The fabric of civilization is unravelling, the barbarians have broken through the gates, and looming threats to society have left the ruling elite anxious, unnerved, looking for someone to blame. So they turn to Christians and the church.
The scene will feel contemporary, but in fact it is the opening context for Augustine’s fifth-century apologetic, City of God. Responding to those pagan critics who blamed the 410 sack of Rome on Christians and Christianity (as well as those Christians who lapsed into despair because they over-identified Rome with the city of God), Augustine offers a defence of the church. What intrigues me is that, out of the gate, Augustine appeals to what we might almost call an architectural apologetic for the social benefits of the church.
While the pagans are “inflamed with hate” against the city of God and its citizens, they curiously seem to overlook the benefits they have received because of it. For as the enemy bore down upon them, it was in the church that these pagan critics “found, in the City’s holy places, the safety on which they now congratulate themselves. The barbarians spared them for Christ’s sake; and now these Romans assail Christ’s name. The sacred places of the martyrs and the basilicas of the apostles bear witness to this, for in the sack of Rome they afforded shelter to fugitives, both Christian and pagan. The bloodthirsty enemy raged thus far, but here the frenzy of butchery was checked.” So the pagan critics would do well to remember: they are only alive to criticize because of the church and its contributions to both the built environment and social architecture. “They should give credit to this Christian era,” Augustine admonishes, “for the fact that these savage barbarians showed mercy beyond the custom of war—whether they so acted in general in honour of the name of Christ, or in places specially dedicated to Christ’s name, buildings of such size and capacity as to give mercy a wider range.”
About ten years ago, Alan Weisman wrote a provocative booked called The World Without Us. In it he invites readers to imagine a world without a human footprint, devoid of the infrastructure we’ve woven into the environment. But instead of pining for a pristine, pre-human “nature,” Weisman cautiously celebrates the ways human endeavours have unfurled the potential of the earth. You might think of this issue of Comment in a similar way: akin to Augustine’s apologetic in City of God, contributors Marilyn McEntyre and Tony Carnes invite us to consider what our society would be without the church. What would be missing? Who would be left uncared for? What aspects of our humanity would lie dormant?
Augustine reminds his readers how the church benefits even her enemies in very tangible ways. In good Augustinian fashion, we might hear this as an allegory for the role of the church in society today. The peculiar practices of the church gathered around Word and Table, engaged in proclamation and mercy, have a kind of collateral effect we shouldn’t miss. But this raises important questions for the church: Are we building the churches that our newly pagan neighbours need to face the threats of today? Will they find sanctuaries when they come looking? If we peek into the life of our churches today—whether a storefront in Vancouver or a Presbyterian megachurch in Charlotte—what will our neighbours find? Is the church the institution it needs to be?
Hence our concern in this issue isn’t just an apologetic for the public importance of the church. It raises important questions internal to the church—questions about reform and renewal. Is the church still a place to meet the God who surprises us? Are churches still places where people are invited into the adventure of discipleship? Are congregations the sites of Spirit-ed formation they’re called to be? Are they centres of what Tim Keller calls “countercultures for the common good”? Or have they become mirrors of the culture where we shore up the status quo? If the church is going to be a benefit to wider society, this will only be because it is centred on the supremacy of Christ. The moment we stop looking up at the ascended Lord and focus only on the horizontal, we lose our way. When we take our eyes off the heavenly City, focused on ameliorating the earthly city, we end up losing both. The only way we can be sent to renew social architecture is if we’re being renewed by the risen Christ.
As we’re never shy to admit, Comment is nourished by the legacy of Abraham Kuyper, whose robust vision for healthy society and well-functioning social architecture accorded an important role to the church. While Kuyper is often (and, to an extent, rightly) invoked to emphasize the distinction between the church and the state as different “spheres” with different jurisdictions and responsibilities—different “sovereignties,” he would say—we often forget that he emphasized the centrality of church-shaped citizens inhabiting every sphere.
Kuyper made this point by carefully distinguishing between the church as “institute”—where the Word is proclaimed, the sacraments administered, and discipline exercised—and the church as “organism”—the Christian sent from the sanctuary into an array of vocations to be undertaken coram Deo. The church as institute, he said, should be a “city on a hill amid civil society” and from which the church as organism infiltrates and leavens civil society. “Though the lamp of the Christian religion only burns within that institute’s walls,” he remarked, “its light shines out through its windows to areas far beyond, illumining all the sectors and associations that appear across the wide range of human life and activity.” Thus he pictures church and civil society as concentric circles, with the church as institute nourishing a vibrant core of believers who, as an organism, infiltrate and leaven civil society.
What’s important today is not just the distinction but also what Kuyper describes as the “necessary connection” between the two: “Aside from this first circle of the institute and in necessary connection with it, we thus recognize another circle whose circumference is determined by the length of the ray that shines out from the church institute over the life of people and nation.” The church is integral to civil society not only because it has a “sphere” to manage but also because it is the sanctifying space for citizens of the city of God who can point the earthly city toward shalom. With Kuyper, we think hope for cultural renewal is, scandalously, pegged to the life and health of the body of Christ. The energies of the organic church at work in culture are not a substitute for the mundane realities of congregational life. To the contrary, only if there are healthy, transformative congregations where people encounter the risen Christ can we hope to have a transformative effect on the world around us. If you care about civil society, you should care about the health of the church.
On the other hand, the quiet, quotidian work of small congregations that dot North America need to be seen and appreciated anew. So this issue of Comment turns to look at the church more closely, considering both its importance and its challenges. We want to make the church strange again precisely so we can remember what’s at stake there: the life of the world. As Kuyper’s critic Klaas Schilder once said, “Blessed is my wise ward-elder who does his home visiting in the right way. He is a cultural force, although he may not be aware of it.