New Faculty Book: "Who is the Church?"

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl Peterson, associate professor of systematic theology, is the author of Who is the Church? An Ecclesiology for the Twenty-First Century released May 1, 2013 by Fortress Press.

While “survival” is on the mind of most mainline congregations, Peterson argues that the real crisis facing the church is not one of declining numbers. The crisis facing the church is rather one of identity. The church has forgotten “who” it is (thus, the book’s title). The majority of solutions proposed for addressing the “numbers” crisis (all which call for us to “do” something different) belie what she calls the “operative concept of the church” in North America today: the church as voluntary association, a group of like-minded, self-selecting people who come together for a common purpose, too often, to serve as a social club for its “members.”

peterson 02“However, the church is not only a human institution; it is also a divine institution, created by God, and so we need to find our identity from God, that is, theologically,” she said. “Ecclesiology, then, should start with who God is—and what God is doing!—and then reflect on what it means to be the church in light of that.”

The book has its origin in Peterson’s 2004 doctoral dissertation, “The Question of the Church in North American Lutheranism: Toward an Ecclesiology of the Third Article,” at Marquette University. It is a substantial revision that strengthens and expands her constructive argument in various ways, including the addition of Reformed (and Roman Catholic) voices alongside of Lutheran ones.

“All too often, congregations address challenges technically: what can we do differently? why aren’t people coming to worship?  where is the money going to come from? In asking ‘Who is the church?,’ Peterson asks the right question, and offers an insightful perspective—rooted both in theological history and the biblical narrative—that seeks to reclaim and re-identify the Holy Spirit’s active presence in the ministry and mission of the 21st century church-in-transition,” said Matthew Kruse (’11), now a pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Rio, Wisconsin.

The two constructive “moves” Peterson makes in the dissertation and the book—to use a narrative method and to “start with the Holy Spirit”—were suggested by her dissertation director, Dr. D. Lyle Dabney, who was himself one of Jürgen Moltmann’s doctoral students in Tübingen, Germany.

peterson 01In the book, Peterson examines three different theological starting points for the church:
  • The Word, God’s address to us (making the church a creature  of the word, or a Word-event),
  • The communion of the three persons of the Trinity, which the church participates in through its communion with Christ in the sacrament, making the church a “communion” that reflects the divine life of the Trinity;
  • and the missio Dei, the mission of the Triune God, whereby out of love for the world, the Father sends the Son, the Father and Son send the Spirit, and the Spirit sends the Church into the world—the church is created by and is an instrument of God’s “sentness.”

In her analysis and evaluation of these paradigms, she finds the first two somewhat beholden to a Christendom context and in this sense limited for a post-Christendom context. She then proposes a constructive alternative that uses the missio Dei as its starting point, but which also draws on the strengths of the other two. Further, she uses a narrative method, because in order to know “who we are,” we tell our stories.

“I ‘start with the Spirit,’ both in terms of the missio Dei—but also in terms of how we tell the story of the church in scripture, especially  Acts of the Apostles, and in what I call the ‘creedal story’ of the church in the Third Article of the Apostle Creed,” she said.

Starting with the Spirit as a “character” in the narrative, Peterson shows how the church is “Spirit-breathed” and guided, the Spirit brings the Word to the church (and enables believers to receive the gifts of faith and forgiveness in Christ, per Luther’s Large Catechism), the Spirit creates the koinonia between God and among members, and the Spirit directs the church in its mission, pushing disciples out of their comfort zones, “sending” the church across socio-economic lines, as well as those that separate us in terms of race and sexual identity (e.g. the Ethiopian eunuch). The Spirit drives the action in Acts, so that the gospel may be known and experienced by all nations.

“I hope what I have proposed is helpful to pastors and other leaders struggling to help their congregations reclaim a theological identity, and to help their congregations understand that mission is not an option, but part of who God is and therefore who the church is,” she said.