We have been talking about people’s dreams and desires to have something better than the present reality. Most everyone believes that things in the present are not as they should be. Almost everyone believes that there has to be something better somewhere, sometime – hopefully in the not-too-far-distant-future. That has been illustrated time and again in history, particularly in the search for an elusive utopia. Social experiments and religious reformations/restorations have universally failed. Yet we go on groping in the darkness for the elusive ideal. I have a dear preacher friend who has opined to me that we in Churches of Christ are closer than ever to completely restoring the New Testament church. I don’t know what his basis for that conclusion might be. Do any of us even know what we are looking for? Would we recognize it even if we stumbled upon it?
Perhaps we had best spend some time thinking about what the church is supposed to be. Has it was ever been the ideal as we have imagined it to be? Was there ever a perfect execution of God’s plan for people who believe in him? Do we anywhere in the Bible have a description of the church in it’s finished state – as it sprang from the mind of God in absolute perfection? Just exactly what are we reading about when we read the New Testament record of God’s dealings with men and especially those who believed in him?
When we go back to the time when God began to separate a special people for himself – back to the calling of Abraham – we find that God had a broader purpose in mind than just for Abraham and his descendants. God did choose Abraham and his family after him to be a special people unto himself. He blessed them with revelations of himself and gave them his care and protection like he gave to no other people. They were his special people, called to be holy or set apart unto him and him alone. What he expected of them was faith. Faith such as characterized Abraham. Faith that accepted God for what he said and trusted him to do what he promised. One of the promises God made to Abraham was that through his seed (singular – an offspring, a descendant) he would bless all nations.
God did not expect those people to be absolutely perfect in their faith or in the exercise of their faith. They were human and all humans fall short. Their father Abraham wasn’t perfect. While he believed God’s promises he didn’t understand how God would carry them out so he tried to help God out. At Sarah’s urging he fathered a son by a slave girl. Big mistake! That wasn’t God’s plan. Still, God used this impatient old man to begin a family of people through whom the Messiah would come many years later.
The descendants of Abraham became the people known as the Israelites. These were the people who grew to be a nation during a four hundred year sojourn in Egypt. They were there first as welcome guests and then as slaves of one of the first great empires of the ancient world. As the oppression of his people grew, God heard their cries and delivered them from their bondage, bringing them out after mightily proving himself to be God to the recalcitrant Pharaoh. They were separated from Egypt by miraculously being delivered through the Red Sea, being “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”1
These people had hardly found their footing on the eastern shore of the Red Sea when they started complaining of their discomfort, deprivation and inconveniences in the wilderness. They wanted more than the manna with which God fed them. They murmured for water and God provided it miraculously. When they were at the foot of Mount Sinai where God was revealing the law to Moses in the awesome scene of fire and smoke on the mountain, they were making for themselves an idol and worshiping it in riotous abandon.
What is the point? Simply this … these were human beings. They, as we all, were messed up by sin. Having God’s revelation of himself to and through them did not change their humanness. Yes, they were guilty of grave sin and God held them responsible for it. Yet, Israel, with all their flaws and unbelief, was still God’s special people. He loved them as he told them in Deut. 7:6-8 ESV …
“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”
God had saved them and God continued to bear with them, not because of their goodness or righteousness but because of his grace. Despite a history of continuing disappointment and failure, God would use this stubborn people to be a means of blessing the whole world. Paul summarized the blessings of the descendants of Abraham this way in Romans 9:4-5:
“They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.”
Israel never did attain a state of perfection even though God had given them detailed laws and commandments. Despite their imperfections, God used them to bring even greater blessing to those in Israel who believed and to bless all nations of the earth through the Christ (Messiah), the seed whom he had promised. Those of Israel whom God blessed and those of the nations (Gentiles) who are blessed today receive his blessings – together – through their faith in him just as had Abraham in the long ago. They – and we Christians today – are blessed together with all others who believe in the Messiah and who receive salvation through faith in him.
A part of the blessing of the nations was this bringing together of all peoples in one body of believing followers of Jesus.2 Paul calls this sharing of blessings (with the Gentiles) a mystery God had kept hidden from mankind through the ages.3 In New Testament times this divine initiative was met with stern resistance. The party of the Judaizers, a sect of Jesus-followers insisted that the Gentiles must become Jews before they could be acceptable to God. Then there were the multiple divisions among the believers in Corinth who more identified themselves with who baptized them or who taught them than they did with Christ who died for them. Those who did identify themselves as followers of Christ apparently did so only to distinguish themselves from the believers who followed Paul, Apollos or Cephas.
There were careless workers in the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 3), some who thought they knew more than the apostles (ch. 4) as well as a blatantly immoral person being accepted by the congregation (ch. 5). This same church had people suing their brothers over things they should have settled among themselves, and some arguing for the practice of fornication also (ch.6). We could go on and review the mistakes of the Galatians in seeking justification according to law and the probable resistance of both the Jews and Gentiles in Ephesus to the joining together of the two great divisions of humanity in accordance with God’s eternal plan. We could go even further and name other evidences of imperfection in these churches just as there were imperfections among the Israelites before them.
“Yes,” someone will object, “there were imperfections in the early churches, but didn’t God reveal to them the perfect plan or pattern for their work, worship and organization? Don’t they show us what God expected the church to be through all time to come?” I used to believe that he did – and I still believe he revealed the perfect pattern. I just do not believe it looks like what some folks think it does. The writings of the New Testament were not written to give a detailed blueprint for an institutional organization. They were written to imperfect disciples to help them overcome their imperfections. Their imperfections were not in missing the correct form of worship because nowhere in the New Testament is there a description of what a worship assembly should look like or a complete list of what should be done by whom and in what order. There were no perfect people and there were no perfect churches. For the most part, the New Testament was written to teach people how to live with one another in their common relationship with their Creator and Lord.
Essentially, in calling man into a relationship with himself – which is what the church is – people called out of the world to be God’s own special people – we are called to return to our original place and responsibility given by our Creator at the time of our creation. We are, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:10 “…his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” What are the good works? They are the works we were created (and recreated) to do from the beginning, the works prepared beforehand. We are, individually and collectively, to bear the image of God and take care of, rule, have dominion over, the whole creation in partnership with God. In doing this we are to fulfill to the best of our ability God’s purpose of blessing all the nations of the earth through showing them the wisdom, goodness and glory of God in our work, our unity and our godly lives. We are to return to our original place and responsibility with God, but we are neither called to return to Eden – nor Jerusalem. We are expected to take up the work he has for us to do where we are in the present.
We live in a day in which that promise made by God to Abraham to bless all nations through Christ is coming to fruition. Christ has come and provided the blessing of the way back to God for a lost world. But instead of being conduits of his blessings to the nations, too many of us who profess faith in Jesus as our Savior have by our narrow vision and divisive sectarianism sought to eliminate as many as possible from receiving them all in the name of keeping the church pure (ideal?). We, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, compass land and sea, seeking to turn everyone into carbon copies of ourselves because we have set ourselves as the measure of the ideal instead of Jesus who is the ideal pattern for humanity – all humanity. To paraphrase Job 2:12, “No doubt
you we are the people and wisdom will die with you us.”
1 1 Corinthians 10:2
2 Ephesians 1:10; 2:11-16
3 Ephesians 3:6