The Christian commonwealth and the rule of the people of God
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord…
Calling the Twelve to him he sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits… ‘Take nothing for the journey except a staff…’ (Mark 6.7) He said to his disciples ‘The Harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest therefore to send out workers into his harvest field.’ (Matthew 9.37)
1. The Church is the gift of God to the world.
2. The head and the body.
5. Public political leadership
6. One loaf – the modelling of the new life
7. Truth-telling and competing rationalities and communities
1. The Church is the act of God
The Church is the speech and voice of God to the world. God speaks first, and continues speaking, and alone can say what constitutes a proper conclusion. The breath, the voice and the speaking of God constitute the single action of one indivisible Spirit. The Word, and Spirit, and (spiritual) Body constitute one sacrament. All things are the generosity of God in speech and in provision, for ‘He sustains all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1.3). The Church is that first sign of the coming new creation that the Son shows the Father. The beginning of the Christian (gentile) community represents the unlocking and opening of the one community of God to the whole world and all peoples. It is the commencement of that harvest. The Son united with his body reconstitutes the world as new world and new creation. The world is the burden and charge God puts on the Church, and the Church (united to its head) represents the world to God.
2. The head and the body
Pure and autonomous reason understands that we are most basically disembodied heads. The autonomous intellect bids to escape from all bodily, social and earthly concerns, and to leave behind all discussion of what is worth doing, all context and discussion of the effort of knowledge that we could call tacit knowledge. Such reason is a gnosticism. It assumes that our minds are quite independent of all the forms of tacit knowledge – memory , imagination, emotions – that arise from the interaction of our body with other bodies in the world. The result of a head-body dichotomy is that the modern Church has been taught to be frightened of ideas and intellect. If the Church sits on the knowledge it has, as though it were merely information, its own possession which it could hold for another day, it will be taken away again. The word left unspoken will become rotten manna (Exodus 16.20), sour (Revelation 101.10) bitter (Jeremiah 9.15). The Word does not go into hibernation inside us, but gets up and leaves us to go back to God. Such spiritual knowledge unused leaches away, to leave us anaesthetised and closed.
The modern Church has become prey to every dualism it does not challenge. It is divided by every contrast made between reason and emotion, knowledge and faith, enlightenment versus religion, pure reason versus practical reason, university versus faith community. Instead of (2 Corinthians 10.5) demolishing arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and taking captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ the modern Church has been taken (Colossians 2.8) captive through the hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. But the Church may challenge every dualism by witnessing that the Son has been made the head of the body, the first-fruit of all creation.
The gospel joins the head to the body. The separated, scattered, idle and leaderless body is to be given a mind and a leader. The gospel connects the mind and intellect to bodily action in the world, and in service to the world. Modernity is a challenge made by ‘pure’ reason against all other kinds of reason. But it is not a new challenge. It has always been identified and opposed by the gospel that proclaims that God has come to man, the head to the body (incarnation), and is himself the unity of that body (man) with this head (Christ) secured by the Spirit (pneumatology).
3. The mediatory office of the Church to the world – Epiclesis
The Church calls to God. It asks him to come. It says ‘Come, Holy Spirit’. The petitioner must nag the judge, and the bride must watch for the arriving bridegroom. The announcement of release from captivity means petition and intercession to the rulers of the earth for the poor of the earth. The Church is to represent those who have no other representative. It is to address the rulers of the world (Mark 13.9-11) In each place you will be taken to the public assembly …on account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them…just say whatever is given you at the time. The Christians are the gift, message and embassy of God to the authorities in each place. Only when these authorities fail to hear us do we go over their heads and direct our complaints straight to God. If we have to go over their heads, they are convicted of failing to do their office, and it is taken away from them.
Christians are elect to serve and to take care of the world entrusted to them. They are to exercise oversight, to put the case to the Lord their God for mercy and justice, and together pray to him to exercise the power of binding and loosing. (Matthew 16.18, 18.19) The Christians are held responsible for the least of these, and subject to a more severe judgement when they lose even one of them. The apostle is able to say (Acts 18.6) Your blood be upon your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility (20.24-26) I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men…because he has completed the task the Lord Jesus has given him.
In Acts 7.55 Stephen is brought to the presence of the rulers (Sanhedrin) to see whether they can render account of their stewardship. He exercises the power of binding against these leaders carry out the judgment against themselves, and carry it out in the form of destroying Stephen, God’s spokesman to them. As Stephen looks up he sees the whole panoply of heaven and history of Israel and reads off what he sees. He makes the good confession before kings and governors, and by their reception of God in the person of his agent (apostle) they reveal whether they are the deputies and servants of God, or are in rebellion against him. These leaders snuff out the message of their release, and are left in darkness.
The Church may identify and address leaders as leaders, regardless of the legitimacy with which they are understood to have come to such position. They can address anyone as a leader even though such a person may protest that they hold no formal position and cannot be held to account. Leaders must be held to this educative task of nurturing law and public discourse to educate this people. They must be criticised in particular when they do not give a lead.
The task of the church is the demolition of intellectual idolatry (2 Corinthians 10.5) and demonstration of Christ as the basis for a universe of truthful public speech (parrhesia) and enlightenment. Spiritual in part means intellectual. The Christian gospel seizes and takes, breaks up and deconstructs other messages and ‘gospels’, pulling them up into the light so we can name them for the first time. It takes them out of our grasp, removing from us these false constraints to give us an increased freedom of movement.
This however happens against the reluctance and resistance of the world, so the gospel is about the opposition of God to man, a message about a battle we fought against God and of our own defeat by God. It is about the cross. Witness (martyrdom) involves turning round against the stream of the world to receive the whole impact of that stream against us. It means holding up under fire.
It therefore involves discipline and the active abandonment of one set of characteristics and instincts for another, by deliberate corporate action of self-control, asceticism (ascesis, withdrawal, fasting, monasticism). In order to gain self-control (phronesis) we must cease to accept the enemy product. We must not eat with the enemy. This self-control comes from being under law and discipline of the Church. Without it we remain complicit in the undisciplined and unsatisfiable assertion of our ‘needs’. The Christians must provide a public demonstration of the reduction of desire (Demand) in the (temporary) economy and their transfer to the other (eschatological, enduring) economy.
The Christians are taught a new action of taking gifts of the Spirit and learning to pass them on. Their knowledge is practical knowledge of what do next in order to move towards the next level of instruction (1 Corinthians 12.31 eagerly seek the greater gifts). The Christians have to encourage one another to cease imposing the old bonds and inhibitions on one another. They have to care for one another, carry one another’s loads, encourage and correct one another. It is more merciful to judge and correct early, to prevent a clumsy act becoming habit or a blemish becoming contagious. As the Christians are the gifts of God to one another, so are their merciful-critical speech-acts acts of generosity to one another.
5. The public and political task of the Church
God is judge. But God does not intend to be alone in exercising judgement and authority. He intends that we also come to learn this action and exercise it with him and under him. He intends that we come to find his action good, to be informed by it and come to share it. The purpose of his judging is that he brings us up into the office and work of judges. God gives us an action. It is an action that is intrinsically his and which will always remain his, yet which he does not will to be his such that it is not also ours. This is the action of servanthood and leadership. This is action is given, or rather loaned to us (only) as long as we exercise it with God and under him. In the event that we do not discover its proper use, God takes it away from us again.
God intends to admit new members to the council and assembly of heaven. This assembly will then govern a combined kingdom of heaven and earth, in which we will be not divine, but for the first time properly human, creatures made holy. This assembly is gathered as an earthly ecclesia that inducts its members into the skill of judging. Part of the skill of judging is the skill of advocacy, the office of defence counsel, that puts the case for mercy and judgment. The saints are trainee judges who must be taught the skills of entering a plea, interceding, prayer. They must learn to argue on behalf of those who are not yet holy that a little more time is needed, and on behalf of the oppressed to argue that their release come now. They must be able to say ‘Have mercy on us – give us a little more time’, and ‘Come Lord Jesus – give no more time to the oppressors’. These advocates must be able to say which plea is at any time appropriate. The new Christian action is that of the members of the assembly that God gathers around himself.
The disciples are appointed the judges of the twelve tribes of Israel (Mark 6.7) who are about to establish Israel (in the person of her king) as the judge of the earth who brings justice for the nations (Mark 10.17, Isaiah 2.2-4. In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains; it will be raised above the hills and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say Come, let us go unto the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob).
The people of the world will come to this assembly of saints for justice. Their training for this role starts as the exercise of self-government of the Church. Right-judging and right-doing is the proper action of the new people. It involves coaching them in the action of right speech and public speech. They see God judges rightly and they say so: they learn to praise God for the generosity and finesse of his practice of justice. The Christian community is being trained up to a range of offices that serve a single end. The singleness of this end, and the oneness of this assembly, offends the separation of powers that under the modern constitution are understood to be incompatible. Leadership of the project of the formation of a people is the proper work of the Christian community. The Church must model the lead that the state must give to the people, and model the openness of public political discourse. It does not long to take away the task of ruling from the state, to do it better, but always to encourage leadership, on such a broad definition, to grow in confidence and competence.
6. One loaf – modelling good order
Proper distinction and order involves telling the mature (‘strong’) from the vulnerable (‘weak’). Modelling public truthful speech about the world and about God.
The job of the Christian community is to demonstrate publicly to the (rulers of the) world the defeat of the powers that oppose God (Ephesians 4.3) Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one spirit – just you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father who is over all and through all and in all.
This community forms a single indivisible loaf (1 Corinthians 10.17) able to repel division, divorce, dissension, dilution and every outside influence (yeast 1 Corinthians 5.8).
The perfected earth, joined to heaven, is the totality within which all parts receive their place and dignity. But Christ must be all in all before the most humble can find their place in this totality. If the most humble are left out this is a false and idolatrous ‘totality’, partial, and therefore not built to last.
Recognising the body (1 Corinthians 11.29) means knowing when the whole body is present, and waiting until it is all present. Only when the whole body is present may the body celebrate. This involves keeping a register (census, see Book of Numbers) in order to identify who is missing from the eucharist and going in search of him (Matthew 18.12) to get him released from prison (Matthew 25.43 for debt he cannot pay). To start to eat before the last member is accounted for and in safety is to signify that anyone who comes in after us (lower than ourselves on the social ladder) is not a constituent member of the Body, and that we do not need him to be this Body. But we cannot be the Body without him. His absence creates a gap in the Christian phalanx that means it is divided, not (yet) the whole.
The Church demonstrates the overcoming of opposites. It is the union of the public-political (polis) and domestic-economic (oikos) worlds, free and slave, public and private. In this new body an elite no longer receives its fulfilment at the expense of the unfree labour of women and slaves.
The gospel joins the head to the body and makes the intellect serve and lead the daily action. He gives us each other. We are to each other the gift and charge of Christ. In the Church there are both junior and more experienced Christians. Some are good enough to advise, encourage and coach one another. The more advanced must act as coaches, and lead the less experienced members in practice of the teaching and training the community receives from its teacher. Those less experienced than ourselves are given to us in order that we coach and encouragement them, in order to gain more understanding of God’s compassionate and patient action towards us. We are given not only the script (Scripture) and the teacher (Christ in the Spirit) but we are given these people as a trust and a work, the work of bringing them up. They are our talents (Matthew 25.19-23).
In the body on the march through the wildness Christ is at the head, and the mature are around the edges, protecting those in the inside. Troops differentiated by complementary sets of gifts cover one another. The priestly-military service of guard duty (watchman Ezekiel 33.7, Mark 13.35) takes the called-up men away from domestic and economic responsibilities. These men are ‘the head’(as long as they are themselves under the head of Christ 1 Corinthians 12.3). Behind them, providing them with support are the guild of women who exercise the task of immediate prayer (tongues), the more mature of whom are also able to interpret this speech (prophecy), forecast the crises ahead and summon the whole force (army) of the Spirit. These troops protect those engaged in domestic duties (1 Corinthians 7.33-35). The most newest, least mature and most vulnerable members are packed deep in the middle of the body. This body fasts, cries, weeps. In the body in camp Christ is in the middle. Nearest Christ are the most mature, and furthest away are the newest and least proficient. But it is these weakest who prepare, support and propel forward the strongest, loading them with gifts and sending them forward to represent them. This body celebrates an interim feast.
7. Truth-telling and competing rationalities and communities
The false because partial and premature universality of the university, the dismissal of therapeutic (ascetic) practical reason (bodies of tradition, memory).
7.1 There are many communities, each with its own rationality
Each community has a rationality, and each rationality its community and formal assembly. Each community fights to establish the supremacy of its rationality. There must be clear public contention of truth. Like any other set of claims, the gospel contends for the rationality within which it can set out its claim to make better sense of the world. The task of the Church is to reject the world’s rebellious and premature knowledge of itself and its epistemological reinforcement. Statements about God as judge and the Church as judging appear imperialistic because of the interiorisation of public and political talk. By ruling theological discussion out of permitted public speech, the vocabulary by which elites can be called to account was allowed to become the vocabulary of ‘faith’, given its Kantian definition as precisely not knowledge, and not public or political speech. The Church has to tell the seventeenth and eighteenth century origins of this modern understanding of the individual who defines himself in opposition to his surroundings (community, tradition, context) so it can say why moderns resist the thought that there must be leadership and discipline, or that the gospel is the account of, and is itself the offer of, new leadership.
7.2 Modern rationality and accounting for wealth and well-being
Inasmuch as we regard the things of this world as wealth, Western Christians ought to count themselves rich and therefore as amongst the oppressors. To have all this wealth and still to regard ourselves as blameless, or even as victims, is to rob the victims of the language by which they could properly identify themselves in distinction from us and demand God liberate them from us.
The citizenship of the eschatological economy (the kingdom that is coming) depends on our spending and expending to exhaustion as quickly as possible our citizenship in this present worldly city. Investment in the coming economy requires reckless spending in terms of this economy. ‘Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourself so when it is gone you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings’ (Luke 16.9). We are to pay out beyond the point of bankruptcy, to have capital, that is, to have relationships that will be reciprocated in the other future economy. The Christians are engaged in a currency conversion in which they buy up messages of condemnation and for them give judgments that give new chances. ‘When we are cursed, we bless.. when we are slandered we answer kindly’ (1 Corinthians 4.12).
The Church is a community in opposition. It must expect to be ignored, to be invisible to the media, and to be derided. It must keep its wall high, and continually raise its ramparts and make entry less easy. It must have its own culture and different taste, that at first will appear greyer and more conservative.
7.3 The Gospel and modernity/ postmodernity
The Western intellectual tradition is not Christianity through and through. It is two traditions, Christianity and the republican thought of the Hellenic and Roman worlds. These two traditions, Christian and pagan, have been in conversation and confrontation for a long time. We do not want to assume that Christianity is at bottom a fixed lump, which is always threatened by dilution (secularisation). The continuity and identity of Christianity is not an essence but a person, the person of God who keeps this community to which (for the sake of the world) he lends his name and makes his own. It is this agent who makes Christianity the same thing through time. So we do not have a lump of Christianity being slowly broken down by dastardly new epistemological questions, but the ongoing confrontation of two traditions, and responsibility of correctly representing one (indeed both) of them. So to epistemological questions we must offer communitarian and virtue ethics answers that refer to these two traditions and communities and point out that these questions are not timeless, but emerge from these respective traditions. This must be said in order that we understand that Christianity is political speech and thus a message of the world’s liberation.