In his first epistle to the Christians of the disapora scattered throughout Asia Minor, the apostle Peter used vivid and powerful imagery drawn from the Old Testament to describe the Church. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9), he wrote.
But the set-apart status of the Church cannot be divorced from its awesome responsibility to be the witness of the electing God. Thus Peter added, “… that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Peter 2:9, NIV).
The Church’s doxology – her praises of the One who brought her into being – is inseparable from her witness, that is, her work of mission and evangelism.
Peter’s simple yet profound statement rejects the dichotomy, so endemic in the sensibilities of some modern Christians, between worship and witness. As a worshipping community, the Church is always also a missional community.
The Dutch theologian J. C. Hoekendijk stressed this vital point more than 50 years ago. “The ‘Church’, he wrote, “exists only in actu, in the execution of the apostolate, i.e., in the proclamation of the gospel of the Kingdom to the world”.
He added, “A church that knows that she is a function of the apostolate and that her very ground of existence lies in the proclamation of the Kingdom to the world, does not engage in missions, but she herself becomes mission, she becomes the living outreach of God to the world. That is why a church without mission is an absurdity.”
To gather as a body of believers to worship the sovereign God, whose cruciform love is revealed at Calvary, is to bear radical (and sometimes costly) witness to Him.
Think of the courageous Catholics in Krakow when Poland was languishing in the suffocating grip of the communists, who faithfully marked the solemnity of Corpus Christi by a public procession, despite attendant dangers.
By simply being true to its calling, and by courageously conducting worship in the face of opposition, the Polish Church bore prophetic witness to Christ in the dark decades of communist dominance between 1945 and 1989.
Just as the worship of the Church is inseparable from its public witness, so the Church’s engagement in the public arena must also be seen as an expression of its worship.
Think of the Barmen Declaration of 1934, composed by the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth, which declared the unrivalled supremacy of Jesus Christ when Germany was under the sinister shadow of the Third Reich.
Barmen states categorically and without compromise that “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death”.
In making this claim, Barmen rejects any political figure who masquerades as a god, and exposes as false the sacralising of any political ideology or programme. “We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”
In witnessing to Jesus Christ, Barmen dismantles and destroys the idols conjured by the prevailing zeitgeist, and points to the true God who alone must be worshipped and honoured.
In the same epistle, Peter urges his readers to be prepared to explain the rationality of their faith and hope, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV).
The Greek word for ‘answer’ is apologia, which in this context means to commend the faith to the wider public and to defend it against its despisers. The fundamental theological assumption behind this injunction is the belief that the Gospel is public truth.
As Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon explained, “Our claim is not that this tradition will make sense to anyone or will enable the world to run more smoothly. Our claim is that it just happens to be true. This really is the way God is. This really is the way God’s world is.”
Christian witness can therefore be described as the kind of truth-telling that brings God’s truth not just in the sanctuary but also in the public square.
Dr Roland Chia –
is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).