A Review of “Flawed Church, Faithful God”

A review of Flawed Church, Faithful God: A Reformed Ecclesiology for the Real World by Joseph D. Small (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018)
by Allen McSween

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Small is exactly the right person to write a much needed Reformed ecclesiology for our time. He is a consummate churchman, having served as a pastor, theological educator, ecumenical delegate, and for many years Director of the PC (USA) Office of Theology and Worship. In this book he offers the whole church a deeper understanding of its essential identity. Small insists that the church is not merely a human construct or an idealized abstraction. The church is a communion of flawed human beings that is called into being by the Triune God who guides and sustains it through its often stumbling journey through history and who alone can fulfill its promise “in the fullness of time, when all walls will fall, all who are scattered are gathered, and the multitude will live together.” (219)

What is most commendable in this challenging and compelling book is the way in which Small combines a clear-eyed realism as to the flaws and failings of the church with a profound biblical/theological understanding of how the risen, reigning Christ is fully present and powerfully at work in all aspects of its life through Word and Sacrament in the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Small opens his Preface with an intriguing quote from John Updike: “A company of believers is like a prisonful of criminals: their intimacy and solidarity are based on what about themselves they can least justify.” (xiii) In similar fashion, Small says, “the church is a communion of intimacy and solidarity because of what it cannot justify about itself coupled with recognition that its justification lies in the grace of God. Only as the church knows that its life is not self-generated and maintained can it witness faithfully to the God who generates and maintains it.” (xiv) That theme of the radical dependence of the church on the covenant faithfulness of God runs throughout the book.
Small has no illusions about the church. He knows well the church’s captivity to the consumerist ideology that seeks to manage and market the church as if we were in control of its faith and life. He writes, “As purveyors of religious goods and services in a consumer-driven market economy, churches are susceptible to the short leaps from the commodification of the church to the commodification of faith to the commodification of God,” (21) which is precisely the idolatry of which the church is always tempted, especially in our American context.

But even more importantly, Small knows and explicates clearly the “grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit” that continues to form and reform the church as the living (wounded) body of Christ in and for the world. “The call of the Christus praesens comes to the church: turn around, reorient your life, trust the good news and follow me…. The church’s all-too-evident reality of division, accommodation, exclusion, and forgetfulness is judged, but it is only known fully in light of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose call to repentance is his invitation to hope that does not lie in human capacity but in the capacity and purpose of God.” (199-200)

Throughout his career Joe Small has been involved in ecumenical conversations, and throughout this book we hear his passionate call for the church to be the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” God intends it to be. Over against our too easy acceptance of our myriad divisions, Small insists that “Christ’s call to unity among the various congregations, denominations, and world communions into which the church is divided is clear and audible. Nowhere in Scripture is there a hint of satisfaction with the disunity of the people of God.” (200) That is an important word for those of us who are all too comfortable in our cozy ecclesiastical cocoons.
Of particular importance are Small’s chapters on “People of God” and “In our Time” in which he explores the relationship between Israel and the church and contemporary Jewish-Christian relations. Small rejects any Christian supersessionism, insisting that, “If the New Testament is read in ways that denigrate Israel and the Jewish people, Christian understanding of who God is and how God acts in the world is diminished.” (144) We both and together are the People of God.

Flawed Church, Faithful God is by no means a quick and easy read. Throughout the book there are sentences that jump off the page and demand to be pondered at length. On every page there are remarkable insights into the history and theology of the church that shed light on a wide range of contemporary issues. (The Bibliography itself is eight pages!) It has rightly been suggested that this book is the summa of Small’s long and distinguished career in the church. As such, it could serve well to carry on his service to the church if this book were required reading in all our seminaries and if it was strongly commended, as I hope this review has done, to all who serve as pastors and educators in the clearly Flawed Church that nevertheless is upheld and empowered by the ever Faithful God. Tolle lege!

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