Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Third Church

We can give three different meanings to the word “church,” the first two pretty ordinary, the third exciting, if perhaps perplexing. (But if the new were not perplexing it would not be new.)

The first in order is, as you would expect, the actual, historical churches. From the smallest store-front iglesia to the big multinational organization, these bodies are everywhere and are instantly recognizable and comprehended by that name. 

The second meaning is the ideal sense, the one which theologians and preachers use to invoke the new community God has gathered through Christ, the new Israel. It is usually employed to connote the actual church institution, but there is often a slightly fuzzy edge to it extending beyond denominational boundaries to all the other actual churches.

The third sense shares nothing with these first two, because the church in the third sense simply doesn’t exist. It doesn’t even have the ideal theological sense because that sense is so historically grafted into and merged with the actual churches the new sense resists also that naming. It is something toward which we are yearning, but without any desire to pre-define in any of the old categories.

Why? Because human existence itself is at a moment of profound crisis and one way or another the churches have participated in creating  that crisis. From the earth-denying ideal of a Greek heaven, through colonialism and oppression of native peoples, to present day materialist, prosperity and violent end-time gospels, the churches are intertwined with the toxic story of the West. Despite that the leaven and light of Jesus is as strong as ever--actually even stronger--so there is a growing demand from both within Christianity, and from the world itself, that something decisively new be born.

But may anything more be said about the “third church,” anything that is not simply a matter of mystical yearning? It would be strange in fact if that were not possible. The ferment of Jesus is strong enough and precise enough to give us a fairly clear idea of what the future will look like.

Without a long exposition we can say the third church will have these characteristics.

Frist, no hierarchy: there will be no elite class of negotiators between God and the rest, rather the mutual service of disciples in community. Second, no heaven: the goal will not be individual security in a heavenly afterworld, but transformation of the human space for the sake of the new earth promised by scripture.  Third, an anthropology and theology of nonviolence: nonviolence is not simply recommended by the Sermon on the Mount but is a holistic understanding of revelation itself and the human change it intends.  Fourth, a martyrological practice, in the sense of martyr as witness: nonviolence is not a theory, but a profound way of life which witnesses before a violent world.

So then, what possible relationship can we have to this thing which we are able to describe but which does not yet exist? The phenom of what is called “emerging church” speaks to the searching for something new.  But it is vague and undefined and still seems shaped more by social location and youthful sensibility than radical Jesus anthropology. So I don’t think it can claim to represent this thing still unborn. Yet at the same time I am sure that very many of the groups who identify under this umbrella, and others too, are actually part of the gestation process.  You could say the third church is busy being born among them.

Finally, it might seem arrogant, at best idiosyncratic, to claim a future coming of some nebulous third church, sidelining the massive institutions of Christendom and all the proud traditions of piety and polity. But does not God raise up children of Abraham, and a fortiori children of the Father, from the very stones?  From the very planet earth in its crazy third-millennium spinning in space, yearning for some believable God-given peace?
Tony Bartlett


  1. Thank you for your prophetic description of this nascent future-church that is emerging and converging in so many fascinating ways. I was especially struck by your second characteristic of a "third church"--no heaven. Exploring how to be a faithful Christian without heaven has been on my mind for the past several months as I have read an eclectic range of theological thinkers. It's good to know I am not alone to "imagine there's no heaven."

  2. As a priest who is chafing against the self-preserving hierarchies of the institutional church, I am grateful the true Church has prophets like you calling her back to God's original purposes for His holy Church.