it take a church

Nowadays there seems to have been a backlash against what was used by a political candidate here in the US some years back: “It takes a village.” Actually that has plenty of truth in it, just as does the idea that we can’t depend on others to do for us what only we can do. They can’t live our lives for us. Nor should we expect others to do for us what we can do ourselves. True. But the prevailing emphasis on individual rights and freedom nowadays perhaps is the idea that we can get along just fine on our own, that we need no one else.

God’s word and its fulfillment in Jesus tells us something entirely different. Humans are made for community. Yes, some of us like our space, and need more separation than others. But none of us were made for isolation, for solitary confinement. As God says in Genesis: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make one corresponding him,  as complements to each other” (Genesis 2; my paraphrase).

Sin divides us from God and each other. At its core sin is a violation of love for God, and for neighbor, which really ends up being all humanity, especially in the world in which we live today, a shrinking globe due to our ability to traverse so well. God’s saving work in Christ is at heart a reconciliation to God and to each other. That reconciliation is front and center in the church. Through the gospel: baptism and the Lord’s table being central in enacting and displaying it.

“It takes a church” we might say. Yes, made up of imperfect, broken, yet being put together people like you and I. Just ordinary people, and often struggling to one degree or another. But our lives are meant to be lived not in isolation, but with others. If we’re “in Christ” by faith, then we’re in Christ’s body, the church. Our identity then, is not only in Christ, but in his body, the church.

That seems often minimized in evangelical Christian circles, with an emphasis on people’s individual response to the gospel and God’s word. But it is not minimized in the very Scripture we evangelicals hold as central to our faith. We need to acclimate ourselves to something different. The life of God we find in Jesus is especially made known in the church. And imbibed and then lived out yes even in the church through what we might call the sacraments, and our lives lived together in communion with each other. And from that sent out on mission. In and through Jesus.

being led by the Spirit/the peace of Christ is individual, but essentially communal

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

Colossians 3:15

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law….

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Galatians 5:18,22-26

Being led by the Spirit and the peace of Christ is both individual, but it’s especially communal. At least that’s the case in the two passages quoted above. I think we often think of them in individual terms and maybe due to our culture. Here in the United States we are steeped in individualism in terms of individual liberty/freedom. From our heritage in the founding of the nation based in the Modernist Enlightenment in which this emphasis was one of its tenets. While there may be some good in that, overall it obscures what is at the heart of humanity: relationships. To be human is to reflect the image of the Triune God who lives in Relationship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And we were made to be and practice the same both in our relationship to God and to each other.

So we have to think and live in terms of what is best not just for us, but for others, in fact the emphasis being on the others in our following of Christ, even as we’re reminded elsewhere (Philippians 2:1-11). It’s not like we all simply try to make each other happy, though joy and peace should characterize our lives together in the righteousness the Holy Spirit gives (Romans 14:17-18 in context). Sometimes in our gifting, what we are led to do, always gently, might be a challenge to others. But in the love of Christ that is present, we should receive such in God’s peace: the ideal. And remember too that this is a major way God will lead us and give us his peace: through each other. All of this as always, in and through Jesus.

Modernist Enlightenment priorities

At the heart of the American experiment, the United States of America, is the influence of the great Modernist Enlightenment which was sweeping the world just prior to the nation’s founding. It was a break from established authority such as the church into the new world of great human achievement. In a sense, it wasn’t new, having come on the shoulders of the Renaissance and not without some impulse from the Protestant Reformation. Although the Reformation itself may have had some, at least backing, from this wave. One can’t include the Reformation as part of Modernism or the Enlightenment, though the world can influence the church for ill, as has been seen beginning in the 19th century with Mainline Protestantism.

The goal of this post is not to talk about the Modernist Enlightenment of which my own knowledge is limited, but to mention some of the basic tenants of it, which I think have infiltrated our thinking and priorities even as Bible believing Christians, quite apart from the people and churches in Mainline Protestantism who practically deny the truth of the Bible itself, and thus the truth of the gospel.

Autonomy is at the heart of a value we’ve imbibed from the world. It is rooted in certain human/humanistic ideals, to be sure, often more or less universally accepted like the rule of some kind of law based on an accepted form of morality, not far afield from the obligations to humanity in the Ten Commandments, which through general revelation can be more or less found in other moral codes of the ancient world.

Autonomy here means an emphasis on the individual, and on freedom, on individual liberty. Every person theoretically is taken seriously within the accepted framework, and has certain rights grounded in what is called natural law. The idea of individual rights is so pervasive in our society, that it has impacted our worldview as Christians, and affects even how we understand and fail to understand the faith.

Jesus’s ethic, and thus the ethic for Christ followers and Christians is grounded in the call to love God with one’s entire being and doing: the call to love one’s neighbor as one’s self. No longer is one operating from merely individual freedom and rights. Instead one’s considerations our shaped by the necessity, indeed imperative to love one’s neighbor as themselves. It is a community consideration, rather than a mere individual one. It’s not about what I want, what I like, or what I choose to do. It’s grounded in God’s will, what God wants, God’s calling- all in Jesus.

So we do well to step back, stop and think about what drives our thinking and corresponding actions. Are we conformed to this world, the spirit of the age, or are we being transformed by the renewing of our minds into the image of God in Jesus? Whatever that difference might look like in civic life is secondary to what it is to be steeped in: the life of the church in making disciples through the gospel. Something we both become and are becoming, as well as being a light in the world to help others into this same life. A life that is about loving God and one’s neighbor, and laying down all of our rights in the way of Jesus.

the importance of the church

There is no doubt that the individual and individuals are important to God. In fact we can say that every individual human being matters to God. God created each of us in his image, and treats every human being with respect as such. Even though so many evils in a world of hurt we have to leave with God, since life often seems unfair, quite broken, our own difficulties that way not even close to the plight others experience. So what is said here is not at all to disparage the importance of the individual before God and in the world.

But while the individual in scripture is far from ignored, in fact, just the opposite, there is a clear emphasis on the importance of community, or individals together in communion in knowing each other, living with each other’s interests in view, and not just their own individual interests. On the most basic level this happen in families in which the spouses inevitably should put their partner’s interest at least on the same level as their own, and surely higher, in the way of Christ. And of course good parents inevitably sacrifice their own wants and desires for the good of their children.

In scripture God called an individual, Abraham, to call a people to himself. Yes, a people. Human beings are meant to live in community. To be human in significant part is to be in relationship to another human; it is not good for the human to be alone. God is creating a people in Jesus who not only enter into communion with God, which by the way is a Trinitarian communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, but into communion with other humans in reflecting something of that Triune communion in God himself.

We find the formation of the nation of Israel meant to be a light to the world, in showing God’s light of truth and love to the nations. Blessed to be a blessing, that calling realized in its fullness in Christ’s fulfillment of it. And now the church in Jesus together is to proclaim and be a witness to that fulfillment to the world, by gathering together for the word, the sacraments, and the common life. Everyone who is a member of Christ through faith and baptism, is also a member of his body, the church. We in Jesus not only belong to him, but to each other.

This isn’t easy, given our culture in the United States, the first nation built on the Modernist Enlightenment in which at least one of its pillars is indiviual rights. It becomes all about my rights. And we’re already broken because of sin, not only a personal brokenness, but along with that a brokenness in relationships, even if by common grace much good still goes on. We want to be left alone, but that urge mirrors our bent to want God to leave us alone, or meet us on our own terms. But that is not the way in Jesus, as we see over and over again in scripture. It isn’t easy, but there is no other option in really following the Lord, in truly being Christian.

 

scripture, yes, but also the church

In my own life of over forty years of professing the faith, scripture has been more than less central. Church has been important all the way through in shaping my reading of scripture, but it’s been mostly about reading (and probably even more, hearing) scripture, something which is still of central importance for me to this day.

What has been lacking, I’m afraid, is a sufficient realization of just how central the church ought to be in both our identity and practice. It is as good to be part of a church tradition, as to have a well worn Bible. Understood rightly, I think they go hand in hand. But in our western individualistic mindset, church can be relegated to a secondary status, and a theological commitment to “sola-scriptura” can feed right into this error, even though it doesn’t have to do so. On that point, I tend to see this theological construct as a fiction in that there is no such thing as scripture alone, when you consider the place the church and tradition is given in scripture itself. Scriptura-primera, scripture-first, might better describe the more Catholic, yet still Protestant approach I might take along with others. That plays itself out in wanting to test everything by scripture. Though understood in the full theological context, even the Roman Catholic Church attempts to do the same. It is just that their understanding of tradition goes somewhat beyond, so that part of what can be accepted in the teaching and practice of the church ends up coming from implications or what could follow, or maybe just be in alleged harmony with scripture, rather than from scripture itself. But to some extent, even Protestant churches do that in their tradition as well, in my Anglican church, the bread and wine are consecrated to be in some sense the body and blood of our Lord for us in our participation in Holy Communion.

The so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral posits the church, tradition, reason and experience in that order as givens in our life in Christ. And some Anglicans like N. T. Wright would insist on the first three, leaving experience out. All four rightly understood can surely have their place, and I especially would not want to lose sight of reason (although experience, as in “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” seems right along this line, also), scripture itself openly and by implication appealing to human reason.

So tradition is important, and has its place. What is of uppermost importance in tradition, I think, is simply the reality and practice of church. After all, the church is Christ in a sense, specifically his body in the world, of which he is the head. So it seems to me that a full-orbed life in the Lord, will certainly put an emphasis on church which minimally means faithful participation in meeting and giving, and in both the common, and the sacramental life.

In my own life, I’m afraid church hasn’t been central enough. I’ve always been a part of a church, but that may not mean all that much to many of us, certainly not enough in terms of what scripture makes church to be. That has played out in my life in a number of ways which were not helpful. Raised Mennonite, after conversion I was influenced by someone, and left the Mennonite tradition, and in my faith journey ended up traversing through a number of traditions in search of the most scriptural tradition. That could be called mistake #1. I frankly would have been better off to pray and become settled in one tradition, which well could have been Mennonite, or something after that. I do appreciate my Mennonite/Anabaptist heritage, which I think in some ways, after coming back to something of it, remains with me for good, not in length, though that’s probaby true, too.

Maybe this is where the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox have it over on us, one of the ways: Your obedience to the faith, to Christ, includes your obedience to the Church. You can protest, and for example become an advocate for women in the priesthood, etc., but you still have to be obedient to the Church to be obedient to Christ. I think there’s plenty of wisdom in that. Not to mention that it is plainly taught in scripture.

I hope and pray that scripture will continue to have primacy in my life, in the attempt to keep Christ and the gospel central. And part of that ought to be a complete identification with and participation in the church.

the individual in community in Jesus

Recently I read an interesting link from which I found a paper comparing C. S. Lewis with J. R. R. Tolkien. And it got me thinking some more on the place of community (or lack of it) in our tradition and practice of the faith.

What I find shocking looking back on my life, is just how optional many believers in Christ make church to be. Okay, it is a bit more than just a nice addition to them. But it is too often not an essential. What is essential to them is personal faith in Jesus, the salvation that comes to them individually through that.  According to Ralph Wood, Baylor University Professor of Theology and Literature, his evangelical students- the majority of those he teaches, hardly have a clue when it comes to community and its importance.

I’m sure without a doubt that I more or less share in that ignorance. Our context in life trumps anything we might gather in intellectually, or from the “ivory tower.” I find that insights and understanding seem to come out of life more than from anywhere else, guided by the text of scripture. I may catch a glimpse of community here or there in a way that can inform me toward a better scriptural understanding and practice of community in Jesus (such as in a Roman Catholic mass/worship service). And get some suggestions concerning it from a paper, as in the interview of Ralph Wood from the link above, or in his paper cited. Again, thoughts that need to be considered in terms of real life, in faith and practice.

I believe in personal devotions, even though I hardly practice them at all as many Christians in my tradition do. We must have a relationship with God through Christ- living and growing, on a personal level. But we don’t get that on our own, not even with us and Jesus. I like the way Ralph Wood puts it, from the interview:

In teaching my wonderfully receptive and overwhelmingly evangelical students here at Baylor, I have great difficulty convincing them that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian, that our faith does not depend on a primarily private relation to Jesus, and thus that we cannot be Christians apart from our baptismal participation in his Church. Their blindness in this regard is not their fault: this is what their churches and our individualist culture have taught them.

I find too often that I exist among other Christians who have been raised in this kind of tradition. We live and move even around each other oftentimes in isolation. As if we were separate islands. And that whatever impact we might have on each other does nothing more than to shore up those islands, i.e., our personal walk and life in Christ.

Yes, our individual life and walk and experience in Christ is vitally important. But that needs to be understood in terms of the whole which includes participation in Christ and Christ’s body, the church. One can’t have participation in Christ apart from participation in his body. Somehow in ways that are beyond us for sure, we need to live as those who are part of the whole. Belonging to Christ means belonging to his members. There is no such thing, really, as an isolated, individual faith. At least not in terms of God’s will and where he will bring us, his children.

Now by this, I’m not suggesting we have to become Catholic or Orthodox or Anglican, something either in or more attune to the Great Tradition, though in some ways that would help. Joining a church of the Great Tradition does not seem to be an option for me. But we most certainly can learn from each other across different traditions, and that is what I would be suggesting here. Even as they can learn something from us in and through Christ.

This post is simply shared as food for thought. How can we better be what we are in Christ? Not just individuals, but those who together are Christ’s body in the world. How might this help us see not only our sheer dependence on God through Christ, but our utter interdependence on each other in Christ? I am groping, myself.

individuals or community?

It is interesting when one considers the writings of Christian theologians, exegetes, and mystics. I would include even this blog, called “Jesus community.” And of course we have to go to scripture and consider its narrative, prose and poetry, as well. The consideration I’m thinking of is whether individuals or community is given primacy of place. With the question: Does it have to be either, or?

Of course we see everything through our own cultural lens which where I live seems profoundly individualistic, especially when compared to most other societies in the past and the present. We’ve inherited a Western Modern Enlightenment philosophy through which we’ve looked at the world for so long, it’s really hard for us to gauge well just what we or others are doing, or what the Bible does for that matter, in terms of individual and community. I think some of our best writers are quite strong with reference to the individual, but I find one hard pressed to find good writing in terms of community, though it is out there.

I share here as one who does not imagine for a second that somehow I have this matter in hand myself. In fact I think I’m too steeped on the individualistic side. However we need to see the narrative of scripture for what it is. Individuals are addressed over and over again, and are spoken of. Many examples of it. But it is never a matter of individuals standing alone, but in or with reference to a community. People end up being called into community which has its grounding in the Trinity as well as in the people God calls to be his own. The church is comprised of members united together in Christ, indeed it is called a body, the body of Christ.

I think we have to see life in terms of both. Yes, we address each other as individuals, but none of us can live well or according to God’s will in isolation. We are meant to live in relationships, fundamentally to God and to each other. Perhaps we need to emphasize the communal aspect more, since our culture and society is given more to an isolated individualism, overall. I personally prefer a body of individuals in some kind of sync together, over a body of individuals in which the emphasis is on each individual. The point is just how everything fits together, the bigger picture.

Individuals together in community in Jesus for the world.