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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Family & Spirit: Developing an Asian Ecclesiology

Written by: on June 6, 2018

Focus on the (true) Family

I have distinct memories growing up of my home being a Focus on the Family home. That is, my parents read James Dobson’s books on parenting, we went through Preparing for Adolescence together, listened to cassette tapes of Adventures in Odyssey, and newsletters from Dobson regularly arrived in our mail. This is etched into my memory.[1] Jump ahead to undergrad when I read Rodney Clapp’s Families at the Crossroads. There (and elsewhere) Clapp makes the significant claim, “The family is not the primary vehicle of God’s grace and salvation for a waiting, desperate world.” Instead, “the church is God’s most important institution on earth. The Church is the social agent that most significantly shapes and forms the character of Christians.”[2] This was a huge paradigm shift for me, to recognize that God desired the church—not the family— to be the instrument of shalom and salvation.

Reading Simon Chan’s Grassroots Asian Theology, many things crossed my mind—among them, recognition that what he develops in this text can be formative for Christians and the church in places beyond Asia; it’s relevant for us in the West as well. For instance, Chan challenges the institutional church to more humility, recognizing we have yet to attain fullness: “the present institutional church does not exhaust the meaning of the church as the body of Christ since it is still in via.”[3] A primary theme, though, is the concept of the Trinity as family, with the church, therefore, mirroring it as family.

This has potential to be somewhat risky in contexts where the family is highly valued. On one hand, “a religion that radically disrupts the existing family structure will inevitably be viewed as a serious threat to society.”[4] But on the other hand, it is the church—not the family—that “provides the antidote to structural evil.”[5] Quoting Sri Lankan D.T. Niles, “The answer to the problems of the world is the answer that Jesus Christ provided, which is the Church.”[6] The church must function both as priest (ritually extending the values and meanings which give life in a particular context—continuity) and as prophet (convicting and challenging the status quo—contrast).[7]

The concept of church as family has the potential to welcome the stranger and alien to the kitchen table, the orphan into adoption. The concept of church as family recognizes the communion of saints, the connection between past and present (and future) and is able to honor, remember, and celebrate those of us who are already dwelling in God’s presence; thus providing a venue for contexts where ancestors are venerated (and for contexts like the West to do a better job of remembering those who have gone on).

God-breath Revelations

I generally resonate with Chan’s development of common Asian theology, with his high and intertwined ecclesiology and pneumatology. Like the thesis posited in Adrian Thatcher’s God, Sex and Gender, Chan looks beyond sola scriptura to both church (present) and tradition (past) for development of local theologies.[8] If we embrace the revelation of the Holy Spirit beyond scripture and permeating the people of God, then it is essential to do a better of job “listen[ing] to what God by his Spirit is saying through the laity.” Wisely, though, this does not occur in an individualistic vacuum, says Chan, but “from within the church, as fellow worshipers with the whole people of God.” [9]

In Chan’s theology, which recognizes the dwelling of the Spirit in each member of the family of God, we give and receive each other’s gifts and burdens. It is a corporate identity, which resists individualism. However, individual autonomy is excessively valued in the West, so for us to embrace this Asian expression of corporate spirituality is challenging; such that “bearing the cross in the body requires one to be limited by the weaknesses of another member.”[10] We resist anything that holds us back from our “true potential.” But as Western followers of Jesus figuring out how to value our membership as the body of Christ, are we willing to listen to the prophetic challenge of our Asian siblings and allow the revelation of the Holy Spirit in them to shape us and enlarge our own understanding of God?

[1] My favorite memory of FotF is seeing The Strong-Willed Child book on my mom’s beside table. I figured she was reading it because of my sister.

[2] Rodney Clapp, Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Traditional and Modern Options (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1993), 67-68.

[3] Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 170.

[4] Ibid., 164.

[5] Ibid., 179.

[6] Ibid., 179, quoting D.T. Niles, The Message and Its Messengers (Nashville: Abingdon, 1966) 50.

[7] Ibid., 170.

[8] Ibid., 12.

[9] Ibid., 18.

[10] Ibid., 181.

About the Author

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Katy Drage Lines

In God’s good Kingdom, some minister like trees, long-standing, rooted in a community. They embody words of Wendell Berry, “stay years if you would know the genius of the place.” Others, however, are called to go. Katy is one of those pilgrims. A global nomad, Katy grew up as a fifth generation Colorado native, attended college & seminary and was ordained in Tennessee, married a guy from Pennsylvania, ministered for ten years in Kenya, worked as a children’s pastor in a small church in Kentucky, and served college students in a university library in Orange County, California. She recently moved to the heart of America, Indianapolis, and has joined the Englewood Christian Church community, serving with them as Pastor of Spiritual Formation. She & her husband Kip, have two delightful boys, a college junior and high school junior.

5 responses to “Family & Spirit: Developing an Asian Ecclesiology”

  1. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Very true Katy. Sometimes we become so consumed with influencing others, we forget that we need to be influenced in our faith. It reminds me of the mission trips I’ve done, thinking I’m going to bless others, only to discover I come away seemingly more blessed and enriched in my Christian faith. Relationships are about reciprocity. We cannot come away from relating to someone without coming away impacted by them in some way, whether positive or negative.

  2. Mary says:

    This is a great statement, Katy and one that pulls so many things together, “The concept of church as family has the potential to welcome the stranger and alien to the kitchen table, the orphan into adoption. ”
    Chan, and you, point out something we really need here in the West – a bit more emphasis on the body and not so much on individualism. We are to live as both. The church isn’t going to vouch for me when I face God on His throne and give an account (my excuses) for my life. On the other hand, we serve in communities. And when we get there we will meet all those who went ahead!

  3. Lynda Gittens says:

    I agree with your statement “text can be formative for Christians and the church in places beyond Asia; it’s relevant for us in the West as well. For instance, Chan challenges the institutional church to more humility”
    I do believe that the institution is not the focus ut the individuals. When the individuals (who are the church) are more humble then the institution reflects the love of Jesus.
    Thanks for the post.

  4. Jim Sabella says:

    Katy, your highlighting the challenge of contextualization of deep cultural structure like the family is appreciated. When I look back over my life in the church, I sometimes wonder if we didn’t go too far the other way. I know of people, who once they accepted Christ, felt that they must total disassociate themselves from their family who had not taken the step of faith. This is so sad on many levels and I don’t believe at all necessary. But even now, we continue to refine our theology and work out our salvation in fear and trembling. Thanks for another great post.

  5. Kristin Hamilton says:

    “The concept of church as family has the potential to welcome the stranger and alien to the kitchen table, the orphan into adoption.”
    I love this statement, Katy, especially in light of the deep brokenness we see in so many families. What I struggle with, though, is that family systems theory tells us that we take our family systems roles with us into other communities. Welcome and embrace are a huge step, but how many church communities have the training and understanding to work with and, if necessary, help people break free from those systems so that they can truly join the community?

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