Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

Myles Werntz

Rethinking Apostolicity

In the light of world Christianity.

When I tell people that I recently moved from South Florida, their eyes are full of visions of mega-mansions and gaudy towers. But this, I think, is to miss South Florida entirely. Beyond the opulence and Jaguar dealerships, the world there unfolds in an array of cultures and international expression. Our neighbors were from Jamaica, Senegal, Lebanon, Haiti; my students Colombian, Scottish, Venezuelan. It was there, as a teacher of Christian theology, I had to come to terms with the homogeneity of my own theological heritage. I had written a dissertation on 20th- century American theology, and was tasked as a new professor with a course in global Christianity. There, I began to encounter and teach voices I had never studied seriously or, perhaps worse, never known were possible. John Flett's Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective gives voice to the challenge of that course for me: how Western Christianity still struggles with the legitimacy of non-Western churches.

In his previous work, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Missio Dei, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Eerdmans, 2010), Flett traced the ways in which mission is intrinsic to what a church is, and not an add-on to an otherwise complete church. If a church is its mission, Flett argued, then a church cannot be truly complete apart from the act of mission. Apostolicity continues this labor, examining what it means for world Christianity—i.e., the fruit of Western missions—to be judged fully authentic and apostolic.

The concept of apostolicity, one of the four classic marks of the church, has broadly denoted continuity between past and present, with a church being fully "apostolic" insofar as it carries forth past doctrine into present situations. Ensuring that there is some continuity between past and present is an appropriate concern, long tied to questions of catholicity: if there is to be unity within the church, this must in part be related to unity of doctrine. The problem with this way of conceiving apostolicity, Flett argues, is that what we take to be the substance of apostolicity is inextricable from the cultural heritage of the sending church, Western presumptions of culture (and thus, of holiness, discipleship, and doctrinal fidelity) smuggled in as "doctrinal continuity."

That the concept of apostolicity has been so intertwined with catholicity is due in no small part to the horizon of schism under which Christianity lives, Flett argues. The ecumenical impulse behind missions, however well-intended to solve an issue regnant within the West, produced a concern for having not only a unified doctrine but a unified culture capable of forming people rightly in that doctrine. Put differently, missionaries' ecumenical message could only be interpreted rightly against a commonly held institutional, structural, and cultural backdrop, a backdrop which was necessarily European in substance. When we think of apostolicity as a substance which is carried forward, and not a process of conformity to Christ which the community undergoes, the conclusion is that the sending church's culture (both theological and otherwise) necessarily becomes the standard for the new church to live into.

This move to viewing apostolicity as tied up with creating a certain kind of culture grew in part from a concern that Christianity not capitulate to individualism, and in part from making sure that what is en vogue presently does not trump the past. The linking of Christian identity to a culture of some kind is unavoidable, as Flett notes, for God is a God who moves in history; passing on the faith must always be done from one culture to another. The problem comes when apostolicity becomes irrevocably linked to certain cultural forms and moments within that history, producing a once-and-for-all character which prevents future histories from receiving consideration on their own terms. Even recent struggles over how to name non-Western Christianity reflect this: should we be speaking in terms of "global Christianity" or "world Christianity"? The former term (so some argue) reflects apostolicity as a theological/social culture which is transmitted from one place to all other places, while the latter understands apostolicity as an irruptive process, a movement of faithfulness toward Jesus Christ which may or may not look like the culture which brought the Gospel to it.

But Flett's advocacy for world Christianity is not only out of a desire that non-Western Christianity be seen as an equal partner with the West, but also that Western Christianity stop rehearsing its own work in light of its past. While schism remains a real force within both the doctrinal and practical lives of American and European churches, subjugating apostolicity—in the West or beyond—to the desire for ecumenism is not the way forward. Both Western Christian stagnation and an inequality between Western churches and non-Western ones stem from this same root: a conflation of the process of apostolicity with a particular past cultural and structural form which must persist in order for Christianity to have continuity, most damningly described by missiologist Johannes Hoekendijk as turning Christianity into a new kind of territorial Ba'al worship. Flett seeks to liberate both world Christianity and Western Christianity from this territorial presumption.

The concerns for ecumenism in evaluating apostolicity raised by Flett's interlocutors are not entirely without merit. The splintering of Christians from one another into new tribes of Paul and Apollos cannot be ignored, and having churches capable of being spaces for the maturing of Christians and the formation of the faithful into a story older than their own is a valid and right concern. But what if, Flett asks, we view apostolicity in terms of pluriformity to the one Jesus Christ? If, in Acts, the Gentiles were not expected to become Jewish first, but allowed to remain Gentiles, new horizons for thinking about what counts as "apostolic" emerge. Instead of "continuity with past formulations," apostolicity becomes concerned with Christ's reclaiming of a new and distinctly non-Western culture as Christ's own. Instead of "conformity to the apostles of the past," apostolicity becomes concerned with what the apostles themselves were concerned with: Christ's work and mission within history.

These questions of enculturation are certainly not new, though casting them in terms of apostolicity raises new angles to be considered. The historic Western denominations have not inherited the earth in recent decades, as Pentecostal, non-denominational, and charismatic congregations explode across the globe. As witnessed in intra-Anglican controversies over gay ordination, and World Council of Churches discussions over adequate representation of non-European members, the churches represented by Flett's work must come to the table as full partners and not merely as missions outposts.

By allowing apostolicity to be reconceived as a process to be undergone rather than a historical-cultural substance to be replicated, Flett convincingly argues for a postcolonial way forward for ecclesiology. The lingering question of ecumenicity remains, however: if the relationship between old and new church is no longer that of host and colony, what is that relationship? To be sure, ecumenical discussions have often overdetermined what counts as authentically church, but this is different than saying that it needs no place in the discussion of apostolicity. Flett's discussion of the biblical story of the Jerusalem church and the Gentile churches (Acts 15) offers an interpretation in which neither Peter nor Paul is subsidiary to the other, an analogy for how to approach the West/ non-Western church question. But his deeply instructive account still leaves open the question of what to make of their relation.

In one sense, the churches—despite chronology or heft of heritage—are equals, for only Christ is the foundation of a church. But in another sense, it is inescapable that many non-Western churches received the gospel from the West, a relation which has historically led to inequity. Though ecumenical concerns for world Christian unity need not overdetermine what a non-Western church should look like, the very act of sending and receiving the gospel creates a relation between the churches which is underdeveloped here. The rise of enculturated churches across the world has been an excellent movement to be celebrated and encouraged, but with these independent movements must come an acknowledgment of the material means of Christ's appearance in the world. Ecumenicity cannot determine where and how Christ's church emerges, but the bare fact of one church arising from the love of another creates the demand for the two churches to struggle to receive one another. That mutual reception of the work of Christ in other cultures will be a challenge to both, that the Gospel might be fully received in every tongue, and that no culture might confuse the culturally transgressive gospel with the tribal religion of Ba'al.

Myles Werntz is assistant professor of Christian Ethics and Practical Theology at Logsdon Seminary, Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas. His first book, Bodies of Peace: Nonviolence, Ecclesiology, Witness, was published by Fortress Press in 2014, and he is at work on a book on the four marks of the church in the 20th century.

Most ReadMost Shared