In the past two blog postings I have intentionally opened up a question that could be contentious. I did so in order to highlight a theological issue that has profound practical implications for how Christians perceive themselves in God’s work on earth. I suggest for the readers to consider the following: If we who call ourselves Christians make “the church” the focal point of our expectations for the manifestation of the Kingdom of God then we need to know exactly what “the church” is!
When I was first taking Seminary courses I had a History professor who frequently made the point (rather sarcastically) that we modern Christians had reached the point where we could start and make a “church” successful without having God involved. What he was referring to was the influence within Christian academic circles of “church growth” models which were based on sociology and psychology. The older I have gotten and observed the trends in American churches I am convinced that his critique is basically correct. We American Christians do not need God to run our “churches”! That is what we have professional consultants for.
This example is obviously not an example of the Kingdom authentically being manifested on earth. Rather, it is a sophisticated example of the attitude Paul refuted. “The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:2, NRSV) Piety that is rooted in human techniques or human traditions is inherently contradictory to the “law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:2, NRSV). For it depends upon human scheming and manipulation to motivate people to behave in ways that are most desired by leaders (even if the leaders have their theological language technically correct). Frankly, I think that the intense disgust that many Americans have toward churches could be traced back to leaders and whole denominations adopting such worldly techniques for the purpose of bringing more people to attend events and activities in churches.
This heresy of works to promote so-called “church growth” is surely not pleasing to God, is it? For is not the purpose of the Church, the Body of Christ, to be the vehicle by which the Almighty Triune God manifests his power and love and gifts? Yes, in part. But is it not so very easy to buy into a human centered perspective which affirms that we who believe must do God’s work for him? That is, to think that since we are chosen and gifted and united together in the Body that we have the primary role of working for God. There is a dangerous half-truth in this affirmation; without the necessary strong qualification of grace being primary in all things we make ourselves and our activities for God more important than the activity of the Holy Spirit in us.
The Puritan writer, William Gurnall, makes a point related to God’s righteousness that is helpful and applicable here.
“This righteousness is twofold—imputed and imparted. Imputed righteousness is what Christ works for the believer, the justification which lets him stand righteous before God. This is called ‘the righteousness of God’ (Rom. 3:21). By way of distinction, imparted righteousness is what Christ works in the believer. … Although this [imparted] righteousness is not inherent in God’s children, we receive the benefit of it by faith, as if we had effected it ourselves. This is why Jesus is called ‘the Lord our righteousness’ (Jer. 33:16).” (William Gurnell, The Christian in Complete Armour, Vol 2 [Banner of Truth: 1988), pp.144-145, italics in original.)
Anyone who has read theological writing related to how we are saved in Christ from sin and death can appreciate his point here. And I suspect that there would be ready agreement from many of my readers. Yet do we believe the reality of imparted righteousness for the whole of our lives? For the whole of how we relate to each other and how we “do church”? Do we know, as Paul did (see 1 Corinthians 1:30-31), that the Lord Jesus, the Head of the Church, needs to impart to us all things needed to be faithful witnesses in community?
The Church may well be the community through which the “seed of the Kingdom” grows and manifests itself. In God’s purpose I believe that God’s people in community, the Body, are destined for this and that God is working in and with us to make us willing to be his dwelling place on earth. May God make this a reality! But if we believe that we are the seed of Kingdom on earth then I think we have begun down a dangerous path where demons delight to play. For God does not take it lightly when human beings take on themselves the glory that belongs only to God.