Recently I have been thinking about the idea of church—congregations, denominations, visible, invisible, worldwide communion, and so on. I come from a church family called “Brethren in Christ”, which carries within its problematic name the idea that we are family. But does there come a point when the BIC should cease to live? Do churches, both congregations and denominations, have a mortal life span? One could answer simply, “Of course.” We can assume that all things on earth have a life span, and that coming to an end is normal. But what is that life span, and how do we know when a church should die? In the BIC Church that question was the focus of a recent conference held at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. Roger Olson was the plenary speaker on the subject, “Life beyond the Congregation: The Future of Denominations in the 21st-Century.” The conference addressed the question of the future of the BIC, and as I read the papers and responses presented there, I began thinking more about this question: What is the nature of the church? What is the church supposed to look like?
With this question in mind, I turned to a passage in which Paul reflects on the nature of the church, Ephesians 4: 1-16:
4 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. …
11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 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.
Some Thoughts from the Text
This is a text that was read and preached on every year in the BICC of a past generation. Every year we held a Love Feast, which included Baptism, Feetwashing, and Communion. Every year this passage was read and preached about at this Love Feast. These verses were understood to be foundational for understanding who we were as the church, so I am asking the text the following question: What should the church look like? I am assuming that if the church I belong to (local, national, or international) looks like this, that’s good. If it does not look like this, that’s a problem. So some thoughts.
The church is a place of unity/community. Note the strength of Paul’s words: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
The church—whether local congregation or national conference or global body—is a place we should experience the unity that lies at the heart of community. Not uniformity, of course. We have heard often that unity is deeper than and different from uniformity, but we keep forgetting. Often we think that unity in the church means that we think alike, when it means rather that we are one body, filled with one Holy Spirit, called to one hope by one Lord, “children of the Heavenly Father.”
I like the way that the BIC in Zimbabwe is named. Instead of the gender-challenged name current in North America, they are called (in a literal translation), “The church of those who come from the same womb in Christ.” Our unity is the unity of family, not the uniformity of forced agreement. We have different personalities and gifts and abilities, and we disagree on many different issues, but we are one. We are all “Christ-people”, brothers and sisters in Christ.
2. Mutual Care
This unity is expressed by our lifestyle in these words: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” The church consists of people who love each other and care for each other. We are people who take care of each other humbly, gently, and patiently.
These first two points then suggest the following: If your church is not a place in which you experience God’s love through your brothers and sisters, then it is falling short of being its calling as the church filled with God’s indwelling Spirit.
3. Expressed through Gifts
This mutual care goes deeper. In Paul’s description, the church is a place where God has gifted individuals to care for each other’s needs: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
I see at least two basic aspects of this gifting, both captured in the statement, “to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” One, the community we call the church is a place where we can have our emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental needs met. This gift-list is one of several in Paul’s letters, and these gifts generally help to meet the needs of God’s people. (They also help to meet the needs of people outside the church, but we begin with God’s people—compare Galatians 6:10, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”)
Two, not only can we have our needs met by people filled with God’s Spirit, but we also are needed to meet other people’s needs. Few things are worse for our self-esteem than having to always receive. We need to be needed. In the church you and I are needed. God meets our needs through our brothers and sisters, including our need to help others.
Paul writes: “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”
The church is a place that promotes spiritual, mental, and emotional growth. We do not meet each other’s needs simply to be nice, but to promote each other’s growth. Further, we do not ask for others to help us just to meet the needs of the moment, but because we want to grow, to become more like Christ.
I was just part of a conference on caring for missionary families, focussing on building resiliency and identifying risks in the lives of third culture people and their families. Our speaker observed that you can have risk without resiliency (problems that overwhelm you), but you cannot have resiliency without risk (personal growth without problems). Being needy, and having our needs met, fertilizes the soil in which we grow.
In Paul’s words from Philippians 3:12-14, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 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 toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
5. Christ the Source of All
So we have seen that the church is a community where our needs are met, and where we are able to care for each other. The church is a community in which God’s Word is taught and we grow up together into the likeness of Christ. If these things are happening here, you have “church.” One thing more remains, which is foundational to all the others.
Paul puts it this way in verse 15: “We will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” We are the body of Christ, and therefore Christ is himself the head. All that we do comes out of this fundamental truth—that we are made by Christ, saved by Christ, moulded by Christ, and led by Christ. He is the head, and we are the body. He saves and directs and gives us life.
The church, then, is the place where we meet God. If we do not meet God in the church, we can say with some certainty, “This is not the church.” I know the Mennonite world better than I do other parts of the global church, and a common theme among Mennonites is a desire to do something rather than wait in silence before God. We prefer doing to being. But of course being always precedes doing. What we do reveals who we are inside. And for Christians, who we are inside is a people who gain life from Christ. At our best we know this. I remember a new Christian in our congregation at SMC giving his faith story before baptism. He said something like this: “I remember sitting in the pew when I first realized that God is here. The organ was playing and people were singing, and I felt God’s presence all around me. I looked around to see if anyone else could feel it too. I don’t know if they did, but I know that I did.”
Since this encounter with God is “invitation and response”, I can’t give a formula for it. I can’t say, “Do this. Do that.” All I can say is: “Open yourself to God’s invitation.” That is the beginning of the family of God. That is the beginning of the body of Christ.
Conclusion: Bringing these Together
Let me summarize. I have observed five characteristics of the church in this passage: community; mutual care; meeting needs; a place of growth; and the presence of Christ.
One could name other characteristics, but these are a start. I think that they apply both to the congregation and to the larger body, which we sometimes call denominations. If you don’t find them in your church—whether local or national—it may still be truly “church”; this is not an exhaustive list. But I think it is a truly good thing if you do find these things.
I want to add one final piece to a consideration of what it means to be the church. In my introduction I mentioned the conference at which Roger Olson spoke. He noted that denominations come and go, and that a basic reason for a denomination to continue is that it brings some specific flavour or distinctive to the larger global Christian communion. As a Mennonite, our particular flavour is our commitment to peace and justice. I have also worshipped with Free Methodists, who contribute an emphasis on spirit-filled living. The BIC bring these together in what we sometimes call the “quest for piety and obedience” (Wittlinger).
You might say that these flavours are an application of the gifts of the spirit in Ephesians 4, written on a denominational scale. I suggest that we can also think of these flavours as applying to local congregations. So you can ask yourself, “Why are we here? What gifting has God given us as a local part of the global body of Christ?”
I don’t know what your answer is, but I am confident that God has placed you here for a specific purpose, and that you will flourish best as you find God’s purpose for your life as part of the what the hymn, “For All the Saints”, calls “the countless host”. We are part of this global communion throughout space and time, the family of God, the body of Christ. We are here in this community in this place and time, for the ministry and message that God has given us.
29 May 2016
Mitchell Community Fellowship