Generally speaking, most ecclesiological thinking has tended to overemphasize the discontinuity between ancient Israel and the church. There are many reasons for this, some of which explicitly and intentionally emphasize the discontinuities, and some of which do so in an implicit way. This overstress on the differences between Israel and church can lead to a static understanding of the church, which misses out on the dynamic, historical nature of the people of God, and thereby leaves us less sensitive to questions of renewal and reform. I would suggest that thinking more intentionally about the continuities between the church and Israel can help to recover a more biblical understanding of the people of God.
My perspective on this question has been greatly influenced by George Lindbeck’s argument for an “Israel-like” view of the church. I’m not going to summarize his work here (though maybe I should do that another time), but if you are interested in what he has to say, I would recommend reading the following two essays: “The Story-Shaped Church: Critical Exegesis and Theological Interpretation,” in Scriptural Authority and Narrative Interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 161–78; and “The Church,” in The Church in a Postliberal Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 145-165.
- An idealized, platonic understanding of the church. This is particularly true of ecclesiologies which place great stress on the “invisible church” (that is, the elect, known only to God) as the “real” church. If the “real” church is invisible, then the historical, visible church can be undermined as “unreal” or unimportant.
- A triumphalistic view of the church as holder of the keys to salvation. If the church’s role in mediating salvation is stressed too much, such that the church itself is seen as possessing the fullness of the means of salvation (rather than serving as God’s instrument), then it becomes easy to play off the “triumphant” church against the unfaithfulness of Israel in the Old Testament.
- Divisions among Christians leading to different groups claiming to be the “true” church. The triumphalist tendency in the Christian church has only be exacerbated by divisions. In a situation of division, ecclesiology has often become about proving that your church is complete and lacking in nothing, in comparison with other churches. Again, this can easily lead to a presumption that we are above the failures of Israel.
- Some forms of supersessionism and dispensationalism. Obviously, supersessionism in all forms is going to stress the discontinuities between Israel and church, since supersessionists argue that the church as replaced Israel as God’s people. The most extreme form would be dispensationalism, which, in arguing that Christians and Jews live under different “dispensations” of God, are able to justify strong discontinuities between the Israel and church.
So, what then, am I proposing regarding the continuities and discontinuities between Israel and church, scripturally speaking? Clearly, from a Christian perspective, things have changed for the people of God post-resurrection. But how much has changed, and what hasn’t changed?
First, what are the discontinuities between Israel and church?
- Pentecost marks the beginning of a greater fullness of the Spirit, poured out upon all (Joel 2:28-32 / Acts 2).
- Jesus Christ offers a more complete revelation of God than was available to the OT people of God (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 1:1-4)
- The church is given a universal mandate to evangelize the world (Matthew 28:16-20)
- The sacrificial worship and priesthood of OT Israel are replaced by Jesus’ work on the cross (Hebrews 10)
- The church is not intended to be a nation with a theocratic civil government, but a dispersed community of exiles, spread among every nation (1 Peter 1:1-2)
- The church is still a historical and visible community of persons.
- It is not an “idea”; the church is a real, living human community, with a history of ups and downs, successes and failures, faithfulness and apostasy (Acts 5; Revelation 2-3)
- The church is still a communal entity. Though salvation is personal it is not individualistic.
- The people of God can still be seen as a people on a journey – a pilgrim people headed towards the new creation (1 Peter 2:11)
- The church is still subject to judgment under the lordship of Christ. This judgment is not only a future event, but is reflected in the church’s historical life, here and now. Judgment begins with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). NT Christians viewed OT history as their history, and took warning against unfaithfulness (1 Cor. 10).
- The church is still a holy and priestly people, witnessing in word and deed to the world about the faithfulness of God (1 Peter 2:9-10).
- The people of God still need a Saviour. The church is not, in itself, the fulfilment of Israel; Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of Israel; he is also the fulfillment of the church; we find fullness in him, not in ourselves (Eph. 1:3-10)
If we take these continuities to heart, several implications will follow. These are thoughts which I try to keep in mind as I think theologically about the church.
- Though the church enjoys a greater fullness of the Holy Spirit, we are still fallible and capable of unfaithfulness, as was ancient Israel (1 Corinthians).
- Because the church is historical, it always exists in a particular time and place, as a particular community embedded as a bodily presence in a particular culture. Being rooted in a specific time and place, then, is an essential aspect of the church’s identity.
- Though Christ has taken our judgment upon himself, he still disciplines his people as their Lord, just as the people of Israel were disciplined. That is to say, all forms of “triumphalism” should be rejected. Being “in Christ” and having the Spirit’s presence does not imply automatic blessing – it may also mean judgment, rebuke, and discipline (1 Cor. 11:32).
- Finally, we should expect to see periods of decline and renewal in church history, and we should attune ourselves to these dynamics. This is part of our journey as the living, breathing, embodied, historical and visible people of God.