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 I

It has been a common practice of the present day to speak of our brothers and sisters by terms consistent with what separates them from ourselves, though this is by no means a novel revelation. For, in the days of Saul, king over Israel, the Lord knew Saul had “rejected the word of the Lord” (Samuel 15:26) and because of this sent Samuel to look among the ruddy sons of Jesse’s house for a new king. And when Samuel beheld them, he thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord” (1 Samuel 16:6), as men are apt to do in the presence of natural strength.

But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.

-1 Samuel 16:8

And so it is with us. To appraise a man’s worth for his appearance is like to consider a beaker of liquid good for drinking if it be clear; not only is this the folly of apathy, and a scornful rejection of healthy scientific inquiry, but if it is consumed with the same irreverence it has the potential to kill. Thus the settlers of Jamestown met their fate, and so also the student of chemistry if he is not sufficiently cautious.

So what are the things of the heart which God sees, and we are to see if we are to look beyond mere appearance? If we ask God in humility, He will be sure to show us. In an instant, the sheet is pulled back, and we reel in horror and shame. The effect of this revelation and swift demolition of our pride is what the Puritans called the “gift of tears,” or in the current vernacular, repentance. For what we are first shown is not some noble hero, stark against a world swirling with uncertainty, authentic, progressive, wielding a voice of truth against a nameless power, but a blackened tumor pulsating and growing with the passage of time. Here is the first shared bond between all of humanity:

We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God…’

-Romans 3:9-11

To a sensitive conscience two-thousand years displaced from these thundering words of condemnation against humanity, indignance might be the first order of business. Who is this Paul to condemn myself, a perfectly decent fellow, whom he has never known, and would never harm a soul? Am I a racist, like some, or a bigot, like others? And anyways, how does a collection of outworn documents apply to the human condition today?

But these objections are easily met. If we recall the First Affirmation:

that values exist, in whatever form; that they are fixed and unchanging with respect to human argument; and that they appear to impress themselves upon humanity from without,

then we readily see the fallacy concealed in these objections. For Paul was a human being, as we ourselves are, and he spoke according to that ideal or standard which transcends Nature and therefore does not change with argumentation or passage of time. Therefore, in making this pronouncement against the baser nature of humanity, he affirms a truth that is undeniable to any student of history and itself has not changed since it was first penned: that we do not measure up to this standard.

At this point, it is necessary to augment the First Affirmation with the following: that the intrinsic moral worth of human beings is both equal among all beings, and fixed with respect to time. Thus, human beings are not malleable in the sense of their moral worth being modified, or else due to the irregular distribution of influences throughout the earth – whether cultural, geographical, academic, or otherwise – some would progress differently or more rapidly than others, and their intrinsic worth would change with respect to those with whom they still share the same biological species. In doing so, those “more equal” than others would help the less equal along by virtue of their societal duty to mankind. This is the primary fallacy behind Oceana’s “Ministry of Love,” in which one man more equal than another – O’Brien – raises the lower – Winston – to the same state of righteous exaltation as he, by medieval arts of torture:

We control life, Winston, at all its levels. You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable.

-O’Brien to Winston, 1984, p. 269

But if men are malleable, then would it not follow that at the birth of every new babe, the collective gap between our baser nature and the Image we perceive would close? I am assuming that this Image is either rightfully perceived as transcendent, or else designed by the more righteous engineers of society. Would it not be the experience of all men to observe deeper affections and greater comraderie with the other, and to see that civil body of which they are part grow in solidarity and progress toward righteousness and maturity? How greatly is this not the case! How greatly do our passions war against us daily, and how feeble are the admonitions of treating others with public kindness. Even by the image made by the art of man, we discern the gap between the ideal and reality. Man cannot even achieve his low expectations.

This is the response to the objection, that since men do not change, then the words of Paul apply not only to the Romans, but to the Americans, and to the Chinese, and to the British, and to the Portuguese, and so forth. Surely Thucydides pronounced rightly that civilization was a “thin veneer” over barbarism. And with every turn of the electrical knob, O’Brien proved that Paul’s proclamation stands: “There is no one righteous, not even one.”

So this is the first bond between one man with another, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). And if we together are one race of sinners, then we all share yet one more mark of commonality, if indeed we yearn for salvation from this body of death: “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom. 3:22). Those who fall short “are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24), and if we all have fallen short, then we all have access to this justification by grace through faith. This justification is not apportioned to an elite few; those peoples or races or intellects or artisans or musicians whom God has picked above all others from the faceless masses of humanity, as the Gnostics once argued. It comes “through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rom. 3:22).

By saying, “through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe,” Paul clarifies what every adopted son and daughter already knows, what is the yearning of every sick soul desperate for peace from the tense divisions of the identitarian idealogues, and that which this latter hateful crew fully despise: that there is no division at the foot of the Cross. Christ does not justify according to race, but according to faith. Thus, we are all fundamentally bound together by our faith in Christ, and ultimately by our adoption as sons and daughters into the kingdom of God.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

-Galatians 3:28