Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Commentariat Speaks (17)

A Baptist pastor weighs in on the question of when the church began:

“The church didn’t begin at Pentecost, it began when God called Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees. All who believe are descendants of his promise. Nothing has stopped his church for over 4000 years and nothing can.”

Reply to this sort of thing in 180 characters? You have to be kidding. It’s one reason certain social media platforms are inferior places for Christian discussion. They foster snappy rhetorical flourishes, but discourage nuanced analysis. That doesn’t make them useless, but it certainly limits their usefulness.

I suppose one might reply, “It depends how you define ‘church’.” That may get the attentive reader thinking. Or not. So let’s try something a little longer-form.

The Faith of Abraham

There is a legitimate sense in which one can say it all began with Abram, one of many men God renamed. Abraham is “the father of us all”, meaning that his faith is the model for all men and women who have been made right with God in all times and places. He is “the father of many nations”, as it is written. But is that all the church is: the sum total since Abraham of those who share a common belief in God and, ultimately, in his Christ?

That can’t be quite right. It’s not how the New Testament uses the word. It’s not even how most people use it today. And if we are using a word in a sense almost nobody around us uses it, it is not a crazy thing to suggest we could think about rephrasing what we are trying to say. At very least we are not communicating well.

When the average person today asks about your “church”, they are not inquiring about your spiritual connection with Abraham, even if you think they should be. Rather, they are curious which faith community you are part of.

So it’s fine to say that we all share the faith of Abraham. It’s true, and it distinguishes Christian belief from that of other religions which may be named. Other religions claim Abraham as their father too, but their adherents do not share Abraham’s faith. Muslims and Christ-rejecting Jews are not part of that sort of “faith community”.

The faith of Abraham is a decent starting point when we are talking about the meaning of “church”. But that’s all it is.

Faith and Community

There is more to a “church” than mere faith, not that faith is unimportant. Abraham had faith, but he wasn’t really part of any earthly community. After all, Abraham himself was three generations pre-Israel. He was part of a spiritual community spanning millennia, sure, but in this world he was almost completely alone. He had a believing wife for part of his time on earth, but even his righteous relative Lot did not stay with him.

It should not be difficult to understand that it is possible to have faith without community, or to have community without faith. But the real church requires both.

It will not be news to most of our readers that the Greek word translated “church” is ekkl─ôsia. It simply means “gathering” or “assembly”. When used in its theological sense, it means a company of Christians, whether we are thinking across time or in any particular geographic location. In the book of Acts, it was characteristic of believers in Jesus Christ that “all who believed were together”. This pattern continued even under persecution. In Corinth there was an identifiable group of Christian believers called “the church”, and likewise in Rome, Cenchrea, and all over Europe, Asia and the Middle East. What defined these churches was not just their common faith, but the fact that they gathered to share it.

The Importance of Pentecost

Still, if all our definition of “church” requires is Abraham-style faith and gathering, our Baptist pastor’s comment could pretty much stand. Unfortunately, he fails to grasp the significance of Pentecost.

In the early first century, almost 1,900 years after Abraham’s body went into one of the many caves in Machpelah, Jesus Christ himself spoke of the church as still future: “I will build my church.” That should be enough right there, but the writings of the apostles make this even more explicit. The “one body” which constitutes the church could not possibly exist until after Jesus had died. It was Christ’s death that broke down the dividing wall of hostility — it made one “new man” of two, so making peace — and his resurrection made it possible for him to become the church’s living head.

Thus the coming of the indwelling Holy Spirit to the people of God at Pentecost was indeed the beginning of the church as we understand it today. It’s not just that we have Abraham as our father and faith-model. It’s not just that we get together to share that faith. The church is what it is because “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” That happened once and for all at Pentecost.

To minimize the importance of the “new man” that was created there is to fall short of a biblical understanding of the word “church”. The magnitude of the difference between our current state and that of believing Israelites gathered with others of their kind in the wilderness under Moses cannot be overstated.

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