Joseph D. Small
Eerdmans, 224 pages
Reviewed by Linda Lanam
The “Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms” defines “ecclesiology” as “the study of the church as a biblical and theological topic.” Too often, however, as Joseph D. Small notes in the preface to his new book, “Flawed Church, Faithful God,” this study has been dominated by “the church’s proclivity to justify itself, to promote itself as a virtuous, holy enclave in sinful world.” Small’s goal, which he is fairly successful in achieving, is to shatter and rebuild (reform, if you prefer) that self-image to focus on being a witness to God’s grace rather than a provider of religious goods and services.
Small opens by considering what the church was intended to be and how it became what it is. The application of biblical study and church history to an examination of both church doctrine and commonly held connections is effective in showing what convictions we share as believers, even when divided by denomination and historical determination. Arguing strongly for the centrality of this shared faith as the core of the true life of the church, the book moves through how Christians have allowed ourselves to allow what we believe to become abstracted and isolated from what we do. The leap is short, Small says, “from the commodification of the church to the commodification of faith to the commodification of God.”
The real heart of the book, however, comes rather late in the text. It is in chapter 9, “Professing the Faith,” that Small directly confronts those modern-day struggles in the life of the church that have resulted in what he describes as the current “contracted public presence and thinned-out faith” that have led to a diminishment in the ability to effectively proclaim the gospel. And here, using the work of Rodney Stark, Larry Hurtado and Alan Kreider (among others), the focus is placed on how the early church established itself in but not of the Roman Empire. Small would send us back to our beginnings to find our future. What is required to re-energize the church is a return to what has always been required, “awareness of and attention to the call of the present Christ, who calls us to be holy, to be catholic, to be apostolic, to be the church.”
And yet, however lovely the language and substantial the thinking that are displayed in Small’s book, it is not a self-help manual or a how-to guide. Spending time with it requires both a willingness to take a deep dive into subjects like church history, systematic theology and biblical criticism with companions like John Calvin, Karl Barth and N.T. Wright, along with a level of familiarity with texts like Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age.” The reader is not offered any specific steps to follow to arrive at the promised reward. But, for those who are willing to engage fully and honestly with the tension between what the church is today and what it was called to be, there are rewards to be found in reading “Flawed Church: Faithful God,” not the least of which is to be reminded that our hope for the future is founded on nothing less than our confidence in the abundant, over-flowing love of God that never fails.
Linda Lanam is a Presbyterian minister and professor of theology at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.