The Church in the Round: An Image of Biblical Equality

3 comments Written on July 14th, 2015     
Filed under: Book & Commentary

Jo Ann Deasy is an ordained Covenant pastor currently serving as the director of institutional initiatives and student research at the Association of Theological Schools in Pittsburgh, PA.

One of my favorite books on ecclesiology (that just means theology that focuses on the church) is Letty Russell’s The Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church. Russell presents a single central image for her theology of church: the table. She draws on the biblical images of the eschatological banquet table, of Jesus dining with tax collectors and sinners, and of the last supper. This image of the church as a table, particularly as a round table, calls the church to be a place of equality, hospitality, and justice.

Russell draws on three specific table concepts to ground her work: a round table, a kitchen table, and a welcoming table. Perhaps central to these is the image of the round table. These images connect well with the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination that began with individuals gathered into small groups, perhaps around a table, to read and study the scriptures. It connects well with a denomination that emphasizes relationships and a sense of family, those who might be gathered in the kitchen for coffee and conversation. It connects well with a denomination that believes all who have faith in Jesus Christ should have a place at the table, an equal place regardless or race, gender, class, or age. Russell’s images evoke what is at the heart of the denomination and push us to consider the full implications of our commitment to the church as a fellowship of believers committed to the whole mission of God.

For Russell, the round table “is a sign of the coming unity of humanity.”[1] It is a precursor to the eschatological banquet where all of God’s people will be gathered to feast together at God’s table. Christ is the host and is at the center of this eschatological table. All around the table people are gathered as children of the heavenly father.[2] All are connected to Christ and, through Christ, all are connected to one another.[3] The table is “connectional,” a phrase often used to describe the ECC. At a round table, all are equally connected to Christ. There is no hierarchy of the faith. It is the priesthood of all believers gathered in fellowship and service. One might argue that there are no margins at a round table. Or, perhaps one might argue that all are at the margins at a round table, for those who have faith in Christ have placed Christ at the center of their lives.[4] One might also suggest that while God hosts the table, Christ sits with us at the margins, for Christ came to sit among us, to break bread with us, and to share in fellowship with us as his brothers and sisters.

Russell uses the image of the round table to talk about theological reflection and leadership. For Russell, theological reflection is “table talk,” the people of God gathered around the Scriptures and the traditions of the church, each sharing from their perspective and experience, coming to a common goal of justice in this world. In the ECC, we might word this a bit differently. We might speak of the people of God gathered around the Word of God with Christ as the host and the Holy Spirit sitting beside us. Tradition holds a prominent place at the table, but is always in dialogue with the Word of God at the center. The Holy Spirit is with each one of us, guiding our hearts and minds into all truth. Around the table, all share what the Holy Spirit is revealing to them, what they understand of the scriptures and traditions, and all work towards a common understanding of truth and mission. Where there are disagreements, commitment to the table, to fellowship with one another is essential.

The round table suggests an image of leadership that exerts power with or alongside the body of believers.[5] It is a partnership model, grounded in the understanding of the priesthood of all believers and an understanding that leadership is always communal.[6] Leadership arises for the community and for mission. Russell argues that leadership roles are open to all around the table who have been gifted and called by God. In particular, Russell advocates for the place of women in leadership in the church by expanding the table image to the image of the household of God.[7] She grounds this image in the cultural realities of the first century church which was established within households, often those run by prominent Greek women. She draws on the work of Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza who argues that in these early Christian households, women played prominent leadership roles both as patrons and as leaders of the church.[8] These roles diminished as the church tried to establish itself in the wider patriarchal culture of the first century. As a denomination committed to the centrality of the Word, Russell and Fiorenza’s work provide helpful biblical resources to further the discussion of women in pastoral leadership in the denomination.

The household of God imagery in scripture reflects not only the church here on earth, but also the eschatological reality of the kingdom.[9] If the church is to reflect that eschatological reality, they must ask themselves who is missing from the table. The ECC affirms “a multiethnic, classless, gender-equal vision” of the Christian community, a community where issues of race, class, and gender are not a disadvantage.[10] As local congregations and as a denomination, we must continue to ask who is missing at the table and whether all who are present have an equal place at the table. Are all voices heard in the interpretation of scripture and are all allowed to participate in leadership? The ECC has often asked these questions, gathering for round table discussions on issues of race and gender, and will continue to do so in the future.

Russell’s eschatological banquet image also calls us to expand our table beyond the local church or denomination to see ourselves sitting at table with all of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. It calls us to envision ourselves in relationship with them, eating and drinking with them, sharing our lives with them. The ECC has always had a strong tradition of global missions and service. Are there ways that imagining ourselves seated at the banquet table alongside our brothers and sisters around the world might change how we live in our local congregations? What might it be like to gather in conventicles with believers from around the world, or around our city, seeking together a life formed by the Word of God? Russell’s images of the table evoke these core beliefs and experiences of the ECC and help us to ask questions that challenge us to live more fully into our own Covenant Affirmations.

Perhaps most importantly, Russell’s work gives us an image that can help us shape and live into a biblical gender equality. Tables do not always evoke images of equality, hospitality, and justice. One can find themselves excluded from the table, sitting at the far end of the table, asked to sit at a different, or serving those who sit at the table. Tables can evoke images of hierarchy and power as well as hospitality and equality. Tables can evoke images of business transactions, courtroom decisions, and classroom lectures as well as family meals and sacramental moments. What table images best describe your church? Your board meetings? Your worship services? Your family gatherings? As you sit at table together, who is present? Is it a place of equality? Is Christ seated among you? Is the Holy Spirit present? May we strive for churches, families, and communities where we sit as brothers and sisters at God’s great banquet table.

[1] pg. 17

[2] This is the title of one of the classic hymns of the Pietist movement.  It was written by Lina Sandell in 1874.  Lina’s statue sits outside of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. The hymn is #87 in  The Covenant Hymnal.

[3] Russell, pg. 18.

[4] For Jung Young Lee, the image of marginality is central to his theology.  The margins are those places where worlds overlap, dynamic places of creation and formation (Pg. 106).  The margins are where Jesus lived (Pgs. 77ff) and the margins are where discipleship and true community take place.

[5] Russell, pg. 57.

[6] Ibid., pgs. 65-66.

[7] See Ephesians 2:19, 1 Timothy 3:15, 1 Peter 2:5, Hebrew 3:6, etc.

[8] Fiorenza’s argument is found in Chapters 4 through 6 in In Memory of Her:  A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins.

[9] See Russell, pgs. 128-131.

[10] Covenant Affirmations, pg. 14.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Report This Post

3 comments “The Church in the Round: An Image of Biblical Equality”

Thanks Jo Ann – I too love the imagery of the roundtable church. Our local church has been moving to be a witness of this transformation of power sharing and inclusion. Another great resource using table imagery is Lucy Atkinson Rose’s book: Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church. Great post! Catherine

Report This Comment

Hi Joann — thanks for another thoughtful post.  I love this image, and as I have been enjoying meals around round tables at CHIC, it was very timely!  I especially long for the day when leadership in the church will look more like a round table than a pyramid. 

Report This Comment

Thank you for sharing this book with us. I’ve been thinking a lot about our “tables” and meals being an extension of The Table. This follows along with my thoughts and I’m planning to read this book.

Report This Comment

Leave a Reply

Report This Blog