THE CHURCH

- by Lance Pierson

The last time you were part of a Communion service, you announced that you believed in `one holy catholic and apostolic church.' That one forensic little sentence pins down everything the Bible teaches and the sages have thought about the church. And it ropes together in tension two seeming irreconcilables: for if you think of a church which has in any sense through history been one and catholic, it has scarcely been holy or apostolic for very long.

Church

Study the church, and we squelch in a morass of misunderstood words. Take `church' for a start. By English derivation the word `church' is an adjective, not a noun. It means `belonging to the Lord'. The Greek word translated `church' in the New Testament is ecclesia; it is a collective noun, meaning `congregation' or `specially summoned gathering'. Fuse the two concepts and you have it: God's own people! In essence, nothing to do with buildings, bishops or papal bulls. The church is the people of God, all Christians everywhere. If we're believers, it's you and me. It should be a proud and pleasing designation.

Unfortunately the church has such an appalling image. Think of the vicar in Giles cartoons! Or the legendary evening attendance of two old ladies and a cat. Or those endless appeals to help mend the roof.

Like a mighty tortoise,
Moves the church of God;
Brothers, we are treading,
Where we've always trod;
We are all divided, Many bodies we,
Very strong on doctrine, Weak on charity.

Beside the revolutionary youth of Jesus, the church looks old and doddery; cautious, conservative, crippled.

However bad our image, though, the Bible is full of exciting images to spell out who we should really be. Sons and daughters in a family (Romans 8; 14 - 17). Subjects in a kingdom (Mark 1; 14 - 2O). Soldiers in an army (2 Timothy 2; 3 - 4). Sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd (John 1O; 1 - 3O). Branches in a vine (John 15; 1 - 17). Spiritual bricks in a mighty building project (Ephesians 2; 19 - 22). Limbs in a body, that fit and function healthily together (1 Corinthians 12; 12 - 27). The common factors are vital: united followers of one leader, vividly diverse and deliberately purposeful. Each image pulsates with life; and - triumphantly - with the promise of success.

And they point to a basic human need. No man is an island. And Christians need each other not just on Sunday, but every day of the week! Jesus does not expect you to go it alone, or the achievement of His will to be 'all your own work' ! He makes you one of His group. He gives you the church to support you, stretch you, polish you, use your talents, co-operate with you and fulfil you.

Apostolic

So much for the church itself. But those other words in the Creed need unpacking too. It is the apostolic church: founded by the apostles and on the apostles (1 Corinthians 12; 28, Ephesians 2; 20). The apostles were the first followers of Jesus. They saw what He did and heard what He said, and passed it on as the foundation charter for the church. The apostolic church is true to this teaching of the apostles. When it invents new ideas of its own, which contradict the Bible (eg that there is no such thing as Hell) it ceases at that point to be apostolic. Each time the church has drifted from its apostolic anchor, simultaneously it has become schismatic (no longer catholic), disunited (no longer one) and sinful (no longer holy).

The church today, where it is true, is the same as the original church of AD 33. The accumulation of centuries in between makes not a scrap of difference. This is the meaning of the phrase `the communion of the saints' in the Apostles Creed (we would do better, incidentally to call it the Apostolic Creed: they didn't write it, but it is true to their teaching). `Saints' are not dead Christians of extra virtue; it is a name for all God's people in every generation. So the `communion of the saints' is not some spiritualistic communing with St Anthony or whoever. It is the truth that you have more in common with, say, Timothy and Titus and the `large crowd of witnesses' (Hebrews 12; 1) who are ahead of us and now watch us, than you have with your mother if she is not a Christian.

Catholic

`Apostolic' means we have continuity with other churches in history. `Catholic' speaks of our continuity in geography. The word does not equal Roman Catholic, which strictly speaking is a contradiction in terms. (More on denominations later.) `Catholic' means simply `universal' or `everywhere'. So just as your home church is the same church as the one Paul wrote to in Corinth, it is also in intimate fellowship with the church today in Colorado or Korea.

The gospels record Jesus using the word `church' only twice. The first time (Matthew 16; 18 - `on this rock foundation I will build my church' ) He clearly means the total church throughout time and space. The second (Matthew 18; 17 - in a quarrel with an unrepentant fellow-Christian, `tell the whole thing to the church' ) He equally clearly means the regularly meeting local church. Both are truly `church'. One is less than the whole, but not incomplete. Wales is only part of the United Kingdom, but it remains fully British. And from the context in Matthew 18 (especially verse 20) we can conclude that whenever a group of Christians meets - in cathedral, college or canteen - they are the church at that time and place: the local outcrop of the catholic multitude.

One

The one body that can not biblically claim the title `church' is the ecclesiastical denomination. The `Church of England' is a misnomer; so is the World Council of `Churches'. The existence of separate institutions, still refusing to recognise each other's ministry and allow themselves to be reformed according to the apostolic, catholic faith of the New Testament, is a scandal and a grievous disappointment to Jesus' prayer `that they may all be one' (John 17; 21). Colwyn Bay High Street alone has 6 rival church buildings in 4OO metres! This simply proclaims to the world, `Look how these Christians hate each other.' We've still got a whole load of learning and loving to do. But be clear that we cannot organise church unity. Don't confuse it with a dull uniformity, where every church would sing the same hymns to the same tunes. Jesus has in fact given unity to all true Christians (Ephesians 2; 13 - 18). Our task now is to express it. We must meet each other, trust each other, listen, grow and work together until we are spiritually at one. Never rest content until all Christians in each place belong to one another. Problems this will bring; but mere teething troubles beside the cancer of the current separation.

Holy

So to the greatest challenge of all. `Holy' should have no associations of anaemic, squeamish, goody-goody. It is a strong word; it means to be healthy and wholesome and free of infection, at the root of our personality. It speaks of a total devotion to God. When critics of the church call us a `load of hypocrites', they are half-right; but also half-wrong. True, we are not holy as we should be. But Christ's church on earth cannot hope to be (all-holy); that is our final destination in heaven. Rather we are full of once fatally sick souls, who are now growing steadily in wholeness. A holy church is in love with her Saviour-Lord (Ephesians 5; 25-27). And that love overflows increasingly into action upwardly, outwardly, inwardly.

Worship

The church is not primarily a mutual benefit society or political pressure group. It exists to love God and give Him the adoration he is due (1 Peter 2; 4 - 5). Worship in origin is "worth-ship" or worthiness. In God's case this is infinite, and even eternity is too short to sound His roll of honour. But the church tries. As we worship together, and open the floodgates of our souls to God in Christ, we scent the hors d'oeuvre of heaven.

Service

Worship is the church's breathe-in; witness to the non-Christian world is its breathe-out (1 Peter 2; 9 - 1O). The church exists to continue, to flesh out, the work of Jesus on earth. By our words of testimony, and by lives of humble, thoughtful care we bring our evidence that he still lives and loves. Jesus was a servant (Luke 22; 27); His church must be a servant too (Luke 22; 26). In our community, family and work-place we represent Jesus.

Fellowship

I doubt the Bible would allow the self-indulgence to say that the church exists for the fellowship between its members. But it is there as a very precious side-effect (1 John 1; 9). There is no friendship in the world so deep as that between the friends of Jesus Christ. Christians love each other before they've even met! And the essence of fellowship is sharing - sharing our lives together: homes, money possessions, the lot; so that we belong to each other and grow together towards the blueprint of Christ (Ephesians 4; 13).

A costly, dangerous adventure? Yes, but the only way for the church to discover the strength and beauty (i.e. the "holiness") it is heir to.


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