We are Church, We are Agents of Shalom


Over the past several weeks [in the spring semester of 2013], I participated in a creative group exercise along with two of my classmates: Clesha Staten and Edward Williams. We imagined ourselves as a church and dreamed about our life together in this community. Through much discussion, we identified our church as “agents of shalom” and described this identity in relation to the four marks of the church specified by the Nicene-Constantinople Creed: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.[1] We also defined our church’s mission and described the context in which our mission would be pursued. We crystallized this discussion about our corporate identity as agents of shalom into the following statement:

As agents of shalom, we are one because the shalom we seek is the very presence and action of the one and same Spirit of God who empowers us to speak and act in order to bring God’s vision to its fullness as we endeavor to ensure a welcome place at the table for all. We are holy because the Spirit has set us apart to share the good news, peace and love of God in communities suffering from the fractures of personal and structural sin.  We are called to live by example the grace, righteousness, and justice of the Triune God. We are catholic because we recognize that the same Spirit who lives and moves in us is also present and active in other churches and throughout all creation.  The operation of the Spirit within and through every agent of shalom unifies us in purpose without diminishing the diversity of each agent as a unique creation. Finally, our church is apostolic because we continue Jesus’ prophetic ministry of liberation by proclaiming, celebrating, and actualizing the message of shalom to all those who are oppressed by sin, sickness, disease, and the political, economic and social systemic evils. We walk with the same Spirit of God who was sent forth as ruah before creation, who anointed the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and who is present today and for all days to come to orient and empower creation towards the consummation of shalom in the reign of God.

The mission of our church is to be agents of shalom: the overflowing abundance of God’s presence in a community so that the entire community experiences the wholeness, fullness, and satisfaction of a holistic well-being in complete harmony with its environment. It is a comprehensive reality of peace founded on the active presence of Triune love being worked out in justice. Agents are people who actively pursue the purposes of the one by whom they are sent. Because we are sent by the God who is communion, we are sent to pursue shalom as a community of love, forgiveness, and grace, which is extended to the oppressed and marginalized members of our community. This may require us to actively and non-violently resist systems of evil that oppress and marginalize. At the same time, our church is called by the life-giving Spirit to be agents of personal healing, deliverance, and restoration towards all people in our community.

Our church is called to contexts where the extreme suffering caused by a prolonged loss of shalom is being ignored or denied. These are the places “outside the gate” inhabited by people who have been silenced, forgotten, and deemed unworthy, unnecessary, and uninteresting by the powers and principalities of anti-shalom. We desire to join the Spirit’s work in and through the people with whom we live in these places so that a true, contextual shalom might be realized within our diverse community. As a local embodiment of shalom develops, we will remain open to being led by the Spirit to bring forth shalom in new contexts while remaining steadfast in our commitment to our current community.

This statement expresses an ecclesiology: a way of understanding the theological, historical, and eschatological nature of the origin, identity, and purpose of “a community that understands itself to be called into being by God through faith in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.”[2] However, the ecclesiology expressed in this group statement differs remarkably from the implicit ecclesiology I have experienced through church participation in the past. In this essay, I hope to progress from a critique of the church I have experienced towards a more faithful, holistic understanding of church by contrasting the marks, mission, and context of my embedded ecclesiology with this new understanding of church as agents of shalom.

The unity of the church as agents of shalom is founded on the presence and action of the God whose unity-in-diversity is hospitably opened towards the other. In opposition to this Triune unity, my past experience in culturally, racially, and socio-economically homogenous churches reveals a unity defined by uniformity. This kind of unity ignores “the Spirit’s unifying power [which] enables the integrity of each one amidst the many” and therefore does not participate in the “unity of the Spirit that includes reconciliation and healing in the same Spirit.”[3] The church is to be one because the salvation of the Triune God which it proclaims is an ever-expanding communion amidst the diversity of creation.

A similar discrepancy arises in my past experience of holiness in church and the holiness which characterizes agents of shalom. While past church experience defined holiness as an individual goal of maintaining purity, those who pursue shalom identify holiness as “the authentic presence and activity of the Spirit of God directed toward the eschatological kingdom.”[4] This holiness is neither a possession of the church nor of an individual church member. Rather, the church is being made holy so that its “relationship of righteousness and justice with God… [will extend] far beyond the church itself” into the lives of those “on the margins of society.”[5] Holiness is put on display when the church’s presence and activity in the world matches the church’s inner reality of its participation in the life of Trinity.

As a member of primarily congregational or independent churches, my understanding of the church’s catholicity was very weak. Instead of being instructed to discern and partner with the Spirit’s work in other churches and throughout creation, my experience of church taught me to be suspicious of other churches and to devalue the life of non-human creation. However, agents of shalom recognize catholicity by affirming the Spirit’s power to inspire indigenous expressions of faith in Christ, which preserve the uniqueness of created life and culture.[6] However, contextualization was given little significance in my previous experience of church and therefore my church’s traditional theology – with a little room for disagreement – was the true understanding for all people in all times and places.

My past church experience held a very narrow understanding of apostolicity. The majority of churches I have participated in were representatives of the Free Church tradition where “the New Testament and early church [have] a normative significance.”[7] Therefore, apostolicity was implicitly defined as believing and teaching “sound doctrine” in line with a specific, literal interpretation of Scripture. In opposition to this narrow, disembodied expression of apostolicity, the church as agents of shalom seeks to embody authentically “the apostolic message and witness… in [its] ecclesial life and faith as directed toward the impending kingdom of God.”[8] Apostolicity is a sign of the whole person and ministry of Jesus Christ and his earliest followers which requires full, embodied participation by the Holy Spirit in the mission of Jesus.

In the past, the primary mission of the church I knew was understood as the fulfillment of Jesus’ last words to his followers as recorded by the gospel of Matthew: “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them.”[9] The interpretation of this command led to a mission defined primarily in terms of kerygma – “the proclamation of the Gospel” – which was sometimes supported by acts of leitourgia – “prayer and praise, the waters of baptism and the bread of the supper.”[10] I agree with Gabriel Fackre that this kind of church may be “valid” but it “is not yet a faithful Church” because it does not include a healthy practice of diakonia ­– “a serving of the neighbor in need” – and koinonia – “a sharing and caring life together.”[11] While some of the churches I have experienced in the past have incorporated a practice of diakonia and koinonia in very meaningful ways, the expression of church with which I am most familiar is dominated by its kerygma with leitourgia in a secondary, supporting role.

In contrast to the identity and mission of the church in my past, the church as agents of shalom provides a more holistic and faithful ecclesiology. At the heart of this ecclesiology is the belief that the church’s “existence is not ‘for itself,’ but rather ‘for others.’”[12] More specifically, this church exists for the pursuit of shalom and therefore “outside of the action of the Spirit which leads the universe and history towards its fullness in Christ, [this church] is nothing.”[13] According to Avery Dulles, this vision of church would be categorized as the “servant” model in which the church takes up the diakonia of Christ and “seeks to serve the world by fostering the brotherhood [sic] of all men [sic].”[14] However, this diaconal model is incomplete if it excludes kerygma, leitourgia, and koinonia.

Therefore, agents of shalom take up the message of Jesus and proclaim the hope of God’s now-but-not-yet reign to all people. At the same time, this kerygma includes a “prophetic denunciation of every dehumanizing situation, which is contrary to fellowship, justice, and liberty.”[15] Agents of shalom also gather to celebrate the good news they proclaim through the act of worship, specifically the sharing of the Eucharistic meal around the Lord’s table. However, this practice of leitourgia “presupposes an ever-renewed acceptance of the meaning of [Jesus’] life” and therefore leads the church towards concrete action “against exploitation and alienation and for a society of solidarity and justice.”[16] Finally, shalom is a reality bound up in koinonia because it is the presence of the God whose life as communion is the divine source and model of koinonia. Therefore, the church as agents of shalom seeks a koinonia “where everyone is welcome [as] a sign of the coming feast of God’s mended creation.”[17]

As it pursues its mission through a practice of koinonia, leitourgia, kerygma, and diaconia, the church as agents of shalom must be careful not to confuse its ecclesial life and work towards shalom with the reality of shalom itself. Shalom does not belong to any church because it is the very presence and action of the Triune God in the world which God created. The church as agents of shalom remembers its call to service which “consists in its dedication to the transformation of the world into the Kingdom” of shalom.[18]

The church as agents of shalom seeks to embody and enact its mission in contexts where the destruction of shalom due to the violence of personal and structural sin is being ignored and forgotten. My past experience of church has always assumed a privileged position in society. Even though I was raised in a community where the evils of poverty and racism interlocked in a system of death, I participated in a church whose identity and mission were so affected by social privilege that the fact of this reality, especially the role of this church in its creation and maintenance, was almost entirely ignored. Therefore, the church as agents of shalom must go beyond simply locating itself in a place of anti-shalom. It must make intentional, sustained efforts towards solidarity with all in its community and join in the struggle against alienation and violence because “to know God is to work for justice.”[19] Therefore, the church should simultaneously learn to listen to the needs of its community and to discern its unique strengths and its inherent goodness. The church should also be prepared to criticize its own participation in the evils which perpetuate the destruction of shalom. With this humble posture, a true, contextual foretaste of shalom can come to life.

[1] William C. Placher, ed., “Why Bother With the Church?” in Essentials of Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 223.

[2] Loida I. Martell-Otero, “Ecclesiology,” Lecture, Systematic Theology and Ethics: Reign of God THLE 521, Palmer Theological Seminary, King of Prussia, PA, April 2, 2013.

[3] Amos Yong, “The Marks of the Church: A Pentecostal Re-Reading,” Evangelical Review Of Theology 26, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 50, 54.

[4] Yong, 54.

[5] Letty M. Russell, “Why Bother With the Church?” in Essentials of Christian Theology, ed. William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 245.

[6] Yong, 61.

[7] Franklin H. Littell, “The Historical Free Church Defined,” Brethren Life and Thought 50, no. 3-4 (June 1, 2005): 59.

[8] Yong, 66.

[9] Mt. 28:19, 20, NRSV.

[10] Gabriel Facrke, The Christian Story: A Narrative Interpretation of Basic Christian Doctrine, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 156, 157.

[11] Fackre, 158, 159, 161.

[12] Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation, trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson, rev. ed. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988), 147.

[13] Gutiérrez, 147.

[14] Avery Dulles, Models of the Church, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 92.

[15] Gutiérrez, 152.

[16] Gutiérrez., 150.

[17] Letty M. Russell, “Hot-House Ecclesiology: A Feminist Interpretation of the Church,” Ecumenical Review 53 (January 2001): 51.

[18] Dulles, 100.

[19] Gutiérrez, 156.

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