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Chastening the mantra “God is at work in the world”: Lessons from WW2

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9780061997198A couple days ago I posted on twitter/facebook the following (you can connect with me on fb/twitter via the side tab),

To say “God is at work in the world, let us join with Him” requires a place where we see Him visibly so to discern where He is/isn’t at work.

A response from the ever witty Tracy Dickerson on FB (one of our fine doctoral students at Northern Seminary) quipped back,

“Where isn’t he at work? Inquiring minds want to know.”

Tracy’s quip gets at an important theological issue for me. For years we in the missional movement have been pushing for an understanding of God’s mission that pushes His work and mission beyond the boundaries of the church. We have repeated the mantra “God is already at work in the world. Let us (the church) join/participate in that mission with Him”(this originated with Moltmann, Bosch, Hoekendijk and others). THIS HAS BEEN A MUCH NEEDED CORRECTIVE! However it has not come without some confusion. It has, in my opinion, led to the practice of dispersing the church into the world sometimes in willy-nilly fashion (what I have called elsewhere the “Wild Goose Chase”). This notion has surely corrected a Jesus centric notion of God’s work in the world with a fuller Trinitarian view. God is at work beyond the Jesus’ work on the cross for individual believers. But in reaction, it has sometimes led to a Holy Spirit centric notion of God’s work in the world in separation from the Son and the Father. We are left to discern the Spirit at work everywhere in the world.  But though God is sovereign over the world, though Jesus “shall reign until all things have been made subject” (1 Cor 15:25), there are many people, places and institutions which live in autonomy from God, and even in outright rebellion. It is not always easily discernable at first.

In my opinion, we should avoid either Trintarian mistake by holding the Father, Son and Spirit together. This is what it means to be Trinitarian. It is a mistake to separate creation from the Son as a category for discerning God in the world. There is no direct access to pure creation untainted by the fall and our depravity. Likewise, it is a mistake to separate the Spirit’s work in history from the Son as a category for discerning God in the world. Just as many movements in history have been of God, so also have many evil movements have been mistaken for the Spirit. We are fallible and given to sin, hubris, colonialism, delusion  and I could go on.

This is why I said in that tweet that we need “a place where we see Him visibly so to discern where He is/isn’t at work.” It is the church as the arena of the Spirit, where He rules as Lord, where we live in mutual submission to one another, where sin can be ferreted out (indeed sin is an accepted fact and reason for the discerning community). Here, via the Lord’s Table, the teaching, preaching of Scripture,  reconciliation (Matt 18:15-20), being with the least of these, the practice of the five fold giftings (in more than one hierarchical leader), the community discerns life in the world under His Lordship, via the Spirit at work. Having said all this,  I realize this ideal of the functioning “body of Christ” in the world has been lost in Christendom. Few of us experience the discerning community of Christ. More often than not we have only experienced the institutionalized hierarchy of Christendom. Correcting this, for me, is an essential task for the missional church.

I’ve been reading Tim Townsend’s Mission at Nuremberg. It is an utterly spellbinding read telling the story of American Army chaplain Henry Gerecke’s caring for the 21 high profile Nazi War Criminals chosen to go to trial (and eventually executed) at Nuremberg at the end of World War 2 (I’m a sucker for WW2 history).  In one of the stories, Alfred Rosenberg, chief philosopher of Nazi party, told Gerenke that he was a Gottglaubig, a believer in God but not in Christ. It was a reminder to me that when you believe in God and not in Christ, you can conceptualize God, de–concretize Him. God can become whom we think he is, even a god who would work for the purification of the German race and its mastery over the world. But confronted with Christ, this flesh and blood human who was fully God, we SEE who God is. We gain a window into how He works in the world.  We come to know deeply the nature of His forgiveness, the way of the cross in which God works, love, reconciliation, renewal, life itself. In Him, and all the history that leads up to Him and proceeds from Him, we see and know God. It is the conceptualized God, detached from the Son in flesh, that can be manipulated to the ends of Hitler (read me a Barthian here).

Of course the church can become a mere formalized shell of itself. Anabaptists talk it all the time: what happens when we institutionalize hierarchy and when we align the church with state power. Shockingly, of the 21 war criminals, 15 of them were Lutherans and 6 were Roman Catholics. Each of the 15 Lutheran defendants “remembered the Bible verse that was dedicated to him when he was confirmed in the Lutheran church.” (p. 159). Some of them read their Lutheran prayer books first thing every morning before they went out to serve the Third Reich. They are glaring examples of how we Christians can naively believe God is at work in some of the most rebellious endeavors of humanity. They remind us how we must discern together under His Lordship, before His presence, where indeed God is at work in particular projects located in the world.

Of course I’ve been accused of ecclesiocentricism, or Christocentricism (the two bugaboos of the missional movement) when I talk like this. I don’t think so. What do you think?

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