- 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.
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.
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.
`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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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