Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Editor’s note: This is a part of the lecture on “Processus Confessionis: A Plea For Justice From A Reformed Perspective” given at the Memphis Theological Seminary in October 2000. The Memphis Theological Journal published the entire lecture in Spring 2001.
Since the 1960s, with the irruption of liberation theologies including the publication of A Theology of Liberation (English tr. 1973) by Gustavo Gutierrez and similar theological reflections around the world, justice as a vital ministerial and mission concern has come to stay within the Christian communities. Through these years, many biblical narrations and passages were reinterpreted from justice/liberation perspectives and Jesus himself was seen as a liberator who began his ministerial engagement with the “Nazarene manifesto”: Luke 4:16 21.
In spite of such an irruption in theological thinking and more than a half a century of rich variety of liberation theologies, for many Christians justice still remains a subsidiary issue when they ponder on the church and its marks. In the Reformed tradition, 16th century European understanding and definition of the church supersedes all subsequent creative insights especially coming from the liberation theologies of the 20th century. My plea therefore is for a corrective by incorporating justice as a significant mark of the church. The sixteenth century Reformers were concerned about justice and included it in an implicit sense when they upheld the centrality of the Word, but this must be explicitly lifted up in our time to give force and power for the struggle of justice to be carried out through the church and the Reformed Christian communities.
In the Reformed tradition we are brought up with the traditional Protestant under-standing of the church with two predominant marks. The church is the ‘assembly of saints’ where the true preaching of the Word is carried out and where the right administration of the two sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper is done. “In agreement with the Wittenberg reformers, Calvin quotes the note ecclesiae, echoing the Confessio Augustana, Article vii: pure preaching of the word of God and right administration of the sacraments according to the institution of Christ.” [Kocsis, 1995:8] The Reformed theologians also gave importance to proper Church order and the oversight exercised by elders along with the office of the ministry of the Word and Sacraments. “The Reformed confessions that followed like the French Confession (1559) and the Belgic Confession (1561) added a third mark of the true church to the two identified by the Augustana, namely, the exercise of discipline.” [Bosch, 1991:248]
One of the significant steps taken by the Reformers was to bring the church as it existed and functioned then, under the scrutiny of the Scripture. They upheld Bible as the supreme authority and normative in matters of faith and practice. That ushered a number of new images of which the “Priesthood of all believers” is a significant one. It brought an egalitarian understanding of the community: Believers under the eyes of God stand equal. It also contributed to the ethical dimension: Believers as priests were expected to minister to one another and also to all the community and to humanity. Such an egalitarian vision could not be carried out without dismantling the old hierarchical system. In spite of the egalitarian spirit, as children of their time, Reformed theologians succumbed to some of the hierarchical and dominating structures of society. Nonetheless they tried to make it as accountable and responsible for the welfare of the masses. Historically, we cannot claim that the 16th century Reformation ushered in an era of just society, but it did facilitate the possibility of generating images of the church which would come closer to the will of God, or the vision of the scripture. The contemporary image of the church as the ‘people of God’ is a still more egalitarian notion. If that image is taken seriously for people to enjoy their equal personhood all discrimination must be dismantled. Therefore, the issue of justice becomes a key mark of the church if it has to be a community called to do the will of God.
Many contemporary confessional statements of the Reformed family of churches invariably include the commitment to justice as a vital ingredient of Christian faith and the practice of justice as an inescapable call for discipleship. The challenge for us today is how such commitment to justice and practice of justice is accepted and manifested in the church as the core of its mark. The congregations and churches are at different stages of their involvement and commitment to social justice at this time. It is not an easy task and only sustained under guarding of it as a matter of faith and continued engagement in acts of solidarity of justice can take the community forward. For example, the recent Brief Statement of Faith of Presbyterian Church (USA) reads as follows:
“[T]he Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”(1990)
In spite of the strong support for the cause of justice, for many of the Reformed Christians, it is still an optional social function than the core of their ecclesial existence and the basis of their theological and faith commitment. John de Gruchy explains this as follows: “Many traditional theologies, reformed theology included, deal with justice and liberation as ethical themes, which arise from theological reflection. They are items on their social witness agenda. But they do not regard engagement in the struggle for justice and liberation as fundamental to their dogmatic concern or theological method. For most it is a consequence rather than a prior commitment.” [de Gruchy, 1999:107] The outcome of such an exigent reality has made, “ecumenically and socially progressive theologians and church goers, within the Reformed tradition who often feel they have more in common with non-Reformed Christians, and who find their tradition captive to bourgeois norms and resistant toward just and liberating social change.” [de Gruchy, 1999:104 105] The plea is, therefore, to enrich traditional metaphysical ecclesiology with ‘missiological ecclesiology’: the church in action for justice.
Reformed theology as its prime focus upholds the sovereignty of God on the whole of creation. Human response to the sovereignty of God is to adhere to the will of God. It is clear from the scriptures that the will of God is that all humans live as God’s children and that they live in an atmosphere of fellowship, and relate to the created order in an attitude of harmony. When that is not in place the will of God is discarded and the sovereignty of God pushed aside. Simply, because the sovereignty of God is verbally announced in the liturgies and prayers, and sung loudly in hymns and songs, the sovereignty of God is not upheld in the Reformed tradition. Along with such liturgies and praises if the prevailing injustices which are against God’s will are challenged and dismantled, then the will of God in all the affairs of the created order is recognized and celebrated.
In order to regain the fundamental faith affirmation about the sovereignty of God on all aspects of life, it is absolutely necessary to promote justice as a mark of the church. That will happen when the faithful adhering to the traditional marks of the church: preaching of the word, observation of the sacraments and overseeing discipline, facilitate justice as a foundational value in the community and society. “We encounter the grace of the saving presence of God not in Word and sacrament isolated from human suffering and the struggle for justice, but ‘in, with, and under’ it. This is precisely where God’s grace was encountered by Israel and the early church, according to the biblical record.” [de Gruchy,1999: 117]
Regardless of the denomination to which we belong, we all faithfully pray the Lord’s prayer, repeating again and again that“. . .your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Is it that difficult to understand the will of God for God’s children, since we are able to address God as the common ‘Father/Parent’ through Jesus Christ. Even human parents desire their children to live in congenial human relationship; caring about, and supporting each other.
Justice as a mark of the church focuses on the communitarian nature of the church enlarging the scope of Christianity from just the well being of the individual. However, it is increasingly clear that we cannot talk about the well being of the community without the just treatment of all in the community.
For Christians, commitment to justice is not a new agenda. In one way or the other it was upheld in Christianity throughout its history. The issue is, how it is interpreted, who interprets it, on what basis it is interpreted and how it is applied. Much of early church’s understanding was more focused on charity and service.(Acts. 6; Rom 15:26; 1 Cor. 16:1; 2 Cor. 8:1 2; 9:1 etc.). It is not only through the church but also through other societal institutions and structures (professional associations, humanitarian organizations, state apparatus), concerned Christians need to work diligently to find a viable solution to overcome the unjust state of affair from their faith perspectives. The history of liberation struggles clearly record that beyond a certain level, changes were not easy without some radical orientation on the part of those who held power and privilege. The challenge then is, the extent to which the Christian community will continue to strive for justice and manifest it in its communitarian living, so that such striving and living itself becomes a catalyst for change. To this to happen it is important that justice does not remain as a subsidiary to Christian faith but the core of its existencea mark of the church.
Bosch, David I. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology ofMission. (Orbis, 1994)
deGruchy, John. “Toward a Reformed Theology of Liberation: Aretrieval of Reformed symbols in the struggle for justice.” In Towardthe Future of Reformed Theology. David Willis & Michael Welkereditors. (Eerdmans, 1999)
Kocsis, Elemer. “The early Reformed doctrine of the church”, in “AChurch in the Reformed Tradition” edited by Colin Gunton et al.(WARC, 1995)
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, WINTER 2002, VOL. 2 #3.
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