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Theology Thursday: ‘their feet are on the ground but their faces are turned to heaven’

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Posted by John Percival, 5 May 2016

Is the church an earthly institution or a heavenly reality? As we celebrate Jesus’ ascension today, David Peterson wants us to lift our eyes to our heavenly Saviour.

Our own denomination, the Church of England (as well as its wider partners across the Anglican Communion), grows increasingly polarised over our response to changing cultural attitudes, so we must consider the nature of relationships beyond the local church. Peterson comments:

“We all need to be involved in wider expressions of the church than our local congregations to be faithful to Scripture. But the critical question for us […] is the degree to which the historic denominations, their theological self-evaluation and their structures of association, allow us to express the sort of community in Christ that the New Testament envisages.”

This is where our ascended Lord is so vital in our view of church:

“Christians participate in the ‘heavenly community’ that Christ is gathering to himself as they go about their ordinary tasks, including ministry to unbelievers, and they suffer as a consequence. To put it figuratively, their feet are on the ground but their faces are turned to heaven, because their life is ‘hidden with Christ in God’ ([Col] 3:3).”

Finally, Peterson tackles the modern idea that bishops are a ‘focus for unity’:

“the church is not defined by its ministerial structures but by its ‘communal existence given by God in Christ, and by the presence of the Spirit who provides the leaders needed’. This puts paid to the commonly held view that bishops or other clergy are a centre or focus for unity. It is Christ the exalted Lord of the church and the apostolic word inspired by the Spirit of Christ that is the focus for unity. Leaders are given to point others away from themselves to Christ, to teach the apostolic word and to encourage believers to obey it.”

Although this article is reviewing a book more than 20 years old, it contains some vital points for our view of church.

Peterson, David. “The ‘Locus’ of the Church—Heaven or Earth.Churchman 112, no. 3 (1998): 199–213.

John Percival is Curate of All Souls Eastbourne.

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