In a recent post I lamented the fact that few people are writing about the church. Yes, there is much written about church growth, and about healthy churches, and about small groups, and about leadership. Some of it is well thought out and bears reflection and some of it is ephemeral. Much of it could be taken from Madison Avenue or from the Harvard Business School. My point is that if we don’t have a Biblical foundation for thinking and acting then how can we act and think? If we don’t know who we are then how do we know how we are supposed to be living and thinking? If we don’t have the Biblical fundamentals down in our minds and hearts then how can we filter our thoughts, our problems, our challenges, our accountability? If we don’t have a Biblical context for thinking about the church then how can we negotiate church life? What is the nature of the church? Are we an organization or are we an organism? How should people in different congregations think about each other Biblically? How should denominations think about other denominations? How should people in distinct traditions think about those in other traditions?
It is my observation that most of us capitulate to the immediate; we deal with the immediate and tell ourselves that we’ll think about the big picture later. Sometimes we can live in a house and never think about how the house was actually built. As long as the house does not have problems that may be fine, but should a bearing wall start to sag or a foundation begin to crumble then we may find ourselves thinking about the people who designed and built the house. Why did they do this and not that? Couldn’t they have foreseen this problem? If I ever build a house I’ll make sure to do this and that.
We are less likely to ask these questions if we are in a hotel or inn, or visiting friends – after all, we are there and gone. Perhaps this is one reason we don’t think deeply about the church, we see each other once a week, or twice a week, or sometimes maybe even three times a week; but since, for most of us, the church is not our life but only part of our life we don’t think too much about the foundation and walls and roof – as long as things are working reasonably well we try to make do with the church we attend…and if that doesn’t work out we can always try the new place down the street.
Things tend to move too fast for us to think deeply. Plus, if we think deeply we may find things we’d rather not know. If we find things we’d rather not know who will we discuss them with? Who will we tell them to? Better to leave things are they are.
There are at least two ways to think about the church and the Bible. One way is to take the Bible and place it within our understanding of the church. If we do this then we will mold the Bible to fit our understanding. The other way is to explore the Bible to learn about the church and then see how the Bible’s teaching about church compares with our understanding and practice of church.
There are many impediments to thinking Biblically about the church, and being aware of them may help us. The first impediment, and perhaps the most obvious, is our experience. Some of us have had great church experiences, some not so great, and some pretty horrible. Christian traditions vary greatly in terms of polity, order of worship, music, and any number of other items – when we’ve lived a certain way for some time it tends to color our vision – for good or ill.
Some of us look at church primarily in terms of continuity and stability – we honor the past and place great value on tradition. Some of us look at the church as a place of service, of action – serving people within and without the church, helping them. Then others of us look at the church organizationally and pragmatically. Yet others look at the church in terms of the experience we and others have – how we feel when we are at church. Still others view church primarily in terms of relationships, of harmony, of people getting along. All of these elements are touched on in the Bible and most of us, if not all of us, are disposed to approach the church with a primary mindset – it can not only make it difficult to see other facets of the Biblical church, it can also make it difficult to understand other Christians who have a different primary viewpoint.
Surprise! We are different from one another, we are not all the same. Two passages of Scripture that point this out are Romans Chapter 12 and 1 Corinthians Chapter 12. These two passages are, in many ways, foundational to our understanding of the church – there are other foundation stones as well which we will explore later, but for now let’s remind ourselves that we are different, we have different gifts, we are a body, the Body of Christ.
We will not see things the same way, but we can still believe what is true and we can still honor our brothers and sisters and honor the way they primarily see things. I’ve been to the refrigerator more than once in our marriage to look for something Vickie assures me is there, yet I can’t find it, yet I can’t “see” it. Vickie then walks right to the refrigerator, opens the door, and (normally) reaches her hand in and takes the item I was certain was not there. I have coworkers whose gifts and talents are much different than mine, I need them to perform my job well because they often “see” things that I do not have an inclination to see. I have to trust them, I have to trust what they see that I don’t see. My coworkers have taught me to “see” in new ways, I still don’t have their natural ability to see certain things, but the longer I work with them and the longer I trust them the better able I am to see things I couldn’t see before.
As a pastor I have trusted my parishioners with ideas and initiatives that I could not “see”, but because I believe that Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 are true, because I believe that every member of the Body of Christ is given grace, because I believe that Jesus (and not Bob) is the head of the Church, I have given others my support and encouragement whether or not I could “see” what they felt called to do. This is also true with my circle of Christian friends, I don’t need to see things their way to honor them and support them.
My vision is limited and I know that as I reflect on the church that I will be working within those limitations; I hope you will allow me room to work within my limitations and that you will understand that my experience no doubt influences my vision as, I suspect, your experience influences your vision.
You might want to ponder Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, to read them through, then go back and read them slowly over a week or so. What do you see? What catches your attention? Where do you fit in?