The Church Need Not Survive

Craig Keen

The only condition for human sanctity is faithfulness to the gospel of the glorified mutilated body of Jesus.

It is important to distinguish between the Church of the Nazarene as a self-­protective institution (with a headquarters) and the Church of the Nazarene as a history of local churches entangled in each other’s memories and hopes. The institution will always resist the work of churches that might weaken its likelihood of survival. A faithful little local church—and a communion of faithful little local churches—will pray to go gladly into each new day “the Lord has made,” knowing it doesn’t have to survive. Remembering the faithfulness of God, it will expect to be as surprised as was Peter when God called him to the household of Cornelius (Acts 10). The institution will always respond as it did to Peter. “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45).

It is similarly important to distinguish a little local church—and a communion of little local churches—from a group defined by a system of ideals used to manage lived life. Life is hard. We are understandably anxious. We lean hard on customs to moderate the trauma of the unexpected. Thus we may meet shockingly new events with an immediate “No!” As long as we are vulnerable to being wounded or killed, we will continue to do so. And that is okay. It is just that the gospel has taught little local churches that there is something more important, something that is unthreatened by wounds or death, something for which every little local church is to strive, even if doing so leads to the loss of its property rights: “Indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:32—34).

It was a shock to the churches in and near first-century Palestine to realize that God was calling them to embrace those the law of Moses had cast out. The ideas, customs, habits, and especially the holy texts that the young church loved made clear that contact with the unclean will always separate us from fellowship with the holy God. The temple was closed to those with bleeding cuts or tears in the skin, who had touched a corpse, who were strangers to Israel’s covenant with God, or who had been emasculated by accident or design. Isaiah 56 imagines a new covenant. There the prophet declares that the day is coming when the temple will be opened to the Gentile and eunuch, people declared by the law of Moses to be unfit to enter the temple. Isaiah announces that the day is coming when the only condition for sanctifying entry into fellowship with God is that—even though unclean, even though strangers and eunuchs—they “join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants…to hold fast [God’s] covenant.” If they do that, they will be welcomed into God’s sanctifying embrace: “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:6—7).

It is this passage from Isaiah that Jesus quotes during Holy Week as he drives out “those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple” (Mark 11:15—17). That same week his body, too, was to be made unclean, according to the law of Moses, by the blows of the barbed leather thongs of the whip that tore his skin, by the spikes, the spear, and the other cruelties that mutilated his body as he was hanged on the cross.

It is ironic that sexual activity has become so highly exalted in the well-meaning ecclesiastical discourse in the modern age. Of course, this is not without precedent. Indeed, sexual activity is often carefully policed by societies of all kinds and sizes. It is by sexual activity that children are born and it is by means of children that a household, a village, a tribe, and a nation survives. Sex is the way by which one generation follows another. Especially in times of very high rates of mortality among mothers and newborns during childbirth and of infants and adults subsequent to childbirth, survival required sexual practices to be policed. What is especially strange about the gospel is that it so severely reins in this anxiety over childbirth and the survival not only of the particular human being, but also of the household, the village, the tribe, and the nation. What we call “singleness” and the early church called “virginity”—for the sake of devotion to the God of the gospel—was an abandonment of the prospect of childbirth. The clearest text in support of such a thing is perhaps 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul strongly advises those who are unmarried, to remain unmarried. This is not a new abstraction, a new commandment, that “real Christians must remain single!” Not at all. It is just that sexual activity is so very demoted in importance in the gospel that it is no longer necessary. Because God raised the unclean, mutilated body of Jesus from the dead, it is clear to all who have been embraced by the gospel that we do not have to survive.

Because of the very real possibility of a faithful childless lifetime, whether that be the lifetime of an unmarried person or eunuch, there is no longer a reason to exclude from full participation in the life of the local church any couple whose union will never yield children, so long as they “join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants…to hold fast [God’s new] covenant.”

Craig Keen is an ordained deacon in the Church of the Nazarene and Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Azusa Pacific University. He is a graduate of Southern Nazarene University, Nazarene Theological Seminary, and Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of After Crucifixion: The Promise of Theology and The Transgression of the Integrity of God (both published by Cascade Press). He taught theology and philosophy for 24 years at three universities of the Church of the Nazarene. He lives with his wife of 53 years in San Diego, California.

One response to “The Church Need Not Survive”

  1. Yes! And why should we expect the Church to survive, when the One Who bore testimony to her witness, was executed, dead, and buried?
    Of course He arose from the dead… but does the church have to arise in the same way, preaching the same tired sermons each time?
    I hope not.

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