If you’re into physics at all, or if you have learned a bit about our solar system, you may have run into two terms: centrifugal and centripetal. These are antonyms, with centrifugal meaning “moving away from the center” and centripetal “toward the center.”
You may also relate these terms to what you learned in biology about nerves: there’s afferent nerves (moving toward an organ) and efferent nerves (moving away from an organ). Regardless of their direction, they’re still nerves, and they are a vital, life-giving part of the body.
The term “centripetal force” was first used by Christiaan Huygens in the 17th century describing the motion and range toward the center of a circular path. Isaac Newton then used this to describe gravity: with gravity providing this force responsible for astronomical orbits.
But more than orbits and nerves, the church can be described by these terms too. Either it’s centrifugal and is intended to “go out,” or it’s centripetal and is intended to “bring in.”
Old Testament: An Inward Community
From the very beginning when God called us to himself (always), there has been a “God’s people.” But in the narrative of God bringing salvation to us, it began with a special set of people: Israel.
Articulated right after the Shema, God appropriates Israel as his own.
For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. (Deut. 7:6, NKJV)
Israel was called to be holy and set apart, a special treasure on the earth. This people, destined to be christened as a “church” as we now know it, were to be a mirror of God’s character to the world. (We are later called God’s ambassadors in the New Testament.)
The structure of Israel was always the same: God had a special body of people, and they were to remain holy; all others on the fringe were invited, but Israel was not necessarily tasked to go out and bring them in.
There’s a common refrain in the Old Testament that captures this:
They shall know that I am the Lord.
This verse is, yes, quite tinted with authority. Knowing the Lord in ancient context at some point involved surrendering, admitting there is no other god, demoting their local ‘god’, etc. (Kings and rulers were often apotheosized, or made gods, back then.) It was said to show communities surrounding Israel that there is no other.
Unfortunately, the Jews didn’t heed their call, and they were disgusted at Gentiles–those who were not of their kin.
A community of oneness
I spoke about the way we can interpret the Shema in another post, how we ought not think of ‘God as one’ as merely numerical, but as holistic, complete, and unified. This same God was treating his children of Israel the same. Israel was to be one: unified together.
This is a centripetal structure of the church, and this is also when Israel failed to be the church. Instead of receiving the Promised Land and reaping the benefits of being the cherished people of God, the tables were turned. The Messiah was coming and had to come, and he had an entirely fuller vision for the people of God.
All would be invited into Israel; all of Israel would be saved, and the ungodliness of Jacob would be turned away.
New Testament: A Radical Shift
The coming of the Messiah, Jesus, catalyzed the shift from centripetal to centrifugal. Israel, no longer able to meet the criteria, needed its requirements met. Israel needed someone to be godly for them–to be God, truly–to represent the church.
Jesus instituted the church by culling all communities into the body of Christ.
-insert Gospel story-
Stephen, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, gives a mighty speech in Acts 7–so mighty that it leads to his abrupt martyrdom. In that speech, he chronicles the work of God in Moses, and recounts Israel’s history.
He speaks of the prophecy that God gave to Moses, that a prophet would be raised. He then, in commentary, says that Moses was “with the church” in the wilderness.
This is he who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai… (Acts 7:38)
The word congregation in Greek is ekklesia, “an assembly,” or literally “[called] out from and to.” This word is what we billions on earth use to describe the global body of Christians today and since the resurrection.
What’s incredible about Stephen’s comment here is that he is calling Israel “the church,” back when they were in the wilderness. All of Israel is subsumed into the church in his eyes. While in the scope of Dispensationalism one might bat an eye or two at this wild claim, it’s telling us something important.
Regardless of the dispensation, there has always been the church… but it’s been different.
Jesus and the Church
There’s a very poignant part toward the end of Matthew, book-ended by talk of the kingdom of heaven and the end times, where Jesus chastises the Pharisees for being hypocrites, calling them white-washed tombs.
But at the end, Jesus speaks to Jerusalem (in effect, Israel) as he does to the whole church, the bride of Christ.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! (23: 37)
Israel was intended to be the church, the assembly of peoples that brought all into the fold of God: it was to be centripetal. But sin wrested our winsomeness from us and we needed rescue and righteousness.
When Jesus comes into the picture incarnate in the New Testament, the focus is clearly centrifugal: the Gospel is to be preached, to any and to all. The veil between the Jews and Gentles was torn, that all might be saved.
The Church and its Hands
In recap, the narrative of God’s salvation through Jesus took a body of people (Israel) who were supposed to be holy and set apart. But they failed. With the advent of the Messiah, the failure was filled by perfect righteousness and sinlessness. The task, now, was the dissemination of the Gospel, the good news for salvation of the world.
We as a church, while the shift has changed chiefly from centripetal (inward) to centrifugal (outward), have a heavy task of both.
It’s a paradox, but a beautiful one founded in love: that we might both bring in and send out as a church–being all things to all people, that we might by all means save some.
What do you think? Is the church today called to be centripetal, centrifugal, or both?