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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Let’s Get Together

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Recently asked on an Internet philosophy site:

“If God is everywhere, why do Christians have congregations?”

We Christians may think the question a bit clueless, but to someone who doesn’t know the first thing about the Church or about God’s purposes in establishing it, it’s not unreasonable to consider.

Tom: Immanuel Can, the man has a point. God IS everywhere. You and I can call on him anytime from anywhere, and we’re awfully grateful for it. So why exactly do we get together?

Immanuel Can: In a word, relationship.

Now, I understand the questioner’s confusion, because we are in a social ethos that highly values contrary things, such as individualism, personal choice, authenticity-to-self, and privacy in matters of belief. So why should anyone want or need to involve themselves with others unnecessarily? Others are just inhibitors to such things. But our society’s values are not the Lord’s.

Modeled Character

Tom: That’ll certainly do for starters. God may be everywhere, but he is also infinitely greater than we are, and no single human mind can comprehend him. For instance, you understand certain things about God much better than I do because of your own life experiences, the sort of reading you’ve done, maturity, personality and so on. I probably understand certain things about God better than you do for the same sorts of reasons. Put us together and we each complement the other. Put us together with ten, thirty or a hundred others that also love God, and we have an opportunity to learn things in a week that might take us a lifetime to discover otherwise. And it’s not just head-knowledge. God is lived out in each Christian life, so I learn not by just what you tell me about God, but by how you model his character in your life.

IC: Alright, so growing in the knowledge of God is something that happens better corporately. But there are also a bunch of other things that can be done in a congregation but not really by individuals, no?

Tom: You’re thinking of worship, perhaps?

IC: For a start.

Tom: Okay. Fellowship, then? That’s one of the Big Four.

IC: Gifts? Service? Hospitality? Mutual encouragement?

Christianity, Incorporated

Tom: Yes, yes, yes and yes. I’m guessing our friend from the philosophy site doesn’t really take stock of such things. For him, relating to God (assuming God actually exists) is a one-to-one proposition. And that’s not completely wrong. There is tremendous value in the fact that I have the privilege — or frankly, even the remotest of possibilities — of relating personally to God.

But when we read the Bible, we find an awful lot about God and his relationship to his people corporately, rather than just individually. No man is an island. We are not just solitary units in this world. We are part of one bloc or another, even when we don’t consider ourselves “joiners”. Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me”. Where Jesus Christ is concerned, this world is made up of two groups: FOR and AGAINST.

IC: From the start, it’s been God’s plan to bring us into free and loving relationship with him and with each other. And if you think about it, what do we long for more? That he should start his work now, among people who are somewhat less than perfect, on earth, really is an additional grace for which we should be very thankful. To experience improved relationships is exactly what we should expect of people who have entered into a personal relationship with a relational God.

That’s part of the specialness of the Trinity. From all eternity past, God has been a God of relationship: the Father and the Son had loving fellowship long before the world was. So why would we be surprised if he calls us to have it now?

Vertical and Horizontal

Tom: And that relationship doesn’t just work vertically between God and man. It works horizontally as well.

We live in a culture in which everything is fragmented, broken down into sub-sub-sub-genres all tailored to individual whims. There are no more hit record albums that sell ten or twenty million copies. Instead, we have 1,000 artists selling 10,000 records apiece, and their fans in the four corners of the planet mostly enjoy their music alone.

But Jesus Christ brings people together in a way that nothing else in this generation can. When you love something and I love it too, well then we have something to talk about, something to share, something to stand for together. Christians congregate because we have something so GOOD that we have to talk to somebody about it. We can’t keep quiet or we’d explode.

IC: Yes. And our blessings cannot really be enjoyed selfishly. God has ordained that the good of one should be the blessing of all. Ironically, the world talks about that sort of fellowship, but never manages it in practice.

Individualist Fail

Tom: Right. I want to come back to your second point. It’s pretty clear that an individual in isolation, even if he has his own relationship to God working perfectly, doesn’t really serve anyone but himself. What’s so important about Christian service?

IC: Well, the Lord has arranged things so that no one person has every kind of spiritual skill or kind of insight necessary to have a healthy and complete spiritual life. And if you’re an individualist, maybe you’d think that he should have made you self-sufficient, and that was a flaw in his plan: but it’s not. What it does is to make two things happen: (1) others become indispensable for you, so you have a permanent incentive to cultivate relationships, and (2) you become valuable to others, so that you never have to feel you are worthless or have nothing to offer. The combination is actually a perfect recipe for spiritual health and a profound sense of personal value, but also for humility.

Tom: Now, we’re making churches sound like they’re all rainbow unicorns and free pony rides, so let’s be realistic for a moment here.

The Downside

Whenever you get groups of people together — even Christian people, who are presumably trying to operate more morally — you’re going to have problems of all kinds: interpersonal quarrels, the occasional gossip, competition, disagreements about doctrine and schedules and responsibilities and what color to paint the walls. You and I know this is how it goes. What would you say to an individual who has come into a new relationship with God about why he or she should want to take on all that?

IC: I would say this: of course, as long as we’re not in heaven, there are going to be problems between people. We’re all imperfect at the moment. But the sorts of problems you list — none of them is anything unlikely to happen in a family, or a marriage, or any of the healthy relationships people normally seek and cherish. Relationships involve negotiation and overcoming of challenges; and that is how relationships progress. And while it’s true that many of those challenges come from each other, the question is not so much whether it’s worth getting into problematic relationships, but whether it’s worth living without them.

Going Solo 24/7

Tom: Agreed. And I think there’s an additional factor here. When I do an undeserved kindness for a sworn enemy of God, I please God, I develop my own Christian character and I accumulate eternal reward, but unless that person later comes to repentance, I do not really do anything lasting for the unbeliever. On the other hand, Christian relationships, even with all their perfectly normal human difficulties, provide a unique opportunity for grace, forgiveness, charity and growth in that when we do good to our fellow believers, we are building up other eternal beings for eternity. Paul says, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

IC: If your job is to “do good” to the household of faith, how can you do that if you don’t know who the household of faith actually is because you’re going it solo all the time?

Tom: Good point.

The Act of Worship in Isolation

One more thing, perhaps: let’s talk about corporate worship. We have a number of biblical examples of individual worship that predate the Law of Moses: Abraham, Jacob, Abel and even Cain (though he kinda flubbed it). So it can be done. And today, people say, “I can worship on the golf course,” though I doubt very many people do that. But most of the biblical worship we read about takes place in a corporate setting. One person gives voice to the desires and aspirations of many. Can we really worship as God designed us in isolation, IC?

IC: I think there’s a place for both, but neither is a replacement for the other. The word of God talks about corporate worship as a special thing, but also describes worship as the overflow of the individual heart. There is a kind of worship one can do alone, but also a kind one cannot do except in the company of others.

Tom: So, to sum it up, what can we say about a Christian who has no use for a congregation?

IC: A lot of things, I think. The scriptures tell us that God is in the business of “calling out a people for himself”. Notice it does not say “a person”, but “a people”. If God’s aspirations are for bringing a whole group, a massive congregation of believers if you will, into fellowship with him, why aren’t ours the same? Can we stop short of corporate fellowship, and still regard ourselves to be on his project?

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