The church of our Lord Jesus Christ is that glorious ensemble of all saints from throughout the ages. The party is open-ended, and His invitation to the whosoever will stands. Every day men and women all over the globe join God’s eternal family as they come to faith, for inclusion is by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone.
Our Lord’s church is a transcendent eternal reality that is essentially spiritual in nature. It is superlative to our temporal, finite world, and could never be contained by it. Yet it does manifest in our see-hear-smell-taste-touch world in localised communities we call churches. These local churches can be disturbingly conflicted expressions of life, for our fallen world cannot even begin to contain the glories of God. The Bible tells us that it will take a new heaven and earth to do that. Instead, churches are all too human, and as such are a blend of the glorious (God) and the grotesque (broken humanity).
Implicit in this dilemma is a question, and the harder we try to answer that question, the worse we fare. This is so because loving community cannot be administrated. It is a work of the Spirit and not the product of our own efforts. How often have we been captivated and provoked by the descriptions of the New Testament church – an empowered, praying, devoted, growing, sacrificial and serving community, cloaked in grace and pulsating with life. Yet, try as we might, our efforts can do nought but shipwreck on the rocky shoreline of legalism, control and idealism.
Alongside the Charismatic Renewal of the 1960’s and 70’s was secondary action of the Lord, which birthed Christian communities. He did so in extraordinary ways and in unlikely places. These communities burgeoned all over the globe, independently of one another, but simultaneously, and typically shared a handful of key characteristics, although there were exceptions. They shared a theology (they were Charismatic), a philosophy of church (the people of God should live in community), and a few key practices (most significantly frequent gathering, extended households and a common purse).
A survey reveals that these communities fell loosely into five categories. Some were expat communities: their people also held nationality and language in common, and so they coagulated on cultural as well as spiritual grounds as these exiles found one another. Others were parish communities: mainline denominations that functioned along strict parish lines lent themselves to a spirit-infused community arising in the midst of the dead institutionalism of the parish church, as the Holy Spirit brought new life in a particular geographical area. Still others were missional communities: these gathered around the vision of evangelising clearly defined segments of society, and some survive to date having evolved into mission organisations. The Seaman’s Mission is an example. Yet others were church communities: believers left existing churches, with which they had become disenchanted, in order to form communities that were new expressions of and alternatives to those existing local churches. The final category were even more idealistic than the others, and formed around a covenant of sorts, legislating their new and superior life together right from the start. Note that in the untidiness of the living, many of these communities could be regarded as being in more than one of the five categories describes above, all depending on how they were perceived.
The overwhelming observation to be made, however, is that it is now a generation later, and there is little evidence of their existence. It also appears axiomatic that the more legalistic, zealous and idealistic they were, the less admirable their longer-term fruit. This is the lesson of the day and the point of this post. The harder we try, the worse we do! Christianity is not an endeavour fueled by human effort. On the contrary, it is thanks to the work of God alone. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the history of the church, which has consistently been one of over-promising and under-delivering. The example of community from the 60’s and 70’s is simply a case-study drawn from a wider context that shares its flaws. The history of the church is also a history that seems totally committed to repeating itself. Has your church finally got it all figured out? Run! God gives grace to the humble, but immutably opposes the proud!
Against this background, the Scriptures that so richly describe Christian community continue to beckon. The opening chapters of Acts read as they always have, no matter how disbelieving or cynical the eyes reading the text. They do so, not in prescription, but in description. They drive us to our knees, and they keep us salivating for a life together that glorifies the Lord and meets our need for communion. We know, in the depth of our being, that the Lord shall have His way. It shall be so by the Spirit, and the local church, at the end, shall be far more glorious than the local church ever was at the beginning. The fullness of the New Covenant guarantees this. But just like everything else that is our inheritance in Christ, it shall be by grace alone, through faith alone, and because of Christ alone. It shall be done to us and for us, and we shall participate and benefit, amazed.
To illustrate, permit me to reduce legalism, control and idealism to the microcosm of the interpersonal. It troubles me deeply (as it should) when saints inform me that they love me because Jesus said they must. Not only do their words declare me unlovely, but in so saying they reveal that they have reduced the commands of our Christ to the law of their living, thereby ensuring that they will not obey Him. Loving one another as Jesus does is only within reach of the heart that admits that it cannot do so. Grasp this and you’ll understand the mystery of grace and its promise of a bright future: only those who can’t can, and only churches that can’t will. When it comes to our life together, this is that. So it is, for so the Lord has engineered it to be.