Editorial-1: January 2009
CHRIST AND HIS CHURCH
Albert Einstein once said that "the kind of thinking that will solve the world's problems will be of a different order to the kind of thinking that created those problems in the first place." If he was right, the problems of the Church cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created those problems. Box-like thinking cannot solve the problems of the box. It is time to step out of the box.
The Church exists not because of human goals or desires, but as a result of God's creating and saving work in the world. It is a visible manifestation of how the Good News of Jesus Christ is present in human life and transforms human culture to reflect faithfully God's intention for creation. It is a community that visibly and effectively participates in God's activity, just as when Jesus referred to it as the salt, yeast and light in the world. Such a church makes mission its priority and perpetually asks: "What has God called us to be and do in our current cultural context?" The Church should therefore be always outward looking, always changing and always faithful to the Word of God. This requires leadership that values imagination, creativity, innovation and daring. When Constantine came to the throne of the Roman Empire, Christians were granted complete freedom of worship and even favoured Christianity. Christianity moved instantly from a marginalised, subversive and persecuted movement, secretly gathering in houses and catacombs, to being the favoured religion in the empire. The emperor changed from being the principal persecutor of Christianity to being the chief sponsor of the church. With the Edict of Milan in 313, the age of missional apostolic church came to be different. When Christianity became the religion of the empire, and still later the ideology of the monarchs, these masters of wisdom in the church were handed scepters and crowns. There are still some who would like to prop them up.
When Christianity gained favoured status with the imperial courts, it altered the fundamental mode of the church's self-understanding and its conception of its unique task in the world. The Gospel was politicised, regionalised and even racial-ised. Mission was used to colonise and advance State interests. Church is worse off precisely because of Christendom's failure to evangelise and establish Gospel communities that transform the culture by teaching them the Word. "No persecutor or foe in 2000 years has wreaked such havoc on the Church as has modernity."
The Church today does not meet the expectations of the Founder. The adventure has gone out of the Christian venture. The Church needs a revolutionary new approach. The Gospel of Jesus Christ should be heard and responded to in our time and in our context. For this, we should promote the same revolution that was precipitated through the world-shattering ministry of Jesus Christ and the Early Church. The traditional church is hierarchical, bureaucratic, with top-down model of leadership. Some denominations are ideologically committed to the hierarchical model that includes archbishops, bishops, priests and parish councils. Some others are equally indebted to the top-down approach through presidents, regional overseers, senior pastors, associate pastors, youth pastors and deacons. From Anglicans to Baptists to Episcopalians, from Methodists to Presbyterians, from the Orthodox Church to Pentecostals, the hierarchical model seems to be universal. How can the Church ignore Paul's radical dissolution of the traditional distinctions between priests and laity, between holy men and the common people, between officials and ordinary members? How long?
Being used to the systematic approach, we create hierarchies. But the organic approach is more to create hierarchies, where we are all fellow heirs to the grace of God. When these old lines of demarcation are blurred, a much more integrated mission can occur. As Mark Driscoll has said, "I want to prepare like an Evangelical; preach like a Pentecostal; pray like a Mystic; do the spiritual disciplines like a Desert Father; art like a Catholic; and social justice like a Liberal."
Members of the society are now assumed to be Christian by births, rather than by choice. Personal conversion implies embracing the redemptive mission of God to the whole world through the work of Jesus Christ. It requires a different kind of thinking that innovates new modes of doing and being Church, and recasts its notions of leadership, structure and mission.
Christianity became a religious institution with attendant structures, priesthood and sacraments from a dynamic, revolutionary, social and spiritual movement. The Church has created "Christians" who cannot relate their internal faith with their external practice. This affects their ethics, their life-styles and their capacity to share their faith meaningfully with others. Many public opinion polls reflect the attitude of "Jesus, yes! Church, no!"
Jesus and the Early Church completely revolutionised the idea of temple worship. The Church has failed to sustain this revolution. For the Early Church, the home was the meeting place. Christians in the first century unravelled traditional human religion by refusing to build sacred sites, by not having altars, and by not ordaining people to a holy office. We do not have evidence of special buildings constructed for church gatherings till the third century. The Early Church recognised the equal importance of relationships with God, one another and the world. The essence of Church is relationship. We show our love for God in our love for others. We cannot be in a right relationship with the world, if we are not in a healthy relationship with God and His people. Jesus' words were deeds and His deeds were words. He not only taught, but also followed His own teachings. There was no distinction between His healings and His teachings. They were all of a piece. His motive was compassion, not publicity. One cannot be a true Christian without adhering to the moral values and teachings of Christ.
Jesus said: "Go into the world." He did not say, "Sit in your church and wait for people to come to you." Jesus, the disciples, Paul, the Early Church leaders all had the "Go-To-Them" stance, instead of our "Come-To-Us" approach. The Church now bids people to come and hear the Gospel in the holy confines of the church.
The Gospel says "Go," but our church buildings say "stay." The Gospel says, "Seek the lost," but our churches say, "Let the lost seek the church." We build a sanctuary to worship God, but that building slowly enforces a Sacred Vs Secular worldview upon us; the building starts to direct our theology. These buildings attest to five facts about the church: its immobility, inflexibility, lack of fellowship, pride and class divisions. The church culture has effectively imprisoned the Good News within its cultural system. Instead of asking non-Christians to come to us, our programmes and our gatherings, the Church should seek to penetrate society to represent Christ in the world.
Full-time clergy, busy serving on various committees, attending many meetings and conducting worship services, have very few social contacts with not-yet Christians. The traditional church often quotes: "Come ye out and be separate," a reversal of Jesus' command to be salt and light in the world. Our lives must be marked by commitments to act justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God (Mic.6:8), must be lived in close proximity to those we are seeking to reach. If our lives are marked by greed, self-centredness, arrogance and fear, how can our light shine forth? Believers should demonstrate a holy life-style through acts of generosity, hospitality and kindness.
Paul encouraged Titus to teach his congregation to be respectful, self-controlled, kind, loving and faithful. He was told to discourage drunkenness, slander, gossip and disrespect. To Titus he commended integrity, seriousness and soundness, "so that in everything they will make the teaching about God, our Saviour, attractive" (Tit.2:1-10).
Paul was not casual when he wrote: "Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone" (Col.4:5-6). He and the Colossians were to pray for his evangelism, live godly lives before unbelievers and give gracious answers to their queries. When we do this, we will be creating the fertile soil for God to do His exclusive work.
What is needed is the abandonment of the strict lines of demarcation between the sacred and profane spaces in our world, and the recognition that people today are searching for relational communities that offer belonging, empowerment and redemption.
We do church today as "birds of the same feather flocking together." People who are different from us, whose thoughts, feelings and desires are different from ours, make us feel insecure. If the Church is simply a community of people from the same language, caste and class, inviting only such other people to join them, then it will always be severely impeded in its attempt to win the world for Christ.
We should learn to accept one another as Christ has accepted us. Then we will be able to forget ourselves and to focus on the way Christ has accepted us. Selfless, humble, gracious hospitality will mark the Church as a unique source of salt and light in the community. Help people connect with God who is seeking them and desiring their friendship. If people find friendship with Jesus through our friendship with them, that is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Many people think that by just tightening some bolts, oiling some hinges and putting a new coat of paint in some places, the Church can be revived. But, what is required is a monumental change to the way we think; we should think biblically about being and doing. A totally different model is the need of the hour.
When the Christian community embraces a godly, holy life-style, it will so tantalise the wider community that they will seek after God. When the wonders of life in Christ are boiled down to some prohibitions, it is hardly likely to arouse interest in the community about us. Abstinence, as an act of devotion to God, is not enough; Alcoholics Anonymous does a much better job. If by holiness we simply mean no smoking, no drinking, no dancing, no ornaments, we have a very limited understanding of what Christ did for us. Churches must be people of God's Word expressing biblical theology in daily life. We should be people of our word, studying what the Bible teaches, doing what Jesus taught, practising what we preach, and walking the walk we talk.
You may wonder, "Is this possible in the modern world?" Yes, we can, in the power of the Holy Spirit.