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Why the theology doctorate and why ecclesiology is practical

I am continuing to work away at my dissertation. As of tonight, it stands at 92,085 words (303 pages in Microsoft Word). The dissertation only needs to be 80-100 K words but I have lots of revising to do. I think the product (likely a book a few years from now) will be both a significant contribution to the literature surrounding Karl Barth's ecclesiology as well as an excellent entry point for people interested in the theology of the church. In the dissertation, I explore how Barth's understanding of the church has been understood across the ecclesial spectrum from Eastern Orthodox to Roman Catholic to Lutheran to Anglican to Reformed to Methodist to Mennonite to Baptist.

"But why do this?" you may ask, "Why spend what will be six years of doctoral work at Duke (coursework, languages, exams, dissertation, etc.) when you could have been 'doing ministry'?"

"Well," I answer, "My hope is that I will be able to assist people in ministry for decades to come because of this time given to study."

"But," you say, sputtering, "Ecclesiology? Ecclesiology?!"

Good question. When I say "ecclesiology," I am referring to something that provides insight into very "practical" questions, in particular, the questions that pop up almost every day in ministry, "What are we supposed to be doing? How are we to prioritize and think about the infinite demands and needs in front of us?"

Some people have a go-to answer, "What we need is . . ." and then they say, "excellence" or "the sacramental" or "to be missional" or "the spiritual disciplines" or "social justice" or "community." But most of us sense it must be all or at least many of those things. But that just puts us back to where we started: "How much of each of these things? How do we prioritize how we spend our time in ministry?"

The immediate Sunday school answer is "Look in the Bible!" and that is largely right. The trick is to read it all, digest it all, and synthesize it all, and run our conclusions past others in the church to screen out idiosyncratic interpreterations that might accidentally lead us over the cliff into cult, scandal, and abuse. The good news: this is "theology" and we are all allowed to, even supposed to do it. We get to do it--reading, thinking, praying, talking! Woo-hoo! All Christians are to be theologians--that is, trying to understand what God is telling us. The bad news is it is a big task--it takes awhile to read the whole Bible, digest it, and make sense of it and mull over all of it with other Christians. The nice thing about academic theologians like Karl Barth is that they offer us their take, a suggested preliminary synthesis. The good theologians don't expect us to swallow it whole. They instead want us to be like the Bereans who examined the Scriptures every day to see if what they heard was true (Acts 17:11).

Back to our practical question of "What do we do?!" Again, it is useful and primary to go to the Scriptures but as we do we might want to keep in mind Barth's suggestion that what we might find when we look in the Bible is an emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the primary actor, or the most important active participant. This conviction is suggested in Barth's titles for his sections on the church in the Church Dogmatics: "The Holy Spirit and the Gathering of the Church-Community," "The Holy Spirit and the Upbuilding of the Church-Community" and "The Holy Spirit and the Sending of the Church-Community." In other words, Barth thinks, as he reads the Scriptures and how others have read the Scriptures throughout church history, that it is pretty important to remember that what we do really pales in comparison to what the Spirit does. This is not to denigrate human action but just to keep it in perspective. It is the Holy Spirit who brings together the church, edifies it, and sends it. It is only on a subordinate level that we help. Now that might strike you as just nitpicky semantics. You reluctantly grant, "Ok, ok, I'll try to preface my statements, discipline my speech, with the phrase  'as far as the Holy Spirit moves' but I still don't see how that helps me know what to do!"

But we have made some progress already modifying our practical "ecclesiology" question from "As church ministry people, what are we supposed to do given the infinite demands and options?!" to "I wonder what the Holy Spirit is doing. How is the Spirit gathering, upbuilding, and sending the people of God?" Again, you may suspect that this still does not get us anywhere. Worse, you are right to worry that someone might get the idea that we are talking about some sort of mystical "sensing" of what the Spirit is doing that will lead us to do all sorts of wacky stuff that our glands (which we thought were the Spirit) told us to do. No, instead, the Holy Spirit is not just doing random "feel good" things. As I mentioned, Barth organizes his comments around the Spirit's gathering, upbuilding, and sending of the church-community. It is useful to think of the Spirit of Jesus Christ doing what Jesus did in the Gospels with his disciples: gathering them (that is, calling them), upbuilding them (that is, teaching them), and sending them. Of course there is more content that fills out this gathering, upbuilding, sending outline: Barth goes on to emphasize that what, rather who, people are gathered to is Jesus Christ ("where two or three are gathered in my name"); that upbuilding has to do with service; and sending has to do with witness. Again, I am just sketching a few key themes in ecclesiology but I think this brief glimpse demonstrates that the muddle of possible tasks and initiatives in ministry might find some better, wiser, more biblical, formulation than the buzzwords listed above: excellence, sacramental, etc.

My modest contention here is that whatever "practical" ministry questions you lob at ecclesiology, ecclesiology has some useful material to toss back. If you ask about affinity-based youth ministry vs. intergenerational worship services, ecclesiology will ask you to consider whether the sending is being undervalued for the sake of upbuilding or vice-versa. If you ask about a study that shows people like cathedral churches more than mall-like ones, ecclesiology will suggest reflection on what it means to witness. If you ask about: Godly Play vs. Group Publishing curriculum; church planting vs. megachurches; topical sermons vs. expository ones; Chris Tomlin vs. the Book of Common Prayer; short-term missions trips vs. microfinance; ecclesiology will suggest biblical texts and considerations, along with analogous situations in church history, all of which may help (if the Spirit wills!) bring truth and love to the situation. I look forward to, Lord willing, decades of those conversations--that the church might be built up--for the world.

This is just a little informal splash of an explanation why I think ecclesiology is practical which also gets at why I am doing this theology doctorate.

"What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants." (1 Cor 3:5). A good life that.

There are lots of other posts about Karl Barth and Ecclesiology under those categories on the blog and in lots of tweets saved on the blog at the Twitter category.