Foundations for a Theology of Community Service

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Revised from notes for an introduction to the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria Commission for Mission consultation

held at the Victorian Council on Christian Education office, St. Kilda, on 22 October 1993

by David Beswick

This paper is concerned primarily with the Scriptural foundations of a theology of community service within our understanding of the mission of the Church beginning with the mission of Jesus himself. It is set in the context of current discussions in the church and offers a definite position on some central issues of controversy concerning the distinctiveness and relevance of what the Church has to offer to society in general. It arose out of my concern with the approach taken in a discussion paper on Family Welfare Policy which was issued by a Task Group of the Commission, about which I wrote to the Director of Justice and Social Responsibility, Bronwyn Pike.

I was concerned at several points including the propriety of opening up for non-believers the kind of discussion which ought to take place within the Church on the nature of the Church and its relationship to aspects of mission, because this involves an understanding of the nature of the faith.

The Need for an Independent Objectively Christian Starting Point

If, however, we come to the question of what kind of theological statement we ought to make as a basis for our policy-making on community services and the relationship of agencies to the Church in general, then that is by no means a simple question. One could start at many points. One could look at the Basis of Union, for example, and see what it says about service in the community and to the community. Then could we note how the renewal of humanity is seen to be related to the confession of Jesus as Lord (a theme which is elaborated below in this paper in reference to Scripture):

Or one could start with a basic Trinitarian formulation and see there the beginnings of an understanding of community and implications by way of worship and service which honours and celebrates the covenant relationship in which we share in that community, which is opened up to us through our identification with the Saviour who is the Son in communion with the Father and through whom we are enabled by the gifts of the Spirit to embody His presence in the world. Given some such basic understanding, however, of the nature of the faith, then we might go on to elaborate a theology of service in relation to the mission of the Church. It is most important, however, that we do acknowledge a starting point in the substance of the faith. It is most inadequate to begin with some apparently derived position which is heavily influenced by the culture of the society in which we happen to be placed at a particular time. The nature of service in mission does require an independent starting point least we be deceived into thinking that we are doing the Lord's work when we are doing no more than conforming to the dominant culture, or even to specific ideologically-defined principles which are influential in our particular context, and that is a real danger today.

It is part of the danger that we face in regard to cultural conformity and relativism that different points of view about the nature of the Church and its mission will be discussed as if one can only recognise that there are different opinions, that is without regard to any independent or objective criterion of truth. Cultural diversity in the working out of our own salvation is one thing. Disregard for the truth to which we witness about Jesus Christ and the Kingdom he proclaimed is something else. It is totally inadequate and misleading to pose the question in terms of which models of the Church are most popular or relevant to the immediate concerns of Church members today. That is not to say that acceptance by the general membership of the Church of what the Church teaches is not an important part of the determination of doctrinal authority, for it is. But it must not be the starting point. That should be much more soundly based in the apostolic witness to the person and work of Christ.

We believe that Scripture provides the fullest and most reliable source of information for testing and developing our understanding of the apostolic witness. That belief is a commitment of the Church. It is a constitutional type of agreement, such as have in the Basis of Union and other branches of the church catholic have in other ways. It is only through the acceptance of such an agreed frame of reference that theological discussion can proceed with confidence of developments which will enhance rather than destroy the unity and effectiveness of the Church in mission. But the nature of authority in this process is a subtle one. It is not a process of deduction from a set of agreed premises but a process of interaction, and that process is not one of hierarchical prescription. It is a form of discourse within the Church in which the living faith response of particular people in particular situations is integrated with and enriched by communion with other believers in their shared reference to the historic apostolic witness to what God accomplished in Christ. The apostolic witness, however is not confined to Scripture but is present also in the Church both today and in history. This apostolic presence in the Church and its role in theological discourse raises other questions of method which will be taken up briefly in the conclusion of this paper. The basic point relevant to mission is that unity is possible in diversity, and diversity in unity, if we hold the catholic faith, and that depends upon our acceptance of the apostolic witness.

Service and Mission

If community service is part of the mission of the Church, a useful understanding of its foundations might then be found in the mission of Jesus himself. He came into Galilee proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. His actions in driving out evil spirits and in healing the sick were part of the proclamation and realisation of the coming of the Kingdom, about which He taught in ways which brought people to give serious attention to the nature of service to one another. In this context Jesus is much more than the great example. He is the Messiah. In the beginning of Mark's Gospel when Jesus was beginning his mission in Capernaum, it is the man with the evil spirit who cries out, "I know who you are, the holy one of God". (Mark 1:14-27):

It was there in a similar context (Mark 2:9) that Jesus said, "Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Stand up and take your mat and walk'?" It was here that he was marked out as one who taught with authority. The performance and the proclamation are one and he who acts is part of the message. Human service is rendered in his overcoming of the powers of evil. Those who acknowledged that are the first to recognise who he is. (It ought not to be necessary to be distracted in our discussion by questions about the appropriate cosmology in which to represent our understanding of the overcoming of powers of evil. The points which follow on Jesus being the Messiah and the nature of the good news are the same regardless of what we think the powers of evil are.)

When John the Baptist wanted to know whether Jesus was the one who was to come or whether they were to expect some other, the message Jesus sent back clearly linked the signs of the coming of the Kingdom with his being the one who was to come. (Matthew 11:4-6):

There is a direct parallel here with the commission that he gave to the twelve and to the seventy (Luke 10:1-9, "Cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come near to you.'", v.9) when he sent them out on mission - heal the sick, cast out demons, proclaim the good news (Mark 3:14-19, Matt. 10:5-23 for the sending of the twelve, with their commission, Matthew 10:7-8):

When the seventy reported back, again the same images appear. (Luke 10:17-20):

And in the early chapters of the Book of Acts, the apostles demonstrate again how victory over the enemies of humankind are associated with the proclamation of the good news about the coming of the Messiah.

Similarly, in regard to the gifts of the Spirit, which are gifts for ministry, some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, etc. (Ephesians 4, I Corinthians 12, etc.), we have the witness of the apostles to these gifts flowing from the victory of the Messiah over sin and death. When He was raised on high he gave gifts out of his bountiful treasure: a bounty won in the conquest which had cost him his life. (Ephesians 4:7-14)

The fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23 - `the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, {23} gentleness, and self-control') are the results of a transformation of the world of particular cultures in the lives of particular people through the exercise of the gifts and the power of God. They are gifts that come from the grace of God, not simply moral choices or the outworking of human potential, but the undeserved realisation in human life of that victory that Christ won, and of that peace and unity for which he prayed. The point is that the goals and values of human service in terms of human understanding and welfare are intimately related not only to the man Jesus, but to his being the Christ of God. He is the one with the power to pour out such fruitful gifts.

Thus we see in the good news about coming of the Kingdom, in the nature of Christ's own mission and in his commission to the apostles, both witness to the work of God in Christ and the service of humanity in His name. There is a conjunction of Jesus of Nazareth with the cosmic Christ through whom the purpose of God in creation is accomplished, his purpose being that everything in heaven and on earth should be brought into a unity in Christ that we might all realise our potential as children of God and live to celebrate with him the realisation of the Kingdom at the end of time. When we go on mission, we participate in a cosmic drama. (Colossians 1:15-20 etc.) The implication then for our theology of community service and the relationship of agencies to the Church must be one in which the ministry of the Word and the ministry of service are held closely together, in which the corporate identity of the Church as the body of Christ engaged in worship as well as service is openly acknowledged.

Co-operation in a Secular context

That is not to say that the Church cannot act with people of goodwill in the common service of humanity. Certainly we can. Indeed, Jesus himself taught that, in this context of service, those who are not against us or on our side (Mark 9:38-40):

That is very different from the different context in which Jesus and his mission are under attack when those who are not for us are against us. (Matthew 12:25-32):

He knew what they were thinking and said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. {26} If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? {27} If I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. {28} But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. {29} Or how can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered. {30} Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. {31} Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. {32} Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

The big question though facing the Church about the relationship of the community service agencies to the corporate body is whether those agencies are to be understood as part of the body in which the evangelical as well as serving components of mission are to be expressed or whether we are engaged at this point simply in co-operation with other people of goodwill. Insofar as they are explicitly Christian, then close integration with the councils of the Church in which the Lordship of Christ is acknowledged should be expected. That expectation will stand in contrast to and will challenge the processes of secularisation wherever the Lordship of Christ and the Catholic faith are called into question.

When we are engaged in co-operation with other people of goodwill who do not share with us explicitly in the mission of the Church by way of combining service with proclamation, then we need to have an understanding about the basis in values on which we can proceed together. It is concerned with this question of goodwill, but it is also concerned with our understanding of the nature of humanity. There are fundamentally different conceptions in the Christian understanding and the currently popular understanding which is of the democratic/romantic tradition in which we deal with human rights with an idealised conception of humanity that can be idolatrous. The Church must be careful not to adopt those conceptions which arise out of ideological or other humanistic secular understandings in the place of those inspired by the Gospel. It is possible nevertheless to reach agreement on what the aims of particular agencies will be. It is even possible for non-believers working in agencies to acknowledge that the agency has other purposes than those common humanistic understandings which we might share with them. These are practical judgements in which open discussion with all concerned is quite appropriate. The point where the discussion becomes inappropriate is when the nature of the faith is called into question by the power and influence of the secular forces with whom we are engaged in a common task. There will be points in that process at which we will need to part company, especially where there is a direct challenge to the gospel and the legitimacy of the Church's interest in community services. There are those in the community, who are often to be found on the governing bodies, and sometimes in management, of church community service and educational institutions, who see themselves as the moral successors to the Church, with a right, even a duty, to take over the assets of the Church and use them for what they regard as better purposes. But I believe that at the present time there is great opportunity for co-operative endeavour in which we can pursue some aspects of our mission just so long as we do not at the same time substitute conformity to the dominant culture for the apostolic faith.

The Particular Interest of the Church in Family Welfare Policy

The general points made above about the relationship of community services offered by the Church to the theology of mission apply to family welfare policy. In so far as a teaching function in witness to the apostolic faith is acknowledged to be part of the mission in which agencies share, then we need to recognise that the family has a special place in the teaching of the Church. It is not simply a question of its being recognised as one of the foundations of society (as we have in the marriage service), nor are we concerned only with general principles of social justice though such principles are important in our work and we must always keep community services and political or community action for justice in close association with one another. The family has also a deeper theological and symbolic significance (also to found in the marriage service) because of its embodiment of aspects of the covenant in which we are related to God (2 Cor. 11:2, Rev. 19:6-10). Marriage has a sacramental character as a means of grace; and sexual behaviour has implications for our loyalty to Christ (1 Cor. 6:15-20.) The practice of infant baptism depends for its validity on our acceptance of family responsibilities within the community of faith as a whole. Related to this is the incorporation of people into the covenant community and their growth in grace through the teaching and mutual support which the family offers to its members.

There is a Christian theology of the family with basic elements that are universal, but it is one of those fields which most clearly requires in our day the reflective work to be done afresh in the light of changing conditions for life in society. It is only one such area in which there is a specific theology that could be taken up again in our general consideration of the theology of community service. Other relevant areas with a good deal of specificity in theological considerations in the past include our understanding of the state, the relationship of the church to it, and the nature of authority within the church.

The Policy Process and Theological Discourse

In conclusion it might be helpful to note a few elementary principles for the processes within the church which might facilitate development of theological understanding for the church's commitment to service in a particular field and how that understanding can be related to policy. It is important to note that there are different kinds of expertise, different gifts relevant to this task. Effective communication between the people with these different gifts is necessary. That is the process of interaction to which I referred above in the last paragraph under the heading "The Need for an Independent Objectively Christian Starting Point".

Not every member of the Church has the capacity to do serious theological work. At the same time, many are able to take part in discussion and to help relate the current understanding of the apostolic witness to particular tasks. The Church is not in this sense a theocracy in which those with special knowledge are able to prescribe the actions which follow in practical affairs purely by reference to general principles of doctrine. At the same time, those with the relevant knowledge of Church doctrine should be recognised as an important source of information, as important contributors to a process in which the policy of the Church on matters such as community service can be related to the Church's basic beliefs. Just as within the congregation the Minister of the Word is rightly recognised as a source, a reliable or authoritative source, of what the Church teaches, and members of the congregation at the induction of a minister undertake to listen for the Word of God in his or her preaching, so within other councils of the Church there are people who are recognised as having teaching authority, or of being reliable guides. Within the Synod, we have the staff of the Theological Hall and others specifically recognised as having teaching authority through the work of the Commission on Education for Ministry. The Synod has also appointed a Doctrine and Liturgy Committee with advisory functions. It is important to make deliberate reference to those people who are recognised has having what has traditionally been recognised as the role of the doctors of the Church, to put questions to them which will elicit some elucidation of the problems in theological terms, to listen, to discuss, to ask more questions, to enter into a process of interaction so that together the body as a whole works out the best way to proceed.

The other end of this interaction, of course, must consist of input from people who know the practical task well. Sometimes this will mean calling on the professional expertise of staff such as those we have in agencies, or in the Commission. In the end it is the people who are given the formal authority to decide questions of policy who must reach the relevant conclusions as a result of interaction within the body. We will be handicapped in this process by the fact that some of those who have relatively autonomous decision-making responsibilities are not members of the Church and will not be able to participate effectively in discussions concerning the nature of the faith and its implications for action. So the Commission will have a special responsibility for general policy in such situations and will need, in addition to the theological discussion which they might facilitate, to enter into another kind of process where we are dealing with people who are outside the faith community. That second process will be needed to develop an understanding of the relationship between the Church's general policy which is theologically informed and particular policies of the agencies concerned. That will have to proceed on a somewhat different basis such as I have referred to above under the heading "Co-operation in a Secular Context" regarding co-operation with people of goodwill.

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