Some Christians speak of the missional church as ‘incarnational’. We must be careful here that we do not fall into heresy. The bottom line is that there is only one person who is an incarnation of God: Jesus Christ, the Son of God [John 1:14; Philippians 2:6-8; 1Timothy 4:16]. The church is not and never can be an incarnation of God in the same way that Christ is the incarnation of God simply because the church never was, is not now, and never will be God. In Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is by very nature God, became flesh: we are flesh by nature.

We must therefore discipline ourselves when we speak of the church as ‘incarnational’, and acknowledge that this can describe the church only in a relative and minimal way. We must at the same time remember that the church is not God; at most what can be said of the church is that the Spirit of God, and therefore God, indwells the church. Indwelling however is a far different reality from incarnation.

To what extent then may we refer to the church as incarnational?

The church is incarnational in that, like Christ, it is distinct from the world, but identifies with the world.

In his deity Christ is distinct from the world, but, at the same time, in his humanity he was in all points as we are, apart from sin [Hebrews 1 and 2].

Similarly, the church is distinct from the world - like Christ, in the world, but, since he called us out from the world and made us his own, we are not of the world [John 17:16; 1Peter 2:11].

But at the same time the church is identified with the world – we are sinful human beings, sharing in the life and the suffering common to all humans.

The church is incarnational in that, like Christ, it is revelational.

Jesus Christ came and did the works of God and spoke the words of God, revealing the nature of God the Father. He came into the world as Light coming into the darkness [John 3:19 ; 8:12 ].

Similarly, but as the ambassadors of God, not as the Son of God, the church’s responsibility is to do the works of God and speak the words of God, making known the nature and glory of God the Father. We, like Christ, are to shine the truth of God in and into the darkness of our world [Matthew 5:13-16; Philippians 2:15,16; 1Peter 2:9-12].

Jesus Christ summed up his earthly life with the words ‘I have brought you glory on earth’ [John 17:4].

In so far as the church glorifies God on earth by its life and its testimony, it fulfils its mission; indeed when it glorifies God it fulfils its purpose, its mission, irrespective of whether any ‘souls’ are ‘saved’.

The church is incarnational in that, like Christ, it is sent into the world.

Jesus Christ was sent into the world by the Father. This is mentioned a small number of times in the synoptic Gospels [Matthew 10:10; Mark 9:37; Luke 4:18,43; 9:48; 10:16] and numerous times in John’s Gospel where the incarnation is a major theme [3:17,34; 4:34; 5:23,24,30,36,37,38; 6:29,38,39,44,57; 7:16,18,28,29,33; 8:16,18,26,29,42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42;12:44,45,49; 13:20; 14:24; 15:21; 16:5; 17:3,8,18,21,23,25].

Similarly Jesus sends the church into the world with a mandate to communicate his truth in word and deed [Matthew 28:19-20; John 20:21 ].

The church is incarnational in that, like Christ, it suffers because of its distinct identity and mission in a world that is hostile to God.

From a human perspective Jesus Christ suffered as a direct result of the revelational aspect of his incarnation. It was his knowledge of his divine identity and his claim to such an equality with God that to see him was to see God, and to know him was to know God, that provoked the Jews to secure his death [John 5:18; 8:58,59; 10:30-33]. 

Because we to a degree identify with Christ in the revelational aspects of his incarnation in his distinction from the world, and with the exclusive and offensive claims he made, we also will share to a degree with his suffering.

We, like him, if we are truly missional, if we truly demonstrate and embody God’s truth in our real flesh and blood lives, attract the hatred of the world. Thus to be ‘incarnational’ is at the same time to be confrontational and divisive. To be incarnational is to suffer the world’s rejection.

Copyright Rosemary Bardsley 2009. 2021