Those who know me, who have taken any ecclesiology from me, or who have spent even a few minutes talking ecclesiology with me, will know my serious reservations with the idea of “incarnational church.” For me, there is only one Incarnation–the Word of God made flesh (John 1:14). Adding an “-al” to the word “incarnation” may help to indicate some kind of qualitative difference, but even that semantic tactic is sure to introduce serious confusion.
As I was preparing for my Barth reading group tomorrow, I came across this little “small print” section in Barth which reveals what I think he would have said about much that goes by the name “incarnational church” these days:
Thus to speak of a continuation or extension of the incarnation in the Church is not only out of place but even blasphemous. Its distinction from the world is not the same as His; it is not that of the Creator from His creature. Its superiority to the world is not the same as His; it is not that of the Lord seated at the right hand of the Father. Hence it must guard as if from the plague against any posturing or acting as if in relation to world-occurrence it were an alter Chrisus [another Christ], or a vicarius Christi [vicar of Christ], or a corredemptrix [co-redemptress] , or a mediatrix omnium gratiarum [mediator of all graces], not only out of fear of God, but also because in any such behaviour, far from really exalting itself or discharging such functions, it can only betray, surrender, hazard and lose its true invisible being, and therefore its true distinction from the world and superiority to world-occurrence. CD IV.3.2, 729.
Blasphemy?? Yes, indeed. I think Barth is right. For when we confuse Christ and Church and make the church an extension of the incarnation, we end up confusing the Creator with the created. Not to mention that we end up with seriously misleading sayings, as one well known evangelical leader put it: “The local church is the hope of the world and its future rests primarily in the hands of its leaders.”
Since when is the Local church the hope of the world? And since when did its leaders think that they can take up the mantle of the Messiah’s hope?
No, it is not too strong an indictment to call “blasphemy” any form of ecclesiology that portrays the Church as an extension of Christ. No! The poetic extension of the “body of Christ” metaphor–which all too often fails to remember that the body is NOT the head–is neither theologically correct nor helpful. It is harmful.
The church must not fail to remember the One who gave it birth. Only in this remembrance of its invisible origin in Christ is the Church the Church. And only as it gives witness to its Head, whether in Word and Deed, is its visible reality most clearly seen, even if in seeing it, the world so clearly misunderstands and miscontrues it.
Thus, if there is any analogy between Church and Incarnation, it is that just as the Word made flesh was unrecognized to the world to which it appeared (John 1:10), so too the church, in its visible reality as one that witnesses to her invisible origin, is surely to be misunderstood precisely for it visibility. To paraphrase Barth (esp. as seen in §72 of CD IV.3.2), the world can no more accept the “visible, bodily presence of the Church” than it can the visible bodily presence of the invisible eternal Word!