The church

Moltmann describes his ecclesiology alternatively as "messianic ecclesiology" or "relational ecclesiology." Both terms serve to situate the church within God's trinitarian history with the world, more specifically within the missions of the Son and the Spirit on their way to the eschatological kingdom. In the first place, Moltmann's ecclesiology is rooted in his eschatological Christology. The church lives between the past history of Jesus and the universal future in which that history will reach its fulfillment: the former directs it in mission toward the latter. But this also means that Moltmann's ecclesiology is strongly pneumatological. For, in Moltmann's understanding of the trinitarian history, it is the Holy Spirit who now, between the history of Jesus and the coming of the kingdom, mediates the eschatological future to the world. If the church is an anticipation of the messianic kingdom, it is so because it is created by and participates in the mission of the Spirit. Its defining characteristics are not therefore its own, but those of the presence and activity of Christ and the Spirit. At every point ecclesiology must be determined by the church's role as a movement within the trinitarian history of God with the world.

If "messianic ecclesiology" characterizes the church as oriented by the missions of Christ and the Spirit toward their eschatological goal, "relational ecclesiology" indicates that, because of its place within the trinitarian history, the church does not exist in, of, or for itself, but only in relationship and can only be understood in its relationships. It participates in the messianic history of Jesus, it lives in the presence and powers of the Spirit, and it exists as a provisional reality for the sake of the universal kingdom of the future. Since the mission of the Spirit on the way to the kingdom includes but is not confined to the church, the church cannot absolutize itself, but must fulfill its own messianic role in open and critical relationship with other realities, its partners in history, notably Israel, the other world religions, and the secular order.

Within this context, the church can only adequately fulfill its vocation if it becomes a "messianic fellowship" of mature and responsible disciples. Here Moltmann, with his eye especially on the German Protestant scene, proposes radical reform and renewal of the church. His criticism is of the extent to which the church is still the civil religion of society, a pastoral church for all the people, unable to take up a critical stance in relation to society, unable to foster real community and active Christian commitment. The ideal is a church of the people, a fellowship of committed disciples called to responsible participation in messianic mission. Membership of the church must therefore be voluntary (from this follows Moltmann's critique of infant baptism) and characterized not only by faith but also by discipleship and a distinctive lifestyle. The messianic fellowship will also be a free society of equals, since the Spirit frees and empowers all Christians for messianic service (from this follows Moltmann's critique of traditional doctrines of the ministry). Its life of loving acceptance of the other, however different, Moltmann is fond of characterizing as "open friendship," since friendship is a relationship of freedom and the church's life of friendly relationships is always essentially open to others. Finally, the church's open friendship must be modeled on that of Jesus and therefore take the form especially of solidarity with the poor. Unlike the pastoral church, with its tendency to accept the status quo in society, the church as a voluntary fellowship of committed disciples is free to be a socially critical church, identified with the most marginalized and needy.

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