A Primer on Missional Theology §2: Church History

2. Church History and Missional Theology

The history of the church, however, shows that we have departed rather far from the text of Scripture. While the church has always engaged in mission, the understanding of mission in the church has primarily been shaped by a non-missional, Constantinian interpretation of Scripture. A lot of this can sound like theologian sloganeering, but there is serious content behind the faddish use of language like “Constantinian” or “Christendom.” Missional theology helps refocus our look at church history. Instead of aiming our polemic at the Hellenization of theology—as true as this may be in certain respects—we might rather wish to aim our polemic at what David Bosch calls “the ecclesiasticization of salvation” (Transforming Mission, 217) and the corresponding institutionalization of mission.

Bosch argues that the problem has its historical origin in the Donatist controversy. While Augustine rightly argued that the church is not a “refuge from the world,” pure and without sin, he ended up identifying the ecclesiastical institution as the sole bearer of salvation. Augustine fought against the Donatism schism by arguing that one’s relationship with God was dependent upon one’s relationship with the visible, institutional Catholic Church. As Bosch puts it, “authority and holiness were regarded as adhering in the institutional church whether or not these moral and theological qualities were in evidence.” As Cyprian famous put it: “extra ecclesiam nulla salus,” “there is no salvation outside of the church”—meaning, outside of the institutional Catholic Church. The consequence of this position is that the mission of the church is equated with the spread of the institutional structure of the church. Hence, the church fulfills its mission through cultural imperialism: “converting” others by making them members of the visible ecclesial structure via the necessary rites, regardless of whether or not they become faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. It is only a short step from this to the unification of the church’s structure with the structure of the state, so that the spread of the political empire is also the spread of the church’s empire. While Augustine was wise enough not to collapse the kingdom of God into the empirical, visible church, in later centuries this is precisely what the church did.

Missiologists often refer to this as Christendom or Constantinianism, because the essence of Emperor Constantine’s influence was to establish the church as an arm of the state, thus making the church primarily a visible, institutional, and political structure. Mission under the aegis of Christendom takes the form of Western imperialism, i.e., ecclesiastical, cultural, and political expansion. Within Christendom, Christianization and colonization are “two sides of the same coin,” according to Bosch. Salvation means being included within the visible church, which effectively meant becoming part of the Roman empire, or becoming part of whatever empire was later symbiotically joined to the Catholic Church. Bosch notes that even in 1919, Josef Schmidlin could say that mission is determined “by the doctrine of the visible church and its hierarchical structure.” Salvation is defined by one’s location within the hierarchical order of the church, since the church, according to Catholic theology, holds the “power of the keys.” They are the dispensers of salvation and damnation. Those who are included within its visible institution are “saved,” while those who remain outside of that structure are damned.

Missional theology is a post-Christendom, post-Constantinian theology. That is, it seeks to understand mission in the context of the separation between church and state and the corresponding marginalization of the church from sociopolitical life. Missional theology asks anew what mission and salvation look like when the church is not wed to the visible structures of imperial culture. To put it simply, missional theology seeks to give Scripture a fresh hearing beyond the shackles of a symbiotic relationship between church and state. For centuries, Scripture’s witness to the church’s “ministry of reconciliation” was silenced or ignored because of the presupposed Constantinian constitution of the church and the corresponding ecclesiasticization of salvation. As a result, one sees that, throughout the history of the church, theologians and church leaders have claimed that the apostolic ministry of the church ended with the original apostles. With the conclusion of Paul’s ministry, the church’s mission took the form of institutional expansion. Such a reading allows biblical exegetes to acknowledge the witness of the early church without applying their example to the church today.

Missional theology seeks to critically expose the problematic assumptions involved in this reading of the Bible, while at the same time providing an exegetically rich counterproposal: one that acknowledges the way the church has sought to extricate itself from the missionary call of God upon all Christians, while at the same time learning anew what it means to be the obedient and apostolic people of God. Missional theology argues for a dialectical understanding of the church as both visible and invisible, both a manifestation of God’s reign and a human witness to a kingdom that remains wholly other. Missional theology rejects the split between an apostolic era in which the Spirit blew freely and an institutional era in which the Spirit works only through the hierarchical structure of the clergy. Missional theology thus seeks to reconceive the nature of the church beyond Christendom and the nature of mission beyond institutional propaganda. Finally, missional theology understands both God and the church as intrinsically and primarily “missionary” in nature: God is a missionary God who commissions a missionary church. This is the insight which was lost to the church during its Constantinian captivity, and it is precisely this insight which we must recover anew today.

[Series introduction and outline]