World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Response by Krister Stendahl

"Formation of Christian Folks in a Plural World" - a response by Krister Stendahl to the paper "Formation of the Laos".

10 May 1997

Le Cénacle, Geneva, 7-10 May 1997

Formation of Christian Folks in a Plural World

Response by Krister Stendahl to the paper "Formation of the Laos"


I was immediately engaged when I found on the first page as the only biblical quotations my most beloved passages, II Cor 3:18 about the restoration of the imago dei and Rom 12:2 about the "intellectual worship" and transformation by renewal of the mind.

And we all with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

(II Cor 3:18)

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your rational worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

(Rom 12:1-2)

How is this formation/transformation aided and enhanced by lifting up the term People of God, laos tou theou as formative for Christian self-understanding? Let us first ask what one expects to gain by highlighting the laos. Here a few guesses:

    • To understand the church as a people - not an ideology, or just a means toward individual salvation.

    • To see the church, on the analogy of Israel, as a people chosen by grace and set apart for specific service.

    • To explore ways to express the relation between the church and the Jewish People, the people who coined the phrase.

    • On the analogy of God's election of Israel and the liberation out of Egypt it could be argued that the Scriptures picture God as biased in favour of the oppressed, suppressed, and repressed, cf. the Beatitudes. Hence the derivative language of the oppressed as "God's people" in a special sense. Such "secondary" language suffers, however, from being in tension with the inclusiveness that is often claimed for the laos.

    • And -- especially in the context of our consultation -- to counteract the fatal linguistic fluke by which the adjective laikós ("of the people") came to mean the not otherwise defined members of the church, rather than expressing the way in which all belong to "the people".

    But since I have chosen to speak about how the laos language functions in a plural world where the Christian monopoly either is gone or has never existed, a major problem is demonstrated by Godlind Bigalke's paper already on page 2. Here "the world" stands for schisms and divisions and worse, while the Church is different in its understanding "that the laos is not national nor international, but universal" [italics are mine].

    But there can be no doubt that it is exactly the universal claim of Christianity (or Islam) that makes for trouble rather than for peace. And it is here that the "original" People of God has something to suggest to Muslims and Christians who inherited Israel's "people thinking". For Judaism has never thought that God's hottest dream was that everyone become a Jew. They knew themselves to be a light to the nations. They thought as Jesus did when he spoke about his disciples as salt of the earth and light of the world.

    But who wants to turn the world into a salt mine? This is catalytic language. And Godlind Bigalke rightly uses the reference to the leaven in the lump. But leaven is not bread.

    Thus the laos language has to be rescued from the universalism that makes it triumphalist. If we use laos language, then the church is "universal" in the sense of Gal 3:28, transcending all barriers of ethnicity, class, and gender. But it is a "peculiar people" (King James Version's quaint and delightful expression), with a special calling to be an "Operation Headstart" for the Kingdom of God. Whatever wholeness and holiness we may achieve by grace is to be a Sign. Not more and not less ...

    Christian formation/transformation in a plural world presupposes a clear awareness of how our laos can relate to other laoi, to other peoples in a world which is a community of communities. The way toward justice and peace is not to inflate one's own community by universal claims toward universal coverage, or by universalizing the peculiar understanding that has been so graciously revealed to us. Call, election, chosen-ness does not mix well with universalism. That mix is lethal and breeds imperialsim, colonialism, and crusades, actual or mental.

    Hence Christian formation in a plural world would profit from lifting up two other fundamental theological themes: the Kingdom of God and the imago dei.

    As Barbara Schwahn makes so clear in her reflections on "The People of God" (Document No. 6, p.10), the laos theology needs the full context of the whole creation as a corrective. Jesus' choice of the Kingdom as the aim and end of the whole enterprise, i.e., the Mending of the Creation (what Jews call Tikkun Olam) is paradigmatic. The laos, when faithful and creative, is supposed to help in that mending not only of itself but of the world. And the imago dei, i.e. that all are created in the image of God, is the common bond of humankind, and a fact more decisive than the tarnish and brokenness that have occured subsequently and that varies in degrees according to various doctrinal traditions.

    Beyond and prior to all religious covenants that constitute communities of faith and of culture, there is the bond of common humanity, in the image of God, which should not be belittled in the interest of glorifying one's own special revelation.

    Thus I hail Godlind Bigalke's instinctive choice of the imago dei as the starting point in considering the topic for formation/transformation/yea restoration. To which I add the Lord's Prayer, the extended cry for the coming of the Kingdom, the mended creation.

    I have chosen only one - to me the most important - issue out of the many raised by Godlind Bigalke's paper. I have notes galore about many other, so if time permits... when I see what is covered by my fellow panelists.