Skip to main content

The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness

Jennifer McBride
Published by Oxford University Press in 2011

Jacob L. Goodson is Professor of Religious Studies, College of William & Mary, and Quinn T. McDowell is a recent graduate of the College of William & Mary with degrees in Religious Studies and Economics.

Jennifer McBride’s book The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness draws from the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to offer her readers a theologically rich and objectively challenging account of the church’s obligation to the world. In the introduction she provides a scathing reminder of the inevitable judgment of God on the world. She seeks to correct some of the most dangerous tendencies within the modern American church and to provide a helpful way forward for the church’s reflection on how to construct faithfully a philosophy of public witness.

McBride’s argument is that Christ remains Lord of the world and all reality points to Christ and exists in Christ; thus the church should be entirely fortheworldand not against the world. McBride suggests that doing so requires the church to accept a faithful witness motivated by confession and repentance. Interpreting 1 John 2:15 alongside John 3:16, McBride claims:

Bonhoeffer connects discipleship with repentance … [and] shows that a paradox lies within repentance: Christians turn away from the world [1 John 2:15] in order that they may turn toward Christ the mediator, who then leads them back [John 3:16] into the midst of this-worldly reality. (93)

In our judgment, McBride could offer a similar interpretation of James 1: “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” James concludes with a warning about being “for the world”: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Confession and repentance keeps us “unstained from the world” but also makes us for the world because of the church’s faithful witness to “orphans and widows in their affliction.”

In order to arrive at her conclusion, namely that the church needs to adopt a witness founded in confession and repentance, McBride addresses and corrects the improper theological reasoning and unsound theology found within American churches. Building from Bonhoeffer’s theology, McBride provides us with honest critiques of the destructive tendencies (and theological justifications for those tendencies) located in those churches aligned with the conservative right and the liberal left. For example, she criticizes conservative Christians for their tendency to “deny Christ’s expansive lordship when they reduce Christological claims that privilege human belief about Christ over divine accomplishment through Christ, thus neglecting the cosmological and ontological effects of Christ’s person and work” (33). McBride emphasizes how Bonhoeffer’s theology of the church, as a community of revelation, corrects the arrogance and hubris that plagues many American churches. The church should operate from divine objectivity in Christ in order to “accurately account for Christ’s cosmological and ontological accomplishment” (36). McBride’s passion to create an inclusive account of Christian discipleship is clear in her warning against the perils of liberalism: “Attention to individual spiritual expression often eclipses a robust account of divine judgment and the cost of Christian discipleship” (32).

McBride identifies two specific North American Protestant tendencies that, if not properly evaluated, distort the witness of churches in America to the world. First, she identifies how the church equates “witness to with possession of truth” (25; italics in original). This tendency arises from the church’s lack of reflection on the simultaneous visible and invisible nature of Christ’s person and work in the world. Second, she articulates how many churches presume that Christians are called to be standard-bearers of morality in public life. McBride wants the church to guard against the moralistic tendency to justify ourselves before the world, which eventually leads to a triumphalistic theory of public witness.

She builds on Bonhoeffer’s suspicion (found in his famous essay “Protestantism without Reformation”) that American churches have missed out on the “Reformation” by not challenging communities of believers to assess themselves honestly. They also fail to recognize the ways in which cultural and social biases infiltrate church-communities. According to McBride, however, these problems should not lead us to despair! Our hope is found in the Christian practices of confession and repentance. We are called to confess our social sins to the world. Repentance affords the church a way to take the form of the humiliated and crucified Christ; partaking of Christ’s body necessitates the “renewing of [your] minds, which means honestly and courageously reflecting on one’s inherited and embedded theology” (157).

he two primary goals of the second half of her book involve: (a) developing an understanding of Christ’s provision for the world by his creation of a new ontological structure of existence and (b) teasing out the implications for how the church exists and witnesses within that structure. No realm of the world goes untouched by the power of Christ’s work in the world. McBride captures this reality in her words, “Christ has given the world a new ontology, the grain of the universe is now patterned after the life, death, and resurrection” (87). Her work strengthens the notion that God is Lord of the entire world, by borrowing from Bonhoeffer’s interpretation of Colossians 1:16-20: the world and the church do not battle each other but are reconciled in Christ and exist within the same reality, which affirms God’s love for the world. God’s love and acceptance of humanity, through Christ, has given the world a “new structure that envelops both the present reality of sin and the unfolding of redemption” (103). McBride makes it clear that the world and the church are not disparate realities but stand side by side within and under the reality of Christ. This compels the church to a specific kind of witness that entails balancing both the visible and invisible aspects of Christ through the practice of repentance. Christ becomes most glorified when the church adopts a posture of repentance as its primary form of witness to the world.

McBride argues that the church should repent in three ways. The church should repent of its own sins, of the guilt of the world (by taking responsibility for the world), and by becoming “transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2). She demonstrates that repentance has the power of transforma-tion because “it is in Christ’s repentance that the church is engaged, the church’s repentance reveals and releases divine power and redemption in the world” (62). The church’s witness to Christ gives God the maximum amount of glory when “it takes the form of the humiliated, crucified God, the form … define[d] as acceptance of guilt, or confession of sin, unto repentance” (57). Through repentance, the church does not possess the truth but offers a witness to the truth that Christ is the Lord of the world.

Ultimately, McBride offers a fruitful exposition on how the reconciliation of the world in and through Christ prepares the way for the church to adopt a specific witness of confession and repentance. We believe she supplies readers with a new “third way,” which navigates the current debate found within Bonhoeffer scholarship on the role of witness. The debate consists of those who believe Bonhoeffer advocates for an actively visible witness of the church (see Stanley Hauerwas’s work) versus those who think Bonhoeffer’s thought resides more closely to a sobering application of Matthew 6:3: “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (see Jonathan Malecic, Secret Faith in the Public Square: An Argument for the Concealment of Christian Identity, Brazos Press, 2009). In the final two chapters of her book McBride points toward two actual communities striving to live out a faithful witness marked by confession and repentance (the Eleuthero Community and The Southeast Whitehouse). In her presentation and reflection on these two communities, McBride articulates how a commitment to repentant activity in and for the world provides an influential and visible witness to Christ while avoiding the hazardous traps of religious favoritism, triumphalism, and vicious pridefulness. Thus she successfully offers a way (a “third way”) to appreciate the invisible and visible features of the church’s witness within the world.

While we find McBride’s account of the necessity of confession and repentance theologically persuasive and sound, we think that this passage concerning Adam’s attempts at repentance from Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall brings to light significant questions in relation to McBride’s argument. Bonhoeffer writes:

Adam, however, still fails to stand; instead, he answers: The woman whom you made my companion gave to me from the tree, and I ate. He confesses his sin, but in the very act of confessing it he seeks to flee again. You gave me the woman, not I; I am not guilty, you are guilty. … So instead of standing before God, Adam falls back on the trick learned from the serpent of correcting what is in God’s mind, of appealing from the God the Creator to a better god, a different god. That is, Adam tries once again to escape. … Adam has not come to stand before God; he has not confessed. He has appealed to his conscience, to his knowledge of good and evil, and on the basis of this knowledge accused his Creator. He has not recognized the grace of the Creator that shows itself precisely in that God calls Adam and does not let him flee. Instead Adam sees this grace only as hate, as wrath, a wrath that inflames his own hate, his rebellion, his desire to get away from God. Adam keeps on falling. The fall drops with increasing speed for an immeasurable distance. (Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3, 129-130; italics added)

In this passage, Bonhoeffer highlights the dualistic conceptions of freedom and human limitations. God created us with complete freedom because creatures bear the imprint of the Creator. As we possess freedom because of God’s freedom, we also have God’s goodness and the ability to create life. We are free for God, and our freedom in relation to one another comes from the freedom that God gives us. We find that McBride successfully captures this aspect of Bonhoeffer’s theology of freedom in her understanding of how humans relate to one another.

However, only God is free from the world; we remain subjected to the world because of sin. Adam’s and Eve’s decision to push beyond the limits God constructed for them permanently changed the ontological structure of the world. The restrictions God places on Adam (Bonhoeffer emphasizes Adam’s role in the passage we cited) show that he has complete freedom, but God also created the requisite boundaries that Adam should not cross. God acts as both the boundary and center of Adam’s existence.

Our need for confession comes from this reality of sin. However, the freedom we have been given to choose who or what controls our lives causes us to go beyond our limits – which ultimately restricts our freedom. True confession comes about when we learn to acknowledge our limitations and make space for God to be both the center and boundary of our existence. When Adam “confesses” his sin to God, he acknowledges God as the boundary but not the center of his life. Both Bonhoeffer and McBride remind us that instead of appreciating the other as part of ourselves, and a gift of grace from the Creator, we abhor anyone or anything that reminds us of our limits before God. Pride tempts us to exceed the boundaries established by God. Ironically, when we traverse those limits we lose our freedom.

Adam confesses his sin. However, he “flees again” during confession. Since he flees, he refuses to stand before God. This refusal means that either Adam failed to confess his sins properly or failed in the call for repentance (“confession unto repentance”). All of this results from sin, which causes self-deceit. Confession might lead to self-deceit concerning our own righteousness before God and witness within the world. In this sense, on McBride’s account, American Christians are best described as Adam. The question becomes, can confession into repentance serve as a practice that does not lead to self-deceit?

In conclusion, does McBride’s account of confession into repentance take seriously enough the effect of sin on the world and the difficulties of reality imposed on us by sin? Can her theological proposal, if not properly balanced by a doctrine of sin, be taken as a type of morally idealist vision for churches in America? Does she provide enough nuance within her argument to ensure that her account of confession and repentance is not the “magic silver bullet” promised to end all problems? While we find that McBride provides extremely helpful ways forward for these questions, which do not necessarily lead to moral idealism and quick fixes, we think that Bonhoeffer’s realism concerning sin tempers McBride’s absolute trust not in that we confess (we agree with the need for Christians to confess their social sins actively) but in how we confess. As we learn from Bonhoeffer’s theological interpretation of Genesis, even with his confession, Adam continues to fall. Bonhoeffer highlights how confession might lead to self-deceit concerning our righteousness. Does McBride’s understanding of confession into repentance risk this self-deceit?

Quinn T. McDowell

College of William and Mary
Quinn T. McDowell is a graduate of the College of William & Mary with degrees in Religious Studies and Economics, he serves as an Assistant coach at Lehigh University.