Proper Fellowship

How is proper fellowship found in the body of Christ? We come together as men and women of the faith, in person and afar, with words of affirmation and songs of praise, in common appearance and motion with the tides of the Spirit. And yet, much as white plaster can conceal the rot just behind it, signs and appearances are insufficient in obtaining certainty of the steading of every man and woman with respect to the other in the Church. While I admit readily it is beyond the finite knowledge of man to know another’s heart fully, and thus all may be well while a Christian is needlessly doubtful of the sincerity of his brother’s intentions, it would be equally foolish to remain in the bliss of ignorance while the Church is wracked with fraying bonds and a quenched Spirit. It is to this ignorance that I speak today.

What creates a community? This is a simple question with a ready answer: that which brings people together. Community is a collection of persons bound together in common purpose. It is often begun and lead by a smaller group within the community, such as a pastor or a coach or a director. Communion is neither good nor bad; it is the natural state of man to congregate with others, and when he has the choice, to congregate with those of like mind. By this rule, a dappled sea of school colors can often be seen to shift before a football stadium in the Autumn, its wearers shouting the songs of their Alma Mater as they ready themselves to cheer on their team. Likewise, the eternal company of fellow musicians find kindred bonds over shared experiences of countless performances in a hundred lilting halls. It is unnatural for man to isolate himself from community, and when this is his choice, he suffers the aimlessness and despair that are its bedfellows.

The opposite of community is division: the separation of a common people, dictated by a source which impels them to the separation. The source might be as simple as disagreement on which days to hold holy, or which food to be considered sacred, which, if it split the body of Christ, its proponents ought to be ashamed. For, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). “Dissensions and factions” are considered anathema in the letters to the early church, contrary to the “[life] by the Spirit,” and are rather evidence of the “sinful nature” (Gal. 5:16,19-21). It is at best misleading to say there can be divisions which are good – not between carnality and righteousness, which is holiness – for the act of exclusion that is the work of human pride is itself the evidence of sin at work in me. And this is not to say that a body of righteous believers who appear “divisive” in the times in which they live are in fact divisive, only that they live in the unity of the Spirit; no, it is the world which has brought the division, an act whose source again is pride, and thus is an act of the sinful nature.

This is the definition of community, delineated from its opposite. What, then, makes a Christian community? Or, what creates a community of fellow believers? The first and most obvious candidate is location. That the body of Christ meets in one shared location means that the possibility for community exists, since we may actively seek out relationships with others. If there was no location for meeting, then we would not know who shares this faith with us, and we could not have community. But a shared location is not unique to the church, for many communities exist which are not Christian and yet meet in the same place, such as in concert halls and political rallies. And other locations exist where many come and yet there is no fellowship at all. I myself do not expect to begin a bible study when I enter a restaurant.

St. Peter’s Basilica

The destination at the end of this road, if followed to its conclusion, is the magnification of the meeting house of God instead of God Himself. For even as Solomon built the temple paneled with fine cedar, “carved with gourds and open flowers,” and the inner sanctuary overlaid with pure gold, and many more carvings of gold and olive wood and pine, the condition upon which God would live with the people of Israel was not the finery of the temple, but to “follow [His] decrees, carry out [His] regulations and keep all [His] commandments” (1 Kings 6). Yet this fact was blatantly ignored by 120 years of papal authority in the 15th century. And if their worship of the cathedral of Man over God Himself were not enough, they funded this meeting place of God’s people with the tithe of their guilt – indulgences – as if salvation could be purchased by the work of one’s own hand! But St. Peter’s Basilica has already been built, long before like as me were born to criticize it, and even with such reservations I recognize its glory. No, not the glory of the men who built and adorned it, but the God who gave them such authority, and who brought its elements into existence, and made us capable of recognizing beauty when they are arranged in certain forms.

Louie Giglio with Vince Vitale and Ravi Zacharias

The next candidate is oft represented by a single man in the congregation: the pastor. His duties are to the spiritual needs of the flock given him by God and the institutional Church more broadly, separated as it is across space and time. Is not this man capable of bringing us together under the banner of Christ? If this be the thought of the man whom God has chosen to lead the church, led him be warned of the great danger by which pride works the downfall of the sons of God. No clearer is this lesson taught than in the days of the great King David, a man after God’s own heart, who slept with the wife of Uriah and killed her husband to conceal the fact (2 Sam. 11-12). And this lesson is taught again and anew, year by year, as godly men forget the power of sin at work within, fail to grow in fellowship with their brothers in the faith, and leave a holy legacy on earth tarnished by moral failings. Such was the sadness of news recently brought us, that a man who spoke the truth in love so consistently could fall so greatly from the path of Life. But God knew Ravi’s heart, and so only He can preside over him as the perfect Judge.

The last candidate, and the loudest, is music. Surely music can bind us together? Who today has not been washed with the worship of the modern age? How many inspired lyricists have pricked our hearts with words that melted our hardened exteriors and reduced us to tears, or played chords so beautiful we collapsed in silent praise to the One who alone can receive it? It can be a wonderful thing, to live in the twenty-first century. How, then, can a ministry so divine not be the anchor of our community? But may I remind you, brothers and sisters, that Hillsong may have brought as many to tears as Demi Lovato. And certainly there are as many fans of the latter that would swear as deep a bond of kinship with fellow fans as do those of the former.

Portland Rioters burning the American Flag

This is perhaps a contentious issue in the church today, and so is quietly mentioned and quickly forgotten, but doubtless too many Christians come together with the expectation that music alone will summon up the feeling of community which has long since been lost to them. Indeed, to rely on music alone for any deep relational or theological revelation is almost certainly to quench the Spirit. And to trust the fellowship of believers to those graced with the musical gift is as grievous an error as the previous, except it is rare to find a musician who can also defend the historicity of the resurrection, and emotion is often a more dangerous currency of investment. A community built solely on the chords of feeling with certainly come to a swift end, if it doesn’t first annihilate its surrounding social structure in the process. No more clearly have we learned this lesson than by the legions of rioters plaguing the streets of this America and bent on its destruction.

Marty Sampson, Hillsong Worship Leader

How easy to allow the heart to soar to great heights when fog-machines surround us with a façade of the spirit, and rays of light shoot up from a stage as though we were in the presence of the cherubim, and the subtle effects of deep fade and reverb are added to the vocalist as his voice rebounds in heavenly verse throughout the sanctuary! Do I believe it is good for the vocalist to sing well? Yes! Glory to God. Do I believe it is good for the sound technician to know how to set a mix, and connect speakers for the voice of another to be heard? Yes! Glory to God. And much more can be said on this subject. But do I believe it is good for the musician to draw the gaze of the Body of Christ from her Bridegroom – Christ Himself – to the passing glory of man? No! The consequences of forgetting to “Turn your eyes upon Jesus” are too grim to contemplate, yet contemplate them we must, or Sunday by Sunday we will yield to man a little more attention as we think he deserves it, and to Jesus a little less, until one day we awake to the realization that we are genuinely losing our faith, and it doesn’t bother us in the slightest. This is the road to Hell, a trail of crumbs that satisfy our momentary cravings of spirituality, or loneliness, or guilt, leading into the waiting arms of Death itself.

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts…”

-C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

This is not to downplay the importance of praising our God! We ought to praise God constantly, “in songs and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19), for our God by very definition of His nature deserves glory. For this reason I affirm my belief that we ought to give our all in praising him. But it is this definition that reveals to us the error of our ways, if we substitute the “glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man” (Rom. 1:23), whether it is the image of a soaring cathedral, or an eloquent speaker, or an angelic muse.

The result of our swim in these difficult waters is the discovery that Christian community cannot ultimately be bound together by these earthly gifts. Such things, glorious as they are, were made by man, and are therefore not the source of his ultimate purpose. Where, then can Christian community be found? If not in location, or in a pastor, or in music, what hope do we have left? But thanks be to God, for there is one place, and one place alone, in which all three of these elements of the community converge, and yet which is not itself any of these elements. Where can all true followers of Christ be found? At the foot of the Cross. Who would lead us, and where might a disciple hear His words? Christ at Calvary. What song can be sung by all in solidarity of faith? The music of the good confession, by which all hear our faith, and God is glorified.

The Cross is the ultimate expression of the Christian community. As it is one place, it is the location at which all true followers of Jesus will discover one another. If we go to the Cross and do not meet who we expect to meet – and by this token, communion with that brother is lost – do not be worried! This simply means that he has not yet decided to come simply before the Cross of Christ. Though the heart may ache, these things must be if God is to remove “what can be shaken… so that the unshakeable may remain” (Heb. 12:27); that is, the true Church refined by the fires of tribulation.

The Cross is the ultimate example for the Christian disciple. His death – and subsequently His resurrection – was both his word of salvation preached, and his example demonstrated, so that anyone who would follow him must do the same. “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me'” (Matt. 16:24). We are not disciples of a mortal man, but of the Incarnate Word made flesh (John 1:14); not of a speaker of great renown, but of “one from whom men hide their faces” (Isa. 53:3); not of a learned man or a teacher of the law with a train of accolades, but One who accused such men of being “hypocrites” and “white-washed tombs” (Matt. 23:27). Who better to lead this fellowship of “sheep gone astray” (Isa. 53:6) than the very Anointed One who died for them? Who better to bind together the disciples than the One whose words brought them together in the first place? Jesus Christ lived in the world, and yet was without sin; therefore, he can never disappoint the trusting heart. We cannot say the same of any man.

Finally, the Cross is the ultimate reminder of our present salvation and future destination. In the first place, it reminds us of the sacrifice already made. In the second, of the fact that it is empty. And in being empty, it reminds us that He did not remain dead, but rose again. But how can it be empty, and still remain standing? Surely it would have been torn down long ago? By the Romans, yes, for they were a thorough empire. And yet it stands in history and in the minds of His followers. Why? Because He is not yet done with His work on earth, and until That Day, we who come to the foot of the Cross will learn to pick it up and follow Him. But herein lies the great cost of our day! For who would walk through the crowd of mockers to kneel before the Lord, naked and pierced at a public crossroads? How many of us would deny Him before being put through public humiliation, and that far less than even His own? Or who would risk the political consequences of revealing loyalty to Jesus by walking before the Roman Empire and declaring not Caesar, but Jesus, as Lord? This is the present cost of the good confession: alienation from our fellow man. And while alienation is often the consequence of holding to the creed of the Apostles – which again is no division at all, but holiness – we must hold to it unswervingly, because it is by a common creed that the bonds of brotherhood are sealed. To walk among others as strangers seems to us the greatest misery, but without this great risk we cannot hope to discover true Christian community.

The Fundamental Commonality, Part II

The first part of this discussion clarified what is the most fundamental attribute of all mankind, which binds us irrevocably together: our inability to live up to the Image that we perceive. In this there is no division, but unity in our irredeemable state, if unity there is within our natural proclivities toward division.

The second consideration following the first part is in fact not a unity intrinsic to mankind, but an elected unity. As certainly as we find ourselves helpless to meet standards set either from without or within, it is definite that this second bond is not one basic to our being, but contingent upon our will. The decision of humility before the Cross is neither a natural position of the human frame, nor a pledge idly taken. Yet the human person craves fellowship within the bonds of a common creed as surely as death is preferable to loneliness. Thus, as water flows away from the higher ground to water the lowlands, so men will follow the natural paths away from the hill at Calvary to those communities more appealing to their inflated sensibilities. It is for this reason that we encounter factions, groups of shared identity, opposing communities, and lines of division too numerous to comprehend. Man will wander the restless paths of Cain across the face of the Earth (Gen. 4:14) and walk in desert wildernesses for forty years (Numbers 32:13) before coming simply to the foot of the Cross. He will build his cities, form his troops, proclaim his oaths before witnesses, and wage wars to build mighty kingdoms marked by boundary stones in his own image before ever proclaim as Peter did, “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). Thus was Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, made low in the time of Daniel:

As the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” The words were still on his lips when a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals… Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men.”

-Daniel 4:28-32

If we desire a unity not merely of nature, but of purpose, in which not division but communion is the daily practice, then we must become One in Christ.

How, then, are they characterized who are One in Christ? Is there an outward sign, like the mark of Cain, that all who strike him dead should be avenged (Gen. 4:15)? Is it by a constructed “holy atmosphere” through music and high words by which members feel or feign religiosity? Can we deduce it by the number of races represented in the institutional church? To contend that Christ’s Body can be detected by outward appearance in the third part, or projection of emotion in the second part, or rejection of structural forms of obedience in the first, is to display the same weakness as Samuel before the sons of Jesse. No, it is not by these means that the “unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3) is made and maintained. Even the strongest contender in post-modern ideology – race – has little hope of binding together a mosaic of peoples from every “tongue and tribe and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). For even as they are being gathered in one place, they are fragmenting in accordance with the blood of those with whom they share.

No, there is a stronger bond than blood, and that is creed. Those who are one in Christ hold this as true above all else, spoken by the early apostles and repeated by those who regard Christ, and not his own efforts, as final:

I believe in God,
the Father Almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
He descended into hell;
on the third day He rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from there He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Holy Catholic Church,
the communion of Saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.

-The Apostle’s Creed

This, then, is the mark of those who are one in Christ: those who hold fast to this confession, unwavering and in conviction of spirit and word and work, until the end. The unity here spoken is again one of decision, made by the individual, but it is not merely a “voluntary act of uniting by the members of Christ’s body” (Oden, Classic Christianity, p. 720), for that would be to reduce it again to the lowly state of human community. Rather, it is one which, after affirming this creed in all her members, is set apart by the Holy Spirit for the purpose of service to God. Indeed, the unity of the church itself serves a powerful purpose in our world of factions and division:

By her unity the church gives expression in time to the oneness of Christ’s body so as to unite in hope all humanity to God’s reconciling activity.

-Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity, p. 720

If we hold to this shared belief, are we unified? If we are not unified, then what divides us? By what means might we divine the barriers separating brethren one from another, and so unify once more under the banner of Christ, as the church ought, spread out in time and space in the armor of God, wielding faith in one hand and the Word in the other? If we are one in Christ, and we are also divided, then we are not one in Christ. We would do well to ask ourselves – and not our brethren, who in our weakness we are apt to condemn – how often do we affirm the common creed? How often do we dwell on the words, “I believe in God”? “In Jesus Christ… our Lord”? “…in the Holy Spirit”?

The Apostle’s Creed contains the most primal elements of the Body of Christ. They must be examined anew every morning; they must be shouted from mountaintops; they must go down into the “inner parts” of a man; they must be the last word at night. If these truths are known but not held daily, they will fade into a worldly dimness. And in fading, a hundred contradictory worldviews and exploded systems of thought clutter the believer’s mind, and the ancient false choice is quietly proposed by the Enemy of our souls: By whose wisdom shall you live? Your own, or God’s? It was by this lie that Eve took and ate of the apple, as time and again we choose our own paths instead of God’s. But this is to evade the thrust of that first commandment, for to live as one we must live, not by rules, but by relationship. The false choice is to encourage the believer to forget that he is to choose, not between our wisdom and God’s, but between our wisdom and God’s love.

Were it not for the love demonstrated by Christ on the Cross, there would be no possibility of election into this communion. But because Christ did come to earth, and in coming die, and in dying rise, He gave us this hope for “peace on earth,” that one day every “tongue and tribe and people and nation” will proclaim as one that Jesus is Lord.