Thanks to Adrianna Wright of InterVarsity Press (IVP) for this review copy of Howard A. Snyder’s The Community of the King, Revised Edition (IVP, 2004).
I need to apologize to the folk at IVP, I requested this book some time ago and it’s taken me a long time to read, both because we’ve had a lot going on and because, well, this is a really thick book to read. While there is only 220 pages of reading part from the indices and extensive bibliography, Snyder has much to say about the church and ecclesiology that I hadn’t really though through before and that have challenged me on a number of levels.
This makes me ask the question, have you thought through how you view “the Church” both locally and globally, lately? If not, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Until I read through The Community of the King, I had not really given much focused thought on the Church and it’s role in the world and in the mission of God. At least not to the degree that Snyder got me thinking.
Because Snyder covers so much material in this book it hard to know where to begin. It really deserves a multi-part review covering each section of the book, but I can’t do that so I’ll try to cover the basics here. He breaks the contents down to three sections each building upon the previous ones to build a solid and biblically based theology of the Church (also called Ecclesiology), both locally and globally. The entire premise of the book centers around the question, “does the Church bring the Kingdom?” and if so, how so? For Snyder,
The church is seen as the community of God’s people — a people called to serve God and called to live together in true Christian community as a witness to the character and virtues of God’s reign (13).
He sees the church as the primary agent of God’s mission on the earth. The mission (purpose) of God is to bring “all things and, supremely, all people under the dominion and headship of Jesus Christ” (13). Therefore, the Church, that is, the people of God, is the agent, or the means by which God’s mission is accomplished in this world. To Snyder, the Church is the only divinely appointed means for the spreading of the gospel in all the world. So, the Church is the agent of the kingdom. God is the King of all the earth and God’s people consist of the kingdom, so God’s people then, consist of the community of the King. As Snyder sees it:
Biblically, neither evangelism nor social action, nor the church’s worship life, nor any other aspect of the church’s being makes full sense divorced from the fact of the Christian community as the visible, flesh-and-blood expression of the kingdom of God (13).
What is the kingdom of God? “The kingdom of God is the dominion or [spiritual] reign of God and not primarily place or a realm. Biblically, the kingdom refers first to a reign, dominion, or rule and only secondarily to the realm over which a reign is exercised” (15).
What is the mission of the kingdom?
It is the ongoing reconciling work of God in Christ seen from the perspective of the final definitive establishment of God’s dominion when Christ returns to earth. So then, in essence because of Christ, “the Kingdom is Jesus Christ and, through the church, the reconciling of all things in him. For the present it is the growth in the world of the grace, love, joy, health, peace, and justice seen in Jesus. The kingdom is both present and future, both earthly and heavenly, both hidden and visible (17).
And this is just some key ideas from the introduction. This is an important book. I am surprised I had not heard of it sooner. It is important Christians gain a solid and proper understanding of the kingdom of God because to misunderstand the kingdom of God (its nature and purpose) is to risk misunderstanding the nature of the Christian faith and what it means to even be a Christian. So, Snyder’s goal in writing this book is to help create in Christians a kingdom consciousness; to help Christians become more intentional in going about kingdom living; to consciously live as members of the community of the King!
For the remainder of the book, Snyder works out a biblical theology of the church, what it is, and what it should look like. For Snyder, the essence of the church is not organization or even institution but a charismatic community. Unlike other recent works that seem to castigate the institutional nature of the modern church, Snyder does not do this. While the church’s essence is not institution but community and fellowship (koinonia), he recognizes that any time a group of Christians gather together for community, organization and ultimately institutionalism will result (at least in the long run). Many folks these days mock the very notions of organized religion but really, how does any religion find ways to express itself without some form of organization.
Now, of course “organized religion” is a term used to decry the faults of institutionalism but really instead of decrying it, the Church, that is, the community of God’s people, merely need to be aware of the potential pitfalls of organizing and so work accordingly. Plainly put, you can’t really get around it, so work with it (as a case in point, even those who leave the organized church to start home churches or house churches, even they themselves eventually fall prey to the very thing they detest: institutionalism. It just happens.
One of the things I most appreciated about Snyder’s work is the approach he took in describing the church. His model is essentially eclectic in that he takes parts from different models to put together a picture of what the Church should look like in its ideal setting. He notes the contributions of each tradition (Catholic, Reformed, Pentecostal, Liberationist, etc). His model is one that emphasizes the Church as the community of God and not a hierarchical institution. His definition of the Church
seeks to affirm the biblical richness, diversity, and mystery of the true body of Christ and to seek practical models that are both faithful to Scripture and highly relevant to the church’s being… (59).
I noted earlier that Snyder sees the Church as a charismatic community. In what sense does he mean charismatic? Snyder uses the term in the original biblical sense of pertaining to the working and empowering of the grace, or charis of God. Snyder argues:
The word reminds us both of that grace by which we are saved and of the special gifts of the grace or charisms (charismata) that God promises to the church. In this sense charismatic has no specific reference to glossolalia except in the general sense that tongues is one of the charisms mentioned in the New Testament (83).
He goes on to argue:
The charismatic emphasis, and particularly the doctrine of spiritual gifts, is too important to be abandoned because of controversy over a word. Charismatic is a good, biblically based term that needs to be restored to the church in full biblical richness. While the term is not the exclusive property of the charismatic movement, it does remind us that God has used this movement to call the larger body of Christ back to a neglected biblical emphasis. As Geoffery Bromiley noted, Reformation Protestantism must come to “a fresh realization that Christian ministry is, and has to be, a charismatic movement” (83).
I can appreciate this emphasis because I belive he is right in saying that the focus is not on the so-called showy gifts of the Spirit but on the fact that the church, both locally and globally, is a Spirit empowered community of faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit to fulfill God’s mission and purpose in the world, which is the redemption and reconciliation of humanity and creation that it may come under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Snyder also argues the church as the agent of the kingdom is to be a prophetic community. Actually, he argues the church is to be both an evangelistic and prophetic agent of the kingdom. He says the church is to be prophetically evangelistic and evangelistically prophetic. What does he mean by this?
For Snyder, “the evangelistic task of the church is to proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ throughout the world, making disciples and building congregations that are kingdom communities.” This is the beginning point of the church’s role in God’s redemptive purposes for the world. “Evangelism is the first priority of the church’s ministry in the world” (118).
One part I found pretty interesting and that has prompted a bit of a paradigm shift in my thinking is that Snyder sees evangelism as primarily the witness of the church-as-community – meaning the body of Christ as a whole gives witness to Jesus through its actions and discipleship to Jesus, not just individuals. The same goes for local congregations. Local congregations as a whole give witness to Jesus through their presence in the community. While the NT does show the Peter’s and Paul’s who individually go about evangelizing, evangelism remains primarily the responsibility of the community of faith. So for Snyder, witness and community go together. This is interesting because what it is implying is that in some ways the individual’s witness to Jesus may or may not amount to much if the community of faith is not behind it (if they are not validating the individuals witness through both word and deed). What is done on the individual level needs to be confirmed by the larger community (120).
Also, Snyder sees the end goal of evangelism not so much as getting people saved or gaining coverts as much as it is the formation of Christian community – true church based evangelism is evangelism that builds up the church, the body of Christ, and makes disciples (121). Many present methods of evangelism have tended to over focus on winning and nurturing individual converts instead of working for the formation of a kingdom community of disciples.
In the church’s prophetic role, reconciliation is the primary focus. Snyder lists four ways the church is prophetic: the church is prophetic when it creates and sustains a reconciled and reconciling community of believers. The reconciliation is of course between God and man but Snyder argues that transformation should lead to lots of other forms of reconciliation such as with marriages, broken relationships in general along with racial, social or economic marginalization (126).
The church is also prophetic when it recognizes and indentifies the true emeny – the devil. In recognizing Satan as the real ememy of people’s souls and as the enemy of the church, the church seeks to bring liberation through reconciliation, which leads to breaking the bondage of sin in people’s hearts and lives (128-129).
The church is prophetic when it renounces the world’s definition of practice and power. Real Christianity follows Jesus in using power differently than the way the world does. Rather than to seek hierarchy and authority, real power is found in humility, service and love.
Finally, the church is prophetic when it works for justice in society. This is when the church, as the community of the King is less concerned about the status quo and instead seeks the safety, dignity, and personal rights of the defenseless. It is prophetic when it seeks to minimize marginalization of the poor and oppressed.
It’s in these ways that the church then, through the power of the Holy Spirit functions as the agent of the kingdom and reveals its true purpose and nature. There is plenty more to talk about with regard to this book but the purpose of a review is not to necesarily give all the details but focus on the major points and then evaluate them accordingly.
As I said before, this is an important book and if you are interesting in working on your own theology of the church – Snyder’s book, The Community of the King would be a great place to start.