The Church, a maturing body

A divided world

I think most of us are aware how divided we are in this world. It’s not just the major conflicts around the world that attract our attention; it’s also those that are much closer to home, and that affect us personally. The divorce rate continues to climb. Abuse inside and outside families is horrifying.

Governments have made efforts to bring people together. There is the United Nations and its organisations, the European Union, and now we have Russia with its own Customs Union. Yet, the world is becoming increasingly fragmented. Even various clubs that are supposed to attract people with similar interests, find that different personal agendas operate among their members. It seems that nothing we human beings have tried, has managed to bring about genuine, lasting unity in our divided world.

What Has God Done About This Problem?

It’s the answer to this question we are going to look at, and then ask ourselves,

What Is Our Role As Individuals And As Churches In God’s Solution To This Problem?

Divisions between various groups of people have always been there throughout history. That’s the nature of our sinful humanity. Sin divides. To some extent these divisions will not be healed until the end of time when Jesus Christ returns, and God makes all things new, as he promised. Does that mean that God is not concerned with this problem, or that he wants us simply to accept it?

The world in Paul’s time

Paul lived at a time in history when the Roman empire made it much easier for people to travel widely, and to communicate more easily across ethnic barriers. But the real divisions between people remained. For Paul, a Jew, and a believer in Jesus Christ, who had been saved from the bigotry that characterised his own upbringing, a huge dividing wall existed between his own people, the Jews, and everyone else―the Gentiles. But, the Gospel he had come to believe and accept held the solution to this problem. And this is the way Paul expressed it.

For he [Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two [Jews and Gentiles] one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.… His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Eph. 2:14…16).

From the time Paul met the risen Lord on the road to Damascus, Jesus was always the centre of his life and ministry. He saw this division between people broken down not in a new religion, but in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Jews in Paul’s day believed that the Gentiles needed to be incorporated into Israel if they were to have any chance of salvation. They saw themselves as superior to all other nations.

In my travels among some of the Eastern European countries, I met people who consider themselves superior to others in one way or another. This is particularly true of us, Westerners. Bishop Stephen Neill, in his book, History of Christian Missions, wrote, ‘the sin of nationalism is the last sin Christians are prepared to acknowledge and confess.’ He does not mean that Christians should not be proud of their own country. He is referring to the attitude that prides itself in its own superiority, and looks down on others.

Institutional unity is not the answer

Paul certainly benefitted from some advantages of living in his day. Within the Roman empire, there was peace, there was a mixing of all sorts of nationalities, made possible by ease of travel. All of this was very important for the spread of the Gospel. But, as marvellous as that was, it did not eliminate the frictions that existed not only between the various ethnic groups, but even between Roman citizens themselves. Unity was enforced, and it had to be maintained by force.

The other kind of unity that existed in Paul’s day, and still draws many into its ranks today, are the clubs. People are drawn to them, not only because of common interests, but the benefits they get from them; the status, the reputation, the connections, etc. But these clubs did not, and do not, resolve the divisions that are deeply ingrained in every society. They create superficial relationships. What God is working at, is not an institutional unity, or an organisational one, where all sorts of pressures are applied for members to conform.

A new culture

When we come to the unity Paul is talking about, we realise that he is talking about a unity where the biggest barriers in society are overcome. It is a radical unity the world knows nothing about. It’s a completely new culture.

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If we told Paul that he was an idealist, and that this kind of vision was very nice, but completely unrealistic, Paul would remind us that if we are ‘in Christ’, then the work done to make this a reality, is complete. Christ on the cross, broke down the division that existed between us and God, and those among us.

The unity Paul is talking about is not based on things that draw us naturally together, such as: our common ethnicity; our educational level; our social class; our professions or occupations; our interests; gender; hobbies; or age.

I remember about 50 years ago, some of the advocates of church-growth principles were saying that if churches wanted to grow, they needed to break up into interest groups and age groups, so that people inside the church would feel more comfortable mixing with likeminded people, and outsiders could slot themselves more easily into activities that interested them. This was a completely wrong principle because it was based on sociological observations, and not on the Bible. It failed to see that within the life of the Church, God was rebuilding that which sin destroys―genuine unity. Unfortunately, some church leaders never got their heads around this, and with the growing biblical illiteracy these days, even among church leaders, some of this thinking is rearing its head once again.

The unity Paul is talking about is found only ‘in Christ’. It is based on our common experience of salvation, on the common life we have in Christ, a common purpose he has given us, and a common destination he has prepared for us. It has nothing to do with any personal qualities or merit of any kind.

Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to the cross I cling.
Naked come to you for dress; helpless look to you for grace.

We know that this is true for the way we need to come to Christ for salvation, but we don’t always realise that this is the way we need to live every day of our lives. We can’t claim any superiority, giftedness, or wisdom. That does not mean that we cease to be Australians, educated, property owners, etc. It does not mean that we become grovelling individuals. It means that the only kind of boasting we can engage in, is in Jesus Christ, and all that he has done for us. Not in our culture, not in our status, not in our past or present involvements. When we enter God’s family he gives us a new identity that has nothing to do with our place in society. It comes to us by the grace of God, and it is this identity that needs to be our primary identity. Not our attainments, or lack of them.

Ethnic divisions broken down

In Christ, God is re-creating a new people―a new community. And in this community, made up of people who are ‘in Christ’, Paul says,

There is neither Aussie nor Chinese, cleaner nor manager, scientist nor bricklayer, men nor women, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

This is not merely something we can expect to happen at the end of human history, when Jesus returns. In Ephesians Paul said that we have been made one in Christ. In Galatians he defines that oneness a bit more, and tells us how to avoid remaining immature in Christ by failing to understand this and failing to work it out in practice.

I want to consider two aspects of this problem this morning. But before we do that, we need to understand the problem facing the believers in Galatia. This problem stopped them from participating in God’s work among them.

  • Galatian problem

The Judaisers made life very difficult for Paul. Wherever Paul planted churches, they followed him, seeking to persuade new believers that having faith in Jesus Christ was not enough. Gentile converts, they said, had to become part of Israel through circumcision and obeying the Law. By that, they meant all the hundreds of laws they had added to God’s laws. They saw themselves as leaders of the spiritually blind masses.

This really upset Paul, because the Judaisers were preaching a false gospel, and a false Christ. Salvation could be obtained only through God’s gift of grace in Christ, and that through faith, and faith alone. Not through faith, plus works.

Secondly, the Judaisers were trying to keep the young believers at the level of spiritual infants, and not letting them grow to maturity in Christ.

  • Danger of spiritual immaturity

How do we come to this conclusion? Let’s look at the nature of Paul’s argument here? He uses the comparison between how a small child or a slave acts, and how an adult son responds to his father’s wishes. Let’s look at,

4:1-7

To understand Paul’s argument we have to understand what Paul means by the expression the basic principles of the world. The Greek word ‘stoikeia’ carries interesting implications. It can mean ‘spiritual powers’ or ‘an elementary rule’. How can these two meanings be related? When a little child begins to learn to read, he begins with the ABC; that is the elementary rule. He then goes on to reading words, phrases, sentences; gradually realising that this reading business is all about reading for meaning. But at the elementary level no meaning is involved. What Paul is saying, is that the Galatian believers were falling into the trap of acting like little children, doing what they were told, but neither understanding the real significance of their behaviour, nor having any internal motivation for obedience. It’s the same for a slave. He simply does what he is told. He does not have to think for himself. The Judaisers were forcing upon the believers ‘institutional’ thinking and behaviour, and this was stopping them from growing up into Christ. Institutional thinking says, ‘If you want to be part of us, you have to be prepared to think like us, and act like us.’ In our modern work place we refer to this as being part of a team. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but under certain circumstances it can undermine people’s integrity, especially if what we think is happening is wrong.

We can follow Paul’s argument a bit more easily in Colossians 2:20 where he uses a similar illustration.

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!?

The rules for a child, as for a slave, are: “Do this… don’t do that!” And if you do what you are told, you are a good little boy, or a good slave, or a good member of the club. By keeping people at this immature level of spiritual development, the spiritual powers that are always working against God’s purposes, were able to keep the new believers from growing to maturity in Christ.

Remember, the word ‘stoikeia’ meant either ‘spiritual powers’ or ‘an elementary rule’. By keeping believers at the infant stage of thinking and acting, the spiritual powers were succeeding in destroying the work of God among the Galatians.

Paul’s argument here is that the believers had already come to a stage in their Christian lives where, having received the gift of the Holy Spirit, they had started to grow in spiritual maturity. Why drag them down to the level of a little child or a slave who simply does what he is told, without any understanding of why he is doing what he is doing; or without the inner motivation of wanting to please the heavenly Father, as an adult son would!

What was it that they were failing to see and understand?

Growing in maturity

What was the context in which their spiritual maturity in Christ was to take place? Spiritual maturity is not something we can experience in isolation. It does not come to us merely by adopting ‘institutional’ thinking; that which accepts all that we are told unquestioningly. It comes to us in a proper understanding of what God’s Word teaches, our wholehearted obedience to him, and our participation with him, in what HE is doing in the world. It has nothing to do with OUR visions. It has everything to do with his concern?

3:28

In Christ, God is re-creating the nature of Christian community―creating a new culture―a ‘counter-culture’ to challenge the sin-affected cultures around us. In this new community of God’s people, there can be no distinctions. This re-creating work is based on our primary identity, as God’s children. Not on the basis of whether we are Australians, Africans, Chinese, or anyone else. If we are ‘in Christ’, we have a common salvation, a common life in Christ, a common purpose, and a common destiny. This is what binds us together.

With the building of the Tower of Babel that we read about in Genesis 11, God scattered the rebellious inhabitants by confusing their languages and spreading them across the known world. At Pentecost, the people God started to rebuild through the risen Christ, came from different parts of the world, speaking different languages, having lived in different cultures, Jews and God-fearers. The curse of sin was being reversed in Christ, and continues to be reversed in Christ.

This is not assimilation, where we tell another ethnic group that if they want to be part of us, they need to fit into our way of doing things. Unfortunately, we can all fall into the trap of considering others inferior when we do not understand their language. It is only when we relate to them on a personal basis, that we realise how wrong we have been.

Integration, however, is entirely different. In this community, or ‘counter-culture’, all of us have to come together in exactly the same way. All of us have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. God does not speak only through some elite group. Are we prepared to listen to what he has to say through the whole body of Christ, made up of people who may be from different backgrounds but who are genuinely ‘in Christ’? Our unity has to be found within the new culture based on who we are ‘in Christ’. Not on our limited vision of what we think we ought to be. It involves moving out of our so-called ‘comfort zone’; to commit ourselves to on-going growth as we discover the implications of being one in Christ. This is a whole new dimension of growth we haven’t really considered. This is not just a nice thought; it’s to be worked out as a practical reality. Neither we, nor others are going to find the journey easy. But we can’t side-step it, because it’s God’s will that we face this challenge and grow through it.

Generational divisions broken down

There is another barrier that Paul may not have had to face, but which we today are constantly facing. It’s the generation gap. I recently wrote an article that is posted on our website, entitled, “A generation gap; a gap between faith and practice.” This is a gap between what we say we believe, and what we really believe demonstrated by what we do.

We know that the generation gap around us is getting wider and wider, leading to the loss of a sense of identity among many who feel sidelined in today’s society. The real tragedy is that this gap is sometimes actually promoted in some Christian churches that fail to see their role in today’s fragmented world.

Should young people be kept back from leadership positions in various church activities to avoid this problem? No, they shouldn’t. On what basis can we say this?

When the prophet Joel spoke of the Day of the Lord, he said,

And afterwards, [God said] I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (Joel 2:28-29).

This was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. (Acts 2:17). The dreams of the old men here are not the sleepiness of the old. Rather, in their old age they will still dream dreams of the future. The visions young men will have are not visions of their own, but the clear understanding of what God has planned.

When Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist was told that the birth of his son would be the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy (Mal. 4:5-6), he said,

And he [John] will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous… (Luke 1:17).

What these prophecies were saying is that in the new age that Jesus Christ introduced, each generation would receive the Holy Spirit and would be part of the new community of God’s people. In this community no-one who is ‘in Christ’ is excluded. It was a community where the wisdom of the old, and the energies of the young were to be combined in a healthy mix to the glory of God; where the young are prepared to learn from the wisdom of those who have remained faithful to God and his Word, through thick and thin; something that most of them have not yet had to live through.

I was struck a couple of weeks ago when I read of the reason our former prime minister, Fred Rudd, gave for changing his stance on Gay Marriage. He said he felt alone. His children regarded him as “an unreconstructed dinosaur”, and his wife described him as “antediluvian”. In allowing himself to be ‘reconstructed’, he had to ‘reconstruct’ his understanding of the Bible. Previous generations were able to guide their children along righteous ways of living. Now, many adults are finding themselves ‘reconstructed’ by the liberated views of the young generation that sees itself as progressive and enlightened, unlike their parents who still live in the dark ages. While this extreme view may not always be evident in the church, vestiges of this problem do exist. The young generation may know the Bible stories very well, and yet still fail to understand the real message of the Bible, because serious preaching and teaching of the Bible is on the decline.

How easily we tend to absorb the world’s ways of thinking and doing things when we neglect God’s word and what it really teaches. When we choose to know only what we want to know.

Reaching the unreached for Christ, has nothing to do with making ourselves attractive to the young generation. Nor does it have anything to do with being contemporary; or being old-fashioned. And we certainly will have no message to people in the world if we simply compartmentalise different generations into different groupings in the life of the church. This is completely contrary to what God is seeking to demonstrate to the world. He is about demonstrating what no-one apart from him can achieve―genuine oneness. How can we work contrary to his purposes?

Do you remember what happened in those early days when God brought the Christian Church to birth?

The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No-one else dared to join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. (Acts 5:13-14).

How come this was happening?

…the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47).

It wasn’t their modern approach to worship. It wasn’t making themselves attractive to outsiders. People didn’t merely join the new community in Acts, because it was a healthy moral environment in which to bring up their children; or where some safe and interesting activities were taking place. These people came under the conviction of the Holy Spirit as a result of the preaching of the Gospel. There was no way God would allow the believers to boast that they had attracted others to Christ. It was he who held people back until they were ready to respond with repentance and a faith that was prepared to surrender fully to Christ. This is what distinguishes the Christian Church from clubs or other social or welfare organisations.

We have all heard that it’s not what we get out of the service but what we put into it, that counts. Don’t we come into his presence to receive? Don’t we come to hear what he has to say to us, to receive his forgiveness when we come before him in true penitence, to receive his comfort, and encouragement to keep on going, to be lifted up towards him in a sense of awe?

Evangelism is not the main focus of worship services. That is to take place when God’s people go out into the world to live and work for him wherever they are placed.

Have we allowed wrong criteria, wrong values, wrong perspectives to guide our priorities and what we are doing? What God is seeking to achieve among us, is not based on our ethnic identity, nor on our generational identity. We have been made one ‘in Christ’. When the Christian community seeks to be ‘in Christ’, with a deep desire to know God, to know his Word, and do his will his way, God won’t have any difficulties reaching the unreached through us. It’s our growth into oneness across ethnic divides, and across generational divides that alone brings glory to God in our sin-sick world that is so divided, so fragmented, so self-seeking, so preoccupied with self-gratification, and being entertained. This is oneness that reaches across all natural divides, and confirms the reality of the Gospel by our lives.

What do we need to work at?

  1. We need to seriously rethink our relationship with our brothers and sisters in the Mandarin congregation, and work at our unity in Christ, not merely at the social level, but at the spiritual level.
  2. We need to think through the generation gap that exists among us. It is definitely a gap between what we claim we believe, and what we really believe by what we do. When one generation is marginalised by another we have a serious challenge to Christian integrity. That is not what God is about. In his advice to the Corinthian church and how they conduct their worship services, Paul said, “Stop thinking like children… in your thinking be adults.” (1 Cor. 14:20). In other words, be informed by the Bible, not by the practices and values of others.