“What we have now to seek are forms of Church and ministry which neither draw men and women out of the world into private society, nor seem to dominate the world through controlling centres of power, but enable men and women to function within the secular life of the world in ways which reflect the reality of Christ’s passion and thereby make the reality of Christ’s resurrection credible to the victims of the world’s wrong.” (58)
In the last section of Sign of the Kingdom, Newbigin asks, “What kind of Church will it be which lives in and by the prayer ‘Your Kingdom come’ in the context of today’s world?”
He contrasts our present situation to that of the early Church, explaining (as he has in other writings), that our New Testament does not describe the Church using any of the familiar Greek words which were used at the time for private religious societies (thiasos, hernanos, etc), even though if the Church had done so it might have avoided much of the persecution it faced.
Rather, the New Testament Christians described themselves using the word ecclesia (“assembly”, “church”),
“the word which in normal secular use referred to the public assembly of all the citizens gathered to discuss and settle the public affairs of the city. In other words, the early Church did not see itself as a private religious society competing with others to offer personal salvation to its members; it saw itself as a movement launched into the public life of the world, challenging the cultus publicus of the Empire, claiming the allegiance of all without exception.” (46)
Contrasting the early Church with today, he continues:
“But in the last three centuries western Christendom has moved into a new situation. A new ideology has replaced the Christian vision as the cultus publicus of western Christendom. It is the vision which dawned in that remarkable experience which those who shared it called ‘the enlightenment’.
. . .
At the risk of extreme over-simplification one would have to say that the Church failed to challenge this new cultus publicus effectively and took the road which the early Church had refused; it retreated into the private sector. The new vision was to control the public life. … The Church … became a group of societies which were seen as offering spiritual consolation and the hope of personal salvation to those who chose to belong.” (48-49)
“This is the situation with which we now have to deal” (49-50):
“Before us is the new task of developing a pattern of churchmanship which can credibly represent Christ’s claim to universal dominion over all the life of the world without attempting to follow again the Constantinian road. That is our tasks now. … How can the Church become a credible sign to all the peoples of every kind, a sign of the kingship of God as it is set forth in the BIble—a kingship which offers the fulness of life, peace, justice and holiness; and at the same time requires the total obedience of every creature?” (50)
To this question, “the only possible answer…is that the Church can become a sign insofar as, and only insofar as, her life is assimilated to the life of Jesus” (50):
“To spell this out more explicitly: the Church can be a sign of the Kingdom insofar as it follows Jesus in steadfastly challenging the powers of evil in the life of the world by accepting total solidarity with those who are the victims of those powers; insofar as, by accepting in its own life the weight of the world’s wrong it exposes and judges the wrongdoers in the act of saving both them and their victims.” (51)
Newbigin then moves into the implications of this answer for our churches and their structures in our western world. Below I will provide a number of excerpts on particular points that stood out.
On challenging the ideology of Capitalism
“I think that the first implication must be a radical break with the ideology of capitalism. Our timid compromise with this ideology has persisted too long. The ideology of the free market can only be accepted by a church which has retreated into the private sector. The free market system works by means of unremitting stimulation of consumer demand among those who have purchasing power to make that demand effective. Translated into biblical language, this is to say that it works by the unremitting stimulation of gluttony among those who already have enough. It necessarily channels resources into the production of goods according to the demand of the relatively prosperous and not according to the need of the poor. …acceptance of the ideology of the free market is, I think, forbidden for a Christian. It is important to say this just because its power is so all-pervasive.” (51-52)
On exercising compassion
“On this two things need to be said. On the one hand, where Christians are in a position to exercise pressure for the changing of unjust structures by political means and fail to do so, they are guilty of disobedience. The privatisation of religion in contemporary western culture has allowed Christians to think that Christian obedience stops short at the boundaries of personal and domestic life and does not include political action. This is a denial of the fundamental Christian faith in the universal lordship of Christ. On the other hand, there are situations where existing unjust structures cannot immediately be changed by any foreseeable combination of powers except for the worst. In such situations compassion, sharing in the suffering of the victim, is the primary form of Christian response. Out of compassion will spring such actions as are possible to bring relief, but the compassion is primary.” (56)
On “programme agencies”, “sector ministries”, and para-church organisations
“Their weaknesses arise precisely at the point of their separation from the local congregation.” (59)
“Their weakness is that they have no visible relation to the life of worship and fellowship which constitutes the life of the local congregation. These agencies and the life of the congregations do not mutually correct one another. Consequently, on the one hand, the local congregation is not challenged to remember that it exists for the sake of its neighbourhood; it is rather encouraged to exist as a society for its own members because the wider responsibilities are carried by another agency. On the other hand the work of the agency is not seen to spring right out of the life of worship and fellowship in the Gospel.” (60)
“There is, in fact, a notoriously wide gap between the thinking of the local congregation and the thinking that governs the work of many of these agencies. The Gospel which is celebrated in the local congregation and the programme which is carried out by the agency appear to be unrelated to each other. And this is fatal for the witness of the Church. By contrast, when a local congregation is deeply involved in the wrongs and sufferings of its neighbourhood, when worship in the sanctuary leads straight out into action in the street, then it is possible for the outsider to see that the one springs from the other and is led to ask about the spring from which faith, hope and love flow. The compassion and the action of the church members then become signs that point beyond themselves.” (61)
“By contrast I have seen situations where a local congregation with its minister was deeply involved in the problems and the agonies of the industries around them, and had become a place where the people involved in these problems found understanding and acceptance and hope. In such situations not only is there a real witness to the lordship of Christ over the world of industry, but also the local congregation is challenged to leave its private ghetto and become more recognisable as a sign and firstfruit of God’s reign over all things.” (62)
“…neighbourhood must remain primary, because it is here that men and women relate to each other as human beings and not in respect of their functions in society.” (64)
On full-time paid ministers vs. bi-vocational ministers
“The assumption that the ministry must normally be a full-time salaried profession is a survival from the Constantinian settlement which cannot rule our present thinking. It is an obviously and often-noted fact that the most rapid growing churches in the world today are—in general—those which make full use of a non-stipendiary ministry developed by the methods of apprenticeship from within the membership of the whole church. My own experience as a missionary in India has convinced me that the rapid expansion of the church into unevangelised areas can best be achieved by analogous methods—trusting the Holy Spirit both to find His own way of bringing men and women to Christian faith and to equip those so converted with the gifts needed to lead others into that faith. … On the other hand I have seen (very frequently, it must be said) the opposite process at work. Here the local man or woman whose spiritual experience has been the starting point of the movement towards the Gospel is quietly elbowed aside and the salaried professional takes charge. The movement of spontaneous growth withers and dies…
. . .
…Modern industrial society is a highly complex organism of differentiated but overlapping communities in each of which men and women have to live their working lives, interact with others and take daily and hourly decisions on highly complex and difficult issues. The ministerial leadership of the church in such communities must be part of their life, understanding its pressures and its complexities and its ethical ambiguities. Only with such leadership can there develop in each of these communities—be it factory, university, city council, professional association or whatever—living Christian cells which can function as a sign and foretaste of God’s reign for these communities.” (65-66, 67)
The Church’s Centre
“The Church is an entity which is properly described by its centre. … The Church is its proper self, and is a sign of the Kingdom, only insofar as it continually points men and women beyond itself to Jesus and invites them to personal conversion and commitment to him.” (68)
Finally, the question which must be put to every local congregation
“And the question which has to be put to every local congregation is the question whether it is a credible sign of God’s reign in justice and mercy over the whole of life, whether it is an open fellowship whose concerns are as wide as the concerns of humanity, whether it cares for its neighbours in a way which reflects and springs out of God’s care for them, whether its common life is recognisable as a foretaste of the blessing which God intends for the whole human family.” (64)