The relationship between Church and Mission in Adventism is very narrow. It represents an update to the typical protestant refusal to understand the Church in the greatness of its own being. Even though this functional perspective seems to be very similar to the biblical perspective, in reality it’s not. Because the non-speculative biblical perspective has nothing to do with the pragmatic and managerial perspective of the church we actually have. For this reason, reflecting on what the Church is, and not only on what the Church does or must do, is today an urgent and necessary task for our Ecclesiology.
That’s precisely what author Tihomir Lazic, in his book: Remnant In Koinonia. Towards An Adventist Version Of Communio Ecclesiology tries to do. And the first step in focusing on the Church’s “Being” is to temporarily disambiguate the Church from its Mission. A second necessary step is to differentiate the levels of its Being. When we consider the nature of the Church we find, at bottom, two foundational dimensions. The “vertical axis” is the idea that the Church is a spiritual and faith-oriented community, not merely a social group. It’s not self-founded. It’s founded from the outside, by God’s authoritative calling. And the “horizontal axis” denotes that the Church is not a mystical entity, but rather a concrete human group, which gathers itself following a transcendental call, but with social and historical mechanisms of aggregation.
This vertical axis of following God as a group and the horizontal axis of creating a group by following God, has always being a very difficult task to achieve. History demonstrates that Christianity has been rather unsuccessful – sometimes in one, sometimes in the other, and sometimes in both axes. But what remained at least was the clear perspective and vision of the model we needed to have in mind and to follow. Today the situation is different, and probably worse, because the nature itself of these two dimensions has become blurred. Two contemporary cultural processes are responsible – Secularization and Individualism. These two processes are part of our daily lives and are mechanisms we Christians and Adventists adopt to survive in the world. These two mechanisms have become ingrained in us, into our world view to the point that we use them even to think and to define what the Church is. In addition, Secularization and Individualism have become part of our contemporary socio-cultural mindset. What differentiates believers and non-believers then is only the proportion and distribution of these two well-accepted mechanisms.
Secularization and Individualism are not secondary or peripheral, but structural components of the Western understanding of the State, Society and Religion. This is the revolutionary perspective of Thomas Hobbes, one of the founding fathers of Modernity. All that has come afterwards, outside or inside the Church, is only a specification of these powerful presuppositions. The result, although highly efficient, is a functional, mechanistic and atomistic understanding of both Church and Society in general.
The Adventist version of this model is incarnated in two central categories of our ecclesiology: “believing” and “behaving”. In order to be part of this winning Church we need to “believe” in the right doctrines and “behave” accordingly, with deep commitment and discipline. This is a very rational, pragmatic and linear way of understanding the church. But it has given us results and dynamism. Correctness and coherence have been the marks of our success in mission and in the internal organization of our communities. But today we are facing the limits, repercussions and setbacks of this quantitative approach to church. Other churches face this crisis also, while decreasing in numbers. We are facing it simultaneously, but with our relative success in numbers. And that could be even worse because this apparent success could very well be hiding chronic ongoing malaise in our communities.
This is, in my reading, the valuable contribution of Tihomir Lazic’s book to Adventist Ecclesiology. His description of the problem is accurate and realistic. This general disruptive and formalist trend of churches – transversely and of society in general – is also ours. We Adventists don’t escape this diagnosis. And his corrective proposal is highly persuasive and pertinent. The relational and person-oriented “Communio” approach to Church can allow Adventists to live better inside as a group, but also can help us to express better outside what Adventism aspires to be for others. Lazic is not the first one to propose this. Twenty years ago Richard Rice introduced the parallel concepts of “Belonging” as corrective to our overly rational, individualistic and pragmatic model of Church, in his book Believing, Behaving, Belonging : Finding New Love for the Church. While Lazic’s “Communio” is a more religious and theological term, Rice’s “Belonging” is a more cultural and sociological category . But the emphasis is the same.
1. Three necessary corrections introduced by a “Communio”Ecclesiology
Let’s now briefly consider three positive contributions of Lazic’s proposal.
a. Correcting Formalism
The judicial, formal and objective understanding of the church, typical of the Catholic Tridentine Ecclesiology, has seen two modifications over time. First it has extended itself to Protestant communities which very often, by reason of age and size, have become as formal and institutional as the Catholic Church they initially intended to criticize. Second, the Catholic Church itself, moved from within, has experienced an Ecclesiological renewal. This is visible for instance in the perspectives that emerged from the Council of Vatican II, particularly in the dogmatic constitution “Lumen Gentium”. But the “Communio” Ecclesiology approach itself is born among catholic thinkers such as Yves Congar or Henri de Lubac, even prior to Vatican II, with the intention to correct this formalist drift of today’s Ecclesiology. Lazic proposes to apply the same correction and new emphasis to Adventist Ecclesiology where Formalism and Proceduralism are becoming predominant and diffuse.
b. Being Contextual
The increasing formalism in the Church is only an extension and mirror of a much larger and radical formalism going on in societies. For this reason a “Communio Ecclesiology” not only proposes to humanize the internal space of our communities but also, by being contextual, to provide an alternative model of external societies. The renewal of our Ecclesiology perspective must start from considering our internal, as much as our external conditions of living. Fostering “Communio” today, in significantly individualistic and procedural societies, is an appropriate way of really being contextual and responding to our surrounding cultural milieu. “Communio Ecclesiology” intends to enlarge a typical Church-centered view of Adventism by emphasizing the need for overcoming this formalism common to churches as well as contemporary societies.
c. Person oriented
But “Communio Ecclesiology”, at bottom, is a deeply relational and person-oriented understanding of the religious experience. In an accelerated historical environment like ours, it’s very tempting to apply standard measures and schemes to people that end up treating them like interchangeable parts. This is the strong depersonalizing effect of our modern way of life that post-modernity has not essentially changed. It isn’t the giving up of formalism that allows us to take care of people; it’s the other way around. Only attention to the individual will allow us to overcome and dismantle formalism of any type. Theoretically this is the big change introduced by the Ecclesiology of “Lumen Gentium” in Vatican II, and the paradox is that, while pretending to follow the Bible alone, Adventism is going the opposite way. In fact, we give the strong impression today that the Adventist believer is often overlooked, ignored and sacrificed for the abstract benefit of a formal institutional coherence. “Communio Ecclesiology” wishes to change, or at least balance that, in trying to be more attentive to the reality of persons and relationships.
2. The inner Limits and Risks of a “Communio Ecclesiology”
Three brief critical considerations.
a. The risk of creating a more closed and defensive Ecclesiology
The often visible “we against all others” attitude, in our official and institutional speeches, risks providing a perfect “Communio Ecclesiology” alibi to justify an even more radical exclusivist and purist Church. We just transpose and extend our exclusive attitude from theology to sociology, from doctrine to the way of creating groups.
b. The risk of polarizing the Church with respect to Society
Since the external world is increasing its formalism, practical rationalism and consumerist individualism – and there are not credible signs of this changing – the churches, Adventism included, are very tempted to build strong identities which offer a secure religious refuge for people fleeing those situations. “Communio Ecclesiology” could then become a perfect ally to build up these refuge churches, leaving the world outside unaffected by the church.
c. The risk of a Homogeneous and linear Ecclesiology
The term “Communio” is, after all, very much a church-centered category. And as such it offers an excessively homogeneous paradigm. It presupposes that differences must be convergent and, at a certain point, surmountable. It ignores the reality that today’s configurations of Church and Society are irreversibly heterogeneous and for this reason structurally fragile and vulnerable.
This new necessary emphasis on persons and relations, typical of the “Communio Ecclesiology” approach proposed by Lazic, must also include respect for insurmountable societal particularities and differences, which coexist together in tension, that only a larger and more inclusive category of “God’s Kingdom” – is able to guarantee. Can a “Communio Ecclesiology” approach really make us better and more inclusive or will it instead risk making us worse and even more exclusive?
Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.
Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/hanz-gutierrez
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