Book Review: Being the Body of Christ in the Age of Management

Shakespeare, Lyndon. Being the Body of Christ in the Age of Management (Veritas Book 19), 2016.

Summary

Lyndon Shakespeare serves as a rector in the Episcopal church. He argues that the response to decline in church participation in the West has been met with either managerial or missional impulses. He states that both responses are shaped by an understanding of a social body that is erosive to a wholistic understanding of the church as the body of Christ because it reduces members to merely instrumental means to an end. In response, he returns to Thomas Aquinas’ anthropology and ecclesiology to provide a contrasting view of the body of Christ that envisions members uniting with Christ and one another through the sacrament of Eucharist and thereby sharing in the happiness of God.

The understanding of a social body: Physicalism, Max Weber, Managerialism and Missionalism

Shakespeare begins with a historical survey showing how notions of “physicalism” were transferred from the natural sciences to the social sciences. Evolutionary naturalism developed an account of the human body (not to mention the rest of the physical world) as merely physical. Thus “physicalism” reduces the human body to component parts that are only meaningful in that they perform a certain function otherwise known as “instrumental rationalism.” Max Weber, the German who is known as the father of sociology, would apply “instrumental rationality” to social “bodies.” Operating under the assumptions of “physicalism,” the members of social bodies such as families, businesses, or governments, only have meaning in their instrumental functions that support the goal of the social body. This way of thinking would give rise to managerialism and its emphasis in the corporate world on efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control.

As churches experienced decline in the wake of cultural change, church leaders adopted managerial practices of efficiency, niche marketing, and strategic planning as ways to grow the church. These practices reduce members to instruments and restricts the church’s purpose to organizational survival and/or growth. Alternatively, other church leaders would restrict the church’s purpose to mission. Missionalism sees growth and replication as the purpose of the church and impediments to growth should be removed. Impediments are variously conceived but include doctrine, traditional ordering, and musical style. This view of the church shares with managerialism a reduced view of the church that is in danger of amputating parts of the body deemed instrumentally unnecessary.

Retrieving Aquinas: Aristotle’s “kinds” of things. The church as a site for divine beatitude. Eucharist as means to the proper end

In antithesis to physicalists notions of the body, Shakespeare “retrieves” Aquinas anthropology and ecclesiology. Influenced by Aristotle, Aquinas does not first ask about the function of a thing such as a human being or a church, but rather he asks first about the “kind” of thing a thing is. His primary interest is in the telos or purpose of a thing. With respect to humanity, Aquinas concludes that humanity is created to share in the “divine beatitude” or what could alternatively be conceived of as the happiness or joy of God.

The church, understood as the community of believers gathering around the Eucharist, is the site where humans experience the divine beatitude. “Site” is not a geographic reality but rather an ontological one. When humans participate in the Eucharist, they are sharing in the body of Christ and are incorporated into the body by faith. 

Implications:

Shakespeare sees several implications for a sacramental rather than instrumental view of church. Church leadership should cultivate wisdom (prudentia) over managerial expertise. The church unites around sacraments, not shared interest or niche ministries. Since the aim or telos of the church is divine beatitude, the growth of the church can be affirmed and pursued but should be pursued in ways consistent with the telos of the church.

Evaluation

Shakespeare’s work introduces a long neglected question as to the nature of the telos or purpose of humanity. In an age which assumes that there is no higher purpose for the physical body than individual expression, the notion of a God-created and instilled telos will be strange for most readers. However, responding to cultural forces such as the transgender movement will require a substantial alternative anthropology such as is found in Aquinas.

What is more, consideration of the telos of a thing would inform discussions related to marriage and family ordering, the role of the government, and participation in the economy. Confusion of the different “kinds” of things that family, church, government, and economics are is paralyzing current dialogue and leaving many Christians prone to adopting notions and patterns of life that are ultimately destructive to the telos of humanity.

As a Baptist, the reliance on a transubstantiation view of the Eucharist in Aquinas and affirmed by Shakespeare is problematic. However, one’s view of the Eucharist does not diminish the point being made. A managerial or merely missional view of the church is too small a vision and does not do justice to the New Testament emphasis on union with Christ (see Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ, 2012). In recovering the Reformation emphasis on preaching, the Lords Supper, and baptism as “means of grace,” pastors can be set free from the unrealistic and unachievable aims of managerialism and missional reduction, and Christians can be reintroduced to the “beatitude of God” as the purpose for which they have been created. 

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