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Towards a post-Augustinian Ecclesiology?

Greg B. Rast, M.Div.


September 28, 2009

In his book Post-Christendom, Church and Mission in a Strange New World, Stuart
Murray serves up some troubling questions related to the role of Augustine and the
development of Christianity as a dominant cultural system. Prominent pastor and
theologian, Augustine became bishop of Hippo in 396 A.D. and is well known yet today
because of his books Confessions and The City of God.

For Murray, the problem is that Augustine served up several theological innovations
which contributed heavily to the development of the socio-political system of
Christendom. Christianity had already been made the official religion of the Roman
Empire by this time, and the transition from persecution to a position of prominence had
everyone scrambling. It was a critical time in which a person like Augustine could have a
major impact. Murray writes:

Whether or not he realized he was reinventing Christianity, Augustine, a ‘pioneer


of Christendom’, believed his context required accommodation and
reinterpretation. Many ideas and practices of Christians in previous generations
were unrealistic in an Empire fast becoming Christian. What was needed was:

• Erosion of the old distinction between church and world.


• An understanding of church as a mixed company of wheat and weeds
• An emphasis on God’s grace rather than human discipleship.
• A united church across the Empire undisturbed by nonconformist
movements.
• Ethical guidance for Christian politicians, aristocrats, economists, civil
servants and military strategists with an Empire to run and defend.1

A new role was developing for the church and a new understanding of the church was
needed guide these developments. As the church quickly became part of the Empire
system, its prominence as a cultural institution was simply assumed, the challenge of
Christian discipleship shifted from making disciples with Christian character to lining up
the masses with the positions of the church, and because the church was culturally
dominant, it lost a sense of itself as being distinct from the value systems of the world…
the church had rather become the world.
For those of us now living in post-Christendom, the challenge is to separate
ourselves from Augustine’s ecclesiology. We no longer live in societies where the church
is the dominant cultural institution. Discipleship as a process of Christian character
formation has to be rediscovered. And we also have to rediscover mission in a context
where people have been pre-conditioned to respond to us negatively because of past
abuses of the Augustinian approach to the Christian use of political power.
Although I would count myself somewhere in the ranks of the “emergent
movement” when I happen to be in the U.S., I have long sensed that the emergents
themselves have missed two critical issues necessary for the re-formation of Christianity
as a culture-shaping movement in the U.S. The first critical issue is the issue of
ecclesiology and the second is the issue of missiology. With its continued focus on
buildings, church attendance, often shallow discipleship the emergent movement has
often felt more like an extension of the established, culturally dominant, church
paradigm, than a fresh return to the biblical church. We have made the culturally
dominant church cooler, better looking, technologically more “with it”, have endowed it
with better music and raised the quality standards of our offered services but have we
rediscovered the church? For too many of us “church” is still an event that happens for
an hour a week on Sunday… or worse… an organizational enterprise, rather than a
fundamental part of our being or an action that we take. Augustine lurks in the
background.
In his interpretation of the New Testament, Augustine interpreted Matthew 13:24-
30 and 37-43 to describe a “two-tier” church made up of “true believers” and “nominal
believers.” Nominal belief was then simply accepted as part of how business was done in
Christendom, and has been ever since. For many of us nominality is so normal as to go
unquestioned. As pastors we fight with it. We complain about it. We teach against it…
and still accept it as inevitable because it is too engrained in our system.
To further complicate matters, we are still functioning with a missiology that
approaches people from the perspective conformism. People should know that they are
supposed to be in church… should know why that’s a good thing… should know that
they can trust Jesus… I find myself having sympathy with atheists who are asking why
every week on Twitter thousands of messages pop up saying “Off to hear a great man of
God climb in the pulpit and preach the Word!” as if it should be self-evident to all what a
tremendous phenomenon that is. As a missionary who has inherited a different type of
missiological perspective from the missions movement, and I estimate that in most
American church communities, where churchgoing as a phenomenon has not yet ceased
to exist as a cultural norm, I still encounter 40-50% of the local population for whom it
has little or no meaning at all. Reaching people outside the dominant church perspective
requires a different approach… but one which will be impossible without changes to that
inherited Augustinian ecclesiology.
The problem is complex… can imagine “church” defined on a biblical basis that
is not made up of a “two tier” system? Can we do away with nominality and define faith
in Christ as a lost-pearl phenomenon? There are significant challenges involved in doing
that. The dominant alternative approach to the Augustinian dualism has been observable
in traditions whose understanding will also not be helpful to us. “We are the church” they
claim with exclusivity and push everyone else aside. Without being exclusive can we
nevertheless return to an understanding of “church” that is informed by New Testament
“body-life” paradigms that are relationally and spiritually defined as opposed to
organizationally and institutionally defined?
In that journey, ecclesiology is everything. What we understand by “church” will
determine what we do, who we become and who we can reach.
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Murray, Stuart. Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World. (ISBN
978-1-84227-261-9) pp. 76-77.