koinonia and the poor, and the church

I'm not sure I can follow Vitor (and Barb Rossing) when they say that the contractual stipulation of Galatians 2 is constitutive for Christian koinonia/community/church. I know, disagreeing with Vitor is like disagreeing with Tillich. Which just means I stand to learn something, even if it's that I take him to mean something he doesn't, quite.

The basic problem I have is, how does the contractual stipulation of one bipartisan agreement become the nature of agreement itself? Galatians 2, and the conference re-presented therein, may be constitutive of Paul's operating margin with respect to the Jerusalem church and its envelope, but it is not constitutive of his apostolate or ministry. The thrust of Galatians says as much, polemically! There is ground to see concern for the poor (whether globally or for "the poor" as a particular group at Jerusalem for whom offerings were taken as a show of good faith) as part of Paul's mission; it is certainly something he was eager to do, as he says. To the extent that he goes about to the assemblies with whom he has relationships and asks for contributions in pursuit of this stipulation, it becomes a part of his work. But the letters we have (at least some of them) are posterior to his mission and those relationships, just as he says the conference and resultant contract were.

I don't mean to thwart this liberation proposal -- it is indeed a valid permutation of the gospel, and in many contexts a necessary form of the message. But I don't find this particular exegetical support compelling.

What is constitutive for Christian koinonia is the gospel, the proclamation of God's action as the Father of the Son, as the Son of the Father, and as the Spirit of holiness which proceeds historically from their relationship and its consequences. We participate in God-for-creation as creation-for-fellow-creation, in which I find there to be sufficient but not necessary forms. That is to say, necessary to the instance, but not necessary to the participation as such. Which is theological language for "yes, the church is called to help the poor, but the church is not, essentially, its helping of the poor."

It is legitimate to make the nature of the church an ethical question, as Vitor suggests (following a long line) with the church as event. The gospel leads to action, or it leads to paraenesis, which tells you what the action was you should have been engaging in because of the gospel. "Frees and exhorts." I'm reminded of Zizioulas' complaint to start Being as Communion, that much as he loves eucharistic ecclesiology, its expressions fall prey to essentialisms that make the eucharistic nature a limiting factor on the nature of the church, not an expression of its being towards eschatological life in Christ. I'm hard-pressed to think of instances where the church of my acquaintance should ever not be about helping the poor as part of their response to their gospel freedom. But I'm also hard-pressed, following Barth (and Nietzsche), to say that the ethical answer to gospel freedom can or may be prescribed in advance. I do not believe that it may, because the answer from God will always be larger than the answer prescribed. To the extent that the nature of the church is an ethical question, it must include many things but can never be limited to them in advance of encountering its actual created community. Even helping the poor will mean something in one instance that may not be relied upon in the next.

Which is awfully global and away from Galatians, but I think also goes to the point. What Paul, Peter, James, John and the other factions involved agree to as a stipulation of their koinonia in Christ does in no way violate the gospel, God's active relationship with creation, or creation's consequent self-relationships. It is a true face of the church. Had they agreed to something else equally concordant with the gospel, it would also have been a true face of the church, and matched the nature of koinonia, but not because the two share identity. The church does koinonia, and is koinonia in a variety of essential ways, but koinonia is not the church. The church is Christian koinonia. It is human social action that aligns itself to the gospel of Christ. It may therefore be "all things to all people," all possible means of Christ, without too fine a point on it, but with prayer and accountability to God and neighbor.

Which won't preach, because it's theological generalism. But that's also why preaching is an event, and the joy and pain of the notion. When you emphasize la nature événementielle de l'église ou du prédication, you either generalize unhelpfully about the abstract, or you become quite usefully specific only for a very particular audience. And this forum doesn't lend itself to the latter, since I seem to be talking to myself.


  1. Matt,

    I just added you to my blogroll. Look foward to conversing occasionally, especially about theology as it relates to the Lutheran Church/ELCA, etc. I am going to Luther Sem coming out of growing up in conservative evangelical churches, so it will be a welcome change of pace for me. From what looks to be your familiarity with this part of the body i am excited to chat with you here and there as opportunity arises.


  2. Thanks! I'll be glad to talk now and again.

    We have our own alphabet soup, but I recommend a primer: Nelson's book, The Lutherans in North America. I grew up as a pastor's kid in the LCA, went to Valparaiso and discovered the whole LC--MS/WELS side of the family tree, plus Seminex, and then landed here at LSTC. It's terribly relevant for you to know you're moving to ALC territory, if you want to understand some of the "fault lines" in the current ELCA.

    Welcome to the neighborhood!


Post a Comment

Popular Posts