Toward an Opened Ecclesiology

I.

What is the church?

I am somewhat confident when I begin to formulate a doctrinal response to this question. The church is an assembly of creatures that materializes Christ’s body at a particular moment in space and time. It convenes in Christ’s name; it continues his lifelong prayer to God; it exhibits the kingdom he proclaimed and enacted through its commitment to openhearted relationships that express love, justice, and care.

Quickly, of course, I must add a caveat. The church does not exist on account of a capacity lodged in an individual creature or a collective. God has not channeled God’s favor into an institution that regulates a tradition, oversees a succession of leaders, presides over a set of ritual practices, et cetera. Quite the contrary: the church depends entirely on the free and gracious activity of the Spirit, God in God’s third person, who tells us about what God does for the world and summons us to gather, with and in Christ, before the one he addressed as “Abba, Father” (Mark 14:36 NRSV). And given that the Spirit blows where it will (see John 3:8), such grace cannot be anticipated, possessed, or passed on through creaturely effort. It can only be received, each time anew, in astonishment and with gratitude.

Still, as it goes with many proximate theological loci (e.g., sanctification, prayer, providence), so it goes with ecclesiology. Having secured a vivid sense of God’s primacy, a theologian must next declare that God’s grace provokescreaturely activity that has its own integrity, meaning, and consequentiality. She must affirm, particularly, that the Christian community is empowered to materialize Christ’s body and thereby to play a part in realizing the kingdom that is at hand.

A second question: when and where is the church?

Again, I feel somewhat assured about the beginnings of a doctrinal answer. On one level, the church is present in every moment of created time and space. To be sure, I cannot do much with this claim when thinking about the vast expanses of time and space prior to the emergence of human life. And although I believe it is crucial for Christians to view ancient Israel and the church as a unity-in-distinction (a direct parallel to the relationship between the two testaments that comprise the Bible), I struggle to think about the church prior to Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension. If gentile Christians are always being “grafted” onto a prior “root,” we may not forget that “it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” (Rom. 11:19), and we must articulate an Israel-ology that does not reduce to a mere anticipation of ecclesiology. Even so, if it is in and by Christ that “all things hold together,” and if reconciliation is indexed in Christ as the “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:17 and 1:15), Christians are obliged to say that the church is somehow present in all of our world’s pasts, presents, and futures. Christ is always “opening” himself to more and more creatures, known and unknown, drawing us into the covenant of grace and empowering us to live into the time and space of redemption. (The “wound” in God’s side, as Julian of Norwich puts it, is “a beautiful and delightful place . . . large enough for all mankind who shall be saved to rest there in peace and love”).[1] To make the same point a bit differently: just as God in God’s second person is always intending to become and actually is becoming “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5 KJV),so too the church is alwaysbecoming caught up in the redemptive emergence of the kingdom. As this kingdom makes a difference, everywhere and everywhen, so the church—a subset of the larger whole—is everywhere and everywhen.

On another level, and subsequent to Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, the materialization of Christ’s body happens locally. It happens when God’s justifying and sanctifying grace enables a community to marshal particular beliefs, practices, and affects as it bears witness to the gospel. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20 NRSV) is not a consolation. It is a promise that speaks to God’s constancy in bestowing grace and provoking worthy creaturely responses to grace. And just as God’s relationship with ancient Israel gradually acquired specific markers, likewise the materialization of Christ’s body. Although these markers are various, context-dependent, and subject to debate, the reading of Scripture, preaching, baptism, and Eucharist present themselves as trustworthy vehicles for fostering intimacy with God. They have served (and continue to serve) as reliable ways for individuals and communities to feel their way into Christ’s body, to heed the liberative directives of Christ’s Spirit, and to behold the abyssal depths of God in God’s first way of being. They are occasions for us to become ever more responsive to the patient love that defines the koinonia of God’s triune life—a love whose singular goal is to ensure that all creatures live in right relationship with God and each other.

A third question: how is the church? Is it possible to offer a more concrete account of the materialized body of Christ? At this point, my thoughts begin to stumble a bit. It is not the case that I suddenly wish to retract anything that I’ve set down. It is more that ecclesiology is bound to struggle when it moves closer to the concrete, when it attempts to connect broad doctrinal claims about Christ’s body to the quotidian. This struggle speaks to the fact that every human attempt to render the church visible is an acutely risky proposition. Rendering the church is, quite literally, a setting forth of Christ’s body, an action wherein some number of sinful, damaged, and manifestly finite creatures dare to respondto God’s empowering call by putting themselves hereand there, doing and saying and feeling certain things. This can only be an act of breathtaking audacity. It entails a community heeding God’s call to participate in the upbuilding of the kingdom, existing and acting in ways that register a decisive no to sin and demonstrate what it means truly to hallow God’s name. It entails a community that understands that the coming of the kingdom “is not just ahead but is already an event” that one can rise up to meet, and in such a way that the gracious power of the future ramifies in the present.[2] But which kind of community could truly manage to do that?

II.

It is useful to think more about the intellectual vertigo that takes hold at this juncture. Why might one struggle to maintain one’s footing when making the transition from doctrine to the concrete? Why does it seem possible to achieve a measure of clarity about the what, when, and w­here of the church, only to find oneself tripped up when it comes to the how?

One must begin with the obvious fact that the New Testament gives Christians relatively little advice about how to do church in the present. Yes, of course, there is a clear doxological and ethical trajectory. Communities are called to proclaim Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as the axis around which salvation turns; to delight in the fact that Christ lives with and for us in the time and space provided by his Spirit; to respond to God’s saving mercy through love-filled relationships; and to reshape a fallen order by honoring Mary’s acclamation of a Lord who deposes the powerful, uplifts the lowly, feeds the hungry, and humbles the rich. All of that must define our service to the world. But the context in which the New Testament locates early Christian communities—an emerging cluster of countercultural ventures, precariously positioned within a sprawling imperial project—is clearly not ours. Nor is our context the more proximate realm of so-called Christendom, no matter whether we imagine that to be centered in the rich complexities of medieval Europe, the subsequent differentiation of Protestant and Catholic identities, or, more disquietingly, the entrenchment of settler colonialism, extractive capitalism, and racialized political imaginaries. It is not even clear, in fact, that we now live in a late modern age. If for much of the second half of the twentieth century the stability and predictability of many European and North American Protestant communities went hand in hand with (relatively) well-defined nation states, family structures, sociocultural norms, and the like—conditions that secured a measure of prosperity for an expanding number, even as they drew attention away from myriad structures of domination—the chaos of our world makes for an unpredictable future. Widespread and intensifying ecological ruin, new forms of authoritarianism, the normalization of economic precarity and mass migration (which goes hand in hand, of course, with the familiar story of entrenched impoverishment), novel modalities of anti-Black and anti-Brown racism, outbursts of military violence, and communicative technologies that spin out of control as soon as they launch: factors such as these put new pressure on each and every kind of Christian community. How one does church in a context marked by such dynamics, none of which seem likely to be short-lived and each of which combine in complex ways, is an unusually open question.

This unsettled context goes hand in hand with an acute lack—maybe, in some quarters, a collapse—of confidence in the church as a viable project. This lack (or collapse) of confidence seems to be particularly acute on the contemporary Christian left, which has (correctly) discerned an elective affinity between well-honed critiques of structural domination and the old doctrine of sin and (correctly) refused to exempt the church from scrutiny when applying this insight.

Think of it like this. If one supposes that grace makes a difference in the here and now, even as the fullness of redemption is always a matter of the not-yet, it is not an option simply to give up on the church. Why not? Because God does not give up on the church. The materialization of Christ’s body comprises a key dimension of the kingdom that is always coming, and the fact that God’s grace continues to be outpoured by Christ’s Spirit gives us confidence that we can convene and act, that we can serve as good and faithful witnesses to the gospel, and that we can play a part in the kingdom that is coming. And although our work is of course never adequate, mediated as it is through finite and sinful creatures, we may not despair. God is alwaysraising dry bones up to life; God is always supporting God’s people in what Augustine famously identifies as the “mixed body” (corpus permixtum) of the church.[3]

Yet checking ecclesial despair is an unusually daunting task. To look back over two millennia of Christian life with a heightened sensibility of sin is to behold a project of dangerous ambiguity, the occasional successes of which often seem overshadowed by ever more damning disclosures of failure. Looking to the present and future is just as dispiriting, perhaps especially for those situated in the United States. Christians’ ready embrace of white Christian nationalism, unvarnished contempt for democratic norms, cruelty toward women, and increasing threats toward queer communities are only a few standout items in an expanding list of lowlights, the length and weight of which grows with each passing day. A friend recently wrote to me that “the brokenness of the church is breathtaking.” That seems exactly right. I tried to respond along the lines of: “Wasn’t it ever thus? And doesn’t grace spark hope?” It wasn’t quite special pleading, but it got close. Yet even that response does not help me to manage the transition from doctrine to the quotidian. It only intensifies the difficulty. How does one proceed when an affirmation of God’s empowering grace fails to connect with an affirmation of the church as a transformative historical project? When the visible church seems nowhere to be seen? When questions about the what, when, where, and how of the church invite the most despondent of answers: “Well, obviously not here, and obviously not now”?

Finally, a more theological—and manifestly Reformed—conviction underlies my ecclesiological stumbling. Inasmuch as grace is not held in trust, Christians are arguably obliged to approach the project of church with a measure of uneasiness. Exactly because grace always resists our attempts to possess or routinize it, it is never clear how we should go about materializing Christ’s body. And, granted that such a lack of clarity is sometimes viewed as liberating (it is good not to be saddled with the past), it also prompts acute disquiet.

I have already noted that any decision to gather, in the name of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, amounts to an act of breathtaking audacity. We certainly can and certainly must trust that Christ, crucified and risen, is the “cornerstone” of our assembling and that “in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (Eph. 2:21–22). (To borrow from the inimitable Robert Jenson: “the church is the object as which the risen Christ is available to be found, to be responded to, to be grasped.”[4]) Yet the manner in which any number of Christians fit into this structure, the precise modalities of its growth, the shape and character of the temple being forged for God to indwell—none of this is given to us in advance. Even if one trusts that the existing markers of the church have proven serviceable in years gone by, that is no guarantee of their adequacy for the present. Just as we cannot presume that this or that interpretation of Scripture remains adequate, simply because it has borne fruit in the past, we also cannot presume that this or that ecclesial formation will prove worthy today.

The same point, from a different angle: belief in the reality of the church is an abiding dimension of faith. It is a necessary entailment of our apprehension of the crucified and risen Christ, since that apprehension is always paired with our receipt of the Spirit’s empowering demand that we materialize Christ’s body, that we set about living “lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hasteningthe coming day of God” (2 Pet. 3:11–12). But the early Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insistence that the church just is “Christ existing as church-community” and that “the only thing that matters is to believe this revelation reality in the empirical form” is not sufficient in itself. Barth supplies a crucial qualification: “It is always and everywhere a living question, wherever the Church is and is therefore visible, in face of every cultus or law or confession or theology.”[5] And because grace keeps the question “live,” Christians do well to live intoit. Despite our often frenzied efforts to police boundaries, to convert orthodoxy into a pretext for intolerance, to treat diverse modes of gender and sexuality as demarcations of insider or outsider status—or, conversely (and just as problematically), despite the slack tendency to think, “whatever, it doesn’t matter in the long run; rather than risk the charges of illiberalism and parochialism, I’ll keep my head down when talking about the church”—we can never presume that any response to grace is fitting. The Krisis occasioned by divine grace afflicts us here, as elsewhere, and that affliction is ongoing.[6]

An unsettled sociopolitical context, a sharpened apprehension of sin, and a vivid sense that the question of church is always a “living question,” then, make vivid the basic difficulty of ecclesiology today. At the same time, as ever, we are called to view the church as “God’s new will and purpose for humanity.” And since that “will is always directed toward the concrete, historical human being,” we are summoned, with and by God, to gather as creatures who respond to God’s openhearted mercy, and we are asked to ensure that the church is “implemented in history.”[7] But, again, how?

III.

Something of a confession seems apt: for a number of years, I have found much theological reflection on the church peculiarly dissatisfying, while feeling wholly unable to offer anything of value myself. I think that I have a grasp on some of the reasons for this, which range from a happily irreligious upbringing, a Marx-inspired worry about easy forms of solidarity, the not-inconsiderable challenge of being a parent, and a degree of skepticism toward certain expressions of piety. But I also think that my dissatisfaction speaks to an ecclesiological imagination that is suspended between a wishful past and an indeterminate present.

The wishful past is epitomized by schools of thought that received much attention in the 1990s and early 2000s, when I embarked upon graduate studies in theology in the United States: the radical orthodoxy espoused by John Milbank and others and the identitarian virtue ethics promoted by Stanley Hauerwas and his supporters.

The upside to both perspectives, at least in the muddled mind of a younger white Briton, was their awareness of the need for a fresh start when thinking about Christian community. For I had no doubt that a fresh start was sorely needed. Although I initially warmed to mainline churches as an alternative to the Church of England (even granted that talk of the “mainline” was less appealingly edgy than talk of “dissenting” and “nonconforming” communities), I was quickly frustrated by most churches’ failure to offer straightforward support to queer communities during debates over sexuality and marriage. That frustration was heightened when I considered evangelical congregations. In addition to an endorsement of various forms of sexual hierarchy, paired with a reluctance to engage issues of race and racism, I tended to find there a reflexive embrace of right-wing politics, a penchant for culture wars (the normal stuff: inflated worries about premarital sex, talk of moral decay, grumblings about the supposed persecution of Christians), and a willingness to view the free operation of capital as sacrosanct.

Yet what Milbank, Hauerwas, and their followers offered could not compel me. It wasn’t just that totalizing denunciations of the secular, nihilism, modernity, and liberalism failed to ring true, nor that those denunciations stood at a troubling distance from much-needed critiques of racism, sexism, economic exploitation, and colonialization. And it wasn’t just that Milbank’s gestures toward Christian socialism and Hauerwas’s expansive pacifism—dimensions of their projects that did pique my attention—seemed underdeveloped. The main problem was a straitened vision of the church: a refuge for those seeking escape from the supposed vacuity of North American liberalism, on the one side, and a romanticized reassertion of high Anglican hegemony, on the other.

Although the indeterminateness of the present is harder to describe, my worry is that we are now exchanging the ecclesiological straits of the (near) past for an excess of religious indeterminacy in the here and now. Consider the remarkable recent book by J. Kameron Carter, The Anarchy of Black Religion. Carter’s ambitions in this text demand close attention, and they are often elucidated in ways that warm a left-wing Barthian’s heart: one finds a hefty dose of Krisis, plenty of actualism, and a bracing political vision. Above all else, Carter seeks an “unstately and potentially stateless disturbance of the archē of religion that . . . establishes the modern world and its terms of order.” Such a disturbance portends new modes of sociality: Carter looks hopefully toward an anarchic domain wherein “nonindividuated we-ness opens onto an alternate imagination of matter(ing), an alternate black materiality, an erotic metaphysics as erotic cosmology announced within the poetics of black thought.”[8]

To be sure, this book stands in sharp contrast to Race: A Theological Account.Christian faith no longer sets the terms; we are called to engage in “the black study of religion.”[9] And that will perhaps disappoint some theologically inclined readers. But not me: I discern here an exciting elective affinity between Carter’s claims and the open-ended ecclesiological framework that I have sketched above, and I cannot stifle my sense that this text could help me to manage the transition from doctrine to the quotidian. Is there not here something analogous to the irruption of grace, which enables the materialization of Christ’s body, in Carter’s acclamation of “mater as that matrixial, originative, or exposing touch of alterity that summons things into existence”? Is there not an embrace of experimental (and anti-anti-Black) forms of embodied sociality, wherein openhearted relations spill out into the world and exhibit a “nonexclusionary we-ness that is ever and always on the move, ever and always more and less than itself”?[10] And are there not elements of a lexicon that could inform how Christians talk about our inhabitation of Christ’s body given his suggestive explorations of prayer, fugitivity, apocalyptic, generosity, congregation, ellipse, poiesis, and unknowing?

Carter seems promisingly close, in other words,to the ecclesiological imagination I yearn for, whereas Milbank and Hauerwas remain distant. So close, in fact, that I am perhaps already at risk of rushing to appropriate the insights of Black study for the sake of theological inquiry, instead of pausing to ask if such an appropriation might replay the practice of exploitative racism that Carter rightly deplores and that this white scholar needs to unlearn, wherein nonwhite matter is presumptively “imagined as property and thus ownable or (dis)possessable, a structure . . . of circulating credit and debt.”[11] Yet despite this proximity, I find myself beset with a new kind of ecclesiological uneasiness. Why? Because the material bases on which Carter works are manifestly different from those on which I want to develop an account of the church. Although we have escaped the narrow straits that dampened my enthusiasm for Hauerwas and Milbank, Carter’s anarchic mysticism seems to spin free. It seems to take leave of the christological and pneumatological axes around which ecclesiological reflection must turn.

Now that, I hurry to add, is not Carter’s problem. No scholar is obliged to remain within the fold of Christian theology, especially if they judge the protocols of that discourse to be complicit in a centuries-long project of anti-Blackness. Equally, there is no reason why a Christian theologian might not look favorably upon an anarchic mysticism whose focus is not the materialization of Christ’s body. Such mysticism might be received as a welcome theorization of a segment of the religious left; it might even be a framework that receives theological elaboration from Carter at a later date. At any rate, Carter’s book goes some way to illuminating the problem that haunts me: the problem of how best to pair an affirmation of the unconfinable God, who acts in freedom to raise up Christ’s body in whatever form God wills, with an opened ecclesiological agenda—an ecclesiology that trusts that Christ’s body really is materialized in the here and now, yet struggles to specify what such a materialization entails.

IV.

Although I have held off on writing about God as unconfinable until this point, the reasons for employing this term are likely apparent. To claim that God is unconfinable is to claim that God is free in God’s action toward the world. God can do whatever God wants, in and for and with God’s creatures, wherever, whenever, and however God wishes, as God pursues God’s creative, providential, and salvific goals. To be sure, an ascription of unconfinability is not a substitute for a well-rounded, detailed description of God’s identity. That would require extended reflections on love, constancy, justice, mercy, patience, and impatience, among other attributes; that would also require that frank avowals of divine sovereignty, so crucial to a well-ordered theological proposal, are clearly disaggregated from all-too-human construals of power, control, and hierarchy and nested within a wide-angled appreciation of God’s ways and works. Even so, in this context, the term unconfinable usefully reminds us that God may graciously initiate materializations of Christ’s body that upset precedent and surprise those who imagine they know, in advance, how it is that God upbuilds God’s church. It pushes reflection toward what I have already called an opened ecclesiology, wherein God’s creative audacity in realizing the kingdom is the condition of possibility for human creative audacity in supporting God’s work.

But how open is an opened ecclesiology? Should one nurture a degree of agnosticism about ecclesiology? And, more positively, should one develop a posture that delights in ecclesial experimentation?

I can offer a straightforward answer to the first question: an opened ecclesiology must be as open as God calls it to be. An unconfined God may elect to avail Godself of any number of options when building up the kingdom, materializing Christ’s body in diverse modalities and forming and reforming the church in ways that confound the wise and delight the foolish. As such, we may not imagine that we have any kind of handle on the ways that God might convene us, pray in us, and empower us to exhibit the kingdom as we materialize Christ’s body. Although we have no reason to doubt that God may continue to make use of recognizable markers of the church—the common reading of Scripture, diverse forms of preaching, rituals of baptism and the Eucharist, for example—we will not presume that God’s favor necessarily passes through these media, and we do well to look out for complements and supplements of various kinds.

But an opened ecclesiological imagination only goes so far. Sooner or later, we must return to the difficult question of how and where the body of Christ is materialized, a question whose irresolution I have personalized by reference to a wishful past (Milbank and Hauerwas) and an excess of indeterminacy in the present (Carter). That irresolution, again, is likely an inevitable factor in Reformed thinking about the church. It is symptomatic of the basic Krisisthat haunts any attempt to think and live Christianly—a Krisisthat the Spirit afflicts us with, by grace, time and again.

Thus the second question, which I will rephrase slightly: how does one contend, in faith, with this affliction? What kind of temperament is needed to complement an opened ecclesiological imagination? All I can offer at this point is a commendation of ironic patience. The irony of patience, to borrow from Emily Ogden, is a determination to engage in “the performance that [an imperfect] world demands. It is a stance, if not the stance, that permits honest perception of reality and earnest faith in ideality to coexist.”[12] An ever-intensifying appreciation of the visible church’s continuing sinfulness is thus paired with the defiant hope that this church—somewhere, somehow, in some shape and form—was, is, and will befolded into the kingdom that is coming. It means adopting a disposition that endeavors to endure the past, present, and future of the church and that does so while searching for glimmers of light amid the deepening gloom. It means sticking with the markers of the visible church while refusing to imbue them with a significance that they cannot and should not bear. Ironic patience, concomitantly, refuses acquiescence and inactivity in face of the disappointments that invariably come our way when we think about the brokenness of the church. And patience, here, is not a matter of merely waiting on God. It understands that the work of forming and reforming the church is urgent and ongoing, and it embraces the possibility of new ecclesial formations. And it trusts, against the odds, that God’s saving purposes will win out, and there will one day emerge—somewhere, somehow, in some shape and form—a materialization of Christ’s body that enjoys “final victory and perfect peace” within the time and space of God’s triune life.[13]


[1] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Elizabeth Spearing (London, UK: Penguin, 1998), 76.

[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. IV.4, The Christian Life: Lecture Fragments, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (London, UK: T&T Clark, 2004), 247.

[3] On this, see Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, ed. and trans. R. W. Dyson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), esp. 48, 448, 450, 679, 896, 907, 962, and 971–72).

[4] Jenson, “The Church and the Sacraments,” in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, ed. Colin Gunton(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 210.

[5] Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church, ed. Clifford Green, trans. Reinhard Krauss and Nancy Lukens, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 1 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1998), 144; and Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. IV.1, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1960), 658 (emphasis added). Note that early Bonhoeffer did not offer a blanket approval of any church formation: his insistence that Christ’s vicarious representation is at the root of the church makes possible self-critique (on this issue, see the Joachim von Soosten’s valuable “Editor’s Afterword to the German Edition,” in Sanctorum Communio, 299–300). Even so, the dialectical caveat that I offer remains important. Although Bonhoeffer’s Sanctorum Communio sought to trace a pathway from divine action to the concrete historical formation of the church, I want to maintain a sharply dichotomous account of God and world, so as to avoid any drift toward a routinization of grace in the here and now. The young Bonhoeffer would find this move regressive; I think it reflects something of the Krisis that ought always to afflict ecclesiological reflection.

[6] The theme of Krisis, of course, is central to the second edition of Barth’s commentary on Romans. See The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed, trans. Edwyn Hoskyns (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1968).

[7] Bonhoeffer, Sanctorum Communio, 141.

[8] Carter, The Anarchy of Black Religion: A Mystic Song (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2023), 8 and 18; the partial strike-through of “metaphysics” is in the original. Also, see Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[9] Carter, Anarchy of Black Religion, 13.

[10] Carter, Anarchy of Black Religion, 131 and 135.

[11] Carter, Anarchy of Black Religion, 79.

[12] Ogden, “On Not Knowing: Irony and the English Department,” 3 Quarks Daily, June 10, 2019, https://3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2019/06/on-not-knowing-irony-and-the-english-department.html. For a fuller statement, see On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2022).

[13] Augustine, City of God, 3