Much has been said about the “ecclesial deficit” among evangelical, bible believing Christians. Evangelical commitment to evangelism, to leading individuals including children to a personal faith in the Lord Jesus is paramount. In the past forty years, there is also the focus among many committed to evangelism to move ahead and plant churches, that is, worshipping and fellowshipping congregations. However, the main goal of church planting is often described as reproducing more churches like themselves through evangelism. The planted churches are to be primarily evangelistic action groups drawing on a theological conviction that the more unbelievers are made believers the closer the parousia gets.
A recent doctoral dissertation at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies identified how the literature evangelism agency “Every Home Crusade” (EHC) was embarrassed by the spontaneous formation of believers’ worshipping groups through individuals and families accepting Christ by reading the literature given to them. EHC for a number of years made no provision to support these groups, as they did not feel called to church planting. One must pay tribute to the church planting movements that made church planting, at least, as important and even more significant than leading individuals and groups to Christ.
However, biblically exploring and understanding what this entity planted is did not get priority. The planted church may worship, fellowship, teach the bible but its main goal is to replicate itself. This missed the high view of the church in the New Testament.
Jesus promised that the Church would be something that the gates of hell cannot overcome (Matt 16:18). For Paul, it is the entity “built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone . . . And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his spirit (Ephesians 2: 20-22). The New Testament ends with the ringing affirmation of the church’s eschatological destiny. “The Saints will dwell in God and the Lamb, just as God and the Lamb will dwell in them.” Rev. 21:22.
Much of evangelicalism has an instrumental view of the church. I believe this is due to its focus on the kingdom of God. In the Gospel of the kingdom, the church has only a supporting role and is not at the centre of our mission engagement. Such a stress on ‘basileia’ over ‘ecclesia’ leads to a much weaker understanding of the church in God’s plans of salvation, in the kingdom of God and the New Creation. Unless that is addressed, we will not be able recognize the place of the child in the church properly.
In this paper, I will address the following questions. First, what is the Church? Second, what is the relationship between the church and the kingdom of God and third, what is the place of the child in the church?
What is the Church?
From its beginning in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Christ’s disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2), the Church is seen as that gathering of believers of Christ where Christ is present. Moroslav Volf in his seminal work on ecclesiology “After our Likeness: the Church as the Image of the Trinity” (1998) writes “the Spirit unites the gathered congregation with the triune God and integrates it into a history extending from Christ, indeed, from the Old Testament saints, to the eschatological new creation” (Volf: P129)
The reaction to the Protestant Reformation led the Roman Catholic church to stress that the true church is a fully visible society comprising of three elements: profession of the true faith, communion in the sacraments, and the submission to the legitimate pastors. (Avery Dulles: Models of the church P 9). Scholars have noted that the focus of Vatican II was on what it means to be church in the contemporary world. Vatican II recovered and highlighted the description of the church as the People of God. A common understanding of the church today considers it as a people called by God to be his people and in communion with one another in Christ and by his grace. Among churches in the catholic and orthodox traditions, the communion and life of the church is primarily expressed in “sacramental and juridical structures”. Among those of the protestant and Free Church traditions it is expressed in the praise and worship of Christ, listening to God’s word and ordering one’s life according to the Bible (Volf P 130).
The people of God in the Old Testament:
The people of God in the Old Testament are indentified by their call and by their covenant with God.
God’s call constituting a people to him begins with his call to Abraham (Gen 12). In Abraham and his descendants God promises to bless all nations. That promise is the basis of his unique covenant with Abraham and his descendants who become the People of Israel. The people of God in the Old Testament are a called and covenanted people. This is clearly laid out in Deuteronomy 4 & 7 where the people of God are reminded that freely and in love God called and chose Israel as his people. The distinction between Israel and other peoples is expressed in the use of “laos” for Israel and “ethnos” for others in the Greek translation. God also institutes the covenant at Sinai (Deut. 4: 7) that constitutes Israel as his people.
Embedded in the idea of peoplehood are the concepts of a parental relationship between God and his people, the eternal future of this people in relation to the Day of the Lord and their particularity as the objects of God’s election and choice.
In the Major Prophets the covenant with Israel becomes a key theme. The Psalms affirm that God remembers and guarantees the Covenant (Psalm 105: 8, Deut. 26: 17-18). The prophets stress the promise of the everlasting covenant God enters with his people. Recognizing the dismal failure of Israel to keep the covenant they look forward to a new and everlasting covenant (Jer. 3: 3, Isaiah 61:8). Embedded in the idea of covenant are the themes of shalom – peace and wholeness (Ezekiel. 37:26) and the theme of God’s order – law and obedience to it. Covenants are to be kept not just enjoyed (Hosea 6:7), Malachi 1-3.
The New Testament view of the church:
At the end of the New Testament we find this affirmation “The Saints will dwell in God and the Lamb as God and the Lamb will dwell in them.” (Rev. 21: 22). We have a very high view of the church in Rev. 21: 1 to Rev. 2: 5.
In the Gospels, the church is the community that gathers in Christ’s name. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will in their midst” Matt. 18:20. It is a gathered community, an assembly gathered for a specific purpose in a specific place. This is also seen in Paul’s usage in 1 Cor. 16: 1, 2 Cor. 8:1, Gal. 1: 2.
It’s a called and gathered community in the Gospels. The Gospels also see the church as a confessing community. It confesses the messiah ship and lordship of Christ. It is communio fideluim – a community of faith gathered by Christ, called by him, chosen by him and confessing him. These marks describe the church in the Gospels.
In the teaching of Paul, the key metaphor is the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27). This identifies the relation between Christ, the Spirit of Christ and Christians (1 Cor. 12: 12-30). It is a non-organic understanding of the body of Christ. This relationship is further stressed in the metaphor of the Church as the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5: 22-33).
In the Body of Christ, men and women relate in a covenant relationship that stresses the spiritual communion of Christians with Christ but also with one another. This communion reflects the communion in the Godhead and is a foretaste of the communion in heaven. While it is a communion through the Spirit of Christ it is also a communion in common submission to Christ. Law and love are integrally connected in the covenant relationship of the Body of Christ.
Paul also describes the church as a structure, a building built on a foundation of normative truth witnessed to by the apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2: 22-23) and built by the Holy Spirit into a holy temple, the dwelling place of God the Spirit. The presence of God in Christ through His spirit in the church lifts the church from a mere historical institution to one formed in history but existing eternally.
In 1 Corinthians 10: 1-11, Paul describes the judgments that befell of the Old Testament people of God. He concludes in verse 11 by saying on the present church the fulfillment has come. The church is the new people of God. While Paul continues to affirm in Romans 9: 11 that God has not rejected the Jews, he is clear that there is now a new people of God, a new Israel (Romans 9:25 and Galatians 6: 16). The church as the people of God is the description in 1 Peter 1: 1, 2: 9,10) 1 Peter 2:5 also describes the church as a spiritual household, the household of God. In 1Peter the use of the church as the people of God is the recognition that the church is the promised eschatological people of God of the Old Testament prophets.
The description of the people of God focuses on the unique calling of the church to come out of darkness into light and declare the praise of God, to live distinctly as a holy people, as a spiritual household and be a community of priests to the world.
Paul’s teaching on the Charismata of the Spirit and the Church identifies the church as a polycentric community. Miroslav Volf writes “It s a model of life with a polycentric participative structure (1 Cor. 14:33). All in the church are called and all are endowed with gifts by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:7, Rom. 13:3, Eph. 4:7, 1 Peter 4:10).” There is no mention of children endowed with gifts but gifts are not limited to adults. The interdependence of the charismata in the church goes with the mutual subordination of its members (Eph. 5:21). The work of the Spirit in the church ensures a distribution of power. The church’s unity is maintained not by coercion but by freedom in the Spirit.
In summary the New Testament describes the church as a community of God’s people, a family of God. It is a love shaped community, a faith confessing community, a rule based community and a mission driven community.
What is the relation between the church and the kingdom of God?
The kingdom of God is both a present reality and a future hope in the teaching of Jesus. The recovery of Jesus’ teaching of kingdom of God in the church and particularly in the evangelical movement in the past 50 years has in some instances saw the church as provisional in contrast to the eternal nature of the kingdom, Karl Rahner wrote “the church is living always on the proclamation of our own provisional status and her historically advancing elimination in the coming kingdom of God towards which she is expectantly traveling as a pilgrim” quoted in A.C. Dulles (Models P 95). Hans Kung sees the church as finite and of the present and the kingdom as of the future and end time. For him and those who see the church as existing for the kingdom and till the kingdom’s consummation Ecclesia is the work of man and Basileia is the work of God.
It is my contention that much of contemporary evangelicalism has this kingdom understanding and so suffers from an ecclesial deficit. As mission shaped communities evangelicals understandably draw on the kingdom framework and see the church essentially as the agency that witnesses to the kingdom. In his excellent paper “The Kingdom Master Plan: The Ecclesia” Bambang Budianto appears to recover the significance of the church but so defines it by kingdom language and terms that suggest the church’s provisional and temporary status till its dissolution in the kingdom.
I wish to contend that the New Testament teaching on the church, while showing an integral relationship between the kingdom and the church, views the church as not only existing in history but beyond history in heaven.
Avery Dulles quotes the Swedish biblical scholar Harold Reisenfed to affirm that the term Ecclesia is an eschatological term. The idea of “the People of the Saints of the most high God, upon whom, according to Daniel 7: 27, power and glory are to be restored, lies at root of the thinking of Paul, the Synoptics and presumably even Jesus concerning the church”.
In 1 Corinthians 6: 1-3, Christian’s share in God’s judgment, even over the angels. Jesus taught that the little flock of his disciples, the proto ecclesia would share in the messianic supper in heaven and sit on thrones. Jesus prepares a place for his disciples in his Father’s house in heaven. In Paul the church is the temple completed and consecrated at the end of history (2 Cor. 6: 16, Eph. 2: 22) the church is the bride perfected and presented in heaven (2 Cor. 11:2, Eph. 5: 22, Rev. 19: 7, 21: 2, 22:17).
While the kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord and King at Christ’s return, the Church that is the bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem, the holy temple, will also reign with him.
So we cannot collapse the church into the kingdom. She has an eternal existence. And it is this church we are part of on earth and in history.
What then is the relationship between the church and the kingdom?
The church reflects the reality of the kingdom in history, in the lives of its members, as a community in the world and through the way it orders its life in the world. The kingdom is beyond the church. Its boundaries are not coterminous with the church. Yet, the church has a distinct existence within the reality of the kingdom and has a particular place and life in history and an eschatological future.
The Holy Spirit, as the eschatological gift is particularly poured on the church and the spirit’s gifts for the church are unique and not available beyond the church.
The church orders its life as a divine institution in human society. It is the body of Christ in institutional form. Its members have certain callings and gifts that go with them. Its relationships reflect equality, mutual submission and support. It has defined functions and orders and codes of behavior and discipline. All these are part of its faith, life and order and distinct to its life. In the biblical teaching on the kingdom of God, there is very little of such order laid out and authorized. The talk of kingdom ethics and values tends to displace the distinct calling of the church to follow the pattern given to it as the Body of Christ and as the People of God.
The above and below nature of the kingdom is evident in the Lord’s Prayer. “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”. The kingdom is not a future reality for heaven. It operates in its fullness in heaven now. Its operation in history is to draw history to its fulfillment. It is real and not an imperfect kingdom. On earth it is anticipatory and not complete. On earth it is provisional as to our understanding of it and even our expression of it, for we see in a mirror shadowed by history. But even its provisional expression strives and strains for its perfect fulfillment. The church meanwhile, is endowed with the Holy Spirit and the deposit of the faith given to the Apostles and the Holy Scriptures as the norm by which it lives as a source of the truth that leads to salvation and transformation.
The church recognizes its incompleteness and sin and groans for heaven. Yet it is called to witness to truth that is not provisional, live by the confidence of the truth if not complete is certainly adequate and bare witness to it boldly in the world. While conscious of its frailty and sinfulness, the church is still called in history to live by the confidence of the truth given to it.
The pre-eschatological life of the church makes it a sign of the Kingdom of God and the New Creation. It lives out its life as the sign empowered by the love that the Holy Spirit pours into its life. This love will enable it to develop a mode of conduct and character that conforms to God’s moral law. God’s moral law must shape the church’s life as much as God’s love.
The pre-eschatological life of the church makes it a space for the expression of the life of the new creation deeply conscious that it is far from its full realization. The space shaped by the love poured into the church by the spirit is the space for the spiritual formation of its members.
The place of the child in the church:
Child well-being is at the centre of child policies of governments today. The discourse in child well being shapes education, social care, family life, and the work of development agencies in developing countries.
We will first examine the different conceptions of well being that shape public life today and secondly present biblical perspectives on child well being.
Conceptions of Well Being:
Professor Nicholas Wolterstorf in his recent book Justice: Rights and Wrongs – suggests that there are three different ways of conceptualizing well-being.
- One conception focuses on an “experientially satisfying life”. Its home is in the modern utilitarian tradition. Most economists, social scientists and social planners employ it. James Griffin presents this position in his work on well-being. Well being is good for a particular person, is seen as valuable by the person who lives it. Another influential scholar, Robert Adams describes human well being as that which is good for a person. What that good is not explained except to say that it is good as long as one enjoys the excellent. Enjoyment is the key aspect of well being, the central good.
- The Aristotelian “Eudaemonist” tradition has shaped contemporary conceptions of well being particularly through the work of secular philosophers like Martha Nussbaum. It sees well being as the good life that is well lived. Happiness characterizes the good life and it consists mainly of activities that together make a well lived life. Not wealth but what do you do with wealth. So it is not about the greatest desire satisfaction. It is agent oriented, I must choose from an array of options.
- Wolterstorf himself suggests a third approach to understanding well being and calls it the life that goes well. It includes living well and flourishing. He draws it from the biblical teaching of shalom – wholeness.
- In applying the concept of well being to children the models of well being focus on the physical, psychological, cognitive, social and economic dimensions. The moral and spiritual dimensions are pushed to the margins. Character development, where it is brought in focuses on child deficits rather than child strengths. It focuses on emotional and choice deprivations with the resulting depressions and anxiety.
This is changing slowly with the development of child strength based models that identify the strengths the child needs to thrive.
The heart of any ethical life that is commended to the child is about rights and choices. It is an orientation to Nature, rather than Natural Law. From a Christian point of view, the natural has the capacity for the supernatural. In excluding the supernatural in relation to the natural, the unnatural is created which is actively against the supernatural.
Child well being policies and programmes tend to exclude the supernatural with the assumption they are actually privileging the natural.
Again child well being is embedded in the world of rights. This is considered as the world of justice. The world of moral norms is also excluded as oppressive and a world of permissiveness masquerading as love is set up. Moral order and institutions that promote such an order are suspect.
It is against such views of child well being we must explore the biblical teaching of the child.
At the heart of Jesus teaching on children is the affirmation that a child is a fully representative symbol of Jesus and God. The child represents the love that flows and unites the three persons of Trinity. The child also represents the grace that is at the centre of the kingdom of God Mark 9: 36, “and he took a child and put him in the midst of them and said whoever receives me such child in my name, receives me and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me”. The child is an envoy of Jesus and his kingdom.
Mark 10:15 “Anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” Jesus teaches that God’s designed way of recognizing and receiving his kingdom is that of the child. The child opens up to gratuitous gifts, is turned naturally to the kingdom. The adult has to turn, repent, change and turn around, so Jesus’ anger is particularly directed at those who take a child turned to God and turn her away from God; an evil act.
Jesus is not only describing the place of the child in the kingdom of God but also the child’s role as a metaphor/parable. A metaphor opens up new visions of reality by making ordinary things and events in nature and every day life reflect the ultimate reality of God’s kingdom. What is real in God’s creation can best be recognized and identified through the reality of the kingdom. In a world where all reality is constructed a kingdom sight is essential to view God’s reality. The child according to the teaching of Jesus is endowed with such sight.
This significance of the child as a sign, metaphor and envoy of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching does not appear to have entered the teaching on the child’s place in church in the rest of the New Testament.
In Pauline teaching the stress in on the relationship between the children and parents. Children are asked to obey and honour their parents. And parents are to relate reasonably with children while providing instruction to them and bringing them up in the way of the Lord (Eph. 6: 1-3, Col. 3: 20). In 1Corinthians 13:12 Paul writes about the state of childhood as both temporary and immature. Adults should “put away” childish ways. While Jesus enjoined childlikeness on adults, Paul stresses the need of adults to give up childishness. Jesus was describing the child in relation to entry into the Kingdom and Paul was describing the child’s progression in the church.
There’s evidence to affirm that early church Christians differed in relationship to their children from the prevailing attitude of the cultures in which they lived. They valued all children not just their own.
The dominant view of the family in New Testament times considered children as owned by the parents or at best their wards. The relationship between parents and children was asymmetrical; the children obeyed and honored parents. The child did not occupy a central place in the family though she was the object of love. The child was an extension of the parent and not a personal centre of being and communication. The special place of the child in the kingdom did not translate to a special place in the Christian family and the larger family of the Christian church. It appears that the understanding of the church as the household of God, as God’s family enabled the traditional view of the child’s place in the family to continue in the church. Children were objects of care and discipline. There is no evidence of an understanding that sees them as spiritual signs or resources in the church.
Jesus takes a child and places him in the middle of adults and so highlights the child as a person. Personhood is to have a personal centre for being and communication that makes self-direction and agency possible. A person takes responsibility for oneself, one’s actions, interventions and interactions. The person begins to develop as a subject in God’s creation. Jesus’ act is placing the child in the midst recognizes him as a subject and not just a sign.
The sense of subject-hood of a person is socially shaped and acquired. That is why it is essential that the larger family contexts in which the child’s subject-hood is shaped be the church as the community that lives out the life and order of the kingdom.
It’s in the church with its kingdom life the child’s identity, security and selfhood are best shaped and nurtured. It is a larger family where the child sees how God is central to all of life, If divine hospitality is at the heart of the Triune God, the child must experience that in the life of the family of God.
The church is a community in which one’s love of God is best expressed and through which love of neighbor is best carried out. It’s the community where love and law reinforce and strengthen each other. The church witnesses to and lives out God’s moral order and that are the best space for the child’s moral nurture and development.
The church is the bull work against evil in the world. The child learns to identify and resist evil through the church.
I am intrigued not to see gifts of the spirit in the church described as if they are for adults only. While the Bible does not indicate clearly that spiritual gifts are also for children, it does not limit them to adults. Can churches provide space and encouragement for children to explore the gifts of the Spirit?
It is in the church both the creation order and the kingdom order relate to one another prior to the parousia. The creation order is the human society as God designed it in creation. The kingdom order reflects the Lordship of the Risen Lord Jesus and the presence of His Holy Spirit. The child needs to recover his rightful place in the church.
Does the above suggest that the child outside the church is excluded from the energy and order of the Kingdom that should shape every child? It is obvious that the community of faith, the body of Christ will offer the best environment for a child’s growth as God intends. It is the calling of the church to make possible through its mission engagement that children outside the church experience as much as possible the nurture of the Kingdom order. Inviting children to recognize the reality of the love of Christ for them is a good start.
Children’s ministry organizations increasingly hold a high view of the Child particularly in relation to God’s purposes for the human community. Churches have ministries to children and invest much in plans, strategies, training and resources. But the view of the child and her place in the child still sees her as the object of nurture and not a subject whose spiritual subject hood is a gift that God has endowed her with and which is also an asset to the community of faith.
Church ministries must continue to nurture children in a space where they are built up in the truth of God, recognize their calling as envoys of God’s kingdom and submit to the Moral Order that God has ordained for his people and all humanity. The Child understands the covenant nature of relationships in the context of the church and also the relationship with human communities that are outside the church. It is in the Church the child learns to recognize not just sin but evil and learns how to respond.
I don’t think the image of Jesus placing the child in the midst translates into the child having a central place in the Church. The Bible does not view the child that way. In the New Testament the Child’s parents have the key responsibility for his development but it is Church that is his eternal family.