Review: Becoming a Just Church

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Becoming a Just ChurchAdam L. Gustine. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: Develops the idea that the pursuit of justice for Christians begins in and flows out of their communities as they learn to practice God’s shalom in every aspect of their church life.

There is a great deal of discussion about the pursuit of justice, particularly in public settings in some Christian circles. The problem is that these conversations are often “echo chambers” preaching to the converted while significant portions of the church is either indifferent or even hostile to these conversations. They are relegated to “justice teams” or even forced to begin their own “parachurch” organizations. Some question their gospel fidelity. Adam Gustine thinks this won’t change until justice, which he equates with the shalom of God, the wholeness of life shared by all of God’s people, flows through and out of the life of our local congregations.

The first part of his book develops an ecclesiology for justice, a way to think about justice in the church. The four chapters in this section first of all focus on what it means to be “the people of God,” thinking in terms of “we” rather than “I” and practicing justice, not as an outreach strategy, but as a way of loving God and one’s neighbor. Gustine challenges us to think as exiles in American culture rather than natives and that the church is meant to be a prophetic alternative to the American way of life. That alternative way of life is a mañana way of life that allows a vision of God’s future for his people to shape the way we live in the present, kind of like demonstration garden plots. Finally, along the lines of gardening, he invites the church to pursue the flourishing of the physical communities in which we are situated. Perhaps the challenge here to our commuter, big box model of “doing” church, is that he envisions a parish model in a particular place where we worship and live.

Part two of the book then looks at the practice of justice in the warp and woof of congregational life. First of all, Gustine talks about what it means to be a church that includes and empowers the “low ground” people in a “high ground” world (referring to the reality that in most places, those who have means and power live above flood-prone low ground areas where the poor live). He challenges us to radical hospitality that welcomes the “other,” whoever that may be in our setting, talking about the food pantry “guests” who had a hard time truly sensing they were full participants in his church. He believes that the practice of justice must be integral to our discipleship efforts, and critical to this is helping people to gain awareness of their own social location, and think of the kingdom implications of their particular place in society. Finally he contends that justice ought shape worship, moving us beyond the “Pleasantville” of “just praising the Lord” to confession, repentance, and lament, expressions rarely heard in most white evangelical contexts, but much more common elsewhere.

The book concludes with a conversation on power, a critical issue in the practice of justice in churches. He engages with Juliet Liu and Brandon Green, two other pastors of churches who have joined him in the pursuit of “just church.” Then in his epilogue, acknowledging that he hasn’t discussed “public justice,” Gustine briefly gestures toward some of the tangible ways the pursuit of public justice in his own South Bend, Indiana community has flowed out of his congregational life.

Gustine puts his finger on an important issue, that we put “doing” before “being” far too often, in this case the “doing” of public justice without “being” just communities, places where the kingdom is setting things to rights across the cultural barriers of class, and gender, and ethnicity and status in our own communities. Indeed, we often are trying to care for a community as disparate collections of individuals, a bunch of “I’s” doing our own justice “thing” rather than a “we,” a people.

Currently, the evangelical church is deeply divided about justice, often along secular political lines justified by a veneer of scriptures we hurl at one another. Sometimes, these divisions even find their way into local congregations. Becoming a Just Church offers a path for a church to come together as a “third way” people, not beholden to political and theological outlooks of the left or the right. Discussion questions allow for group use and the author has also developed a companion Just Church Vision Retreat set of resources that church leadership teams may use in conjunction with the book (information about this pops up when you visit the publisher’s website for the book).

Gustine mentions the lament of Carl F. H. Henry over nascent evangelicalism’s neglect of justice back in 1947 when he wrote The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (reviewed here). Seventy years later, we are still wrestling with an evangelicalism deeply divided around issues of justice. Might it be that the practices Gustine commends, pursued in local congregations, offer a way forward? Finding that way forward seems crucial to me–I’m not sure the American church has another seventy years to fritter away.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal

evangelical sacramental pentecostal

Evangelical, Sacramental, and PentecostalGordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: An argument for why the church at its best ought to embrace an emphasis on scripture, on baptism and the Lord’s table, and on the empowering work of the Spirit.

Don’t you hate it when a set of choices are presented to you as mutually exclusive options, when all are good and possible together? For example, apple pie or ice cream, or more seriously, being pro-life or pro-creation care. Gordon Smith contends that this is often the case with the three emphases of his title. Often, churches are either evangelical, that is scripture or Word-centered, or sacramental, emphasizing baptism and the Lord’s table, or pentecostal, focusing on the empowering work of the Holy Spirit in worship, witness, and growth in Christ-likeness. Smith asks, and then asserts, why shouldn’t the church be all three?

Smith begins his discussion with John 15:4, exploring what it means to abide in Christ as Christ abides in us, and how this is fulfilled in the grace of the Word written which witnesses to the Word Incarnate, in water, bread and cup that includes and nourishes us in Christ, and the Holy Spirit through whom Christ indwells us. He then traces the outworking of all this in Luke and Acts. He goes on to explore in the work of John Calvin and John Wesley, how the grace of God comes to us in all three of these ways. He then focuses a chapter on each of these “means of grace,” both elaborating how each has been expressed distinctively in the life of the church, and how they function in tandem with the other two.

  • The evangelical principle is rooted in the truth that God speaks in creation, in his Son, through the apostles and prophets, through their message inscripturated, and through those who proclaim the word in witness and instruction. Word and sacrament complement each other as those who hear and believe are incorporated into the church through baptism, and those who are taught of Christ are then nourished on Him at table. Likewise, the Spirit illumines our reading, our study, preaching and hearing of scripture, so that the Word becomes alive, convicts, and warms our hearts.
  • The sacramental principle reflect the material, enfleshed nature of creation, the Incarnate Son, and the visible body of the church. Visible symbols of water, wine, and bread are Christ-ordained gestures that speak of our inclusion in and ongoing fellowship (communion) with Christ. They visually demonstrate the message of the gospel but also have no significance apart from the words of institution. Likewise, these acts are not our acts but are “in the Spirit” and depend on the Spirit’s work to accomplish in us what they signify.
  • The pentecost principle reflects the immediacy of our experience of God through the Spirit, where the realities of scripture and sacrament are experienced. Smith talks about the two “sendings” of scripture and advocates that we need to experience both the redemptive work of Christ and the indwelling and empowering work of the Spirit through whom the fruits of Christ-likeness, as well as power for witness are fulfilled.

While I fully affirm Smith’s argument, I hope readers will not be put off by the three key words of the title. “Evangelical,” “sacramental,” and “pentecostal” all have negative connotations, that reflect abuses and failures of the church, but are not inherent in the principles these words represent. I think few would object to the idea that people are called to Christ and conformed to his image through the ministry of the Word, that they are included and nourished in Christ through baptism and the table, and that they are empowered for growth and mission through the Spirit. Smith puts it this way in his conclusion as he describes the new Christian:

“This new Christian would very much be a person of the Scriptures–knowing how to study, read, and pray the Scriptures and how to participate in a community that is formed by the preaching of the Word.

The new Christian would recognize the vital place of the Lord’s Supper, within Christian community, as an essential means by which the Christian meets God, walks with God, grows in faith, and lives in Christian community.

And, of course, the new Christian would know what it means to live in the Spirit, walk in the Spirit, be guided by the Spirit, and bear the fruit of the Spirit.

In other words, the Christian would be evangelical, sacramental, and pentecostal. And the evidence of such would be that they live with a deep and resilient joy, the fruit of a life lived in dynamic union with the ascended Christ.”

Would we want any less, or other for new (or all) Christians? We do well, I think, to weigh the argument Gordon Smith makes, and consider where, in each of our churches, we may more fully lay hold of all Christ has for us. And it just may be that in so doing, we may more closely approximate the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” reality we profess in our creeds.

Review: Faithful Presence

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Faithful PresenceDavid E. Fitch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press (Praxis), 2016.

Summary: Expands upon the idea of “faithful presence,” exploring how this may be practiced by the church in fulfillment of her mission through seven foundational disciplines practiced in three different settings or “circles.”

In 2010, sociologist James Davison Hunter penned a probing critique of evangelicalism’s “change the world” rhetoric in To Change the World (reviewed here), and proposed as an alternative, the idea of the subversive practice of “faithful presence.” David E. Fitch, co-pastor of Peace of Christ Church in Westmont, Illinois, takes up this idea contending that Hunter ran out of space in his book in fleshing out “what the actual practice of faithful presence might look like.” He contends that without a new kind of formational practice in the church (in truth harking back to our beginnings), attempts at faithful presence on the part of individual Christians will simply be absorbed by the broader culture. He writes:

“Faithful presence, I contend, must be a communal reality before it can infect the world. It must take shape as a whole way of life in a peopleFrom this social space we infect the world for change. Here we give witness to the kingdom breaking in and invite the world to join in. For this to happen, however, we need a set of disciplines that shape Christians into such communities in the world” (p, 15).

In this book, Fitch commends seven disciplines that the churches he has pastored have practiced. He proposes that each of these disciplines presuppose the presence of God already in our lives and that our faithful presence, fostered through these disciplines, is the visible expression of God’s faithful presence going before us. He argues that these are disciplines that make faithful presence possible in our churches, neighborhoods and the wider society. He also contends that a key idea undergirding the practice of these disciplines is submission, to Christ and to one another, and that this is what makes these so counter-cultural.

The seven disciplines (he also calls them marks or sacraments) are: the Lord’s Table, reconciliation, proclaiming the gospel, being with “the least of these,” being with children, the fivefold ministry, and kingdom prayer. Fitch devotes a chapter in the book to each of these. He also proposes three circles in which each of these disciplines must be lived out: the close circle of the Christian community, the dotted circle of home and neighborhood, where Christians function as hosts, and the half-circle of wider society, where we are guests, but may also be the faithful presence of Christ. Faithful presence that advances the mission of the church operates in all three circles, not simply in the close circle, leading to a maintenance mentality, or in the half circle, leading to exhaustion.

I appreciate the effort of Fitch to expand this idea of “faithful” presence, because I also found Hunter’s proposal thin on specifics, and lacking in articulating the practices that sustain such presence and allow it to take a robust and transformative public form. I thought Fitch had some distinctive things to say about gospel proclamation, as opposed to teaching, in the context of the church, about the ministry of presence with children, and about the fivefold ministry (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers), contending for plural ministry leadership as opposed to hierarchical leadership in the church. I would like to have seen Fitch say more about the ministry of prophets, which was not elaborated.

Fitch also argues that through church history, the seven disciplines, meant to be personal, relational, and practiced in all the “circles” of life, have been institutionalized, formalized, and programmed. His proposal and practice breaks these strictures. Nowhere is this more evident than in his discussion of the Lord’s table, which is not only practiced weekly in his church but constantly in the lives of its people:

“The Lord’s table happens every time we share a meal together with people and tend to the presence of Christ among us. Granted the formal Lord’s table only happens at the close table. But that table extends from there. When Jesus said, “Whenever you do this, do it in remembrance of me: (1 Cor 11:24-26, my paraphrase), he, in essence meant, in the words of theologian John Howard Yoder, “whenever you have your common meal,” whenever you eat in everyday life with people. And yet this table is shaped differently in the three spaces I call the close, dotted, and half circles of life. The table is never merely in here or out there. It is the continual lived space with and among the world. It is the table on the move. It starts with the close circle, the ground zero of his presence around the table” (p. 64).

This work is also important in how it connects our communal disciplines to mission, and particularly the working out of the practice of these disciplines in the “dotted” circle, and the “half” circle. It is a valuable resource, not only for the training of ministers, but for leaders of churches to read and discuss together as they think about the nature of the church, and the formative practices that shape the lives of its members. Throughout, Fitch couples biblical principles and practical examples, many from his own practice. In an era increasingly disenchanted with posturing and programs, this vision of faithful presence may be the cup of cold water desperately longed for in our cultural wasteland.

Review: The Church in Exile

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The Church in ExileLee Beach. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: Accepting the premise that we are in a post-Christendom world, the book explores how the biblical theme of exile can be helpful for how the church conceives of its life and presence in the world.

Lee Beach contends that we live in a post-Christendom world, one in which the church is not in a position of power with regard to government or shaping the character of the culture. Rather than commending strategies to regain this lost influence, Beach contends that the church would do well to consider the motif of exile that runs through scripture and to see how this helped shape exilic and post-exilic Israel and the church in its self-understanding and its presence in society.

Following a foreword by Walter Brueggemann and an introduction in which he establishes his premise that exile is a motif that should be embraced by a post-Christendom church, the book divides into two parts. The first develops a biblical theology of exile. Beach provides background on Israel’s experience of exile and Israel’s challenge to understand that God was present in their exilic situation, to grasp how practically to embody a set apart lifestyle as God’s people in a foreign land, and to pursue their mission as “servant Israel” among the nations in which they were dispersed. This is followed by the stories of Esther, Daniel, and Jonah as advice for exiles. Particularly striking is his candid dealing with the Esther narrative, a woman in a seemingly powerless and compromised situation who courageously lives in solidarity with her people, implicitly trusting in God. He then turns to Jesus and the early church, set in Second Temple Judaism. He observes that both Jews and Christians shared a sense of being on the margins in a Roman dominated world, that their hope for a future “return” from exile may not be accomplished in their lifetimes, and that they nevertheless were the true people of God in whom God was working his purposes in the world. The section concludes by considering 1 Peter for its exilic wisdom applied to the church as the people of God, living out gospel-transformed marriages, embodying holiness, and pursuing mission.

The second part of the book then seeks to draw lessons from this exilic material for a post-Christendom church. He commends the use of prophetic imagination in instilling hope that new creative ways of conceiving being the people of God can be consistent with pursuing the church’s mission when old structures fail. He calls for a responsive approach that emphasizes practice, recognizing that people may first belong, then behave, and finally believe. He challenges us to a non-conformist holiness that embodies love and grace. He speaks of mission through relationships rather than attractional events.

The challenge, it seems with Beach’s book, is getting it into the hands of those who might most benefit from it. Although Beach does give a number of real life applications, the language of the book is more academic, and in fact, the book is published by the publisher’s “academic” line. It may be that this is intended as a seminary text that focuses on the nature of the church and its mission, and for this use, it works well in integrating biblical and practical theological concerns. I do think this could be of benefit to a church leadership group recognizing the shift taking place culturally and trying to re-imagine its existence. There may be some translation work needed at some points that a theologically acute pastor may provide.

Knowing God and his purposes, knowing who we are and how then we should live, and understanding our present time all are vital. It seems that part of the challenge for many churches is that they may still think they are living in a time of Christendom, and have an influence, that in fact is no longer theirs. To re-conceive of themselves as exiles, to re-think their presence and their mission in the world in light of this, and to understand both the presence of and hope that they have in Christ can transform the lives of congregations coming aware of the fact that they are slowly dying, and shape the life of newly birthed communities seeking to live as God’s aliens and exiles in the world.

 

 

Review: Confessing Christ for Church and World

Confessing Christ

Confessing Christ for Church and World, Kimlyn J. Bender. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: A collection of essays in Barthian theology, exploring his ecclesiology, his confessional theology, particularly as it bears on the canon, and his understanding of the relationship of Christ and creation.

Most will concede that Karl Barth was one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest theologian, of the twentieth century. During his lifetime, however, even while he was challenging the liberal, higher critical-oriented, theology of his day, he was not necessarily given a sympathetic hearing by evangelicals. Kimlyn Bender, the author of this collection of essays, recounts how Barth was at one time approached by Geoffrey Bromiley to see if he would respond to questions from three evangelical theologians for a Christianity Today article. He quoted Barth’s response:

“The decisive point, however, is this. The second presupposition of a fruitful discussion between them and me would have to be that we are able to talk on a common plane. But these people have already had their so-called orthodoxy for a long time. They are closed to anything else, they will cling to it at all costs, and they can adopt toward me only the role of prosecuting attorneys, trying to establish whether what I represent agrees or disagrees with their orthodoxy, in which I for my part have no interest! None of their questions leaves me with the impression that they want to seek with me the truth that is greater than us all. They take the stance of those who happily possess it already and who hope to enhance their happiness by succeeding in proving to themselves and the world that I do not share this happiness. Indeed they have long since decided and publicly proclaimed that I am a heretic, possibly (van Til) the worst heretic of all time. So be it! But they should not expect me to take the trouble to give them the satisfaction of offering explanations which they will simply use to confirm the judgment they have already passed on me. . . . These fundamentalists want to eat me up. They have not yet come to a “better mind and attitude” as I once hoped. I can thus give them neither an angry nor a gentle answer but instead no answer at all.”

Fortunately, the atmosphere has changed since this time (in 1961) and Barth receives a much more sympathetic hearing and many, like the author of this collection of essays have taken the approach Barth commends of “seek[ing] with me the truth that is greater than us all.”

This collection of essays is organized around three of the key words in the book’s title. The first section focuses on “church” and Barth’s engagement with Catholic ideas of the church, dissenting from while holding in tension the strong identity between Christ and church. Bender also explores what his understanding of Christ and church may contribute to evangelical and Free Church traditions in which ecclesiology (the theology of the church) are often lacking.

The second section focuses on “confessing” particularly as this bears on the canon of scripture. There is a fascinating essay here on his relationship with Harnack and Barth’s deep dissatisfaction with the separation between professor’s lectern and pastor’s pulpit, between “the assured results of modern scholarship” and the church’s confession of Christ incarnate, crucified and raised. There is also a fine chapter worth the price of admission of itself drawing on the work of Barth in answering the writing of Bart Erhman which has cast so many aspersions on canon, as well as the church’s confessed understanding of Christ. This section closes with a study of Barth’s response to atheism, which in one sense was not to take it seriously, but in another sense to engage it, not on philosophical terms but rather a clear presentation of the Christian revelation centered in the person and work of Christ.

The third section is focused on the “world”, the creation and Christ’s relation to it. Perhaps the most interesting essay here is one on Barth’s Gifford Lecture. The Gifford Lectures were created as lectures on natural theology. Barth’s lecture amounted to answering the question of why he had no place in his own work for a natural theology, focusing on both the need for revelation and for the redemption of reason. He concludes with a kind of “postscript” on the Christology of Friedrich Schleiermacher in relation to that of Barth.

Apart from shorter works, I’ve not read much of Barth. Bender’s work whets my appetite for more. Maybe in retirement I’ll have to take on Church Dogmatics perhaps in preparation for meeting the great theologian and his Greater Lord.