The Church: A Means or An End?

I started reading Simon Chan’s Liturgical Theology this week.  I’ve only read through the first chapter and my head is already spinning with questions.  Like this one: Is the Church a means or an end? 

I’ve written about this before here, but for most of my life I’ve viewed the Church as an instrument to accomplishing God’s purposes in the world.  The Church serves God’s mission and is thus provisional, existing for the sake of witness, evangelism, and the establishment of justice and peace in the world.  (Presbyterians should find this language familiar from the PC(USA) Book of Order: see G-3.0200 through G-3.0401).  The Church in this view is a means to an end.  This is generally the view taken in most “missional church” literature: the important thing is God’s mission of restoring the world, therefore the shape of the church is determined by the needs of mission.

But Chan challenges this.  Making his argument on the basis of the Church’s relationship to creation, Chan suggests that the Church is the end or goal of creation.  “The church precedes creation in what it is what God has in view from all eternity and creation is the means by which God fulfills his eternal purpose in time.  The church does not exist in order to fix a broken creation; rather, creation exists to realize the church. . . . God made the world in order to make the church, not vice versa” (p. 23).  If this is the case, then the practical implications (which Chan sketches out in the rest of the book) are enormous.  Mission moves from restoration of a broken creation to calling creation into the Church.  Worship would be less of a human construct designed to serve mission and more of an end in itself as well.  And, if the Church is God’s goal for creation, then ecclesiology would require more a theological backbone than the pragmatic concerns which shape Protestant ecclesiology today. 

In talking about this with Eileen last night, she had one of the blessed insights that spouses often have: “Why can’t it be both?  In other words, why does the Church have to serve mission OR mission serve the Church?  Why can’t the Church be both a means and an end?  In theory, I like that solution: The Church is God’s covenant people, called from eternity into relationship with God, and through its relationship with God the Church participates in God’s work of saving and restoring the world by drawing the rest of creation into relationship with God.  But on a practical level such a balance seems hard to find.  What would our worship services look like if that’s the case? What would mission look like?  What about institutional structures of the church?  I’ve never read a book that articulated such a balanced ecclesiology.  Missional ecclesiologies that I’ve read tend to be dictated by pragmatic concerns and light on genuine theology of the Church (i.e., Frost and Hirsh).  On the other hand ecclesiologies that have a much higher view of the Church (sometimes admittedly) tend to neglect mission (i.e. Zizioulas).  Will Chan turn out to be the latter, or strike a better balance?

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2 comments
  1. I’d always gone with the missional Church-for-redemption model without seeing any tension between that and non-pragmatic ecclesiology. Now that I’ve started reading Liturgical Theology, though, Chan’s counter-proposal seems to make a lot of sense. I need to think about what this does to the relationship of the two kingdoms, and of crown and crozier (I admit to being sympathetic to antidisestablishmentarianism).

    As for your concern that really high ecclesiologies can tend to neglect mission, I think a drive for mission is one of the strengths of postmillennial eschatology, since postmillennialism involves the whole world turning to God in faith. This may help maintain the ‘balance’ you advocate.

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