Newbigin on the ChurchIn the last in this series of Newbigin quotes I will look at what he concluded about the role of the church. One of his more well known sayings is that
'the only hermeneutic of the gospel is a community (he uses the word congregation) of men and women who believe it and live by it.'
This community is centred on Jesus :
'Jesus... did not write a book but formed a community. This community has at its heart the remembering and rehearsing of his words and deeds, and the sacraments given by him through which it is enabled both to engraft new members into its life and to renew this life again and again through sharing in his risen life through the body broken and the lifeblood poured out. It exists in him and for him. He is the centre of its life. Its character is given to it, when it is true to its nature, not by the characters of its members but by his character. Insofar as it is true to its calling, it becomes the place where men and women and children find that the gospel gives them the framework of understanding, the "lenses" through which they are able to understand and cope with the world.'
He then gives six characteristics this community will have if it is true to its calling :
1) It will be a community of praise. That is perhaps its most distinctive character.
He defines this in 2 ways.
In reverence, over against the prevailing mood of doubt and the 'hermeneutic of suspicion' which is so dominant in modern society.
In thanksgiving - 'A Christian congregation is thus a body of people with gratitude to spare, a gratitude that can spill over into care for the neighbour.'
2) It will be a community of truth.
'The reigning 'plausibility structure' can only be effectively challenged by people who are fully integrated inhabitants of another.' In other words, by remembering and rehearsing the true story the church will challenge the false other false stories around, but in a way that is appropriate to disciples of Jesus.
3) It will be a community that does not live for itself but is deeply involved in the concerns of its neighbourhood.
'It is God's embassy in a specific place.'
4) It will be a place where men and women are prepared for and sustained in the exercise of priesthood in the world.
That is, in the public world of work, arts, education, politics etc, etc. He recognises that this is very difficult and is too much for the trained minister. He suggests the need for 'frontier groups' of people working in the different sectors, together thrashing out the issues they face in their sphere. He also makes a comment on the inadequacy of training to prepare ministers for this task - 'I realise how extremely difficult it is to find the way forward in this matter, but it seems clear that ministerial training as currently conceived is still far too much training for the pastoral care of the existing congregation, and far too little oriented toward the missionary calling to claim the whole of public life for Christ and his Kingdom.'
5) It will be a community of mutual responsibility.
It is to be the foretaste of a different social order. 'Its members will be advocates for human liberation by being themselves liberated. Its actions for justice and peace will be, and will be seen to be, the overflow of a life in Christ, where God's justice and God's peace are already an experienced treasure.'
6) It will be a community of hope.
Again, this challenges the reigning plausibility structures of despair and nihilism.
'Everything suggests that it is absurd to believe that the true authority over all things is represented in a crucified man. No amount of brilliant argument can make it sound reasonable to the inhabitants of the reigning plausibility structure. That is why I am suggesting that the only possible hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation that believes it.'
'This will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognise that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument, and foretaste of God's redeeming grace for the whole life of society.'
So there we are, at length, the words of a prophet, and one of the most important voices for the church in our generation.