The church and “we”: God’s holy people

Benin_2007_9L’unité fait la force – Unity is our strength. This national motto of the West African country of Benin is a window into the larger sub-Saharan African worldview. Individuals are not unimportant, yet they find their deepest identity not alone but as part of a people.

This collective cultural value shows up in pagne, the colorful cotton material locally woven and sold in many places across Africa. One popular pattern shows cracked fingers, separated one from another, dry,  lifeless, and empty. Next to them are hands, healthy and strong. All five fingers are connected, grasping pieces of gold that could only be gathered as they worked together. The Ivorian proverb reinforces a similar message: “You can’t pick up a grain of rice with just one finger.”

Modern individualism notwithstanding, historically, the United States has shared such a collective vision. Our tragic Civil War was fought from 1861-65 in part over the issue of whether we would be a single people. Prior to that conflict, it was common in writing to say: “The United States are.” Now we say “The United States is.” The Latin phrase, E plurbus unum – one from many – appears on the seal of the nation.

This longing to be part of a people is no stranger to the pages of Scripture. Peter wrote to the diaspora, believers scattered over five provinces of the Roman Empire:

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

It is with the community of Christian faith – the holy people of God – that any study of how we can positively impact the world for Christ must begin. The church was here before any of us were born, and it will continue when we are gone. The words of the well-known African saying – “I am because we are” – are no less fitting when it comes to matters of belief. So while we will later look at our individual response to Christ’s call to follow him, we purposely begin with a more important concept than “me.” Let us begin with “we.”

What is the church?

This question is fundamental to understanding who we are. One important way that the New Testament answers the question is as follows: We are God’s holy people.

The ecclesia – the New Testament Greek word translated as “church” – stems from the ancient gathering of citizens in city-states like Athens (see Wordnik, consulted 10 July 2014, online: https://www.wordnik.com/words/ecclesia). Used in a Christian sense, it is a congregation or assembly of the faithful, or called out ones, from two words, ek [out] and kaleo [to call forth] (David Yeubanks, in “The Called Out Ones: Is the ecclesia just the assembly, or is it something more?,” consulted 10 July 2014, online: http://www.truthforfree.com/html/article_thecalledoutones.html).

Jesus plays a special role in the Triune God as the founder of this people. Following Simon Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:16 that Jesus was the “Messiah,” the “Son of the living God,” Jesus responded:

 “Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church and the powers of hell will not conquer it” (Matthew 16:18, NLT).

The “holy nation” described by Simon in 1 Peter 2:9 is pictured by Paul as the bride of Christ, washed in preparation for the bridegroom, Christ:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

Likewise, John’s vision in Revelation 19:6-8  is of a bride adorned for her bridegroom, clothed in fine linen which is “bright and clean” (v. 8), symbolizing her purity. In this way, she has prepared herself for the “wedding of the Lamb” (v. 7).

Thomas Noble in Holy Trinity, Holy People picked up on this theme. Because Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “essentially and inherently holy,” he concluded: “The people of God are to be holy” (Noble, location 249). This echoes Peter’s reaffirmation for the church of God’s instructions in Leviticus 11:45 to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whom he had brought up from Egyptian slavery: “For it is written, ‘Be holy, because I am holy’ “(1 Peter 1:16). Peter gives these instructions as a father addressing his “obedient children” (v. 14) who must be different than the surrounding culture: “Do not conform” he warns “to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance” (v. 14). Holiness represents both purity and being set apart by God for a sacred task.

Unity and reconciliation: Love in action

Jesus emphasized love as the hallmark of the people of God: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). One expression of love’s priority in a holy community of faith is the commitment to unity. For this reason, Paul advised:  “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). The chapter continues, casting a powerful vision of a body of believers centered upon 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” (Ephesians 4:16).

Where contention holds sway, love withers. The apostle chastised the believers in Corinth for quarreling. Theirs was a congregation riven by competing parties, some claiming to follow Paul’s teachings, others those of Apollos (1 Corinthians 3:1-5). At least once the disagreement was so deep that they resorted to the local magistrate to make a ruling, an action that Paul lambasts as beneath the dignity of the Body of Christ and by implication a poor testimony to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 6:1-6).

Perhaps Paul emphasized unity because he knew from his own bitter experience how difficult it could be to achieve. When it was time for him and Barnabas to set out together on the second missionary journey, they failed to agree whether John Mark should come along. Barnabas’ young protégé had abandoned them early on during the first missionary journey, and Paul apparently wasn’t keen on the same thing happening again (Acts 13:13, 15:36-41). Luke explains in vv. 39-41:

“They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.”

reconciliationIt is a tribute to both John Mark’s ability to learn from his mistakes and Paul’s willingness to forgive that in 2 Timothy 4:11 he writes to Timothy: “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.” Where unity has been torn apart, all is not lost. Reconciliation is always a possibility through Christ who has given the church the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:11-21).

Yet churches have underestimated the damage that strife among believers has inflicted upon the cause of Christ. We might euphemistically call it a “church plant,” but the community knows a church split when it sees one. Shall a new church that came into being  because of turmoil in the mother church be surprised when a few years down the road she herself is torn apart by acrimony?

John Wesley (1703-91) was no stranger to controversy. His actions did not always measure up to his own rhetoric. However, his sermon Catholic Spirit is still valued for the higher way to which it beckons us. Wesley asked:

“But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

Repeatedly he advised that if “thine heart is as my heart,” there is but one thing to do: “Give me thy hand.”

The old proverb is wise: “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.” Yet too often, are we are bent on emphasizing the 10-20% of doctrine or practices where we diverge, never getting around to celebrating the 80-90% convergence in how we think and practice ministry? In the small Midwestern U.S. town where I pastored, there were more than 60 churches registered in a county with a population of just over 25,000. In such an atmosphere, competition rather than collaboration was the order of the day. Sadly, I got caught up the spirit of rivalry, helping found a separate ministerial association that further compromised our witness in the eyes of the community. It was a divisive act for which I later had to repent, yet the damage had been done. My actions, though well-intended, fell pitifully short of the winsome love among brothers and sisters that Jesus said must characterize his disciples.

Yet some churches have done better. My brother pastors a Wesleyan Church in Maryland. Before they were able to purchase their own land and construct a meeting place of their own, they were looking for a place to worship. The local Roman Catholic parish was happy to let them meet in their fellowship hall on Sunday afternoons. There was a time past in the relationship between Catholics and Protestants when such a gesture would have been unthinkable. Surely God is pleased when His children support each other in such Christlike ways.

Conclusion

As the Beninese proverb teaches, unity is our strength. Followers of Jesus were never intended to go it alone. What is the church? At her best, she is God’s winsome, loving, united, holy people, a vibrant community of Christian faith. Yet how does one become part of this community? It is to this question that we turn in the next chapter.

————

Image credits:

Beninese worshipers – G. Crofford

Prodigal son returns: Emmanuel Community

 

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