Living “Relational Ecclesiology” – Tony Jones

Living “Relational Ecclesiology” – Tony Jones November 9, 2011

Moltmann introduces the phrase “relational ecclesiology” early in The Church in the Power of the Spirit.  He writes that “no ecclesiology can stand on its own feet.  The doctrine of the church must, as it were, evolve of itself from christology and eschatology, that is, from insight into the trinitarian history of God’s dealings with the world.”

“The church cannot understand itself simply from itself alone,” he writes, “It can only truly comprehend its mission and its meaning, its roles and its functions in relation to others.”

By “relational ecclesiology,” Moltmann means that the church is defined by its relationships: to God’s trinitarian history, to other doctrines, and to other institutions and movements in the world.  While the strength of this position is that “it leads to an understanding of the living nature of the church,” Moltmann admits this weakness: it does not allow for a ready-made definition of just what the church is.

Although Moltmann never again uses the term, “relational ecclesiology,” he is faithful to the concept when he describes the church as a “messianic fellowship,” which is his favored ecclesiological appellation throughout the rest of his writings.

And the inherent relationality of the social Trinity imbues all of Moltmann’s writing about the church with thoroughgoing relationality, from the beginning of his career to the present.

While Moltmann does not use the phrase “relational ecclesiology” again, this idea pervades all of his ecclesiological proposals, both in the Church in the Power of the Spirit and the rest of his writings.  Building on his introduction of this phrase, I propose the following definition as a way to frame the suggestions of this concluding chapter:

  • A relational ecclesiology understands the church to be constituted by its existence-in-relationship:
  • The relationship of the church to Christ and Christ to the church;
  • The relationships of the human beings who belong to the church, especially as they are bound to one another by the Holy Spirit;
  • The relationship of the Christian church to the other religions and belief systems of the world;
  • The relationship of the church of the present to the church of the past;
  • The relationship of the church of the present to the eschatological church of the future.

In other words, under a relational ecclesiology the church is understood as a network of relationships, primarily the relationship of people who constitute the church have to God through Christ, and the relationship that they have to one another in Christ.

This has significant implications for Christian practice.  With this definition as a guide, the practices of the church must primarily be concerned with nurturing those relationships.  Be they practices for those within the church, evangelistic practices, or practices by which the church corporately deals with other institutions and religions, the standard against which the efficacy of these practices is measured is that of the eternal relationality of the Trinity.  And the ideal toward which these practices must point is the eschaton: “The future of the church in God’s new creation is the mutual personal indwelling of the triune God and of his glorified people.”

This is, of course, an impossible standard to achieve.  But, just as the “imitation of Christ” is the (impossible) goal of individual Christian discipleship, so is the community of the Trinity the ideal for Christian community.  Just how the doctrine of the social Trinity affects ecclesial practice will be explored below.

Biblically, a relational ecclesiology can be understood in light of the doctrine of reconciliation, articulated by Paul in 2 Corinthians:

‘All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.’

The work of Christ was to facilitate reconciliation between God and humankind, a rapprochement out of which the church was born.  Subsequently, Paul states, the work of the human beings who constitute that church is to foster further reconciliation between God and humankind and between fellow human beings.  Thus, our ecclesial practices must be judged on that basis.

Friend of the Goose Tony Jones is known for his thoughtful and often challenging reflections on church and culture.  As the festival continues to engage with the intersection between justice, spirituality, and culture, we’re happy to let other friends of the Goose know about his new book. The Church is Flat is the first significant research study into the ecclesiology of the emerging church movement. Research into eight congregations is put into conversation with the theology of Jürgen Moltmann, concluding with pragmatic proposals for the the practice of a truly relational ecclesiology.  In other words: Tony believes that God wants us all reconciled with each other and the universe.  Sounds good to us – and you can get ‘The Church is Flat’ this week only for $2.99 on the Kindle.

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