A.I. – Authentic Incarnation (Nov-Dec 2001)

By Matt Dabbs

by Rubel Shelly
November – December, 2001

I probably have a better chance of illustrating the nature of “incarnational theology” than explaining it. If we ever understood it, surely we would embrace it. For those who embrace it, the kingdom of God becomes an immediate reality.

Jessica woke up at 3:00 a.m. during a terrible storm and cried out, “Mommy, I’m scared!” Her mother called into her room and said, “Go back to sleep, sweetheart. We are insured by the largest company in the world. You have nothing to fear.”

What we know and practice best is an alternative to incarnational theology that could best be termed “institutional theology.” Institutional theology holds that what happens roughly between 9:00 a.m. and noon on Sunday is worshipful, sacred, and belongs to God; what takes place in the lives of the people thus engaged on the first day of the week during the balance of the week is secular. The money deposited in collection plates during that time is God’s; the remainder of my income and the things I purchase and do by means of it are mine.

Institutional theology tends to get bogged down with disputes over female visibility, speech, and head coverings during the sacred Sunday morning events. It distresses over acceptable and unacceptable worship forms. It worries over what may or may not be done with money contributed into an entity called the church treasury.

Institutional theology absolutizes the church. Its constant concern is to find a pattern for its organization, worship, and function. Thus it first creates and then defends a way of reading Scripture and interpreting reality that allows the church to be central. Salvation is a matter of being “a member of the church” and doing things right.

Institutional theology must give Satan tremendous satisfaction. It reduces the church to an irritating irrelevance that bears little resemblance to God’s original intention. It is certainly no threat to the continuance of his princely rule over this world.

Recasting the church from organism to institution had the unhealthy side-effect of producing at least the following corruptions of the Christian faith:

  • Being a Christian changed from Spirit-renewed lifestyle to church membership.
  • Fellowship changed from loving involvement with a community of believers into group inclusion or after-church eating events.
  • Leadership changed from Spirit-empowered giftedness to titles and offices.
  • Discipleship changed from self-denial and struggle to training seminars.
  • Evangelism changed from connecting with and confronting the world to inviting the lost to our preaching sessions.
  • Accountability changed from a small group of caring people to either a lone professional or nobody at all.
  • Worship changed from participation to critical inspection.
  • The Lord’s Supper changed from an interactive meal to a ceremony in silence.
  • Bible Study was changed from life-transforming obedience to listening sessions.

The truth is that very little of the church and even less of the kingdom of God has to do with Sunday mornings, church organization, worship assemblies, or church treasuries. The central task of the church is to bear witness to the kingdom in which God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Somewhere along the way in Christian history, the church became (to our minds!) an institution instead of the living, breathing, redeeming Body of Christ in the world. Thus Christians came to be observers and consumers of religion rather than surrendered and sold-out imitators of Jesus of Nazareth.

In its simplest terms, the kingdom of God is one’s marching to the beat of a different drum. It is the Spirit-renewed and Spirit-enabled lifestyle of a man or woman who knows that she is always Christ’s. “What would Jesus do?” may be more urgent on Tuesday than on Sunday. As a teacher or scientist, there is no “value-free issue” for her. His role is to bring his every thought captive to Christ and to carry the aroma of his presence everywhere he goes. Her job is to worship God in spirit and in truth in every relationship of her life.

“But Mommy,” cried Jessica, “what is an ‘insurance company’? I’m scared. I need somebody to hold me. I can’t sleep.”

Incarnational theology, then, is a theology of presence. It does less debating than suffering. It is less concerned to split hairs than to proclaim and model the reign of Jesus over all things.

The first — and only fully adequate — incarnation of God in the world of human experience was the person and activity of Jesus Christ. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19, NRSV). The second — and always more fallible and insufficient — incarnation is hinted at in the final two words of the verse just quoted and in the verse that follows it. “So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20, NRSV).

The church was never intended to be so institutional as it has become. Its purpose in the world is to take up where Jesus left off. As the corporate body of Christ, the church is supposed to pattern itself after the central figure of the four Gospels — as the church in Acts of the Apostles sought to do. Those churches in Acts are not paradigmatic, except in their frustrations and failures. Christ Jesus himself is the pattern for the church’s mission. Thus “church work” may involve passing out programs and taking up the offering on Sunday but “the work of the church” is to affirm human dignity, model righteousness, offer hope, and otherwise be Christ’s presence in a fallen world seven days a week.

“God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23, NRSV). Are you as awestruck by this claim as I am? Just as Jesus showed the fullness of God in his personal presence, the church is charged with revealing Jesus’ fullness to the people of our time and place!

“Jessica, you shouldn’t be afraid,” her mother said. “God is with us during this awful storm. Didn’t your Sunday School teacher teach you that just last week?”

Christians belong in the marketplace of ideas to be what Martin Luther called “a sort of Christ” there. But we have built Christian ghettos in order to isolate ourselves from the world. We have put all our hope on Sunday morning worship times rather than in the power of the Holy Spirit to demonstrate that the One in us is greater than the Evil One in the world.

Incarnational theology calls for the practical implementation of the priesthood of believers. Go to your office, university, hospital, or client’s home as Christ’s servant. Get outside church walls and into the larger community as his person. Don’t be arrogant and combative; be as humble as our Lord was. Don’t offer judgment and directives; be confessional about your sin and modest about your accomplishments. Don’t ask for a chance to speak; be Christ’s presence so authentically that they will ask you to explain yourself. Then you can bear gentle witness to the one who is your Lord!

“Yes, Mommy. She did,” came Jessica’s reply. “I know God is here. But right now I need somebody with skin on!” The little girl’s mother got up, walked down the hall, and crawled into bed with her frightened daughter. She kissed her cheek and put her arm around her. Although the lightening kept dancing in the sky, Jessica quickly fell asleep and slept peacefully until the morning came.

In those moments, the kingdom of God is present.

Rubel Shelly

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This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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