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Eighth Letter

So, some folks I know are running an “Eight Letter” conference in Toronto at the start of next month.  Taking the letters to the seven churches in John’s Apocalypse as the point of departure, they have extended an invitation and asked people to pen an “eighth letter” to the contemporary church in North America.  Of course, certain high-status people — Shane Claiborne, Pete Rollins, etc. — were contacted as well and will end up dominating the presentations (because, hey, whose going to pay to attend a conference where a bunch of nobodies share their thoughts?  However, if you take a few nobodies and then mix them up with a group of somebodies, then you’ll make a profit and look like you’re doing something radical… which will sell more tickets!).
I’ve been thinking about what an eighth letter might look like, and have resisted writing anything because it seems presumptuous to write to “the Church in North America” in the same way that Jesus is said to have dictated letters to the churches in Asia Minor.
Additionally, I find myself at a loss when it comes to recognizing “the Church” in North America.  What is this Church?  Is it all those who gather together — in part — because they confess Jesus as Lord and participate in the sacraments?  How can this be the case when various factions exist within this Church, and many of those factions are excommunicating, damning, or refusing to be in fellowship with various other factions (or, as in the recent case of one parish in Vancouver, are actually taking each other to court in order to try and possess properties valued around $20,000,000)?
Is it simply those who gather together in a way that I think more truly reflects what it means to follow Jesus (“new monastic” communities and so forth)?  Wouldn’t that simply be me engaging in a similar action of excommunication and refusal of fellowship? I refuse to think that I can determine what is or is not the proper form of Christianity.  Sure, I have my own beliefs about Christianity, and I openly espouse them and argue them (in part, because I’m willing to be converted), but that doesn’t mean that I think those who believe different things are not members of the people of God.
Is it, instead, the “Church of the poor” whose members apocalypse the crucified body of Christ in our day and age?  If that is the case, then who am I — a person neither poor nor crucified — to pen such a letter?  Wouldn’t one want to be a member of this Church before presuming to write to it?
Or is it simply the sum total of individuals in our context who are living a life empowered by the Spirit of Jesus?  But if that is the case, does it make sense to talk of a “church” — an assembly of people gathered together? Furthermore, how are members of this group even identifiable to us?  We can’t know them with any certainty, and the result would be a letter written to a non-existent theoretical audience rather than a letter written to any concrete persons.
Finally, perhaps “the Church” is some combination of all of the above?  Would it be better to address a letter “to all those in North America who believe they are members of the body of Christ, as well as all those Scripture identifies as members of the people of God”?  However, how can a person hope to write a single letter addressing this massive, disparate body?
At the conference in Toronto, I expect people will simply assume that everybody knows who or what “the Church” is and then will use that to push agendas for which they have already been fighting.  There is nothing particularly wrong with that — I expect people like Wendy will speak about sexuality because she believes that “the Church” in North America really does need to address this issue, people like Shane will speak about Empire because he believes that “the Church” really needs to respond to this, and so on and so forth.  However, I’m at a complete loss as to what I would say because I don’t know where or what “the Church” in North America actually is.
A little help here?

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  1. Good post!
    A few things for you…
    1. A few of our writers have said the same thing – that there really is no church of North America. If we did this again we’d probably try to contextualize the event to a greater extent.
    2. I hope we don’t lose too much money!
    3. Come visit soon.

  2. Likely doing a trip in early November. I’ll only be in the Toronto area, but perhaps we’ll be able to hook-up?
    As I was thinking about this and the whole context thing, I basically concluded that one needed to simply write a letter to one’s own church (which, I think, was pretty much what the author of John’s Apocalypse was doing). See how well that goes over!

  3. Great question. I agree. With the question.
    As to whether making a judgment on what constitutes the church and what doesn´t, and whether this is “excommunication”, I think you are wrong. Whether we like it or not, we make this kind of judgments. It´s not even possible to talk and think in the category of “church” without considering some things outside and some things inside. To refuse to be clear about this is just to hide processes that are still functioning.
    My position is that the established church is a false church, and that followers of Jesus should leave it (but trying to maintain good relationships).

    • Perhaps my (hopeful) universalism complicates things. Really, when it comes down to it, we are all the Church… some of us are more faithful to that identity, some of us are more aware of that identity, but we’re all insiders at the end of the day.
      That said, Jonas, I notice that you are talking about what is not the Church? If the established church is false, and if Christians are called to leave it, where are they called to go? What or where is the (true) Church in your understanding of things?

      • Maybe your letter should have been entitled, Church, Who are you? I think it’s a valid question to wrestle with. Along with you and our (hopeful) universalism I see all people as part of the kingdom, but not necessarily part of the church. Rather, I see the church as communities of people who are intentionally living alternate realities that better line up with the values of the kingdom all the while recognizing that it is God that brings it about but the church participates in faith by living in that reality now.

      • That understanding of the Church could include a lot of groups that would not self-identify as Christian. I don’t have a problem with that, but I’m not sure if that creates a problem for you.

  4. I´m also a universalist. I think. Or worse (preterist-agnostic when it comes to post-mortem questions). But I still hold to an anabaptist view of the church as the community of those walking the narrow path. The concept of ecclesia is in my view only relevant when when there is something to be gathered from.
    Where the church is? Iwould point to communities that put the teachings of Jesus in practise in a tangible way. A true church inmy opinion is a community you cannot fully join without having to make a clear break with the system. If I should name a few, I guess I would point to some of the historic anabaptist churches, maybe, and some of the new monastic groups, house churches in China, things like that.
    But I am not at all sure of these things.

      • Good question!
        I do belong to a small community that has been going for six years. The group is part of a bigger kind of neo-monastic tendency here, quite a few christian collectives/communities have been established the last years. Our group will probably come to an end, though.
        Are we (and other similar groups) the church? I’m not sure. I act as if we were, but I doubt it, mainly due to the fact that most of us still let the church and the kingdom of god be our third or fourth priority in life, after work, family, mammon and in most cases also a membership in an established church.
        I do think it’s at least a possibility that the church might exist also in places we don’t recognize, like a small countryside church with a small group of old but faithful people, in A.A.-groups and in other places. Sometimes I tend to the mystical view of the church that Bruderhof teaches along the lines of Hermas the Shepherd, the usually say “we’re not the church, but the church sometimes comes to us”. But often I think this view is anti-body and over-spiritual.
        I also think we need to take into account the view that the church doesn’t exist anymore, even if it did at some point. This I think was the view among some spiritualists during the radical reformation. If this was the case, how would this effect your theology?

      • If the Church no longer exists (anywhere??), then I think we would be bound to say that the Spirit of God is no longer with us. Or does this lead to some sort of “remnant” ecclessiology? That’s dangerously elitist, but not necessarily wrong.

  5. Even if we propose that the primary readers of Revelation were the seven churches themselves, or even a single, small community, the point is ultimately mooted by our choice to canonize the document: “we” (as in Christendom global) have collectively embraced it as something transcendent of its original context. Ergo, we call it scripture… (and this is also why nobody knows about the “Apocalypse of Peter”, even though both it and Revelation were at one point highly circulated among churches.)
    Canonization is, by very definition, the removal of a document from it’s original context/purpose.
    My point is that the church IS Christendom global, manifested by its plurality of expressions. Strip everything else away, and the common denominators are the fact we share some presuppositions about the importance of the documents we call “the Bible” — everything else is an improvisation playing off this conviction.
    As far as the Eighth Letter conference is concerned, I’d interpret it as a letters addressed to “Christendom global” written to and from the vantage point of North American culture/interpretation.

    • So the Church is any gathering of people who, in one way or another, treat the Bible as scripture? That’s the unifying presupposition?
      Also, I’m not sure that canonization is about removing a document from its original context/purpose. Instead, I would argue that it’s more about recognizing that a document’s original context/purpose still has some relevance for other contexts/purposes. The issue is not one of removing a document from its context but of fusing two horizons (to borrow from Gadamer as developed by Thiselton).
      What is also interesting about your definition is that it removes any sense of communion with God from the identity of the Church (this might be a sensible and pragmatic move, but it certainly clashes with Paul’s understanding of the Church as the people of God… which, again, might not be a problem but is worth observing).

      • Absolutely, as far as Christendom is concerned. It is presupposition of every group that regards the Bible as scripture that “they” are the “church” — I am long past being interested in claiming why “my” interpretation of the Bible proves that I am part of the “real church” while other people’s interpretation simply proves their wayward delusions. This will ultimately end in a circular, self-validating argument every time.
        When the private memoirs of a famous individual are published posthumously, do they truly serve the same context/purpose for which they were written? When a letter between lovers in a time of war is archived in a history museum, does it serve it’s original purpose? I would find myself more resonate with Schniedewind here: the canonization process is inherently a divorce from original context. It is for this very reason that a particular work is more widely circulated than another work from the same “original context” in the first place!
        If “context” was really what we were after, the canon itself would be much less important to us. In fact, canon would come under increasing scrutiny, being subjugated to broader contextual input.

      • “Also, I’m not sure that canonization is about removing a document from its original context/purpose. Instead, I would argue that it’s more about recognizing that a document’s original context/purpose still has some relevance for other contexts/purposes.”
        I wish wordpress had a “like” feature for comments…

  6. thank you for writing this post on “the Church”-I do not know where the American Church is to be found either-it is all a mystery to me-once again thank you for writing this post-peace Jonny

    • Hi Jonny,
      Thanks for commenting. I must confess that, based on your online writings, I find you to be quite an interesting person. If I lived in your neck of the woods, I would want to sit down, have a pint or two with you, and listen to your thoughts.

  7. Dan. I don’t think it’s right to connect the Spirit only to the church. It’s true it’s where the spirit lives in Paul’s theology, but at the same time the Spirit is at work even outside of the church in the creations, the animals, people etc. But I agree it would still be a big difference, probably we couldn’t think of a body of the Messiah etc.
    This is not easy. And for my own part, my faith has survived only by making certain heretical exclusions and re-interpretations. But I still like to believe that god’s spirit lives in the church. And I definitely cannot think about christendom or christianity as the church – that is not an option for me. Because that would make the church no different (or worse?) than the world, and if that’s the case I cannot see any point of Jesus’s and the apostles ministry.

  8. JAMES. It seems to me that your Bible-centered definitions of the church (you’re from a protestant-evangelical background?) excludes quite a large part of the church: christians before AD 380, quite a few modern, liberal christians, and a number of groups and christians that includes or excludes certain scriptures from the Bible or rejects certain passages.

    • Jonas, that is exactly my point: every division and categorization within Christendom ultimately defines itself by its presuppositions about the nature and role of scripture. Liberal or conservative, catholic or protestant, ancient or modern, it ultimately boils down to a handful of questions about the essence of revelation. Everything hangs here.

      • If that´s the case, I´m not sure what alternative you are promoting. From my perspective – it seems that the concept of church, to be meaningful, presupposes something that´s non-church, and we all have (implicit or explicit) definitions of what constitutes the church. As I see it – there´s no way to avoid this.

  9. JONAS. Indeed, I have no alternative at all. It’s simply a statement of reality. If we’re honest we have to admit that everything about our faith boils down to the presuppositions (conscious and otherwise) that we employ to embrace/ reject/ interpret/ scripture. Until we’re honest about this, every theology and hermeneutic will simply be a internally-validating exercise of self-affirmation to what we already presuppose to be true.

  10. James,
    A few points of follow-up:
    (1) On hermeneutics, I think you’ve missed my point. You wrote:
    When a letter between lovers in a time of war is archived in a history museum, does it serve it’s original purpose? I would find myself more resonate with Schniedewind here: the canonization process is inherently a divorce from original context.
    Let me try to be more clear: I am not arguing that the documents contained in the B-I-B-L-E continue to serve their original purposes, nor am I arguing that any reader of those documents (outside of their intended audiences) is not reading them out of context. We are all reading the documents out of context, because we are out of their context. That’s fine. However, the key to a responsible reading of any text (sacred or not) is to understand the context in which it was written, what the author(s) intended to say, and so on. Only by understanding what a text meant then can we begin to understand what it might mean for us now (fusing the horizons).
    Therefore, when I read this:
    If “context” was really what we were after, the canon itself would be much less important to us. In fact, canon would come under increasing scrutiny, being subjugated to broader contextual input.
    I think that context is precisely what we are after, the canon should come under more scrutiny and we must subjugate it to broader contextual input. In fact, there is not way of reading that is capable of doing anything but reading in light of broader contextual input. We are all contextual people and if we think we can read Scripture outside of any sort of contextual inputs we’re only fooling ourselves and reading in an extremely irresponsible manner. But, hey, maybe that puts me outside of your understanding of the Church?
    (2) Speaking of your understanding of “the Church,” I laughed a little at your “statement of reality” (I figured you would be aware that reality doesn’t really exist… but I digress). I think Jonas is onto something when he points to your possible Protestant Evangelical background. The fact is that one could make the same argument you are making based on any number of criteria — a desire to follow Jesus, that Sacraments, the activity of the Spirit, works of mercy, and so on. That you choose the Bible as the focal point may be related to, well, your own context.

    • 1) Hermeneutics. I wholeheartedly agree that understanding original context (in as much as we can interpret through the implicit projections and filters of our own context) is essential. I also agree that canon and the process of canonization should come under great scrutiny. I’m 100% with you here. (But, as you say, we’re all contextual creatures and we read everything from a context; including our contextual presupposition that proposes context itself is paramount/essential for understanding. This is an irony we should be aware of, though not immobilized by.)
      When I said: If “context” was really what we were after, the canon itself would be much less important to us. In fact, canon would come under increasing scrutiny, being subjugated to broader contextual input. I mean to propose this as where we should be going as well. On this point I believe we agree.
      2) “Defining” the Church. (Re: digression: There’s no such thing as reality? Crap.) 🙂
      Ok, let me try this again. From Paul to Montanus, Marcion to Rowan Williams to John Piper to Joel Osteen…. can you name one movement within the movement of Christianity that does not find/claim its ultimate justification and reference (and definition of itself) in holy writ?
      When you say that the parameters of the church could be defined as “a desire to follow Jesus, that Sacraments, the activity of the Spirit, works of mercy, and so on.” I am not disagreeing with you, but I am simply pointing out that the practice of all those activities find their substantive origin, identity and priority in either a) an hermeneutic of sacred writing, b) a tradition based upon said writings/propositions, and/or b) a declarative thesis about what, exactly, constitutes “holy writing” in the first place. In any case, it boils down to presuppositions about the nature of revelation and, if that revelation is textual, how it should be understood.
      Earlier in this thread, Jonas said that “the church” was “communities that put the teachings of Jesus in practise in a tangible way.” Well… How can Jonas even define “teachings” and “Jesus” and “practice” in the first place? Where did these ideals/concepts originate? Presumably not in a vacuum of one person’s imagination, but in the history of a long tradition that finds people, every step of the way, interpreting a collection of ancient documents in and through particular traditions of belief.
      Whatever the faith tradition may be (protestant or catholic, evangelical or anglican, whatever), the tradition itself is inseparable from it’s imperative need to constitute its own legitimacy. Legitimacy is going to come through tradition, and the tradition is going to be justified, ultimately, by a set of values placed around what have become our founding documents.
      Tradition and scripture are the basis, the material “sourcecode” for the church. If history means anything here, it profoundly suggests that tradition and scripture are intimately linked (or, I would say, intrinsically interdependent). It is in this framework that I propose the following again: if the church is to be substantively “defined” by any kind of criteria, the parameters must include (if not be based upon) a reference to the written material upon which (by either explicit endorsement and/or rejection) communities/traditions find their historical and theological legitimacy.
      (p.s. Dan and Jonas – just wanted to say that I’ve greatly appreciated this dialogue. Thankful for the mental stimulation. Thanks for engaging.)

    • Precisely. The church tradition founded the scriptures and the scripture prologize the tradition… implying that scriptures and the tradition are of very similar essence. Furthermore, if not ironically, ask a catholic to defend the papacy and they will usually begin quoting scriptural basis.

    • James,
      To pick one example, there are a number of more charismatic movements that don’t find their “ultimate justification and reference” in the Bible. Similarly more liberal strands of modern Western Christianity have treated the Bible as the same as other great works of literature and held it to be on the same level as, oh, the Odyssey or Moby-Dick. Of course, you could still incorporate them into your model but they might object to your definition. It’s sort of like saying, Dan is a Christian because he doesn’t piss on dead dogs. Sure, I don’t urinate on any dead animals, but I don’t see that as the central characteristic of my Christian identity.
      Also, I agree that the notion of reading the Bible in context is something of a modern construct, but I see this as a good development… like indoor plumbing and central heating (not everything “modern” is bad).
      (As for reality, well, there is the possibility that it’s out there, but we’ve got no way of knowing for sure if it is or what it is.)

      • The reason I used Montanus as a previous example in this thread was exactly for this point: even the most self-declarative or autonomously-revelatory movements (i.e. “God told us directly”) still explain their identity by an interpretive precedent either in tradition/scripture or vis-a-vis established tradition/scripture. Either way, they can never happen in a vacuum that is uniformed and undetermined by tradition/scripture itself.
        I would be guilty of unjustifiably “incorporating them into my model” if they themselves were not making any assertions that inextricably linked them to the Judeo-Christian narrative. However, as soon any person or group declares a belief inspired by, say, “Jesus of Nazareth”, or “the Holy Spirit” they are themselves declaring themselves a part of the biblical tradition because these conceptual values could not even exist in our minds today apart from the biblical, cultural tradition that has preserved them.

  11. One of the things that seems to be absent from this discussion is any understanding of the Church (or, our common faith) as traditional/historical.
    The Church isn’t just any old community as has been mentioned throughout this thread. There has even been mentioned here the Hauerwasian idea that the Church is a community that helps the world to realize that it’s the world. What’s important here is that the Church isn’t just a community that exists today, in the present. The Church is a community that *has* existed, that has a history and tradition (note: I’m not here talking about the Institutional church).
    This being said, I find what David Yeago says (in his yet-to-be-published book “The Apostolic Faith”) helpful: “The universal Church, and any particular community that could reasonably be called *a* church, lives by *receiving* the legacy of the apostles, *holding fast* to it (and thus being formed by it,) and *handing it on* with integrity to new converts and new generations.”
    Who is the Church (universal, or local)? The Church, or a church, is a community that receives, holds fast to, and passes on a very particular message and life. A message and life which is rooted in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures (although the “-Christian” part of this came after the Church) and is fulfilled and presented to us in the “body of a crucified first-century Palestinian Jew,” (Yeago).

    • Fair enough. I’ve avoided that approach because I don’t think there is any sort of historical church (singular). There have ever only been historical churches, which have existed in competing and contradictory trajectories (since at least the days of Paul, if not before).

  12. Oh God, I keep trying not comment on every single one of postsof yours but find it real hard because the themes are so damn great. Just two tiny little points and I’ll disappear back into the internets.
    Dan says: “Is it, instead, the “Church of the poor” whose members apocalypse the crucified body of Christ in our day and age? If that is the case, then who am I — a person neither poor nor crucified — to pen such a letter? Wouldn’t one want to be a member of this Church before presuming to write to it?”
    I wonder if there are a number of steps to the trajectory for us there. Trying to strip ourselves of privilege, failing to quite a formidable extent, giving up in despair, trying again, failing again, giving up again, living in limbo for yonks and then maybe eventually end up with some serious humility.
    Provided you walk that first road to the best of your ability, I think you reach a point at which it is unhelpful to try to end up “crucified” yourself or to speak of the vunerable as “crucified” – which is ultimately disempowering.
    I can’t think of that many people who are that helpless (maybe you can). So instead of seeing someone as “needing assistance”, you see them as “able to provide assistance” and as catchers of men. You team up with them while celebrating who you are and celebrating who they are.
    I got that idea from Abbe Pierre, and I can’t overemphasise the importance of the fist phase (years as a trappist for him, years of unstructured despair for others, and a single-hearted habit of giving all we can). For me personally it would be an extremely fine line not to cross into complacency, but some manage to give it a decent shot.
    Here’s one example:
    Feel free to scream at me, but sometimes I get thinking: hell, Jesus was privileged! He fitted right in with the pharisee lot and they liked him well enough as long as he was not too annoying and too threatening. The big question is: how did Jesus use that privilege, and for what purpose? If anyone here thinks that mine is a fair question and has an answer for it, I’d love to hear it.