What’s Church For? Church as Body

So far we’ve been on a very brief and highly selective and impressionistic trip down the last few decades to look at how the church (or at least my bit of it) has changed and developed. Now it’s time to get more biblical, as we look at how the church is described within the NT (mainly). It’s worth noting that there are many different terms used of the gathering of those who are followers of Jesus, and that the Bible contains some which are clear descriptions, and others which are more vague allusions or pictures. So let’s begin with perhaps the clearest – the Church as the Body of Christ. What are the strengths and weaknesses of a church community which thinks of itself in these terms?

 

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The first thing to say is that it is one of the most biblical pictures. In 1 Cor 12, the key passage, Paul states clearly that ‘you are the body of Christ’ (v 27). You can’t get clearer than that! He uses the same language in Rom 12:4-5, and, if you believe he also wrote Ephesians and Colossians, a couple of times there. The idea is that all of us who are in Christ, the head of the body, are bits with different roles to play. As I’ve already mentioned the church rediscovered this notion along with charismatic renewal in the mid-70s, and it really was a liberation from centuries of clericalism and priestly domination. Along with the mood of the times it encouraged people to find their niche and grow to their full potential, and it released into the church an army (see later!) of lay ministries without which we might never have survived. It is an organic model, rather than a mechanistic one (although the NT has those as well), and it emphasises the importance of all, not just a few.

However, as we will see with all the different models, it is not without its problems. Indeed Paul anticipated some of them and addressed them head on in 1 Cor 12. Basically there are two issues: ‘I’m more important than you!’ and ‘You’re more important than me!’ The fact is that as in any area of life some jobs or roles feel more important than others. However much you big up the deputy washer of the church tea-towels, the worship-leader or preacher seems to be far more important. Paul addresses this too, illustrating his words with some different bits of the human body, some of which, vital though they may be, are usually less visible! To cultivate a culture where everyone is equally valued is nevertheless not an easy thing to do, and this may be where some other models become more helpful.

The other great weakness of the ‘body’ model, though, is that it tells us little about what the body is there to do. Churches which major on this model in their self-identification may find that it doesn’t help them to be purposeful, and whilst it does have a growth imperative, that growth is only in the direction of personal and corporate maturity, and not necessarily in size. A human body which started growing new members, an extra leg or two or a few more fingers, would be a grotesque thing indeed. It does not take seriously the Lord who adds to our number: it seems to be merely about how to make a self-sufficient closed system work better.

That’s why we need all the different biblical models, and not just one. Next week – Church as Qahal and Ekklesia (bet you can’t wait!)

 

OT Lectionary 2nd Feb Candlemas Malachi 3:1-5

As is so often the case, we have to read back a little way in order to understand this passage in its own context. In fact a new section begins in 2:17 with the prophet telling the people that they have worn God out with their complaining. Apparently the idea was gaining currency that because they couldn’t see bad people getting the comeuppance they deserved, God must be approving what they were doing. They looked for a God of justice, a God who would punish evil and reward goodness, but instead all they found was a God who let nasty people get away with it. So we hear again the eternal question ‘Why doesn’t God do something?’

When someone says something about us which is just so blatantly untrue and unfair, we can’t help but respond to put them right. That’s exactly what the prophet does in God’s name. He will indeed do something. After an introductory herald, the Lord will appear in his Temple. The word ‘suddenly’ contains a hidden sense of threat, as though God is going to catch out the wicked red-handed, with their smoking guns.

 

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The picture then changes to two related images: that of a refiner of metal, and a launderer. The idea in both is of getting rid of impurities, either by burning them away or washing them clean. But interestingly it is not the ‘wicked’ who are to be subjected to a good scrubbing or burning, but the Levites, the religious leaders who ought to have known better. In fact their corrupt lifestyle has meant that the sacrifices of the people have not been acceptable to God. But after they have been refined the Levites will be able, as in the past, to offer acceptable sacrifices. So what have they been up to? The list in v 5 seems pretty unbecoming at the least for religious leaders, but of course sounds remarkably up-to-date.

So what are we to make of this passage? It is difficult to see a single fulfilment for it. The lectionary’s use of it for Candlemas, when Jesus is presented in the Temple and meets Anna and Simeon seems only marginally appropriate: although Simeon could prophetically spot the coming judgement, the violence of the Malachi passage seems far from a small helpless baby. The reference to ‘my messenger’ (Hebrew ‘malachi’), along with the message of judgement, suggests much more John the Baptist followed by the cleansing of the Temple (early as in John’s gospel rather than the Synoptics’ Holy Week), although none of the gospels pick up Malachi as an OT reference.

So maybe this passage, rather than being a ‘prophecy’ about John and Jesus, provides us with a warning never to attribute to God characteristics which fly in the face of all we know about him really, and never to allow our standards of behaviour to fall below what would be pleasing to him. This is a call to holy thinking and holy living, and a promise of refinement and cleansing for those who seek it.

What’s Church for? Widescreen Church

Following the dashed hopes of revival something radical changed in our understanding of church during the noughties, with the advent of what I call the ’16-9′ gospel. But in order to understand it, we’ll need to go backwards a bit. One of the biggest points of contention during my teenage years was the ‘Evangelism vs Social Action’ debate. In other words, is it the job of the church to win people to personal faith in Jesus, or should we be out feeding the hungry, clothing the poor etc? Whilst in theory we kind of knew that we ought really to be doing both, in real life Christians polarised to one extreme or the other. We’re not here to be social workers, one lot said, while the other lot replied that we couldn’t possibly expect people to hear the gospel while they were starving. It was suggested that we should do social action things in order to do evangelism, which was after all the real task, which Jesus himself did, but then Jesus actually did feed the hungry and heal the sick too. So the debate went on, and where you found yourself was, of course, highly dependent on which kind of a church you had been nurtured in.

Along with many others in the church, I came to realise that the gospel I had been brought up with, and had sought to communicate to others, was a gospel which began with personal sin and ended with personal salvation. I was a sinner, Jesus came a died on the cross for me, so if I wanted to I could have his forgiveness and a new start. And of course we had the right Bible verses, in the right order, to back this up: Romans 3:23 ‘All have sinned …’, Romans 6:23 ‘The wages of sin is death …’ John 3:16 ‘God so loved the world that he sent …’ Romans 10:9 ‘If you declare with your mouth and  believe in your heart … you will be saved.’ Bob’s your uncle.

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I don’t have a problem with this as it stands, but we caught on to the fact that this was a ‘centre cut-out’ view of the gospel. On my telly, if you want to watch old films with subtitles, films which were made in a 4:3 format, you have to set it to centre cut-out, so you can see it properly but have two black lines down the sides of the screen. But for more modern wide-screen programmes you change the format to 16:9 and the black bands disappear, allowing you to see the whole picture. Thus it was with the gospel: switch to 16:9 and you can see that things began with creation, the story of a God who made, loves and sustains the cosmos. The story will one day end with a renewed creation, as a new heaven and a new earth, restored by their creator, come into being. The personal fall and personal salvation of human beings are merely the middle chapters of the great drama of God’s redemption.

What this means is that we are saved for a purpose: to work with God towards the renewal of all things, and the defeat of all that spoils and mars his beloved creation. If I am a character in a novel, my task is to behave throughout in such a way that when the final dénouement comes on the last page my part has made sense. So, the church came to realise, there is no great war between evangelism and social concern: they are all part of God’s great redemptive plan in which he calls us to join. We live now in the direction of the future which we believe is coming.

Next week we’ll look at church from a slightly different point of view as we begin to examine some biblical models of church, their strengths and weaknesses, and the effects they may have if we focus on them too exclusively.

OT Lectionary 26th Jan Epiphany 3 Is 9:1-4

We’re so used to hearing this passage at Christmas time, as a ‘prophecy’ about the Messiah’s birth (see this blog for Christmas http://wp.me/p3W7Kc-2z) that we easily forget that the OT, rather than simply being words which are not going to have any relevance for a few hundred years’ time, addresses real situations which real people are facing. In this case there is imminent threat of invasion from Assyria, and quite understandably the people are beginning to get a bit sweaty, particularly those living in the north of Israel, who are going to be the first hit as the invaders sweep down from the north. So forgetting the Messiah for a moment, what is God saying to the people, and to us, through this passage?

First of all, there is an acknowledgement of the real suffering of the people. Those living in the north had indeed been devastated by the invasion: they really were in distress and gloom. I note with interest that there is no sense of an apology from God. We’d be agonising about why he had allowed such terrible pain, how it wasn’t fair etc etc. We’d be expecting some great theology of suffering, or a profound explanation of why God, in his infinite mercy, had not stopped the invading hoards in their tracks. Instead, all we get is that the northern tribes had been ‘humbled’. Frustrating or what?

Instead, there’s simply a promise. With the change of tenses we have noted before, God promises an end to oppression, light in their darkness, the breaking of their oppressors’ power, and joy to replace their fear and sorrow.

 

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This raises a really important question, one which many suffering Christians have agonised over. Put simply, the question is: ‘Why does God not think that prevention is better than cure?’ Why does he so often promise restoration after suffering, rather than stopping the suffering in the first place? It really does seem to be the case that God sees things differently from us. We’d do everything we could to make it all nice, so of course if we were Almighty God we’d make sure that no-one else ever had anything nasty happen to them. For some reason God doesn’t play that game.

I wonder whether there’s a clue in the word ‘humbled’. The fact is that the Bible is a lot more positive about pain and suffering than we tend to be. Sometimes, according to several passages, it can do us good to hurt a bit. And while this sounds callous, any dentist will understand it: for the good of our health it is important that it hurts for a while. Of course we all try to avoid suffering and causing suffering, but sometimes it is inevitable and for our good. One day we will find out from God what the hard times we have been through have put into us for our good, but in the meantime suffering remains a mystery and a subject for agonised theological debate. Our job is to learn more and more to see things from God’s point of view and consider it joy when we face trials. Not an easy task!

 

 

What’s Church for? Church as Disappointment

Last time we thought about the halcyon days of the 80s when the church, or at least the evangelical/charismatic bits of it, thought of itself as an army, trampling down Satan and bringing in the promised revival which would usher in the return of Jesus. Inevitably disappointment was to follow, and although there is some evidence that we did see church growth in the 80s it fell far short of the tales we had been devouring from Wales, the Hebrides and other places. we emerged into the final decade of the 20th century, designated by the C of E ‘the decade of evangelism’ sadder and wiser, and determined to apply a slightly more rigorous business model to church growth. Many of the teenagers who had worshipped and prayed so heartily were now busy making money and getting married.

Of course the management gurus had been making inroads into church strategy and planning for a while, and of course were greeted with cries of ‘Unspiritual!’ from many who would rather trust in the Lord than in John Harvey Jones. But in the 90s we began seriously to think about vision, strategy and planning. Meanwhile the worshipping life of the evangelical church changed dramatically, reflecting a new vision of what it was we thought we were supposed to be doing.

Under the joint influences of the growing movement towards political correctness and the ever-widening influence of the Vineyard churches (especially on ‘Anglican’ churches through ‘New Wine’, which began in 1989) worship songs began to be less about taking the nations and beating down Satan and more about personal intimacy with God. Our ‘hearts’, our personal and secret relationships with God seemed to be the most important thing, eclipsing any calling or ministry we might have to the nations. Intimacy with God has always been the core value of worship in the Vineyard movement, and worship (for which read ‘singing’) was seen much less as spiritual warfare and much more as a chance for me and Jesus to draw close together. Some unhelpful exegesis of the Greek word ‘proskuneo’, which, we were told, means literally ‘to approach to kiss’, backed this up. In fact the word means ‘to make a cone-shape towards’, that is to bow down with your face to the ground and your bum in the air, a classic gesture of submission to a conquering king rather than a lover’s kiss.

Of course we didn’t altogether stop talking about revival (although we pretty much stopped singing about it), but it seemed that our hearts weren’t really in it. This decade, call it the decade of evangelism or not, was about the church drawing closer to God. But then quite suddenly in the summer of 1994, we were hit by a new phenomenon, the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’. Starting from a Vineyard church near Toronto Airport (although with some prehistory before that) it swept the British charismatic church, bringing joy and dismay in equal proportions. Some thought it really was a brand new move of the Holy Spirit: others that it was a Satanic deception, designed to divert the church from its real task of obeying Scripture (except of course those bits which told us to be filled with the Spirit).

My own take on this, as a parish priest at the time, was that it was immensely important for our congregation and our city, and I believe that the fruits of this blessing are still significant today. Others, with hindsight, tell us that a slightly jaded movement like charismatic renewal would inevitably have some kind of an attempt to kindle new excitement (although I never actually heard anyone say that except with hindsight). But as a decade of evangelism the general reflection is that it was a failure, and that growth during the 80s had been much more significant. But the new millennium brought new hope: wouldn’t it be great if Jesus returned as we entered the noughties?

OT Lectionary Epiphany 2 Isaiah 49:1-7

This week our OT passage is the second of the so-called ‘Servant Songs’, and as we continue in our gospel readings to explore the blossoming of Jesus’ ministry we can see how we can be illuminated by these words, just as no doubt he himself was as he launched himself into the public arena. Like all four servant songs this one is addressed to the nation of Israel, but was to find its perfect fulfilment in the Messiah, the one who fully grasped the Father’s purposes and was completely and sinlessly obedient to his will. So as we seek to co-operate with God in our own sanctification and the renewal of all creation, what might these words have to say to us?

I think there is in this passage something about our calling, something about our task, and something about how we respond to the previous two. Our calling ( v 1-3) is first of all from God himself. It is not an afterthought, or a spur-of-the-moment good idea: indeed it predates our very existence. Not only did God call us, but he has been preparing us, hidden away out of public view. He has been shaping us, sharpening us up, getting us ready. In these days of political correctness it is interesting to note the image of ourselves as God’s weapons: as swords getting sharpened for battle, as arrows polished to fly true. For now the sword is sheathed and the arrows tucked safely into his quiver, but they are ready for the fight when the time comes. I’ve no idea whether or not a sword can tell that it is being sharpened: I rather suspect not. In the same way we may have only the haziest idea of how exactly God has been preparing us for battle, but that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t been.

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So what are we for? The warfare imagery is dropped as we discover what exactly our calling is, and Isaiah is pleased to tell us that God has a lot more in store for us than we might have thought (v 5-7). There is something about bringing his people back to him, out of exile, apostasy, sin and separation. But if you think that’s it, says God through the prophet, you’re thinking far too small. This isn’t just about Israel, my chosen people. It’s about all people everywhere, to the very ends of the earth. When I was a curate in a huge church in the north of England, my boss used to say that our purpose wasn’t to fill the church with believers: in fact we did that four times every Sunday. Rather it was to empty the parish of unbelievers, an altogether more daunting task. Our job as followers of Jesus, as he himself made clear through several of his parables, is not about tinkering with the church: it’s about winning the world.

So, as a therapist might say, how do you feel about that? Possibly the same as the prophet’s Israel (v 4). That’s OK for you to say, but why isn’t it happening? This is the cry of overworked and discouraged Christian workers everywhere (or at least the honest ones). I’ve worked my socks off but where is it? Where are the results for all my years of labour? The church continues to decline, if we’re honest we’ve seen very few people finding faith, and neither have we done all that much to make our patch a better one to live in. Why should we bother? Recognise that?

God holds out a challenge to those of us who feel something of the despair of v 4. Maybe we’ve been concentrating on too small a task. Maybe we’ve let our ministry in the church rob us of our ministry to the world. But he also holds out a promise: the ultimate victory of his purposes, as kings and princes come to acknowledge the God in whose name we labour. It may seem a long way off, but hold on: it will surely come!

What’s Church for? Church as Army

A weekly series exploring how church has changed in its self-understanding.

Last time I recalled the church of the 70s in which I grew up as a teenager, and our rediscovery of Paul’s doctrine of the Body of Christ. But things moved on in the 80s, with two major developments in our life and style. In many ways I look back on this period with great nostalgia, but also with a more critical eye and the benefit of hindsight.

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The first is that the predominant model of church moved from ‘Body’ to ‘Army’. The songs we were singing in my bit of the church were unashamedly songs of warfare and victory, about trampling down the Enemy (who was an intensely real figure for us), and above all about the coming revival. Books about past revivals were consumed avidly, and the great cry was ‘Lord, do it again!’ This was long before the church had heard of political correctness, and if as the Body we were a bit hazy on actually ‘why?’ we were very clear now: we were the army destined by God to bring in the great revival which would usher in the last days. Intercession was rich, fervent and faith-filled, and worship songs were loud and triumphant. The mood of victory was palpable, and this was a spirituality which particularly appealed to young people and men, in contrast to the slightly feminine Body stuff. This was about power and action, not intimacy and ‘sharing’.

A new twist came in the mid-80s with the visit of John Wimber from Anaheim, California, with his message of ‘Signs and Wonders and Church Growth’. It isn’t enough, John maintained, just to tell people about God: we should be showing people God in action, through miracles, healing and deliverance. He then taught us in great detail just how we should pray for the sick, and undergirded it all with some very solid theology of the Kingdom of God. To the powerful intercession and warlike worship was added the possibility of real action, as people learnt to pray for the sick and to expect miracles. Paradoxically the worship-songs went entirely in the opposite direction, and became slow, gentle, some would say ‘boring’, and all about intimacy with God and nothing more.

These were heady days, and as far as church was concerned we had a very clear idea of what we were about. Inevitably with hindsight we were a bit disappointed as the promised miracles didn’t materialise in the quantities we had hoped for, as the revival failed to happen, and as the advent of PCness made us all feel just slightly guilty about the militaristic language of our songs and sermons. John Wimber’s theology, so convincing at the time, began to be open to question in one or two of its tenets (does the NT really teach that all Christians should be miracle-workers, or is the Apostles who pray for healing most of the time?). And while the Vineyard churches, which grew and developed in the UK as a result of John’s ministry, were very keen on ministry to the poor, it tended to be on an individual basis rather than any great struggle against unjust structures.

Personally I think we had a lot going for us in those days, and the loss of so-called ‘militaristic’ language, a theme to which I shall be returning, is a tragic loss to the church and its mission. Naive we almost certainly were, and I wonder whether the prayer God really enjoys is not ‘Lord, do it again!’ but rather ‘Lord, so something new!’. But as we moved into the 90s there was to be a major new twist.