Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mary, Martha, and Moltmann

I often think one of the most pressing needs for the church today is to become better acquainted with the rhythm of redemptive history and, of course, the church's place in it. Because of an incomplete or even distorted perspective, a variety of theological, ecclesial, practical anomalies and aberrations crop up. Charlemagne styles himself a new King David, though the time of the people of God as a geo-political entity passed with our shift from old covenant to new covenant mode. A church leader welcomes the congregation to the church building as the "house of God" on a Sunday morning, though the concept of the temple of God is no longer applicable to a building with walls of literal stone but to the church, the people of God who are living stones (see, e.g., Jn. 4; 1 Cor. 6; and so on).

We have several different options for tracing the flow of redemptive history: the Reformed covenantal model, the dispensational model in its diverse forms, the model found in the biblical theology of George Ladd, the five-act model advanced by N. T. Wright, to name a few. Some are more defensible and more suggestive than others, but all should feel the need to clarify the relation between church and society. In reading Moltmann (mostly for the sake of understanding his doctrine of God), I stumbled across some of his material on maintaining both Christian identity and Christian relevance in and to society. He writes:

For Christian faith to bring about its own decay by withdrawal into the ghetto without self-criticism, is a parallel to its decay through uncritical assimilation. And the decline into pusillanimous faith and superstition is a parallel to the decline into unbelief. How close this parallel is, is shown by the way debates within Christianity become polarized in false alternatives....The tension between identity in faith and solidarity in action can no longer be tolerated by either side. Polarizations come into being,which break down this productive Christian tension....In many churches similar polarizations have come into being between those who see the essence of the church in the evangelization and the salvation of souls, and those who see it in social action for the salvation and liberation of real life. But in Christian terms evangelization and humanization are not alternatives (The Crucified God, pp. 21-22).

Put differently, Moltmann rejects "the fragmentation of the church into the true 'church of Jesus' and the evil, political 'church of Barabbas'; or the true 'church of Mary' which alone hears the word of the Lord, and the 'church of Martha' preoccupied with useless social activity" (ibid., pp. 20-21).

For a good many Christians the wedding of overtly Christian practices (e.g., preaching, baptism, interpersonal evangelism) and social action is something of a "no-brainer." And yet I've always wrestled with having such a broad vision of the church's role in society. I have gravitated toward a two-kingdoms approach to the issue and, with recent online contributions from Michael Horton (on the two-kingdoms theory, see here; on the notion of calling, see here) and the publication of David VanDrunen's Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms (which I hope to read in the near future), there is momentum for articulating a Reformed rendition of the two-kingdoms take on things.

Moltmann is right that "Mary church" versus "Martha church" is too crude a distinction, but here are a few of the reasons why I have been on a pilgrimage toward the two-kingdoms view:

1) We live in an in-between stage of redemptive history. That is, we live between the time of the Mosaic era with its open amalgam of Israelite faith, society, and government and the consummative establishment of the kingdom of God whose aftermath will again blur the lines between the redeemed community and broader societal life and structure.

2) While I am emphatically no dispensationalist, there is something to be said for the futurist hermeneutic when it comes to reading John's Apocalypse. It's tough to read the book of Revelation and not come away with the sense that Satanically-inspired governmental arrangements can, do, and will systemically persecute Christians. I find it a hard pill to swallow that God would have the church as such invest itself in the ins and outs of government only for governments ultimately to turn around and persecute the church. (Note: I'm thinking of the church as such, not individual believers who may be called to serve in government roles for the limited benefit of society in the present. More on this under reason number five.)

3) The church is the custodian of the gospel of Christ and, in my mind, is meant to specialize in proclaiming and offering redemption in Christ, rather than, as the church, busying itself with political affairs of limited eternal significance. (Though it's unpopular to say, I still think that what is eternal is more important than what passes away with time. However, to clarify, salvation is not about merely future incorporeal entrance to heaven but the reclamation of human persons which begins now and reverberates for all eternity in the new creation. Hence the eternal significance of salvation through Christ). In short, the church need not usurp the role of government. But, to clarify once more, this does not mean that church leaders cannot decry, say, the practice of abortion or that individual Christians cannot be called to serve in the realm of social and political action, strategizing to improve society. Rather, it means that the church qua church is not a social activist group designed to concoct and implement social programs. For example, strictly speaking, it is not the mission of the church to teach ESL classes, but, should a church member, along with other Christians and even non-Christians, wish to lead a non-ecclesiastical organization specializing in ESL, this remains a noble and worthwhile endeavor of service to others. We could debate the implications of hosting said organization's ESL classes in a church building...

4) As Jesus appeals to certain OT texts to describe his mission, he highlights the themes of justice and social restoration, leading some to conclude that his concept of the kingdom of God includes the impetus for transforming societies in the church age. Yet he doesn't go forth to enter into extended dialogue with political leaders about developing systems for bringing justice to all. It seems to me that he creates a community of disciples that can internally exemplify just, compassionate treatment of others as well as offer participation in this community to others. That is, he doesn't attempt to make the kingdoms of this age the kingdom of God but rather instructs the people of the kingdom (understood as the saving reign of God [Ladd's "dynamic sense"]) to embody the values of the kingdom. In other words, I'm not sure that the church refraining from immersion in social activism will compromise the proper social implications of the inbreaking of the kingdom in the present time.

5) The two-kingdoms theory need not begin with an attachment to country which is then open to Christian commitment as an addendum. Rather, we may begin with Christ's reign over all creation and then specify how he rules differently over the spheres of the society and the church. That he does rule them differently and does expect different things of them becomes clear by considering that, for example, only the church is required to practice the Lord's Supper. (Of course, we would hope that all participate in the life of the church and so partake of the bread and the cup.) It seems viable to speak of a "cultural mandate" and a "redemptive mandate" without transforming the former into the latter. In addition, because of Christ's lordship over all, particular Christians may be called to serve in government positions without the nagging feeling of living a compartmentalized life. They can seek to hold society accountable to the tenets of natural law, with Romans 1 and 2 being a good starting place to get a handle on the idea that there are certain ethical imperatives accessible to all. The lordship of Christ, the reality of common grace, and the concept of calling can unify and invigorate believers' lives within the two-kingdoms theory without pressing them to act as if their line of work (government administration, city planning, nursing) in itself is somehow a conduit of salvation.

6) My final reason is more of a question: how does a non-two-kingdoms view stop short of encouraging the government to preach the gospel and so delegating the church's unique responsibility. That's not a scathing, sarcastic question (tone is difficult to convey by blog), but more of an invitation to discussion. Comrades at Denver Seminary (an evangelical institution not afraid to speak about social engagement) may disagree with what I've said here and I'd like to hear their voices. Also, doing this post in the midst of Haiti relief efforts could raise additional questions. Thoughts?

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