Beckett: What Does it Mean to be The Church in a Post-Constantinian Age?

My entire four years at seminary can be summarised as addressing this question. For those unaware, living in a post-Constantinian age means we live in an age where Christianity is no longer popular or the normative religion. When Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity at the Edict of Milan in AD 313, for the first time in history Christianity could not only be practiced legally in the Roman Empire but it also placed Christianity in a position of societal and cultural prominence.

While Christianity is still legal in most countries today, it is no longer true that Christianity is socially and culturally prominent. Mostly in Western civilisation, Christianity is heavily criticised and suppressed. We no longer live in a Constantinian age where Christianity is largely favoured by the government and its people, hence our post-Constantinian age.

As a result, being the church has become difficult in many respects, mostly in the public sphere. It is no surprise, then, that my seminary studies have largely been focusing on how to be the church in a post-Constantinian age, whether or not the classes were addressing the term directly. In fact, I began writing this article in a class lecture addressing this exact question.

All of the scholarly articles I’ve read on what it means to be the church in a post-Constantinian age essentially argue that the church is still relevant in such an age despite its pushback against the church. Depending on their focus, they may put forth systematic or exegetical proofs to argue their position. Yet I have hardly read a practical argument, hence my purpose for writing here. While it is true that the church is always relevant despite her appearance of irrelevance since Christ and the Gospel are always relevant, this argument does not exactly answer the question on how to be the church in a post-Constantinian age.

Before we explore what it means to be the church, however, it is necessary that we have some systematic exposition and first look at the ontology of the church. That is, we must first answer the question: What is the church?

What is Church?

Simply put, the church “is the assembly of believers among whom the Gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel” (AC VII, 1). It’s that simple. Church is where God’s people gather to receive Word and Sacrament for the forgiveness of their sins.

What about the “invisible” church and the “visible” church? Many Christians are Platonists in this regard and have two different churches in their minds: the little c church here on earth, which is visible; and the big C Church consisting of all believers, especially the dead, which is invisible and is the true Church. For them, the church here on earth is merely a shadow of the more real or spiritual Church. The problem with this platonic thinking is that it segments the church as the Body of Christ. In this thinking, there are two churches rather than a singly unified church.

Christ’s body is not segmented, for He is not a worm. His body is one. The Apostle Paul wrote extensively on this subject to the Corinthians, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). This is why we can properly speak of the church as Christ’s actual body, rooted in His anointing at His Baptism in the Jordan through which we become participants in our own baptisms.

Thus, St. Augustine writes, “Not only has our Head been anointed, but we ourselves too, who are his body… We are all the body of Christ because we all share in the anointing and, in him, we are all Christ’s and Christ, since in a certain way the whole Christ consists in both Head and body” (Cantalamessa, 16).

The church is one, both visible and invisible. As Marquart succinctly puts it, “The one church is invisible in respect of the ‘who,’ and visible in respect of the ‘where’” (Marquart, Loc 621). In other words, the “who” or proper sense of the church are those who believe in Christ on earth and in heaven since the faith of the heart cannot be seen via physical means; this is the invisible church. The “where” or wide sense of the church are the believers gathered around the means of grace (Word and Sacrament); this is the visible church. Both of these are one and the same church; they are not different and neither one is better or more desirable than the other. Both are under the same Head. To put it succinctly: The church is invisible in that she is all the people of God who believe in the past, present, and future; the church is visible in that she is wherever the saints gather for worship.

Apology VII and VIII, 1-5 affirms AC VII that states “the church is the assembly of saints” (visible/wide sense) and it further explicated the church is also “principally an association of faith and the Holy Spirit in the hearts of persons” (invisible/proper sense).

Being the Church in a Post-Constantinian Age

With the systematics now out of the way, we can finally discuss what it means to be the church in a post-Constantinian age. Simply put: To be the church fundamentally means to do church. What this means is that to be the church in a post-Constantinian age, we continue to gather around the Word and Sacraments, proclaim the Gospel, and live as Christians in the world.

The need for the Gospel in a post-Constantinian age has not lowered the need for the Gospel; if anything, our post-Constantinian age heightens the need for the Gospel. Therefore, nothing has changed. Trivial things like church attendance and popularity might have changed, but the function of the church and her people has not changed. The answer to this pervasive question, then, is simply: keep being the church and keep doing church. This discussion can be diverged into three further categories: going to church, proclaiming the Gospel, and living in our vocations.

1. Going to Church is to Do Church

First, if we want to be the church in a post-Constantinian age, this means we need to continue going to church, which also means to do church. Do not stop going to Sunday morning worship (or whatever day of the week you’re able to attend), do not stop going to Bible study, and do not stop participating in your church’s ministry efforts. The first is especially important: church attendance.

I emphasise church attendance not for ex opere operato, that is, for the sake of going to church. Rather, my concern is a Law-Gospel concern. First, from the Law, that you might not violate the 3rd Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” In the Small Catechism, Luther writes, “What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” So, do not despise the preaching, hearing, and learning of the Word, lest you violate the 3rd Commandment and defile the Sabbath.

And second, from the Gospel, my concern comes from the Confessions’ definition on the purpose of the gathering of the saints given above. My concern is for your soul—to go to your church to receive the Word and Sacraments for the forgiveness of your sins. “Why can’t I just privately ask God for forgiveness at home?” While you may certainly do that, and God forgives you when you confess and repent, there comes a time when you cannot rely on your feelings.

When you do so privately in your closet at home, what assurance do you have that God has heard you and forgiven you? Your feelings cannot give you this assurance. But when your pastor preaches the Gospel to you and when he gives you the Lord’s body and blood in the Eucharist, when he reminds you of your Baptism, and when he pronounces Absolution of your sins “by the stead and command” of your Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, there is no room for doubt. Forgiveness has been given to you whether you feel it or not. God spoke and the world was created without fail; God speaks and delivers forgiveness to you in the Word and Sacraments and you are forgiven without fail.

In addition to Sunday worship, do not stop going to Bible study. Do you want to know more about God and His Word? Go to Bible study. If the Bible studies your church currently offers conflicts with your work schedule, talk to your pastor about it. (It’s amazing the things you can accomplish when you actually talk to people about your problems and concerns.)

Lastly, do you have a desire to help the people in your community? What is your church already doing that benefits your community? Volunteer for those service opportunities. Is there a need in your community your church could meet? Talk to your pastor about it.

2. The Church Proclaims the Gospel

The proclamation of the Gospel takes place first and foremost at church, but to limit Gospel proclamation to the pulpit both stifles the Word and fails to equip the saints with the vocabulary and language to talk about their faith with others. To be the church, especially in a post-Constantinian age, means to proclaim the Gospel first and foremost from the pulpit but also from the mouths of God’s children.

To repeat: The need for the Gospel in a post-Constantinian age has not lowered the need for the Gospel; if anything, our post-Constantinian age heightens the need for the Gospel. In order to proclaim the Gospel to the people in your life, you need to learn the language and vocabulary of the Gospel and your pastor needs to equip you with this language. And like with any language, learning a language takes time and discipline. How do you do this? Cycle back to the previous section: go to church and Bible study.

But I want to talk more about why the church needs to proclaim the Gospel today more than ever. The world’s need to hear the Gospel has never changed and it never will change until the Lord returns and brings His people into His kingdom. Yet the world’s need for the Gospel is perhaps more pronounced today more than ever because of the meagre themes of postmodernism.

It is no secret that there is abundant division taking place in our society, especially in the world of politics. This is largely due, I believe, to postmodernity’s emphasis on identity. The sacrament of Baptism answers the question of identity and provides the need for identity.

In a recent article I wrote, I write that conversations on Baptism directly confronts postmodernity’s ideology of identity. Postmodernity says identity comes from within—you can be whomever you want to be, whether that’s any gender you invent, your preferred sexual orientation, political ideologies, “race,” and so on. Everyone is trying to discover who they are and postmodernity is preaching to them and teaching them to look within themselves.

The proclamation of the Gospel in Baptism—and Baptism itself—resolves this messy issue. The identity Baptism gives you comes not from within but from without. Instead of trying to create your own transient, unstable identity, in Baptism you receive a foundational identity from God in Christ Jesus, our rock and fortress (Psalms 18; 46). To create an identity from within is to build a house on sand whereas baptismal identity is a house built on rock (cf. Matthew 7:24-27). Baptism is not even a house you build; it is a house built for you with an indestructible cornerstone, which is Christ Jesus our Lord.

Proclaiming what Baptism does and bringing people to Baptism (i.e., making disciples) provides a sure foundation for people who are constantly unsure of who they are. They think, “Being gay is who I am,” or, “Being black is who I am,” or, “Being Republican is who I am,” and so on. None of these are true. Those are what you are, not who you are. To speak personally on this, as a mulatto (having a biracial mother and a Caucasian father), being Black or Hispanic is not who I am but what I am. Who I am is a baptised child of God.

Furthermore, such Gospel proclamation brings people not only to die to sin (Romans 6) but also to die to themselves. Postmodern ideology is all about being an individual. In Baptism, however, you stop living for yourself and begin living for others, and even more, living for Christ. When you are baptised into Christ and, therefore, into the church, you are no longer an individual who belongs to nobody but yourself (a house built on sand); you are now an individual who belongs to a whole body, the church, which is Christ the Lord (1 Corinthians 12), a house built on the rock of Christ. This does not mean you lose your individual uniqueness and that you stop being you; what it means is that your community—the church—defines and shapes who you are in Christ (not in whatever their denomination is). Baptised into Christ, Jesus tells you who you are, and that is: child of God, redeemed, justified, sanctified, forgiven, dead to sin, alive to Christ.

There are many more postmodern problems we can speak to with the Gospel. The above issue of identity serves as an example.

3. Being the Church in Your Vocations

A narrow view of vocation is thinking of it as merely your professional career or your job. That is only one small aspect of vocation. Any role you play in a person’s life is your vocation, whether employee, employer, father, husband, wife, mother, son, daughter, student, teacher, uncle, aunt, niece, nephew, brother, sister, garbage truck man, janitor, nurse, doctor, and so on. Luther calls all vocations “masks of God” behind which God cares for His creation.

Thus, when a doctor saves her patient’s life, the patient can declare “Thank God!” with complete accuracy because it was God who provided the vocation, the medicine, the surgical skills, and so on. We also ought to thank God for our parents, our siblings, our garbage truck workers, our mailman, janitors, construction workers, accountants, and so on.

As Baptism solves the problem of identity, so does vocation. For as Baptism is the centre of your identity, all things about you flow from that mighty river. What does it mean for you to be a good student, a good spouse, a good sibling, a good worker, and so on? Look to your Baptism and see the life God has called you to live. There’s your answer.

For any vocation, perhaps it’s best to use 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 as our guiding principle. Whether I’m an employee, spouse, student, etc., the Lord calls me to be patient and kind toward others. Is work or school particularly stressful at the moment? The Lord calls me toward patience and kindness in my dealings with others. This means I do not snap at people but patiently bear with them. Is my wife nagging me? I will be kind. Is my husband playing video games and getting crumbs all over the couch? I will be patient. (I praise God for having such a patient wife myself!)

Love does not envy or boast. Someone gets a promotion; I will not envy her. I get a promotion; I will not boast about it. Love is not arrogant; therefore, I will not think of myself more than I ought (cf. Romans 12:3). Am I talented in a particular skill? I will not be arrogant but rather humble. For example, as a former professional saxophonist, I was not arrogant in this God-given talent; I recognised those more skilled than me (though this was a hard lesson for me to learn!).

Love is not rude. Again, is my wife nagging me? I will not be rude to her. Is my brother, sister, co-worker annoying me? I will not be rude. Love “does not insist on its own way” (v. 5). It is never “my way or the highway.” Rather, I am flexible in my schedule and the way I do things rather than rigid and inconsiderate.

Love “is not irritable or resentful” (v. 5). This person has a different opinion than I do; I will not let it irritate me and I will not resent them. Those who occupy much of their time and thinking in politics drastically need this biblical principle. Whether Democrat or Republican, it is their way or the highway. If anyone disagrees with a policy or ethic, immediately they are irritable and resentful toward their neighbour. This is not the love of God but the love of self.

Love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth” (v. 6). Has someone, even my enemy, been wronged? I will not rejoice. Has my enemy been falsely or deceptively wronged? I will not rejoice. Rather, I will rejoice in God’s truth. His truth tells me not to hate my enemy but to love them and pray for them (Matthew 5:43-47). I will speak to them the truth of God, that they might turn from their wickedness and live in God.

Moreover, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (vv. 1-2). The problem with my Lutheran brothers and sisters today is that we have orthodoxy (correct doctrine), but many of us do not have love. Doctrine without love is dead.

After reading this list from 1 Corinthians, it can easily be said, “But who can do all this without fail? I can’t!” Indeed, you cannot. The point is not that you love perfectly; the point is that you love. How many of us, in our relationships with others through our various vocations, actually try to love? I like using politics as an example because the political world is rife with hatred and hostility. Considering both sides, how many of them actually try loving one another? Neither side—liberal or conservative—is concerned with loving people different than them; they only want to love people who are just like them and who think like them.

This kind of love does not fly with Jesus. “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same… But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:32-33, 35).

Remember that in Baptism we are made sons of the Most High. This means you live differently because you are different. Once, you were dead in your sin; now you have been made alive in Christ. As a baptised child of God, you are not called to love people who are just like you; you are called to love those who are not like you, especially your enemies.

For that is exactly what Christ has done. Christ has done all these acts of love for you and me. Like His Father, Christ is kind to the ungrateful and the evil (you and me). He was merciful and patient. Jesus loved His enemies—you and me (Romans 5:10-11). It should be no surprise, then, that the Christ who died for His enemies because He loved us commands us to love our enemies as well.

“What do I do when I fail?” Return to the first section: go to church and do church; and remember the second section, that you are baptised into Christ. Peter writes that Baptism, corresponding to the Flood, “now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). On this, Rev. Dr. Robert Kolb writes, “Peter explains that the washing of Baptism is not merely ‘the washing of dirt from the body,’ some external rite, which would afford external cleansing or symbolic washing… Instead, Baptism saves because it enables the baptized to go before God with a clear conscience on the basis of Christ’s resurrection” (Kolb, 47).

In other words, because you have been baptised into Christ, you can enter God’s presence with a clear conscience to confess your sins on the basis that Christ is risen from the dead! As the author of the epistle to the Hebrews writes, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16). The altar at your local church is where you can confidently approach God’s throne of grace in repentance and confidently receive His grace and mercy.

Conclusion

In summary, to be the church in a post-Constantinian age is no different than how the church has functioned in ages past. She still does what the church has always done in both turbulent times and popular times. Mainly, her people gather together to receive the forgiveness of sins in the Word and Sacraments and for the mutual edification and fellowship (building up) of the saints; she proclaims the Gospel while her children do the same; and her people live as baptised children of God in their daily vocations with love.

Being the church is simple, but it’s not easy to do. There will be failure along the way both in individuals and the church as an institution. She is full of sinners, after all. We have seen such failures since the Fall of Man. Yet the church is also the place where her people locally gather despite their fears, failures, and brokenness to place them before Christ who loved them and died for them and rose for them despite all these things. They bring their sins and failures before Christ as they also forgive one another, encouraging one another towards love just as Christ has loved them. The Lord’s Altar is where people who were once enemies become brothers and sisters in Christ.

Bibliography

Cantalamessa, Raniero. The Holy Spirit in the Life of Jesus. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994.

Kolb, Robert. Make Disciples Baptizing: God’s Gift of New Life and Christian Witness. Saint Louis: Concordia Seminary, 1997.

Marquart, Kurt E. Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics: The Church and Her Fellowship, Ministry, and Governance. Ed. Robert Preus. Kindle edition. Fort Wayne: Luther Academy, 2015.

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