The last few days, I’ve been at an excellent conference hosted by the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and The Parish Collective. If you don’t know the work of the Parish Collective, you should. And the place to start is the excellent new book by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight Friesen, The New Parish.
Today I got to hear them present, and for the most part I like what they had to say. But not the whole part. They had the misfortune of wandering into my dissertation area a week before my defense, so my tools were sharpened. I couldn’t help myself.
So, let me get it out and I’ll be better.
Friesen started by having us make word associations. “I say bacon, you say eggs.” Some things are natural partners. And since Luther, protestants, he suggests, have held the words church and salvation together like bacon and eggs. This is a problem for Friesen. The church should stop being preoccupied with salvation since this is God’s work and not the church’s. We should “decouple” those terms, and instead associate the church (ecclesiology) with the Spirit (pneumatology). The church’s job is not to do God’s work of salvation, but to bear testimony to what the Spirit is up to in the world.
I see what he’s trying to do, but I think he misses the bacon and eggs analogy. For instance, I would suggest that in some pretty significant ways Luther decoupled the words salvation and church a long time ago. He wanted to scale back on the sacramental system of the catholic church which totally made salvation the property of the church to dispense or withhold. Though this was likely not Luther’s intent, in Protestant circles the word salvation was decoupled from church and attached instead to the individual. The individual and salvation go together like bacon and eggs.
I have some data here. I’ve done interviews in congregations related to salvation and I have yet to have a single person respond in a way that suggests that the word salvation refers to something other than a personal status. Our individual sins are forgiven. Or we get to go to heaven when we die. There is never a sense that salvation is experienced as a new set of social relations or in a renewed creation. It’s always used in reference to the individual. This is true in both the mainline and evangelical churches I have worked with.
Now, I’m definitely interested in a little decoupling there. I want there to be some space between the individual and the word salvation so that other, biblical, meanings can be realized. And I know Friesen would agree with me here. His language of salvation today went well beyond individual salvation to include all things that relate to our future hope.
But for precisely these reasons, I want to “recouple” the language of church and salvation.
(By way of aside, the coupling language is his. I would want to provide a more robust metaphor for the complexity of the relationship between language and the world. I like better Ricouer’s metaphor of redescribing the world. But, if coupling floats your boat…)
The church isn’t just a collection of saved individuals. The church should be the prime location where we learn to participate in the salvation offered by God. The church should be the place where we learn that God’s offer of salvation includes participation in a community with different values and practices than those offered us by the principalities and powers of this age. It’s in church, a point made several times today by Paul Sparks, where we develop the capacity to live in a diverse community, no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. These aren’t just ethics, a good way to live after we’ve been saved. They are a part of what it means to be saved. They are a participation in the very life of God, which saves us.
Now, let me say that I think the book given to us by Sparks, Soerens, and Friesen give us precisely a view of church like this, where church and salvation should be coupled. I think it would be very helpful if they could point that out. I wonder what keeps them from making that coupling?
Friesen said today that nowhere in Scripture does it say that salvation is our work. If that’s true, then what are we to make of Paul’s admonition in Philippians “to work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” Now, let me be really clear here, salvation is totally by God’s grace. So, how can salvation be both totally by God’s grace and something that we work out in fear and trembling. Both can be the case if we decouple the terms “salvation” and “individual status.”
This deserves and perhaps requires a detailed explanation, which I have neither the time or space for here. But let me say it this way. What if salvation referred less to a personal status that we own and more to way of life made possible by God? In other words, what if salvation belonged to God and not to us? What if salvation referred to all the realities that God will bring about at the end of this age which is expiring or perishing? What if salvation is less a status that we are given by God, and more a participation in the life of God that is in line with coming age of God’s salvation? What if salvation is less something we own and more something in which we participate?
Here’s the grace part. There’s nothing we can do to add or take away from the salvation that will be completed in the day of the Lord. The work is done. It’s been accomplished by Christ. There will be a day when God will be all in all, and it depends not one whit on our effort.
Here’s the work it out part. If salvation is God’s, then it is something in which we participate. And participate means there are things we do to live in alignment with the coming salvation of God. Participation means that in God’s grace we’ve been offered a new way of life, a way of life not under the power of sin and death, but under the power of grace and in the Spirit. See, everything is new. Everything we do is new. Everything we do is by a different power, the power of the Spirit. Everything we do is a working out of our salvation which we will know fully at the end of the age.
Every problem we solve in light of the values of the coming new age is a taste of our coming salvation. Every instance of reconciliation in our lives teaches us more what it means to work out our salvation. Every place where we work to renew God’s creation from ecological degradation is a working out of our salvation. Every time we forgive someone, we learn how to live more completely in our salvation. Paul calls this “being saved.” We are being saved. We are working it out. We are learning to live in the resources and values of the coming age of salvation made available to those who are in Christ, who live according to the Spirit. And in that work, we are being transformed, changed from one degree of glory into another. And we long for that salvation, which Paul says, “is nearer to us than the day we first believed.”
And, so the church is the “work it out” labratory, where we learn not to live for ourselves, but for him who died for us and all of creation.
Church and salvation go together like bacon and eggs.