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Call and response ecclesiology

Joe Small says how we think about Christ is how we think about the church

December 9, 2013

PRINCETON, N.J.

God’s Word sounds in the midst of a cacophony of other voices ― cultural, political and religious ― making it difficult for the church to “always be called back to its true self, to its Lord,” the Rev. Joe Small told the second Moderator’s Colloquium on Ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) today (Dec. 9).

The three-day colloquium, designed by General Assembly Moderator Neal Presa and Vice-moderator Tom Trinidad and hosted by Princeton Theological Seminary here, is exploring, Presa said, “the nature and purpose of the church as we are called to be Christ’s called and sent community when the church is being challenged externally and internally.”

Citing German theologian Jurgen Moltmann, Small ― retired former director of Theology and Worship for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ― said, “The way one thinks about Christ is the way one thinks about the church.”

But ecclesiology “is usually a theological afterthought,” Small said. “Who, what, when, where, why, how is the church? To the extent that these questions are asked, they are too often left to the sociologists or, God help us, the branders, marketers and funds developers.”

For Calvin, Small said, the “two marks of the church center on lived faith within congregations” ― “faithful proclamation and reception of the Word and faithful sacramental practice, within gathered Christian communities.”

Calvin was certain, Small continued, “that proclaiming the Word of God ― the living, present Christ ― and being united with the living, present Christ through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, formed faithful disciples in a faithful community equipped for faithful living in the world.”

Calvin’s marks of the true church “do not function as borders, but as directional signs pointing to the core of church life,” Small said. “They do not work well if they are used as boundaries to determine who is in and who is out.”

In the face of this Christo-centric Reformed ecclesiology, Small said, “What strikes me about those leaving the church today to start their own churches or denominations is the ease with which they separate themselves rather than remaining and pressing for the reform of that which they believe is wrong.”

Part of that seeming ease of division, separation and schism within the Reformed tradition is the evolution of the “two natures ecclesiology” ― which Small called “a particularly damaging eccelesiological trajectory that emerges from a flawed appropriation of Chaledonian Christology ― which equates a “truly God but truly human” Christ with a church that is at once eternal (invisible) and temporal (expressed in its contemporary forms).

This formulation, Small continued, “authorizes us to claim that we remain united in the body of Christ even in the midst of our obvious church divisions.”

The “predictable result,” he said, “is the denigration of all institutional embodiments of the visible church, together with a view of their dispensability, often resulting in justification for easy exit from particular denominations and the multiplication of separated churches.”

But the invisible and visible churches cannot be separated any more than Christ’s being and work (divinity/humanity) can be separated, Small said, calling for a “call and response eccelesiology that recognizes that “Jesus Christ is simultaneously God’s call and humanity’s response, God’s demand and humanity’s fulfillment, God’s invitation and humanity’s prayer, God’s will and humanity’s obedience, God’s revelation and humanity’s understanding, God’s word and humanity’s reply, God’s command and humanity’s following, God’s help and humanity’s cry.”

The church is simply, Small concluded, “Sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, the community of people who have responded to God’s call.”

For the full text of Small’s presentation, click here.

  1. I love this news item - thanks for sharing such a nice symposium. I wish I could have been there - sounds interesting. I have only one comment - the misappropriation of CHalcedon which Small argues against is not as simply disposed of as he might imagine - at least from my limited perspective. Insisting on the metaphysical reality of unity despite empirical disunity can be a cause to love institutions despite their apparent failures and fallenness, as well as a cause of detachement. The Church of Jesus Christ is in empirical fact split - and it is in fact still one metaphysically (and empirically I might add!), despite its splits. This ought not excuse more splits, and it ought to motivate action toward unity. However, to reify a version of Chalcedon and simplisticly link it to the schism mentality is a bit tenuous in my opinion. I do agree however, that the schism mentality is based in a flawed theology and ecclesiology, and that he is in fact onto something interesting. I just do not think it is quite as simple as he suggests.

    by David KEster

    December 10, 2013

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