The Church: Just a Bunch of Feet Washers

This week I was assigned the task in my theology class to read Karl Barth, and then reflect on what I believe to be the Christian Church. Here are my thoughts.

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The Church

Paul calls it a body, a bride, and a house. The author of Hebrews calls it a flock of sheep. John calls it a city. Jesus likens its members to salt.[1] The descriptions provided for the Church in Scripture are eclectic, and yet Jesus declares that the Church is built upon a rock that not even the gates of Hades can overcome.[2] So how do we, the Church, go about navigating the array of denominations, perspectives, and modern day convictions about the Church, withstanding persecution along the way, while simultaneously being called to be unified in one mind, body and spirit,[3] when we continue to have difficulty answering the question: what is the Church? Where does the ‘body’ assert its authority when so many opinions about what the body ought to look like exist? In God in Action, Karl Barth provides an answer by simplifying the arguments and reducing the perspectives to a single relationship between Creator and created. For Barth, the church is simply the entity that listens to the God who speaks.[4] That is the foundation upon which we begin to understand the function of the Church. I agree with Barth on this point. However, I also believe his building argument for what that relationship means is, at points, internally inconsistent and stops short of its potential to illustrate the full picture. Before I explain, let’s look at Barth’s argument.

To begin, Barth outlines two distinct errors the modern Church most often believes. First, in what he calls the error of the Roman Catholic Church, Barth explains, “the Church is not divine revelation institutionalized.”[5] The Church is not an entity that possesses a sum of truth, bequeathed by God for it to dispense. Nor, in what he calls the error of modernistic Protestantism, is the Church a “voluntary association for the cultivation of impressions, experiences, and impulses . . . condensed . . . into definite resolutions, rules, and customs.”[6] The Church is not predicated on a choice of humanity to join together, think theologically, and understand God. Both of these errors, Barth asserts, place too much faith in people, and too little in God, reversing a trajectory of relationship that must always be pointed downward from God to humanity.

In response, Barth argues that the Church, quite simply, exists because God speaks, and humanity has heard His voice.[7] Wherever the event of divine speech and mortal listening occurs, there stands the Church. Nothing more is needed. Even if only two people who belong to the “scum of the earth” hear God’s voice, their receptive relationship to God’s revelation still constitutes the Church. [8] Only once we understand this simple fact can we as a Church begin discussing the practical implications of what our response to God’s voice ought to look like. Barth makes the task easy by having that conversation for us.

Consigning our minds to the conviction that the Church’s primary function is to listen, we learn our dutiful response is two-fold. First, be humble. Barth provides his first example: study Scripture and to it remain obedient. The Bible is, most assuredly, the Church’s most blessed and clear source of revelation. Consequently, we study it to fulfill our role as hearers of God’s voice. As we study, the first thing we hear, Barth asserts, is the reality of humanity’s “profane character.”[9] Inside the Church, the “boundaries of humanity are respected and guarded” providing a “sober view and understanding” of the self for he who enters its community.[10] Thus, the Church responds to God’s voice by providing a truer, humble definition for humanity.

Recognizing that our nature is broken, and recognizing that we see this only through revelation, we subsequently commit ourselves wholly to scripture. We do not attempt to make the Scriptures submissive to the Church, but instead allow the Scriptures to govern the body of believers.[11] We put on this faithful humility with a commitment to “constantly search and humbly expound” the Word of God.[12]

In the same spirit of humility, the Church also recognizes its position in the world and respects the rules, regulations, and parameters of society. Barth references Jesus’ command to give to Caesar what belongs to him as a call for the Church to interact with society in humility.[13] Granted, Barth reminds us that the Church ought not submit wholly unto anyone or any institution other than Jesus Christ. But in our submission to Christ, we neither “join hands with any [tyranny] for better or worse,” nor create our “own rule of dominion against the perversities of the world.”[14] All outgoing messages from the Church must be predicated in service, not rule. Later Barth explains that the faithful fight is one for and not against people outside the Church.[15]

The second response to our position as hearers of God’s voice is equally clear: service. Barth remains very straightforward on this topic. Don’t, he tells us, serve out of our own good intentions. That is not humility, nor a part of the true Church. Instead, it only builds up hidden tyrannies within itself; the Church’s service must never occur arbitrarily, out of programs of its own, but always be a direct act of submission to Christ.[16] Inasmuch, we serve in direct accordance to the will of Jesus, of whom “no man can ever hear enough,” or “who ought not hear of him.”[17] But we must be clear on what precisely is service. For Barth, service is ministry, and ministry is our testimony about God.[18]

The Church, and its faculty of service, exists anywhere it keeps a capacity to speak of God’s grace.[19] According to Barth, however, our speech is a “certain human living and acting.”[20] It’s an “exercise in godliness.”[21] It’s a “chase after” the mystery of the incarnation.[22] In practice, it appears in our attempts to lovingly address problems inside and out of the church, love every person, fear no one, remain patient, pursue peace, and engage in struggle, politics, sport, and society.[23] This life is our testimony, our proclamation of grace, and our act of service. It serves both humanity as well as the Word, the Gospel, whose existence we ­faithfully respond to in gratitude, rather than create.[24]

The Church has been tasked with this burden of service, of evangelism, because God has elected us as witnesses, as in a courtroom, to defend his case, which is “at stake” and must be “vindicated” against people with “hostile intent.”[25] In this “law suit,” God gives his witnesses’ testimony power because the testimony truly belongs to God.[26] And where this testimony has power among men, there exists the Church.[27] Thus, by bearing witness through our life, we serve the God of grace and the people around us, demonstrating the life of grace for which we were created.

To summarize, Barth outlines the Church as a simple group of people with two simple charges of behavior. We, the Church, are a group of hearers, receivers of God’s revelation. In response to God’s decision to speak, we pursue humility and service. Consequently, where we find the straightforward interplay of revelation, reception, and testimony, we find the church.

For this Barthian outline, I am most thankful. He succeeds in simplifying the premise of the Church to an argument with which I ultimately agree. But I think we can still say more about the Church without re-complicating the issue. I’ll explain this dichotomy of thought in the following discourse.

First, we know the Church is a gift from Christ. When Jesus names Peter the rock of the Church, he is not inaugurating him into a position that already exists, nor calls him to lead an already standing Church. No, at that moment, Jesus calls Peter to lead a new group, a new body, a new Church. This Church is charged, through the Great Commission, to carry on the message of Christ, his commandments, and his ministry.[28] Further, we learn through Jesus’ prayer for his disciples that the message he passes on comes directly from the Father.[29] In this, I highlight and affirm two of Barth’s arguments. Where he argues that the Church is predicated on nothing except for God’s act of revelation and our faculty to hear it, I agree. Humanity played no part in instituting the Church. It was and always has been a gift from God. Additionally the relationship between God and the Church is one centered on the message of the Gospel, as given by God. This Gospel is the message of Christ’s incarnation and the grace that flows from his death. Thus, the Gospel is God’s own testimony, as Barth so vigorously asserts. Here, I myself assert that the Church is the entity of people to whom God chooses to directly speak, who hear his voice, and respond by continuing his ministry.

Now, let’s continue by looking more closely at what it means to “continue his ministry.” Barth breaks the argument down into humility and service. Humility, he says, comes by recognizing the true nature of humanity as broken. While understanding the Gospel does mean recognizing the ineptitude of humanity, I believe Barth stops when he can say more.[30] If we know that, one, Jesus provides through his incarnation the true definition of humanity, and, two, through grace, Jesus names our identity as ‘reconciled’, then to respond in humility also means to respond with gratitude to the fulfilled identity we each receive in Christ.[31] Thus, the Church is the entity through which we learn, not only of our brokenness, but also of an identity already given to us.

Our identity in Christ is a concept on which Barth remains surprisingly silent. However, if the Christian Church has been given the answer to our true identity, and the Christian faith remains a decision to say “yes” to who we already are, then it ought to be the mission of the Church to, as Brian McLaren says, “form Christlike people, people of Christlike love.”[32] The church thus exists to save people “from the great danger of wasting their lives, becoming something less and other than they were intended to be.”[33]

The other side of ministry, service, fulfills a similar end, and Barth is right to include it. His list of behaviors provides a practical outline for what it means to be “in the world, but not of it.”[34] To this distinction, Barth provides a label that Rob Bell also employs when he calls Church a “group of people who live a certain way in the world.”[35] Thus, Church is the place where a new identity is transformed into a new life. Where I believe Barth could extend his argument, however, to more fully describe the mission of the church, is in describing the reality that this way of life brings, namely, the Kingdom of Heaven. If our service is a proclamation of God’s grace, then it’s also a proclamation of the Kingdom He brought to earth. If our service is a continuation of Jesus’ ministry, then it remains the means through which God’s will continues to be done on earth as in heaven.[36] The Church is thus the avenue through which the Kingdom comes. This reality holds great significance for two ways of understanding the Church.

If we take Dr. Terry McGonigal’s assertion that the Kingdom of God can also be called the “Kingdom of Shalom,” and use his definition of Shalom as “the reality in which all things are as they ought to be,” then we must recognize service as not only bringing about the Kingdom, but also Shalom.[37] Therefore, we return to Barth’s argument that the Church exists to restore humanity to its true identity. However, instead of just pointing out humanity’s brokenness, the Church, through service, brings healing, or a return to wholeness. What better way to describe this function of the Church than to say that it operates like a hospital? Pastor John Mark Comer describes it as such, saying the Church is “a place where sick, broken, wounded, flawed people are made new by Jesus.”[38] I think that’s beautiful. More significantly, however, this notion means the Church gives the world a trajectory.

We understand that trajectory by finding the definition of Shalom in the Genesis story.[39] Additionally, if we understand the creation narrative as the means by which God defines the relationship between Himself and humanity, then we can make a connection between the Garden and the Kingdom.[40] If the Church’s function of service brings forth the Kingdom, returns humanity to Shalom, and restores identities established in Christ, that means the effective purpose of the Church is to return humanity to the Garden. In this, the Church gives the world a direction in which to aim. With this assertion, I distinctly disagree with Barth when he argues, “the Church is not in the world to present a message about certain ideas and directions concerning the condition of the world.”[41] We know that the new heaven and new earth – the fulfilled Kingdom – as described in Revelation, is illustrated as a second Garden scene.[42] If our ministry of service brings about the reality of that Kingdom, what else is that beside a commentary on the current condition of the world and a direction toward that renewed Garden experience?

Regardless, Barth is clear that this entire Church ministry is a gift and a miracle from God.[43] I agree. The Church has been elected by the Incarnate God to proclaim a radical message of grace that we’ve been given. God is not bound to use us as such instruments, yet freely chooses us as witnesses, as participants in His work to establish his Kingdom. It is through the Church that we fulfill the call, and through fulfilling the call that we establish the Church. Now Barth likens our role as witness to a legal witness in a courtroom, suggesting that God’s case is need of defense.[44] This implication is internally inconsistent with his assertion that God does not need our service, that if we were a lawyer we would not have to defend his case, and that ministry doesn’t mean protecting or fulfilling a need to represent God’s word.[45] However, I believe God has still chosen the Church to stand before the world and attest, in the midst of questions and persecutions, to the grace we’ve been given.

I summarize now by returning to each argument I’ve made regarding the church. Consistent with Barth’s discourse, the Church is the intersection of revelation, reception, and testimony. However, by existing at this crossroads, the Church bears witness to both the broken and reconciled identity of humanity. Like a hospital, the Church restores people to this reconciled identity, found in relationship with Christ, and in so doing acts as the avenue through which the Kingdom of Heaven comes to earth. We the Church thus simultaneously remember the Garden of Eden, the picture of Shalom, and look forward the new heaven and new earth and the Shalom we will experience there. However, we must not neglect our present calling. Our response to Jesus’ grace in between looking back and looking forward truly constitutes the Church and brings about a present reality of reconciliation. For in our expectation, God calls the Church not to stand before the world, but to kneel, remove the towel, and wash the feet of the world. It is in those moments that the Church is found, the intersection of humility and service.

[1] Ephesians 5:25; 1 Corinthians 10:17; 1 Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 13:20; Revelation. 21:23; Matthew 5:12.

[2] Matthew 16:18.

[3] Philippians 2:2.

[4] Karl Barth, God in Action: (Manhasset: Round Table Press, 1963), 22.

[5] Barth, God in Action, 20.

[6] Barth, God in Action, 21.

[7] Barth, God in Action, 22.

[8] Barth, God in Action, 23.

[9] Barth, God in Action, 26.

[10] Barth, God in Action, 27.

[11] Barth, God in Action, 30.

[12] Barth, God in Action, 31.

[13] Barth, God in Action, 34.

[14] Barth, God in Action, 34.

[15] Barth, God in Action, 87.

[16] Barth, God in Action, 36-37.

[17] Barth, God in Action, 38.

[18] Barth, God in Action, 94.

[19] Barth, God in Action, 94.

[20] Barth, God in Action, 73.

[21] 1 Timothy 4:7.

[22] Barth, God in Action, 75.

[23] Barth, God in Action, 58-60.

[24] Barth, God in Action, 68.

[25] Barth, God in Action, 95.

[26] Barth, God in Action, 101.

[27] Barth, God in Action, 97.

[28] Matthew 28:19-20.

[29] John 17.

[30] Romans 3:23.

[31] Adam Neder, “Reality of Reconciliation” (lecture presented in Christian Theology, Whitworth University, Spokane, Washington, April 6, 2015).

[32] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 164.

[33] Brian D. McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 164.

[34] John 17:14.

[35] Rob Bell, Jesus Wants to Save Christians (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 160.

[36] Matthew 6:10.

[37] Terry McGonigal, “The Kingdom of God” (lecture in Biblical Themes of Shalom, at Whitworth University, Spokane, Washington, November 5, 2015).

[38] John Mark Comer, My Name is Hope (Portland: Graphe Publishing), 32.

[39] Terry McGonigal, “Shalom Created” (lecture in Biblical Themes of Shalom, at Whitworth University, Spokane, Washington, September 8, 2015).

[40] Adam Neder, “Doctrine of Creation” (lecture presented in Christian Theology, Whitworth University, Spokane, Washington, March 2, 2015).

[41] Barth, God in Action, 108.

[42] Revelation 22:2-3.

[43] Barth, God in Action, 110.

[44] Barth, God in Action, 95.

[45] Barth, God in Action, 66-67.

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