Posted by: rogermitchell | April 30, 2016

De-mystifying church

The word ‘church’ carries so much baggage that for many, both inside and outside it, it is no longer a helpful expression of what it means to be Jesus’ body.

This is why, in company with many others (for example, I tend to use the word ecclesia, from the original Greek word for church in the gospel narratives (cf Mtt 16: 18) and New Testament epistles (Eph 1:22 et al). However, this does little to deal with the double problem of how so many people understand the church as a religious organization with a tendency to hierarchical control and fail to recognise its potential as a movement for overall peace and well-being today. This is especially true given the pressing need for just such a movement in the fast decomposing political system of the west, and the current re-emergence of the church to fulfill this need. While I am well aware that to counter this problem we need Jesus’ followers to embody his loving behaviour, what I and others around this blog call kenarchy,  I think we also need to explain what’s gone wrong when we have the chance. Hence another post along these lines.

The true body or the mystical body?

One of the most significant historical reasons for the problem with the word church is the process by which its direct link with the Jesus story was broken and transferred to the institution that oversaw the ceremony of the bread and the wine, what the Roman Catholics call the Eucharist, the protestants call the communion and some more radical types call the breaking of the bread. In my books Church, Gospel and Empire and The Fall of the Church (Wipf & Stock 2011 & 2013) and my December 21st 2010 post “Not much Jesus”, I refer to Henri de Lubac’s work. He describes how, culminating in the twelfth century, there was a trend in how church was understood that resulted in a lasting swap-over of what in the Latin was known as the corpus verum and corpus mysticum, that’s to say the true or real body, and the mystical, mysterious body. This meant that the simple but profound truth that the church was a movement of love for God, self, neighbour and enemy and the bread and the wine were a mysterious resource for this practical Jesus way of love, was pretty much lost. Instead it gave way to an understanding of the primary role of church as centering round a mysterious cultic ceremony of worship presided over by priests, or other professional religious experts. After the reformation this ceremony tended in protestant churches to center around preaching, again usually by institutionally trained qualified experts, and after Pentecostal renewal around the gifts of the Spirit and the ‘presence’ often induced by sung worship. As a result the primary meaning and experience of church has been lost for many.

The plan of the mystery or the mysterious plan?

Recently I have been catching up again with Giorgio Agamben’s work and particularly his book The Kingdom and the Glory (California: Stanford University Press, 2011). In this he highlights an early approach to Paul’s writings, similar to the trend in understanding church as mystery underlined by de Lubacs. Whereas Paul speaks of “the plan of the mystery” hidden in God but now made known in Jesus Christ (Eph 3:9-10), early church writers increasingly came to swap these words round and speak of “the mysterious plan”. So instead of the mystery as to how society can find peace being made known in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, what now lies at the heart of Christian theology and practice is a mysterious plan that theologians have tried to decipher ever since. So church becomes the institutional context for trying to work out a mysterious plan instead of being the movement that lives out the obvious practical way of love that the story of Jesus embodies.




  1. That’s great, I love that. Easy to see how Christianity became irrelevant to the world!

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