01 March 2009
The Basics: The body of Christ
In our 11-part series looking at how the Alliance's Basis of Faith is Good News for our neighbours, Keith Warrington discusses…
- The Church, the body of Christ both local and universal, the priesthood of all believers - given life by the Spirit and endowed with the Spirit's gifts to worship God and proclaim the Gospel, promoting justice and love.
When Jesus chose a name for the community of believers who would be left after He returned to heaven, He chose the word ekklesia (Matthew 16.18, 18.17). It wasn't a religious term; it was actually a political term - but it was a very good choice to best describe central aspects of the community that would be left after He had gone.
Fundamentally, it referred to a group of people who were called out (ek + klētos) to be together. It did not refer to a building but to a community and, in particular, to people who were entrusted with the role of ensuring their own stability and development, responsible for their cohesion and maturity, planning for their future and fulfilling their corporately decided goals. Jesus anticipated that His community would function similarly: in relationship, enjoying each other's company, demonstrating sympathy and support, compassion and commiseration, motivated by the central element of love, the intended consequences being unity and diversity. Somewhere along the way, some of these fundamental elements have got lost.
Although Jesus prayed for unity among His followers (John 17.11), and Paul encouraged believers to maintain the unity that the Spirit established (Ephesians 4.4), Christians have often identified other priorities. One of the greatest challenges in my own Pentecostal tradition is that of disunity - phenomenal growth but a tendency to fragmentation.
A month ago, I was speaking at a Pentecostal Conference in Indonesia, a country of more than 130 million people of which there are some 10 million Pentecostals represented by 70 denominations. They recognise the challenge of being divided, and so the leaders of the various Pentecostal denominations regularly meet for fellowship and prayer, planning and listening to one another, to ensure that unity and mutuality is maintained - protected where it is in danger of being undermined and re-created where it has disintegrated.
It is a challenge for us all, especially where we relate to believers from different Christian traditions to our own. It is also a privilege, as there is much to be gained in learning from one another and, most importantly, we will be fulfilling the aspirations of the Spirit and Jesus.
By contrast, believers who are divided fail in their mission to reflect the plan of God through the Church. The underlying problem of the believers in Corinth, to whom Paul wrote, was not related to issues of sexuality or immorality, injustice or charismatic chaos, poor leadership or the Lord's Supper. The fundamental problem was that the believers were disunited; so it is the first topic that Paul addresses (1 Corinthians 1.10-13) and all the problems thereafter are consequences of it.
Many years ago, I joined Operation Mobilisation to engage in mission for one year in Europe, mainly Italy. As part of our preparation, each one of us was requested to listen to 10 sermons. I did not understand why I was sent one that dealt with the issue of unity. I was ready to evangelise the world - why did I need to be told about living together harmoniously? My leaders were wiser than I was; to offer an effective corporate witness, we needed to manifest love for each other in harmony and unity. By the time I arrived in Italy, I decided to listen to the message again.
Perhaps the other key message by Paul to the church at Corinth relates to the topic of diversity (1 Corinthians 12.4-31). Each one of us is different, made by God with unique gifts and sensitivities, tendencies and personalities. The mission set before us is to live harmoniously, but also to recognise each other's strengths. Having identified them, we should actively seek to provide opportunities for people to use and develop them. Our role is to affirm others - in particular, to celebrate their abilities and enable them to function effectively. Actively identifying each other's gifts and then facilitating opportunities for their expression will result in cohesion and inter-dependence.
When Roberta Hestenes was spiritual director of the University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, she was asked how she would evaluate the maturity and spirituality of a church. She replied, "I would sum it up by saying you look at the quality of a church's corporate life." We may be tempted to conclude that a church is successful because of the size of the congregation, the rapidity of its growth, or its social or evangelistic programmes. However, it may be more important to consider its sense of corporate diversity and interdependency. Is it run by a few gifted individuals or does everyone have an active part to play? Is it a church where the majority come to watch or where all come to actively participate?
God-oriented, Jesus-centric, Spirit-controlled
Jesus describes His new community as "my church" (Matthew 16.18) while Paul refers to it as "God's church" (Galatians 1.13). It is owned by God but, sensationally, He has chosen to live in it (1 Corinthians 3.16). It is our responsibility to take seriously our place in His Church, ensuring that our relationship with Him is developing, so that when we are with other believers we will be able to positively influence them, maintaining unity, celebrating diversity, and thus reflecting His aspirations for His Church.
- The Alliance's full Basis of Faith can be found at: eauk.org/basisoffaith
- Dr Keith Warrington is vice-principal of Regents Theological College and author of Discovering the Holy Spirit in the New Testament.
This series is not a commentary on the Basis of Faith, neither is it an explanation of how the Basis is interpreted by the Alliance. Rather, it focuses on the relevance of the Basis to spreading the Good News.