Monthly Archives: June 2020

The “Friendly” Elephant in the Room (Rethinking Church #14)

A church with any visibility at all will have a relationship to the state—as persecuted, free, free and privileged, or established. Every state claims the right to decide what behaviors and beliefs of individuals and groups within its jurisdiction support or threaten its interests. It reserves the exclusive power to dispossess, incarcerate, or kill anyone it deems a threat. Hence the church must always maintain awareness of this “elephant in the room” even if the elephant seems very friendly at the moment. How, then, should the church relate to states—like the United States and other Western democracies—that acknowledge its freedom and grant it certain privileges?

The Quest for Visibility

Many contemporary believers have never questioned the assumption that the church should seek maximum visibility in society and take full advantage of whatever freedom it has to get its message out. After all, Jesus told his disciples to proclaim the good news to the whole world (Matt 28:18-20; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8). We’re supposed to “let our light shine”:

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matt 5:14-16).

If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38).

I understand the desire for visibility, and I can see why people take Jesus’s statements as grounds for seeking it. But we need to ask what Jesus meant by “let your light shine.” I am pretty certain that Jesus did not intend to mandate building cathedrals and huge church buildings, wearing crosses and clerical dress, or getting a Christian tattoo and putting a fish bumper sticker on your car. Of course, Jesus did not forbid them either, and they can witness to the faith. But they also symbolize social power and wealth. Building an expensive church building is similar in some ways to planting a flag. It says, “We are here and are a force to be reckoned with.” Such visibility can be more intimidating than inviting to outsiders. Or, it can obscure the gospel by associating it with material advantages. I can understand wanting to be part of something big, powerful, and wealthy. It is a natural human desire. But I think Jesus had something else in mind.

It seems more likely, given its context in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7), that “let your light shine,” means taking seriously your responsibility to live every day and in every relationship in vivid awareness of the love of God flowing through you to others—even if some people hate you for it. Let constant awareness of your Father in heaven impart to you heightened sensitivity to the needs of others. The good you do will bring glory to the Father because it will be evident that your good works are inspired by the Father. The “light” Jesus speaks of is not that of the spotlight illuminating a 100 foot tall Cross on a hill above Interstate 405. It is not the light reflected off cathedrals, church buildings, and gold cross pendants. It is the lives of people that live, speak, and act in witness to the love of God revealed in face of Jesus. Nothing else is required.

Coming to see that the church can exercise fully its responsibility of witness without great social visibility can free us from the inordinate urge to seek social visibility and from incautious use of religious freedom granted by the “friendly elephant.” For what the state gives, it can take away.

To be continued…

Rethinking Church #13: Privilege Always Comes with a Price

For the first 275 years of its existence the church endured persecution, spontaneous at the local level, official at the imperial level. Its offense? Non-conformity “to the pattern of this world” (Rom 12:2). Christians would not participate in the pagan ceremonies and sacrifices that accompanied almost every aspect of social life in the Roman Empire. Nor would they pledge loyalty to Rome by offering sacrifices to the “divine” Caesar. Many Christian writers in the Second and Third Centuries wrote works addressed to the emperor arguing that Christianity is neither politically subversive nor morally corrupting.

Only with the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed religious freedom within the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, did official persecutions end. The emperor Constantine I (d. 337) favored Christianity and even participated in the Council of Nicaea (325). Theodosius I (d. 395) took the final step toward establishing Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire by outlawing many heresies and ending pagan sacrifices. The tables had turned. Christian emperors supported the church and persecuted pagans with equal or even greater energy than the pagan ones had persecuted Christians.

Not surprisingly, Christians rejoiced and thanked God for their new freedom and privileges, and Constantine was hailed as a saint and a thirteenth apostle. Can we blame them? Who wants to live as a social outcast, have your property confiscated, be thrown in jail, or suffer torture and death for being a Christian? What was the persecuted church to do when offered freedom to worship as it pleases and organize its internal affairs as it thinks best? When given official status, financial support, and social visibility, should the church have turned them down? Seeing crowds of people enter the churches for worship and instruction, should the church have turned them away? Most of us would have done the same had we been in their shoes.

But privilege always comes with a price. For when the empire becomes Christian, the church becomes imperial. And an imperial church must support the empire. Perhaps most of my readers are clear that this exchange turned out to be a Faustian bargain. I agree. But I want to argue that getting out of that deal with the devil is not as easy as renouncing established churches and ratifying the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As I pointed out in the previous essay, every state reserves to itself the power of life and death over all individuals and associations within its jurisdiction. If it leaves the church alone, if it recognizes its freedom to worship as it pleases, to organize as it sees fit, to choose its own leaders; and if it grants such privileges as tax exempt status, it does so only because—and only as long as—it judges that the church does not work against the interests of the state and in fact contributes to the common good as the state understands it.

It may happen that a state views its interests in ways that largely harmonize with the church’s mission of witness. It may be that this state sees the work of the church as advantageous to the common good. If so, it is not always wrong for the church to use these freedoms and privileges to advance its mission. However in every society, no matter how friendly to the church, there will always be areas where the state’s aims cut across the church’s mission. There are no exceptions to this rule, for “no one can serve two masters” (Matt 6:24). And in some cases, formerly “friendly” states’ views of their interests—of what is good and evil and of what serves the common good—can change so dramatically as to come into fundamental conflict with the church. Hence the church always faces—no exceptions—the temptation to seek or hold on to freedoms and privileges granted by the state by subordinating, compromising, or giving up its mission to witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

At every point in its relationship to the world—from bare toleration, to approval, to establishment—the church should ask what price it has to pay for these freedoms and privileges. How deeply in debt we have already become may not come clear until the mortgage comes due. And come due it will. Perhaps it already has.

Rethinking Church #12: The Devil’s Primal Instinct

As the church becomes visible in the world, occupying space and time, turning people toward Christ in devotion and loyalty, and transforming the way they live and relate to others, the world fights back on all fronts. In the New Testament, the “world” is understood in two ways. It can mean God’s creation, which he loves and wishes to save (John 3:16). Or, it can refer to the twisted order that exists in the human mind wherein something other than God holds the place of honor. This perverted order manifests itself in such individual vices as lust, greed, and pride and in all levels and combinations of the social order:

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).

I will leave to one side the individual and focus on the social dimension. We are born into a network of social relationships of ever increasing abstraction—the biological family, local communities, and finally the state. We enter other communities voluntarily—businesses, friendships, schools, gangs, clubs, unions, and professional organizations. Each of these societies has a preexisting identity and tradition. In volunteer societies, identity and tradition are expressed in rules and ceremonies, and in the state they are expressed in laws and symbols. Every association demands that its members conform to the group in ways that preserve group identity and facilitate achieving its purpose. Individuals that refuse to conform are disciplined or excluded.

According to the New Testament, we should not be surprised but expect that the entire social network into which we are born—that is, “the world”—is wrongly ordered. Everything is out of place. As I said above, the world and everything in it is God’s creation. But if we love it as a whole or in part more than we love God, we become “the world” in that second sense.

We cannot evade sin and our responsibility by forming corporations and associations. Human associations do not escape but mirror and magnify the vices and virtues of the human heart. Sadly but quite clearly, most people do not love the Father more than they love world. Consequently, the human institutions and associations they form are always ordered to worldly goods—pleasure, wealth, honor, and security—as their highest value. So much so that John can say “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).

The state more than any other human institution mirrors and magnifies human vices and virtues. Like other human institutions composed of lovers of the world and dedicated to worldly ends, states cannot love the Father more than they love themselves. But more than that, since states by their very nature reserve to themselves the ultimate power of life and death over their individual members, inevitably they come to think of themselves as gods. Perhaps some states are better, more just, or more benevolent than others when measured by the gospel’s morality. I don’t deny this. But whether promulgated as the will of the Pharaoh of Egypt, the King of Babylon, the Emperor of Rome, or the will of people speaking in their representatives in Western democracies, the “law” is always a human law, never the will of God. And it’s always accompanied by the threat of death. The confession “Jesus is Lord” is heresy in every municipality, county, state, and country in this age or any other.

When the church becomes visible in the world, the world expects it to submit to its order. Everyone else does. But the church replies to every family, friendship, business, friendship, school, gang, club, union, professional organization, and state, “Jesus is Lord.”

 “But I can give you pleasure, wealth, honor, and power ‘if you will bow down and worship me’” (Matt 4:9), a confused world answers.

“Jesus is Lord,” The church repeats.

 “Then I will confiscate your property, put you in prison, torture your body, and kill you!” the world shouts, trembling with anger.

Then, remembering Jesus’s words, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. (Luke 12:4-5), the church asserts without hesitation, “Jesus is Lord.”

The devil’s primal instinct leads to a second defeat. But he has one last trick up his sleeve—for he is an expert liar.

Next Time: The devil offers to embrace Christianity. He pledges to protect and defend the church, to give it favored status and a prominent place in the imperial court. “I will open my games, assemblies, courts, with prayer to your God. I will suppress your enemies and build magnificent basilicas for your worship. Only, pray for me and urge the people to obey me in all things related to the temporal order.”

Rethinking Church #11: The Church, the Devil, and the Rulers of this Age

Jesus entered the world to fight a battle. In his baptism in the Jordan River he declared war—not against Rome, not against the corrupt Jerusalem aristocracy, or against fanatical zealots, but against the devil and his allies. The devil struck the first blow. “If you are the Son of God,” the tempter whispered, “tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus replied, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt 4:3-4). Two more blows followed. All three of the devil’s suggestions urged Jesus to adopt the world’s understanding of glory, honor, and power. But Jesus knows that Rome and Jerusalem are not the real oppressors of God’s people. The real enemy is not flesh and blood. The walls of his stronghold cannot be breached with siege works, nor can he be subdued with arrow and sword. The devil’s weapons are half-truths and lies through which he enflames lust for glory, honor, and power and instils fear of humiliation, obscurity, and, most of all, death. Jesus spoke the truth: God alone deserves our love, loyalty, and trust. Jesus rejected worldly glory, honor, and power and accepted death as the price of faithfulness to his Father.

The devil lost. Yes, God raised Jesus from the dead. But the devil had already lost. The real battle is not about who commands the most powerful army but about whom we love supremely, what we want most of all, and what we are willing to do for it. Can Jesus—can anyone—remain loyal to God despite every evil the devil can inspire human beings to inflict? The devil’s most powerful weapon is threat of death (Heb 2:14). But Jesus disarmed him of this tool: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more” (Luke 12:4). Jesus’s faithfulness unto death on the cross inflicted on the devil a spectacular defeat! The cross, as Paul proclaims, is God’s secret wisdom:

“We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:6-8).

Indeed they would not have! For Jesus’s willing acceptance of shame, pain, and death on a Roman cross, instigated by the “best and brightest” and “holiest” of the rulers of this age, demonstrated their slavery to the devil and blindness to the truth. With their lies exposed, they found themselves powerlessness to intimidate Jesus’s followers into submission. The cross redefines what glory, honor, and power means for both God and human beings. To seek glory, honor, and power now means something totally different from what it did before the cross. And the rulers of our age understand it no better than the rulers that crucified the lord of glory.

Next Time: The “rulers of this age” push back.

Rethinking Church #10: Can a Sinful, Fallible Church Reform Itself?

Now we begin a new phase of our project “Rethinking Church.” We have laid out the essential features of the church in three areas: its constitution, its work, and its practices. Reading church history and observing the church of today make clear that the church never appears in the world as its essential self only. It always and inevitably embodies itself in forms and uses means derived from human culture. These forms and means are not essential but accidental features. [See essay #2 for discussion of this distinction.] Ideally the church would in every situation choose accidental forms and means that embody its essence and advance its mission effectively, never obscuring, hindering, or replacing its essence.

But in this world conditions are never ideal. Christ and the Spirit are infallible, but we are not. God is holy and sinless, but we still need grace and forgiveness. The church looks forward to its future redemption, perfection, and glorification. But we are not there yet. The people of God are sinners, each and all. Its leaders are sinful and fallible. This has been so from the very beginning. Peter and Paul argued vigorously about the nature of the gospel (Gal 2). The Corinthian church suffered divisions (1 Cor. 1–3). A perfect church has never existed. Jesus promised that the “gates of Hades will not overcome” the church (Matt 16:18). He did not promise to protect it from all mistakes, sin, and foolishness. Believers are “led by the Spirit” (Rom 8:14), but we must still “live by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7).

In his providence, God directs the church to its appointed end despite its sins and errors. He uses fallible leaders and sinful people to work his will. Consequently, from a human point of view the history of the church moves in a zigzag pattern with a lurch to the right followed by a lurch to the left. It takes one step forward and two steps backward. Its path is littered with heresies and schisms, spectacular successes and abysmal failures. It has produced martyrs and persecutors, ascetic monks and indulgent bishops, peacemakers and warriors. But it still exists! Christ is still preached, and sometimes the light pierces the darkness and for a moment we see clearly what is, what could be, and what will be.

What, then, can fallible and sinful people do to “rethink church” for today? Is it possible to do a better job today of embodying the essential features of the church in the world than we have in the past? We should not be too quick to say “yes.” Of course, with God all things are possible. But we must not mistake God’s possibilities for our abilities. Despite the dangers, however, we must try. Only with “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), humility, grace, self-criticism, diligence, patience, thoughtfulness, penitence, and prayer do we have hope of actually doing more good than harm for the church in our age.

Next Time: Should the church seek (or even accept) approval, legitimacy, or privileges from the world?

Rethinking Church #9: The Church Travels Light On the Narrow Way

My goal in first part of this series has been to place clearly before our minds the essential features of the New Testament church so that we can use this vision to assess the forms and activities of the contemporary church. Only one more question remains in the first part. Does the New Testament mandate any essential practices that the church must perform?

The issue of church practices moves us into new territory and raises a significant problem. Defining the essential nature of the church as the faithful in Christ and the essential nature of the church’s work as witness puts some distance between the church’s essence and first-century culture. However, religious practices and their symbolic meanings are always deeply rooted in specific cultures. Had the first-century church designated dozens of its culture-bound practices as essential, it would have been impossible for Christianity to become a world-wide movement for all time.

The first great challenge to the church’s universal nature arose as the question of what Jewish practices must be incorporated into its life: circumcision, kosher rules, Sabbath laws, etc.? After a long and intense struggle, the view of Paul prevailed: Christians do not have to practice the Jewish law. Faith in Christ is enough. We can only imagine what would have happened had Paul lost this argument.

There are two practices, however, that the first-century church passed on as essential: baptism and the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. Like all practices they have deep cultural roots. Baptism harkens back to the Old Testament’s ritual washings, which were continued and modified in Second Temple Judaism (515 BC—70 AD) and in Jewish sects like that at Qumran, in which the faithful were baptized several times a day. Jewish baptisms enacted ritual, symbolic cleansings to remove defilement and render the object or person qualified for interacting with God. John the Baptist, drawing on these traditions, demanded that the Jews of his day repent of their sins and have themselves baptized in preparation for the impending divine judgment on the nation.

Jesus instructed his followers to be baptized and to baptize others. Even though baptism has deep roots in the Old Testament and first-century Judaism, the church has held the practice essential for its life because Jesus instituted it as a permanent practice for his people. The meaning of baptism, then, must be explained with reference to its historical background. Yet, baptism is not utterly alien to any culture, for it involves the symbolic use of water as a cleansing and life-giving agent, something universal in all cultures.

The second essential practice is the Lord’s Supper in which the church gathers to share a meal in the presence of Lord. The Supper has deep roots in Jewish identity, deriving from the Passover meal eaten in haste as the Lord delivered his people from Egyptian slavery. The Eucharist must not be uprooted from its background in the Old Testament, for then we will not be able to understand Jesus’s adaptation of it to signify his sacrificial act of delivering his people from sin, death, and the devil and creating a new covenant. Like baptism, the Lord’s Supper is not alien to any culture, for everyone has to eat and knows the life-giving properties of food. Eating is a social act in every culture.

I will have more to say about these two essential practices later, but here I want to bring out the significance of the simplicity and universal adaptability of the church. The church consists of those who believe and are baptized into Christ, whose work is to witness to Christ, and who by participating in baptism and the Lord’s Supper remember and proclaim Jesus’s redemptive sacrifice. The church travels light as it moves from one culture to another and one century to another. It does not center on a holy site, for the Holy Spirit dwells in its midst. It speaks in the common tongue and not in a holy language accessible only to the learned. To make its sacrifices it needs no altars, animals, or priests. Its whole life is worship, and its prayers are its sacrifices. It needs no golden candelabra or silk robes. Its riches are good deeds, and its treasures reside in heaven. Though dispossessed of all its worldly goods, it loses nothing of its substance. It needs no alliances, and seeks no privileges from nations and empires. Its citizenship is in heaven, and it pledges allegiance only to the King of kings. It can meet in a basilica, in a living room, by a river, on a street corner, or a prison cell. It matters not, for the whole world is the Temple of the Lord.

Rethinking Church #8: Ecclesiastical Malpractice

In the previous essay I argued that “bearing witness to the love, glory, goodness, and greatness of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ is the essential work of the church.” While the essential features of the nature and work of the church are fresh on our minds I want to entertain the sad possibility that the church may dilute, be diverted from, or abandon its essential work.

The Way of the World

Human beings are social animals. We are born into families and form extra-familial associations of all kinds, from friendships to states. The family is given by nature. Friendships are forged by mutual interests. Most associations beyond friendships are deliberately constituted to serve a purpose, to achieve an end. Some goals can better be accomplished by the cooperation of many individuals. A thousand people can by pooling their resources accomplish what 1,000 individuals working separately cannot.

It seems to me that people usually form associations to deal with a single challenge and achieve single goal. Athletic clubs promote their sport. Guilds and unions are designed to promote the economic interests of their professions. Founders establish schools and colleges to facilitate education. Learned societies promote their subject.

It is well known that associations tend to stray from their founding purposes. Energy, influence, and money originally directed to one purpose are diverted to another. This change can happen in several ways. (1) The original founders of institutions and associations are usually very clear about the end they wish to serve and devote themselves wholehearted to that cause. However, second, third, and fourth generation leaders often do not share that original vision and devotion. They become bureaucrats that devote themselves to perpetuating the institutional machinery of the association. Their work becomes a job rather than a mission. (2) Every association, especially large ones, must have officers who discharge responsibilities on behalf of the association. These officers are tempted to place their own self-interests alongside or even in place of the original mission, diverting energy away from the founding goal of the association. Embezzlement or insider trading are just two obvious examples of this abuse.

(3) Associations, especially large ones, possess power and influence. This power was given to them to achieve the end for which they were created. But an association’s officers are greatly tempted to redirect that power and influence toward their own ends unrelated to the original purpose of the institution. And often those unrelated ends are political. This abuse is the most insidious and pervasive of ways associations can be hijacked. It is common, even expected, for associations that are ostensibly devoted to education, a sport, a profession, or a particular subject to make resolutions and public proclamations on divisive political and social issues completely unrelated to their reason for existence. Not all mutinies occur on ships. Not all pirates sail the seas.

The Visible Church

The church exists not only in heaven but also on earth. It lives “in Christ” but appears in space and time. It is the body of Christ but it looks like a collection of human bodies. When the church becomes visible in the world it takes form as a human association. To the world’s eyes that is all it is. In analogy to other associations, the church coordinates the resources of its members to achieve its objectives. It will have some organizational structure. And here is the great temptation: the church has always been tempted—and often gives in—to follow the path of other associations. (1) Later generations may not feel the passion for the mission that the founding generation felt. They may begin to preserve the traditions and institutions of earlier days simply to ensure their positions in a bureaucracy. (2) Leaders may begin to enjoy the power, honor, and money that their positions can bring rather than viewing themselves as means to the end of witness to the glory and goodness of God.

(3) Church leaders may begin to view the church as a means to social and political ends. The church assimilates to the model of service organizations, non-profit groups, or even political lobbies. Like educational, professional, and learned society leaders, the church’s leaders may wish to leverage the influence of the church to weigh in on the political and social issues of the day to the detriment of its mission of witness to Jesus Christ. Not all wolves work on Wall Street. Not all barbarians live outside the gates.

Next Time: We will begin discussing the question of the means the church uses to accomplish its work. Are any practices and means essential?

Rethinking Church #7: Witness is Essential

What is the essential work of the church? What is its purpose? What is the activity must not be neglected at all costs? The New Testament church did many things. It worshiped, sang, prayed, baptized, participated in the Eucharist, gathered, taught, preached, comforted, and served. But I believe the New Testament vision of the essential work can be captured in one word: witness. Peter puts it this way:

“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

And Paul explains that God’s

intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord (Eph 3:10-11).

I am using the verb “to witness” is the broad sense of “to manifest.” The church works to manifest as best it can for all to see and hear on earth what is going on in heaven. It seeks to embody in the present time the kingdom of God that will come in its fullness in the future. The church teaches, proclaims, worships, embodies, and lives to make known the character and will of God in the world. The church witnesses to the truth and reality of God to itself and to others. It must not let the world go into the night with an easy conscience or a despairing heart. Even if it must be a lone voice calling to a “disobedient and obstinate” people (Isa 65:2). Even if no one listens, even if the church finds itself persecuted, the church never ceases to call the world to acknowledge its creator and its Lord. It says,

“The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad; let the distant shores rejoice” (Psa. 97:1).

“The Lord reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake” (Psa. 99:1).

Bearing witness to the love, glory, goodness, and greatness of God demonstrated in Jesus Christ is the essential work of the church. In all it does it must never forsake this task. In its works of mercy and justice, in its worship, teaching, and preaching, in its work with children, teens, young adults, families, and seniors, and in its use of funds and of property, its work of witness must never be displaced or forgotten.

Rethinking Church #6: The Church is Also the People

The human dimension is an essential feature of the church. The church is a gathering of people. It is not simply a divine idea or the divine dimension by itself. The church exists only as the divine and human are united in one community. In the New Testament, the ekklesia or church is called an assembly, a people, a nation (1 Pet 2:9), and a family (Gal. 6:10), each denoting human beings in community. The church, then, becomes visible in the world in a community of living human beings.

There are many kinds of assemblies and communities. The church is a people called together by the Spirit of God to live in Christ for the praise and service of God. But the church could not exist apart from a human response to that call. The most basic response is faith. Apart from a believing embrace of the message of Christ, repentance, baptism, and other churchly activities make no sense. Faith moves us to turn away from our old lives and mark that transition by receiving baptism, which is pictured in the New Testament as a spiritual washing (Acts 22:16) or a death, burial, and resurrection with Christ (Rom 6:1-7).

The transition from nonbelief to belief and its symbolic enactment in baptism is at once a transition from not being a Christian to being one and from not being a member of the church (or family or people) of God to being including in this people. Becoming a member of the church is not an add-on to becoming a Christian but happens simultaneously and is co-essential. It makes no sense to think one could be “in Christ” but not part of the body of Christ, a child of God but not a member of God’s family.

What is the Church?

Until this point in the series I have used the term “church” without defining it. For until we uncover the essential features of the church—that is, those factors that determine the difference between its existence and nonexistence—we cannot define it with precision. What, then, is the church? The church consists of those people who in obedient faith and by baptism have been incorporated into Christ through the work of Holy Spirit and so have become one body, one people, one family.

Wherever these factors are present, the church in its fullness exists. Once the church exists and begins to act, other factors come into play. Some means will be chosen to organize its life and work. Language and culture, too, will place their stamp on the outward forms of church life. But it is important not allow the historical and contemporary forms the church to hide the simple essence of the church. List any factor you please—clergy, systems of organization, property, employees, legal recognition, social visibility, tax exempt status—none are essential. Sweep them all away and the church exists still. The church is simple in essence and, hence, very adaptable in form.

The Individual Christian and the Church

Since New Testament language about the church envisions a community that gathers and acts as one at least on occasion, certain questions naturally arise in our individualistic culture: (1) does the church exist in each individual? (2) Or, does the church exist only when formally and intentionally gathered “as the assembly”? (3) If you were the only Christian left alive in a nation or in the whole world, would the church still exist? (4) Lastly, assuming the church exists even when not gathered formally, must an individual Christian gather regularly with other Christians as the church?

The answers to these four questions are implicit in the definition of the church: (1) Yes, the church exists in each individual believer. Each believer is called by God, lives in Christ, and participates in the life of the Spirit. The divine and human dimensions are united even in an individual Christian. (2) No, the church does not cease to exist when not assembled as a group to act corporately. Christ and the Spirit are not divided by distance. (3) Yes. The church would exist if you were the only Christian in the world. (4) Yes. Though individual Christians can act as members of God’s special people even when not with other believers—in prayer, praise, study, and service—the love of God poured into their hearts by the Spirit (Rom 5:5) will drive them into fellowship with others who share that same compelling love. The gathering is a manifestation in the present of the unity of all things in Christ “when the times reach their fulfillment” (Eph 1:10). And it can be so beautiful!

Next Time: We have not yet addressed the church’s divinely assigned work and purpose. In these areas, too, we will distinguish between essential and accidental features. What is the essential work and purpose of the church? Hint: it, too, is very simple.

Rethinking Church #5: The Holy Spirit and the Divine Dimension of the Church

The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a third essential feature of the church. In the New Testament, especially as seen in Acts and the letters of Paul, the Holy Spirit acts to make God present and effective within the human sphere. The Spirit empowers, leads, purifies, renews, and encourages believers. He gathers, creates, unites, and enlightens the church. He gives life, transforms, liberates, bestows love, and perfects those God has chosen. The Spirit is God’s real personal presence elevating human beings above mere human possibility, uniting them with Christ, and making them into God’s children. He is the active presence of the future resurrection, the guarantee of the future inheritance. Apart from the Holy Spirit there is no church.

The Divine Dimension

A gathering of people is the “church” only as it is united to God through Christ and the Spirit. Only as it exists in Christ as the body of Christ empowered by God’s own Spirit is a “people” the people of God. The church is a divine/human reality. The divine dimension is not a separable aspect, located in heaven, acting only intermittently. The divine permeates the human aspect and draws the human into the divine life. God’s presence and activity in the church is not only essential, it is primary. The church exists because of the divine presence, it acts in divine power, and it moves as directed by divine wisdom. Christ is the head, the Spirit leads, and God is all in all.

The Human Dimension

I want to issue caution at this point. The church indeed has a divine dimension as the foundation of its constitution, but this truth should never be used—as it has been too often—by some to bolster their claims to have coercive authority over others. Christ and the Spirit are fully capable of governing and leading God’s church, and they do not delegate their divine authority to anyone. Human beings have “authority” only in so far as their lives embody the cross-shaped life of Jesus, and only through their faithful persuasion and obedient wisdom do they have a right to instruct others. A “church” that claims to be a divine institution but does not actually seek God’s will and submit to God’s authority is not acting as the church.

Next Time: The presence and working of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are essential to the church. Apart from this working there can be no church. Next we ask about the essential human features that constitute the church. The church consists of human beings who have responded to the divine call and working with faith in Jesus and baptism.