Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Life and Mission of Church

In the View of Paulos Mar Gregorios

What is church, and what is its mission? This question can be answered from the view of an outsider or an insider. An outsider view, a sociological one, would describe church as an institution or as a voluntary organization of Christian believers. This approach will certainly yield valuable information about the churches today, but not very helpful in  defining the mission of the church. The question of the mission of the church can be meaningfully answered only from an insider view, which is theological. Paulos Mar Gregorios approaches this question extensively as an insider in a number of his published papers and books.1

The role of the church is explained in the New Testament using a number of metaphors such as a family, a kingdom, a building, a body, an army, a flock of sheep, etc. The one metaphor Mar Gregorios uses the most meaningfully is that of a body. He is never tired of repeating over and over that the church is the body of Christ. Christ, who is invisible to us, continues his mission today through his visible body, the church. Before attempting an examination of the view of Mar Gregorios, we may trace the evolution of this metaphor in the New Testament.

The Evolution of a Metaphor

At the very beginning of the Church, it understood itself as the new Israel. The church claimed that the old Israel proved irresponsible to God, so it was replaced with the Christian church, the new Israel. Jesus was seen as a new Moses, saving people from the captivity of Satan. Thus the Christian community saw itself as the New Israel, traveling to the Promised Land. Salvation begins for an individual when he/she joins the church. One has to stay with the church growing in holiness. Finally, he/she enters the Promised Land (heaven) when he/she dies. But one cannot be certain whether he/she will reach heaven.  Under the leadership of Jesus, the new Moses, the church has claimed freedom from sin and death. However, as long as they are in the world, of sin and death, they are like the Israelites who were in the desert on their way to the land of Canaan. Their salvation began when they joined the church, they are being saved while traveling as a part of the church, and they will be fully saved when they reach the heavenly Canaan.

But how did the world happen to be enslaved to sin and death? The story of Adam and Eve, seen as a historical incident, answered this question to their satisfaction. It was believed that the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden marked the fall of humanity.

However, there has never been a consensus about what salvation involves. If humanity had a fall in the Garden of Eden, salvation must be a restoration to the original state. For some others salvation is from the captivity of Satan, like from the Pharaoh for Israel. For some others it is from the capital punishment of God.

As a development to this thought, Jesus was seen as a new Adam in contrast to the first Adam. Adam was the beginning of a human race that disobeys God; in Jesus starts a new human race that obeys God. Just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous (Rom 5.19).  “And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness(Eph 4:24).For neither is circumcision anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation(Gal 6:15). Someone becomes a new creation when Christ lives in him and he lives in Christ. Thus this model of new creation, which evolved naturally from the previous one, was found much more meaningful.

How are those who have become new creation related to each other? If Christ lives in them, and if they all live in Christ, obviously they are related to each other as the organs of the same body. Thus there evolved the concept of church as the body of Christ. “Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it(I Cor. 12: 27). As the members of a body, the members of the church are supposed to live and work together in perfect unity. Thus this metaphor, which naturally evolved from the previous ones, seems to be even more meaningful.

Paulos Mar Gregorios claims that the Eastern Orthodox Churches, with their central emphasis on the Eucharist, have always seen church as the body of Christ.2 The Roman Catholic Church has been willing to accept it as its official view in the Second Vatican Council.3 The Protestant Churches, however, haven’t yet understood the significance of this model; they still seem to be operating with the previous models.4

Church as the Body of Christ

Mar Gregorios has elaborated on this topic primarily in a series of Bible studies given to the staff of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, which was later published in a book namely, the Meaning and Nature of Diakonia 5. Mar Gregorios argues that being the body of Christ, the mission of church is to continue the mission of Christ, and the role of WCC is to assist the church to perform this mission. He quotes a few passages from the New Testament to assert that the mission of the church is the continuation of Christ’s mission.

Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” Jh 20: 21- 23

Christ sends the church to the world just as he was sent to the world by the Father.

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Mat. 16:15-19.

The mission of Christ was to attack the kingdom of hades, the world of disobedience and death, save people from there, and let them enter the kingdom of heaven, the world of obedience and life. Christ handed over the same mission to his church.

After briefly elaborating upon the three-fold ministry of Christ as priest, prophet, and king, Mar Gregorios asserts that the church has the same three-fold ministry. As a priest, Jesus Christ gave himself as a sacrifice to the Father, and he rose again, victor over sin and death. We celebrate this sacrifice and victory in the Eucharist, in which, we get united with Christ, and we sacrifice ourselves to the father.6

Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Ex. 15:5-6

Israel was called to serve as a priestly nation in a community of nations-- a nation that stands before God on behalf of the community of nations interceding for them.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. I pet 2: 9

Peter reminds the Christian church that it has the same calling to be a priestly nation. Whenever the church stands before God, it does so on behalf of the whole world.

If as a priest, Christ turns to God on behalf of the world, as a prophet, Christ turns to the world on behalf of God. Church continues the same mission of speaking on behalf of God. The protestant churches give this ministry more importance than the others. But we need to remember that only by facing God in silence, we will be empowered to face the world to speak on behalf of God. The prophetic ministry has to happen as a natural outgrowth of the priestly ministry.

As a king, Christ rules and guides his people on behalf of God. Christ preferred to call himself a good shepherd rather than a king. He lays his life for the sheep. It is on his cross that we see the inscription, the king of Jews. Cross is the throne of this king. Church is called to be a good shepherd to the world. Christ lists three qualities of the good shepherd: knows the sheep by name, leads the sheep out to find pasture, and lays his life to protect them.

The church has to care for the people in the world as a shepherd cares for his sheep. “When the church hates any group of people, be they people of other religions or other ideologies, the church loses its credentials as good shepherd”7. Like a good shepherd, the church has to “open doors that confine people in oppression, injustice and exploitation, to lead the nations to where they can find the just societies of green pastures and the still waters of peaceful and secure national and international situations”8. The church does not hand out peace and justice to the nations. From a relationship of trust, church should be able to lead the nations away from injustice, war, oppression, exploitation, terrorism, and environmental decay. As the sheep move toward freedom and justice, the wolves come. As the church oppose them, the wolves, the oppressive structures of the world, advance on us to tear us apart. If the church takes up a fight with the wolves, it will lose much of its privilege and power. Therefore, most of the time, the church, like a hireling, flees for life, hypocritically leaving it to God to bring justice and peace in the world.

Humanity as a Mediator

This picture of the church having the same mission of Christ needs to be seen in the context of a wider framework which spells out how church is related to the humanity, and how the humanity is related to God and creation.

Mar Gregorios would define church as a human community that performs the role of a mediator between the creator and the creation. Following Gregory of Nyssa, Mar Gregorios thinks that God is all that exists viewed from God’s side, but viewed from the side of the creation, it exists apart from the creator. The creator is infinite, but the creation exists within the limits of time and place. “The creation is multiple in form, and the capacity of each form to respond to God varies. Inorganic matter responds less freely than the plants and the trees; the animals are more conscious, and mankind even more than the animals, but the church is more aware of the creator than mankind in general.”9 Being a part of mankind, church is a part of the creation, but the most conscious part. Being the most conscious part of the creation is a position of privilege indeed; it is a position of great responsibility as well. Although the privilege of being aware of God is open to all mankind, only a part of them actually rise to the level of such awareness. Those few people do not feel superior to the rest of the people who do not rise to such awareness. Instead they would humbly serve them, and would represent them before God.

The church has the privilege to be aware of the goodness of God. God’s wisdom gives the knowledge of the good, God’s freedom chooses the good, and God has the power to perform it, which is expressed as love or as self-giving. This awareness of God’s love makes the church respond by similar self-giving love to God. This response takes the form of adoration and unconditional surrender and obedience. As a result, the church becomes the visible image of the invisible God for the rest of the creation. Actually the whole of mankind is called to be the visible image of God; those few who respond become the church. The church does this in union with Christ, and following his lead. Thus the mission of church is nothing but the mission of Christ-- uniting with God in unconditional surrender representing the creation, and manifesting God’s goodness to the rest of the creation.

The church can perform such a mediator role between the creator and creation only by constantly engaging in self-disciplinary practices and exercises. The mysteries (called sacraments in the west) are effective ways of self-discipline. The Eucharist is the supreme mystery of the church symbolizing church’s uniting with Christ. The Eucharist dramatizes the events in Christ’s life, and by taking part in this periodically, the church internalizes Christ at the subconscious level, and becomes one with Christ. Baptism makes one a member of Christ’s body. Chrismation or Anointment lets one share the anointment of Christ as king, priest, and prophet. The liturgical year lets the church participate in the saving events in Christ’s life.

The living church, performing such a role, will be a community united by love to each other. It will appear as the visible image of God’s unconditional love to the world. The members of this community will always be driven by the motivation to serve, and not to be served by others.

The State of the Church Today

What we have already seen is how the church is supposed to be, not how it really is. The reality is far from the ideal. In the first few centuries of its origin the church spread to the Roman Empire in the west, and to Persia, India, and China in the east. In spite of its global growth, the church has failed in its role as a mediator between the creator and the creation because it has lost its vision of its true mission, and its focus has been upon preserving the church and its tradition. “A false understanding of mission as the assimilation of other people into a culture dominated by a special race of Christians distorted the proclamation of the gospel in the world.”10 Without a vision that keeps us united for our mission, the church has broken into so many pieces.

As early as the fourth century, there arose a controversy about the Holy Trinity. Some Christians who relied on a literal interpretation could not give the Son and the Holy Spirit the same status as the Father, and they expressed this belief in their doxology, “Glory be to the father through the son by the Holy Spirit”. A doxology is a verse or sentence that glorifies God. This was rejected as a heresy, and the church accepted the doxology, “Glory be to the father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit”. Thus the church called itself orthodox to mean those who glorify God in the right way, combining orthos (right) and doxadzein (glorifying God).11

Soon there arose another controversy regarding the Holy Trinity. The western Christendom, headed by the Pope of Rome, claimed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son also in addition to the Father, and modified the Nicene Creed accordingly, but the eastern Christian world continued with the earlier belief. Moreover, the Pope’s claim of superiority over all the other patriarchs and bishops elsewhere added fuel to the division between the west and east. The churches in the East, headed by the patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and others refused to accept the superiority claim of Rome, and came to be known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, whereas the Roman church became known as the Catholic Church. The corruption in the Catholic Church led to the Reformation movement in the 16th century, which led to the formation of numerous Protestant Churches.

A controversy regarding the divine-human nature of Christ led to a split among the Eastern Churches in the fifth century. The church of Constantinople (Byzantine) claimed it to be two, whereas the others claimed it to be one. The two sides called each other Diophysites and Monophysites. The Byzantine cultural domination over the others fueled the split.

The primary reason for these controversies and splits in the church is the claim of the custody of truth. Addressing the parliament of world’s religion in Chicago in 1993, Mar Gregorios said,

“In each religion there are two levels. One level is exclusivist, and expansionist. That is to say, each religion says, we have the truth and if you want to have the truth, join us. That is the exclusivist, expansionist, lower type of religion. All religions have that lower type. But in religions there is also a higher type, a type which is universal in its orientation, which is all-embracing in its love, which is non-discriminating between members of its own community and those outside.”12 
Ma Gregorios asserts that claiming the custody of truth is lower type religion. It makes people closed-minded, unwilling to listen to and learn from others. Although he made the above statement about religions, it can be applied to religious groups as well. How could these churches claim the custody of the truth about the incomprehensible God? If the churches are honest and open-minded to admit that God alone is in custody of the absolute truth, they will forfeit all claims of the custody of truth, willing to learn from each other and even from other religions.

When the church was slowly emerging, St. Paul proclaimed, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus(Gal 3:28). Ethnicity, class, and gender have been the three primary criteria that erected walls of separation among humans, and Paul claimed that because Christ has broken all walls of separation, perfect unity has to be the goal of the church. The first major conflict in the church was caused by ethnicity – there were Jews and Greeks in the church. Having two separate churches for them might have been an easy way out, but Paul fought fiercely to keep the church united overcoming the wall of ethnicity.

Unlike the western churches, the eastern churches are very much bound by ethnicity. Mar Gregorios cites an interesting example from the situation in the US.

“The Yugoslavians and the Russians have the same faith, the same liturgy, and the same liturgical language. But in the same town you find a Serbian Orthodox Church and a Russian Orthodox Church. Why is it not possible for them to merge into one church? Simply because the communal loyalty is stronger than the loyalty to the church as the Body of Christ.”13

This is a shameful situation for the orthodox churches. Mar Gregorios further asserts, “We became closed communities rather than churches open to all men. Our concern is less with Jesus Christ and his righteousness than with the glory and honor of our community.”14 Mar Gregorios advises the orthodox churches to make a conscious attempt to break the wall of ethnicity following the example of the western churches. “Orthodoxy holds the pure tradition of the ancient undivided church. But because of its ethnic group egoism, it remains incapable either of enjoying their rich spiritual heritage or of sharing it with others… There may be Eucharistic communion between the Greeks and the Russians, for example, but very little love.”15

In a Bible study conducted at the headquarters of the World Council of Churches in Geneva based on the Gospel passage in which the sons of Zebedee send their mother to Jesus to request a special privilege, Mar Gregorios asserts, “Nothing has been so divisive of the churches as the ambitions, the jealousies, the power struggles among the Christian workers and leaders. Quite unconsciously we fall a prey to that perennial temptation—for power and position, for worldly glory and honor. So long as that is our basic orientation, the church cannot be united.” 16 Mar Gregorios asserts that disunity is a violation of the true nature of the church. It is the failure of love that leads to disunity. God is love, and the church has to reflect that nature. “Where there is no love, the spirit of God is not at work. The Church may work all day and night, and yet it may catch nothing (Jh 21:3). Sociologically the church may be growing in numbers, wealth, and institutions; but it is all hay and stubble, that the fire will destroy.”17


Mar Gregorios paints a clear picture of how the church must ideally be by using the metaphor of the body of Christ, and shows us how it really is. The churches all over the world may heed to the wisdom of this sage, and strive for the ideal.


Works Cited

  1. The Meaning and Nature of Diakonia. Geneva: WCC, 1988. P.33
  2. Introducing The Orthodox Churches. Kottayam: MGF / NewDelhi: ISPCK, 1999. P. 7-8
  3. "Vatican II: Gains, Hopes and Hurdles." Address delivered at Third Hammersmith Christian Unity Conference, May 1966
  4. Introducing The Orthodox Churches. Kottayam: MGF / NewDelhi: ISPCK, 1999. P. 3
  5. The Meaning and Nature of Diakonia. Geneva: WCC, 1988
  6. The Meaning and Nature of Diakonia. Geneva: WCC, 1988 p. 37
  7. The Meaning and Nature of Diakonia. Geneva: WCC, 1988 p. 42
  8. The Meaning and Nature of Diakonia. Geneva: WCC, 1988 p. 43
  9. Introducing The Orthodox Churches. Kottayam: MGF / NewDelhi: ISPCK, 1999 p.49
  10. Cosmic Man. The Divine Presence. NewDelhi/Kottayam: Sophia Publications, 1982. P. 233
  11. Introducing The Orthodox Churches. Kottayam: MGF / NewDelhi: ISPCK, 1999 p.5
  12. Introducing The Orthodox Churches. Kottayam: MGF / NewDelhi: ISPCK, 1999 p.59
  13. Introducing The Orthodox Churches. Kottayam: MGF / NewDelhi: ISPCK, 1999 p. 61
  14. Introducing The Orthodox Churches. Kottayam: MGF / NewDelhi: ISPCK, 1999 p.54
  15. The Meaning and Nature of Diakonia. Geneva: WCC, 1988 p. 3
  16. The Meaning and Nature of Diakonia. Geneva: WCC, 1988 p. 36

1 comment:

Thomas said...

Very true Sir.
But, our churches now face not only ethnicity, but language barrier.
It is hard to break.
People must be made to think and act differently.

Leave language, within the Church itself there is a barrier. The Barrier of parishes.

I attend conferences as fas as i can.
My parish friends form a group. They r comfortable.
I talk to someone from other parish. I spend time with them. But, people call me stupid or they say that I have an attitude of ignoring my parish friends as soon as i reach the camp site!!.
I am at cross roads.
But who cares what they tell?.
I carry on.
I have provided company and came to know few people who r alone and have no friends.
Though we forget each other. Still, I make efforts to reach out. To come out of my comfort zone.