Friday, March 3, 2017

The Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of Sins

John 13:34

“A new commandment I give you, love one another.  By this will all men know you are my disciples, by your love for one another.”

Before Jesus commanded us to go into the world, He commanded us to love each other. If we cannot love our brothers who we know, then how can we really love the stranger who we don’t know?  
Even so, Christians are known for their rivalry, pride and infighting. We have no idea what the Creed means when it says, “The holy catholic church,” “the communion of saints” or even “the forgiveness of sins.”

So let’s talk about these three statements.

“The Holy Christian church does not mean the Roman Catholic church. It means the whole, or universal church. Christians everywhere who call upon the Lord Jesus Christ are one. Anyone who confesses Jesus Christ is Lord is part of the true church of God. We are all one in the Lord, and of equal importance in His eyes.

For centuries though, Christians have been trying to find a way not to love our brothers and sisters—or if we love them, to treat them as our inferiors. It isn’t our worthiness, though, that causes us to look down on others, but out unworthiness.  It’s not their sin or doctrinal incorrectness that causes others to look small to us but our pride. 

Pride has nothing to do with how people think about themselves. It has everything to do with how we think about others. Pride, and jealousy are really just the same thing. If we think ourselves better than others, then we are proud. If we think ourselves worse, then we are jealous. Pride is the sinful human flaw that makes us think our job is to judge the servant of another. Whenever we look down on Christians who like different music, organize their church differently, or hold different views on non-essential theological issues, we are overstepping the boundaries of love. It is none of our business how another Christian speaks to God or thinks God speaks to him. We are only responsible for speaking to God and hearing from him for ourselves. We have every right to uphold our own views. We have no right to judge another in the place of God.  

In the church, this pride takes four forms. One is intellectual pride. We think we have all right to refuse fellowship with those who disagree with us. I personally have never seen one whit of difference in the quality of Christian lives between those who believe in Calvinism or Arminianism, infant or adult baptism, or  covenantalism versus dispensationalism.  We all need improvement, but all are capable of being vessels of God’s grace.

Another is emotional pride. Some express their joy more outwardly. But there’s no evidence that more emotional Christians are more righteous than those from less unemotionally free churches.

Another is organizational pride. Some believe their branch of Christianity is the true one, based on their history or lack of history. Catholics are proud that their lineage makes them the true church. Protestants are equally proud that their organization makes them the one real church. Yet God has those who sincerely worship Him among Catholics and Protestants. God seems to have distributed His gifts and favors on Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, orthodox and Coptics irrespective of their origins. God loves them all.
Another group is missional pride. People have different views about what the church should be doing in the world. But the church is not built on our differing views about what the church should be doing. It is built on faith in Jesus. The mission of the church is bigger than any one group within it.

 We are not a church because of what we do. We are a church because of Who owns us. God can task different people with different ministries. He can also task different churches differently, too.

I grew up in mainline Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterian churches, and attended for a time a mainline seminary. My teachers there had little regard for evangelism. To them, Jesus’ real mission was social change. It was all about civil rights and feeding the poor, but they seemed uninterested in whether a person was saved. At the same time, I became involved in Evangelical, Bible-believing Christians who saw the church’s mission as winning souls to Jesus. However, in time I realized that once a person came to Jesus, they had no clue about what to do. They did not talk about changing a life, just winning a convert. After a while, it seemed like one big game of tag, where people got one another to confess Jesus. It never occurred to either side to ask whether social expressions and personal evangelism could both be expressions of a person’s commitment to Jesus as Lord. Our individual callings may be different. Not everyone serves God in the same way we do. Our missions may be different. The Body of Christ—the church--is bigger than our imaginations. Loving fellow Christians does not mean correcting fellow Christians, but accepting them despite our differences of opinion, practice, and passion.

Church is not something we do, but something we are. We are the Body of Christ--whether we share anything else in common is simply unimportant. Christians should serve each other, without insisting on agreement or uniformity of practice or thought.  We are much stronger when we disagree, as long as we disagree in an atmosphere or mutual respect and love. Whether we agree or disagree does not change Christ’s command to love each other. 

“The communion of saints.” A communion of saints is like a marriage of saints. It is when we come together on a local level though mutual commitment to form a family of God. As in a marriage, this communion is more than just saying, “I love you.”  It is a declaration of intent to live together.

Today, we live in an age of consumer Christianity. We think of the local church as being like Walmart or Target. It is a place to go for all our spiritual shopping needs. If another church opens down the street with a better product, we go there. Unfortunately, such an approach defeats one of the fundamental purposes of the church, to be the family of God on earth. If everyone has the attitude that we can leave the family anytime the family goes through a rough patch, then how strong is the family? If we abandon our kids when they are in pain, then who will raise them? If we move in with our neighbor when momma burns the meat loaf, how long will any family last?  But if the local church is to exist, and fulfill what God has called all local churches to do, it must be made of people who commit to each other, no matter what.

As I have said, the church universal has many missions and many purposes in the world.

God’s people can form many organizations to fulfill the many facets of the Great Commission. But a local church body has one purpose that no parachurch, political, or any other group of individual Christians can do, except a local church. We are entrusted with discipling people into the image of Jesus. An earthly family has one purpose above all others—to raise kids. A church family has one purpose above all other—to raise Jesuses. We exist to be the one agency that can help bring you and your children to spiritual maturity. That is why we meet on Sundays and through the week. There’s better music on YouTube. There are better sermons on any number of websites and books. There are better organized social missions and evangelistic missions everywhere, but we alone are entrusted with the task of raising the kind of people who can make those missions happen. Nothing else on earth can fulfill that function. This can only be done by personal contact on a local and individual level—and the first step in that process is to love each other.

“Love” by itself is too vague a word to describe what we need. In every town it is the solemn duty of the churches to get along, and the duty of people within churches to get along. Pray for each other, spend time with each other, know each other, listen to each other, and welcome each other. 

This brings us to our third statement in the Creed, “the forgiveness of sins.”
 Dallas Willard suggests that the first step in accepting other Christians is to say, “I could be wrong.”  Whenever we insist that we are always right and everyone else is wrong, we have become judgmental. Realizing that we can be wrong means being humble. We must stand before God in humility and allow Him the privilege of correction. The divisions of the world don’t belong in the church. There is no liberal or conservative here. There is no Republican or Democrat here. We are one in Christ Jesus.

Paul says in Romans 14: 1-4, As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master] that he stands or falls”

“The forgiveness of sins.” We usually take this to mean the forgiveness of our sins. But it is really about the forgiveness of sins—which can just as easily mean our forgiveness of other people’s sins. Unity begins with forgiveness of each other.  Whenever people live together, we intentionally or unintentionally hurt each other. If we hold on to hurts, then we never really love.  

Christians are notoriously passive-aggressive. We don’t air our grievances, but let them fester. We don’t talk to each other--just about each other.

We don’t have to air all problems, but we must always forgive. We can’t say everything we think or feel, nor should we. Differences can only be discussed where there is trust. But we can forgive our hurts towards others. Forgiveness recognizes the hurts, but takes Christ’s example by letting them go. We should first be humble before God, realizing that we might be the one at fault. Christ has forgiven our sins. All He asks in return is that we do the same for others.

Christians have a mediated relationship with each other. We don’t just love each other, but love for the sake of Christ. If you have a relative who irritates you, you still love them for the sake of the family. Why should it be any different in the church?  We love each other for the sake of Christ. And the closer we get to Christ, the easier it is to love those who Christ loves. 

There’s a story about the Apostle John. When he was an old man people would plead with him to tell them something he heard from Jesus. He would say, “Little children, love one another.” That was all he would say. There is nothing more to be said.  When we love each other, we fulfill the law of Christ.

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