Corpus Christianum or Corpus Christi?

Jeppe Bach Nikolajsen, The Distinctive Identity of the Church

Guest blog by Jeppe Bach Nikolajsen. Jeppe is associate professor at Lutheran School of Theology in Aarhus, Denmark, and adjunct professor at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Oslo, Norway.

During the past three centuries, the church has gradually lost its central and influential role in Western society due to important cultural and religious changes. Therefore, an increasing number of theologians believe that the Western world has moved from, or is in transition from, an era of Christendom to one of post-Christendom. The formerly Christian West is today to a large extent multi-religious, and the formerly homogeneous West is now a highly diverse society.

My new book The Distinctive Identity of the Church underlines the fact that this development in the Western world raises important challenges for the church in Western culture. With the collapse of the old Christendom, the self-understanding of the church is now threatened, and a theological inquiry into the distinctive identity of the church and its role in a modern Western society has become more and more pressing. Whereas much traditional ecclesiology has been developed in a context where ecclesial hegemony could be presupposed, and where society was characterized by strong social coherence, in recent years a number of ecclesiological contributions have been developed which no longer take this for granted.

The book goes, I believe, to the heart of this ecclesiological debate asking the decisive question: How are we to understand the distinctive identity of the church with special reference to its role in a post-Christendom society? Thus, the book presents an analysis of the work of two theologians who have responded to the new situation in which the church now finds itself, and who reflect on how we should understand the important question posed above: English Reformed theologian Lesslie Newbigin and American Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. The analysis does not focus on these two authorships for their own sake but has a constructive aim, namely, to construct two positions that can be related, learned from, and built upon in the ongoing development of a post-Christendom ecclesiology.

At the end of the book, I argue that mission should fundamentally determine the church’s existence in the world, stating that even though an inescapable particularity is an integral part of ecclesiology, social ethics, and epistemology, this must, by no means, lead to isolationism. I argue that this distinctiveness should not lead the church to isolate itself from society, abnegate responsibility for society, or become a closed replica of its own tradition. On the contrary, this particularity should constitute the basis for its openness and engagement in society. However, this ecclesiological position implies major challenges for the church in Western society.

First, it points to a major challenge for theologians dealing with ecclesiology. Since the Enlightenment, the ecclesial hegemony in the Western world has gradually been disestablished. Yet, many theologians refuse to accept that the church now exists within a pluralistic society and to acknowledge that it becomes increasingly difficult for the church to create social cohesion within society or to sustain a common national identity. However, my primary intention has not been to argue that since we cannot overcome the present societal realities, we might as well adjust (cf. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens, pp. 38-39). More profoundly, I suggest that Western society has gone through a historical and cultural shift that should open our eyes to a fundamental theological truth, namely that the normal situation for the church is that of being a distinct social entity within the society in which it lives.

Second, this also points to a major challenge for theologians dealing with social ethics. As Roger A. Badham and Ola Sigurdson assert, “it is [their] contention that Protestant social ethics, as heir to medieval and Reformation theologies and Enlightenment moral theories, have continued to function under the rubric of universality. Mainline Protestant theology has largely refused to give up its role of speaking on behalf of the whole society” (Badham and Sigurdson in the article “The Decentered Post-Constantinian Church,” p. 156). This expresses a sort of imperialism, and ultimately violence, which contradicts the very nature of the gospel, the kingdom of God and the church. Also, as a consequence of the close relationship between church and state, the church has in some Western societies surrendered some of its most important tasks to the welfare state, to such an extent that the diaconal ministry of the church in some places has virtually disappeared. However, all states are limited, and the church cannot simply entrust the state to take over a task that belongs to the very nature of the church.

Third, this also points to a major challenge for theologians dealing with epistemology. Given that the church now exists in a post-Christendom society, it must acknowledge that the Christian worldview is no longer shared by the whole of society. Accepting Christ as Lord implies seeing the world in a new way that will in many ways, not be self-evident and reasonable for a society that does not accept Christ as divine revelation. However, the church has too often sought the acceptance of society, when its task should rather be to call it to acknowledge Christ as Lord. This calls for an imperative change of role for the church today. The church can no longer be the baptizer of the whole society, but must now instead act as a herald proclaiming the gospel to the world.

Not only the Christian church, but also Christian theology, is in a time of transition as a result of the collapse of the old Christendom. Consequently, theology should acknowledge its own distinctiveness by developing theological reflection in support of a church, which exists in a post-Christendom society. This calls for a reconfiguration of Western theological discourse. The task that lies before the church in the Western world is not to bypass its distinctiveness with accusations of sectarianism, but to provide constructive contributions to the ongoing ecclesiological conversation that acknowledge that the church in the Western world no longer includes everyone.

Acknowledging that mission must determine the life of the church in the world should serve as a warning that the church can never leave the world or keep the gospel to itself, and should prompt the church turn outward to the society in which it lives. The task that lies before the church in the Western world is to recapture a profound understanding of its own distinctive identity and to let this distinctiveness constitute the basis for its openness to, responsibility for, and engagement in the society in which it exists. Such an ecclesiological position holds, in my mind, significant potential for an understanding of the role of the church in pluralistic Western societies. Such a position, I believe, points to the future of the church in Western societies.

Jeppe Bach Nikolajsen

(The text above is a revised excerpt from the conclusion of the book The Distinctive Identity of the Church, which is published here with permission from the author and Wipf and Stock Publishers.)

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Posted by Bengt Rasmusson

Bengt Rasmusson är teolog, förläggare och mediakonsult.

Bengt Rasmusson is a theologian, publisher and a media consultant.

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