What’s Church For? Church as Haven

Last week we looked at that most popular of models of church, ‘happy family’, and I suggested that this model was both unhelpful and probably unbiblical, at least as a way to think about the local congregation. This week’s model is different but related: church as ‘Haven’.

If you want a perfect illustration of the thinking behind this model, there is nowhere where it is stated more clearly that in a couple of lines from Henry Francis Lyte’s famous hymn Abide with me:

Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

This hymn, popular at funerals and, inexplicably, cup finals, is about the approach to the end of life. Lyte wrote it whilst busy dying of TB, and actually survived only a further three weeks after its completion. I’m not there yet myself, but I guess it reflects an old man’s bewilderment at a changing world, and his readiness to go to a better place (although Lyte was only 56 when he died). As such it popularises a spirituality common among older people, particularly in an age of rapid culture change and technological innovation. Everywhere I look I find a world changed beyond recognition, almost as though I were living in a foreign land, where I don’t speak the language or understand the culture. So thank goodness that in the shifting sands of life there is one place where I can look for unchanging succour. Church, so the reasoning goes, is meant to be the place where I can go to get my dose of the familiar, a place where I feel safe, where I understand the rules, a place where ‘naught changes’. My church is my safe haven against the changes and chances of life in a world where I no longer feel at home. ‘Change’, note, is synonymous with ‘decay’, rather than ‘growth’, ‘development’ or improvement.

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Whilst this sense of what the sociologists call ‘cultural dislocation’ is understandable, and while it is particularly understandable among a generation brought up in a stable world where change has suddenly began to spin out of control, it betrays an interesting and ultimately unhelpful view of church, and of God. Note first of all that Lyte sees God as the unchangeable point of reference; God, not his church. We have mistranslated his words to mean that church should never change, a sentiment which manifests itself most clearly in the matters of liturgy, music and buildings. God is indeed unchanging, but it has been said that ‘change is the angel of the unchanging God’. As we have already said in this blog God is actually a God of pilgrimage, a God who constantly leads his people purposefully forward. Sadly churches which see themselves as safe havens against change are often churches on their own deathbeds.

Of course we need to care pastorally for those nearing the end of their lives, and perhaps feeling disorientated and frightened. But to see a church as a safe haven from the storms of life is diametrically opposite to the pioneering and adventuring spirit to which I believe we are called. If we’re quoting hymns, I much prefer this one:

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew,
me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.   (Robert Bridges)

We need a God who guides us through change, not who saves us from it.

OT Lectionary Mar 16th Lent 2 Genesis 12:1-4a

Elsewhere in a different blog I’m writing about the church – what’s it’s for and how we can get it right or wrong (#whatschurchfor). This passage is absolutely key in understanding the state of the church today, and in order to grasp why I’ll need to take you back a few years to an evening spent in London with Chris my wife. We’d got tickets for some show or other, and we were going to eat first and then go on to the theatre. I have no remembrance at all about the show, or even what it was, but I’ll never forget the meal. We went to a well-know chain which wasn’t called ‘Simon’s’ but something in close partnership with him. We ordered our meal, which I have to say was very nice, and decided that if we were quick we just had time for afters. Trying to summon a waiter or waitress we found that all the staff seemed inexplicably to have disappeared. After about 20 minutes of hanging around we decided that we’d missed afters and we had to get going, so our quest became instead for someone who would give us our bill. We could easily have just walked out, and I have to admit we were tempted, but in the end I got up from our table and went hunting. Seated in a booth round the back somewhere about ten staff, all in their uniforms, were tucking into a meal. ‘Sorry to interrupt’ I said with as much sarcasm as I could muster, ‘but we need to pay and go.’ Grudgingly one of them got up and got our bill, which we paid in haste and just made it to the theatre in time. At least it saved us the cost of a tip.

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The Jews in the time of Jesus were very keen on being the ‘chosen people’, but what they hadn’t grasped was that they were chosen to be God’s waiters and waitresses to bring his blessings to the rest of the world. Abraham’s call in this passage was twofold: to be blessed, but also to be a blessing to all peoples on earth. And therein lies the problem: the Jewish nation wanted the first bit but forgot the second, a tradition in which much of the Christian church has been proud to follow. Whenever we claim exclusivity; whenever we operate as a holy huddle; whenever we subtly set up church structures which are hostile to newcomers or outsiders or people who are not like us, we are just like those staff who are happy to sit and feast themselves while others go unnoticed and hungry. This call, to remember that original commission to Abraham, both to be blessed and to bless, echoes through the rest of the Bible: most notably in Isaiah 49:6

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

When Simeon greeted the new-born Messiah he too knew that this was God’s call:

“My eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32)

Since this narrow exclusivism and self-centred consumerism has been, and continues to be, such a perpetual problem for God’s people, we do well to look at our own church life very carefully, lest we find ourselves feasting at God’s table while others go hungry, wanting blessings but less keen on being blessings. It has long been my practice to remind people of this danger liturgically: whenever I give the liturgical blessing at the end of services I always use this adaptation of the usual words:

The blessing of God Almighty,

The Father, the Son,

and the Holy Spirit

be among you, remain with you always,

and make you a blessing to others.

What’s Church For? Church as Family

How many times have you heard (or indeed used) the term ‘The Church Family’?

I reckon that most churches have self-designated themselves as families at one time or another, and I can see why. It sounds like a great model of church – a happy family where we all love one another and are always nice to each other. A place where all can find a welcome, and where anyone can belong and be loved. Yet I want to suggest that this is one of the least helpful models of church. Perhaps that’s why it is so hard to find in the pages of scripture.

It is clear that God is pro-family: it isn’t good for people to be alone, and he sets the solitary in families (Ps 68:6). The term is used several times in the epistles (Gal 6:10, 1 Th 4:10, 1 Pet 2:17, 5:9 for example) but usually in the form of ‘God’s family’ or ‘the family of believers’. Never once is it used of a local church, but rather of all those, whether in a large region such as Macedonia, or in an even larger unspecified and therefore probably universal area. Christians who are adopted by God become members of his family, but that family is never seen as just a local congregation. The church universal may be a family, but the church local never is. It is fascinating that in 1 Tim 3 we’re told that a church leader should manage his own (human) family properly. If he can’t do that, how can he be expected to manage ‘God’s church’? Not ‘the church family’, as you might expect. The author deliberately shies away from using that phrase, which would have been a much more satisfying piece of writing.

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So why isn’t a local church meant to be a family? First of all because, unlike the picture of pilgrimage we used last week a family is essentially a purposeless thing. Families ‘are’: they don’t of necessity ‘do’ or ‘go’. They’re held together by relationships, not by purpose, and therefore are bodies much more attractive to women than to task-orientated men (I generalise, but I can defend this generalisation). Secondly, there is no growth imperative in the term ‘family’. In fact most families reach the time where they take deliberate steps to ensure that they don’t grow any bigger! Sadly many churches do too. Thirdly, families in real life tend to be selective in whom they let in. ‘PLUs’ are welcome (People Like Us), but there can be all sorts of devices and signals which say to others ‘Keep out!’ And if they are allowed in, it can be because they are poor and needy, and looking for welcome and shelter, rather than because they are fired up and ready to go on a mission. There’s the appeal to the feminine side again. Church as ‘family’ can quickly become church as ‘hospital’, where only needy people are made really welcome, and even then only some needy people. And finally families can be deeply dysfunctional, but are very adept at hiding it because keeping up the front of loving relationships is all-important, much more important in fact than honesty and genuine dealing with conflict. Church families, like human ones, can be deeply destructive and hurtful. Trust me, I know: I’m an out-of-work vicar!

I reckon we’d all do much better to remove this non-biblical term from our vocabulary. I’m going to suggest a better one to replace it, but first I’ll talk about one more model which I reckon is unbiblical and unhelpful. Next week: Church as ‘Haven’.

What’s Church For? Church as Pilgrim People

This week’s image of the church is one you won’t find in so many words anywhere in Scripture, and yet it is implied on virtually every page. The word ‘pilgrim’ and its relative terms do not occur in my NIV version at all. And yet from that fateful moment in Gen 3 when Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden God’s people have been people on the move. Another landmark of pilgrimage comes in Gen 12 when God tells Abraham to ‘leave’ all that he knows and to ‘go’ to the place yet to be revealed to him. This is the essence of pilgrimage, leaving, journeying and, eventually, arriving. It is interesting that in the Bible arrival is often synonymous with ‘rest’: Hebrews 4 talks about this particularly. So a good definition of church which works well for me is that we are a bunch of people on a journey to the new heavens and earth, and inviting others to join us as we go. As a model of church this one has a lot going for it: it is dynamic, not static; it is purposeful, and it is evangelistically focussed. For those with the right mindset it can be an exciting, exploratory journey, with new possibilities and no opportunity to get bored. Some however find this model a bit exhausting, perhaps those who prefer a holiday lying on the beach in the same place they go every year rather than cruising the Caribbean or climbing Kilimanjaro.

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I can remember years ago hearing a charismatic speaker talking about the frequent accusations of ‘triumphalism’ levelled again the renewal movement. ‘I don’t believe in “triumphalism”’, he commented, ‘but I do believe in triumph!’ Since then my definition of ‘triumphalism’ has been ‘wanting your triumph too early before it’s ready’. I think there is something similar going on in church circles: so often we want our rest too early. Next time I’ll be looking at church as ‘haven’, the idea that church is a safe place amid the storms and ravages of life. By definition pilgrims do not play it safe, do not settle down, do not retrace old ground, but keep moving forward, setting their faces towards the new Jerusalem whatever hardship might await them on the way. Perhaps the greatest definition of a pilgrim lifestyle is that of Paul in Phil 3:12-14:

Not that I have … already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, 14 I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.

So what would a ‘pilgrim’ church look like? It would first and foremost be adventurous, never playing it safe. It would be, in the immortal words, ‘purpose-driven’, and it would have about it a sense of wonder and excitement. It would know how to celebrate, not just because of the ultimate destination but also because of the little staging posts safely reached along the way. It would attract younger people and men, and it would be gloriously life-affirming.

Sounds good to me!

What ‘s Church for? Church as Bride

Having looked at the Greek and Hebrew words which refer to ‘church’ we move this week to look at another term in common usage: church as the ‘Bride of Christ’. How useful is this in the self-identification of a church community? And how biblical is it actually?

The references (and they are not very explicit) come only in the Gospels and at the end of Revelation. Nowhere is Paul’s clear statement that ‘you are the body of Christ’ made of us as bride. In the Gospels the emphasis is much more on Jesus as the bridegroom: this picks up on much Jewish imagery about the new age of the coming Messiah being described as a wedding. There are two key motifs here: waiting and urgency. ‘Why aren’t your disciples miserable like us?’ ask the Pharisees of Jesus. The answer is that at the moment the bridegroom is here: this is no time for fasting and mourning. But he is about to go, and ultimately come back. In the meantime we wait, but we wait with a sense of urgency, because he might come back literally at any moment, and we need to be ready. This is the thrust of several gospel passages.

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There are two isolated references in the epistles: in 2 Cor 11 Paul fears that the Christians to whom he is writing might have lost the plot. He promised them to Christ as a pure virginal bride, but they have instead ‘committed adultery’ by adopting false doctrine. This picks up an OT prophetic image of false religion as adulterous. And then in Ephesians 5 the point is made that wives are under the authority of their husbands as the church is to Christ. This idea may seem to us as quaint as the idea that brides are virgins, but we’ll tiptoe past that one.

But most of the references are from Revelation, and only really from chapter 19 when the battles have been fought and won, and God’s people are ready to enter the new creation. But if we look carefully the church is never here described as the ‘Bride of Christ’ – that title is reserved for the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. As is his wont John is setting up a contrast between the tarty woman of Rev 17, dressed up to the nines in all her seductive gaudiness, and the pure bride dressed in white linen. The prostitute, we discover, is the archetypal evil city, manifested at different times as Babel, Babylon and now Rome, so her purified counterpart is the new Jerusalem.

What does this mean for a church which thinks of itself as the Bride of Christ? It is both a call and a promise, with a bit of waiting in between. The call is basically to live with purity, not perversion. The promise is of a renewed creation, when all blemishes and wrinkles will be removed. And in the meantime we wait, living faithfully in a love relationship with Jesus.

The Bride is not the predominant model of church, and it certainly isn’t a very blokey one (we’ll be remedying that later in the series). But it does present us with that challenge and that promise. Next time we’ll go for a less sitting-and-waiting model as we consider church as pilgrimage.

What’s Church For? Church as ‘Qahal’

Called together

Last time we looked at the NT word ‘ekklesia’ which we said suggested a bunch of people ‘called out’ from one lifestyle into another, very different one. So it’s only fair that we look at the OT equivalent word. Immediately, of course, we have a problem, since the Christian church doesn’t actually feature in a big way in the Old Testament. But we can do a bit of detective work by using the Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew OT into Greek dating from the 2nd century). One word is overwhelming translated into Greek as ‘ekklesia’, the Hebrew word Qahal. Most of our English versions translate Qahal as ‘congregation’ or ‘assembly’, hence its common application to the ‘church’ in the OT. The term ‘Qahal Yahweh’ describes the gathering of the people of God, often for worship and/or instruction.

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But there is a subtle difference between Qahal and ekklesia: while the latter has the sense of referring to a congregation of people who have been called ‘out’, Qahal is much more about being called ‘together’, hence its translation as ‘assembly’. Of course the one implies the other, but in the OT the sense is much more about a gathered assembly. The cognate Arabic word has the meaning of ‘to speak’, so the ‘assembly’ might be people gathered to listen to a sermon or speech. The term ‘Qoheleth’ related closely to Qahal, the name for the ‘Teacher’ of the book of Ecclesiastes (interesting name!) may refer to one who addresses assemblies of people, as a preacher or teacher would. But the unmistakeable sense, which is complementary to that of the NT term, is of a crowd of people who have been called together to assemble. The Christian church could appropriately be described as people who have been called out to be called together.

We noted last week the moral dimension of having been ‘called out’, and the tendency of some Christians to want to keep a foot in both camps, rather than making a clean break with the past behind them and the world around them. But the term Qahal also challenges some contemporary thinking about church. Firstly it makes us think very hard about so-called ‘communities’ where people don’t actually meet. Various attempts at ‘virtual church’ and ‘online church’ have been attempted, but I’m not sure how convinced I am. Of course those much younger than I am would protest that e-communities are every bit as real and valid, and they certainly do have value, as I discovered when I was recovering from serious surgery and felt so encouraged by well-wishers on social media. But can they really replace the face-to-face gathering of people for worship and teaching? Discuss!

Secondly, though, the term challenges, I believe, the growing trend for what Alan Jamieson’s famous book called ‘Churchless Faith’ (2002). I can understand only too well how more and more people find that they have better things to do with their precious lives than to sit in cold and musty buildings singing dreary songs and hymns, listening to irrelevant drivel from the front, and drinking awful coffee. It used to be non-Christians who used to say ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’: now more and more it’s ex-committed churchgoers. It does, of course, behove the Qahal and its Qoheleths to be worth the bother of assembling for, but at the same time I am as concerned as I have ever been about Christians who believe that they can go it alone and still grow and thrive. We need one another, and I believe we need one another face to face.

What’s Church For? Church as Ekklesia

We’ve looked at a recent bit of church history through my highly selective and biased eyes, and now we’ve begun to explore some of the biblical pictures with which the church is described. Today I want to look at the predominant NT word, ekklesia the word from which we get terms such as ‘ecclesiastical’ and indeed ‘ecclesiology’ which is what we’re doing right now. What does this word tell us about what Church is for?

Word studies are, of course, highly dangerous. In my Liturgy and Liberty (MARC, 1986) I attempt to use the word ‘green’ to explain to alien readers what the English word really means, which is that it describes jealous, inexperienced and nauseous ETs who live in houses made of glass. We know this is nonsense, but it is no worse than many sermons we’ve all heard which explain what the Greek and Hebrew terms really mean. But I don’t think we’ll be committing hermeneutical murder if we think of the word’s root meaning of ‘calling out’, not in the sense of heckling but of being called to leave one place or lifestyle and go to another. I find it helpful to think of the church as a bunch of people who have heard God’s call to leave and to travel.

This picture has good OT precedent, as far back as Abraham, who was called in Gen 12:1 to ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you’. Since then God’s people have been people on the move, and a static church seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. But there are two different but complementary interpretations of this journey, both of which are important for the Church to take seriously.

The first is more to do with leaving, in the sense of repentance. Again and again the NT calls Christians out of previous lifestyles and standards of behaviour and into something better. Jesus launched himself into ministry in Mk 1:14 with the word ‘Repent!’ and it became a constant refrain of his teaching. ‘Unless you change’, he told his would-be followers, ‘you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. The epistles are full of this stuff, and the most notable example is where the author of Ephesians insists in 4:17 that his readers ‘no longer live as the Gentiles do’, a phrase all the more telling, of course, as those to whom he was writing were Gentiles. So 21st century British disciples must no longer live as 21st century British people do. A church which seems constantly to be accommodating itself to the spirit and the behaviour of the age, in order that it might appeal more to those outside its walls, has lost the plot big-time. The Liberal movement of the last century had this explicit aim, to make the gospel more believable and the church more accessible. I’m not convinced it hasn’t been counter-productive.

 

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But the second application of the meaning of being ‘called out’ has more to do with destination than life-style. In Gen 12 God was highly specific about what Abraham had to leave (his country, his people, his father’s household) but gloriously vague about where he was headed (‘to the land I will show you’). We are not called from sitting in one place to sitting in a different place: we’re called to pilgrimage, journey, uncertainty and insecurity. The call of God to Abraham comes more than once, and the call of God to his church is a constant one. Whenever we think we’ve made it and can settle, that call comes again. All we know is that will be a final destination, and a rest for those who have travelled long and hard. But in the meantime we keep on walking.