Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What Has God Got to Do With the Church?

When we think of Christianity we think of the church. For some this evokes pictures of architecture, grand cathedrals reaching up to God like the spires of St Peter’s Cathedral in Adelaide. For others this evokes a community of people who come together - often weekly - in whatever worship service to worship God and often to partake in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Yet others see a more sinister entity, an organisation that has caused untold harm not just in ancient hurts but right up until this day.
But when we think of church do we think of God? How is God involved with the church? How does the grand architecture with spires rising to the sky reflect on God? Is it God who brings church goers together each week to celebrate communion or is it people’s choice? No-one, including the hardest atheists, believe the church should be a sinister entity - yet if God has something to do with the church, how do we reconcile this with the real shortcomings of the historical church and the church in the present?
Jesus overturned the tables in God’s temple, yet God’s church has harboured the worst criminals, people who prayed on the vulnerable, the very people that Jesus says we should champion and minister to!
It would be fruitful to accept the New and Old Testament as they are. What does church mean in their context?
The Old Testament tells the story of God’s people Israel. Christians interpret this as a precursor of the New Testament in which God fulfills God’s promise to humankind - although not in the way that the Jewish interpreters expected! If we take church to mean a group of people who come together to share some type of common religious experience, we can see that the broad concept of this community, or this church, as a people who come together, at a holy place to worship in God’s presence through the mediation of appointed priests.
Do understand that I am talking about the Old Testament church at its pinnacle. Look at any of the prophetic writings and we will quickly see that even in those times, God’s church was often not doing what God wanted it to do. The church in those times strayed, worshipped other gods, got caught up in the act of “being the church” without actually “fulfilling God’s purpose or commands”. In fact, the prophets are generally calling the church and Israel back to faith.
And here is another point. The church in the Old Testament is not separated from the fate of God’s people, Israel. The faithfulness of the church (or temple) and God’s people are one and the same. When evil besets the church, because they have been faithless to God, evil has beset the whole of God’s people and not just the church. Thus, in broad terms, it seems that the Old Testament’s view of church is synonymous with God’s people; whether they “wanted” to be part of God’s church they were part of God’s church and they had little say in this matter.
What does this tell us about God and God’s church though? In the Old Testament, God interacts with the church. In the Pentateuch, the books commonly attributed to Moses, whilst God chooses people such as Eve, Abraham, Sarah and Moses to speak on God’s behalf, God has a definite and imminent presence. God is the God who can say, “Moses! Moses!” whilst “standing” within a burning bush. Later it is not clear whether God interacts so directly. In the prophets, people do not directly witness the presence of God even if it is just His heels and His back, yet they hear God’s prophets who speak on God’s behalf. The prophets do not say “I say...” they say “The Lord says...”
In the Old Testament, God has a lot to do with the church - in fact God is the principle character, sometimes protagonist and sometimes antagonist. In the Old Testament little happens without God having something to do with it, yet God stops at compelling the church to do God’s will by removing people’s free will. Although there are clear demonstrations that God has power over the elements and even the power to harden human hearts, God does not directly force God’s people, synonymous with God’s church, to do God’s bidding.
There are, however, too many examples of God’s interaction even to list - go read the source!
By the time the New Testament has come, the temple is well established even if the people have to cope with their Roman overlords. There is a hierarchy of priests and one’s status within Israel is related to one’s family, whether one is from the priest hood, one’s wealth and so forth. In the New Testament, God does not speak directly through a “third party” but through Jesus “the Christ” or “the Messiah”. The very same Jesus that Christians profess to be the Son of God, God incarnate and a “member” of the Holy Trinity.
If we accept the New Testament at face value, which I have proposed we do, Jesus is clearly critical of the established religion. He is critical of the temple priests and critical of others who set themselves up as interpreters of the law. If we accept that Jesus is “the Messiah” or “the Anointed One”, if we accept that Jesus is “God’s Son incarnate”, then we can see that God still has a lot to do with the church.
In fact, God became incarnate and gave impetus to the disciples who would slowly but surely build one of the world’s most enduring organisations - the Christian church. Jesus’ disciples and those who preached about Jesus afterwards opened up this community and this new church. They opened it up to “Gentiles” (i.e. non-Jews), taking Jesus’ words to spread the news to “all the world” quite literally.
Yet, how did they believe they were doing God’s will? Did they just “decide” that this is what they were going to do? Was it just a human endeavour? It is, of course, true that humans pushed this endeavour forward. We read many of their names in the letters, for example, Paul, Titus, Silvanus, Phoebe and a myriad of others. Yet they all believe they are doing so in Christ’s name and more importantly, it is claimed that they all do so with Christ’s spirit.
Christ’s what? Christ’s spirit. Well, God’s Holy Spirit. Let’s not land ourselves in the filique controversy. But let’s be mindful here because this isn’t as easy a shift as “God spoke through the prophets or, indeed, spoke God’s self”. God, Jesus’ Father, sent the Spirit to guide the apostles and later missionaries. God still does so today. Jesus, God’s Son, promised this spirit but also indicated that none would come to the Father except by him. None other than God can save humanity, thus if Jesus can save humanity Jesus must be that same God. Hence this spirit Jesus talks about is God’s spirit, or to put it in other words, it, too is God.
That sounds like a (particularly bad) explanation of the Doctrine of the Trinity. That’s because it is the Doctrine of the Trinity. We may describe a square as a “thing with four equal sides” which is certainly not a very good description if one is answering an Honors Level maths examination paper but it doesn’t mean we’re not describing a square.
So, it seems that the Trinity, or the Triune God, has appeared in the early church. Again, just as in the Old Testament, the Triune God does not summarily remove the evil and force humans to change their minds. It is true - by the urging of the Spirit, Paul and others berate, write to and lecture the early church on how they should behave (and some of Paul’s berating has caused untold confusion and itself been interpreted in ways Paul probably never expected).
And here we are again.
I think we have our answer.
What does God have to do with the church? God is the church’s main protagonist. Some would argue that by God’s willful refusal to simply “fix” the church (with the wink of a Godly eye perhaps?) that God is the church’s main antagonist. Yet, certainly in the scriptural witness, God is active both in the Old Testament church and the “new” church in the New Testament.
So, the answer, I think is: EVERYTHING!

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