Sydney Anglicans II. The congregation as the centre

Posted on June 13, 2012 
Filed under Sydney Diocese

Mark Thompson writes about ecclesiology in the second post of his series on Sydney Anglicans –

“One of the most celebrated, most ridiculed and most misunderstood theological commitments shared by most Sydney Anglicans is the priority of the local congregation.”

Read it all here –

“One of the most celebrated, most ridiculed and most misunderstood theological commitments shared by most Sydney Anglicans is the priority of the local congregation. No doubt historical, cultural and sociological factors have contributed to what some see as a ‘distinctively Sydney’ approach to ‘church’.

The colony of New South Wales began in 1788 with a chaplain rather than a bishop (though notionally under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Calcutta). The Australian psyche has a large strain of anti-authoritarianism and individualism running through it. In addition, federalism (as opposed to centralism) has been an organising principle at a number of levels in Australian society (e.g. national-state government relations and the concern in the Australian Anglican constitution to shy away from a large central bureaucracy and rather to protect the integrity of each of the constituent dioceses). However, influential as these larger cultural factors have been, first and foremost this is a theological commitment arising from convictions about what the Bible teaches on the subject. 

Long-held priorities were given a sharper biblical and theological focus through the work of Donald Robinson and Broughton Knox at Moore College in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. However, their work did not arise in a vacuum. Robinson studied in Cambridge at a time when there was considerable discussion about the nature and mission of the church. English Anglican evangelicals such as Alan Stibbs were addressing the accusation that evangelicals have not paid due attention to ecclesiology. The growing momentum of the ecumenical movement (and the challenge given to it in 1937 by Karl Barth’s paper ‘The Church and the churches’) was also a critical influence on his thinking about the subject. Of course, alongside this, Robinson’s developing sense of the nature of biblical theology (worked out in conversation with others including Gabriel Hiebert) would give added impetus to to his thinking about God’s purpose in calling people to himself and into the company of others. Broughton Knox’s writing on the subject would be influenced not only by a deep and enduring friendship with Robinson but by his own encounters with the ecumenical movement and a deep study of the English Reformation for his doctorate in Oxford in the early 1950s.

From the beginning, God’s call to individuals has involved them with others he has called to himself. God’s great programmatic promise to Abraham spoke of the nation that God would raise up from this fragile but faithful wandering Aramean (Deut. 26:5). As this promise came to be realised on the plane of history, God gathered the people of Israel to himself as a ‘holy people’ at Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:1–6). Reflecting on this moment near the end of his life, Moses remembered how the Lord had said ‘Gather the people to me, that I may let them hear my words, so that they may learn to fear me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children so’ (Deut. 4:10). There were many other significant ‘assemblies’ during the history of Israel, most notably the gathering for the dedication of the Temple in the time of Solomon (1 Kings 8:5, 22) and the congregation who heard Ezra read the Book of the Law of Moses after the return from exile (Neh. 8:1–3). Though a remnant had returned after the scattering of the exile, the prophets of the Old Testament told of a time when the Lord would once again assemble his people ‘out of the countries where you have been scattered’ (Ezek. 11:17). ‘I will whistle for them and gather them in, for I have redeemed them, and they shall be as many as they were before’ (Zech. 10:8). The gathered people of God in Israel’s history was an anticipation of a greater gathering yet to come.

It is no surprise then that when God’s promises reached their fulfilment in the Christ, he gathered people to himself. Jesus called together the twelve, the first Christian community. However, the call to follow him went out much wider and was to be carried by the apostles (including and especially Paul) to the ends of the earth (Matt. 28:18–20; Acts 9:15). In the context of this gathering, the confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, took on a special significance: ‘on this rock’ Jesus said, ‘I will build my church’ (Matt. 16:18). Just as God gathered his people to himself at the rock which was Mt Sinai, so Jesus gathered his people around the confession of his unique relationship with God and with those he has redeemed. United to Christ by the Spirit through faith, those who are his remain gathered around him. As he was raised and seated at God’s right hand in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:20) so those brought from death to life in God’s mercy and love are now ‘raised with him and seated with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 2:6). His destiny is our destiny. Already we have come to ‘the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ (Heb. 12:22–24). And yet there remains the prospect of a physical realisation of the full extent of God’s promise, on that day when ‘a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages’ will stand ‘before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!”’ (Rev. 7:9–10).

Yet in the interim, wherever the gospel has spread local manifestations of that gathering around Christ have formed. Christian faith is both an individual and a corporate matter. Paul could both talk about the Son of God ‘who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2:20) and of Christ ‘who loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word’ (Eph. 5:25–26). We are called to Christ only to discover we are not alone, that he has called others too into whose company we are knit by a common faith and a common salvation (1 Jn 1:3ff.). It is in the context of these gatherings that (to use the words of Article 19) ‘the pure word of God is faithfully preached and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance’. (Calvin would of course add that this is the arena in which proper discipline is exercised as well.)

This biblical theology of ‘the gathered people of God’ found particular expression, Robinson suggested, in the New Testament use of the word ‘ekklesia’. While many of the other terms used to describe the people of God (body, bride, temple, etc.) are essentially metaphors (metaphors which express a reality, it must be remembered), the word ‘ekklesia’ is not a metaphor. This ordinary word for ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’ is a straightforward description of what happens — this group of people actually gather, they come together. ‘Church’ is not an abstract concept but a concrete reality. The word is almost exclusively used in one of two senses in the New Testament: to designate those gathered around Christ now, the assembly of the firstborn in heaven; or to describe those who have met together in a particular place to hear the word of Christ, to pray and to serve each other. So again and again the New Testament speaks in the plural of ‘the churches’, e.g. ‘the churches of Judaea that are in Christ’ (Gal. 1:22), ‘the churches of the Gentiles’ (Rom. 16:4), ‘the churches of Galatia’ (1 Cor. 16:1), or ‘all the churches of the saints’ (1 Cor. 14:33).

A major implication of all this is the priority of the local congregation over other organisations which do not have the same character. However godly and faithful a denomination may be, it is not, strictly speaking, a church. The same is true for a diocese or province. Of course we may use the term of these things in a more extended sense. And they are not at all unimportant — they can be vitally important as a network within which gospel ministry is resourced and encouraged. Over time they might bequeath a critical theological legacy which promotes faith and mission. We can rejoice in our fellowship with others who lived and exercised a faithful gospel ministry in this context before us and those who do so beside us. However, we must not think that denominational institutions are what the New Testament writers had in mind when they spoke of ‘the church’ or ‘the churches’ and we must not transfer to them the unique dignity and responsibility that the New Testament associates with ‘the church’.

Confusion has arisen over the centuries as a result of the attempt to capture everything that could or should be said about Christian corporate identity under the heading of ‘church’. This word or concept does not convey everything that can or should be said about Christian corporate identity. Perhaps something like ‘the people of God’ might be a way of speaking more broadly of Christian identity and activity outside of the local gathering (though that raises issues of its own). Our identity as Christ’s people and our relationship with those with whom we gather does not cease when we leave the building each week. Nor are significant Christian relationships restricted to those with whom we meet each week. Yet greater clarity in what we mean when we speak of ‘church’ can only help us as we reflect on what we are on about when we get together and how we live in a broken world as the redeemed people of the Christ even when we are not gathered with others around his word. I would also suggest it can also open up a freedom to engage in the larger institutional structures in helpful ways, ways which promote, resource and enhance Christian ministry and mission centred in the local churches.”

– First posted at Theological Theology on June 13, 2012. (Part 1 is here.)