Incarnation has no substitute (Gannon Sims)

Gannon Sims looks at why incarnation has no substitute.

When introducing fresh expressions of church, we say that – whatever our placement within any number of US denominational contexts: Anglican, Baptist or otherwise – fresh expressions can never be sold as another church-renewal technique because the language of fresh expressions is rooted in an historic understanding of what it means to be church.

The words we use to describe fresh expressions shed light on the church as it has always been; a church that – regardless of theology, denomination or connection – is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. These are the marks of the church. While these words might scare a good many Baptists, and the limited treatment of these words will be deemed insufficient for a good many Catholics, the words ground our faith in something that transcends culture and time.

Christopher West, the apologist for Pope John Paul II's teachings on love, life and human sexuality – Theology of the Body, has said that while many religious expressions are located in the language of one culture; the Christian faith is rooted in the language of the human body—transcending any one culture. It is the image of the body through which we interpret the marks of the church.

Too often, however, the marks of an embodied faith are substituted for the marks of organisational sustainability. In order to make the church one, we might substitute finance for friendship. In a rush to clearly define a fresh expression as church, we might appear holy – only to miss the mark by pouring new wine into old wineskins.

We substitute that which is catholic, and by that we mean a connection across the world and across time, by expecting a level of engagement between the fresh expression of church and the sponsoring church or denomination before those in the fresh expression have realized church on a global scale. We might substitute that which is apostolic for a pattern of missionary engagement that fits neatly within the confines of a blog post rather than upon a prayerful reflection upon the reality of the Incarnation.

The Church is no stranger to these sorts of struggles. We need to look no further than the Apostle Paul's letter to the Galatians to discover how the church has found the balance. Paul recognized early in his ministry that for the message of the Gospel to take root among the Gentiles, he had to come to a certain level of agreement with church at Jerusalem about the core marks of the ecclesia.

The rules of cultural engagement in Jerusalem were different than the rules in Iconium – just as they are today between Westminster and Washington. Because the body of Christ transcends cultural location, Jerusalem gave Paul permission to reach people that the church at Jerusalem could never reach.