Two major thoughts concerning The Church in relation to the world and to itself in its various expressions and forms is that of evangelism and unity: Evangelism in its relation to society, and unity in relating to itself through the variety of expressions of church. In this post, I want to ask the question: should the local church be seen as a church for the community? Or should it be understood as a genuine alternative community to that in which it finds itself?
In fairness, I should say that I already have my own answer (which will always be obvious) and am not so much asking a question as provoking thought, because I believe it is time for a radical re-think as to what the expression of the Church in a local community should be.
The answer to this question will, I believe, have a major impact on how we answer questions concerning evangelism and unity. I think that the variety of ‘movements’ which abound today by and large express a particular view of church; a view that needs to change.
An Alternate Community
1 Peter 2:9-10 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. NIV
Throughout the New Testament we can find, stated clearly or implied, that the people of God were not to view themselves as citizens of the world embracing an alternate religious ideal, but should understand that by receiving Christ they would be aliens and strangers in a pagan world. They were to see themselves as citizens of Heaven, foreigners in this world.1 The “Gospel of the Kingdom” preached by Jesus and by the apostles2, and passed on to faithful men and women, is the gospel of the reign of God in and over the lives of those He has chosen by His grace to become “sons of God”.3 The people of God are to be on earth His temple (1Cor 3:16; Eph 2:21-22), His body (Rom 12:4-5; 1Cor 12:27), His people (1Pt 2:10; Hos 1:10), His family.
At the end of the ages the reign of Jesus will be complete4 and God’s chosen people will enter into the fullness of salvation – the redemption of our bodies – and the world as we know it will pass away. But until then, the church is meant to exist as chosen and called out people whose presence on earth should be a reflection of the hope of glory in Christ Jesus. The seal of indwelling Spirit is for us the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of our bodies, and thus the presence of God empowering us to live as His people on earth.
As Apostle Paul declared, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.”5 In Revelation, our destiny is clear; the church is a nation purchased by Jesus’ blood for the sovereign God who will one day reign on the earth. This is not a group of Australians or Americans or Africans or Asians gathering occasionally with common religious views, but a people who have abandoned their allegiance to this world and its tribal identities and taken up citizenship in the Kingdom of God.
Rev 5:9-10 …you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” NIV
So, how does this affect our thoughts concerning the church? How is this redemptive work of God, revealed in Jesus Christ by His Spirit, meant to be expressed in the Church?6
Gordon Fee, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, has this to say about the local church:
In most Protestant circles one tends to take the local parish altogether too lightly. Seldom does one sense that it is, or can be, experienced as a community that is so powerfully indwelt by the Spirit that it functions as a genuine alternative to the pagan world in which it is found. It is perhaps not too strong to suggest that the recapturing of this vision of its being, both in terms of its being powerfully indwelt by the Spirit and its thereby serving as a genuine alternative (“holy” in the most holistic sense) to the world, is its single greatest need.7
The Village Church
In my view of history, it seems that when new lands were pioneered and a community was formed the requisites that marked the town or village was its ability to provide resources like a local school, community law enforcement and a community church – a church for the community.8
It seems that such a ‘community church’ was where Jonathon Edwards saw revival as a preacher. It would seem that a community church was the experience in England during the time of the Wesley brothers. John Wesley’s journal records his many experiences of preaching at various local village churches (of England) inevitably resulting in his being told by the local priest that he would never again be welcome to preach.
As Ascension gifts preached in community churches like this, people encountered the message of the cross and were born again by the Spirit. This usually resulted in them leaving those places of community worship and establishing an alternative. The nature or quality of the alternative ‘church’, I suppose, depended on how much their thinking was influenced by the word of the cross. Regardless of the initial understanding of its identity in the world in which it was birthed, after a generation (or sooner) these new churches invariably became alternate community churches – another place for the people of that town to worship. Now, instead of one community church the town had two.
It further seems to me that this is still prevalent in the thinking of churches today even if the expression is somewhat different. Rarely would anyone argue that “their church” is the local community church, yet each local church is working to be identified in the communities to which they belong. And I use the term “belong” deliberately because that can be the implied thought behind the local churches’ activities.
From this perspective evangelism is a means by which a local church becomes more viable within its natural community. Evangelism is not the outworking of a community living in Christ Jesus to whom God adds numbers but a programme to ensure organisational survival.
Unity seems to be a realisation that other places of community worship, though different in form, have the same religious objectives and values and we should therefore encourage each other, as we exist in our natural communities, endeavouring through our unity to enhance the community with our positive Christian values etc.
Unity is seldom expressed as individuals who once were not a people, not a genuine community in God’s eyes, but now have become a people, a holy nation, the body of Christ and God’s family on earth. Unity is more often expressed as meetings or gatherings of different people from different systems of worship sharing time, ideas, prayer and coffee.
A Valid Community
We need to examine what we call community and what we are willing to align ourselves with. The general thought, though not explicit, is that our secular communities are amoral and exist as valid community. We accept that our cities, towns and villages have produced genuine expressions of community. Because the community in which we live is genuine, in our view, all other communities are judged by it.
When Apostle Paul reached his climactic statement in Romans 7:24 “what a wretched man I am!” his was an exclamation of the state of all of humanity – there is no one righteous not even one. There is no righteous community on earth, no righteous society; all of our communities exist as enemies of God. They are not valid examples of community and therefore not viable models for us to build genuine communities on.
Every tribe, language, people and nation stands condemned by God and exists under His wrath. The cross is the means by which God is redeeming people from every tribe, language, people and nation (from every people group or sub-group in which they find an identity) and translating them into the new creation – the body of Jesus Christ.
The only valid community in existence is the body of Jesus Christ, the community of faith expressed through local churches that exist in brotherly love and Spirit unity to bring glory to God. This community is the Church and it exists only for God.
The Church is not so much a place of (or to) worship, but a community (literally God’s family on earth) whose existence is other than the society in which it is found. It is a community to enter rather than a religious place or group to visit; a family who share life rather than a group who share views.
It seems to me that systemic thinking has taken the responsibility of the individual to live Christ in a ‘pagan’ world and demanded that an organisational structure or system called ‘church’ take responsibility. Evangelism is a programme rather than a lifestyle, unity a series of meetings instead of the communal fellowship of saints.
Is the role of the church meant to influence politics, a secular education system or such things, or is it to be an alternative to that system? It would (or at least should) be a natural outcome for Christians working in government, politics or the education system to have an influence according to their standing, but is that the point of the church? We do have examples in Israel’s history of men and women of God who held high office in foreign nations such as Joseph, Daniel and Esther. Each influenced the power holders of those systems but they did not change them into secular versions of Israel.
While I am convinced of the purpose of men and women of God to influence society as salt and light and of the power of the Spirit to work through people to keep this world from its ultimate destruction until the appointed time, I think that the church – like Israel as a type of the church – needs to be an alternate community first. It should be a community devoted to Jesus Christ and to exist solely for the purpose of glorifying God.
The church as a community exists, not for the benefit of the secular world in which it finds itself, but as a new creation family hidden in God with Jesus Christ; called to reveal the wisdom of God to principalities and powers in spiritual realms.
Eph 3:10-11 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. NIV
- Heb 11:13; 1Pt 1:1; 1:17; 2:11; Eph 2:12,19; Phil 3:20 [↩]
- Matt 4:23; 24:14; Jn 3:3,5; Act 8:12; 19:8; 28:31; Rom 14:17; 1Cor 4:20; Col 1:13 [↩]
- Rom 8:18-28 [↩]
- 1Cor 15:24-28 [↩]
- 1 Cor 6:19-20 [↩]
- Eph 3:10-11 His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. NIV [↩]
- NICNT the first epistle to the Corinthians Pg 151/2 [↩]
- Obviously I do not intend to portray this as a definitive study but an anecdotal view [↩]