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The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness

Jennifer McBride
Published by Oxford University Press in 2011

Jennifer M. McBride is Board of Regents Chair in Ethics and Assistant Professor of Religion at Wartburg College.

I am grateful for Professor Goodson and Mr. McDowell’s engagement with my book and grateful for the opportunity for conversation in this journal with its roots in evangelical institutions. The driving questions of the book – including the central one, how the church can offer a non-triumphal public witness to the lordship of Christ in our pluralistic democracy – arise from my own formation as an evangelical Protestant in the United States. There are admittedly many pieces to my argument, which makes it hard to summarize in a brief review. So first allow me to respond to a few points in Goodson and McDowell’s summary and fill in a few gaps. I will then briefly address the interrelated questions that they helpfully pose at the end of their review.

Goodson and McDowell open by pointing to my “reminder of the inevitable judgment of God on the world.” It should be added, though, that my argument rests on the fact that the judgment of the world centrally includes God’s judgment of the church, which is, at least descriptively if not ontologically (the argument of chapter four), a part of this world. (Bonhoeffer argues that, as a result of Christ’s person and work, all of reality is now “Christ-reality,” such that the church and the world are not two realms side by side but one realm reconciled in Christ; see Col. 1:16-20.) For Bonhoeffer, God directs God’s judgment to the church, and the church shows itself to be God’s by submitting to it. Significantly, God’s judgment is announced on the first page not by me but in an anecdote quoting an evangelical Anglican priest, Tim Clayton, whose particularly Christian language about God’s love in Christ and God’s judgment on human sin receives cheers from a diverse and mostly secular audience at a town meeting in Portland, Maine. Afterwards, secular citizens, devout Christians, and people who say they have lost their faith crowd around Clayton to talk. The book is an exploration into the characteristics of Clayton’s public witness that ignite such a response. It asks how the church may be engaged in public life in such a way that draws people together, as he did, with a sense of solidarity in sin and redemption.

Christian Scholar’s ReviewSecond, Goodson and McDowell helpfully introduce James 1 into the conver-sation about the diverse ways Scripture speaks of “the world.” This-worldliness is central to Bonhoeffer’s interrelated Christology and ecclesiology, and my the-ology of public witness centers on a question he poses in prison about witness, specifically how the church may understand itself not as “religiously privileged” but as “belonging wholly to the world” (24). It is, in part, a question about how the church understands its “chosen” status. For Bonhoeffer, the church is chosen like Christ to exist for others – for the world – and it does so by taking the form of the crucified Christ; thus chapter three examines Jesus’ public presence. “In an incomprehensible reversal of all righteous and pious thought” (81), Bonhoeffer writes, Jesus takes the form of a sinner in public life (see Rom. 8:3, 2 Cor. 5:21, for example). Bonhoeffer speaks of formation instead of sanctification, since the latter connotes purity and separation, while Christ reveals his “genuine guiltless-ness” not though demonstrable ethical perfection but, ironically, by entering “into community with the guilt of other human beings” (82). The sinless Christ was not afraid of becoming tainted by the messiness of this-worldly engagement; he did not avoid receiving guilt and taking responsibility for sin, as seen, for example, on the cross. Only in this sense do Goodson and McDowell accurately portray my argument about confession unto repentance as an activity that “keeps us un-stained.” Better said, at every turn, my argument tries to challenge the idea that Christian faith is concerned with moral purity and with keeping oneself untainted from this-worldly engagement. This-worldly engagement is nonnegotiable for the church that faithfully conforms to Christ, and such engagement cannot help but lead to sin since all human action in this world is imperfect. Instead of an ecclesial ethic of moral righteousness or purity, I argue that the church faithfully witnesses to Christ through an opposing ethic, a totally new mode of being and doing good, based on repentance. Repentance is not a correction of moral righteousness but the opposite of morality, an expression that God alone is righteous.

Goodson and McDowell mention in passing one of my central claims that, lacking explanation, should set off theological alarm bells – the church partici-pates in Christ’s repentance. In prison, Bonhoeffer asks what it might mean to reinterpret central concepts of Christian faith in a “non-religious” manner; in other words, based on the worldly incarnation of God in Christ. He suggests that Jesus’ person and work may, in some intriguing way, be understood through the lens of repentance, indeed, may be an expression or embodiment of repentance, but he does so without suggesting that the problem of sin has its origin in God. My argument affirms the orthodox claim that Jesus is sinless in the sense that he obeys the will of God at every point; he is not controlled by death-dealing powers and principalities that want to humiliate, destroy, and oppress human beings. Follow-ing Paul, Bonhoeffer affirms Jesus’ sinlessness through the notion of obedience, but he guards against putting too much distance between Jesus and sin because such a move would lessen the central meaning of the incarnation – that Jesus is in solidarity with real human beings. Indeed, for Bonhoeffer, God wills Jesus to be in solidarity, and God’s will, as seen through the cross, can be scandalous. The unusual and scandalous claim concerning Christ’s repentance finds a home within the paradoxes of Christian faith, especially within a broader theological, and especially Lutheran, view that characterizes God’s revelation through Christ as hidden. Goodson and McDowell refer to this when they talk about the “visible and invisible nature of Christ.” Better said, repentance, as an expression of God’s righteousness in Christ, may be understood as one mode of the hidden God, as one of the startling ways that God reveals God’s self to the world – a way that confounds human, religious expectations. As the body of Christ, the church is called to do the same – to accept responsibility for sin in public life. This is how the church witnesses to Christ and participates in Christ’s redemptive work. Thus, I agree with Goodson and McDowell’s assessment of my argument as an alterna-tive to both Hauerwas and Malesic. Yet instead of describing ecclesial witness as simultaneously visible and invisible, I want to speak of a witness that is at once bold and humble – that is bold and visible yet in its visibility reflects Christ, who presents himself to humanity in sinful flesh, numbers himself with transgressors in his Jordan River baptism, refuses to be called good, and hangs as a criminal on the cross. As Bonhoeffer summarizes, “The only visible sign of God in the world is the cross” (85).

All of this is necessary background for answering the important questions posed by Goodson and McDowell at the end of their review. They turn our at-tention to Bonhoeffer’s 1932 lectures on Genesis published as Creation and Fall. I draw heavily on Bonhoeffer’s reading here, especially how he develops it later in Ethics, where he argues that Christians are called to live “beyond the knowl-edge of good and evil” (see The Church for the World, 133-142). Seeking after such knowledge and deeming oneself judge is what leads to the fall. Instead of taking the form of a judge, Christians are to take the form of Christ, who directs God’s judgment not to others but to himself on the cross. Christians take this form, I argue, through confession unto repentance. I define confession of sin as a pattern of speaking characterized by humble acknowledgment of complicity in specific sin and injustice and of the church’s inherent interconnectedness in the sin of broader society. I define repentance as the church’s concrete activity in public life that arises from accepting responsibility and acknowledging its complicity in such sin. Thus, confession unto repentance describes an ecclesial mode of being in the world, a disposition in public life (encompassing presence, speech, and act) – not a moral act in and of itself, a “magic silver bullet,” or a “morally idealist vision” in which one may have “absolute trust.” It is precisely my conviction about the pervasiveness of sin – in the church and broader society – that leads me to root a non-triumphal witness in confession and repentance. Repentance, as I describe it, does not “end all problems”; rather the church’s confession of sin is confession on top of confession, leading the church deeper and deeper into repentant action (see 110-112). Because the church’s exposed sin is incorporated into the logic of witness itself, public engagement based on confession unto repentance resists triumphalism.

Goodson and McDowell are exactly right to highlight that confession of sin may operate as one more pious, self-serving act that seeks to demonstrate Chris-tians’ own moral righteousness before the world. As such, it is mere self-deceit. Bonhoeffer talks about self-deceit most explicitly in the opening chapters of Dis-cipleship,and he connects it to “cheap grace,” forgiveness bestowed upon oneself that avoids the hard demands of discipleship – which is precisely what Adam is doing in the passage they cite. Goodson and McDowell are also right to inquire more deeply into how the church is to confess and repent. What I offer is not a theology of confession and repentance per se, but a theological foundation (based on Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Christ, the world, and the church) upon which confession unto repentance makes sense as public witness. I describe two church-communities whose work and witness exemplifies confession unto repentance in order to make my claims more concrete, and, in the conclusion, I offer defining characteristics of a redemptive public witness conformed to Christ. But I purposely avoid presuming there is a blueprint plan that all churches should follow. Each church-community has to discern the will of the living God itself. There is no ultimate safeguard against self-deceit, a fact that should make Christian public witness all the more humble. What I hope to have communicated, however, is that a public witness faithful to Christ necessitates that the church be conformed to Christ by accepting responsibility for, and immersing itself in, situations of social sin and injustice. From that place of solidarity in sin, the church discerns the will of God in its historical moment to the best of its ability, and, in turn, risks action – action that just may lead to concrete redemption for us and for the world.

Cite this article
Jennifer M. McBride, “Response to Review of The Church for the World”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 42:2 , 175-178

Jennifer M. McBride

Wartburg College
Jennifer M. McBride is Associate Dean and Assistant Professor at McCormick Theological Seminary. Prior to her work at McCormick she held the Board of Regents Endowed Chair in Ethics at Wartburg College.