Charting a Course for the Church
Part VIII: Being the Church of Jesus Christ

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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The Christian church came into being through the ministry, blood, bodily resurrection, and Spirit of Jesus Christ. Those who truly call Him "Lord" are His church. It follows, then, that it is Jesus Christ who defines His church - and it is those faithful to Him who comprise His church.

The English word "church" is the translation of the Greek word ekklesia, which means essentially "the called out." For the Greeks, those who were members of an ekklesia were part of a group that was "called out" of some greater community to meet in an assembly. Therefore the concept of separation is at the very heart of what it means to be the ekklesia, the church. This concept of separation is well described by the metaphor of marriage. When a bride and groom choose to marry, they separate themselves to one another. In the best of cases it is a process that begins before marriage, when men and women keep themselves separate for the one they will marry in the future, and continues after marriage in faithfulness to one's spouse. There are a number of places in the Scripture where marriage is used as an analogy for our relationship to God (i.e. Hosea, Isaiah 54:4-8, 62:4-5, Ephesians 5:22-33). In the Revelation to John the church is described as the "bride" (22:17).

Far from being a concept that relates just to the time of Christ's bodily return, this separation may be seen in the unique goals and purposes of the church in this age. For example, the church is "called out" to worship and fellowship with her God; to grow in understanding, maturity, and holiness; to guard and to proclaim the Truth of the Scriptures and the Gospel of Christ to all people; and to represent God in showing kindness, exposing and opposing evil, and promoting righteousness. These are goals that the world, at best, shares only partially -- and at worst fully opposes. If the church should not be self-conscious about her role in the world, the church should be perpetually self-aware with regard to her role. To compromise with the ways and goals of the world is "spiritual adultery," a failure to be faithful to the Christ who gave her life.

However, the church's relationship to the world is more complex than simply one of separation. The church is called to be a part of Christ's work in this world. Therefore, the role of the church must also be described as redemptive - not in the same sense in which the work of Jesus Christ is redemptive, for only Jesus Christ, by His death at Calvary, could provide atonement for the sins of all mankind - but in the sense that the church is brought into the work of calling others to receive the grace of God in Christ Jesus - "For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (I Timothy 2:5). In Acts, we read that both the Spirit and the church set aside Paul and Barnabus for the work of evangelism (the church by the laying on of hands, Acts 13:2-3), and in the Revelation to John the invitation to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ is issued both by the Holy Spirit and the church, for "the Spirit and the bride say, 'Come.'" (Revelation 22:17). Just as the Holy Spirit is in the world to exalt Christ (John 15:26, 16:8-15), so, too, is the church which was created by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

For the church to assume her proper role and act redemptively means that the church must recognize both sin and the sinfulness of sin. John wrote of Jesus that, "He did not need any one to bear witness concerning man for He Himself knew what was in man" (John 2:25). However, especially in the wealthy, sophisticated culture of 20th century America, it would seem that all too often Christians would like to fantasize the world into something better than it is. Both James and John warn Christians not to be under any illusions about the nature and goals of the unredeemed (James 4:14-4:10, I John 2:15-17). The Old Testament is witness to the constant tendency of God's people to seek compromise with the world. At one point in Jesus' ministry, when He hung on the cross, it is probable that not only did all of His disciples desert Him, but there was not a single individual in all of the world who believed that Jesus would triumph over the cross. Hopes for deliverance centered upon relief from physical needs and political oppression. Yet, Christ triumphed over the grave - and over sin - on behalf of mankind - and the church is established not primarily to meet all of the needs of the world nor to establish political dominance in this age - but to witness to Christ's triumph over sin and death.

To be redemptive is, therefore, to recognize God's love for all people, and to express that love through the presentation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (I Corinthians 13). As love is the most distinctive characteristic of God and of God's holiness, so too the love of the church for the people of the world must be defined by God and His Gospel, not by worldly concepts of love. It is Christian love that sees the people of the world as candidates for redeeming grace through Jesus Christ, and so reaches out to them. Simply put, if the church is to be the ekklesia in a fallen world, she must allow herself to be defined by Her Lord rather than by the world - which means being guided in faith and practice by the first-century apostles upon whom Christ founded His church. Compromise with the world is made by those who do not give proper place to the apostolic witness, the apostolic testimony, the apostolic example, and the apostolic charge.

Consider the assertions, "Prophesy did not die out after the Bible was compiled. A prophet is not necessarily someone who predicts the future, but someone who is brave enough to state out loud what is obvious to everyone." These statements were made by J. Ann Craig in a Bible study meant to teach women true Christian spirituality.i Presumably, in Craig's view, a "prophet" says "what is obvious to everyone" with Divine help. However, this doesn't change the fact that her definition of a prophet has changed from one who delivers Divine revelation to one who voices human insight - even if it is believed that this human insight comes by Divine assistance. The emphasis here is upon consensus with the world - the prophet says what everybody would say if they just had the courage or honesty to do so. The concept of mission presented later in this study is one of social justice. While most Christians would agree with many of her concerns for justice and care of the poor, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is significant by its absence. Indeed, her purpose is to herald "women who dare to quote Scripture in new ways,"ii and from her presentation it is obvious that she is promoting an agenda of "empowerment," an agenda that has more in common with radical feminism's quest for power than with Christian mission. Radical feminists are increasingly bringing pagan ceremonies into the mainline denominations, turning Christian meetings into neo-pagan gatherings that promote a radical feminist agenda. iii

However, radical feminists aren't alone in promoting acceptance of other religions as a replacement for traditional missions and evangelism. In October 1998, the Rev. S. Wesley Ariarajah, professor of ecumenical theology at Drew University School of Theology, gave an address entitled "Christian Mission: The End or a New Beginning" to the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.iv In his address Rev. Ariarajah "outlined four shifts in philosophy needed to move the church from the 'Protestant party line' on mission to a new understanding of how mission should be accomplished."v The first shift he recommends is to recognize that God is working with people everywhere and to accept the different "faith responses" of other people as legitimate - in other words, to see all human religions as valid. The second is to change from an emphasis on conversion to an emphasis on healing - not creating a unique community of faith (notice, no ekklesia), but bringing wholeness to communities that already exist. The third is for Christians, as a minority, to witness that God will save all humanity (universalism). "Moving from a doctrinal to a spiritual understanding of mission is the fourth shift the church must make, particularly if it wants to draw in young people, the professor said,"vi thus throwing the apostolic witness and the apostolic teaching completely out the window.

However, there is, perhaps, no more outspoken or outrageous proponent of a worldly church than Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, New Jersey. Spong is a member of the "Sea of Faith Network," an organization which takes its name from the poem "Dover Beach," published by British poet Matthew Arnold in 1867. In "Dover Beach" Arnold observed that religious faith, which was once common, was passing away like the ebbing of a great tide. In Arnold's poem, the world becomes a colder, less intelligent, more dangerous place. For Spong and others of the Sea of Faith Network (SOFN), the world is better.

SOFN traces its origin to Don Cupitt, Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, England. His 1980 book Taking Leave of God was an attempt to build upon the work of Anglican bishop John Robinson, whose 1963 book Honest to God stated that belief in a Supreme Being such as the God of the Bible is no longer possible. A six-part BBC television series explaining Cupitt's views was called "Sea of Faith," as was a book based on the series. SOFN grew out of discussion by those sympathetic to Cupitt's views. The network describes itself as having been formed "to explore and promote religious faith as a human creation." Religion is claimed to be the invention of the people of a particular time and location. In their view, God has no objective reality - but God can be experienced, and morality is not something handed down from God, but whatever is agreed upon by the group - the consensus of human opinion at that time. In fact, the "faith" of this group consists totally of feelings and opinions since they rule out all fact and dogma. Members of SOFN describe themselves as "humanistic," "radical," "post-Christian," "non-literalist," and "non-realist."

For his part, Bishop Spong attacks not only all of Scripture and all of the specifics of the Gospel of Jesus Christ but all Christian creeds as well.vii Yet, Spong has refused to leave either the leadership of the Episcopal church or the church itself, claiming to have a contemporary Christian "faith" akin to that of "mystics" and that he is affected by the experience of Jesus' resurrection among early Christians in spite of the fact that he denies that a bodily resurrection of Jesus took place. In an earlier time Spong would easily have been classified an "unbeliever" and an "infidel" by both those within and outside the Christian community. Indeed, in 1994 the Rev. Anthony Freeman was removed from the Anglican church at Staplefield, England by the Bishop of Chichester for publishing a book that promoted SOFN beliefs.

Although membership in SOFN is relatively small, the organization's views echo quite closely the views of many others who conceive of themselves as "religious free-thinkers." These people are often members of numerically small but well-established groups such as the humanists, Quakers, and Unitarian-Universalists, but are also found in mainline Christian denominations that are tolerant of liberalism. The real strength of such individuals today lies not in their numbers or in the influence of their organizations, but in their ability to fit neatly into the intellectual environment of the secular world. Although some of these individuals represent extreme positions within the greater Christian community, the movement of those who call themselves "Christians" and even "evangelicals" to fit into the mold of the world is widespread.

Clark Pinnock considers himself part of the evangelical community even while challenging a traditional understanding of the doctrine of God. In describing his "pilgrimage of faith," Pinnock states, ". . . Just as Augustine came to terms with ancient Greek thinking, so we are making peace with the culture of modernity. . . I do not think we should feel we have lost something of absolute value when we find ourselves at variance with some of the old so-called orthodox interpretations . . . It is in fact an opportunity to be faithful to the Bible in new ways and to state the truth of the Christian message creatively for the modern generation."viii

With so many voices calling for compromise with the world, some flagrantly, some very subtly and persuasively, those who would be faithful to Jesus Christ must be determined to have the life of the church governed by her Master. Embarrassment before the world stems from lack of faith. It is sin. Christians should reject it for an attitude of confidence, joy, and gratitude, and from this perspective approach the Holy Scriptures to discover what God would have us be and how He will bless us. While Christians can profit from much study and scholarship by non-Christians in many disciplines of academic study, when it comes to matters of faith, we must leave the world behind to pursue the unique goals given to us by our Lord, Jesus Christ. Many fields of study, even the secular study of the Bible, are fascinating, and may yield interesting insights. But in terms of our faith, they can also be "red-herrings," leading us away from the truth and insights that would guide us to true holiness and effective service. We are the ekklesia - we have been called-out to be single-minded in the service of a living Lord in fellowship with His Spirit.

The worldly respond that if we don't compromise with the world we don't love the world and the church will die. The truth is that if we devote ourselves to our Lord and are truly His disciples, we will bring to the world an unpopular message about sin, yes, but we will also bring to the world the redeeming love of Jesus Christ expressed by the love, words, and actions of His Body, the church. This is the church's life. Any "church" not faithful in this manner is already dead.


i "Bible Study: Mission Is Prophetic" by J. Ann Craig, executive secretary for spiritual and theological development for the Women's Division of the United Methodist Church, found 11/11/98.

ii ibid.

iii See Tom Graffagnino's article "Neo-paganism in the United Methodist Church" at our web site.

iv "Church must shift to meet new mission needs," Item #617, United Methodist News Service, October 23, 1998, found 11/12/98.

v ibid.

vi ibid.

vii For example, see John Spong's address to the UK Sea of Faith Conference in 1995, " Religion as a Human Creation?," 11/14/98

viii Pinnock, Clark, "From Augustine to Arminius: A Pilgrimage in Theology," 1996, found at the Revival Theology Resources web site 12/21/97.

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume VI, Part 11, November 1998.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.