William Stringfellow, Free in Obedience – Part IV

‘The Church is born and lives … in the gift of Pentecost’ (p. 101). It is Pentecost, Stringfellow reminds us in Free in Obedience, that births the Church into the ‘awful freedom’ of Christ’s victory, a freedom from death, a freedom which empowers the people of God to live jubilantly ‘during the remaining time of death’s apparent reign, without escaping or hiding or withdrawing from the full reality of death’s presence … It is the freedom to live anywhere, any day, in such a way as to expose and confound the works of death and at the same time to declare and honor the work of Christ’ (pp. 75–6). This freedom is not given for God’s sake, or for the sake of the Church, but in order that the world may ‘recover wholeness and completion of life’ (p. 76). It represents, therefore, an act of divine generosity which gathers up in its ek-static movement a people called to witness to the grace, truth and power of Christ’s resurrection. Those so gathered are called into an ‘ethics of obedience’ (p. 76), a calling which involves a loosening of the grip on the principalities of race, class, ideology, commerce, status, etc., that hold the Church captive:

‘The principality of the nation is served by the silence of the Church on issues confronting society; the nation willingly tolerates a silent, uncritical, uninterfering Church concerned only with such esoteric things of religion as public worship’. (p. 85)

On the whole, the Church – largely confused about the freedom given in the gospel and ‘in which it was constituted at Pentecost’ (p. 88) – has been a faithful chaplain and ‘handmaiden’ (p. 95) to the State, dutifully blessing the State’s causes and idolatrous claims with a ‘dignity of allegiance that ought to be given only to God’ (p. 86). Those already familiar with Yoder’s and Kerr’s critiques of Constantinianism’s project of the politicisation of the church according to the terms of the state, the civil sovereigns, powers and principalities of this world, will find echoes here in Stringfellow.

After a discussion on the legitimacy and necessity of civil disobedience (though the Church is never to engage in civil disobedience as anarchists but only in order to affirm the nation’s true vocation), Stringfellow brilliantly outlines the proper relation between church and state (neither of which are ‘exempt from the fall’ (p. 98)) under God’s authority. He argues that ‘the Church vis a vis the nation is always in the position of standing against the nation in the nation’s bondage to death; at the same time, the Church is always in the position of standing for the nation in a most profound way that recalls the vocation for the nation in the service of God … The Church reminds the nation, as it is does any other principality, of the origin of its life, of the service it owes to God, and of the accountability of the nation to God in ruling the common life of men in society’ (pp. 92, 93). He also identifies the void in Protestant moral theology which fails to account for the way that those church bureaucrats who think that they control the institution are themselves slaves to the principalities of death.

‘This does not mean that Christians should be loath to work in churchly institutions, but it does mean that those who do should be aware of the reality which confronts them and should not be romantic about it because the principality bears the name “church.” Above all, they should be prepared to stomach the conflict which will surely accompany their use of the freedom from idolatry of even churchly principalities which Christ himself has secured’. (p. 99)

Stringfellow then engages with a wonderfully-helpful reflection of the ongoing power and significance of Pentecost (and of the authority present in Christian baptism) for shaping and determining Christian witness in a world in which King Jesus, possessed of the Holy Spirit, triumphantly encounters the powers and principalities of death – and death itself. ‘The Church, in the gratuity of Pentecost, is enabled to witness to God’s authority over the principalities in his victory over death by its knowledge of death, its discernment of the powers of death, and by unveiling and laying bare the works of death in this world’ (p. 102).

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4 comments

  1. Hey Jason,

    I don’t want this to devolve into a debate about Christianity and homosexuality; but I wanted to get your take on this. I know Stringfellow was gay and practicing; how should that affect the way we approach him? Should we listen to his voice as a teacher; or did he disqualify himself (I Cor 9:24-27)? I tend to think he was disqualified, and I would feel the same way if he was a practicing heterosexual who slept with woman outside of marriage.

    I just can’t get away from this one, it really bothers me. Anyway, I’d like to know your thoughts on this, and how you handle approaching someone like Stringfellow.

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  2. Bobby,

    Thanks for your question, which I will respond to offline. Some conversations are best had offline.

    That said, if I was at some stage to try and articulate a theologically-robust reflection on the issues of sexuality, sin and ministry, I think that I would try to explore the relationship between these issues twofold: (i) in light of an ethic determined by eschatology, i.e. by the coming of God in Jesus Christ, and (ii) in light of the Church’s two sacraments – namely the Baptism by which we are put to death and inaugurated into a new humanity, and the Table at which sinners feast in anticipation of the great banquet which is to come. Clearly, it is christology that must determine a Christian reponse to these questions.

    If the word one of us is given to speak during this time-between-the-times comes via something of a contradiction in one’s own personhood, then this, it seems to me, does not abrogate the message. Clearly I have no probem with learning from Stringfellow.

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  3. Thank you Jason,

    See my response back to you offline . . . good words!

    I follow the eschatological/kingdom ethic you allude to; I think we must!

    I do believe in the ex opere operato nature of the Gospel (cf. Philippians 1); and so believe anyone in any circumstance can say true things about the kingdom and Gospel.

    I think questions about qualifications for the office of a teacher in the church are still left open here; but that’s a discussion for another time and place.

    Thanks for the thoughtfulness, Jason.

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