Why bother about the church?

Posted: January 14, 2014 by J in Bible, Church, Church history, Discipleship, Theology

(The final post about the Protestant tradition of privileging hearing over seeing in gospel ministry. See previous three posts below)

A closely related concern is whether a ‘hearing not seeing’ approach to the Word does justice to the identity of the church as the gathered community of Jesus.

Throughout Luke’s Gospel Jesus makes it clear that he is regathering and reconstituting God’s people Israel. The apostle Paul develops this insight so that it becomes clear this new people is actually a regathered humanity. Jesus is a kind of new Adam, restarting mankind:

Just as we have borne the image of the dirt-man, we will also bear the image of the heavenly man. 1 Corinthians 15:49

This new humanity is regathered to God and also to each other:

…that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,  and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death the hostility through it. (Ephesians 2:15-16)

So then the work of Christ in the gospel has a human-ward dimension as well as a God-ward dimension. The reconciliation goes in both directions.

And this renewed mankind is not a hope for the future but a present reality, established by Jesus at the cross:

He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity…through the cross. Ephesians 2:15

Paul makes it clear that this new humanity is actually to be found in the little groups of believers which sprang up wherever he went announcing Christ. The place it is to be seen is in the community of Jesus, the gathered congregation of believers. That is where the power of the cross is expressed and experienced day to day:

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God… being built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.  (Ephesians 2:19,22)

In other words, the Christian community is the living embodiment of the power of the gospel, the outward evidence of the effectiveness of Christ’s atonement. This was why Paul was determined to plant reconciled, united Jew/Gentile congregations:

to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the congregation, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known  (Ephesians 3:9-10)

Using the terms of the last post, the church is a sign of God’s arriving kingdom. And a whopping big one at that!

Jesus had spoken of his band of disciples in much the same way:

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

Here the community of believers is to be the visible expression of the Father’s glory, of the light that is coming into the world. And this expression is to be noticed, seen by all. Gulp!

This same reasoning was at work when Jesus gave his disciples the ‘new commandment’:

Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’  I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:33-35

Jesus will no longer be physically present, no longer will people be able to look and see him. But his presence will not be lost: it will continue in the company of disciples. From now on it is them people must look at and see Christ. As the new and heavenly love among the believers is noticed, people will realise that this is the new community, the new humanity which Jesus is creating. Onlookers will find it hard to deny the message of Christ and his cross which the disciples bring – for they will be confronted with the reality and power of it at the very same time. It will be ‘in their faces’: for the congregation which announces the gospel also demonstrates its reality – by existing!

This is the reason Paul gives why the renewed behaviour of believers is so vital:

…that you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the congregation of the living God, the pillar and prop of the truth.    (1 Tim 3:15)

Just think on those last 6 words. It is extraordinary – and a bit scary – to think that we play such an important role in the authenticating of the gospel. But that is clearly how Jesus and Paul saw it.

To sum all this up, it is not enough, not nearly enough, for the church to speak the Word of Christ. It is called to this, yes, but to much more as well. We are called to embody and display that Word visibly. For it is not enough for people to hear the Word. They must see its power demonstrated – in the present, in us. The light set on a hill – that light is us. If we are not being presently transformed, then our message is discredited, and why would anyone believe it? If people can’t see Jesus in our renewed community, why should they believe he is alive and active anywhere?

Our Protestant tradition of hearing-not-seeing the gospel doesn’t really leave room for an ecclesiology of this sort. One where the church-as-community has a vital role as gospel-embodiment, that is. Denigrating sight in favour of hearing necessarily implies minimising the place of the congregation in God’s purposes. For the congregation doesn’t really need to embody anything, if embodiment is not of much importance.

Moreover, a focus on congregational life could be seen as potentially idolatrous, a hankering after something visible in the hear-and-now. Such distractions may be thought to lead us away from an undivided focus on Christ. In fact, in the Protestant movement, ‘the church’ has often been treated as a rival to the gospel. ‘They’ are committed to church, while ‘we’ are committed to the gospel. I hear people talk like this pretty often in my evangelical circles. Built into this thought-structure is an anti-church tendency. We don’t hate church, we tolerate it. But nor do we love it, or trust it. Or expect much from it. It comes naturally to us to operate at a ‘para-church’ level, where most of these issues are sidelined and we can devote ourselves to a pure ‘word-only’ ministry. Our favourite!

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