not affect anything important (it has no effect on salvation either on the individual or cosmological level, for example; it proclaims, but no one listens) then could it not be said that the tasks of the Church are merely busywork, to keep its members occupied during the interim? What would be the effect if the members of the Church simply decided to down tools? If there would be no effect, isn’t the Church pointless? If they couldn’t do such a thing (perhaps because those called are called irresistibly) then isn’t their deterministic (lack of) choice as meaningless as the running-out of a computer programme?

    • Some responses to those (very good) questions.

      They would know through the processes of discernment. That is to say that if they pay attention to the Spirit’s prompting they will find themselves drawn into or held in the Church. It isn’t always easy to tell what those promptings are steering one towards but that;s the art of discernment. I think the Ignatian practices are excellent for helping to learn how to pay attention but other things work for other people. A good deal of misery is caused by mistaken interpretations of vocation, in my view. Which is the answer to your second question. If someone is called into the Church and can’t or won’t respond they are likely to be made unhappy and dissatisfied. (So the answers to the third is either to join or to leave and see what difference it makes, to really pay attention to how it feels.)

      I don;t think calling the Church’s tasks “busy work” quite meets the case. There is no task waiting, the witnessing and waiting IS the task. The effect if those called neglected their vocation? Unhappiness and ;lack of fulfillment for them. A gap in the world where God’s dwelling place should be.

      On free will and determinism I don’t have much to say. I’ve never been able to find it an interesting dichotomy.

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