The Mission of the Church: Mission and Eucharist, Part 1

Eucharist-Mission1When I first started reading Thompson’s The Church according to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ, I thought it was going to be a Neo-Anabaptist book. “Neo-Anabaptist” refers to a movement led by John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, with roots in 16th Century Anabaptist theology.

The Anabaptists arose about the same time as Calvinism and Lutheranism, except they insisted on the separation of church from state, and therefore they rejected infant baptism, insisting on baptism of believers, generally by immersion for remission of sins. And so they re-baptized their converts: “Anabaptist” likely means “re-baptizer.” We can’t say too much about the early Anabaptists because the Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans all persecuted them ruthlessly, and much of their writings and thinking has been lost to history.

Both Churches of Christ and Baptists like to claim Anabaptist roots, and there is some truth to it — although there’s hardly an unbroken line of succession. Rather, Anabaptist thinking on baptism influenced both denominations, but the Baptists descend from the Puritan family tree, while Churches of Christ descend from a mix of Presbyterian and Baptist roots — except for our doctrine of baptism, which is Anabaptist. (This hardly makes it ipso facto wrong.)

Today, in the US, denominations with true Anabaptist roots are the Mennonites, Nazarenes, Evangelical Bible Churches, and the Amish. Yoder was a Mennonite. Hauerwas is a Methodist who attends an Episcopalian congregation, but his theology is very Anabaptist.

“Neo-Anabaptist” refers to the point of view taught by Hauerwas and Yoder, who’ve created a very serious theological framework for certain Anabaptist positions. Historically, Anabaptists have been pacifists (Why fight for a king who is persecuting you?), and they see the decision to be a Christian as, among many other things, political. That is, if you declare Jesus the Christ, you’re declaring your allegiance to him as King, which means you’re declaring that his claim on you is higher than your nation’s claim.

And like Thompson,  Hauerwas sees no Christianity separate from the church as a gathered community. That is, the church isn’t the sum of all individual Christians. Rather, Christians are only Christians because they’ve been incorporated into the church (or Kingdom). (This thinking is also found in N. T. Wright, although not nearly as prominently. He comes at it from the meaning of “kingdom” and the OT prophets.)

Hauerwas says,

I have great admiration for evangelicals for no other reason than they just bring such great energy to the faith and I admire that. But one of the great problems of Evangelical life in America is evangelicals think they have a relationship with God that they go to church to have expressed but church is a secondary phenomenon to their personal relationship and I think that’s to get it exactly backwards: that the Christian faith is [mediated] faith. It only comes through the witness of others as embodied in the church.

So I should never trust my presumption that I know what my relationship with God is separate from how that is expressed through words and sacrament in the church. So evangelicals, I’m afraid, often times, with what appears to be very conservative religious convictions, make the church a secondary phenomenon to their assumed faith and I think that’s making it very hard to maintain disciplined congregations.’

(emphasis mine; paragraphing of quoted material modified throughout the post the ease Internet reading)

He’s right, isn’t he? Don’t we see our personal relationship with God as much more important than our relationship through the church. We shop for congregations, hoping to find one that suits our personal needs. The needs of the church therefore must bend to the needs of the individual. The church is there to support the individual in his personal relationship with God.

And he’s right that one result is a lack of discipline. That is, church leaders have little real authority because the members see themselves as consumers of religious services, and if the leaders make them unhappy, they’ll just buy their religious services from another congregation down the road. There is little real commitment to the congregation, and hence community formation is very often imaginary.

To me, Hauerwas’s most important book is Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, written with William H. Willimon. There he says,

It might be possible for Christians to argue that our ethics are universally applicable, that the way of Jesus makes sense even to those who do not believe that the claim “Jesus Christ is Lord” makes sense. … You do not need a strong community, the church, to support an ethic everyone else already affirms. It might be possible for Christians to take this approach to ethics (indeed many contemporary Christians have), until we collide with a text like Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. …

Here is an invitation to a way that strikes hard against what the world already knows, what the world defines as good behavior, what makes sense to everybody. The Sermon, by its announcement and its demands, makes necessary the formation of a colony [a Christian congregation], not because disciples are those who have a need to be different, but because the Sermon, if believed and lived, makes us different, shows us the world to be alien, an odd place where what makes sense to everybody else is revealed to be opposed to what God is doing among us. Jesus was not crucified for saying or doing what made sense to everyone.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (p. 73-74). Abingdon Press – A. Kindle Edition.

For the Sermon on the Mount to push a life-style based on the assertion that we merely mortal human beings are to act like God borders on the absurd. How is it possible for human beings who are vulnerable, finite, and mortal to be nonviolent, utterly faithful, and perfect even as God is perfect? What sort of gargantuan ethical heroism would be required to foster such an ethic?

Hauerwas, Stanley. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (p. 75). Abingdon Press – A. Kindle Edition.

The Sermon on the Mount is after something that … most of the modern church, forsook—that is, the formation of a visible, practical, Christian community. Jesus is here teaching his disciples ([Matthew] 5:1-2). Although “the crowds” (5:1) are not excluded from this teaching, since the Teacher has as one of his capacities to invite all people into this Kingdom, here is a sermon for those who hear the summons to become salt and light for the world, for those who want lives by which others will “see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (5:16). By these words we all might become children “of your Father who is in heaven” (5:45).

These are words for the colonists [that is, members of a Christian congregation]. The Sermon is not primarily addressed to individuals, because it is precisely as individuals that we are most apt to fail as Christians. … The Sermon on the Mount does not encourage heroic individualism, it defeats it with its demands that we be perfect even as God is perfect, that we deal with others as God has dealt with us.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (p. 76-77). Abingdon Press – A. Kindle Edition.

Christian community, life in the colony, is not primarily about togetherness. It is about the way of Jesus Christ with those whom he calls to himself. It is about disciplining our wants and needs in congruence with a true story, which gives us the resources to lead truthful lives. In living out the story together, togetherness happens, but only as a by-product of the main project of trying to be faithful to Jesus.

It is important to recognize that all ethics, even non-Christian ethics, arise out of a tradition [worldview] that depicts the way the world works, what is real, what is worth having, worth believing. Tradition is a function and a product of community. So all ethics, even non-Christian ethics, make sense only when embodied in sets of social practices that constitute a community. Such communities support a sense of right and wrong.

Yet most modern ethics begin from the Enlightenment presupposition of the isolated, heroic self, the allegedly rational individual who stands alone and decides and chooses. The goal of this ethic is to detach the individual from his or her tradition, parents, stories, community, and history, and thereby allow him or her to stand alone, to decide, to choose, and to act alone.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (pp. 78-79). Abingdon Press – A. Kindle Edition.

The Sermon implies that it is as isolated individuals that we lack the ethical and theological resources to be faithful disciples. The Christian ethical question is not the conventional Enlightenment question, How in the world can ordinary people like us live a heroic life like that? The question is, What sort of community would be required to support an ethic of nonviolence, marital fidelity, forgiveness, and hope such as the one sketched by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount?

Hauerwas, Stanley. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (p. 80). Abingdon Press – A. Kindle Edition.

To get back to our mission: Our first mission is to form a colony of resident aliens — that is, followers of Jesus as King who want to live as Jesus taught — together with others who’ve made the same commitment — all as defined by the Sermon on the Mount (and such parallel passages as Rom 12- 15).

Individual spiritual formation derives from the formational work of the community. I mean, we can’t go the second mile all by ourselves. We can’t refrain from lust if there are no women in our lives. We can’t refuse to judge unless we live with others whom we might be tempted to judge. And so we do this together.

Hence, if we meet each week with our fellow resident aliens to remember the story into which God has saved us — the story of Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, and ultimately Jesus — and we take the Eucharist at a common table at which the story is told yet again, we are shaped into the shape of the story. The story of the Bible becomes our framing story, our metanarrative, or as Hauerwas says, our tradition. And it’s within the Eucharistic telling of the story that the Sermon of the Mount and Christian ethics make sense. And only there.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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9 Responses to The Mission of the Church: Mission and Eucharist, Part 1

  1. eddodds says:

    I think the allegiance to Jesus as King is central. Most American Christians would have difficulty saying this out loud in public: I pledge allegiance to the King and to the ekklesia for which He lives, one Nation under under God, indivisible, with forgiveness and compassion for all.

    Too, inspired by a post title I saw recently (Jesus was an insurgent), American Christians tend to not see themselves in guerilla war against actual powers and principalities (and all the beings that that world view implies). Jesus answer to nearly everything is “make disciples and teach them what I’ve taught you” (with the assumption that he is also sending *the Teacher* to be with them). Our answer is to Jesus is: thanks, but no thanks. We’ll build a cathedral, and take all the money God gave us for the poor and tie it up in mortgages and insurances (look at your church budget). Then we’ll build programs which separate the kids from the adults (vs. the older modelling faith|obedience|trust in formal mentorships|networks|discipleships).

    Part of the unique American problem (well, not so unique really) is that we believe our nation will last forever (little appreciation for history and cycles of nations) — and so it is in national structures and institutions where we are to put our trust and allegiance vs. communities of sojourners whose job it is is to model what a peaceful community looks like and then help to replicate them (not out of divisions of hatred but by “biological growth”) eventually in a global network, in every ethne and polis. (See Mission Alive, Ignite Church Planting, and other church similar networks).

  2. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    eddodds wrote,

    I think the allegiance to Jesus as King is central. Most American Christians would have difficulty saying this out loud in public: I pledge allegiance to the King and to the ekklesia for which He lives, one Nation under under God, indivisible, with forgiveness and compassion for all.

    Amen. We like to think of God and the USA as having distinct jurisdictions and so distinct and so parallel claims on our loyalty. When someone suggests that our allegiance is only to Jesus, and our duties to our nation flow, if at all, from our submission to Jesus, well, that’s tough for us to even imagine. We just don’t think, preach, teach, or study in these terms. We are highly compartmentalized in our thinking — and it’s a tough thing to shake off.

    The rich young ruler was told to sell all that he had because his love for his wealth stood between him and Jesus. If we were to ask Jesus today what we lack, having kept all his commands from our youth, I wonder whether his first demand would not be for us to give up our money but our nationalism. (It would surely change the tone of the national political conversation.)

  3. Mark says:

    ” and we take the Eucharist at a common table at which the story is told yet again, we are shaped into the shape of the story. ”

    You summed it up right here, Jay. I am not sure when I first heard “on the night in which he was betrayed….” Before cofC communion but for decades I only heard the two standard prayers before the elements followed by the offering. When the communion meditation started, I heard it used for everything including to bash the Methodists. Perhaps getting back to basics would help..

  4. Chris says:

    “We can’t say too much about the early Anabaptists because the Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans all persecuted them ruthlessly, and much of their writings and thinking has been lost to history.”

    Whew! Maybe this is why evangelicals are a little weary considering church history. I think some damage has been done by a “cult” like mentality among some faith groups, which has pushed believers to be weary of being brain washed. In other words, you must think and believe exactly as “we” do in order to be a “good” Christian, even to the point of being mean (even killing) others in the Kingdom. I mean, isn’t it still happening to some extent in today’s communities? (Being mean and exclusion) And no one wants a repeat of Jim Jones and the tragedy of Guyanna.

    Are these extremes examples? Yes, but I think those who’ve been burned by cult mentalities among us and are familiar with church history may have led to a more cautious approach to faith groups and the church. I’m not saying this is right, but it’s certainly understandable. I think to some extent, this has led to a more individualized approach. Maybe it’s a hold over from the unfortunate past of the actions of the “state” church which have led to the present mentality.

  5. Larry Cheek says:

    jay,
    You have commented.
    “He’s right, isn’t he? Don’t we see our personal relationship with God as much more important than our relationship through the church. We shop for congregations, hoping to find one that suits our personal needs. The needs of the church therefore must bend to the needs of the individual. The church is there to support the individual in his personal relationship with God.”
    Aren’t you really saying that all assemblies called church are so perfect that no one has an obligation to dust off their feet and reach out others who are teaching doctrine that is in tune with what an individual has gleaned from scriptures? What would ever allow personal needs or needs of the church? In that context Christs Words have just been made no authority by both an individual and the so called church (which in this context means the assembly at this place). I don’t find in scriptures that a Christian is confined or assigned to any one peculiar place (assembly). Leadership is not even confined to a specific location. It’s Christs Church, one and only, meeting in many different places.
    I believe that this is another of your comments.
    “And he’s right that one result is a lack of discipline. That is, church leaders have little real authority because the members see themselves as consumers of religious services, and if the leaders make them unhappy, they’ll just buy their religious services from another congregation down the road. There is little real commitment to the congregation, and hence community formation is very often imaginary.”
    Church leaders, and discipline? These are not Christ’s Church this is comments about church leaders designing rules and regulations which are not part of Christ’s Church, Christ’s Church is following his scriptures not man made rules. Leaders in Christ’s Church only applies Christ’s rules. Show us where Christ has ruled that a Christian is to only remain in one place and meet with the assembly there.
    All this is stemming from a gross misunderstanding of Christs body (His Church).

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Larry,

    There are, of course, times when it’s appropriate to change congregations. Not all changes are church shopping or consumerist. Then again, there are also times when the church properly disciplines its members. The scriptures are beyond clear that discipline is part of God’s plan for his church.

    The scriptures offer very little guidance on when to change congregations, because in the First Century, each city had only one congregation. There was no such thing — but times have changed. Not necessarily for the better, but definitely different.

    And it’s also true that many churches handle questions of discipline very poorly. In Churches of Christ, it’s often over a divorce and remarriage situation and often based on very poorly thought out doctrine. This does tend to cause Christians to disrespect the idea of church discipline — and yet done properly, church discipline is profoundly scriptural and, at times, very necessary. Nonetheless, any church leadership that contemplates discipline has to reckon with the profound skepticism of a membership that has never seen it done well.

    I don’t know that I have a particularly useful set of guidelines for when it’s okay to leave church A and join church B. This much I know.

    First, we are told to submit to the leaders of the church. Well, if we’re going to threaten to leave every time the chairs are rearranged or something happens that seems like “change,” that’s not submission.

    Some would draw the line at doctrine, but we’re never going to agree on everything, and we can’t fairly expect to always agree with the preacher. Again: not submission.

    Some would draw the line at doctrines that are identity markers for Churches of Christ. But if we insist on only hearing what we already believe, where is there room for growth? For correction? For learning?

    On the other hand, some calls are pretty easy. If your church teaches a works salvation in violation of Galatians, they’re teaching a different gospel and it’s time to either work for change or to leave. If your church teaches contrary to scripture — knowing that it’s contrary to scripture — they are in rebellion and it’s time to work for change or leave.

    If the elders don’t protect the flock from predators but rather invite predators in, it’s time to work for change or to leave. I mean, the fundamental task of a shepherd is to protect the flock.

    If the leaders don’t equip the members to serve per Eph 4, maybe those are grounds to leave — to go to a church to be better able to serve.

    That’s not a comprehensive list by any means. I’m not quite sure how to make a comprehensive list. I see a real tension between the very plain command to submit to the leaders of the church and failure of all churches to be ideal or to meet everyone’s needs. Commitment to a church and its leaders has to mean something. But then, there really are times when the wise, godly course is to go somewhere else. I just don’t think that decision should be quite the same as picking Wal-Mart over Target.

    To me, the hardest choice is not whether to leave but how long to stay and fight for change. If everyone unhappy leaves, then the church never changes and corrections are never made. But sometimes staying would clearly be futility. (And I would never stay so long that my children’s spiritual health is harmed.)

    So I’m open to suggestions for how to counsel others in this very difficult area. I get the question often.

  7. John F. says:

    I am one who stayed so long that “my children’s spiritual health” was harmed. Please take caution. Twenty years later the price is still being paid for “staying too long..”

  8. Dwight says:

    I see the church as a cause and effect, from what I read in I John 1:7 “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” in that our connection, first and foremost, is with Christ and then because we are in Christ we are in association with those who are also in Christ…the church…the body.
    We join with Christ and are added to Christ family.
    We may or may not know our brothers and sisters and they may live close or far, but the one bond we have is Christ. Unfortunately in today’s environment we reject those who may be in Christ and mat be our brother or sister based on one thing or another.
    But the same fact is that we need others. We need others to look after us and care for us, otherwise we are self-serving and we need to look after and care for others, because we are supposed to love our brother or sister. We need each other, more than we need the sermon, we need each other more than we need the singing, we need each other because we need interaction, which is sorely missed when we are sitting and facing in one direction.
    We are not an island of self-sustainability, no matter what we might think.
    The people of God are to help each other.

    But neither does our Christianity depend upon the church.
    After all we aren’t baptized into the church, but Christ. We don’t pray or sing to the church, but God. We can learn of God, sometimes more amazingly by reading, as opposed to having a topical lesson presented to us in self-discovery.
    And the Lord’s Supper is there to reflect our unity in Christ, which reflects itself in our unity with others or Christ.
    I think of Paul, who was in jail during his later life, with probable eyesight failing. The church was there and present in helping him, but he didn’t have the ability to go to assembly. He largely depended on Christ (I can do all things…). With the exception of the Lord’s Supper, Paul could do everything…sing, pray, learn, worship and even serve, by writing, towards God. When all was stripped from him…there was God still before him.
    I am not trying to argue against assembly, we need it, but many attempt to get to God through the assembly. They give to their congregation and think that they have fulfilled their responsibility to give. They sing or pray in the assembly and think that they have sang or prayed enough. They have replaced the Temple with the church building and the High Priest with the preacher and elders. We are the Temple and Jesus the High Priest, so our connection/worship/service is personal and immediate from us to Him and then them, not us through them to Him.

  9. Larry Cheek says:

    Dwight,
    Your comments are right on. But, I do see a portion a little differently that the way you have described and others here have presented similar content. I’ll quote you and explain. “But the same fact is that we need others. We need others to look after us and care for us, otherwise we are self-serving and we need to look after and care for others, because we are supposed to love our brother or sister. We need each other, more than we need the sermon, we need each other more than we need the singing, we need each other because we need interaction, which is sorely missed when we are sitting and facing in one direction. We are not an island of self-sustainability, no matter what we might think.”
    The questions that I have about this concept of our dire need of others is involved around all those in scripture which have been given as examples of God’s servants. Do the scriptures give us any clues as to any human that Abraham, Issac, Jacob, Enoch, Elijah, Joseph, Daniel, Job, Saul, David and the list continues to contain a huge number of individuals who were the foundation of believers in God. Sure all of these were OT but now lets look into NT Who stood up and supported or should I ask who these men leaned on, John the Baptist, Cornelius. It is easy to see how the Apostles leaned on Jesus but after Jesus went to heaven who did they lean on for support? Then let’s look at the martyrs, you know those who stood firm in their beliefs to the ultimate sacrifice, was someone standing close to them coaxing them to victory? I just have a problem believing that if we are to become like Jesus that we will not be able to stand as firm as he and his early disciples stood strong and firm. Beyond that the only time Christians are seen as not being strong and firm is with the concept of being sheep of the shepherd, or easily led astray by a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This to me is a indication of the lack of maturity of the sheep in the sheepfold. Mature sheep are no trouble to the shepherd and through many attacks by the enemy of the faith learn to defend for themselves. Remember even those who are appointed as Elders are still considered as sheep in the flock of the Great Shepherd. So how are we to believe that there is a great quantity of Christians who are supposed to have received the Gift of The HS and having the Spirit of God within us who are not capable to serve God acceptably without help of (another stronger or weaker brother)? Is it really possible for a weaker brother to lift a stronger brother to a greater level than he has attained? Show us some weak brothers in Christ in scripture who were listed as examples to the flock or church.

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