What is a Christian? What is the Church? The importance of Truth. The nature of the triune God. Old Testament background. Community in the New Testament. Emphasis on relationships. Importance of small groups. Function of leadership. Ministry of women. New Testament foundation of unity. Images of the church. What about denominations? The Church and Creation
Dick Tripp writes with clarity and insight. I have enjoyed several of his books and this one is no exception. In tackling the subject of the Church, he has chosen an important topic. There is no doubt that the Church today is under pressure. Declining numbers and ageing populations in some mainline congregations, divisions and splits in other congregations, pastoral dropout rates, and many Christians opting out of Church life or drifting from congregations with very little commitment, all threaten the health and viability of modern day congregations. What will be the face of the church in the year 2020? An interesting question, I would suggest. We are living in a post-denominational era; the average under-35-year-old has very little denominational allegiance. What will this mean for denominational structures and budgets in the next millennium? Dick’s book gives an excellent summary of the essential features that need to be considered as we address the topic of the Church. Starting with the crucial questions of what a Christian is, and the nature of the relationships of the Trinity, Dick progresses to a discussion of the Church, spending considerable time on the centrality of relationships (a topic close to my heart). His focus on the mission of the Church is a timely reminder of the fact that the church that does not focus outwards, already has within it the seeds of death.
Brian Hathaway MSc(Hons), DipTchg
National Principal Bible College of New Zealand
In his book Fit Bodies, Fat Minds, Os Guinness describes the postmodern thinking that is more and more infecting our western world, as follows:
There is no grand reason, only reasons. There is no privileged civilization, only a multiple of cultures, beliefs, periods, and styles. There is no grand narrative of human progress, only countless stories of where people and their cultures are now. There is no simple reality or any grand objectivity of universal, detached knowledge, only a ceaseless representation of everything in terms of everything else.
“What is a Christian? … from God’s perspective, is someone to whom he has given his Holy Spirit”
We live in a pluralistic world where, amongst the smorgasbord of lifestyles and opinions, it seems that everything goes, and the greatest sin is that of intolerance of someone else’s belief or behaviour.
In the midst of all this diversity, there are people who call themselves Christians, who, to the outsider, appear to be just as divided as the rest of society. They organise themselves into groups that are as different as chalk from cheese. Some prefer to meet in traditional buildings, some in halls and some in homes. Some have hierarchical structures, organised from the top down. Some are organised from the bottom up. Some are totally independent. Some like traditional organised worship, knowing just what to expect. Some prefer exuberant, more expressive styles. Even in the matter of either doctrinal or moral beliefs it must appear to many today that the church is just as divided as the rest of society.
So the question arises: What is the Church meant to be? The purpose of this booklet is to seek to answer this question. When a stranger walks into a church gathering, whether in a home, a cathedral or a grass hut, in Auckland or in Timbuktu, are there any things they might find that are common to all?
Are there any things that should be common to all? I will be seeking to answer it from the perspective of the New Testament. After all, Christian Churches everywhere claim the New Testament as their foundational document. It contains the teaching of Jesus, the founder of the Christian Church, and the teaching of those he personally taught. Church denominations, at least in their official documents, have consistently given greater authority to the Bible than they have to church traditions. The old Tridentine doctrine in the Roman Catholic church tended to give the Bible and tradition equal weight, but this was rejected at Vatican II. It is to the New Testament we must first look to see what the Church should be, and our differing traditions are only legitimate if they don’t conflict with the emphasis that is found there.
What is a Christian?
Before looking at what the Church should be, it will be helpful to first ask the question: What is a Christian? The most definitive definition of a Christian, from God’s perspective, is someone to whom he has given his Holy Spirit. On the Feast of Pentecost, Peter declared to the inquiring crowds, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “You put your faith in Christ and were given the promised Holy Spirit to show that you belong to God” (Ephesians 1:13).
When someone acknowledges their sinfulness and need of forgiveness, turns in repentance to God, puts their trust in the Saviour who died for their sins, and surrenders to him as the Lord of their life, then God commits himself to that person by coming to live within him or her in the person of the Holy Spirit. This experience of being reconciled to God is variously described as being “born again” (John 3:3), “born of the Spirit” (John 3:5), crossing over “from death to life” (John 5:24), receiving the gift of “eternal life” (Romans 6:23), receiving “Christ Jesus as Lord” (Colossians 2:6) or being “raised with Christ” (Colossians 3:1). It means that, in some intangible though very real way, God himself has come to dwell in me, his Spirit united with my spirit. My body becomes his temple (1 Corinthians 6:19).
It is the Holy Spirit, the third person in the divine Trinity, who imparts to me the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection, incorporating me into God’s family. Paul calls him “the Spirit of sonship” (or “Spirit of adoption” – Romans 8:15). “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father'”(Galatians 4:6). “Abba” is the Aramaic word that any Jewish child would use to address his or her father. Jesus used it to express his own relationship with God the Father (Mark 14:36). In other words, having received his Spirit, I now have the right to call God my Father, depending on him for protection, guidance and the provision of my daily needs. The unique relationship that Jesus had with God the Father, he now shares with me. Jesus becomes my elder brother – “the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29 – see also Hebrews 2:10-18). It means also that I have a lot of new brothers and sisters, others who are also members of God’s family. That brings us to the next question: What is the Church?
What is the Church?
The Greek word that is translated “church” over 100 times in the New Testament is ekklesia. In the Greek secular world this word was used of any public assembly of free citizens who gather in order to determine their own and their children’s communal, political and spiritual wellbeing. Its use in the Bible, however, is very different. It was used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Septuagint) to translate the Hebrew word qahal, the “congregation” of those whom God had called into a covenant relationship with himself. In the New Testament it refers to those whom God has called out of humanity (the word literally means “called out of”) into a personal relationship with himself, to be his own people. “He gave himself to rescue us from everything that is evil and to make our heart pure. He wanted us to be his own people and to be eager to do right” (Titus 2:14). Having given us the Holy Spirit he now calls us to live for him, not just as individuals, but as a community, a family.
“[God] calls us to live for him, not just as individuals, but as a community, a family”
The word “church” in the New Testament is usually used of all the Christians in a certain place. Thus Paul can write to “the church of God in Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2) or to “the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:1) or even “the church that meets at their house” (Romans 16:5). It can be used in the plural: “The churches in the province of Asia” (1 Corinthians 16:19). It can be used of all Christians everywhere. Thus Paul speaks of Christ as “head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18). Generally speaking it could be said that where you find Christians gathered together, those who “call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2), there you have the church.
How many people does it take to make a church? A relevant saying of Jesus is his statement that“where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). If Jesus is present with his people, though only two or three be gathered, surely there is the church. Ignatius, the first century bishop of Antioch, declared, “Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the universal church.” The African Church Father, Tertullian, declared a century later, “Where three are, the church is.” The fourteenth century Bohemian Reformer, John Huss, also declared, in relation this saying of Jesus: “From this it follows that two righteous persons congregated together in Christ’s name constitute, with Christ as the head, a particular holy church.” Pope Paul VI referred to Matthew 18:20 in a speech before the Delegation of Ecumenical Patriarchs (1972) , speaking of the ecclesia [church] as a “gathering in which we are joined with you…gathered together in the name of Christ, and as a result of having him, Christ, our Lord himself, in our midst.” If Jesus declares himself present with his people, wherever they meet, or however small the numbers, I don’t see that you can deny that there is the church as it is defined in the New Testament.
This view implies that the authenticity of the church has nothing to do with its particular structure or organisation. Some in the episcopal tradition have declared that you can’t have a true church unless you have bishops. Some in the Free Church tradition said that you can’t have a true church if you do have bishops. Such exclusive views are no longer credible today and can’t be proved from the New Testament.
Another common view is that you can’t have a true Church without the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Now I certainly believe that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are important ceremonies for Christians. Jesus commanded them. From the very outset Christian congregations performed baptisms and celebrated Holy Communion and there does not seem to have been any initial period in church history without them. I believe that those who don’t practise them are missing something. However, I have a problem with denying the word “Church” to them on those grounds alone. Are we to say that the Salvation Army is not part of God’s true church because for over 100 years they have tended to spiritualise the meaning of the sacraments? Lesslie Newbigin, in The Household of God, says:
If we would answer the question ‘Where is the Church?’ we must ask ‘Where is the Holy Spirit recognisably present with power?’
Who can deny the presence of the Spirit in the Salvation Army who, with their devotion to the needy and underprivileged in society, have put many of us to shame.
The importance of truth
One other matter is important when considering the question: What is the Church? That is, for people to be true members of the church they have got to believe something. So far I have described a Christian in terms of what God does in giving a person his Spirit. However, God does this in response to a person’s faith. Faith involves trust; and trust always involves certain beliefs about the person in whom one puts one’s trust. What is the minimum one has to believe about God in order to be a true Christian?
The New Testament evidence on this point focuses mainly on the Person of Jesus Christ. Every person who has indeed received the Holy Spirit can be expected to say that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3). To really believe that he is Lord involves accepting him as Lord of one’s own personal life. This involves personal commitment to him. Christians call upon the name of Jesus in faith (Romans 10:13). They are baptised in his name (Acts 2:38). They are washed, made holy and acceptable to God through his name (1 Corinthians 6:11). They preach and teach in his name (Acts 5:28). John says in his first letter, “We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we rely on the love God has for us” (1 John 4:13-16). Faith in Jesus as the Saviour who died for us, acknowledging who he is in his divine being, and some understanding of the Triune God of Father, Son and Spirit are all basic to being a Christian in the New Testament. The Orthodox theologian Dumitru Staniloae speaks for the whole Christian tradition when he highlights the “two truths beside which there is no other truth – the holy Trinity as model of supreme love and interpersonal communion, and the Son of God who comes, becomes a man, and goes to sacrifice.”
“Dietrich Bonhoeffer… made the plea that in theology we give priority to the question of who over how”
Of course, there are many other beliefs related to the Christian faith, particularly about how we should live. It is significant that every book of the New Testament (there are 27), apart from Paul’s letter to Philemon, warns against false teaching or false teachers. Truth matters. The influential theologian Karl Barth recognised this in his definition of the church. He said:
The Real Church is the assembly which is called, united, held together and governed by the Word of her Lord, or she is not the Real Church.
However, in this booklet I will not be focusing primarily on what we are to believe. A multitude of people have been writing on the truth of the gospel for two thousand years. I have added my contribution in the booklet What is Truth and Does It Matter? That booklet is very much a companion to this one, as are my booklets Understanding the Trinity and Does It Matter How We Live? A Christian View of Morality. In this booklet I will be focusing on what the church is meant to be as a community, particularly as this relates to the nature of the triune God, who called the church into being. How should Christians relate to one another within this community? How should the church relate to those outside its membership? What is its mission in the world? How should it relate to God’s material creation? I believe these are vital questions as we face a new millennium with the world in the state that it is.
Where to start?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis at the end of World War II, in his lectures Christology, made the plea that in theology we give priority to the question of who over how, and that we always seek answers to the question of how in terms of who. Our starting point should not be the problems of the world, of church and society, but: “Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? Who is the Holy Spirit?” How we think about God will colour all else. This is particularly true of our thinking about the church. For instance, if we have a hierarchical view of the Trinity, as the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have tended to do, then we are likely to have a hierarchical view of the church. Jesus made it plain that relationships in the church should mirror the relationships that exist within the triune God (John 17:21). So it is the nature of God that I examine first.
Qualities of the Triune God
With our puny little minds we can never understand God unless he should choose to make himself known to us. As the saying goes: “By God alone can God be known.” Christians believe that he has indeed revealed what he is like through the authors of the books that make up our Bible, and supremely through the coming into the world of Jesus Christ. In the bookletUnderstanding the Trinity I have spelt out the clear teaching that we have, in the New Testament particularly, that God exists as three Persons, spoken of normally as “Father”, “Son” and “Holy Spirit”. Though there are distinctions between these persons, they exist in such a unity that we can still speak of the one God. In that booklet I have also explained why I believe this makes perfect sense, so I will not repeat those arguments here.
“God does not reveal Himself in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world”
In the past there has been a lack of thinking about the connection between the nature of God and the nature of the church. Catholic and Orthodox theologians have consistently made the connection, but have tended more to affirm it than carefully reflect on it. In Protestant circles Jurgen Moltmann led the way in his book The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (1981). However, over the last few years the writing about it has been such that theologian Miroslav Volf, in After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, can say:
Today, the thesis that ecclesial [church] communion should correspond to trinitarian communion enjoys the status of an almost self-evident proposition.
And it is only our understanding of the nature of the Trinity that can provide the philosophical basis for understanding both the true value of the individual and the importance of community. Professor Colin Gunton, in his seminal work, The One, The Three and The Many, points to the secular search for an ideology that can protect the individual while promoting community. Recent history, he suggests, had been ruled by two competing regimes. In the West, we are products of a world driven by the individual. And increasingly privatised worldview has promoted the rights of the indavidual above all else. In the East, communism exalted the many. What mattered most was the common good, the people and the nation. The reslult, Gunton declares, has been two equally oppressive and totalitarian regimes. The answer lies in the discovery of a worldview capable of honouring the one and the many, without either being a the expense of the other. The doctrine of the Trinity presents such an ideology. The God who is Father, Son and Spirit models this unity amidst diversity, and this community of equality. The church, through its relationship with the Triune God, is called to model this for the world.
However, what theologians write about, and what happens at the local church level, are often far removed. The purpose of this booklet is to attempt to address these matters at a level that ordinary members of ordinary churches can cope with. So let’s first look at some of the qualities of this amazing God that Christians believe in.
God is personal and exists in relationships
In an article in Christianity Today on the importance of the Old Testament, well-known Christian writer Philip Yancey says, in his usual graphic style:
Out of their tortured history, the Jews demonstrated the most surprising lesson of all: You cannot go wrong personalising God. God is not a blurry power living somewhere in the sky, not an abstraction like the Greeks proposed, not a sensual superhuman like the Romans worshipped, and definitely not the absentee Watchmaker of the Deists. God is “personal.” He enters into people’s lives, messes with families, shows up in unexpected places, chooses unlikely leaders, calls people to account. Most of all, God loves.
He goes on to quote the great Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel:
To the prophet, God does not reveal Himself in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world. He does not simply command and expect obedience; He is also moved and affected by what happens in the world, and reacts accordingly. Events and human actions arouse in Him joy or sorrow, pleasure or wrath…man’s deeps may move Him, affect Him, grieve Him or, on the other hand, gladden and please Him…
The God of Israel is a God Who loves, a God Who is known to, and concerned with, man. He not only rules the world in the majesty of His might and wisdom, but reacts intimately to the events of history.”
In our Western society we have tended to define the meaning of personhood in individual terms. Thus a person is someone with rights and duties (Thomas Jefferson), as the thinking self (Descartes), as endowed with reason (Boethius), as an autonomous ego (Kant), as someone with physical, economic, social, emotional, sexual and cultural needs. However, the personhood of God is something more than that. God’s personhood is somehow defined as a community of persons who find their true being in relationships. In other words, it is the relationships that exist between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, just as much as the separate beings in themselves, that truly define who God really is. This may sound strange to our individualistic Western way of thinking, but when we look at the nature of the church as it is presented in the New Testament, we will see that it makes sense. Patricia Wilson-Kastner, in Faith, Feminism, and the Christ, expresses it like this:
The notion of the Trinity is based on the self-revelation of a God who is at heart relational, not a bare unity, or an isolated monarch. A monarchial notion of the deity encourages the idea that relationship is secondary to God: a trinitarian concept asserts relationship as fundamental to the divine. Furthermore, to speak of the interrelationship of the persons of the Trinity as the key to understanding the divine is to establish personal interrelationship as the foundation of God’s interaction with the world.
Before moving on, it is worth mentioning an increase of interest, both from theologians and scientists, on relational views, both of how all existence is constituted and of how it is known. The extensive work on relationality within the Trinity since Karl Barth in the mid-20th century has coincided with the exploration of the relational structure of our material universe. If God created all of matter, then we might expect it to reflect something of his own nature, as the Bible declares (Romans 1:19, 20). Dr. Harold Turner, one of our senior New Zealand theologians, gives the following example from the “triple point” in physics:
Water, under certain precise conditions of pressure and temperature, enters a triple state wherein it simultaneously and continuously passes to and from liquid to solid to gaseous forms, each of which is really ‘water’, and yet has its own identity. The analogy with the simultaneous trinitarian nature of the godhead is obvious. Likewise the two forms of light, wave and particle, suggest analogies with the two natures, divine and human, of Jesus; these are equally real and simultaneously operative, and yet we cannot fully focus on both at the same time.
When you think about it, you see relationality everywhere. You see it at the atomic level where atoms in certain relationships form molecules, and molecules elements. You see it in ecosytems in nature, in the balance between plants and animals. You see it in the formation of galaxies, where intricate balance between physical forces is so crucial. You even see it in our own bodies where arms and legs and everything else has to be in right relationships with the rest of the body to function properly. However, we see it most clearly in the relationships between ourselves as human beings.
Equality within the Trinity
As mentioned above, some have tended to speak of hierarchical relationships within the Trinity. It is true that there is indication of different roles within the Trinity. The Father is usually seen as the “source” of initiative. The Father sent the Son into the world. However, I believe the balance of evidence in the New Testament clearly points to an equality ofbeing. In the booklet Understanding the Trinity I have given some of the evidence in the New Testament that each member of the Trinity is fully God. At different points of the Biblical story, differing members of the Trinity are given prominence. The Father is at the forefront of the work of creation, but both the Word and the Spirit are present and involved. The Son is at the forefront of the work of salvation, but both the Father and the Holy Spirit are involved. The Spirit is at the forefront of the work of our spiritual growth and transformation, and the creating of Christian community, but the Father and the Son are present and involved.
“Within a community of perfect love between persons who share all the divine attributes, a notion of hierarchy and subordination is inconceivable”
The number of times we are told that members of the Trinity give honour to one another is significant. In Jesus’ prayer to his Father in John 17, the number of times that Jesus speaks of either the glory he gives to his Father, or the glory the Father gives to him, is noteworthy. (See verses 1, 4, 5, 22, 24: also John 13:31-32). The Spirit gives glory to Jesus (John 16:14). The Father and the Son send the Spirit (John 15:26). They acknowledge, respect and honour what he does. The Father gives all authority in heaven and on earth to the Son (Matthew 28:18). Jesus delivers the kingdom to God the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24). There is never any competition, feeling of inferiority or insecurity between members of the Trinity. They each know and respect who they are and who the other members are and they honour each other. It is true that, in order to share our full humanity, Jesus, speaking as fully human, can say: “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28), but this is a position he took voluntarily, as Paul explains in Philippians 2:5-8. He came down to our level in order to lift us up to his level.
I would agree with Miroslav Volf, who says:
Within a community of perfect love between persons who share all the divine attributes, a notion of hierarchy and subordination is inconceivable.
For decades the Evangelical Theological Society in the US had as its doctrinal statement the following sentence: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” In recent years, however, they have felt it necessary to add the following sentence to protect the Society from deviant views on the Trinity:
God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.
A fuller, but equally clear statement, was given by Philip Schaff in his three volume work on The Creeds of Christendom, 1887:
The divine persons are in one another, and form a perpetual intercommunication and motion within the divine essence. Each person has all the divine attributes which are inherent in the divine essence, but each has also a characteristic individuality or property, which is peculiar to the person, and can not be communicated…In this Trinity there is no priority of rank, but the three persons are coeternal and coequal.
These statements well sum up the views thrashed out in the early history of the church in their ecumenical conferences as they wrestled with their understanding of the New Testament teaching, and have been believed by the vast majority of Christians since. Philip Schaff adds to his summary an apt quote from Augustine:
God is greater and truer in our thoughts than in our words; he is greater and truer in reality than in our thoughts.
I suspect that the question of equality is really a matter of irrelevance to God himself, as the the equality of the Trinity is ultimately an equality where each is equally valued and honoured.
The unity of the Trinity
The unity that exists between members of the Trinity is most vividly expressed in the New Testament by the manner in which they cooperate in all that they do. We see this in:
Genesis 1:1, 2, 26; John 1:1-3.
The birth of Jesus:
The baptism and anointing of Jesus:
Luke 3:21, 22.
The life of Jesus:
Luke 4:18; John 8:29.
The ministry of Jesus:
Matthew 12:28; John 14:10; Acts 10:38.
The death of Jesus:
2 Corinthians 5:19; Hebrews 9:14. ¥ The resurrection of Jesus: John 10:17, 18; Acts 13:30; 1 Peter 3:18.
The giving of the Holy Spirit:
The believer’s experience of grace, love and fellowship:
2 Corinthians 13:14.
The life of the Christian:
The giving of gifts:
1 Corinthians 12:4-6.
Bringing the church to maturity:
The breaking down of racial barriers:
The blessing of believers in the new heaven and new earth:
Revelation 21, 22.
Indeed, it would be true to say that all the teaching of the Bible, whether about the origin and destiny of creation, the nature and destiny of humans, what the Christian life is all about, the nature of the church, the church’s mission in the world, and the present and future kingdom of God, has a trinitarian basis.
The unity of the Trinity I have just described is a unity that exists between three distinct persons because of the complete love and harmony they exhibit in their relationships. However, the unity of the Trinity is something more than that. Jesus talked about the Father being in himself and he being in the Father. “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me” (John 14:10; see also 10:38; 17:21). Whatever this means, it implies that there is a mutual indwelling of each in the other that goes beyond what we as humans experience in our relationships with one another. Thus we read that God knows the mind of the Spirit (Romans 8:27) and the Spirit knows the mind of God (1 Corinthians 2:11). Moltmann expressed it like this:
By the power of their eternal love, the divine persons exist so intimately with, for, and in one another that they themselves constitute themselves in their unique, incomparable and complete union.
This means that none of them work independently of the others. Perhaps this explains why, in their dealings with us, their roles often appear interchangeable in the New Testament. Though mutual indwelling of the members of the Trinity (which, since Pseudo-Cyril, theologians have called perichoresis – if you like to pretend you know something!) is beyond our human experience, we will see something of its relevance to us later.
The love of the Trinity
God is often spoken of as “holy” in the Bible. The root idea of the Hebrew word quados is that of withdrawal and consecration – withdrawal from what is common or unclean and consecration to what is sacred and pure. Used of God it not only signifies his transcendency over all of his creation – his supremacy, majesty and awesome glory – but also his moral perfection. God is perfect in justice, in love, in faithfulness and all the other “moral” qualities we can think of. However, it is the love of God that is the most striking aspect of his nature as portrayed in the Bible. This is particularly demonstrated in the coming of Jesus into this world to share our humanity, in his life of service and his death for our sins on the cross.
“Love” is a relational term. It describes the relationships that have always existed between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit from all eternity. Such are these relationships that it can be said that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Moltmann, puts it like this:
God loves the world with the very same love which He Himself is in eternity. God affirms the world with the energy of His self-affirmation. Because He not only loves but is Himself love, He has to be understood as the triune God. Love cannot be communicated by a solitary subject. An individuality cannot communicate itself: individuality is ineffable, unutterable. If God is love He is at once the lover, the beloved and the love itself. Love is the goodness that communicates itself from all eternity.
Or, as George Tavard puts it in his book A Way of Love:
The mystery of God as One-in-Three is a mystery of love. God’s essence is to love.
This love is outward looking. It is not something God can keep to himself within his own little family. He created humans in order to have someone with whom he could share that love. When humans rejected that love and turned to their own selfish and independent ways, as described in the first chapters of Genesis, then God did not give up on them. The rest of the Bible could be described as God’s pursuit of us in love to bring us back to himself. He will not rest until the bride (the church) is fully reunited with her true lover (Revelation 19:7-9).
The creativity of God
According to the Bible, there is nothing in this vast and amazing universe that did not come into being without the activity of the creative power of God (Genesis 1; Colossians 1:15-17). If his ultimate purpose was to create beings with similar characteristics to himself, whose love he could enjoy, we may well ask why he created such a vast universe and why he seemingly took so long about it. One reason was, no doubt, to enable us to get some little understanding of what a great and powerful God he is and to create within us something of a spirit of awe and worship such as his being warrants.“
|Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord:|
|let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.|
|Let us come before him with thanksgiving|
|and extol him with music and song.|
|For the Lord is the great God,|
|the great King above all gods.|
|In his hand are the depths of the earth,|
|and the mountain peaks belong to him.|
|The sea is his, for he made it,|
|and his hands formed the dry land.|
|Come, let us bow down in worship,|
|let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.
The forces of nature are often spoken of in the Bible as illustrative of the power of God. “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit”(Psalm 147:4). However, another reason he did all this is, I believe, simply because he enjoys creating. We will explore the implications of this for ourselves later.
The nature of the Church
If the God we have pictured above is the God who created human beings, sent his Son to die for them, and who called the church into being, then let’s look at some of the implications of this as they relate to the nature of the church and what it is intended to be. Then we will explore these implications for the church’s mission in the world.
The Old Testament emphasis on community
In beginning our discussion on the church as the community of God’s people, it may be helpful to take a quick journey through the Old Testament to note the emphasis there on community. In the Biblical story of the creation of humans, we read that God’s stated purpose was to make us “in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:2 – “our” referring to God). No doubt, this implies a number of things. We are autonomous beings with intelligence and feelings, and are responsible for our decisions. We have a spiritual side to our nature that enables us to have a relationship with God. However, here I want to focus on another aspect of our “likeness” to God. We are social beings, created forcommunity. Note the plurals “us” and “our” in Genesis 1:26, with reference to God. As God is a community of persons, so are we called to be, in relationships with others, and we cannot find our true being or destiny without those relationships.
“As God is a community of persons, so are we called to be, in relationships with others, and we cannot find our true being or destiny without those relationships”
In both the instances in which it is declared that we are created in God’s likeness, both male and female are mentioned (Genesis 1:27; 5:2). It is significant that the only reason given in Genesis 2 for the creation of the woman was to help man not to be alone. The woman was to be the necessary counterpart of the man for the making of community. She was “a helper suitable for him” (2:18). This does not mean that woman was in any sense inferior. The Hebrew word for “helper” (‘ezer) is consistently used to describe God’s intervention as a rescuer in human situations of need (Exodus 18:4; Psalm 33:20; etc). In this sense a helper is not someone to be used as a convenience but is the condition for survival. The woman was given to the man as the fulfiller of the purpose for which they were both created – the making of the community of oneness.
The story of the woman’s creation, whether taken symbolically or literally, continues this theme. Woman is taken from man, not from his head to rule over him or from his feet to be trampled on, but from his side. Oneness is divided, the woman from man. This requires that they be united again. But this time it is the man’s turn to move. He separates from his parents to be joined to her again in order to become “one flesh” with her. It could be said that man becomes three times servant to the woman. First, he is put to sleep in order to give of himself that the woman may receive her being. Second, he leaves his parents for her sake. Third, he brings his life to her. We see foreshadowed here Paul’s statement about Christ’s relationship to the church which he proposed as a model for husbands: “he gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Servanthood and mutual submission constitute the essence of oneness relationships. This emphasis on community was strengthened by God’s two commands, to raise children and to bear responsibility for the rest of his creation, both activities necessary for community.But notice that these commands were given equally to both men and women (Genesis 1:28). Both were to be shared responsibilities. So God greatest achievement is not the creating of humans but the creation of community, for he himself is community.
“The rest of the Bible is the story of God’s search for men and women and his plans for rebuilding the community they had destroyed”
In the story of the creation of the first community of man and woman it is probable that the expression “one flesh” is meant to convey a lot more than just sexual union. Old Testament scholar Otto Pipers says in The Biblical View of Sex and Marriage:
Flesh, in the biblical sense, denotes not only the body but one’s whole existence in this world: and the attainment of oneness of the flesh, therefore, creates a mutual dependence and reciprocity in all areas of life. One is ready to sacrifice his life for the other person, one feels that life is valueless apart from him, and one wants to be and to act like him. Without previous examination one is able to share his views.
In Genesis 3 we read of Adam and Eve’s disobedience to God. This had serious consequences. The focus now changes. The emphasis is on women’s role in childbearing and man’s role in provision of food. Man dominates the woman (Genesis 3:16-19). Not only is their relationship with God affected (3:23, 24), but also their relationship with one another. In the next generation, the first murder occurs (Genesis 4). This process of community disintegration is taken a step further when, as a result of their attempt to build society on human rather than divine values, their ability to communicate is confused and they are scattered over the face of the earth (Genesis 11:1-9).
The rest of the Bible is the story of God’s search for men and women and his plans for rebuilding the community they had destroyed, a community that would be based both on a relationship with himself as well as with one another. He began with one man, Abraham (Genesis 12), and his descendants, the Israelite nation. At Sinai, God declared to Moses his intention for the nation. “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5, 6). Israel was to be a demonstration to all the nations of what it meant to be God’s people and what true community was all about. The rest of the Old Testament is the story of the ups and downs of this relationship between God and the people he had chosen. Despite the constant failure of Israel to remain faithful to this covenant, God’s purposes were not thwarted, as this was only preparation for a greater plan yet to be revealed.
Even during a time of apostasy, when God’s judgement came in the form of national destruction by the Babylonian army, the prophet Jeremiah could look Foreward to the day when God would create a new covenant with his people. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people…For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34). This theme of being the “people of God” is repeated again and again in the Old Testament. It was to have its true fulfilment in the coming of Jesus.
The community of the church
In the New Testament there are three events which are foundational to the creation of the church, the cross, the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit. Jesus took our sins upon himself on the cross, not only to reconcile us to God, but to reconcile us with one another. The shape of the cross itself is suggestive of both these aspects of salvation. The upright of the cross symbolises our reconciliation to God. By repentance and trust in the Saviour we may receive full forgiveness and become members of God’s triune family as children of God. Russell Rook, in an article on the Trinity in Christianity entitled “Can you see who He is yet?” puts it like this:
Having received his Holy Spirit…we have become as close to the Father as Jesus himself and, like him, neither death nor life can remove this relationship. By the Holy Spirit, God has become closer to us than we are to ourselves. In this moment we have become one with God and, as the Cappadicioan Fathers suggest, we have joined the eternal dance of the Trinity.
But Christianity is more than this. Because we all matter equally to Jesus, the arms of Jesus stretched out on the horizontal beam are extended to all who wish to be embraced by that love. His desire is that those who respond may be drawn into one worldwide community of love, reconciled not only to God, but also to one another.
“We’ve got far too many churches and so few fellowships”
Paul enlarges on this theme in his letter to the Ephesians. “You were far from God. But Christ offered his life’s blood as a sacrifice and brought you near to God. Christ has made peace between Jews and Gentiles, and he has united us by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us…He made peace between us and God by uniting Jews and Gentiles in one body…And because of Christ, all of us can come to the Father by the same Spirit” (Ephesians 2:14-18). All who come to Jesus are now on an equal footing whatever our nationality, the colour of our skin, whether we have been big sinners or little sinners, whether we are rich or poor, or whatever our social standing, our gender, our mental or physical abilities. G. G. Findlay, commenting on this passage in the Expositor’s Bible, wrote:
Coming ‘in one Spirit to the Father,’ the reconciled children join hands again with each other. Social barriers, caste feelings, family feuds, personal quarrels, national antipathies, alike go down before the virtue of the blood of Jesus.
We are all sinners who have been forgiven and are now children of the King. The engagement has taken place and we are all now the people of his special love, waiting for the final marriage consummation (Revelation 19:6-8). We all have direct access to the Father by the Holy Spirit who has graciously come to live within us. There is now no ground whatever for one to claim superiority over another. “Faith in Christ Jesus is what makes each of you equal with each other, whether you are a Jew or a Greek, a slave or a free person, a man or a woman” (Galatians 3:28).
This does not mean that cultural, racial or gender differences are not important. God created diversity, both among humans and in nature, and he loves it. Diversity exists within the Trinity. However, in Christ alone can diversity be brought into unity. He died to break down the hostility, not the diversity (Ephesians 2:16). All nationalities, cultures and languages will be represented in heaven (Revelation 7:9; 21:24). Those cultures, of course, will then be cleansed by the blood of Christ from the evil that now infects all cultures. But as Christians we are called, as Abraham was, to sit lightly with our cultural and family ties, and to break with the gods of our ancestors, out of allegiance to a God of all families andall cultures (Genesis 12:1-3). Bramwell Booth rallied his Salvation Army troops at the close of 1915 with the reminder: “Every land is my Fatherland, for all lands are my Father’s.” A Christian can never be first a Kiwi, a Croatian, an Irishman, or male or female. First we are “in Christ”, our ultimate family is God’s family (Matthew 28:19) and our ultimate citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). As Miroslav Volf puts it in Exclusion & Embrace:
Christians are not insiders who have taken flight to a new “Christian culture” and become outsiders to their own culture; rather when they have responded to the call of the Gospel they have stepped, as it were, with one foot outside their own culture while with the other remaining firmly planted in it.
For this reason they are more ready to welcome members of other cultures. To quote Volf again in After Our Likeness The Church as the Image of the Trinity:
Just as the nations of the world will bring their “glory” and wealth into the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:24, 26), so also must churches remain open for the entire natural and cultural wealth of human beings.
God’s intention to break down the barriers that humans had built between one another is graphically illustrated by events on the Day of Pentecost, when “each one heard them speaking in his own language” (Acts 2:6). This was in marked contrast to the confusion of languages that resulted from the building of the tower of Babel (Genesis 11:9). The ministry of the Spirit is now to build the church as God’s community. Taking up the words originally spoken to Moses concerning God’s people in Old Testament days, Peter says of the church, “You are God’s chosen and special people. You are a group of royal priests and a holy nation. God has brought you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Now you must tell all the wonderful things that he has done” (1 Peter 2:9).
Someone has said that the kingdom of God is a Kingdom of right relationships. As Brian Hathaway puts it in Living with the Saints We Know:
It was to establish relationships like those enjoyed within the trinity that Jesus came to earth. He prayed for it. He died for it. He sent the Holy Spirit for it. He is interceding for it now. He is coming back for it.
Authentic revival in the church must always involve a revival of community life. “Saints” or “holy ones”, used sixty-one times of Christians in the New Testament, is always in the plural. The concept of solitary sainthood is unknown here. The triune God of grace has created us to be “co-lovers” with him and one another, as John Duns Scotus expressed it in the thirteenth century.
A delightful description of Christian community comes to us from the pen of Tertullian, African Church Father, about AD 200. He describes the affection which marks the Christian brethren assembled together – fittingly called “brethren” because of their common relationship to the heavenly Father. He explains that the meeting is opened and closed with prayer. Worship, fellowship and feasting are all carried out under the Father’s eye. The lowly, the needy, the sick are shown particular consideration. Contributions are voluntary and proportionate to each one’s income; they are used:
to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls who are destitute of means and parents, and of old people now confined to the house, and such as have suffered shipwreck…or any who happen to be in the mines or banished to the islands or shut up in prison for their fidelity to God’s Church…One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us except our wives.
This testimony from Tertullian is all the more interesting because there had been a mass turning to Christ in North Africa shortly before he wrote. The quality of Christian fellowship to which he draws attention had had large-scale effects in his native land.
Richard Halverson, former US Senate Chaplain, no doubt with tongue in cheek, but expressing some real truth, said:
In the beginning the Church was a fellowship of men and women who centred their lives on the living Christ. They had a personal and vital relationship to the Lord. It transformed them and the world around them. Then the Church moved to Greece, and it became a philosophy. Later it moved to Rome, and it became an institution. Next it moved to Europe and it became a culture. Finally it moved to America, and it became an enterprise. We’ve got far too many churches and so few fellowships.
The New Testament emphasis on relationships
Douglas Spanner, in Biblical Creation and the Theory of Evolution, says:
The Bible as a whole is fundamentally about relationships. The very names Old ‘Covenant’ and New ‘Covenant’ should make this clear.
“The two greatest commands, on which, according to Jesus, all the others depend, are concerned with relationships, with God and one another”
The two greatest commands, on which, according to Jesus, all the others depend, are concerned with relationships, with God and one another (Matthew 22:36-40). However, with the coming of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, the focus on relationships is sharpened, as is the constant emphasis on reconciliation, made possible through the cross, which must be the basis for all relationships.
It is because God is so concerned with the creating of the church as his community, that so much of the New Testament deals with relationships. Jesus spent about two and a half years seeking to build a small group of followers into a true community. Brian Hathaway has estimated that 44% of the letters of the New Testament are about how we should get along with one another. This contrasts with about 4% on spiritual gifts. (How much of our preaching and teaching deals with relationships?) This emphasis is particularly clear when we look at the number of times the words “one another” occur, particularly in Paul’s letters. The Greek word allelon occurs 59 times as a specific command. We are commanded to:
love one another (John 13:35 – this command comes 16 times)
be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10)
honour one another above yourselves (Romans 12:10)
live in harmony with one another (Romans 12:16)
build up one another (Romans 14:19; 1 Thessalonians 5:11)
be likeminded towards one another (Romans 15:5)
accept one another (Romans 15:7)
admonish one another (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16)
care for one another (1 Corinthians 12:25)
serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
forgive one another (Ephesians 4:2, 32; Colossians 3:13)
be patient with one another (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13)
be kind and compassionate to one another (Ephesians 4:32)
speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19)
submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21, 1 Peter 5:5)
consider others better than yourselves (Philippians 2:3)
look to the interests of one another (Philippians 2:4)
bear with one another (Colossians 3:13)
teach one another (Colossians 3:16)
comfort one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18)
encourage one another (Hebrews 3:13)
stir up one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24)
show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
employ the gifts that God has given us for the benefit of one another (1 Peter 4:10)
clothe yourselves with humility towards one another (1 Peter 5:5)
pray for one another (James 5:16)
confess our faults to one another (James 5:16)
We are to do these things because we belong to one another (Romans 12:5; Ephesians 4:25).
All these commands do not take into account the things we are told not to do to one another!
“Many of our churches today are strong on teaching but weak on fellowship”
We read that the first two characteristics of the early church were that “they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship” (Acts 2:42). Many of our churches today are strong on teaching but weak on fellowship. Good teaching is not a substitute for fellowship. They are two distinct aspects of the church’s life and both have to be worked at. The Greek word for fellowship, koinonia, is a significant one in the New Testament. It can be translated “communion”, “fellowship”, “sharing”, “participation”. At the heart of the word is the adjective koinos, which means common. It is a trinitarian concept. “Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Paul adds, “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:14). We all have the same God as our Father, the same Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord, and the same Holy Spirit as our indwelling Comforter. We share these things in common with all believers. The New Testament concept of fellowship began at Pentecost with the giving of the Spirit.
John goes on to say in chapter 1 of his letter, “if we walk in the light (in fellowship with God)…we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7). In the early church this fellowship went as far as the sharing of material possessions. Luke tells of this generosity: “All the Lord’s followers often met together, and they shared everything they had.(Literally: “they had all things in common” – koine). They would sell their property and possessions and give the money to whoever needed it” (Acts 2:44, 45). This sharing of material goods is an aspect of fellowship that we Western Christians are not very good at, and yet one about which the New Testament has a great deal to say! (The best and most challenging summary of biblical teaching about our attitude to material possessions that I have read, is in Brian Hathaway’s Beyond Renewal: The Kingdom of God.)
“No amount of technical administrative skill in labouring for the masses can make up for lack of nobility of personal character in developing relationships”
In Galatians 5:16-26 Paul contrasts those qualities of character that result in bad relationships with those that form good relationships. “The acts of the sinful nature” include “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy”, whereas “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” As Stephen Covey says in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People with regard to running a business, or marriage, or family:
No amount of technical administrative skill in labouring for the masses can make up for lack of nobility of personal character in developing relationships.
The basis for our relationship with one another is Christ’s relationship with us. We are to “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7). It is this acceptance that brings glory to God. Christ’s acceptance of us is gracious, total, unreserved, unprejudiced, forgiving and freeing. Our acceptance of one another is to be similar. We have no mandate in the Christian church to decide who we will accept and who we won’t. All who receive the Holy Spirit are members of the family.
Of course, the ultimate in community will be that which we experience in the “new heavens and new earth” so graphically pictured in Revelation 21 and 22. That is why the Bible begins in a Garden, but ends in a City. In a garden the focus is on the pleasant environment; in a city it is the relationships that are important. Our present cities are anything but places for good relationships, but in that city the barriers to deep and fulfilling relationships will be forever removed. “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4) and “No longer will there be any curse” (22:3), the curse of spoilt relationships that sin has brought upon us. As far as our relationship with God is concerned, it will be most intimate. “They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (21:3). We will “see his face” (22:4). Gilbert Bilezikian, inCommunity 101, says:
“The worst disease in today’s world is not leprosy or cancer: it is the feeling of being uncared for, unwanted, of being deserted and alone”
Since community alone will survive from this world into the next, it is ultimately the only thing God is doing today that has eternal significance.
I like the definition of the church given by theologian Andrew Kirk:
What the New Testament means by the Church is not an institution which owns property, performs rites and organises meetings, or even one that plans strategies to evangelise unreached people. Rather, it is a group of ordinary people who, because they are experiencing the immense grace of a compassionate God, are learning how to overcome hostility between people, forgive and trust one another, share what they have and encourage one another in wholesome and joyous relationships.
When we think of the church in organisational rather than community and relational terms, it distorts our values. We give lip service to biblical values but in practice other values predominate. Lawrence Richards, in A New Face for the Church, gives three lines of evidence that clearly indicate this.
- The major deliberation of church leaders focuses on organisational problems – personnel and staffing problems, building problems, financial problems. How do we maintain the organisation? Not that these are unimportant. They are just not the prime business of what the church is all about.
- Status in the church is ascribed on the basis of organisational performance. A “good Christian” is one who attends church regularly and is actively involved in the organisation.
- Christians see themselves in terms of their role in the organisation. Their identity comes from their relationship to the organisation, rather than from their relationship to Christ and his people.
Obviously, when humans get together you have to have some organisation, but organisation must always be subservient to community, relationships and mission in the church. Gavin Reid, in The Gagging of God, put it like this:
What is needed, then, is for organised Christianity to be seen as a cause. Only a cause that is obviously unselfish, outgoing, compassionate, flexible and travelling light in terms of structures, can be a credible source for the message that God is, God loves, God came and God forgives.
Or as John Tanburn put it in Open House, describing the apostolic church:
The only basic principle of church order and structure was that it should Foreward the church’s mission.
We live in a community-starved world. Psychiatrist Jean Rosenbaum estimates that loneliness is America’s greatest killer of those who die between the ages of two and thirty-seven, and that 94% of the people suffer from chronic alienation. Mother Teresa said that “the worst disease in today’s world is not leprosy or cancer: it is the feeling of being uncared for, unwanted, of being deserted and alone.” Toffler coined the phrase, “the plague of loneliness”. Also, we are told that there are today fifty “hot spots” of ethnic conflict around the world. The church can have no greater impact today than by modelling true community as God intended. Ralph Osbourne, Executive Director of Faith At Work, says:
The search for community is our culture’s deepest longing and the Christian faith’s greatest promise.
No doubt Jesus had this in mind when he spoke of the church as a “city set on a hill” (Matthew 5:14). He said that people would know who we are by our love for one another. “If you love each other, everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35). In prayer to his Father, he said that people would know who he is by our unity. “I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me…Then the people of this world will believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). Bishop Stephen Neill, in Christian Faith Today, said:
Within the fellowship of those who are bound together by personal loyalty to Jesus Christ, the relationship of love reaches an intimacy and intensity unknown elsewhere…Where it is experienced, especially across the barriers of race, nationality and language, it is one of the most convincing evidences of the continuing activity of Jesus among men.
Or, to compare two other significant verses –
We can see God as he is revealed in Jesus:
“No one has ever seen God. The only Son, who is truly God and is closest to the Father, has shown us what God is like.” John 1:18
We can see God as he is revealed in a loving Christian fellowship:
“No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is truly in our hearts.” 1 John 4:12
The importance of small groups
If the depths of relationships and our commitment to one another are so important to God, then small groups must also be important as it is only in small groups that close relationships can develop. During the first two centuries of the Christian era church buildings did not exist, so it was necessary that people met in their homes. It is significant that the earliest church building discovered by archeologists is one recently discovered in the ancient Roman port of Aila, now within the modern city of Aqaba. It’s proposed dating is around AD 300, built during a period of relative toleration before the Great Persecution of 303-311. Eusebius, the “Father of Church History” (c. 260-340) tells us that many large churches were built in his day, but none have yet been discovered and it would only have been likely during the last half of the third century.
“In all my eleven years of itinerant ministry I cannot recall any growing church which does not encourage small groups”
In the early “house churches”, pictured vividly by Paul in Romans 16, fellowship would, no doubt, often be over a meal. There are few things more effective for building fellowship than sharing meals. It is no doubt partly due to this natural creating of close relationships that the early church grew so fast, even in times of persecution. We are seeing this today in the success of the Alpha programme worldwide, a programme that focuses on the building of relationships in small groups, in homes and over meals, as a means of sharing the gospel. It is also apparent in the remarkable success of the “Group of Twelve” approach in Colombia which has grown from 600 cell groups to something like 50,000 in four years. In Cuba, where new church construction is still forbidden, the Assemblies of God has grown from 9,000 to over 100,000 in ten years and has more than 2,000 house churches. The Hosanna World Outreach Centre in Taita has been identified as the fastest growing church in New Zealand. It has grown from scratch to 500 members in five years. Their pastor, Joshua Avia says, “We are a cell church where everybody does everything.” They work on a cell principle of twelve members. It has been said that Methodism began to lose its fire when it built its first church building. Eddie Gibbs, in I Believe in Church Growth, says:
In all my eleven years of itinerant ministry I cannot recall any growing church which does not encourage small groups.
At the Berlin congress of Evangelism, Robert Raines called the small group approach “the strategy for our time”.
Small groups, where all the members participate as directly as possible, are more effective for changing attitudes and behaviour than is the lecture method. This has been shown by “a whole series of studies”, according to Paul Hore in theHandbook of Small Group Studies. One lady told how she took her granddaughter to church for the first time. As they knelt in the tall-sided pew, the little girl whispered, “Who are we hiding from?” It is harder to hide from ourselves or from one another in the smaller group, than in the crowd. John Stott wrote in One People: Clergy and Laity in God’s Church:
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that small groups, Christian family or fellowship groups, are indispensable for our growth into spiritual maturity.
His Magazine, November 1968, reported an in-depth study done by Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship staff in North America on the rate of growth of their various University groups compared to the size of their gatherings. They described the problems found by any group as it grows and how the growth rate invariably slows as size increases. Problems included a drop in personalness, sense of mission and evangelistic work achieved, and an immense rise in demands on leaders. From this they devised an effective strategy which included the following: “The big meeting should serve the small group rather than vica versa.” I wonder if this is what Jesus had in mind when he declared, “Whenever two or three of you come together in my name, I am there with you” (Matthew 18:20). I used to think he meant, “Even if only a few of you gather I am still there.” I now tend to think he meant, “When just two or three gather in my name, I am there in a special kind of way.” In other words, the basic building block of the church is the small group in which the members are committed to one another as to Christ. We tend to think of the small group as only being a part of the church. The New Testament does not make this distinction. It is the church.
It is no surprise that the largest church in the world, Dr. Yonggi Cho’s church in Seoul, Korea, with several hundred thousand members, is built on the house and cell group principle. According to those who study church growth, research has shown that seven smaller groups for every hundred people attending Sunday worship, is the minimum required for growth. There is a vast amount of literature and aids on small group organisation and leadership training that has been written over the past few decades, so none need feel without resources for facing this challenge. The same could be said of literature for helping people discover and use their gifts.
John A. T. Robinson, in On Being the Church in the World, wrote:
I believe that the theological recovery of this idea of ‘the church of the house’ is one of the most important tasks of our generation. Whereas the organisation is an optional extra…the cellular structure of the church will be rediscovered as a necessity of its life…”
After all, the original small group was Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The function of leadership
The apostle Paul, probably the greatest builder of churches of all time, was very concerned that the churches he founded had good leadership. On his first missionary journey “Paul and Barnabas chose some of those who had faith in the Lord to be leaders for each of the churches” (Acts 14:23). His instructions to the church leaders at Ephesus on his last visit with them is reported in some detail (Acts 20:17-35). In his letters to Timothy and Titus, he enlarges on the character required of leaders, as does Peter (1 Peter 1:4). However, for the church to be a true community, modelling the kind of community that exists between members of the Trinity, it is important to note both the requirements and the limitations of leadership.
“It is instructive to notice how little the letters of the New Testament have to say either to or about leaders”
Leaving aside for a moment the so-called “Pastoral Epistles” (I and II Timothy and Titus), it is instructive to notice how little the letters of the New Testament have to say either to or about leaders. They are addressed to all the Christians in a given place. Paul does include “the bishops [or overseers]and deacons” together with the rest of the believers, in his opening address to the Christians at Philippi, but then he never refers to them again in the letter.
If ever a church needed strong leadership, it was the church at Corinth, which was beset by division and all kinds of problems. Yet Paul’s first letter to them is not directed primarily to the leaders, but to the whole community. He does address qualities of leadership in chapters 3 and 4. He stresses their servant nature and that it is God’s field and building they are working in (3:5-9). They will be tested at the judgement as to how well they have built on the only legitimate foundation, Jesus Christ (3:10-17). He mentions the stewardship nature of leadership (4:1-5) and the danger of putting leaders on a pedestal (4:6, 7). It is not their eloquence, but the evidence of God’s power at work through their ministry that counts (4:19, 20).
However, the emphasis in this letter is on relationships (particularly chapters 11 to 14). He expects the ordinary church members to be mature enough to sort out their own problems and gives plenty of guidelines for doing so. His goal is for a community where everyone, with whatever gift they may have been given, is a fully functioning member. Paul’s emphasis is on the common or shared responsibility of all for the life of the church, not with the responsibility of leadership. He does include apostles, prophets, teachers and administrators, along with others whom God has gifted in the church to enable it to function as a true community (12:28-31). However, this is within the context of a body where all are given gifts and ministries they are called on to exercise. Those who seem to be weaker are indispensable, the most insignificant are to be given greater honour, and they are encouraged to desire the most useful gifts (12:21-31). Every person is to serve with his or her specific gifts, and every person is to be served in his or her specific need. All is to be done with love (chapter 13).
A similar emphasis is found in his letter to the Romans. This letter is the most thorough explanation of what the gospel is all about in the New Testament. Paul mentions Phoebe, a “deacon” or “servant” from another church whom he had sent to Rome with a mission, in his list of over two dozen friends, relatives, and co-workers in chapter 16 (v. 1, 2). He also refers to a man and a woman he calls “apostles”, probably in the broad sense of the term (v. 7). Apart from these, the only mention of leadership in the whole letter is in 12:6-8. Here he mentions leadership as one gift among many, but gives it no more importance than others. In addition, he mentions these gifts in a context where he says: “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought” (v. 3) and, “in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (v. 5).
“It is through the dynamic interaction of the whole body that the Spirit manifests his presence”
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is even more significant. This letter is almost entirely devoted to teaching about the church in God’s purposes. If there had been any particular system of governing structure that would have been valid for all churches, then this would have been the place to deal with it. However, the only mention of those in leadership positions is in chapter 4 where Paul speaks of apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers as God’s gift to his church. This mention of these persons occurs in the middle of a section that deals with unity and growth (Ephesians 4:1-15). It is noteworthy that the only function that Paul says they are to perform is to “prepare God’s people for works of service”* that all may become mature (v. 13), and that “we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is , Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (v. 15, 16 – italics mine).
*The fact that this is only function of leaders mentioned in Ephesians, highlights the priority Paul gives to this area of ministry. Where the church is weak it is no doubt often due to the lack of effective leaders performing this service of equipping God’s people for their ministry.
It is interesting that in this last verse, the words translated “held together by every supporting ligament” (New International Version) are, in the old Authorised Version, translated “compacted by that which every joint supplieth”.(See also the Greek of Colossians 2:19). In this instance the AV is more accurate. The Expositor’s Greek Testament says:
The idea, therefore, appears to be that the body is fitly framed and knit together by means of the joints, every one of them in its own place and function, as the points of connection between member and member and the points of communication between the different parts and the supply which come from the Head.
In other words, the point of entry of the supply of power from Christ and the Spirit, necessary for the effective functioning of the body, does not filter down through the leadership, but comes through the joints where the members rub up against one another! It is through the dynamic interaction of the whole body that the Spirit manifests his presence.
Elsewhere, elders are encouraged to have a nurturing or shepherding role (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-3) with some emphasis on teaching (1 Timothy 5:17). However, it is interesting to note the number of times these functions are declared to be the responsibility of all the members. Some examples are:
“My friends, I am sure that you are very good and that you have all the knowledge you need to teach each other.”Romans 15:14.
“Let the message about Christ completely fill your lives, while you use all your wisdom to teach and instruct each other.” Colossians 3:16
“Encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11
“Where the New Testament commands respect for leaders it is based more on their character and active service in the congregation than on their formal position”
When the writer of Hebrews says to the people that they are to “See to it that no one misses the grace of God” (12:15), the verb he uses for “See to it” is the Greek word episkopeo. It is the same word used by Peter when he describes church leaders as “serving as overseers” (1 Peter 5:2). In this sense every Christian may be regarded as a “bishop” or “overseer” (episkope) with responsibility to care for others. Where the New Testament commands respect for leaders it is based more on their character and active service in the congregation than on their formal position (e.g. 1 Thessalonians 5:13; Hebrews 13:7).
Every believer shares in the “fullness” of the deity dwelling in the risen Christ (John 1:16; Colossians 2:9, 10). It is noteworthy, too, that though there were people designated “prophets” in the early church who were highly regarded, the gift of prophecy could be exercised by any member (Acts 2:18; 21:9; 1 Corinthians 14:29-31).
Another very important point, retated to what we have said so far, is the fact that local leadership in the New Testament is always plural or team leadership (e.g. Acts 14:23; 20:17; Philippians 1:1; 1 Peter 5:1; 1 Timothy 5:17; Titus 1:5). Jesus first set the pattern by welding a group of very different followers into a leadership team over two and a half years. I suspect that there are two reasons for this emphasis. Where there is true team leadership there is less temptation for a leader to develop tendencies that will work against true community, such as Peter mentions (1 Peter 5:1-3). Perhaps a more important reason is that a team has the opportunity to model the kind of relationships that should exist in the rest of the fellowship. Martin Luther understood “the priesthood of all believers” in terms of church structure and worship as well as in terms of our relationship with God. Spener, Zinzendorf and Wichern attempted to implement this emphasis in the German-speaking sphere, as have various Free Church groups such as Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers and Pentecostals, but this insight has not established itself in Protestantism.
Miroslav Volf, following Jurgen Moltmann, sums up a basic principle which applies if we take the symmetrical relationships within the Trinity as our model:
This yields the ecclesial principle that the more a church is characterised by symmetrical and decentralised distribution of power and freely affirmed interaction, the more will it correspond to the trinitarian communion. Relations between charismata [gifts], modelled after the Trinity, are reciprocal and symmetrical; all members of the church have charismata, and all are to engage their charismata for the good of all the others.
Jesus defined once and for all the function of leaders when he declared that though leaders in secular society exercise authority over others (and no doubt this is necessary to hold things together in such society), “It shall not be so among you.” Instead, in his community, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,” even as he came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28). On another occasion, in order to underline his instruction that “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all,” he took a child in his arms and said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me” (Mark 9:33-37). In other words, in serving the most insignificant person, one is serving Christ. As the disciples were so slow to get the message (as most of us are!), he had to repeat it again at the Last Supper (Luke 22:24-27). In his book Community 101, Gilbert Bilezikian, the “resident theologian” of the Willow Creek Community Church, says:
In a community of servants, both leaders and laity must be bent on serving one another with whatever gifts each has received in order to accomplish their shared task. Within this perspective, the distinction between leaders and laity has significance only inasmuch as it facilitates the fulfilment of the corporate mission.
“The distinction between leaders and laity has significance only in as much as it facilitates the fulfilment of the corporate mission”
The one place in the New Testament where there is a strong emphasis on leadership is in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. There is good evidence in these letters that the churches were facing serious problems, problems that Paul had possibly forseen some years before, particularly in the case of the churches around Ephesus (Acts 20:29-31). The emphasis here is on the proved character of leaders, their tested ability and their earned respect. Whatever the reason for the emphasis in these letters, it underlines the importance Paul gives to good leadership. It is strong leadership that is able to be vulnerable, to adopt the role of a servant as Jesus did, and to function alongside other leaders in a team. It is weak leadership that has to appeal to their office or position (or canons!).
To sum up the responsibilities given to leaders in the New Testament, I would agree with Bilezikian:
They are the spiritual watchcare and nurture of the church, the equipping of the laity for ministry, and the ministry of intervention in situations of crisis.
The New Testament has a number of images or metaphors to describe the nature of the church, such as the bride of Christ, his body, his flock, his family, his temple, his kingdom and his vineyard. We shall look at these later. However, it is significant that none of these metaphors stands or falls by the inclusion or exclusion of leaders. This is simply not how the Bible thinks about the Church. In other words, the essence of the church does not reside in its leadership. The purpose of the leadership is to encourage the church to function in a way that is true to the implication of these metaphors, which all point to Jesus as its Lord.
Feminists have a point here. According to Letty Russell in Church in the Round, the main task of feminist ecclesiology is to dismantle the model of the church as a “household ruled by a patriarch” and replace it with the model of “a household where everyone gathers around the common table to break bread and share table talk and hospitality.” Though this is the New Testament emphasis, the church needs also to be aware of how little sympathy people in today’s postmodern world have for top-down organisations. Babyboomers and later generations look to networking as their model for an organisation. Today’s culture talks of facilitators and initiators. It has been suggested that the reason President Clinton has been able to stay in office is because he has passed what is called the “beer test”. In other words, he is the sort of person of whom an ordinary American could say, “Yes, Clinton is a guy I could sit down and have a beer with.” After all, Jesus said that if we invite him, the Supreme Lord, into our lives, he would come in, “and we will eat together” (Revelation 3:20).
A beautiful picture of divine leadership is given us in the last chapter of the Bible. In the centre of the throne is the Lamb, the one whose rule is legitimised by his “wounds” (v. 1). The goal of his rule is not to subject his followers, but that they should “reign for ever and ever” (v. 5). As Miroslav Volf puts it in Exclusion & Embrace:
With the Lamb at the centre of the throne, the distance between the “throne” and the “subjects” has collapsed in the embrace of the triune God.
The ministry of women
It would be inappropriate to leave the question of leadership in the church without declaring my colours on the subject of women in leadership. Though I have always wrestled with what Paul means by “headship” in 1 Corinthians 11:2-11 and Ephesians 5:22-33, and why he said the things he did in 1 Corinthians 14:34-38 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15, I am firmly convinced that the full weight of New Testament emphasis comes down on the side of the full inclusion of women alongside men at all levels of church ministry.
“To say that women are not given gifts of leadership is frankly nonsense”
Gordon Fee, one of today’s leading textual scholars, has some useful comments on 1 Corinthians 14:34-38 in his impressive volume God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul. He argues for a corruption of the text. However, the most useful discussion of the whole subject that I have read to date is The New Relatedness for Man and Woman in Christ: A Mirror of the Divine by Danish theologian V. Norskov Olsen. Olsen has been an influential leader in England and the United States and since retirement has been a scholar in Residence in the Faculty of Religion at Loma Linda University. This book discusses the relationship between men and women in the light of relationships within the Trinity. It has a useful discussion on the meaning of headship and very helpful background information on the situation the church was facing in Ephesus and what Paul was getting at in 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
For me, the most convincing argument is the clear emphasis that we are all to develop and use to the full whatever gifts God has chosen to give us, in humble service to one another. This is stated without any limitations imposed, of gender or anything else (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12; 1 Peter 4:10-11). To say that women are not given gifts of leadership is frankly nonsense. There are many parts of the world where the church would be impoverished or non-existent if it were not for the gifted ministry of pioneer women missionaries. I have always thought the argument that it is all right for women to lead if men are not available, a particularly hollow one!
In the concluding greetings of Paul’s letter to the Romans he mentions the name of many people, Jews and Gentiles, women and men, who were indiscriminately and happily engaged together in ministry, and demonstrating authentic oneness (16:1-16)
The New Testament foundation for unity
As I have been indicating, it is the nature of the church as a loving community in which members relate in complementary, interdependent service to one another, that is a dominant theme of the New Testament letters. Perhaps it is the dominant theme. Though we have been pointing to this all along, let’s look now in some detail at what the New Testament says about why this is so and what the foundation is for this unity.
“We have no right to separate ourselves from our spiritual brothers and sisters and deny them the benefit of whatever gifts we may be able to share in the building up of the whole community”
There are three passages that are particularly significant in this regard. The first is Jesus’ “high priestly” prayer for his disciples and his future church on the eve of his crucifixion, in John 17. Brian Hathaway points out in Living Below with the Saints We Know that in this prayer Christ links himself to the Father as many times as he links us to either the Father or Son. Forty-two times the Father and Son and linked together – you/me, I/you, us. Forty-two times we are linked to either the Father and or Son – I/you/those, they/yours, you/them/me, I/them, they/you/me. The relationships he desires us to model for the world are similar to that which exists between him and his Father. “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me…May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20, 21, 23). The relationship between his followers is to be to the same extent, and with the same intensity, as his relationship with his Father. And all the resources that his Father had given him, he has given to his followers, in order that they may bring about this oneness. “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me” (v. 22).
Brian Hathaway comments:
This relationship between Father and Son is the example for all Christian relationships. This is the standard, it is the yardstick, anything else is second-rate. This is the model for Christian marriage and family. This is the model for relationships within and between local congregations. This is the model for home-groups, church committees, youth ministry and leadership teams. This is the example for the world-wide Body of Christ. This is the maturity that God has in store for his people (Ephesians 4:13), oneness exemplified by that between Father and Son – “that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:22).
We have seen that there is a sense in which members of the divine Trinity dwell in one another in a sense which is not true of our relationships. However, in becoming Christians the Holy Spirit literally comes to live in us. We “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). The same Spirit that lives in me also lives in every other believer. It is this experience that gives us a sense of belonging to one another and provides us with the resources that should enable us to make this unity a reality. “We were all baptised by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13). In this passage Paul goes on to explain in some detail how this should work out in practice (vv. 14-30). It is significant that it is always groups that are “baptised in the Spirit” whereas individuals are said to be “filled” with the Spirit.
There are passages where the Spirit is said to dwell in the Christian community, pictured as a temple, rather than just the individual (e.g. 1 Corinthians 3:16; Ephesians 2:20-22). The first of these passages contains a severe warning for any who would cause division in the fellowship, as was happening in the Corinthian Church: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him: for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:17). Such is God’s concern for oneness.
This experience of God living in his people, and its counterpart of us as a community living in God, will be fully worked out in heaven. In Revelation 21, heaven is pictured as a perfect cube (v. 16). The book of Revelation is full of symbolism taken from the Old Testament temple, and no doubt this is meant to represent a supradimensional Holy of Holies, that part of the temple in which God dwelt, which was also a cube (1 Kings 6:20). “God’s home is now with his people. He will live with them, and they will be his own. Yes, God will make his home among his people” (Revelation 21:3). Conversely, God himself is the temple in which his people dwell. “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple” (v. 22).
The second significant passage which points to the relationships within the Trinity as the basis for our own unity is 1 Corinthians 12. This chapter deals with the variety of spiritual gifts that God gives to his people in order that the whole body may have the resources necessary to function effectively as a body. But, in order to do so, it is not only necessary to have diversity in the body, but also unity as the diverse parts are held together in functional relationship. So, in the middle of the chapter he gives a graphic description of the kind of relationships that are necessary if this unity is to be real. He then goes on to give a whole chapter on love (chapter 13) as the most important quality necessary for such relationships to exist.
In dealing with issues such as this Paul, as usual, thinks theologically. In other words, he starts with God. He begins this section of his letter with the statement: “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but they all come from the same Spirit. There are different ways to serve the same Lord, and we can each do different things. Yet the same God works in all of us and helps us in everything we do” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). He begins with the Trinity, and the implications are obvious. Diversity begins with the Trinity. The Spirit, the Lord (Jesus), and God the Father are different. But as they cooperate together in loving relationships, so should we. And as it is the same Spirit, the same Lord and thesame God who works in and through each of us, we have no right to separate ourselves from our spiritual brothers and sisters and deny them the benefit of whatever gifts we may be able to share in the building up of the whole community.
“Rigid and uniform structures or organisation stifle community, whereas flexible and adaptable forms of organisation promote participation, ownership, and growth”
The third passage is Ephesians 4:1-16. This passage deals with unity and growth within the body. He begins with the virtues we need to cultivate if true unity is to exist. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (v. 2). He then points to the Spirit as the one who creates this unity. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (v. 3). Then he gives the theological basis for this unity. “There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (v. 4). Here again is the Trinity – “one Spirit…one Lord…one God and Father of all”. It is within the context of the grace we have each received from this one Trinity (v. 7), and in mutual service to one another (v. 12), that we are to grow together into the maturity of Christ (v. 13).
Another passage we could mention is John 15:9-13 which compares the love of the Father for the Son, the love of the Son for us, and our love for one another.
So what we have been saying so far is that the unity the New Testament talks about is a unity that is forged out of loving relationships, and it is always the Trinity that presented as the model for these relationships. It is the desire and function of the members of the Trinity, working in and through God’s people, to produce this unity. It often seems that those religions and sects that are deficient in their teaching about the Trinity are also deficient in their teaching about relationships. (Not that we always get it right!). Charles Colson says:
We pray, sometimes unthinkingly, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” But what we’re really praying is that the community on earth called the church is to reflect the will of God as it is in heaven. That’s a pretty heavy prayer.
When the New Testament talks about unity it never talks about organisation or any specific outward structure as a means of attaining that unity. When a church gets bothered about “rules” of behaviour such as whether or not they should eat meat, or which days they should celebrate, then Paul responds by talking about relationships, focusing on their relationship to God and brotherly relationship to each other. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14 – see also Colossians 2:16-23). As Bilezikian says:
Not only common sense and the experience of the corporate world but also Scripture shows that rigid and uniform structures or organisation stifle community, whereas flexible and adaptable forms of organisation promote participation, ownership, and growth.
At Babel, in Genesis 11, we have a structural unity – a central tower, human organisation and one language – uniformity.
At Pentecost the Spirit creates relational unity:
Diversity – each hears in their own language.
The most insignificant are empowered and gifted: “even on slaves, men and women, I will pour out my Spirit…and they shall prophecy” (Acts 2:18).
It is a unity of love – they were “one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32).
The idea of structural unity crept into the church early on in its history. In the letters of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (c. 100), the preservation of unity becomes a specific task of the bishop. Here, the “council of the bishop” corresponds to the “unity of God”. The bishop is thereby in a position to preside within the church “in the place of God” and thus preserve its unity. However, this is not a New Testament understanding. There, the unity of the church is a relational unity created by the one Spirit (and with it the entire Trinity) in every person. The calls to foster unity are always directed to all members (e.g. Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; Ephesians 4:3).
“Having separated himself from God, Satan becomes the sinister perpetrator of separation”
Jesus demonstrated this principle of relational unity in his life and ministry, particularly in his encounters with the Pharisees. In the Gospels he is pictured as a lover of life, liberty and relationships. Of course, when relationships are not good, then structure is necessary to hold things together, but that is a failure. Brian Hathaway says:
What structure holds a volunteer organisation like a congregation together? Well, there are two main ways that we can structure such an organisation – by regulations or by relationships. Most groups that are highly regulated will be light on relationships, whereas those that function from a relationship basis can afford to be lighter on regulations. Where there is trust, you do not need so many rules. Where there is trust, there is greater flexibility and therefore greater ability to modify and adjust to changing conditions and situations….It permits changes and adjustments to occur more easily within the group. This is a crucial point in today’s fast moving, rapidly changing society. Many churches have set up so many rules and regulations with committees for everything, that it takes them forever to bring changes.
It is not the love of power but the power of love that is to be the cement of the Christian Church. It is a church where all are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21), “clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5) and “in humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
In the Old Testament the evil one is called “Satan”, which means “adversary”, “enemy”. In the New Testament he receives a new name, the “devil”, which come from a Greek word meaning “to throw apart.” That is what the devil does best: to separate and divide, to destroy community. Having separated himself from God, Satan becomes the sinister perpetrator of separation. He is the wolf who “attacks the flock and scatters it” (John 10:10, 12). And no doubt he knows that the weakest point in the defence system of the church against the attacks of hell is its practise of community.
New Testament images of the church
The New Testament contains a number of images of the people of God, each of which tells us some significant things about what the church is meant to be. Most of these have their origin in the Old Testament.
1. The Bride of Christ.
This metaphor speaks of his great love for the church (Mark 2:18-20; John 3:29; Romans 7:1-4; 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:22-33; Revelation 19:7; 21:2*). Sandy Harshberger catches something of the joy the Lord will feel at the “wedding of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:7) in a poem, quoted in Decisionmagazine:
She walks toward Me, dressed in white,
Her beauty a joy unto My eyes.
The love I feel within My heart
Can never be disguised.
My lovely Bride, My chosen one,
My Church, My love, My own,
I’ve waited, oh, so long it seems,
To welcome My beloved Home.
She’s coming now, her beauty shines
In radiant love for Me,
And we will be together,
Precious family, through eternity.
©1998 Sandy Harshberger; printed in Decision magazine, June 1999; published by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
*For the Old Testament backgrpound see: Isaiah 54:5-7; 62:5; Jeremiah 2:2; 3; 31:3, 32; Ezekiel 16:8-32; Hosea 2. A beautiful picture of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is given us in Genesis 24 in the person of Abraham’s servant. He is sent by Abraham to find a bride for his son. He finds her, equips and adorns her, and escorts her safely to the bridegroom.
2. Vine or Vineyard.
The emphasis here is on the need of the members to maintain a close relationship with Christ if they are to be fruitful (John 15:1-8; cf Mark 12:1-12)*.
*Psalm 80:8-19; Isaiah 5:1-7.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), the Great Shepherd (Hebrews 13:20) and the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4) who knows and watches over his sheep and gives his life for them. They know his voice and follow him (Luke 12:32; John 10:1-16; 27,28; Acts 20:28, 29; 1 Peter 5:2-4)*.
* Psalm 77:20; 80:1.
It is the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Colossians 1:13), a kingdom of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17) in which he exercises his rule in his people through the Spirit*.
*Exodus 19:6; Psalm 95:3.
4. Household or Family
This is the most pervasive metaphor for the church in the New Testament. The Fatherhood of God is constantly in view, whose children we become by faith in Jesus Christ and receiving the Spirit (Galatians 3:26; 4:6, 7). Baptism is the symbol of our adoption into the family of the triune God (Matthew 28:19). “Brother” or “brethren” (sisters included!) is the most common word for Christians in the letters of the New Testament. Jesus is our elder brother (Romans 8:29; Hebrews 2:10-18).*
*The Fatherhood of God is only dimly viewed in the Old Testament. Israel is named God’s son (Hosea 11:1) and occasionally God is likened to a Father (e.g. Psalm 68:5; 103:13).
5. Building or Temple
God’s people are a building “not built by human hands” (2 Corinthians 5:1) which God is constructing. The Old Testament temple has become the people in whom he now dwells by his Spirit, Jesus Christ being the foundation or cornerstone (1 Corinthians 3:11, 16; Ephesians 2:20-22). Individual Christians are stones built into this temple (1 Peter 2:4-8).
This is the most prominent image in Paul’s letters and the only one with no Old Testament equivalent. Christ the Head rules and nourishes the Body, its only head, and the Holy Spirit is the breath to animate it. There is a strong emphasis on the relationship of all the members of the body, diversity and equality within unity, as we have seen above. Every member is to be a functioning member (e.g. Ephesians 2:22, 23; 4:4, 15, 16).
If there is anything common to these images of the church it is relationships. In each image the stress is either on God’s gracious initiative as Husband, King, Father, Builder, etc., or on his people as a community, both in relation to him as his bride, flock, family, body, etc., and in relation to each other as branches in the same vine, sheep in the same flock, children in the same family, members of the same body. In every instance there is only one church. From God’s perspective, all who have received the Spirit are members of it, whether they acknowledge it or not. It is “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23).
What about denominations
Speaking at the Open Doors USA headquarters in Santa Ana, California, the Dutch-born veteran missionary, Brother Andrew, said:
There is only one message I would have for American Christians: let them acknowledge that there is only one Body of Christ. It would solve 90 percent of the problems of the poor and suffering. It would make the whole world so much better if you don’t see things in terms of denominations and nationalism and if you could literally do what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12, “Taking the same care of one another”.
“Only congregations oriented to mission and not to membership and institutional success will pay the price of co-operation”
In New Testament days, denominations did not exist. Paul could write to the Christians in Corinth or the Christians in Philippi or the Christians in Ephesus. Now he would have to write to the Methodists, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Brethren, Salvation Army, Elim, Apostolic, New Life – and all the others – in any given place. Denominations have sprouted over the history of the church for a number of reasons. Some have formed over differences in doctrine, some over differences of structure or practice. However it has happened, our situation today seems very far removed from the kind of unity that the New Testament talks about and which God so much desires. Most denominations have little to do with each other. Artificial barriers, caused by denominationalism, abound in every local community.
Lesslie Newbigin, in his influential book Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, has a significant passage about denominations which is worth quoting at some length:
It is the common observation of sociologists of religion that denominationalism is the religious aspect of secularization. It is the form that religion takes in a culture controlled by the ideology of the Enlightenment. It is the social form in which the privatisation of religion is expressed. As Thomas Luckman says, “Once religion is defined as a private affair the individual may choose from the assortment of ultimate meanings as he sees fit.” …It follows that neither a denomination separately nor all the denominations linked together in some kind of federal unity or “reconciled diversity” can be the agents of a missionary confrontation with our culture, for the simple reason that they are themselves the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual surrender to the ideology of our culture…One of the encouraging features of church life in England today is the growing number of “local ecumenical projects that bring together the denominationally separated churches in one place in order to create a more coherent and credible Christian witness to the whole human community in that place. These are scattered, fragile, and vulnerable enterprises, but they indicate the direction in which the church must go.
Obviously, God loves diversity, and diversity should be no problem in the church. But denominations tie diversity to disunity, whereas the new Testament links diversity with unity. When the things that make us different are seen to be more important than the things that hold us together, then we are in serious trouble. We are totally missing the vision of the New Testament. Four decades ago, Karl Barth wrote:
If a man can acquiesce in divisions, if he can even take pleasure in them, if he can be complacent in relation to the obvious faults and errors of others and therefore his own responsibility for them then that man may be a good and loyal confessor in the sense of his own particular denomination, he may be a good Roman Catholic or Reformed or Orthodox or Baptist, but he must not imagine that he is a good Christian.
An Irishman was asked by an American tourist, “How do I get to Cork?” After pondering for a minute or two, the Irishman said, “Well, if I were going to Cork I wouldn’t start from here.” It would be great if we could start from scratch again, though with humans being what we are, even though we may have found a relationship with God, we would probably still make a mess of it. We have got to start from where we are and it is likely that we shall be stuck with denominations for a very long time, unless there is such violent persecution of Christians that we are forced to get together! But I believe we must learn to think biblically, rather than thinking denominationally. We are so accustomed tothinking denominationally that taking such a step will require a major adjustment. For a start, we must begin to view allthe Christians in our local community as a necessary part of the Body of Christ, rather than focusing on our own little group. Unless we can come together, and pray, plan and work together in our local areas, we are not going to make a significant impact on our communities. George Webber, in The Congregation in Mission, gives a challenge we must face:
Only congregations oriented to mission and not to membership and institutional success will pay the price of co-operation that does not necessarily build up the numbers of the local church, but does witness in a community to the gospel. Churches, more rigorously than individuals, hate to give up their own life for the sake of the world.
Recently Challenge Weekly reported an account of how five churches in Taupo had joined together for a weekly combined Service. The pastors of the five churches met on a weekly basis to pray and plan together. Since taking this step, several hundred people had become Christians in the community. In Invercargill, twenty to thirty church leaders have met to pray and plan together for the last seven years. Brian Hathaway, who travels widely in the country as Principal of the New Zealand Bible College, says:
From Invercargill in the South to Kaitaia in the North pastors and ministers are seeking new ways to work together. This is a far more significant thing than the Toronto blessing or a lot of other things that we or the media get excited about.
However, we have a long, long way to go. Hathaway gives three good reasons for Christians to work together. Firstly, the Trinity longs to see it. Secondly, the world needs to see it. Thirdly, the enemy hates to see it. Disunity grieves the Trinity, confuses the world and gladdens the enemy.
I love a passage by Dr A. W. Tozer in which he expressed the spiritual maturity of those who grow in grace as they grow old with God:
There is a glorious catholicity of the saints, a mystic brotherhood of the farsighted, who have long been straining their eyes to catch a glimpse of the King in His beauty in the land that is very far off. With great joy and deep humility I claim membership in that brotherhood. This is the oldest and largest church in the world; it is the church of the Cross-smitten, of the God-enamoured.
So as the years go on, I am coming to care less and less about any man’s denominational ties. Let a man have a faraway look in his eyes, let him bow his head and whisper the ever-blessed name of Jesus, and he is my brother, whatever his name may be. And whether he will admit it or not. If by some bit of unfortunate education he may believe his church to be the only one, and consign me to perdition because I am not in it, I will still own him a member of the family of God if I find in his life the marks of the Cross and in his eyes the long look that reveals the man of faith.
Stewart Henderson has written a poem he entitled Certain Resolutions:
Nation will bomb nation
The sun will kiss and yell
Whilst trying to feed the world this year
We’ll contract AIDS as well
Wogan will be Wogan
Lebanon will scream
Liverpool will win the League
if not, some other team
People will spend holidays
in irksome traffic jams
Daffodils will leap with Spring
alongside new born lambs
Pop songs will be written
but sheep won’t safely graze
They’re earmarked for experiments
involving micro waves
The Church will stand divided
as if in some deep trance
But, Christ still shines in glory
and gives us one more chance.
The Mission of the church
The witness of a united church
The New Testament has a lot more to say about the kind of community the church ought to bebefore the world than it has to say about its mission to the world. However, Jesus made it abundantly plain that the reason he wanted his people to develop true community was “so that the world may believe” (John 17:21). This is his ultimate goal. There is no doubt that it is when the church most clearly lives out the gospel in the relationship of its members, it becomes the most powerful force for attracting non-members. It was so in the early church in Jerusalem. Take, for example, the following passages in Acts:
” They all joined together constantly in prayer…” (1:14).
” …they were all together in one place” (2:1).
” Every day they continued to meet together…They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people” (2:46, 47).
” …they raised their voices together in prayer to God” (4:24).
“All the believers were one in heart and mind” (4:32).
” And all the believers used to meet together…” (5:12).
It is no wonder that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
Dr. Kyung Chik Han, a South Korean Pastor, speaking at the Asia-South Pacific Congress on Evangelism in 1968, said of this early church:
Their hearts were filled with joy, for they were at peace with God and men. They were happy, for they loved God and one another. Such a joyful community attracts people, just as a beautiful flower garden attracts butterflies and bees. Such a church grows daily, naturally and without much conscious effort.
Jesus, the model for ministry
Jesus’ purpose for his followers was that they should be “salt for everyone on earth” and “light for the whole world“(Matthew 5:13, 14 – italics mine). His final message to his church was that they were to take the gospel to the ends of the earth and he promised them the resources to do it (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 24:45-49; Acts 1:8). It seems apparent from these passages that he must have repeated this challenge to his followers many times over the forty days of his resurrection appearances, although in different words and with different emphases. As S. D. Gordon wrote:
There’s a great passion burning in the heart of God. It is tenderly warm and tenaciously strong. Its fires never burn low, nor lose their fine glow. That passion is to win people back home again. The entire world of [humankind] is included in its warm, eager reach.
Jesus also gave his disciples some indication of how they were to go about it. On the night of his arrest he prayed to his Father: “As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Three days later, on the evening of his resurrection from the dead, he said to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). These words from John’s Gospel represent the simplest form of the Great Commission, yet they are the most profound and most challenging. That is probably why they are the most neglected. The Church’s ministry to the world is to be similar to his. As he had been sent, so he sends his disciples.
In considering how Jesus had been sent by his Father I see three important aspects:
1. Jesus’ identity with humanity
First, he had been sent to indentify with us. He identified with us in our human nature by his conception and birth of a human mother. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity …He had to be made like his brothers in every way” (Hebrews 2:14-17). He knew hunger, thirst, tiredness and the whole gamut of human emotions. He identified with us in our suffering. He exposed himself to temptation, sorrow, loneliness, opposition and scorn. “In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God…should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.” “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:10, 18). He identified with us in our sins. Though without sins to repent of himself, he submitted himself to John’s baptism. In his ministry he mixed freely with the dregs and outcasts of society and on the cross to took the full consequences of “the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
“It is not a matter of Commission or Compassion, but a Commission of Compassion”
So Jesus calls us to identify with those whom we are called to serve. We are called to identify with people in their hopes and fears, and when called to do so, to share their physical conditions. Paul had learned something of this secret. He said: “I am not anyone’s slave. But I have become a slave to everyone, so that I can win as many people as possible. When I am with the Jews, I live like a Jew to win Jews…When I am with people who are not ruled by the Law [of Moses], I forget about the Law to win them…When I am with people whose faith is weak, I live as they do to win them. I do everything I can to win everyone I possibly can. I do all this for the good news, because I want to share its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). At the World Congress on Evangelism in Berlin in 1966, John Stott stated, in a Bible Study on John’s version of the Great Commission:
By his birth, by his life and his death, God’s Son identified himself with us. He did not stay apart from us or aloof from us. He made himself one with us…Now he says to us “As the Father sent me into the world, so send I you.” I personally believe that our failure to obey the implications of this command is the greatest weakness of evangelical Christians in the field of evangelism today.
2.Jesus came at personal cost
Jesus’ coming involved a cost. Part of the cost was in leaving the comfort and joys of heaven for the harsh realities of life on earth. However, the greatest cost was in that “he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8). He was willing to die for our salvation. Now his challenge to us is: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). In those days someone took up a cross for only one purpose – to die on it. Not many of us are called to give our physical lives for the sake of the gospel, though there have been more martyrs for Christ in this century than in all previous centuries combined. But we are all called to surrender our lives unreservedly to him as Lord, or, as Paul puts it, “to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). No doubt the greatest cost for many of us is the willingness to let go of our own petty plans, and allow him reveal how we can best serve him and humanity in this short life he has given us.
3. Jesus deals with us as whole people
Christ was sent by the Father to minister to both our physical and spiritual needs. I can never get enthused about arguments as to which should have priority, evangelism or ministering to people’s physical and emotional needs. Jesus did both. He healed the sick, the disabled and the demon possessed, as well as preaching about the kingdom of God whenever provided with the opportunity. He “went around teaching from village to village” (Mark 6:6) and he “went around doing good and healing” (Acts 10:38). He sent out his disciples to do the same (Matthew 10:7, 8). Even in the midst of incredible suffering on the cross he forgave a thief his sins and showed practical care for his mother. Not only in his actions, but in his teaching he gave this double emphasis. His two most loved parables are The Prodigal Son (which highlights conversion) and The Good Samaritan (which highlights social action). John Stott, in The Contemporary Christian, points out some remarkable similarities between these two parables.
God gives his people differing gifts, and none of us can do everything, but in some way all Christians are called to be witnesses (Matthew 10:32), and all are called to love their neighbours in practical ways. Jesus declared that it would be the fact that we had fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and visited the prisoner, that would prove our identity as true believers on Judgement Day (Matthew 25:31-46). It is not a matter of Commission or Compassion, but a Commission of Compassion.
Love focuses outwards
“The reason the early church grew so fast in the first three centuries is that they out-thought, out-loved and out-served their contemporaries”
Human beings were created to love as do the members of the Trinity. The love that exists between members of the Trinity spills outwards. As Archbishop William Temple pointed out, all the activity of the Trinity in the New Testament is for our benefit. With our rebellion against God our love has become inverted, centred on ourselves. One of the expressions of this today is the excessive preoccupation with such things as my rights, my life, my liberty, my pursuit of happiness. Religion becomes a means toward self-realisation with the interest being on self-esteem, self-fulfillment, self-identity, the human potential movement and possibility thinking, leading to either the nihilism of post-modernism or the neo-gnosticism of the New Age Movement which identifies the self with God. E. Stanley Jones, in The Unshakeable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person, gets to the heart of the problem:
The most miserable people in the world are the people who are self-centred, who don’t do anything for anybody except themselves. They are centres of misery with no exceptions. On the contrary, the happiest people are the people who deliberately take on themselves the sorrows and troubles of others. Their hearts sing with a strange wild joy, automatically and with no exceptions. We are structured for the outgoingness of the love of the Kingdom. It is our native land.
Part of God’s purpose for our lives is to turn this around so our love is focused outward. “Christ’s love compels us…he died…that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again”(2 Corinthians 5:14, 15). And what he wants to do for us individually, he wants to do for his church. When we first join a church, often it is because we are looking for something for ourselves. We have taken a step further when our motivation for being involved is that we want to develop a true community that is pleasing to God, using our gifts to serve others. The church has taken a further step towards maturity when its members can plan and pray together to support one another in ministries to those who are not its members. Paul writes to the Thessalonians: “May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else…” (1 Thessalonians 3:12). It has been said that the reason the early church grew so fast in the first three centuries is that they out-thought, out-loved and out-served their contemporaries. I like the mission statement of one church, which is:
to be a loving fellowship of committed believers worshipping together, seeking to reconcile persons to Christ, mature them in him, and involve them in ministry to one another and the world*.
*First Church of God, Toledo, Ohio
“If we have experienced the blessings of the gospel and don’t pass it on, then we are denying them that which is rightly theirs”
The church whose priority is focused on its own existence and rituals is still in its infancy, or to quote Bonhoeffer, “an authentic church is one that lives for others.” Harry Boer wrote, in Pentecost and Missions:
When the church tries to bottle up the Spirit within herself, she acts contrary both to her own and to his nature. For it is the nature of the church ever to be enlarging her borders, and it is the nature of the Spirit to transmit his life to ever-widening circles. When the church does not recognise this law of her being and of the being of the Spirit, the Spirit is quenched and he withdraws himself, and the deposit of religiosity that is left becomes a putrefaction in the lives of those who have grieved him.
Or to put it a little more succinctly, evangelist Luis Palau has compared Christians to manure. Where they “pile up” in one place they begin to stink, but when they are spread out, they fertilize the land! In Emil Brunner’s often quoted phrase: “The Church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.”
In Romans 1:14 Paul says, “I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel…”. The Greek word “obligated” is literally “a debtor”. There are two ways you can be in debt to someone. They can give you something which you then owe them, or someone can entrust you with something to pass on to the person to whom it really belongs. It is in this latter sense that Paul considers himself a debtor to others. He had been entrusted with the gospel to pass on to others. If we have experienced the blessings of the gospel and don’t pass it on, then we are denying them that which is rightly theirs. Paul also talks about sharing our faith as a necessary step in our growth in spiritual understanding. Writing to his friend Philemon, he said, “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ”(Philemon 1:6).
One of our motivations for seeing men and women, boys and girls coming to trust in Jesus is that they should share in the blessings of this great family. “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). However, our greatest motivation should be our desire for the glory of God. In 2 Corinthians, chapter 4, Paul speaks of both his faithfulness to the truth of the gospel and his sufferings in the work of sharing it with others. He then declares: “All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (v. 15).
Gilbert Bilezikian, in Community 101, tells a story that is worth repeating. It happened in the Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. This is a church where ministry is recognised not as the privilege of the few, but as the divine call for all to invest themselves fully and joyfully in the work of the kingdom. Under the broad ministry umbrella of the church, more than a hundred subministries are in place, functioning around the clock or ready to respond to emergencies at a moment’s notice. Most of those ministries were started because someone in the congregation saw a need, gathered a team of believers with similar gifting and passion around herself or himself, and, under staff coordination, launched a new dimension of outreach or community care sustained by volunteer lay workers.
One Sunday, as Bilezikian was standing at the back of the auditorium watching worshippers making their way out of the building, someone tapped him on the shoulder. Turning, he saw a shy, plain-looking woman with two small children standing quietly beside her. She said, “Dr. B, I want to thank the people of this church. It saved our lives.” Intrigued by her statement, he asked her what she meant. In a flat monotone voice, without show of emotion, she told her story.
She had attended the church with her children and they had loved it. As a result she had received Jesus as her Saviour. Then, eighteen months previously, her husband had left her for another woman. He took the car and they had two months rent due on her apartment. There was no money and almost no food. She didn’t know who to go to for help and all her neighbours went to work every day. She sat alone in the empty building crying all the time. She became sad and could do nothing. All that came in the mail was bills and letters from lawyers asking for money. She thought they might die and hoped that all three would die at the same time. Eventually she had the idea of going out in the middle of the night and searching her neighbours’ garbage bins for food. Then, she said, a miracle happened:
One evening, the buzzer rang. When I opened the door, an angel of the Lord was standing there. She came in, saw my predicament, and left. That same evening, some people came in and brought a beautiful hot meal. A man and his son brought bags of groceries and children’s clothes. They said it was all from the church’s food pantry. Two people came with a little stack of twenty dollar bills and said the money was ours. I couldn’t believe my eyes, for they were complete strangers to me.
The next day, the rent was paid and the phone reconnected. Two ladies came in, put a set of keys on the table, and said there was a car parked outside that was provided by the car ministry of the church and that it was mine. In the following days, they arranged for child care and gave me leads so I could look for a job. I did find a job and now we’re standing on our own feet. I know we’re going to make it. You see, Dr. B, this church saved our lives.
Bilezikian made a discreet inquiry and found out that the “angel” in the story was none other than the Sunday School teacher of one of the children. She had noticed the child’s absence and had tried to reach the family on the phone. Upon learning that the phone had been disconnected, she assumed that they had moved away and removed the card from the file. But it was her habit to pray through the roster of children periodically. Each time she came to the name of this child she felt a strange unrest. Finally, she got up one morning, pulled out the family’s address, located it on the map, and in the evening, after work, drove over – just in case.
Here we get a glimpse of a church, in a memorable phrase of Miroslav Volf’s, “created out of a ‘rib’ of the triune God and the ‘wounded side’ of the Crucified.”
This story is taken from Community 101 by Gilbert Bilezikian. Copyright ©1997 by Gilbert Bilezikian. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.
The church and creation
We share God’s creativity
Richard Kew, Director of Anglican Forum for the Future, says:
We in the church have abandoned creativity and imagination to the Disney organisation. Most great imaginative ideas come out of entertainment. We rarely see them in the life of the church.
“In the body of the risen Christ, the Creator and his Creation are linked, never to be separate in all eternity”
However, if God is such a creative God as this vast and varied universe so eloquently declares, then his people should be the most creative people on earth. We only have to look at the variety of living forms to see something of the amazing creativity of God. We are told that approximately 1,750,000 species of life have been formally described since 1753 and 1758, the starting years for plant and animal names respectively. That is when the Swedish naturalist Carl von Linne published seminal works listing biological names. Currently, some 13,000 new species are formally described each year. At this rate it will take the next millennium to complete the task of recording the estimated 13 million yet to be listed. God’s delight in his creation, which the psalmist obviously shares, is beautifully spelt out in Psalm 104. The death of the sparrow is meaningful to him (Matthew 10:29).
Surely, being created “in the image of God” means that we share his creative desire. We are, as J R R Tolkien said, “sub-creators”. We cannot start from nothing as God did, but he has given us plenty of raw material to work with. Whether it be in dance, song, music, poetry, art, decoration, writing, storytelling, drama, craft, imaginative worship, education, philosophy, science or whatever, the church should be at the forefront of creativity. And this should apply to our work and ministry in the secular world, much as in church-centred activities. James Torrance, in Community & the Triune Grace of God says:
Our chief end is to glorify God, and creation realises its own creaturely glory in glorifying God through human lips.
Surely, also, God’s creation may glorify him through the creative work of human minds and human hands where that is our intention.
God’s attitude to his material creation
This brings us to the question of what our attitude should be towards the material creation itself. It is significant that seven times in Genesis 1 God declares that what he had created was “good”. The final statement is: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). This is in sharp contrast to the view of some religions that this material world is not good and is something we have to try to escape from. However, there are two other great events recorded in Scripture, one in the past, the other yet in the future, that particularly underline the goodness of creation.
First, God himself has chosen to become personally involved in his creation in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary, in some way we can barely imagine, far less understand, Mary’s material DNA became joined with the divine. As someone has put it, though Jesus was still as much God as if he had never become man, he became as much man as if he had never been God. He fully shared our human nature. For thirty years he lived as the God-Man. He died a human death. And then, after something like 36 hours a further miracle happened. His human body was raised to life. This is one of the reasons that the story of the empty tomb is so important. At his ascension to heaven from the Mount of Olives he took back into heaven part of his creation. In the body of the risen Christ, the Creator and his Creation are linked, never to be separated in all eternity. In this sense Jesus is now different to what he was before his coming. Humanity has been added to the Godhead.
It is true that Jesus’ risen body was in some sense different from what it was before his resurrection. He could appear to his disciples behind locked doors. But, though transformed, his body was real. He could say to his frightened disciples: “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Luke 24:38, 39).
“We have limited the power of God in spiritualising the Biblical view of heaven too much”
The other relevant event, that the whole Bible looks foreward to, is the final redemption of this material creation. Paul refers to this significant event in Romans 8:18-27. He speaks of the present creation as“groaning in pain, like a woman about to give birth” (v. 21, 22). You will notice in this passage that not only the creation groans, but also we groan (v. 23) and the Spirit groans (v. 26). Not only humans, but somehow the whole of creation was affected by the intervention of the Evil One and the rebellion of men and women against God. However, Satan does not have the last word. Somehow, what Christ achieved for us by his death and resurrection has its effect on the whole of creation. “The creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (v. 21). No doubt it is partly this transformation of God’s created universe that Paul had in mind when he declared that “God will bring all things in heaven and earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10) and that he has reconciled to himself all things “whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross”(Colossians 1:20).
We have a beautiful picture of this in the fifth chapter of Revelation. In the centre of the picture, on the throne, is God, together with Jesus, the “Lamb, looking as if he had been slain.” Immediately around the throne are the four living creatures, perhaps angelic beings who are guardians of the throne. In the next circle are the twenty-four elders, representing the church of the Old Testament (the 12 tribes of Israel) and the church of the New (the 12 apostles). They bow down in worship. In the next circle are angels, “numbering thousands upon thousands” who sing: “Worthy is the Lamb…” Finally, in the outer circle, John, in his vision, sees “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them” singing praises to God. All creation will join in praise to God in that day.
I believe we have limited the power of God in spiritualising the Biblical view of heaven too much. After all, three time the Bible tells us that God will create a new heaven and a new earth (Isaiah 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1). I often wonder if Isaiah’s vision of the wolf living with the lamb, the leopard with the goat, the calf with the lion, the cow with the bear, and all being led by a little child (Isaiah 11:6-9; 65:25), is only to be taken as a symbol of the peace that will exist among humans. It is the earth that will be “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). How much of the sea is covered by water?! Maybe this is one area where the Jehovah’s Witnesses have got a little nearer the truth than we have! Christopher Sugden, in Radical Discipleship, says of the Kingdom of God:
The Kingdom is God’s programme of total redemption for every aspect of creation.
This is one of the reasons that our own bodily resurrection is so important in the New Testament. Maybe our soul and spirit will be separated from our decaying earthly body. The Bible speaks of “the spirits of those good people who have been made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). But this is only a temporary arrangement. Paul calls it being “unclothed”, with a view to being “clothed with our heavenly dwelling” (2 Corinthians 5:2-4). As 1 Corinthians 15 so clearly spells out, at the return of Jesus, we will get our new bodies. “These bodies will die, but the bodies that are raised will live forever. These ugly and weak bodies will become beautiful and strong…And our physical bodies will be changed into spiritual bodies” (v. 42-44). Though spiritual bodies, they are nevertheless bodies. “We are citizens of heaven and are eagerly waiting for our Saviour to come from there. Our Lord Jesus Christ has power over everything, and he will make these poor bodies of ours like his own glorious body” (Philippians 3:20, 21). It is his giving of the Spirit to us that guarantees this transformation (2 Corinthians 5:5). Through Jesus’ becoming human and through his resurrection, the Creation was forever joined to the Creator. In giving us his Spirit the Creator is forever joined to his Creation. We“participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
I sometimes think that people have an idea of heaven similar to the view expressed of the afterlife of the ancient Sumerians by archeologist Kramer. In his book The Sumerians he sums it up as “but a dismal, wretched reflection of life on earth.” The Saviour who created us out of love, and died for our eternal salvation, has something better than that to offer. Moltmann, in The Trinity and The Kingdom, sums up the biblical view well:
The unity of the Trinity is constituted by the Father, concentrated round the Son, and illuminated through the Holy Spirit…To throw open the circulatory movement of the divine light and the divine relationships, and to take men and women, with the whole of creation, into the life-stream of the triune God: that is the meaning of creation, reconciliation and glorification.
Our responsibility to creation
“It is surely the church’s first responsibility to demonstrate something of this peace to the world”
If God values his creation as much as we have been describing, then surely we ought to as well. In the Genesis 1 account of creation, men and women are told to “fill the earth and subdue it” (v. 28). The Hebrew word for “subdue” means literally what it says, and to use force if necessary. It implies that creation will not do our bidding gladly or easily. Because of the twistedness in humanity, too often we do it destructively rather than creatively. We need God to “subdue our iniquities” (Micah 7:19 – where the same word is used). The positive aspect of our attitude to creation comes out more clearly in the alternative account of the creation of humans in Genesis 2. Here the picture is symbolic rather than chronological – to illustrate the purpose of creation rather than the order of events. The creation of man comes first as the rest of creation is primarily for the benefit of humans. Then the creation of the garden is described in which man is put “to work it and take care of it” (v. 15).
The Bible is clear that this world belongs to God. “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it” (Deuteronomy 10:14). “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). That being the case, then he is the landlord and we the tenants*, responsible for caring for it for him. A relevant passage is Luke 16:10-12 where Jesus indicates that our handling of material possessions is a test of our faithfulness to him.
*See the parables of the Unfaithful Tenants in Matthew 21:33-41 and of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-28.
I find helpful a model suggested by Brian Hathaway.
In this diagram God is a personal God, distinct from both his material creation and his people. Some religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and New Age, blur this distinction. They tend to bring God down to the bottom line. We ourselves and the rest of creation share in this divinity*. However, as we have seen, the Christian view of God is very different. Jesus did indeed come down to the bottom line, but without losing his distinction as the Creator-God. God relates to us on a person to person level and longs to enjoy fellowship with us. Through Jesus we can enjoy that relationship both now and in his future eternal kingdom.
*I have spelt out some of these differences further in the booklet What Is Truth and Does It Matter?.
God’s relationship with his material creation is that of ownership. The land and its resources belong to him. Our relationship to that creation is that of stewardship. We are responsible to the Owner for what we do with it. If this model is the true one, and it is the one given to us in the Bible, then it has implications for all sorts of issues we are facing in today’s modern world. May I suggest just a few:
How we treat the environment.
How we use and share the earth’s resources – issues such as poverty, justice, the use of our personal possessions and money.
Our profession or work.
Respect for life – abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia.
No doubt we could add significantly to the list.
Maybe it would be appropriate to sum up all we have been saying by referring to the biblical concept of “peace”. The Hebrew word shalom in the Old Testament, and the Greek eirene in the New, mean a lot more that the mere absence of anxiety or of war. The primary and basic idea of the biblical word is completeness, soundness, wholeness. It is a favourite biblical greeting and is found at the beginning or end of all the New Testament letters except James and I John. Friendship between companions is expressed by it (Genesis 26:29; Psalm 28:3), as well as friendship with God through a covenant (Numbers 25:12; Isaiah 54:10). Contentment, or anything working toward safety, welfare, and happiness, is included in the concept (Isaiah 32:17, 18). Peace has reference to health, prosperity, well-being and security from outward enemies (Isaiah 26:12), as well as calm of heart for those trusting God (Job 22:21; Isaiah 26:3)*.
*Summerised from Bakers Dictionary of Theology ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley.
Jesus’ first spoken word to his gathered disciples after his death and resurrection was: “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). Though we will never experience the full outworkings of this peace, that Jesus purchased for us at such tremendous cost, until we gather in “a new heavens and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1), it is surely the church’s first responsibility to demonstrate something of this peace to the world, in our relationship with the triune God, our commitment to and care for one another, and in our relationship to the created universe. Our second responsibility is to share this peace with a lost and confused world, whatever this may involve, “so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:15).
If you have read through this booklet thus far and still have doubts about whether you have received the Holy Spirit and have indeed become a member of “God’s forever family”, then I would like to make some suggestions. Read through one of the gospels, perhaps John, in a good modern translation and ask yourself questions such as: “Who is Jesus? What is he offering me? What does he require of me? There are other booklets in this series you may find helpful.
If you have come to the point where you want to make a real commitment, then make a clean breast of your sins to him. Thank him for dying for those sins on the cross. Invite him to come into your life and make you one of his own. Ask him to guide you to a branch of his family where you can grow and make a useful contribution. Tell him you want to be a part of his plan for bringing life to the world. Then get into your New Testament to find out more about the great things he has in store.
And may peace be with you.