Contend Earnestly: The Church is Who We Are, Not What We Do

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Church is Who We Are, Not What We Do

I asked last week how people would define the term "church." The reason is that I have completely questioned what I thought the church to be in the past year. It continued to be questioned, as I have read books from people in other parts of the world where what they do looks a lot different than what we do here in America. If you were to ask me what the church is a couple of years ago, most of what I would say would focus on the functions of the church instead of the identity of the church. I would have focused in on the invisible, visible distinction. I would have focused in on the preaching of the word, the sacraments and discipline. I would have focused in on evangelism or missions and I would have definitely even put forth that how we do it in the West is more of the correct way, instead of a cultural way. Wow, what a difference a year makes. Since attending Harambee, and consequently Harambee and Soma joining forces, my identity, and my community of believers' identity, has been grippingly clear on this huge distinction.

We need to focus in on our identity as the church, those who have been called out. What is desperately shown is that most people focus in on the church's functions instead of their identity.

But, why is this so important? What do I mean by identity?

First, when I say "identity" it means what makes one part of the church and takes that to understand what exactly the church is. Our identity actually is not what we do, but who we are. This is quite important. Our identity as a church isn't found in missions, it isn't found in Sunday School, it isn't found in what day we meet on, how we take communion and whether we take it weekly or monthly, whether we baptize infants or whether we only dunk believers, what kind of building we meet in, what we wear, how long the sermon is, how many songs we sing, etc. etc. etc. While these things might comprise what the church does, it does not make one a church or part of a church.

Our identity is found in Christ and his work, not in the corporate gathering and its' work. We have to understand this. If we don't, we miss a huge point in understanding what the church is and then we will try to take the functions of the church and demand other cultures and other ages to do it as we believe it to be fitting. Let's see why this is important to truly understand. Why is it so important to focus in on the church's identity?

1. Identity is Cross Cultural and For All Ages

When discussing what the church is, we should know that our identity is most important because this focuses in on the impact of God's people for all time. There is no discussion on whether one is part of the church because they decide to function differently than we do. If we focus in on our identity we can allow ourselves to meet on a Sunday morning in a public meeting space, while allowing followers of Christ in another country to meet on a Friday in a home. It can allow ourselves to preach behind a pulpit while others preach while sitting down and having discussion throughout the sermon. It can allow us to baptize in a public place while others decide to baptize privately. If our identity as "church" isn't found in what we do, but who we are, we can easily allow the gospel and the church to function in the area, culture, and age God has brought them forth in and believe that the Spirit is working. It can allow the fact that the Westminster Confession is great for those who wrote it for their time, but doesn't necessarily dictate how we are going to function in our culture in the 21st Century.

2. Identity Allows Contextualization

I hit on this in the last point, but if the church allows itself to be defined by identity instead of function, it allows for full contextualization. It allows for other cultures to look like their culture and infuse the gospel within their culture. It allows for Muslim followers of Jesus to look like Muslims and their culture, it allows American followers of Jesus to look like Americans and their culture, Buddhist followers of Jesus to look like Buddhists and their culture. We in the West, love to tell people how they are allowed to contextualize, instead of focus in on trusting the Spirit and allowing HIM to work in the cultures he is in. Know that when I mention Muslim or Buddhist followers of Jesus I am speaking about those who fully embrace Jesus and who he is, but still identify with the CULTURE of Muslims and Buddhists, not belief system. We love to sit over here in our comfortable pulpits and yell at those in other countries and cultures and tell them how it should be done. But, if we truly know that those who have been called out by Jesus have the Spirit living within them, we should allow the Spirit to work out their salvation and trust in God's sovereignty and not our ignorance. But, if we focus in on functions as determinate of a church, we'll always have issues with those people who look different than we do as a church.

3. Identity Will Produce Functions

Because we have been identified as the church because of Christ, we will desire to have functions. But, because we are already the church because of who Christ is, and not what we do, we will work out functions differently depending on where God has called us. While preaching, learning, missions, family, servanthood, baptism, communion and discipline will be a part of any church, it might look very different depending on the culture and the people group. We have to allow this! We have to allow the Holy Spirit to work in and through people and we have to be careful, especially in the West, to not make people do it like we do it. This is why the Regulative Principle of Worship baffles me. It takes away from culture to allow it to live out how God wants them to live out the gospel and throws it into some Western style. Do people really think that how they're regulative principle looks is exactly how the church performed it's functions for all time in all cultures? If our identity is found in Christ and God has given, not only each of us a personality, but our whole culture a personality, why wouldn't he desire for us to live this out and use it in a redeeming way?

When we focus in on the identity of the church, these functions will look quite different. Baptism might be done in a bathtub privately, preaching might happen for only 20 minutes sitting on the floor of a living room, communion might be done over a complete meal, instead of a wafer and a shot glass of grape juice or wine, servanthood might be helping a local mosque build a new building. Who knows? If our identity is found in Christ, as a church, we can allow our functions to truly penetrate the cultures we live in.

If not, then our functions will be our identities instead of Christ. We will continually put forth our ideals on other churches to tell them how to be identified as a church. If we believe in Solus Christus in salvation, we must believe this in the church as well. Again, certain overarching functions will be the same in all churches, but they might look far different depending on the culture and the age they are found in.

If we refuse to allow this, we become a lot like Pharisees. We will be like those Pharisees who believed that if you do "this" then God loves you. We will be like a people who believe your salvation depends on what you do, instead of what has been done for you. If our individual salvation is found in our identity in Christ, then so should our gathered peoples called the church. When we start to focus too much on the function of church, and what that looks like, it is like focusing on the works of someone and becoming a Pharisee. Just as preaching to someone grace and showing how their identity is found in Christ produces fruit, so does preaching identity to the church. When the church's identity is found only in Christ, the fruit will come because the Spirit will be at work and be given all glory.

And when this happens, Jesus words are so powerful:

“I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.
Matthew 16:18

I am afraid that if we focus too much on the functions of the church then this is what we find:

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:...I have this against you, that you have left your first love."
Revelation 2:1,4


Jake Meador said...

Good post. Perhaps another way to frame it is in distinguishing between "What is the church?" and "What are the marks of the church?"

Arthur Sido said...

Outstanding post Seth

SnatchedFromTheFire said...

Seth -
i always breath a sigh of relief when i read through a post and agree with almost all of it. Not like you're trying to be agreeable with me or anyone for the sake of agreeable-ness, but i found in your post today that we agree on much more than i (and maybe you) initially thought.
It's funny to read people's posts sometimes b/c i find myself thinking 'there are people that actually think like that?' when some flase notion is being rebuked. Hard to imagine that anyone would say to someone in China or the Middle East or even down the block "you have to do church like we do exactly or you're not a church!" but i guess that does happen.
One point you could flesh out for me if you have a sec is that while i agree with your contention that cultural identity is not soul identitiy - so an African Christian will look like and African, an American Christian will look like an American, etc. - how would you describe cross culturally how a Christian should NOT look? I think that might start to get complicated cross-culturally b/c, say, in North America we all just look like regular folks to others but there are most certainly ways that we would say a Christian should not dress or act or things they should not participate in, right? A Chritian woman should not dress provocatively, we should not be known for profanity or lying etc. We should not pretend to be doing some kind of "missions" while sitting on the front row at a strip-club. Yet all of these things are commonplace amoungst N. AMericans. So we would distinguish ourselves from everyone else by how we dress and act and live to some degree correct? Then how do we communicate these same truths to brothers and sisters in cultures (as well as old belief systems) filled with ocult worship, demonology, etc.? Maybe this is where you were going with your 'identity will produce practice' section but i wondered if you had encountered any of this yourself or heard of anyone confronted with the same issue - how was it handled?

Seth McBee said...

yes...that would make a big difference.

Hope you're well friend.

Yeah...we must give the gospel principles...modesty, seasoned tongue, edification, etc. and then allow those things to develop in the culture that they find themselves in. Such as. Chicks shouldn't be naked in public here in the U.S., but in some tribes in Africa, that is just the way it is. Also, in Muslim countries, women must cover their ears, because it is considered sensual. We could continue this all over the place, but we must allow the implications of these principles to be worked out by the local elders being led by the Spirit to aid the flock on living out the gospel.

Harder question than most want to admit.

Related Posts with Thumbnails