Here are some typical answers: the church is a brick and mortar building; the church is a particular denomination or non-denomination; the church is about the pastors and priests and musicians and leaders; the church is the mission of the church; the church is where the “marks” of the church appear — one, holy, catholic, apostolic or Word and Sacrament or Preaching; or the church can be glimpsed through some analogies or models — like institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald or servant. Put on your thinking caps friends, what comes to mind when you think of the word “church”? (Dysfunctionality is not one of them for this conversation — we are not thinking of its problems but what it is.)
This question — what is the church? — is what drives the second chp of Graham Buxton’s book, Dancing in the Dark. He opts for examining this question by exploring the biblical metaphors — people of God, body of Christ, temple. His framework is Trinitarian, and because so many don’t ask the Trinity question and instead explore what the church does instead of what it is, this chp is well worth the read of any pastor or anyone thinking about this question these days.
The church is the people of God. For some this smacks of arrogance; for those who read the Bible it is not arrogance: instead it is the claim of being part of God’s gracious covenant work in this world. Yes, it is exclusive because it makes the claim that God is at work in Jesus Christ and in the people of Jesus Christ. But there is a rich diversity of peoples in the people of God. The covenant with Israel is fulfilled in the covenant with the church; he says this is not succession so much as the Israel’s embrace in the church as the one true people of God. This raises the issue of supersessionism: Is the church the replacement of Israel so that now Israel has no status with God? Or is the church the fulfillment of Israel so that the remnant of Israel believes in Jesus as King and the Gentiles do too? Does this mean two peoples of God — Israel and the church — or one people of God under the one King?
The church is the body of Christ. Here we gain a sense of unity. There is one body. This happens through the death and resurrection, through adoption, and through incorporation into one family.
This is Buxton’s major thesis: “Drawn into community with the triune God, participating in his life as a gift of grace, Christians are those who at the same time have been drawn into community with each other” (56). The priority of the perichoretic dance of the Trinity leads to perceiving the church as the people that participates in that dance.
The church is the temple of the Spirit. Temple unified, embodied the presence of God and it was there that God indwellt both heaven and earth. The creative energy at work here is the Spirit of God. Communal life in the Spirit is a lived transcendence — a kenotic community.
All of this leads to seeing the church as koinonia, as community or “participation” in a common life with God and others. It is about You (God), about We (the people of God, which means others), and Me (I as a person participate in God’s life through the life present in the church).
We are in relationship with God, with one another, and with the world God has made.
He suggests (only suggests) a Trinitarian model, which is not exclusive but exploratory: The Father embraces this community, the Son establishes it and the Spirit enlivens it. Each person of the Trinity is present in each, however.