A Wee Bit of Barth on the Church


Barth wrote a lot on the church, and to be sure, much has been written about Barth’s view of the Church.  I make no claim to be an expert on Barth, on ecclessiology (the study of the church), and especially not on Barthian ecclesiology. I’m only somewhat familiar with Barth’s project and am only now wading into deep waters by slowly reading a volume of his massive Church Dogmatics.

As you can follow along with my counter to the right, it is a tedious process, though quite rewarding.   I chose to begin with Dogmatics II.2, because this is where Barth does some of his most original and interesting work revamping the Calvinist concept of election.  I’m still trying to square this with my Methodist theology, but that will be a work in progress for some time.
This morning, I came across this gem:

As the church, the community [of God]…is the centre and medium of communication between Jesus and the world, having its commission to all who stand outside. (239)

To be sure, it is a small nugget, but profound nonetheless.  At my seminary, we liked to talk about ecclesiology a great deal; this was related, largely, to an institutional bent towards the Roman Catholic tradition that as a whole was very fruitful.  At the time, though, I found the bend toward ecclessiology an odd and not wholly necessary distraction.

But serving a local church has made me realize that we protestant Christians really do have a hard time articulating the “why” of the Church.  I certainly was not told why I went to church as a child, or even why the Church exists.  Also, in doing a recent study of The Shack, I challenged my people to think through the anti-church bias present in much of the book (which is, really, a modern bias as a whole) – assumptions that many of them (even life-long churchgoers!) shared.

Between the Catholic scandals, the defenders of the “house church” movement, and the New Atheists, the institutional church is under assault.  We pastors desperately need to articulate the “why” of the Church to our people.  If protestantism proves anything, it is that the conception of the Church as a collection of individual believers who come to get their spiritual fuel tanks filled (a consumerist model of church) cannot be sustained.  Barth gives us a good starting place to rethink that practice: through the work of the Holy Spirit, the Church is how Jesus reaches out the world and asks them to respond in faith and service.  Like Israel of old, the Church exists not for itself but for God and thus for all the world.

P.S. If you want some help articulating the ‘why’, check out Gerhard Lofhink’s Does God Need the Church? It is, quite simply, marvelous.

7 thoughts on “A Wee Bit of Barth on the Church”

  1. Wow. You found a sentence that is confined to just one page! 🙂

    I enjoyed your thoughts on this.

    I’ve read very little Barth, but what I did read concerned the notion of election. He was discussing it in the context of I Kings 13 (in which a man of God from Judah is killed by a lion). Regardless of whether I understood it correctly, it had quite an impact on my understanding of election. Namely, as I understand it, election is more about responsibility than it is reward.

    1. Stephen, thank you. I too was impressed at a short sentence from Barth!

      Interesting to find election in that particular passage. I think you are right about responsibility over reward; it is as much a burden as it is a promise. The elect are called to be a light to the nations, not to sit back, relax, and enjoy being the elect (thus the thrust of this quote vis-a-vis the “commission” to the outside). Hope all is well your way. Congrats on being accepted, again.

  2. It’s a great quote and an important reminder that the church is still God’s primary agent as a witnessing community in bringing Jesus to the world.

    Just keep in mind that Barth defines church (with the apostle Paul) strictly as the body of Christ and not necessarily of the church as an institution. His support of believers’ baptism may indicate that he’d have quite a few critical words to say about the institutional church today as well.

    1. Where does Barth discuss believer’s baptism? I’ve read this before but haven’t come across it myself. All the more reason to think that, for a Methodist, maybe I shouldn’t be reading him!

      (just kidding, of course)

  3. Incarnational ecclesiology! Thanks for sharing this, Drew. This simple but profound quote is a great starting point for talking with congregations about “why church” – and a lot better than the usual him-haw that we love to do at Duke over ecclesiology!

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