The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness

The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness

The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness

The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness


Drawing on the writings of German pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jennifer M. McBride constructs a groundbreaking theology of public witness for Protestant church communities in the United States. In contrast to the triumphal manner in which many Protestants have engaged the publicsphere, The Church for the World shows how the church can offer a nontriumphal witness to the lordship of Christ through repentant activity in public life. After investigating current Christian conceptions of witness in the United States, McBride offers a new theology for repentance as public witness, based on Bonhoeffer's thought concerning Christ, the world, and the church. McBride takes up Bonhoeffer's proposal that repentance may be reinterpreted"non-religiously," expanding and challenging common understandings of the concept. Finally, she examines two church communities that exemplify ecclesial commitments and practices rooted in confession of sin and repentance. Through these communities she demonstrates that confession and repentance maybe embodied in various ways yet also discerns distinguishing characteristics of a redemptive public witness.The Church for the World offers important insights about Christian particularity and public engagement in a pluralistic society as it provides a theological foundation for public witness that is simultaneously bold and humble: when its mode of being in the world is confession of sin unto repentance,the church demonstrates Christ's redemptive work and becomes a vehicle of concrete redemption.


On April 21, 2006, several hundred people pack an auditorium at the University of Southern Maine in Portland for a “People’s Town Meeting” on the Iraq War. The program is simple. Any individual has the opportunity to speak for three minutes. Halfway through the night, an unknown, evangelical Episcopal priest with no strong ties to a political party and no experience speaking in public gatherings of this type approaches the microphone. Wearing his collar and conscious of his priestly role as an ecclesial representative, he opens by confessing that Christians have been in collusion with military might to the detriment of witnessing to Christ. He says to the crowd,

As you can see, I am not a politician. I am not a military expert, nor an expert in inter
national affairs. However, as a Christian priest, as a Christian pastor, I felt compelled to
come tonight to bear witness to the witness of Christian scriptures relative to these
issues. Christian ideas and pieces of the Bible have been used so much in all this—
particularly during the build-up to the war in Iraq, in an attempt to justify it—that I
simply feel I must speak to give testimony to what the witness of the Christian scriptures
is if we read it as a whole and let it speak to us with integrity and do not pick out pieces
and do not approach it trying to justify an end upon which we have already decided.

And when I read Christian scriptures—when I read the Bible—with these issues in
mind, I see one big thing that comes off the pages boldly. It is this: God will not be
mocked. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “America, you’d better watch out, because God
will not be mocked.” God perhaps tolerates empires for a season, with all their swagger,
all their might, all their … self-justification. Maybe God even allows them in certain ways
to accomplish some relatively good things. But that should not be mistaken for God’s
favor. And that should not be mistaken for God being on our side or fighting for us.

Because, the witness of Christian scriptures is that eventually … God judges … hubris
and violence, neglect of the poor and vulnerable, and exploitation of the good
creation…. The witness of Christian scriptures is clear that the God who incarnated
himself into this world in Jesus Christ knew suffering, was a friend of the poor and
broken, confronted empire in his own day, loved justice, and cared for the good creation
God made. God will not be mocked but will eventually bring righteous judgment.

Tim Clayton walks away from the microphone feeling like a fish out of water, so nervous that his mouth is parched, aware that what he has said is not perfect. Yet, after he speaks the energy in the room is palpable. The Green Party candidate for governor speaks soon after and says, “I think we ought to give one of Maine’s Senate positions to Pastor Tim!” and the crowd responds with a rousing cheer.

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