Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective (Missiological Engagements)
John G. Flett
IVP Academic, 2016
392 pp., 40.0
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.
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