Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Brief Reflections on the Church

Another blogger and somewhat kindred spirit said he was having trouble understanding my ecclesiology.  Since I hold a rather standard Believers Church/Baptist ecclesiology (no bishops; local church “autonomy”–however awkward the phrase, allowing each congregation to be led by Spirit to enflesh its ministry concretely in its own context; free association with others of “like faith and order” for purposes of mission and grassroots ecumenism; every member a minister “ordained” in baptism; leadership by called out gifts recognized by the community; the pastor (or pastoral team) as servant-leader and not dictator; baptism of repenters/believers/disciples–a church of “visible saints” entered only by faith; any member able to administer baptism or preside at the Table of the Lord; footwashing as a sign and seal of mutual servanthood; the church called out from “the world” to be a “contrast society,” but sent back into the world as salt and light; the priesthood and prophethood of all believers), I am not quite certain why my position was so hard to discern. In terms of the models outlined in Avery Dulles’ classic Models of the Church, expanded ed. (Doubleday, 1987), I hold to the “church as community of disciples” model, pp. 210-211.

Since I have other writing projects taking my time, and other blogging priorities for the near future, I won’t write any extended reflections at this time.  But since I have learned to count the mission of the church in the world as a “critical variable” in differences in Christian social ethics, I am not dismissing the importance of the question–not at all. So, for now, I will give a brief annotated bibliography of books on the church I have found very helpful–and one or two popular ones that I have decidedly NOT found helpful by contrast.

Barnes, Elizabeth B., An Affront to the Gospel? The Radical Barth and the Southern Baptist Convention (Scholars’ Press, 1987).  This is a revision of Barnes’ Ph.D. dissertation at Duke University in which she uses insights from the early Barth, especially his method prior to his work on Anselm and his thoughts on the church, to correct for hyper-individualism that has sometimes arisen in Baptist thought–especially since the late 19th C.

Boff, Leonardo, The Church: Charism and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church (Crossroads, 1986).  This was the book that brought the wrath of then-Cardinal Ratzinger down on Boff.  Together with Boff’s Ecclesiogenesis: The Base Communities Re-invent the Church, this book rethinks Catholic ecclesiology in light of liberation theology–and comes to views that are very similar to the ones Anabaptists arrived at in the 16th C.

Dawn, Marva, Truly the Community:  Romans 12 and How to Be the Church (Eerdmans, 1992). Also published as The Hilarity of Community, this is one of Dawn’s best works.

Durnbaugh, Donald F., The Believers’ Church: The History and Character of Radical Protestantism rev. ed. (Herald Press, 1985; Original edition, Macmillan, 1968).

Eller, David B., ed., Servants of the Word:  Ministry in the Believers’ Church (Brethren Press, 1990). Papers from the 8th Believers Church Conference.  Most are responses to Yoder’s Body Politics (see below).

Friesen, Duane K., Artists, Citizens, and Philosophers:  Seeking the Peace of the City–An Anabaptist Theology of Culture (Herald Press, 2000).  A brilliant answer both to the false choices of HRN’s Christ and Culture and to the quietist apolitical withdrawal of Hauerwas & Willimon’s horribly destructive Resident Aliens.

Furr, Gary A. and Curtis W. Freeman, eds., Ties That Bind: Life Together in the Baptist Vision (Smyth & Helwys Press, 1994), especially the chapters by Jim McClendon, E. Glenn Hinson, Wm. Loyd Allen, Philip LeMasters, and Samuel Proctor.

Hanson, Paul D., The People Called: The Growth of Community in the Bible (Harper & Row, 1987).  A massive biblical theology that should inform any contemporary ecclesiology. 

Herzog, Frederick, Justice Church(Orbis Books, 1980).

Moltmann, Jürgen, The Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit ((Harper & Row, 1975). It is hard to believe that this book is written by a theologian in the German Reformed tradition since it is a very Believers’ Church perspective. His arguments for open communion are very strong and his view of baptism endorse Believers’ Baptism as the norm, although trying to keep from “rebaptizing” all those baptized as infants.

Russell, Letty, Church in the RoundFeminist Interpretation of the Church (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993). I don’t agree with everything here (Russell is Presbyterian), but view captures nicely the understanding I hold of authority in the church.

Scriven, Charles, The Transformation of Culture: Christian Social Ethics After H. Richard Niebuhr (Herald Press, 1988).  Argues for HRN’s “Christ Transforming Culture” stance, but argues that the Anabaptist/Believers’ Church tradition transforms culture more often and more faithfully than the Reformed-mainstream church Niebuhr endorses–and argues against the appropriateness of referring to Believers’ Church groups as “against culture.” This is a published revision of a Ph.D. dissertation at the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley, CA) that was supervised by James Wm. McClendon, Jr.)

Stassen, Glen H., Diane M. Yeager, and John Howard Yoder, Authentic Transformation: A New Vision of Christ and Culture (Abingdon Press, 1996). Published as 50 year reflections on H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, far too many people read this only for Yoder’s powerful critique of HRN’s book.  But Yeager’s defense of Niebuhr is also important and Stassen’s 2 chapters point the way forward. It is worth remembering that Yoder “signed off” on Glen’s final chapter–something the Hauerwasians who value the book only for finally putting Yoder’s long privately circulated article into print don’t tell you. Yoder takes up many of the Stassen themes in his final publication before he died, For the Nations.

Strege, Merle D., ed., Baptism and Church: A Believers’ Church Vision (Eerdmans, 1986). Papers from the 7th Believers’ Church Conference.

Stoffer, Dale R., ed., The Lord’s Supper:  Believers’ Church Perspectives (Herald Press, 1997). Papers from the 11th Believers’ Church conference.

Volf, Miroslav, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Eerdmans, 1998). This is the published revision of Volf’s Habilitationsschrift (2nd German dissertation) and articulates a Free Church ecclesiology in dialogue with a Catholic ecclesiology (using Ratzinger’s work) and an Orthodox ecclesiology (interacting strongly with Zizioulis). The representative chosen to represent the Free Church/Believers’ Church tradition is John Smyth (1554-1612), radical Puritan Separatist who, under the influence of Waterlander Mennonites in Amsterdam, began the Baptist movement–although Smyth and most of his congregation eventually merged with the Mennonites and Smyth is still listed on the wall of the Mennonite congregation in Amsterdam as an Elder of the Church.  Considering that Volf himself has recently become Anglican, I do not know how much of this work he would still affirm, but I still hold to much of his constructive case.

Yoder, John Howard, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Herald Press, 1992).

Well, this list is longer than I expected to go, but I hope it is helpful.  When I have more time available, I will try to give more concrete ecclesiological reflections.

July 7, 2007 - Posted by | church


  1. Michael,

    Thanks very much for posting this. This is helpful. I’ve replied to your latest comments on my blog.

    What has been difficult for me, I should have said, is understanding your theology of church-world/church-state relations. The ecclesiology you detailed in the first paragraph of this post has been clear to me, and we are in large agreement with each other on most of these points.

    I understand that you don’t have the time to address this to quite the extent that I’d like, but I appreciate you saying this much. I’ve only read a few of the books on this list, and I’ll have to reread Authentic Transformation with special attention to Stassen’s last chapter. Ecclesiogenesis is actually quite high on my list. I’m doubly looking forward to it now.

    Body Politics has been incredibly formative for me. I tell you what. I’ll try to reread both Authentic Transformation and For the Nations this week.

    On a side note: Stassen says he would have been a part of the assassination plot against Hitler, and that he would not have left the bomb, but that he would have done it as a suicide mission. I don’t know if he’s said this publicly, but this is what he told my teacher Mark Moore at IBTS in Prague. I agree with those (for instance Brimlow) who suggest that Bonhoeffer didn’t have a strong enough ecclesial base from which to engage a nonviolent option of resistance. But since Stassen seems not to share that problem, I am more concerned with Stassen’s position than with Bonhoeffer’s decision. What do you think? How significant is this anecdote for understanding Stassen’s ecclesiology? And where do you line up with him here?

    Thanks again for your time.

    Comment by thomstark | July 7, 2007

  2. I agree with Jim McClendon that Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler was because his ecclesial resistance collapsed. I do not agree with Stassen and think that his “Hitler exception” is very problematic. (And he has said it in print somewhere.) I have watched him move from a Just War Theorist whose loyalties to his father (who was in the Navy in WWII) and to his teacher, Reinhold Niebuhr, kept trumping what he was learning from Jesus and Yoder and Menno, etc. along a long road to where he now calls himself a pacifist. But his Bonhoeffer scenario is still a place where we differ–a place where I accuse him in Yoderian terms of “trying to make sure that history comes out right.”
    You have ambitious reading plans for a single week, Thom!

    My church-state relations are almost identical to Yoder’s in The Christian Witness to the State. Or, more simply, I’ll quote Martin Luther King, Jr. to the effect that the church is not to be the master of the state, nor the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state!

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 7, 2007

  3. This is good news! However incidental this anecdote may be, your answer to it has helped me to distinguish you from Stassen in a way that’s very important to me. Thanks!

    I think we’re much more in agreement than the early stages of this dialogue may have suggested. (I think we have different readings of Hauerwas, yet want to land in pretty much the same spot.) But see the question I’ve posed to you on my blog, in a response to your latest comment there.

    Grace and peace.

    Comment by thomstark | July 8, 2007

  4. I am HUGELY indebted to my friend and mentor, Glen Stassen, who is also my sometime writing partner. But we are still individuals. I was a pacifist before he used that term to refer to himself (although it was long the logical conclusion to his theology) and had begun reading Yoder before he started assignming me more Yoder. Although I have learned from Reinhold Niebuhr, Reinie was never one of my mentors as he was for Glen.

    I have a blog category, “mentors” which helps sort out my relationships to Glen, Yoder, Molly Marshall and a few others.

    BTW, I will see Glen in just a couple of weeks at the annual summer conference of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 8, 2007

  5. Yeah, obviously not to the same extent as you, but I too have a debt to Stassen. In particular, his 14 Triads essay has not just changed the way I read the Sermon on the Mount, it has changed the way I read the Bible. I deeply appreciate his work in many ways; just not in some ways. I didn’t mean to make it sound like I don’t like him. I do.

    Comment by thomstark | July 8, 2007

  6. […] been having a very engaging dialogue with Michael Westmoreland-White, in the comments here and here. If you have the time, I’d encourage you to read both threads in their entirety. I’ve […]

    Pingback by The State: An 'Order' or Just Ordered? « thomstark.net | November 6, 2009

  7. […] been having a very engaging dialogue with Michael Westmoreland-White, in the comments here and here. If you have the time, I’d encourage you to read both threads in their entirety. I’ve […]

    Pingback by Thom Stark » The State: An ‘Order’ or Just Ordered? | November 6, 2009

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