CHURCH: Window Love

Baptism enrolls us in the school of Christ and introduces us to the fellowship of the church, the community that mediates his sacrifice to the world. We are called to this community, not for special privileges, but to be a priestly people that mediates between God and the nations. The church is a bridge over which the blessings of God flow to all the families of earth. [David Watson, I Believe in the Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1978), and Eric G. Jay, The Church: Its Changing Image Through Twenty Centuries (London, SPCK, 1978).]

Reconciled to God and adopted into his family, we are part of a loving fellowship. Not only do we enjoy a new status before God as individuals, but we are also incorporated into the body of Christ and made part of God's ongoing mission of reconciliation.

An Apostolic Church

Community is important to us, because we are social creatures made to reflect the relational being of the triune God. Ours is not a religion of the book so much as a life of faith and love lived in the community of the Lord, whose Word is heard in the Scriptures and whose calling is to be an instrument of God's Word in the world. The church is an institution, a visible organization with activities that nourish the community and confront people with Christ. But as the same time it is a living organism filled with the Spirit.

This fellowship is an anticipation of the future, the firstfruits of a new humanity. As such the church does not exist for itself but for the world. Our task is to get the story right and to get it out. The church is not a fortress for keeping us safe but a consecrated people spread throughout the world to scatter the word of the gospel.

Beyond both institution and community, the church is a bridge to the world. It exists for nonmembers and, by reflecting God's love and participating in his mission, seeks to extend healing and the hope to the world. [Two impressive books on the church are Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Contribution to Messianic Ecclesiology (London: SCM Press, 1977), and Hans Küng, The Church (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1967).]

The apostles were missionaries. When we say the church is apostolic, we mean both that it is founded upon the apostles' teachings and that it is commissioned to evangelize the world. The apostles had a unique witness. Theirs was the original testimony of Jesus, valid for all time and deposited in the New Testament. But the apostles were also sent forth into the world. To be apostolic also means having a commission to serve the kingdom of God among all nations. It means being sent forth as the apostles were, to be Christ's ambassadors with good news for all creatures.

Destined for communion in the fellowship of the triune God, we are also united on earth in a community designed to reflect God, whose triune nature underlines the centrality of the church. In the church we begin to experience God's communal life with brothers and sisters. Called into Christ's body, we celebrate his love and share in his meal together.

God is calling a new community to be the foretaste of a new humanity. Transformed by the sacrifice of Christ, we too give our lives up for others. Called to reflect the Trinity, we live and minister in the mutuality of love that exists everlastingly in God. We image God himself as we place ourselves at the service of one another. And as a community we embody the self-giving love that is at the heart of the trinitarian mystery itself (Philippians 2:5-11)

Jesus and the Church

Jesus did not say much about the church in his lifetime, but he anticipated the church in his circle of disciples, a community in the service of the reign of God. Jesus spent his time proclaiming the kingdom, not thinking about the church. He began by preaching to Israel, hoping that the Jews might repent and return to their calling. Yet he did speak once about building a church (Matthew 16:18). It would be part of a long-term plan after his death and resurrection, when his followers would gather to remember him and preach the kingdom in his name. From his disciples a new community was born at Pentecost and began to live in anticipation of the kingdom. [Howard A. Snyder, The Community of the King (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1977).]

Jesus would not have wanted his church to point to itself, because in itself the church is weak and fallible. Rather, he would want us to look to God's kingdom, which stands forever. The church's task would not be to control history but to serve the needy in his name. His followers would be serving God whenever they served men and women as Christ had served them. This church would be without protection of dignity and rank, and would welcome sinners just as he did.

Not a staid organization, the church is to be a dynamic organism embodying God's love and hastening toward the kingdom. The church is a pilgrim people being led by God's Spirit into the future. Although operating under certain forms of social existence, it must remain flexible in the freedom of the Spirit to be able to adapt to changing circumstances. Its mission and effectiveness are not due to its frail human resources. Paul says that not many wise and rich have been called (1 Corinthians 1:26). Success will be a matter of God's strength being made perfect in weakness. As the prophet said, it is not by might nor by power but by God's Spirit (Zechariah 4:6).

The church participates in a movement of peoplehood that began with the call of Israel, had its breakthrough with Jesus Christ and now is to be God's touch to the whole world. Church life and mission are meant to be "a demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (1 Corinthians 2:4).

[On church, mission and Pentecost, see Harry Boer, Pentecost and Mission (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1061).]

Israel and the Church

After the incident of the golden calf in the wilderness, God questioned whether he would be able to accompany the Hebrew people any longer. He suggested that it might be better if an angel went with them and he stayed at a distance. If he got too close his anger might be kindled against them. But Moses protested this idea on the grounds that the original vision had been for Israel to be a priestly people whose distinctiveness would be God's presence with them (Exodus 33:16). Moses would settle for nothing less, and he prevailed with God. Only a church with the presence and power of God can fulfill the mission God has given.

Basic to Israel's identity was its call to be the people of God. God pledges again and again: "I will be your God and you will be my people" (as in Leviticus 26:12). Even when Israel is unfaithful, God remains faithful (Romans 3:4).

Christians do not carry Israel's name. Israel is and will remain a special people, even after the resurrection, even in unbelief, because the gifts and calling of God are not canceled (Romans 11:29). The church was made necessary by the sin and backsliding of Israel. The church, however, is an extension of the principle of peoplehood embodied in Israel. We have been grafted to the vine and become a new expression of it (Romans 11:17). Our history is traced back to the beginning of time (Hebrews 11) As those who put their faith in him, we have inherited God's promise of a new covenant. As Gentiles, we are free of Jewish rules and ceremonies and we anticipate the ingathering of the world's people.

In relation to Jewish people today, we share Paul's sorrow about them (Romans 9:1-5; 10:1). We know that God wants them to receive Jesus as their Messiah so that he can have mercy on all (Romans 11:32). Our relationship with the Jews of today is one of friendly competition. The Jews ask for evidence that the Messiah has come into the world, which appears to them unchanged. We must try to give such evidence to them. They admit that through us their Old Testament Scriptures are now read among all nations. Paul speaks of making Israel jealous of what we have received from God in the wake of their rejection of Jesus (Romans 11:11), 14).

The Concept of Church

Like any other biblical teachings, church is a rich concept. Scripture uses dozens of images to describe it: temple, people, fellowship, priesthood, flock, army, school, hospital and more. [Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church In the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), and Avery Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 1974).]

The word church is a translation of the Greek term ekklsia and has an originally secular meaning. It could refer to an assembly of citizens that came together as they did in Ephesus (Acts 19:32). It could refer to a town meeting gathered to carry out community business. A feature of Hellenistic civilization was their government in each city by such public assemblies of citizens. Our term church retains something of this idea of a gathering to conduct God's business. More important is the fact that the word was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for the Hebrew word congregation, referring to Israel.

One metaphor for church is God's temple. The Spirit of the last days was poured out on the community, forming it into a shrine or earthly residence of the risen Lord. As we are filled and gifted by the Spirit, Peter encourages us:

Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ....You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:5,9).

The apostle is thinking of the congregation of Israel that came out of Egypt at the exodus and were told that they were "a priestly kingdom and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6). The whole people were to be priests. It was only later that the tribe of Levi were appointed to serve the tabernacle and temple (Numbers 3:5-12).

The epistle to the Hebrews explains that Jesus Christ has become the high priest of the new covenant, and all his people share the priestly office with him. There is not to be a distinct priestly class in the church, since all God's people are priests. For this reason the term was not used for any church office in New Testament times. Jesus performed the priestly function and calls us all to share in his priesthood. Priesthood includes having access to God in prayer and offering up sacrifices of praise. As priests we preach the Word and point one another to the One who has indeed called us out of darkness into light. Clergy are not the only priests. Rather the ministry of the whole people of God is priestly.

All the faithful belong to the people of God, and we should not drive wedges between them. There is a basic equality among believers, so that no special class or clergy ought to be exalted over ordinary members of the church. That does not deny the need for differentiations of role or function. That would be too radical an inference. All Christians should testify, for example, but not all of them minister the Word. All sing hymns, but not all are trained to sing solo parts. In any congregation some are able to do more than others in certain areas and may be set aside to perform these functions. This contributes to good order.

Should churches wish to ordain priests, however, it should be understood that all share in priestly functions with them. This is what we call the Priesthood of all believers. We are all to carry out the tasks of priests on behalf of the world.

As priests, we should be human and accessible rather than remote. It should be easy for ordinary people to talk to us and admit their sins, failures and frustrations. Priests should not be easily shocked, and they should be able to give absolution. What is told in confidence must be kept secret. Having heard the person's story, the priest should express the needs that have been mentioned in prayer to God. Teaching of the Word is also required, and a priest should be able to do that. There are also ceremonial functions, and on some occasions the priest's most important role may be simply to be present. God's priest should be present like salt and leaven at every occasion and in every place to celebrate or mourn, to comfort or rebuke. Priestly functions can be performed by ordinary Christians, and they should be encouraged to do so.

The Work of Ministry

Paul says that all the saints should be involved in the work of ministry. Gifts of leadership are given to equip them for ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). The church is only able to be God's agent of mission when we enjoy this reformation of church life. In that sense the ministry of all believers, male and female, is an urgent piece of unfinished business. All Christians need to see themselves as a channel through whom God would work and mediate his life to others. The church should not be pastor-focused but people-focused. Everyone in the organic life of a church congregation is called to be a player in God's mission. Christianity is a lay movement, and its ministry is the expression of the giftedness of the body. That is why it is imperative that we begin to see ourselves as gifted people, called to mission and ministry. [Greg Ogden, The New Reformation: Returning the Ministry to the People of God (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1990), and R. Paul Stevens, Liberating the Laity: Equipping All the Saints for Ministry (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1985).]

The church has a gift structure by which it lives and works (Romans 12:4-8, 1 Corinthians 12:4-13., Ephesians 4:7-16). Gifts of the Spirit are therefore for everyone, not a select few. Not all gifts are unusual or extraordinary, though some are. Alongside prophecy and miracles are gifts of service and mercy. We should be open to all of the diverse gifts, while remembering that the element of service is basic to them all. Gifts are intended to channel love to people who need it. They exist for the good of the community and, beyond that, for the good of the world. If the gifts of the whole community could be fully actualized, dynamic power, life and movement would be released.

Women as well as men are called to assume leadership. Women belong to the royal priesthood and share in the gifts of the Spirit. From the beginning women were ministers in the church and coworkers with the apostles (Romans 16:1-16; Philippians 4:2-3). The reason for this is simple: by baptism both men and women are joined to the body and are called to minister in his name. Women are to be included in every form of ministry and not arbitrarily excluded. Ministers represent the congregation before God and ought to represent the wholeness of the family, made up of male and female.

In emphasizing this we are not just responding to modern pressure - there are good reasons for ordaining women. Let us not confuse social customs that can be changed from time to time with issues of the faith itself. Women are equipped naturally and supernaturally to preach the Word, to administer the sacraments and to care for souls. It is an offense and a waste of talent to deny them these opportunities. [Thomas C. Oden, Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), chap. 4.]

United as Friends of God

Christians should be caring, loving people who are willing to serve every community. Rather than being separated from others, singled out as "the saved," they should be seen as friends of God and of the humans among whom they live. Instead of viewing the church as the lifeboat of the redeemed, we ought to view it as a royal priesthood existing for the world. "Outside the church there is no salvation" is a negative axiom. We would do well to substitute a positive statement: "Inside the church there is good news for everyone." Through Jesus Christ the whole world is graced. We must not exclude sinners but offer selfless and unpretentious service to the world. The church is a window into God's love, an open community of people dedicated to work for the salvation of all.

Paul gave his life to opening windows to God's love. After fifteen years of church planting, he said, "From Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ" (Romans 15:19). He spread the good news over a territory stretching fifteen hundred miles and including great cities. He could not convert everyone in all these areas but did plant priestly communities, churches to serve as windows into the love of God. In the power of the Spirit he established holy priesthoods in every center. He engaged in strategic church planting with the salvation of the whole world as his goal.

Church division is a serious problem today. With so many denominations, people understandably wonder which one is the true church. Diversity is not in itself a bad thing and does not change the fact that we all confess one Lord Jesus Christ and are one at a deep level. There are many different kinds of flower in a garden. And there were different kinds of churches even in the New Testament (see Acts 6:1-6). . The mere existence of different types of churches does not contradict the unity of the church in and of itself.

What does contradict unity is coexistence without love or cooperation, where we confront one another in hostile ways. Differences between churches become harmful when they exclude. There needs to be a growing together in love toward one another if we hope to impress others about the truth of the gospel of Jesus. Jesus prayed, "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, 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" (John 17:20-21).

We need to get back behind the ancient schisms, and heal the painful wounds. Let us see ourselves as community with other communities, confessing one Lord Jesus Christ and partaking of one sacred meal. Like the early churches that sent gifts of love to poorer churches, let us give concrete expression to our unity. We must cultivate unity in our diversity. [Rex A. Koivisto, One Lord, One Faith (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1993).]

The Reformation addressed real abuses in the church and made needed corrections. But the idea behind it was reform, not fragmentation. The intent was not to split the church forever. If the schism was needed then, it ought to be transcended now. Reform is not meant to divide permanently. For all the gains of the Reformation, there were also terrible losses. The trend has been to more and more fragmentation and to the loss of more and more of the ancient jewels of church tradition. Nowadays people do not even recognize the treasures of their own tradition. If a Christian practices meditation, for example, others suspect a New Age influence, forgetting the Orthodox and Catholic traditions of contemplation.

A divided church means divided truth. It means not being able to find the fullness of church in any one stream. It has also fractured the authority of the church to speak out on issues of faith and morals. Our divisions have led to subjectivist theologies. The day has come for us to be evangelical-catholics. Let us go back before the schisms and recover what was common to us all. Let us recover the treasures we have lost. Those of us in the free churches need to reclaim some of the things we foolishly discarded: the ancient practices, the fathers and the mothers of church tradition, the Christian year and the lectionary, the spiritual disciplines and church order, sacramental life and liturgical worship. Why impoverish ourselves any further? Others will need to work for renewal in the mainline churches. Both expressions of the universal church need each other. Those in the free churches will more easily rediscover the treasures of the historic churches when they sense that the catholic side is attentive to the Word of God and respectful of the gifts and ministries of the Spirit. [John Frame issues a passionate cry for unity in Evangelical Reunion: Denominations and the Body of Christ (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1991).]

Chapter 13 .....