Have you ever attended a major sporting event and arrived early to watch the athletes warm-up? And while you watched the star athlete warming up, you realized this guy or gal is really good? That’s how I feel as I made my way through the introduction of David Fitch’s The Great Giveaway.
This is a book about ecclesiology, what it means to be the Church. And Fitch believes that the practices of the evangelical church are preventing it from truly being the Body of Christ in North America. According to Fitch’s view, the evangelical church has married itself to modernity. One of the most damaging results is that:
“Because evangelicals articulate salvation in such individualist terms and because modern science and individual reason carry such authority for evangelicals, we do not need the body of Christ for daily victorious Christian existence… We don’t need the church to live salvation because we have personal salvation augmented by reason, science and immediate (charismatic) experience. The church is left with nothing else to do but distribute information, goods, and services to individual Christians” (pp 17-18).
A caricature, perhaps. But in many places, this description is very close to reality. And that’s a shame.
A few sentences later, Fitch defines the Church as “the social manifestation of [God’s] lordship where he reigns over the powers of sin, evil, and death, the prolepsis, the very inbreaking of the kingdom of God.” I love that definition! The local church is the social expression of God’s dream for creation; the corporate reality of his renewing and reshaping authority over the powers of sin, evil and death.
This raises the question, “So, do I need the church to be saved?” (And by saved, readers of this blog know I mean the entire life of salvation.) Do I need the church to have victory over sin? Do I need the church to be transformed into Christ’s likeness? Do I need the church to embody, demonstrate and announce the fullness of God in the world? Do I need the church to be God’s New Creation in human form now? Do I need the church to participate in God’s kingdom coming in justice and peace upon this planet?
If I view the church as simply an organization that provides me with information, goods and services, then the answer is probably “No.” I will attend a local congregation if it provides me with the teaching, friendships and programs I feel I need to be a good Christian. And when my needs change or the church’s direction changes, I will shop for another local congregation.
But if I view the church as the social manifestation of God’s lordship, or to borrow from Newbigin, the living hermeneutic of the Gospel, then the answer is a resounding “Yes!” In fact, I couldn’t have salvation without the church.
Let me say that again with a bit more boldness, “You and I cannot have the salvation offered by God through Christ without the Church.” That’s because God’s salvation is not something I possess as an individual, but something we share as a community. In fact, the very core of God’s salvation is community — love of God and love of others. There is no real salvation in individualist terms. Sure, there is the personal aspect of a renewed friendship with God. But this is the threshold to God’s salvation, which is joining God and his people in being and accomplishing his dreams on earth.
Too often we view Christ’s work on the cross in individualist terms. I hear it so often in sermons, altar calls, and Christian music — Jesus’ nail-pierced hands reaching out to me. There’s two things wrong with this overly romanticized picture. First, as I mentioned in a previous post, Jesus’ death is multilayered, first dealing with the cosmic victory over the powers, then reconciling all things on earth and in heaven back to God, and then moving to the personal level as it delivers us from the dominion of darkness. But that work then resonates back up from the personal to the cosmic level. And the way it does this is through the Church, the social manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth.
Second, Jesus died as the climax of Israel’s history. In other words, he died to reconstitute what it means to be God’s redemptive and renewing community. The personal aspect is that you and I are personally invited to join Jesus by joining the people he has recreated. So to borrow the romantic image mentioned above, Jesus’ nail-pierced hands do reach out to me… in order to welcome me into his community. A community, by the way, which will continue to be his healing nail-pierced hands to each other and the world by welcoming all people into his redemptive community.
So, yes, I do need the Church.