Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Temptations of the Church

In Mother Church, Carl Braaten discusses three common ways that our understanding of the Church is distorted: reduction of the Church to the kingdom, reduction of the Church to itself and reduction of the Church to its action in the world.

When the Church is reduced to the kingdom, we focus our attention on heaven, imagining that this life is just something we must endure to get there, or at most this life is preparation for life in heaven. When we hold this view we undervalue the here and now and disregard the gift of life.

When the Church is reduced to itself, we see a sharp division between those inside the Church and those outside the Church, and we imagine that being inside the Church is all-important. We might venture out occaisionally to invite more people in, but the inside is what it's all about. When we hold this view, we disregard the missional nature of the Church and forget that the Church does not exist for itself.

When the Church is reduced to its action in the world, we see things like traditional dogmas as an embarrasment or an impedement, certainly not as essential. When we hold this view of the Church, we lose sight of the dependence of the Church on its Lord.

As I was thinking about these three distortions, I tried to apply them to various other models: overemphasis on past, present or future; imbalance of attention to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; parallel to the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness. I felt a bit like a medieval theologian doing this, but it did help a bit in exploring the ideas involved.

Here's what I came up with regarding the temptations of Jesus and the temptations of the Church. The reduction of the Church to its influence in the world is like the temptation of Jesus to turn stones into bread. The Church is tempted to evaluate its self-worth by the way it is able to provide for basic needs, but in the process it risks losing sight of God. The reduction of the Church to the kingdom is like the temptation of Jesus to throw himself from the top of the Temple. The Church is tempted to abdicate its mission and look only to God's salvation. The reduction of the Church to itself is like the temptation of Jesus to bow down to Satan in exchange for the kingdoms of the world. Everything is subjugated to the acquistion of control.

I imagine the following scene:
Then the Church was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The tempter came and said, "If you are the people of God, prove it by feeding the hungry of the world." But they answered, "It is written,
'One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'"
Then the devil took them to Mount Athos, saying to them, "If you are the people of God, withdraw here and wait for his coming; for it is written,
'He shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet,
and they shall gather his elect from the four winds,
from one end of heaven to the other'"
But the Church said to him, "Again it is written,
'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"
Again, the devil took them to the top of seven mountains and showed them all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; and he said to them, "All these I will give you, if you will but take them." The Church said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
'Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.'"
Then the devil left them, and suddenly angels came and waited on them.

5 comments:

LutheranChik said...

That's very cool.

mindflame said...

Wow, that will give me something to chew on for a while. Though, I don’t think I get the third metaphor.

Anonymous said...

About the first part, the kingdom only in afterlife--isn't that the same mistake you pointed out with the Kabir poem?

Andy said...

The third metaphor is based on alignment with what has actually happened to the Church, and so it requires a bit more imaginative-speculative narration to explain.

Imagine the devil has tempted Jesus by offering the kingdoms of the world if only Jesus would bow down to him, and Jesus refuses. The devil, reflecting on this sees that the act of bowing down to him was not necessary -- the worldly power of the kingdoms of the earth will lead to that on its own. So he offers the Church the kingdoms of the earth with no explicit strings attached.

The Church, having this worldly power will begin distorting its view of its own importance. Everything will be about the Church. God will no longer be head over the Church.

Andy said...

anonymous,

Yes, reduction of the Church to the kingdom is the same thing I was pointing to with the Kabir poem.