Karl Barth, “The Ministry of the Community,” in Church Dogmatics, IV.3.2

Barth hung this picture by Grunewald above his desk. Notice John the Baptist's very long index finger pointing at Jesus. Similarly, the Church's role is to point to Jesus.

Vocation and Witness

In this post I’ll briefly examine Barth’s understanding of Christian vocation and witness.  I’ll try to follow the edge between witness being words that point to Christ (as some point out, a one-dimensional way of being a Christian), and witness encompassing the full, rich life of a Christian (including worship, service, advocacy and proclamation), which may make space for the manifestation of God’s kingdom.

At its base, according to Barth, the purpose of Christian vocation is that the Christian would live in fellowship and unity with Christ by the Holy Spirit.  Vocation’s goal is that Christ would give himself to the Christian and that the Christian would give herself to Christ (594).  As Christ and the Christian are united, the Christian exists in covenant with Christ, with humanity, and with herself.

This unity is not accomplished by the striving of the Christian, but rather by the self-revelation of God.  It is God who opens the eyes and ears, so that humanity may see and hear God’s work and Word (logos – more on that later) in the world.  As the Christian’s eyes and ears are opened, the content of her vocation is given.  Christians become people whose reason for being is witness.  In receiving the revelation of Christ, Christians experience radical freedom that they freely place at the disposal of the work of proclaiming, explicating, and applying their witness in the world.  Christians are sent out (apostello) into the world to tell what they have seen and heard.

As Barth calls Christians to the work of witness, does he understand the work in the limited way of telling the “old, old story of Jesus and his love?”  What does he mean by “work and Word?” Part of the work of God which we are called to witness is the “liberation, restoration, renewal, and exaltation to fellowship with God (595)” that comes through Christ.  However, the true treasure is Christ himself rather than the fruits of his grace.  As the Christian witnesses, she points her listeners to Christ, rather than to the salvation, sanctification, or other graces that are by-products of unity with him.  The person of Christ is the work and Word of God which is seen, heard, and witnessed to.  As we witness to Christ as work and Word incarnate (logos), is our witness limited to the spoken word, or is our witness also intended to become incarnate through service, signs, and miracles?  Are proclamation, explication and address only verbal tasks, or do they become embodied as we live into unity with Christ?  Does our witness have the effect of manifesting God’s kingdom (including justice, healing, reconciliation, etc)? In Theology is for Proclamation Gerhard Forde provides a compelling perspective on proclamation that is incarnational – whether it is a spoken word or an incarnated word, proclamation does something.  It connects us in a tangible way with Jesus, who is the man who does God.

Barth, I think, recognizes that a Christian’s witness may well be a vehicle which results in the manifestation of the kingdom.  However, he is clear that our witness should not strive to effect God’s kingdom.  Only God can bring his kingdom to the earth, and as Christians seek to make the kingdom manifest, we are more likely to cause trouble than bring glory.  The Christian’s appropriate stance in relation to God’s in-pouring of the kingdom is to watch, see,  and acknowledge God’s work with adoration and gratitude.  The Christian can “participate only passively, in pure faith in Him, love for Him and hope for Him, without making even the slightest or most incidental contribution (605).”

I think of Moses attending to the burning bush. The miracle was not that a bush was burning in the desert.  The miracle was that the bush was not being consumed.  And to notice that a fire is not consuming its fuel takes more than a casual glance.  It takes attentiveness, watchfulness over a period of time.  Our most important work as Christians is the work of watching, attending to, noticing what God is doing in the world.  In Romans, Paul points us toward keeping our eyes on what God is doing rather than focusing on what we are doing.  As we see where God’s grace is pouring and God’s kingdom breaking in, we’re able to point others toward noticing as well.  Noticing the kingdom, in turn, brings us directly into a relationship of love and adoration of Christ.

And I think that this is the final purpose of the vocation of witness – that humanity would be returned to the “radical and original truth of his or her own birth and being,” that we would “recollect his or her own creation in the word of God, to remember who he or she truly is, to recover one’s very own life.(Stringfellow, Instead of Death, 106)” As we are returned to our original created purpose, which is to be united with Christ in a relationship of mutual love, we experience new and full life.  Our lives are transformed, and our communities become what Sue Garrett calls “angelic communities.”

The Work of the Holy Spirit

According to Barth, the community of Jesus Christ must exist actively for the world.  The Church executes its task by “attesting to it the Word of God (830).”  Its ministry lies in causing the proclamation of Jesus Christ to be heard in the world. The Church’s witness is formed by listening to Jesus in his prophetic office, then reminding people of the fundamental truth about themselves (they were created for unity and fellowship with Christ).

As the Church lives into its ministry of witness, Jesus calls its members to knowledge and obedience, revealing to them the Word of God (Jesus).  The witness of those who have received the revelation must be continually addressed to its own members before the members can be empowered to share their witness in the world.  Even though indispensable, the ministry of witness within the community can never take precedence over being sent into the world.  The Church must balance witness to those both within and outside the community, but must never forget that its priority is to be a missionary church.

However, the Church must also recognize its limits.  Members of the church serve God and humans, but “can neither carry through God’s work to its goal nor lead [people] to the point of accepting it.  It transgresses the limits of its mission and task, is guilty of culpable arrogance and engages in a futile undertaking if it makes this the goal and end of its activity, assuming responsibility both for the going out of the Word of God and its coming to [humanity]. (833)”  The Church can serve by witnessing, but it is for the Holy Spirit to accomplish conversion, justification, and sanctification.

According to Barth, the reconciliation of the world to God, the divine covenant, the kingdom of God, and the new reality of the world are all properly the work of the Godhead.  The Church cannot take upon itself the manifestation of the Gospel to the world so that the world may believe and know it.  As the Church attempts to take upon itself those things which are beyond its call and capacity, it actually hinders what Jesus wills to do.  The Church should limit itself to declaring, proclaiming, explaining, and applying the Gospel in the world.

In contrast, the Confession of 1967 affirms that the community reconciled with God through Christ is sent into the world, entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and also shares his labor of healing the enmities which separate [humanity] from God and from each other. (9.31)”  These labors include but are not limited to working for the abolition of racial discrimination, ministering to those injured by it, working for reconciliation between nations, advocating for economic justice, and leading humans into responsible sexuality.

I don’t think that Barth would exclude these activities from the Church’s ministry.  It would overstate Barth’s position to say that “grace, the covenant, reconciliation, the life of Jesus Christ and therefore the kingdom of God (845)” will not be embodied in the Church.  Surely, as the Gospel is proclaimed, the Church and Christians within the Church will be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit working in them.  The lives of the Christians within the church must declare the Gospel as they live into grace, the covenant, reconciliation, the life of Jesus Christ, and the kingdom of God.  But this ongoing transformation is a consequence of unity and fellowship with Christ, rather than a goal of the Church.

My seminary training contained a confessional Lutheran influence which drove our consideration of the Christian community to another extreme.  The experience of personal or communal transformation was looked upon with suspicion as a sign of enthusiasm – trusting in feelings and outward appearances rather than the never-changing Word of God.  The temptation of pietism is to believe that one’s feelings about what Christ has done and is doing are correct, when in fact we know that our perception is not always reliable.  When we base our trust on how things appear or feel, our faith risks becoming dependant on signs and feelings rather than on Christ himself.  We fall into idolatry as we place Christ’s works above Christ.  Confessional Lutheranism asserts that because God’s promise in Christ never changes, we can trust we are united with Christ even when we don’t see the evidence.  God’s grace is not dependant on our perception of it.  That logic, caricatured in the ways that positions on seminary campuses sometimes are, led the seminary community to prefer invisible grace to evidences of God’s kingdom (like reconciliation or unity).  It was strange to see the community herald its polemics and arrogance as fruits of truly trusting Christ.

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