Editorial: August 2009
In the fullness of time, God entered fully into human history in the birth of Jesus Christ. Jesus called twelve disciples, who formed the nucleus of God's new people. Jesus' life and teachings provide the foundation upon which the Church was created and called into being through its faith in the risen Lord. The Church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone" (Eph.2:20).
Oswald Chambers said: "All that our Lord succeeded in doing during His life on earth was to gather together a group of fishermen-the whole Church of God and the enterprise of our Lord on earth in a fishing boat!"
Christ promised the apostles a baptism of the Spirit and this took place at Pentecost (Acts 2), and in the home of Cornelius (Acts 10). The two events included both Jews and Gentiles and thus the body of Christ, the Church, was formed.
The Church is to be “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light" (1 Pet.2:9). As a holy priesthood, the Church is entrusted with the task of bringing God's Word to mankind and interceding with God on behalf of mankind. A. W. Tozer said, "God finally expects the Church to prove itself a miraculous group in the very midst of a hostile world."
A brief sketch of the life and character of the early Christian community is found in Acts 2:42-47. The first Christians were Jews living in Jerusalem, who had found in Jesus the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. This church has remained a model for Christians of all subsequent ages. Its converts joyfully received the Gospel, were baptised, and identified themselves with the church. Its sacred communion consisted in steadfastness of purpose, doctrinal instruction, Christian fellowship, observance of the Lord's Supper, and prayers. Its moral and spiritual influence profoundly affected the community, and frequent miracles confirmed its divine mission. Its liberality abounded toward the needs of the entire body of Christ. Its service reflected constancy, unity, fellowship, joy and guileless sincerity. Its spiritual prosperity is reflected in its various praises, its confidence of and favour with the community, and its evangelical fervour and success. "The Lord added to the Church daily those who were being saved."
Apostles' doctrines or teachings were the key. The teaching of the Lord, together with the proclamation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and its meaning for man's salvation were emphasised in the Gospel. This teaching was an authoritative tradition in the Early Church and later found embodiment in the New Testament. The early believers found delight in fellowship with one another, particularly in the breaking of bread (probably, this consisted of a fellowship meal, together with the Lord's Supper) and in regular times of united prayer. The character of the early Christian community aroused in the people a sense of awe that was reinforced by many miracles performed by the apostles.
Those in Christian fellowship were devoted to one another. Christian love manifested itself in a social programme of material support for the poor. Joyfulness and generosity of heart were the two outstanding characteristics of the Early Church. "A church is a body or collection of persons, voluntarily associated together, professing to believe what Christ teaches, to do what Christ enjoins, to imitate His example, cherish His Spirit, and make known His Gospel to others."
However, throughout most of history, the nature of the Church has been defined by divided Christians trying to establish the validity of their own existence. In the early centuries, the Donatists of North Africa focussed on the purity of the church and claimed to be the only church that measured upto the biblical standard. In the middle Ages, various sects defined the church in such ways as to claim that they were the true church. The Arnoldists emphasised poverty and identification with the masses. The Waldenses stressed literal obedience to Jesus' teachings and emphasised evangelical preaching. Roman Catholics claimed that the only true church was that over which the Pope was supreme, as successor of Apostle Peter. Martin Luther and John Calvin, following John Wycliffe, distinguished between the visible and invisible church, claiming that the invisible church consists of the elect only. Thus an individual might be part of the visible church, but not a part of the invisible and true church.
A. W. Tozer once remarked: "One hundred religious persons knit into unity by careful organisation do not constitute a church any more than eleven dead men make a football team."
There is a multiplicity of images and concepts that contribute to an understanding of the nature of the Church. Listing some of these will demonstrate the great diversity: the salt of the earth, a letter from Christ, branches of the vine, the bride of Christ, exiles, ambassadors, a chosen race, the holy temple, priesthood, the new creation, fighters against Satan, the sanctified slaves, friends, sons of God, household of God, members of Christ, spiritual body. In spite of the plethora of images, it is possible to find the major concepts that hold these many images together. The Church has affirmed itself to be "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic," as affirmed by the Council of Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451).
From the beginning, the Church has manifested itself in many local churches (Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, etc.); they do not seem to have had uniformity of worship, structures or even a uniform theology. There was no attempt to get them all under one organisation. The local churches were independent. It seems they had a “Three Self” policy- “self-goverment, self-support, and self-propagation.” But, there was fellowship and interaction among them.
Elders were appointed in the churches to set things in order, exhort in sound doctrine, refute those who contradict (Tit.1:9) and “instruct to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Tit.2:12).
Our challenge is to live in unity without insisting that the structure, worship and theology are uniform. We should stop thinking that our denomination is the vine and all others are branches; Jesus is the vine and all of us are branches.
It was estimated that there were 1900 church denominations at the beginning of the 20th century. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology states that there were 22,000 denominations, 25 years ago. "It would take a microscope to find the reasons for the different groups-which, in most cases, have been forgotten." Such numbers effectively refute the theological assertion that the Church is one. Don't they? A person coming to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ is faced with the dilemma of identifying the group, for him to associate with, from among the many.
Paul has warned against divisions in the local churches and urges the people to be united in Christ (1 Cor. 1: 10-30). In 1 Corinthians 12, he points out that, while there are many gifts, there is one body (Rom.12:3-8). John has written about the one shepherd and the one flock (Jn.10:16). Jesus prays that His followers may be one, even as Father and Son are one (Jn.17:20-26). Paul has declared that in Christ, all are one, with no distinction of race, social status or sex. The oneness of the Church is eloquently portrayed in Acts 2:42 and 4:32. "There is one body and one spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all"(Eph.4:4-6). Unity, however, does not mean uniformity.
The message of the Bible is the norm by which the life of the Church is to be measured. The Church can be one, holy and catholic only if it is apostolic. The message of the apostles must be that of the Church. Oswald J. Smith said, "It matters not how spiritual a church may profess to be; if souls are not saved, something is radically wrong, and the professed spirituality is simply a false experience, a delusion of the devil. People who are satisfied to meet together simply to have a good time among themselves are far away from God. Real spirituality always has an outcome."
Paul speaks of the Church as the body of Christ, not as a body of Christians. He is the head of the body and the body is dependent on its head for its life and growth (Col.2:19).Christians form a unity both with Christ and with one another. Christ is the authority who stands over the Church.
"A church that is soundly rooted cannot be destroyed, but nothing can save a church whose root is dried up. No stimulation, no advertising campaigns, no gifts of money, and no beautiful edifice can bring back life to the rootless tree."
Christians in Corinth were guilty of incest, suing one another in courts, defrauding one another. In Rome, the weak brothers were judging the strong ones. 1 John 1:8 reminds us that a church which has no sin to confess simply does not exist. Some have claimed that the members are sinful, while the Church is holy. It is sinful people who constitute the Church. The presence of sin in the church seems to refute the assertion that the Church is holy. Does it? "A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints." It should also be an expression of the concerned heart of the Lord for the hurting, broken people.
"Biblically, the Church is an organism, not an organisation-a movement, not a monument. It is not a part of the community; it is a whole new community. It is not an orderly gathering; it is a new order with new values, often in sharp conflict with the values of the surrounding society."
"Where is the church at 11.25 on Monday morning? "The church then is in the dentist's office, in the automobile sales room and repair shop, and out in the truck. It is in the hospital, in the classroom, and in the home. It is in the offices, insurance, law, real estate, whatever it is. That is where the church is, wherever God's people are. They are doing what they ought to be doing. They are honouring God, not just while they worship in a building, but out there."