I am a professor. As I look back on my life it seems that this is what I was destined to become. I love to learn and teach. Thinking is a passion and understanding a necessity. I want to know the truth of things, the cause of things, and the order of things. Everything is my subject. I don’t mean every subject—chemistry, physics, biology, and sociology—although I am interested in all things. I mean everything all together, the whole universe. What does it all mean? Why does it (and we!) exist, and where is it all going? I want to know its deepest secret, to see it, touch it, smell it, and taste it! I want to enter into it, be immersed in it and raptured by it. That is why I am a theologian. That is why I am a Christian. For me, the question is not “Why seek God?” The question is “Why seek anything else?” Why should I devote my energies to anything else but the best, greatest, and most beautiful of things?
I am in no position to judge my own abilities as a thinker and teacher, in absolute terms or in comparison to others. However I am pretty sure that I am better at thinking and communicating than at church planting and administration. So, when I am asked about the practical implications of what I’ve been saying in this series, I hesitate to give advice. Each of us has different experiences and finds ourselves in different situations. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Perhaps I can best help others by reflecting on what the series means for me.
I am a Christian, and I feel a special bond with other Christians. I want to enjoy their company—conversation, prayer, and worship. I want to give and receive, love and be loved, teach and be taught, strengthen and be strengthened. In other words, I need the church and I love it. There is only one church, because there is only one God, one Lord, one Spirit, one hope, one baptism, and one faith (Eph 4:4-6). But that church is scattered in time and space. We cannot know each and every member by physical proximity. Yet, I believe I have an obligation to establish a relationship to the whole church in every place and every time.
I think of that relationship as a huge set of concentric circles. We need an inner circle of friends with whom we can spend time in intimate fellowship. Without intimate fellowship of this kind we cannot experience true community, which is a taste of the kingdom of God. It’s not an adjunct, a recruiting tool for the big church. It’s the real thing. It is where we meet the living and breathing, feeling and thinking, flesh and blood church. It’s not the anonymous crowd or an impersonal institution or distant clergy. This inner circle can take many forms. However it must be open to the next circle and the next and the next, and so on until we’re in touch with the whole church. Why must we do this, and how can we accomplish it?
We need communion with the whole church because it is one and God gives gifts, insights, and experiences to every part, everywhere, and in every age. And every part needs what God has given to every other part. Cutting our little group off from the whole is like limping along with one leg, fighting with one arm, and flying with one wing. We get so focused on our little insights and limited experiences that we mistake the part for the whole. Each little church can be a manifestation of the whole church only as long as its circle is open to all the other circles.
How can our inner circle commune with the entire set of concentric circles? Perhaps here is a legitimate role for the parachurch church. Such churches provide places for many little inner circles to gather to hear from each other and from a wider circle of a tradition—Baptist, Church of Christ, Pentecostal, Wesleyan, Lutheran, and Anglican. As I have emphasized in this series, it’s important not to allow the parachurch church and the tradition it embodies to replace the inner circle of fellowship. But even they are too narrow to encompass the whole church. There are other traditions, wider circles to encounter. To receive God’s gifts and insights they preserve we will need to speak with or read the works of representatives of these traditions.
Different Protestant traditions need to maintain communication with believers from other Protestant traditions—Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist. Protestants must listen to Roman Catholic and Orthodox voices and vice versa. Each little circle needs to be informed in some way by the thought and experience of all the others. And all of the living need to listen to the voices from the past. The most important voice from the past is the Bible. But in every age certain Christian truths were perceived with great clarity and others were overlooked. Ours is no different. The church needs scholars who keep the past alive. It needs theologians who read the Bible and theological works from every era and every tradition to keep each little group, every parachurch church, and every tradition aware of the whole church.
And that is why I am a professor. It’s why I teach. And it’s why I write.