Ecclesiology–or the doctrine of the church–is, for my money, one of the duller areas of Christian theology. And when it doesn’t engage in excessive navel-gazing and hair-splitting, it can be a source of ugly Christian triumphalism. In recent theology, the “ecclesial turn” has often upheld “the church” as the cure-all for everything that supposedly ails the modern world: excessive individualism, consumerism, hedonism, capitalism run amok, violence, racism, etc.
This almost invariably results in an overly idealized picture of the church as an entity that is somehow immune from the sin and messiness of the world (and generally requires ignoring large swaths of Christian history). As the Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde once wrote, “the constant temptation of the church is always to transgress, to overstep, the eschatological limit, to set itself up as a kind of ‘eschatological vestibule,’ . . . perhaps even as a sacrament itself, a diachronic extension of the incarnation in time. When that occurs, there is a blurring of the eschatological limit, a tendency to vest its purely human offices with sacramental, indeed divine, sanction” (A More Radical Gospel, p. 186).
Reformed theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw’s recent book Church in Ordinary Time: A Wisdom Ecclesiology, offers a refreshing alternative to this eschatological inflation of the church. “Ordinary time” here has a double significance–it refers both to the parts of the church year between the great feasts where we focus on day-by-day growth in our discipleship and to living in the midst of the “ordinary” hum-drum activities of daily life. The church doesn’t exist outside of ordinary life, in some special sacred space; it exists in the flow of ordinary life and in the time between the Resurrection of Jesus and God’s consummation of all things, when it is “not yet clear what we shall become.”
“Wisdom ecclesiology” reflects Plantinga Pauw’s reliance on the wisdom books of the Bible (particularly Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job, and the Psalms) to highlight God’s creative ordering of the world and the church’s status as a creature, with all that implies about its finitude and potential for sin.
This focus on creation allows Plantinga Pauw to zoom out to see how ultimately small the church is within the grand sweep of creation. Our ever-increasing awareness of the unimaginably vast scale of creation, both in time in space, should–but largely hasn’t–result in a “Copernican revolution” in theology’s understanding of God’s purposes. It’s virtually impossible to imagine that the church is the center of God’s purpose for the universe when there are manifold other human communities and countless other living species on our planet alone (which is itself an infinitesimally small part of creation).
Plantinga Pauw develops this theme in a trinitarian key, showing how Christians can live in the world, while recognizing that our ultimate destiny is beyond it, in the fullness of God’s kingdom. Jesus identifies fully with human life, while also being the one “in whom all things hold together.” This provides the basis for a creation-centered cosmic Christology that nonetheless is attuned to the fleshly details of everyday life. And the Spirit empowers us to live in the world rather than fleeing it, embracing the longing, giving, suffering and rejoicing that characterize the rhythms of human life and of the church calendar. We do this as finite creatures, living in a particular time and place, not as those with a God’s-eye view of creation’s purpose.
A “wisdom ecclesiology” is about living wisely as earthlings–creatures with a limited allotment in space and time, seeking to care for those whom God has placed in front of us and for this planet we share with God’s other beloved creatures. The church doesn’t have a privileged vantage point from which it can run the world; neither is it a realm of purity where Christians can escape from the world. It is one created community among many, shaped by social, economic, political and cultural forces. But it is called to join with others in caring for God’s creation, witnessing to the self-giving love of God revealed in Israel’s story and preeminently in Jesus.
ADDENDUM: I just wanted to add that Plantinga Pauw’s book pairs well with Ben Dueholm’s Sacred Signposts, another excellent recent book on the role of the church in our contemporary context. As Dueholm shows, the practices of the church are constituted by “brutally ordinary things” that can become, through the power of the Spirit, sites of God’s grace, even in the absence of some churchly master plan for saving the world.