Written on February 27th, 2007 by Shawn Anthony
Note: The following is a short piece I wrote for a leadership class at my seminary. I very much appreciate my seminary setting. It is liberal, I am not. This real-time juxtaposition has proved to be the catalyst for more than a few very, very edifying conversations. I have learned more than a lot here! Yes, ideas are born in the midst of friction. My faith is stronger as a result. So, I am thankful, even if stuck in perpetual disagreement with most of my present academic community. God is good, even at seminary.
Question: Lebacqz and Driskill quote Rebecca Chopp’s definition of the church as a “constitutive community of emancipatory transformation.” Where does this definition fail and where does it succeed in giving a comprehensive theological and sociological image of the “essence” of the church?
Viscerally, I must admit, my attempt at imagining church as a “constitutive community of emancipatory transformation” resulted only in disgust and
anger frustration. This disgust and frustration was not a direct result of my actual attempt at imagining, but a product of some strong feelings that found their catalyst in the style, words, and sound of the definition itself. I did move beyond my immediate and visceral reaction to the phrase, toward a response more indicative of a third year seminarian, but I really must spend a small bit of time cleaning up visceral. I suppose these early reflections can be tagged as “Chopp’s definition failures.” Please note, from this point forward, I will thankfully replace “constitutive community of emancipatory transformation” with “C.C.O.E.T.” Thank God for simple acronyms.
First of all, when I read definitions like this, I immediately think “secondary education degree.” Why? Well, because one almost needs a higher degree to understand what in the world this definition even means! A constitutive community … of what? Seriously, this definition is written for the ivory tower squatters, not the un-churched person of the everyday street. Is this the definition one would use to explain the church of Jesus to the average individual on the street? No. It is a definition that upper-class, over-educated, religious liberals and feminists toss around for sport. Secondly, C.C.O.E.T. is incurably vague. This is probably a premeditated characteristic of the definition, considering the source. A slow and critical reading of C.C.O.E.T. raises more questions than it answers (which makes it something other than a definition). Examples: 1.) What or to who are we constituted? 2.) What is community? 3.) What are we emancipated from, exactly? 4.) How did we actually become chained to whatever it is that exists in opposite of the aforementioned emancipation? 5.) Transformation? How? What? When? Why? These are serious questions raised by Chopp’s beyond vague definition of church. Finally, where is Jesus Christ? Seriously, we are still talking about “Church,” correct? It is the church of Jesus Christ, right? So, why not include Jesus Christ in one’s definition of church? Seriously. C.C.O.E.T. seems to speak of what occurs or happens at church, or what one does there, more than it speaks of an “essence,” or whatever it is exactly that constitutes “church.” Perhaps this is the reason for Jesus’ absence in the definition? Eh, I somehow doubt it. I’m betting the omission was deliberate, premeditated, and rooted in liberalism and humanism. A definition of church that points toward a soft secularism decorated with Christian symbolism and verbiage is a gross definition, at best. At any rate, there is much wrong with C.C.O.E.T. as a definition of church, but I’ll move on now that the visceral is cleansed.
So, what’s right with C.C.O.E.T.? Where does the definition succeed?
Interestingly, I think the definition may work for those within our culture who gravitate toward current mainline religious expressions. There is a specific demographic to which this sort of definition resonates. Granted, it is an increasingly shrinking demographic, but it is there. C.C.O.E.T. works for these folk. Beyond the demographic, however, I would be hard pressed to find the benefit inherent to this definition of church. I’m sorry, but it is incurably limited and reflective of the religious ethos of a very specific and arguably privileged socio-economic group native to the United States. Is there a benefit inherent to C.C.O.E.T.? Yes, but it is limited to a specific social demographic.
So, I refused C.C.O.E.T. as a definition of church. I would be wrong to not offer an alternative definition, after lambasting another. So, how this for a definition of church: “The Body of Christ.” This definition has worked for centuries. It is specific, and requires a bit of unpacking. I’ll stick with it, thanks.
Work Consulted: Lebacqz, Karen and Joseph D. Driskill. Ethics and Spiritual Care: A Guide for Pastors, Chaplains, and Spiritual Directors. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.