The church on a journey
It is recognized that the church has many shortcomings and is far from perfect. Indeed, the church can often be part of the problem when it comes to poverty. The church comprises people and thus weakness and failings arise. A church that in many situations world-wide has: suppressed the role of women; promoted stigma with HIV & AIDS and other diseases; sided with the oppressors; held onto financial resources while others are in need; focussed on spiritual well-being at the expense of the physical. However, the global church, the communion of churches, recognizes her weaknesses and struggles to correct them, she makes no claim to be perfect – but strives to be so and points to the one Christ Jesus who is. Thus it is important not to confuse the church, amid her failings, with God. The church is lacking, but God is complete; the church is on a journey, but God is already there; the church may sometimes display falsehoods, but she will always point the way to the truth.
The church engages in mission not only in order that the world may be transformed, but that she too may be transformed more into the truth and purity of her Lord. The church does not claim to possess all truth and righteousness, but rather to point the world to the truly righteous one who is the truth, namely, Jesus Christ. And in that process of directing the world to Jesus Christ, the church herself is drawn into a deeper understanding of, and obedience to, the same Jesus. (Peskett & Ramachandra 2003, p197)
Transformation is not what we do for others. Transformation is what God does in us when we enter into a relationship of equality with others. We don’t serve because we are already transformed. But rather we are transformed when we serve. (Quote from Tearfund partner: Amextra, Mexico, 2004)
We must remember that the church, while it is to be sign of the kingdom, is not the kingdom itself. The kingdom judges and redeems the church. The church is successful in being a sign to the extent that the Spirit makes it so. The church is a true sign only to the degree that it lives up to the spirit and life of the kingdom. “The church is not the end of mission, the kingdom is the end”. (Jones 1972 cited in Myers 1998, p39)
Though the church often seems rife with quarrels, disagreements, and backslidings, it is still through this body – Christ’s body – that his mission is continued in history, guided by the Holy Spirit. In this mission God, by his sovereignty, grace, and perfection, takes and uses our human imperfections, and ambiguities to fulfil his purpose. (Samuel & Sugden 1987, p139)
For the church to be, rather than to have, a social ethic means that it must be a community where the truth is lived and spoken. The story that forms the church is, as I have suggested, a reality-making claim that tells us the truth about the world and ourselves. Such truth is indeed hard. It means that we cannot know the truth until we have been transformed by the story. We cannot know Jesus without becoming his disciples. There is, therefore, an unavoidably self-involving character to Christian convictions. It requires that our very selves be transformed if we are to face the truth that we are sinners yet saved.
A community of such people cannot help but be a social ethic, since it must stand in sharp contrast with the world which would have us build our relations on distortions and denials. The world is where the truth is not spoken for fear such truth might destroy what fragile order and justice we have been able to achieve. But the church, which claims to be construed by a people who have no fear of the truth, must be a polity where the truth is spoken, even if such truth risks pain and threatens disorder. The church is thus a polity that takes as its constitution a story whose truth creates a people who love honestly, because they have the confidence that such love binds our lives to God's very character. (Hauerwas 1985, p182,183)