identity of the church

Inputs: Horrell, Viola, Isaiah 24-27, Sunday sermon 1/11

Who we are is a defined thing and the definition (laid down in the apostolic tradition comprised of the normative beliefs and practices in the New Testament) cannot be changed by our decision. It is not culturally conditioned; who we are does not change across history, country, or language. The particular suit of clothes might change with time and culture, but our identity, expressed in normative beliefs and practices, is definitional. If we step outside of that definition, we become something other than who we are. One of the key ideas, picked up by both Horrell and Viola, is the notion of communality: that God designed us to be a people, not a collection of individuals, but a gathering around a person for whose work we structure ourselves. We do his work, not our work. He comes first.

The institutional church has gotten off track by forgetting who we are and who he is. It may well be that our doctrine is in good order. It may well be that our behavior conforms to biblical morality. But if we do not express Christ and who we are in Christ, then we are not church. The uncomfortable conclusion is that many organizations, quite certain they are churches, are actually something altogether different; they are religious organizations, but they are not churches.

What do we do with that once we know the truth?

Related Posts
Being the Loyal Opposition in the Institutional Church
Among the Loyal Dissatisfied

Key Ideas from the week:

  • Christ-centered
  • part of the one people of God, distinct from but not divided from Israel
  • shaped as specifically Christian by belief and practice
  • being dancers, creating on a sure theme, rather than docents, merely relating the theme and its history
  • We are the community of holy ones, called to be holy in the world for Christ’s sake and to mature through cooperation with the Holy Spirit and remaining in Christ.
  • We are in process, called to show what it means/looks like to be fit for God’s presence and to mature through behaving as ones being made fit.
  • We are warriors, called to fight Christ’s battle against all forms of evil and to mature through training in discernment, declaration, advocacy/intercession, and emergency care.
  • We are heralds, called to introduce God’s order and to mature through knowledge, practice, and graciousness.
  • We are dancers, called to show that submission to God’s ways is freedom and to mature through the disciplines and through “loving God and doing as we please.”
  • We are scholars, called to know truth deeply and behave accordingly and to mature through holistic study and integrative education.
  • We are followers, called to reveal God’s fullness in our life together and to mature through increasing knowledge of who God is and through submitting our behavior to that knowledge.
  • We are in the world but not of it, called to point to Christ in his incarnate fullness and to mature through intellectual, relational, and personal knowledge of him.

The first stage [of the Kingdom] was the presence of spiritual power in the Holy Spirit under the intercessory ministry of a heavenly Christ, and the second stage [is] the future, visible return of the Lord in his glory to reign with his saints judging and putting his enemies under his feet… [The first stage] suggests that we see church as the sphere in which the coming eschatological Kingdom’s power is active. This power of the coming Kingdom is today visible in the church.

The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus
by Mark Saucy
Word Publishing
(C) 1997
pg. 347

Here, in this last section , Saucy draws a picture of the Kingdom–offered by the incarnate Christ, rejected by the Jewish establishment, gone underground in mysteries (like a hidden seed, growing covertly), and yet awaiting the physical, political, historical, and ethnic fulfillment: The King will sit on his throne!

In stage one (the in-between-time of covert operations) where is the Kingdom active? With Son as the seated Intercessor and the Spirit as the indwelling Advocate, the power of the Kingdom of God leaks–indeed, pours–through the life of the Church.

  • What are the means through which the Kingdom’s power is expressed through the church?
  • Given society’s opinion of Church in the West, it does not seem a stretch to say that Kingdom power is not evident. Which beliefs, affections, and behaviors might be hindering the expression of Kingdom power?
  • How can we better submit to and live by in eschatological Kingdom power?

Doctrine of the Holy Spirit articles on
UnChristian by David Kinnaman
Kingdom in Matthew (passages)

Kingdom in Matthew (article at

Back in 2006, I wrote a paper on Trinity and Community for Church and Family. Here are my conclusions and the bibliography.

Excerpts from
The Economic Trinity, the Missio Dei, and the Church

How can we know the Triune God as he is in himself? There are, of course, many avenues for revelation. There is general revelation: “the way of an eagle in the sky” (Proverbs 30:18) or the rain that falls “on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). These things tell us something of who God is, but do they reveal the Triune God as he is in himself?

There is also special revelation: the written Word and the Incarnate Word. The incarnation of the second person of the Trinity tells us that the written Word was not the final revelation. So, what of the Incarnate Word? Jesus, the last and best revelation of the Father, is a prime candidate. But there is an issue: Can the incarnate Son be the image of the Logos? This seems unlikely.

Some offer the church as the image of the Triune God. Can something that is temporal and subordinate image God as he is in himself? This also seems unlikely.

Our understanding of church is grounded in a proper understanding of the economic Trinity and the missio Dei. The economic Trinity is the image of the immanent Trinity and this image is most clearly seen as the Son and Spirit work in the missio Dei. Similarly, the new humanity is being conformed to the image of the Son and this conformity to the image is most clearly seen as the new humanity partners with God in the missio Dei.

The Economic Trinity as the image of the Immanent Trinity

The economic Trinity images the immanent Trinity (Sanders 2005: 172). Warfield and Warfield agree when they write that the incarnation of the Son and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit are the proof of the Trinity (Warfield and Warfield 1929: 146). In his book, It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian, Bolsinger also points in this direction when he says that the mutual participation of the three Trinitarian persons in the work of salvation reveals the unity and communal nature of the Trinity (Bolsinger 2004: 62-63). Finally, Rahner himself says that the economic Trinity is known through our experience of salvation history and is most clearly understood in the context of Christology and the doctrine of grace (Rahner 1974: 82). The economic Trinity, not the church and not Christ, is the image of the immanent Trinity.

Jesus as the Image of the Father

In his gospel, John presents Jesus’ imaging of the Father as declaring the Father’s glory (Grenz 2001: 207). A short theology of “glory” in John’s Gospel provides ample evidence for Jesus as the image of the Father. Jesus images the glory of his Father as an only Son (1:14). This is a glory that comes from God (5:41-44), the One who sent Jesus (7:18). The Father himself glorifies the Son (8:54) and the Son lives to glorify the Father (8:49-50).

During his earthly, Jesus manifested the Father’s glory through signs. After the first such sign, turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana, his disciples responded to the display of glory by believing him (2:11). The resurrection of Lazarus (11:4, 38-44), also declared God’s glory and resulted in belief (11:45). The death of Jesus was by far the most powerful manifestation of the glory of the Father (12:23; 12:27-28; 13:31, 32; 17:1).

As powerful as the signs were, Jesus’ glory would only be complete after the resurrection. (7:39; 12:16). At that time, the Son would be glorified in the works of the disciples (17:10). In fact, the Son’s glory with Father would be shared with disciples after the resurrection (17:22).

As Jesus works to glorify the Father, so the disciples will work to glorify. The glory Jesus manifested during his earthly ministry and beyond was not for himself, but for the Father. The Father was glorified in the works of the Son (14:13; 17:4, 5) and those who follow Jesus share the honor (15:8). After the resurrection and ascension, Jesus sent the Spirit who glorifies the Son (16:14).

In the work of salvation, the Son declares (or brings glory to) the Father and the Spirit declares (or brings glory to) the Son. Thus, the Father acts in the salvation work of the Son and Spirit. Therefore, the economic Trinity is active in salvation history, imaging the immanent Trinity.

Two additional passages also teach that Jesus is the image of the Father. The author of Hebrews begins his letter by declaring that the Father has revealed himself most clearly in the Son.

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs (Hebrews 1:1-4).

This clear revelation of the Father is placed squarely in the Son’s work of Salvation by the phrase “after making purification for sins.” In Colossians, Paul says that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, Creator, head of the church, and the reconciler of all things (Colossians 1:15-20).

The Church as Conforming to the Image of the Son

Biblical evidence (and, indeed, mere observation) tells us that the image in humanity-in-Adam has been corrupted by sin. Since the choice to sin in Genesis 3, all humanity exists in a state of corruption (Psalm 14; 53). Left on its own in this corrupt state, humanity further corrupts itself by serving its corrupt desires (Galatians 6:8; Ephesians 4:22; 2 Peter 1:4). Law and instruction are not able to solve the problem (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16). Humanity needed a new humanity, and what humanity needed, the Son’s work of salvation provides.

The New Humanity-In-Christ

The church is the new humanity-in-Christ. The New Testament teaches that Jesus creates one new humanity in himself (Freedman 1992: 6: 750). He has created the one new humanity out of Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2:14-16; Colossians 1:21-22). In fact, in this new humanity, all divisions are removed (Galatians 3:28). Those who follow Jesus cooperate by putting off the old humanity and putting on the new humanity, which has been created in the image of God (Ephesians 4:22-24; Colossians 3:9-11). The church partners with the Spirit to bring this new humanity to maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:13-16).

Conforming to the Image of the Son

The church images the Son who is the image of the Father. The incarnate, glorified Son of God has created and will complete a new humanity that perfectly bears the image of God. Therefore, conformity to Christ, not affection, is the basis of ecclesial unity (Smail 2006: 289). True humanity images God by reflecting the inter-relationality (Smail 2006: 153) and works of the Triune persons (Smail 2006: 157-158). The church is not the image of the Trinity. Rather, the church is being conformed to the Son who is the exact image of the Father within the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity. What then is the relationship of the church to the Trinity?

Participation in the Missio Dei

The historically-situated, earthly gatherings of the new humanity (local churches) are a part of the missio Dei, and the various missions of the local churches flesh out the church’s identity as the mission of God. Understanding the church as the image of the Trinity and the sender of missionaries, tempts the church to think of itself more highly than it ought to think (Newbigin 1989: 117). Such temptations often end in the church functioning under the impression that it is the sender of missionaries; that it is the bringer of salvation. But the mission is and remains the mission of God. The church is privileged to participate in the missio Dei. The missio Dei precedes and determines the church and missions. The church is sent on mission by God (Bosch 1991: 370).

The economic Trinity is the image of the immanent Trinity in the missio Dei. The church participates in the missio Dei through the work of God. The Father sends the revelation of his love, mercy, and justice. The Son embodies that revelation, veiled in the incarnation. The church participates in the veiled revelation of the Son as God the Spirit works to bring about the eschatological kingdom of God. Spirit’s work takes place in the church (Newbigin 1989: 118-119).
The missions of the local churches, whether local or global, are temporal and temporary instances of the missio Dei. These missions are the working out of who we are in Christ. As Christ glorified his Father, so the Spirit, who works in the church, glorifies Christ.


Fred Sanders makes a compelling case for an eikonic interpretation of Rahner’s Rule. Understanding the economic Trinity as the image of the immanent Trinity returns the focus of ecclesiology to the person of Christ and the work of the missio Dei. As the new humanity, being conformed to the image of the Son, the church is composed of historically and geographically located instances of the missio Dei. As such, our understanding of church changes from the church being the image of God and the purveyor of salvation, to being the proclamation and embodiment of the missio Dei. The structure and functions of the local church can then be shaped to live out that identity in the context a particular faith community in a particular location at a particular time. The local church is given a theological framework that better allows for flex and contextualization, and God is better served.


  • Bolsinger, Tod E. 2004. It takes a church to raise a christian: How the community of god transforms lives. Grand Rapids: Brazos.
  • Bosch, David Jacobus. 1991. Transforming mission: Paradigm shifts in theology of mission. American society of missiology series; no. 16. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.
  • Freedman, David Noel. 1992. The anchor bible dictionary. New York: Doubleday.
  • Grenz, Stanley J. 2001. The social god and the relational self: A trinitarian theology of the imago dei. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press.
  • ________. 2005. The named god and the question of being: A trinitarian theo-ontology. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press.
  • Hoekema, Anthony A. 1986. Created in god’s image. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.
  • Newbigin, Lesslie. 1989. The gospel in a pluralist society. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans;.
  • Rahner, Karl. 1974. The trinity. New York: Seabury Press.
  • Sanders, Fred. 2005. The image of the immanent trinity: Rahner’s rule and the theological interpretation of scripture. Issues in systematic theology ; v. 12. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Smail, Thomas Allan. 2006. Like father, like son: The trinity imaged in our humanity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.
  • Volf, Miroslav. 1998. After our likeness: The church as the image of the trinity. Sacra doctrina. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans.
  • Warfield, Benjamin Breckinridge and Ethelbert Dudley Warfield. 1929. Biblical doctrines. New York [etc]: Oxford university press.

Excerpt from “The Identity and Function of the Church in Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology,” my paper on Newbigin’s ecclesiology.

One might think of ecclesiology as an identity-function grid upon which specific expressions of church are practiced. The identity axis describes the unchanging essence of the church’s being. The function axis describes the overarching purpose of her existence. The essence of identity and function remain throughout time and across culture.

The ground of the church’s identity is the sovereign will of the triune God. Everything the church is flows from God’s decision to glorify himself by creating, redeeming, and glorifying a people for himself. Our very life is from him. Humanity receives its identity from the triune God. The church—the new humanity in Jesus—receives her identity from the triune God. The decision of God is therefore the ground upon which the church’s identity proceeds.

The telos of the church’s identity is Jesus Christ, the One who has ultimate authority. Ultimate authority is defined as authority that is trusted, rather than proved. Every belief system trusts an ultimate authority beyond which no proof is needed. Christians trust Jesus as the ultimate authority. Since Jesus is the ultimate authority, the only answer to the question of authority is the story of the work of the triune God in Jesus, told in the Scriptures and proclaimed through the ages.

The church’s function is grounded in her participation in the missio Dei, proclaiming the kingdom of the Father, embodying the presence of the Son, and following the sovereign grace of the Spirit. Her work in time and eternity, in witness and worship, flows from this participation.

The telos of the church’s function is a holistic praxis-theology determined by the ultimate authority of Jesus. Praxis-theology does justice to the nature of God and involves humans as whole persons in community and in history. In the biblical view, the human person is a single reality, consisting of soul and body; humans exist in the real world as real, whole persons. The goal is praxis-theology because humans exist as material-immaterial persons in community. The life of the body and the life of the mind are one. Humanity is whole at the individual and corporate levels. The life of the church ought to reflect this God-given wholeness.

BIBLIOGRAPHY (for the whole paper)

Goheen, Michael W. “”As the Father Has Sent Me, I Am Sending You”: J. E. Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology.” Doctoral Dissertation, Universiteit Utrecht, 2000.

Newbigin, Lesslie. The Household of God; Lectures on the Nature of the Church. London,: SCM Press, 1953.

________. Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1986.

________. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1989.

________. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995.

The Gospel in a Pluralist Society
by Lesslie Newbigin
255 pages
Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (December 1989)


The church is…

  • a community of peace, overflowing reverence for and gratitude to Jesus in the presence of others.
  • a community of truth, proclaiming the ultimate truth of Jesus with modesty, sobriety, and realism.
  • a community that lives for the neighborhood, acting as God’s embassy in that specific location.
  • a community of priestly training, standing before God on behalf of people and before people on behalf of God, all in the context of daily life.
  • a community of hope, living as the hermeneutic of the gospel: a congregation that truly believes the crucified and risen Messiah is the ultimate authority.
NOTE: this post has been rewritten

Foolishness to the Greeks
Lesslie Newbigin
160 pages
Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (April 1986)

Post-enlightenment culture, chapters 1-2

Modern culture has three key features: the public-private dichotomy, the fact-value dichotomy, and the abandonment of teleology. In this culture, it is assumed that one’s public and private worlds operate independently. One has little influence on the other. In this culture, facts are public matters whose validity is determined by science. Values are private matters determined by personal choice. How should the church proclaim the gospel in the language of this culture and in a way that radically calls it into question?

The gospel and its missionary encounter with culture, chapters 3-5

The Christian testimony is that Jesus is the ultimate authority. All of life is ordered under him and finds its explanation in him. From the perspective of modern culture, this testimony is foolish, meddlesome, and dangerous. Yet it must be proclaimed. Modern culture–its science and its politics–must be called into question and all persons must be called to submit to the one by whom all things consist.

Implications and applications for missionary encounter, chapter 6

The church is…

  • an advance community of the kingdom of God to yearn publicly for the consummation of the kingdom.
  • a witness of the ultimate authority of Jesus to engage in honest conversation with others.
  • an earthly and temporal outpost of the kingdom to speak a theology that flows from daily life.
  • one church to witness to the one truth.
  • one church to engage with one another so that we may more accurately declare the one God.
  • composed of those who trust Jesus as the ultimate authority to declare him in a culture that rejects the very notion.
  • a community of praise to broadcast the overflow of our praise as a witness to the nations.

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