There’s lots of different ideas out there about what the Church should look like: indeed, most of the schisms throughout Christian history have occurred, at root, because of differences over ecclesiology.
What role should the Church take in the world? Paul’s metaphor for the Church is helpful: the Church is the be the physical presence of Christ during His absence. Our mission in the world around us ought to be the same as Christ’s, who described his purpose thus, quoting Isaiah 61, in Luke 4:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Certainly, then, the Church should be a liberating force in society, releasing prisoners from all kinds of bondage: economic, sociological, psychological, what have you. But Fin raises a good point: generally this hasn’t been the way things have worked out in Christian history:
i think there’s more than enough evidence to show [Christianity] as system that supports white anglo men. the god of the poor? maybe, but what difference does it make if it doesn’t enact change?
The “Christianizing” of Native Americans during the colonial period, the Crusades, the Inquisition: these are all good examples of Christians oppressing, rather than liberating people, no matter how sincere or insincere our intentions. But the initial response I have to that kind of argument is that whatever way things might have worked out in practice, slaughtering Muslims in the name of Christendom or burning “heretics” over minor doctrinal issues doesn’t exactly fit the theory. It’s hard to see how, say, medieval Catholicism or modern evangelicalism got to their current state when the original church looked like Acts chapter 2:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
So wait, who played bass guitar again? That must’ve been Philip.
But the key thing to note for the Church as far as reversing unjust economic structures is that the early Church shared everything in common, “selling their possessions and goods,” giving “to everyone as he [or she!] had need.” That’s pretty radical, yeah? Here the Church, in a small way and yet, I think, in a very big way, overthrew the economic injustices of the day. But it did so, not in opposition to (like with Marx) or in cooperation with (a la, say, Jerry Falwell) the state, but in a sort of casual disregard for it.
That, I think, is the promise of the Anabaptist idea of the “alternative community” where the power structures of the state are rendered pretty much powerless. It amounts to practical anarchy in matters of the state. But the trouble with Anabaptist ecclesiology, I think, is that the “alternative community” is so often rendered meaningless to the society at large. The Amish, for example, live in Lancaster County in an inspiring and incredible form of Christian community (see, for example, the Amish school shooting of 2006): but you never really hear about it much, do you? The Anabpatist model misses that element of expansion essential to a true manifestation of Christ in the world. Remember: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Hmmm . . . tricky. Is the Church even meant to enact change outside her community?