Some Thoughts on Church and Christian Hope

If you have not had a chance yet, let me suggest picking up a copy of Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright.  The book deals with the subject of Christian hope, heaven, and how this subject should shape the way Christians live in the present.  N.T. Wright is a formidable theologian and biblical scholar who writes this book based on thoughtful theological reflection, yet the reader will not need a seminary degree to follow Wright’s discussion.  With this post, I do not want to offer a review of Wright’s book; I simply mention it as a valuable resource to get Christians to begin thinking again about the nature of our faith, the goal of our faith, and the way our faith ought to shape our living.  Instead, with this post I want to briefly and broadly state my own view of Christian hope (eschatology) as it relates to church (ecclesiology) and mention three ways this impacts Christianity as it seeks to live out the mission of God.

I believe a proper view of eschatology will shape our ecclesiology. First, and contrary to those who espouse a premillenial view of eschatology, Jesus did not fail to establish God’s kingdom but instead this kingdom is an eshcatological kingdom which Jesus has ‘already’ established but which is ‘not yet’ fully experienced.  Second, that the church is the community of people who live under God’s kingdom rule and thereby live out and proclaim this kingdom (the gospel) before and to the world so that its borders continue to advance.  This view of eschatology gives shape to the nature and purpose of the church. Thus, The church is a future community who exists in the present as the representation of God’s finished work of redemption. We do this by proclaiming the gospel and living the gospel reality out in our life.

If I am correct, this should change a lot about our mission. I will mention only three of relevant changes that I see as imperative, which is not intended to be exhaustive. First, the old question of evangelism vs. social justice is the wrong question to ask. Our task is to help those living under the slavery of this old world to experience the grace of the new world (God’s kingdom rule).  This was the ministerial work of Jesus during his life on earth.  All people are sinners and need to experience the redemption from sin that exist in the new world. But if they find such redemption but our still enslaved to an addiction or still our being drowned in a sea of poverty, they have not totally experienced the new world in fullness. Likewise, a person feed from an addiction but still living in slavery to sin has yet to experience the new world in its fullness. And though in one sense, no one will experience the new world in fullness until the second coming of Jesus, this does not excuse the church its duty as though we can apathetically say God will take care of it all in the end.

Second, if we are living as a future community under the reign of the Lord, we must question much of contemporary Christianity’s (especially in the Evangelicalism) wholesale endorsement of state sanctioned war and support for the state. The state is a fallen power that belongs to this old world. Why would we want to defend and support something that, eschatologically speaking, is already dead?  Though I am personally unconvinced of the legitamacy of the “just war theory,” such a conclusion does leave open the possibility that there is such a thing as “just war.  As the church, living under the reign of the resurrected and soverien Lord (who has already given us life and the power to overcome), supporting and participating in violence in order to maintain the fallen powers of this old fallen world have no place. Nor is there any place for violence and aggression being used as a means to overcome the fear of being persecuted. Can anyone imagine a New Testament writer telling the church to organize a militia because the Roman Government is going to oppress them.

The last change has to do with the Churches of Christ specifically. If the nature and purpose of the church is as I have suggested above, then the purpose of reproducing the pattern of the first century church is way off base. We neither live in their culture nor live under the same circumstances as they do. What is necessary is not treating the New Testament as a constitutional manual (law) for everything we can and cannot do. Rather, as a community of faith called to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ, the full expression of God’s kingdom reign, scripture (both Old and New Testament) is an epistemic resource from God given to us for the purpose of learning how to live out the gospel (particpate in the gospel) in our own circumstances and in our own forms.  This is not reproducing a particular historical period of the church but is instead reproducing the gospel in our lives and thus being the church in the twnety-first century (not the first century church in the twenty-first century) . This will look different from the first centurty, apostolic church just as it will look different for a church in North American versus a church in Asia or Africa. So much more needs to be said on this last point but my friend and former professor John Mark Hicks has been discussing this hermeneutical question on his own blog (http://johnmarkhicks.wordpress.com/).

What are some of your thoughts?

13 responses to “Some Thoughts on Church and Christian Hope

  1. Two thoughts, only.

    First, I have the book and am halfway through it. Wish I could devote more time to it.

    Second, I would actually say we need a better, richer grasp and integration not only eschatology and ecclesiology, but also missiology.

    I’m reading through Newbigin’s “The Open Secret” right now. When I finish it, I’ll pick up “Surprised by Hope” again.

  2. Adam, I think you are exactly right about missiology.

    Although I did not directly mention missiology, I hope what I said would be understood as being very missiological. One of the books listed in my -Books I Am Reading- is “The Essence of the Church” by Craig Van Gelder. In this book he stresses that ‘mission’ is not just a by product that results from God’s creative-redemptive action but rather, mission is an attribute of God. Mission is part of God’s nature. Ironically, from what I have read so far, Van Gelder’s book deals with ecclesiology all from an eschatological and missiological perspective.

    Rex

  3. Rex,

    Looks like someone has mistaken your comments for their blog. Do you have a delete option on your wordpress? I know I can on my blogspot.

  4. I appreciate the encouragement to participate in the Gospel. I do want to read the books you mentioned. Oh, such little time.

    I’m not sure about the Just War theory myself either, but I don’t think I’m against violence wholesale. Of course, I am against policing the world for the sake of filling privileged pockets with oil. I see no honor in lying to get a whole nation into this mid-eastern entanglement that brings more hatred and misunderstanding of Americans out of a growing number of potential terrorists.

    . . . But, I don’t need to elaborate on your blog. Sorry. 🙂

  5. Adam,

    I just noticed the long blog comments and I will remove them.

    Jason,

    It is good to see you stop by. I know you must be busy — preparing for Australia and most importantly, preparing for the arrival of your first child. I understand not having the time to read, that is why it takes me forever to finish the books I am reading.

    As for being against wholesale violence, I have questions too. That is why I tried to frame this post in reference to that violence which only is for the purpose of defending/supporting the nation-states of this old, fallen world. But you can elaborate as much as you want.

  6. Loved the book. N.T. Wright is a doing the world a load of good in his work.

    I agree with your assesment. Something that I think is vital for Jesus followers to think about is this: Given the way it’s all going to turn out, how should that shape us now?

    For me, it means we attempt to live the future into the now so that the world gets a taste of the fruits of Canaan. And it includes robust ecological concern.

    Churches of Christ look like escapists who, for all their talk of book, chapter, and verse, seem to know very little about what the Book says about our true hope.

  7. Ben said,

    “Something that I think is vital for Jesus followers to think about is this: Given the way it’s all going to turn out, how should that shape us now? …For me, it means we attempt to live the future into the now so that the world gets a taste of the fruits of Canaan.”

    Exactly! And yes, it also shaped the way we approach ecology.

    One of the reasons I believe the Churches of Christ have not understood a good theology of Christian hope was due to a very unfortunate fear of theology. Though the academy has embraced thinking theologically, I believe more and more members outside the academy are also learning to think theologically.

    Rex

  8. Rex,

    You’re being very polite about the situation. : )

    How much theological thinking is necessary to get Paul’s point in Ro. 8.18f?

    And when John tells us that Heaven will come down to earth (Re. 21), why don’t we believe it? I think it has everything to do with our worldview and less to do with our fear of academic theology. That is, Paul and John are read through the invisible yet controlling grid which provides an answer about the future that can’t really be substantiated by anything in scripture. The grid modulates how the reader interprets the thing that is read. And the grid lives as if it is self-evident and is therefore rarley questioned. Theology will not help get light onto such a map because theology that doesn’t match up with the grid is considered errant. It doesn’t get a hearing.

    The thing, I think, which is needed is a subversion of the worldview in question. It nearly takes a miracle to get through. It most certainly requires the work of the Spirit. Some stories and doings can unhook someone from the grapple of the grid. That’s how Jesus approached the complex matter. And still, it took a resurrection to get the point across to the people who worked most closely with.

    Not all that optimistic,

    Ben

  9. Ben,

    You are so correct about pointing out the problem of worldview. And one theology (good or bad) is never serperate from their worldview. In fact, as you indicate, a persons worldview will almost alway cast signigicant influence on their theological, sociological, and political views among other things.

    What I feel is wrong within most of the current North American Christianity (yes I am intentionally being very broad) is that our theology is shaped more by Americanism. Thus, scripture is read in such a way as to justify our American ethos. It is why, as was pointed out in a recent conversation, we have no problem critiquing a parade float that celebrates the summer soltice as a false practice for Christians but then those same Christians will turn around a celebrate Rome (the USA) as though our livelihood depends on the state (and if we say it does, that admission betrays another problem).

    Rex

  10. Thanks for the post Rex, always thought provoking.

  11. KWAME AMAKYE GRACE HOPE VILLAGE MINISTRY P.O.BOX K.J 282KUMASIGHANA WEST AFRICA. Dear in christ,
    by the power of jesus christ name i am writing you
    this letter, by the power of God hor are you ? please the main point of writing you this letter is that, i am big Rev,Pastor with my {80} village preachers in Grace hope ministries in some village in ghana here and always our over {80} preachers travel to many
    villages,cities,towns to spread the word of God with them and when we are spreading or preaching the word of God to them, they told us that, they dont understand our
    preaching,Because our {80} village preachers do not have any christian
    materials to preach or spread the word of God well to the villages.
    Please christian materials which will help our over {80}
    village preachers to preach or spread the word of God well in many
    villages well are:
    {80}MORE STUDY BIBLES TO SHARE TO OUR PRAECHERS TO PREACH THE WORD OF GOD WELL IN VILLAGES AND CITIES WELL, MORE PREACHING AND TEACHING BIG BOOKS TO SHARE, MORE PASTORS STUDY BIG BOOKS OF JESUS TO SHARE, MORE PENS AND PENCILS TO SHARE, MORE DEBATE BIG BOOKS OF JESUS CHRIST TO SHARE, MORE TEACHING BIG BOOKS OF JESUS CHRIST TO SHARE,
    Please we always pray for you so that, God almighty almighty
    will help you and get more christian materials to add and send to
    us soon to share to our preachers to preach well in villages and cities.
    YOURS IN CHRIST,
    KWAME AMAKYE

  12. Hey Rex,
    Thanks for this mention. I actually bought NT Wright’s book recently and have finished the first chapter. I’m looking forward to reading the rest. Also — Scot McKnight is starting a series on Heaven over at Jesus Creed, so check it out. (Sorry to come in so late into the discussion!)

  13. Rex,

    Loved your comments on another site about being the church. If all of the professing 77,000,000 christians saw thier neighborhoods as a mission field — wow! But… that will take a wholehouse paradigm change for most believers.

    Mark

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