Models of Church: Iconic, Priestly, Public

In his book, God in Public, Mark Toulouse talks about three types of churches: Iconic, priestly, and public. I will cover what those are in this blog.

The Iconic church is civil religion. To be a good citizen, you must belong to a church. The flag is up front and center, you celebrate all of the holidays, and Jesus is a blonde haired, blue eyed investment banker with a house in the suburbs. Ok… that might be an overstatement… but not by much.

This is a theological stance of accommodation, We can trace this back to Justin Martyr, a second century theologian, who thought the seed of God was sown throughout the world. It’s not Social Gospel movement and liberal theology assumes this sort of theology as it seeks to blend Christian message with the most noble of human aspirations.

Yet this is also the prosperity gospel too. Left unchecked, the darkside of nationalism, consumerism, and such creeps in and the church becomes the acolyte of America and not of Christ. As Toulouse put it, “Public life in America serves individual gain and not common good.” (page 40) Anytime a church looks like this: personal salvation, personal works, personal relationship, you can be sure you’re at an iconic flavored church.

Toulouse argues that this style of church is insufficient and rather untrue to the gospel. “Christians who regularly confuse Christianity with the iconic context can unwittingly express American values more than they serve Christian values.” (page 76)

The Priestly church is concerned with worshiping and beliefs. They are not concerned with public policy or context. The sacraments and preaching are the focus and these things are above the goings on of the world.

I once heard of a man researching a famous preacher in his denomination. The preacher was very popular in Pennsylvania around the Civil War. The researcher found the sermons to be sublime; theologically rich, and dripping with Biblical teachings. However, not once did this preacher mention the Civil War. How does the church serve to orient people to the kingdom if they don’t preach to where people are? It’s like trying to get to Jesus and punching your location into the GPS but the GPS doesn’t know where you’re at. It’ll never get you there.

Jesus used the metaphors of his time and preached about the politics of his time. Toulouse notes how the mainline church moved in 1968 and started to talk to the issues of the day (page 86).

Public church marshals those outside it’s walls to advocate for issues of justice (134). Faith in Christ means public action.

Even Priestly churches in their removal have started going Public. The Roman Catholic church in their war on choice and writing public policies. The mainline church moved this way in 1968 with Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement and started to talk to the issues of the day (86). Public church marshals those outside it’s walls to advocate for issues of justice (134).

Public church sounds like my idea of church. I love MLK and he’s my model for church and being Christ in the modern age. I feel like my time here at Sylvania has been one of my public leanings and priestly leanings of Sylvania as it grows into public. It has been mutually informative. The public was there already (solar panels and the vast array of outreach). Yet I have tried to push for a bolder, more public stance as I want to be a “doer of the word, not merely a hearer.” (James 1:22)

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is trying to grow into a public church from a priestly one. ELCA national is putting together teaching documents that help local churches refer back to before signing onto a faith stance. These serve, much like the UCC resolutions, as guidance for individuals and congregations. At the same time they represent the consensus of the church, they are not binding on the conscious of individual Christians. If you disagree, you are still a Christian and still a Lutheran. This sets the church as a community of moral deliberation.

This is what Dr. Jim Childs, my teacher and teacher of Ethics and Systematic theology at Trinity Luther Seminary, calls Middle Axioms. Middle Axioms between a specific course of action and a general principle. Justice is general, so then we speak of justice in the specific realm of economics or ecology. Strong guides but not prescriptive since application is a matter of contextual interpretation. Only exception is Death Penalty. Church must be against it as Christ was an innocent victim of it.

The trick of this is preaching politics from the pulpit without being partisan. When someone accuses the preacher of being political, the correct response is “I didn’t invent the values of the kingdom of God, I just talk about it.”

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