Posted by: Veroni Kruger | October 8, 2009

A fellowship centering on the living Christ

ESSENTIAL ASPECTS OF THE CHURCH
This is an excerpt from a book on the Church that I am working on.  Let me know what you think.

“A FELLOWSHIP  CENTERING ON THE LIVING CHRIST”

Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the U.S. Senate is quoted as making the following profound statement.

“In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ.  Then the church moved to Greece where it became a philosophy.  Then it moved to Rome where it became an institution.  Next, it moved to Europe where it became a culture.  And, finally, it moved to America, where it became an enterprise.”

But what is the true characteristic of the church?

The word “ekklesia” is used in the New Testament with two basic references:  one a social group and the other the group that is referred to as the church.  Louw and Nida  define the former as “a group of citizens assembled for socio-political activities” (paragraph 11.78).  Our main interest is the latter, but it should be noted first that in both cases the word refers to a grouping of people.  Putting the meaning of the word into perspective, Louw and Nida describe it as follows (Greek examples have been transcribed throughout this quote, although the original work quoted them in Greek):

“…. a congregation of Christians, implying interacting membership ….. Though some persons have tried to see in the term ‘ekklesia’  a more or less literal meaning of ‘called-out ones,’ this type of etymologizing is not warranted either by the meaning of ‘ekklesia’ in NT times or even by its earlier usage.  The term ‘ekklesia’ was in common usage for several hundred years before the Christian era and was used to refer to an assembly of persons constituted by well-defined membership. In general Greek usage it was normally a socio-political entity based upon citizenship in a city-state (see ‘ekklesia’, 11.78) and in this sense is parallel to ‘demos’, 11.78). For the NT, however, it is important to understand the meaning of ‘ekklesia’ as ‘an assembly of God’s people’ ” (Louw and Nida, paragraph 11.32).

The word is also used with a broader reference to the “totality of congregations of Christians”  (Louw and Nida, paragraph 11.33).

“God’s people” and “Christians” and “interacting membership” sound like components of “A fellowship ……  centering on the living Christ”, i.e. the idea expressed by Richard Halverson.  This description implies both meeting together with regularity from time to time and living as a community.  These elements are therefore extremely important in any consideration of the characteristics of the church.

Two secondary characteristics are implied by this definition of the church.  These are that the church (and churches) should be characterized by the attribute of grace, and that it should be Christ-centered rather than being a bounded phenomenon.  Some explanation of what I mean by these two characteristics is required.

If the church is a group of believers around the person of Jesus Christ, its very existence is dependant on the grace of God.  In the core of the description lies the fact that it is only by faith in Jesus Christ that one may become a member of the church.  The church only exists by virtue of its relation to Him, and those who are in that relation, are believers.  It is faith alone that brings them into any relationship.  Any consideration of deserving works is absolutely excluded.

There is therefore no room for legalism or arrogance, even of the spiritual kind.  Spiritual arrogance is a feeling of superiority based on supposedly better doctrine or higher degree of sanctification, or whatever aspect of one’s Christianity one perceives as justification for considering oneself to be better than others.  It is only through Jesus Christ, and by faith in Him, that we can be members of his church.  Nothing else will do.  Nothing we do other than believing in Jesus Christ can obtain for us the privilege of being part of his church.

To understand what I mean by the second characteristic (being Christ-centered rather than being a bounded phenomenon), it is necessary to refer to the sociological distinction between different kinds of groups.  The two that are most clearly opposite are the “centered-set” and the “bounded-set” models.  (For a detailed description of these two models as well as a third possibility, the so-called “Fuzzy-set”, and how they apply to church life, see Alexander Venter, p50-58. )

In the bounded-set model, the group is defined by outside boundaries.  These can be any kind of characteristics that are used to distinguish the members of the group from all others.  The distinction is between the “we” group and the “they” group.  Everything in the relationship with anybody outside of the bounded group is defined in term of this distinction.

In churches that exist as bounded models, the boundaries may be social, liturgical, or doctrinal.  The people who belong to the church are characterized by a certain lifestyle, usually regarded by the members of that church being “holy” or sanctified.

“Holy” is generally used incorrectly by the members of such groups with the meaning of “blameless” or “sinless”.  (This incorrect interpretation of the concept “holy” is not limited to groups such as these, but occurs widely among Christians.)  Only God can be holy in this sense.  People are sanctified through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, when this is accepted by faith.  The correct application of the word “holy” to human beings is that of being dedicated to God.

Avoidance of certain activities or foods etc. is often employed to denote the members of the group, and all who do not live by these “principles” are considered to be outsiders.  Meetings are characterized by certain rituals or activities that once again distinguish the members from other groups.  It is usual, of course, for groups that meet with any regularity to have a certain ethos.  However, in the church this unavoidable phenomenon should never be allowed to determine the characteristics that are a condition for membership of the group, or are considered to be indications of superiority.  They are then an obstacle to, rather than a facilitating factor for, the development of that group as part of the church of Jesus Christ.

The church should rather strive to follow the centered-set model.  In the center should be none other than Jesus Christ Himself.  Christ-centered churches are just that:  Christ-centered.  The dynamics of the church center on Christ, his Person and his work of redemption.  He is the reason for the group’s existence as well as the motivation for their activities.  He is also their source of energy.  In this sense, the church and churches are a microcosm, as it were, of the universe.  The church and its manifestations fit the biblical description of creation as having been “created by him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1.16, 17).  It is in this context that Paul speaks of the relationship between Christ and the church:  “And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the first-born from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (Colossians 1.18).

In this model, the requirement for membership is the commitment to strive toward Christ.  There is no stage indicated where a person is “officially” recognized as belonging to the church.  What members require of each other, and what the church serves to encourage, is following Christ.  This is all done in the realization that nobody is perfect, and that everyone struggles with his/her own weaknesses.  Everyone’s hope is in Christ alone, who is known to be the only one who can perfect the saints, firstly by faith and then by the process of sanctification.

There are two things that are eliminated by adherence to this model:  the focus on what is considered to be “absolute” sins, and the arrogance often experienced among Christians.

The former is a phenomenon that often occurs among minority groups in the church.  I mean by this movements that do not consider themselves part of the mainstream in any particular tradition.  In what is apparently related to their struggle for recognition and/or the right to exist as a separate group, they often identify particular transgressions that they emphasize radically.  Abstention from these sins then becomes the badge of belonging to that group.

This phenomenon is so widespread that I am sure the reader can think of examples from his or her own experience.  The denomination in which I grew up had such “badges”.  Worst among them for me was probably the demand of our youth leader at one time that we abstain from any involvement in sports, not only as participants, but even as spectators!  Another “badge” that became a joke, was the requirement that we avoid going to the movies – we were told that would be to “sit in the seat of mockers” (Psalms 1.1).  This lasted for as long as there was no television in South Africa.  As soon as movies came into the homes of many devout believers, the judgment on the film industry changed.

The serious fallacy in this phenomenon is the shift of focus away from the person of Jesus Christ to things, whether they be objects or practices.  Given the fact that our only hope is Jesus, it is easy to see that focusing on anything else leads to distraction at the least, and destruction at the worst.  Of the people of Israel it is said that they “followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless” (2 Kings 17.15).  We become like the ideals we set for ourselves.  If the ideal is Jesus, we will become like Him.  If the ideal is some other, materialistic or pietistic ideal, we will become as shallow as that ideal.

God’s ultimate purpose for us is to become like his Son.  Paul states this clearly in Romans 8.29:  “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son.”  Being born again is the first step in reaching this objective.  The truly miraculous inner transformation that takes place when we come to faith in the Lord Jesus is so dramatic that Jesus refers to it as rebirth (John 3.3).  The process of sanctification throughout the life of the believer is the process by which God works to continue the process of transformation.  The climax is when we are transformed in a moment – that which Paul refers to poetically as “a flash… the twinkling of an eye…” (1 Corinthians 15.52).  John rejoices over what we already are now, but anticipates eagerly what we will become:  “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.  Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3.1,2).

I want to return now to the quote from Halverson.  As long as the church continues to be a “fellowship centering on the living Christ”, we will be achieving what is God’s ultimate ideal for us, viz. to be transformed to be like Jesus.  Focusing on anything else will merely lead to our becoming like whatever it is we focus on.

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