The Church is a Social Ethic

The following is a paper that responds to the statement: The Church is a Social Ethic. Much of how I understand the church is found here. Let me know what you think.

Again, the footnotes are deleted in the copy and paste. I am willing to give you where some of these arguments can be found if you are looking for further research.

Alasdair MacIntyre convincingly argues in his After Virtue that the Enlightenment’s ethical project has failed. Whether one bases their ethical program on the foundation of the existence and nature of God or a desire to alleviate pain, these ethical programs eventually end in emotivism. The most important failure of these systems is not, however, their failure of a priori reason to discern ethical practice. Certainly these ethical systems are relatively rational, for who can refute the categorical imperative on the grounds of its own logic. Kant was a wise enough man to anticipate questions and propose an ethical and logical solution to those who challenge him. According to MacIntyre, the real failure of the Enlightenment is that “Reason can supply, so these new theologies assert, no genuine comprehension of man’s true end.” The problem is not the logic or the conclusion of the ethical systems, for they all basically conclude on an ethics that looks very much like a Judeo-Christian ethic. The whole of their conclusions will surely not be doubted by those who hold to Christian virtue. However, what is lost is the telos of these ethical systems. When the direction of humanity is disconnected from the ethical systems that are created to obtain it, the ethical systems fail when brought against one another at points of contention.
The illustration of this point can be seen in American Protestantism. American conservative Evangelicalism, where I find my theological home, is based primarily on a deontological argument for the inerrancy of Scripture as a moral handbook. The common argument would consist of something like, “The Bible says, ‘Do not steal,’ therefore I must act ethically and not steal.” While the conclusion is actually quite like the ethical system that would guide humanity towards the Christian telos of peace within God’s created order, the sense of right and wrong has overtaken the purpose of the command, which is avoiding offense that will set man against man in warring conflict. On the other side of the American Protestant church is the mainline liberalism. This group proposes something like Mill’s utilitarianism when it argues that the consequences of acting unjustly is that people get hurt. Wendell Berry makes this point when he argues against war as a means to achieving peace. “Any victory won by violence necessarily justifies the violence that won it and leads to further violence.” While Berry may have reached a true conclusion, a logical argument can certainly be made to the contrary. In either case, this ethics presumes that some kind of moral preference exists that desires peace rather than war. This preference can only be effective within a community-wide definition of the state that includes peace-making as the telos.
The hope that the church brings to the discussion of ethics is not a new ethical system, for the Enlightenment had many of those from which we can choose. The church offers a telos that an ethical system can attempt to realize. Stephen Long argues that “Ethics is always subordinated to theology, for it requires us to discern what the church is to be and do as we constantly seek to live into our baptisms.” Whatever the church decides on some particular topic, whether it be radical pacifism or just war, celibacy or marriage, or communism or capitalism, each of these decisions will be based on the telos that is worked out in the faithful community of the church. The nature of 21st Century denominationalism does not allow that these decisions be truly catholic in nature, for each community’s polity will provide a different means for understanding the telos. But, this does not prevent individual communities from performing the interpretive task that is the call of the Church universal. For the Roman Catholic church, the interpretive task falls to the authority of the papacy. For the Evangelical churches, the interpretive task often falls to the little popes called pastors. For the Presbyterians or Anabaptists, the interpretive task falls to some form of a democratic process. In any of these cases, the only effective social ethic derived will be the one that is lived out by the faithful community, no matter where the interpretive task is focused. If the telos is never undertaken by the community, then the force of the community is lost.
Once we understand the importance of a community-wide telos, the interpretive task must be more clearly defined for the sake of the interpreters. First, the telos must be understood and agreed upon. Second, the means of achieving the telos must be discussed and argued with some end in sight. This second of the tasks, the means, is at least partly accomplished in the proclamation of the telos. This is to say, for a Christian to proclaim that life and justice are Christian virtues that must be our telos, the goal has already been set before the entire Christian community, hopefully with some influence on those outside of the community because of admiration of the Christian’s moral accomplishments. With the clear telos in mind, some might conclude that justice will require war, while others might conclude that life will require peace. Certainly the means to achieve justice are important and the goal of the interpretive task is to find a means that can be agreed upon by the community, but agreeing upon the telos does not necessitate that the community will agree upon the means. Even in the proclamation of the Christian values of justice and life something of the telos has been achieved.
With this in mind, we turn towards the telos of the church. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “there can be no separation of christology from ecclesiology, that is, Jesus from the church.” The telos of the church is found first in Christ, specifically in the proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God. In the cross of Christ, the Church finds not only the hope for victory over death and the grave, but a model for all future cross-bearing activity. This is the first installment of the promises of the coming Kingdom. The Church is called to realize the eschatological vision of the Kingdom in its communion with one another and with God. The Church does this with the understanding that full realization is only in the parousia. By recognizing that fulfillment of the Kingdom is only found in eschatology, the ethics of the Church are freed from looking to effectiveness as a measure of faithfulness. Hauerwas argues,
Service is not an end in itself, but reflects the Kingdom into which Christians have been drawn. This means that Christians insist on service which may appear ineffective to the world. For the service that Christians are called upon to provide does not have as its aim to make the world better, but to demonstrate that Jesus has made possible a new world, a new social order.
Even as Hauerwas argues that changing the world is not the aim (telos) of Christian service, he does not deny that we can hope and pray that this change will occur. The telos of this kind of living is demonstrating the Kingdom of God to the world, not just making converts to this way of living, but we must certainly hope that the whole world will see that this is a better way of life. In summary, a christological ecclesiology demands that the church demonstrate the Kingdom of God that Christ inaugurates on earth, while recognizing that this Kingdom is only fully realized in the eschaton.
Now we must turn to the second aspect of the interpretive task, which is the means by which the Church will demonstrate the Kingdom of God. Within 21st Century denominationalism, I reluctantly conclude that no catholic understanding of demonstrating this ethic can be reached. In fact, I am belligerently confessing the previously stated christological ecclesiology in light of the fact that the denominational church has no means for even agreeing on this essential telos. The most that can be hoped for at this juncture is a communal agreement of both Christology and the means of demonstration. By this I propose a particular community, primarily the local congregation, must work out this Christology and means within their context. This follows from my understanding of the Incarnation. If Christ came to a First Century Jewish world as a First Century Jew, then we must do the same in inner-city Chicago or American suburbia or the rural south. This is not to say that the story of the historical Jesus is irrelevant to 21st Century American ethics. In fact, understanding Jesus in his First Century Jewish context becomes all the more important in this incarnational understanding. How Jesus responded to Roman imperialism must inform how an American Christian responds to American imperialism. What Jesus said about the institution of marriage and family has significant impact on how we understand marriage and family in America (which is, incidentally, relatively little other than to say that the family of God takes priority even over biological families). How Jesus responds to the economic oppression of First Century Jews by the Roman occupation should inspire us to take action in the ghettos of South-side Chicago. None of these statements are meant to say that we should try to do exactly what Jesus did in any of these situations. Jesus never took a wife or encouraged his disciples to marry, for example. But, it might be that 21st Century American Christians most faithful demonstration of the Kingdom of God is to embody the relationship between Christ and the Church in selfless marital relationships.
In what way does the Church or a congregation embody the Incarnation within its context? This is the interpretive task that I must admit will not be universal or catholic until the Church recognizes a mechanism to work these things out as a community. For the medieval church this mechanism was ecumenical councils. Maybe this is an option that the catholic Church can explore again. Until this mechanism is found or created, the community of the local congregation is the place this work will be done. And, I do suppose that a Christian can have some faith that the Holy Spirit will work as that catholic mechanism, though this has not been realized since the Protestant Reformation. These voices can also be in constant conversation with one another. This is to say that Congregation A might have something to add to the Christology and demonstrative means of Congregation B and vice versa. Only their conversation with one another can facilitate that exchange of ideas.
A proper proclamation of this ecclesiological ethic must recognize the weaknesses of the system. First, I would argue that the inability to agree upon central tenants of the telos and the means is debilitating to the influence of the ethics, as I have already argued above. But, as Hauerwas reminds us, the ethics of the proclamation and demonstration of the Kingdom is not dependant on effectiveness. Secondly, I also acknowledge that some will understand this as a sectarian ethic. Certainly this accusation has been leveled at Hauerwas, McClendon, and Long. Since I follow them closely, I anticipate the accusation will be thrust towards me. I answer with this: the communal nature of ethical practice and agreement does not necessitate separate living. I can interpret the telos and means of my ethical system in a relatively small community and yet live out this ethic in the public sphere. This is precisely what I am suggesting. The same transformative nature of the Jesus narrative that attracted me to Christ and Christian living can be found in the narrative of the Church that demonstrates the Kingdom. This transformative narrative can change society to be like itself, but even if it does not it has not lost its telos, therefore it has not lost its ethical identity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s