At it again: The Church of the City
“When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses,” Mr. Boyd preached. “When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross. America is neither the light of the world nor the hope of the world.”
Read the rest from the New York Times here, and as covered so well by Garland here.
One of my professors used to say that the proper use of prepositions is one of the most critical aspects of orthodoxy. He was so right.
A friend took me to a luncheon yesterday that turned out to be a networking event for local evangelical churches- mega churches, house churches, disjointed zealots all, etc. The purpose? To build momentum towards the formation of a kind of Protestant Evangalical/Pentecostal "diocese" which would oversee and organize the work of otherwise isolated churches in my hometown under one key "bishop" figure who would organize the ministers within his cure. They call themselves "The Church of the City." The goals of this initiative are greater efficiency and force through structural unity, something that the evangelical world has only enjoyed through the semblance of unity afforded by a regrettably disheveled aesthetic held unfortunately in common (no offense, Michael W. Smith). I am all for this structural unity, of course; history has proven that the top-down episcopacy of the early church is simply the best expression of Christ's servant-lordship in the heavenly Kingdom which is the Church. But, as I so often do at such gatherings, I was squirming through the whole thing...
I was troubled. The language which these good people use to communicate their laudable vision reflects the sordid, deprived ecclesiology that bankrupts the Bride of Christ in our idolatrous American culture. A Church of the City? What is this "of?"
I am a Classics person. I read Latin and Greek a lot, and in that kind of verbal algebra you have to figure out exactly what the "of" is doing in a sentence. It may sometimes be a locative genitive, expressing place. It may be a genitive of agent, expressing the means by which a result is accomplished; or it may be a partititve force, expressing a thing in terms of its distinction from its genus. But almost always, "of" denotes posesssion. Do you get that? The city's church?
The Church is Christ's. The church is not a function of local culture, nor should it ever be conditioned by political need or social proclivities. The Church is not a base for American politics nor a rec center for Christian families. In addressing the needs of the world, the Church is to respond only to Christ. Alone among the other glories of the fallen creation, the Church is "of" Christ. It is only in this way that the Church can fulfill her vocation to be for the world in sacrifical love, service, and instruction in spirit and in truth. Thus we may say that the Church is for the city, because the Church is Christ's loving gift to the needy world for its healing and benefit. The Church is in the city certainly. The Church's people may come from the City, in entering the City of God demarked by the Church's jurisdiction, as they go in and out and find pasture. But in no way may the Church remain the Church of Jesus Christ and simultaneously be the Church of the City.
Let me say this carefully. The Apostles and Mary left that upper room and immediately fell into the Spirit's will of gathering a community to celebrate the memory of the Lord. They sang His praises among the excellent civic structures of Roman life for centuries, and in posing serious risks to the proper organization of society (they had another Lord to whom they gave their money and their virgins, for instance), many, many of them died because they refused to be "of" the city. Thus when Constantine provided the Church with its state-sanctioned status, Augustine responded with the Church's definitive warning against confusing the Kingdom of the Crucified, who fed the poor and died that all might live, with the Kingdom of the Emperor, which would inevitably exploit the poor and kill persons to defend its own interests: in Augustine's City of God and City of Man, we are told once and for all that though the two "kingdoms" may exist among each other, they are forever seperated, if only because one will perish and the other will enter into the eternal embrace of God. For centuries onward, the Church was able to flourish in its own development as the polis of God among the nations, from time to time getting it right, and at other times failing utterly; but in general, the Church undersood that she was a Kingdom separate and consecrate, with corroborating structures evident in the papal "monarchy," the centralized government at Rome, and the common law of the vox fides. This happy understanding (among other blessings) was neatly shattered by the Protestant Revolt, particularly where Luther's belligerance propelled hordes of formerly good Kingdom citizens into the far country of anarchy.
But despite Luther's democratizing impulses, it ontologically remains that the Church is no democracy formed by human will, for human expediency. The Church is an eternally nuptial "Body" called into being by the will of God. She has a KING. Thus it was that the splintered factions of the Church in the wake of the Protestant Revolt sought a superstructure, as appropriate for a Kingdom. But now there was none available to them. The only organizing principle that came to mind to these anxious Reformers was... you got it... the nation and its substructures. So the Reformers turned for organization to the feudal princes about whom Jesus had always hinted... "little flock, they will resist you." And now we have the laudible aim of inter denominational unity organized under the auspices of the local secular polity... not the Church universal, as manifested in a particular township, but rather, "The Church of the City."
The Church and the State, properly understood as parallel and eternally separate worlds, so often become merged in the Protestant mind. What we have is the rhetoric that I heard at my luncheon as we sang the praises of a "God-birthed USA"... "the nation as THE instrument of God's renewal among The Other Nations..." "the city as a light." In this rubric, the unity of the church becomes desirable, not in reflection of Trinitarian desire, but merely as a means for national socio-political progress; and, incidentally, the hallmark of such a church's success is the great benefit of its members' election to political offices.
The problem? These ideas defy Scripture. In the history of the universe, if we speak indeed of Scripture and not our political ambitions, God has "chosen" only one nation as His instrument, and that nation is ancient Israel. Those who would draw a false analogy between the US of A and the Israel of God are completely unjustified, and I think a little rebellious, because the New Testament is clear: it is the Church that constitutes the new Israel. And like Israel, the Church is a pilgrim nation, a universal and timeless creature, properly rejected by that world who cannot ever comprehend her in her lovely, waiting adoration of One alone, as she serves the least of these and the enemy in ways that the state never could. She is the universal creature, really separated and distinguished only by spatial instantiations of the everlasting whole. Let us have the Church in the city, for the city, from the city. But please, never the Church of.