The Church and the Kingdom of God: The Problem of Ecclesiology in the Neighborhood Church.

(A proleptic reflection on Hans Kung: “The Foundation of a Church”

 

Whenever I am wrestling with teaching the church about the church, I turn to Hans Kung’s work The Church.[1] Sure, there are other valuable texts on ecclesiology, but Kung’s work serves as a compass point for me. As I was re-reading his discussion of the “Nearness of the reign of God in Jesus,”[2] I began to think about the consequences of what Kung calls “presentist”[3] eschatology versus “futurist” eschatology and its consequences in the everyday life of the church.

I don’t know that we give much thought to whether the reign of God is fulfilled in the church even as we affirm every Sunday that the church is called into existence each moment by God in Christ Jesus. Perhaps we get too muddled up in solving daily crises to reflect on how our crises have their roots in the issue of eschatology.

Many pew-sitters will readily exclaim that God’s reign is not totally fulfilled—“Look around you,” they say, “war, poverty, illness, there is nothing fulfilled about God’s reign in our world.”  I concede the point as I look around outside the church and its worship service. But, I ask, is there any sense in which we can talk about the present reign of God, fulfillment of God’s will for blessing as we worship God together as a congregation? And, what are the consequences for worship –and the whole life of the church–if we postpone God’s active and full blessing to a future “end of time, or always look “outside” the church for the meaning and relevance of the church as church?

We cannot avoid the exegetical debate about the “end of time” for its consequences as we noted above are serious. When we speak about the “end of time” in a New Testament context, we are speaking about the Greek concept of telos –“end” as in fulfillment, completion, wholeness. And yet, we are also speaking within the context of Hebrew religion and Judaism that understands time as having a beginning and therefore an ending that we associate with finished, over, done.  One doesn’t have to stretch too far to see the connection between a work being “finished” and “completed”; yet, what is finished (for example, a religion class period) and what is complete (for example, a whole semester of a class on the Psalms) may be two very different things. Who among us hasn’t left a lecture feeling the content has not been “completed”, but grateful the class is “over?”

Thus, the ambiguity between fulfillment and end leaves the local church parishioner with a sense of anxiety: When Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God being “near” does he envision the church as I experience it in my local congregation?

Blown back and forth between the social gospel influence in today’s congregations of “realizing” the nearness of the Kingdom of God through exhaustive volunteering, or pastoral counseling and committing to an interpretation that settles for the “spiritual but not religious” nearness of the presence of God, congregations struggle to find an identity for the church that embodies the complexity of “being” the church.  Desperately and dejectedly looking at the mega-churches in their midst, neighborhood main-line denominations project the fulfillment of the kingdom of God onto the filled auditoriums and are baffled at their own inability to fill their churches. This is a consequence of misunderstanding “fulfillment” as we discussed above and, indeed, a misunderstanding of what the church is given and called to be. (One need only attend a mega-church praise service more than once to glean the difference between “theological fulfillment” and a completely filled “church”).

I have certainly spent some pulpit time explaining the concept of “prolepsis” –the “always-already” presence of the Kingdom of God through grace and covenant with the “not yet” of the prophetic wish for pure fulfillment. This is a truly Solomon-like solution to a dilemma: the church is always already the kingdom of God that embodies the nearness of God’s reign, but it isn’t yet what it will be as we interact with and observe both the church and the world around us. Proposing that the nature of the church is proleptic solves the exegetical problem in understanding Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God, but it doesn’t feel very good. There are consequences here, too.

In arguing that the church does, at least in part, embody the reign of God, but that it is not yet perfected leaves the identity of churches unresolved and unfulfilled: does the neighborhood church struggling with attendance try to become more like its mega-church competitors? Does the neighborhood church cling stubbornly to its tradition and deny its lack of relevance in a world that it does not fit in? Such questions, are, I believe, the consequences of the lack of constructive ecclesiological discourse in the church. In short, we don’t know what it is to be “the church” any more. We don’t talk about it in meaningful ways –especially in the neighborhood church—where do we have the venue to do that?

Elsewhere, I have argued that preachers need to get back to teaching systematic theology in the pulpit.[4] In order to address this issue, I propose that preachers explore with their congregations, the Biblical witness to the church: not only in Acts (for that is idealized) but in and through the authentic writings of Paul (Corinthians, Romans) so that a foundation for discussion about the church can be laid. The existence and character of the church cannot be extrapolated from the Gospels only. We must take a look at the foundations of communities (both in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament) in order to even have the lexicon with which to address our self-definition as a church.

[1] Kung, Hans. The Church. Tr. Ray and Rosaleen Ockenden. (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967)

[2] Ibid., 54.

[3] Most theologians prefer the term “realized” eschatology rather than “presentist” but Kung’s implied comment on the difficulty of defining “realized” in any meaningful sense is noted.

See my work, Theological Literacy in Listeners to Preaching. (2012).

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