WRF Member Rev. Mark Johnston Examines the Biblical Basis for Church Unity in "You in Your Small Corner"

Mark Johnston is Senior Pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Prior to assuming this position in September of 2010, Mark was Senior Pastor of Grove Chapel in London, England.  Mark has been a member of the World Reformed Fellowship since 2006.  Below is an excerpt of Mark's book, "You in Your Small Corner."  For information about purchasing the book, go to http://www.christianfocus.com/contributor/show/79/-.

Preface

 

For anyone to venture into the treacherous waters of a discussion of Christian unity is surely to have their sanity called into question! It is something akin to wading into a swamp, or wandering into a minefield. There can be few issues in the Christian church which have provoked as much strife as the need ‘to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4.3). Why then venture into print?

 

The simple answer is because the Bible attaches far more importance to the unity of the church than the church has often acknowledged. Paul uses the strongest possible language when he says to a disunited church in Ephesus, ‘Spare no effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4.3) - my translation. If truth be told, Christians have spared themselves a great deal of effort in this particular area of their faith. It has been one of the most fraught areas of church life. Even in the smallest unit of the local congregation, genuine unity can be hard to find. When we come to expressing anything that resembles it across denominational, cultural and theological divides it seems at times to be impossible. The way to handle that has either been to try and rationalise the texts of Scripture which speak to the subject and make them mean something we feel we can cope with, or else we just ignore them.

 

It has been a personal obsession of mine for many years that we simply cannot afford the luxury of either option because if we do, we are being untrue to our Lord and Saviour who alone is King and Head of his church. I suspect there has been a hint of the divine sense of humour in the way that God in his providence has ordered the course of my own life in such a way as to foster that obsession. A humour which first struck me one evening when I was introduced at a meeting as ‘a hybrid: born an Anglican, became a Presbyterian and about to marry a Baptist!’. (As if to leave no stone of ecclesiastical polity unturned, the hybrid is currently the minister of an Independent Reformed Church in London!) Although my personal convictions are Reformed and Presbyterian (and are wholeheartedly shared by my dear wife) it has amazed me how much liberty they still give to move in wider church circles and enjoy rich fellowship with the broader family of God.

 

It is little short of tragic to see the way a theological and denominational ghetto mentality can rob God’s people of a depth of joy and degree of usefulness in God’s work which can only be found in a wider relationship with his people wherever they are found. Only when we have the courage to cross some of these boundaries - within the limits of biblical integrity - that new horizons open up for us which take us closer to the heart of God’s purpose in redemption.

 

It would be pretentious to think that any of the components in my ‘hybrid’ experience either qualify or entitle me to write on the subject of evangelical unity, but I hope they provide something of an apology for the pages which follow. What follows is nothing more than the clumsy and imperfect reflections of a pilgrim looking back on the short road by which he has thus far come. I hope they convey something of the beauty of that biblical variegated oneness of the church - a beauty which is entirely the work of our God and Saviour. I hope too that they highlight the way that we are all involved in enriching and shaping each other in the wider church to which we belong in fellowship with Christ.

 

I am indebted to numerous people along the way for shaping my own thoughts in this complex and controversial field. To my father - who is also the minister of the Episcopal church in which I grew up - I am ever grateful for that spirit of evangelical catholicity he displayed by inviting men to preach in his church, not on the basis of a denominational tag, but on whether or not they were faithful to God’s Word. To my theological alma mater - Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia - where students from many ecclesiastical backgrounds all over the world came together in an arena of robust, yet loving interaction to our mutual edification. To my brothers and sisters in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Ireland for allowing me to be involved with their inter-church relations work through the British Evangelical Council and the International Conference of Reformed Churches. Finally to my brothers and sisters in my present congregation of Grove Chapel in South London, who, despite their independent polity, see that the church of Christ is bigger than any local congregation and acknowledge that in practice through true and meaningful fellowship with other churches.

 

All quotations from the Bible cited in this book are taken from the New American Standard Bible (Updated Edition), unless otherwise indicated.

 

Grove Chapel

Camberwell

January 1999

 

 

Introduction

 

‘The denominations are in meltdown. By the early part of the new millennium, the ecclesiastical map of Great Britain will be barely recognisable!’ So said a prominent evangelical minister of the Church of England at a recent consultation of church leaders in Britain. He was not trying to be unduly alarmist by this comment, simply attempting to make a realistic observation about the church scene in general as the turn of a millennium draws near.

 

His observations are not isolated. Towards the end of the ‘nineteen eighties Hans Kung, speaking at an ecumenical gathering in Belfast, Northern Ireland, made similar remarks. As he surveyed some two thousand years of church history, he identified five major epochs of church life, each dominated by particular traits and emphases and punctuated by distinct periods of flux. These intervening periods he saw as times of struggle between conflicting theologies, but which settled into new periods of fresh direction for Christendom in general, each coloured by a dominant theology and practice. The bottom line of his analysis was his saying that the church world-wide at the end of the twentieth century finds itself in such a time of flux. Both the Roman Catholic Church and the historic Protestant churches, in the Western world at least, are experiencing significant internal upheavals and are struggling to relate to an increasingly post-Christian world. The future, according to Kung, lies in the ability of the Pentecostal/Charismatic axis to bridge the divide between these major church groupings and lead them into to a new era of theology and practice, suited for the twenty-first century.

 

Whatever the correct appraisal of the current scene may be, there can be no doubt that we are living in times of ecclesiastical and theological change and it would be naive not to see the need to respond. The fragmentation which has become a feature of life in general is increasingly invading every quarter of church life, leaving few Christians unaffected. This raises the question of how we are to respond in a biblical and constructive way which does not compromise the truth which lies at the heart of the Christian faith.

 

The starting point must surely be that we face the present situation honestly and realistically. The words of the children’s hymn, ‘You in your small corner and I in mine’, depict all too well the naive approach to church life which prevails among many Christians. They have such a blinkered view of reality that so long as things seem well in their own little ecclesiastical world denominationally, or their own special interest group congregationally, they are content. In adopting such an outlook, however, they manage to cut themselves off from a wider fellowship in the true church for which they are both responsible and accountable. The men of the Westminster Assembly well expressed what Scripture says about the nature of the professing church of Christ when they said, ‘The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error’.[1] Put bluntly, there is no such thing as a perfect church. God’s people on this side of glory must be prepared to live with the tension and frustration of things never being as they ought to be in God’s family.

 

Acknowledging that, however, does not open the door for complacency. The goal of a family united in and around the truth, at every level of our life together,  is ever set before us by the God who presides over his family. The consequence of that is the longing for such unity which stirs in the heart of every true child of his. In the same way as even the most divided of natural families still retain some kind of instinct for its family identity, so in God’s spiritual family the same is true.

 

There are numerous complexities which intrude upon any consideration of this issue. Most obviously there is the question of the levels of church life upon which unity must impinge. When the Scriptures speak about the oneness of the people of God there is what seems to be a deliberate ambiguity as to where it must be manifest. At the most basic level there is the need for unity within the local congregation. Every church has suffered the pain of friction and tension within its membership and not a few have suffered the anguish of schism. The horizons of fellowship, however, are broader than the local church. That raises the question, then, of how churches in a particular locality relate to one another and even that question is not straightforward! It is one thing to relate to other local churches within a defined denominational grouping, quite another to relate to those who belong to a different group. There is a street in Belfast with the illustrious name of ‘Templemore Avenue’ where, at one time, there was said to be eleven evangelical churches in one square mile, yet none of them would have anything to do with the others. The average pagan might find that a little hard to understand!

 

Of course the ecclesiastical maze doesn’t stop there! Is there not a place for asking how churches are to relate at even wider levels - regionally, nationally and even internationally? It is possible (and it has been practice) to pursue links like this in various ways. Some churches have developed such links through denominational groupings, others have taken an inter-denominational approach (with strict rules about relationships and the degree of fellowship which may be enjoyed). This invariably leads to a level of ecclesiastical bureaucracy which rivals any local government and threatens many rain-forests in Brazil! A simpler and more pragmatic approach has often been to take the non-denominational route with minimal requirements for precise doctrinal agreement. This expresses itself in the many para-church organisations and co-operative ventures in which Christians happily involve themselves, but which often raise hard questions about respecting the beliefs and practices of the parties involved.

 

As if these concerns were no enough to trouble us, the road to unity among the people of God is littered with the debris of the schisms of the past, the wounds and bruises that lead to fear and suspicion about the present and the greatest variable of them all: the personal chemistry of the figures involved! On top of that we have the legacy of almost one hundred years of liberal ecumenism through the World Council of Churches and its many regional expressions. This movement is rapidly heading beyond the confines of inter-church fellowship into the realms of inter-faith dialogue and co-operation. In the midst of it all the colossal shadow of the Roman Catholic Church has never been far away. The significance of that in recent years for conservative Protestant churches has taken an interesting turn with the emergence of Evangelicals and Catholics Together and the involvement of high profile evangelical leaders[2].

 

Besides all of these concerns many others proffer themselves as factors in the wider picture, many of them peculiar to the post-modern and post-Christian age in which we find ourselves. Pressure to tolerate and be tolerated is the inevitable consequence of a pluralistic outlook on the world and on religions. General reaction against clearly defined structures mitigate against an approach to unity which tries to operate within a clearly understood doctrine of the church. Debate over the meaning of meaning has fuelled an ever increasing reaction against giving place to creeds and confessions in church life. Then, to top it all, there is the spirit of weariness and cynicism among those who have laboured for a lifetime to bring Christians and churches together and all apparently to no avail.

 

The waters of unity have never been so muddy, yet the need for genuine and meaningful unity has never been so great. The only one who can afford to be smug while the Kingdom of Light appears to fragment is the one who presides over the Kingdom of Darkness.

 

As we dare to address these enormous concerns there are many angles from which we could approach them. It is most tempting to take a purely pragmatic line and suggest how church unity might be given a higher profile. The danger with that is that unity becomes and end in itself and the quest for it will become even more like and exercise in rainbow-chasing. Instead it would seem more constructive to place unity in the broader biblical context of the character of God and his eternal purpose in redemption. As with so many aspects of the Christian life, unity among God’s people is not found through seeking unity, but rather seeking God. My aim, therefore, is to begin by recognising the way in which the Bible sets the unity of God’s family within the framework of the unity of the Godhead - a significant element in what it means to bear the image of God on earth. Then go on to see the way in which Scripture is our only reliable guide and provides the only workable framework in the quest for unity. Then finally consider the practicalities which flow out of this foundation into the actual relationships of the people of God.

 

My decision to address unity as ‘evangelical’ is quite deliberate. Although it is an adjective which has been grossly devalued in the religious currency of our day, it still retains enough significance to remind us that true Christianity must be biblical. It must be defined and shaped - however imperfectly - by the Evangel, the Word of God. Hence true fellowship between Christians must likewise be defined and shaped by that same Word. It is possible to speak about Christian unity, but that is a completely vacuous term if it is divorced from the Bible that alone can explain what ‘Christian’ means. Thus any attempt to pursue unity in that vein amounts to nothing more than ‘holding hands in the dark’.

 

Any volume on the subject of unity will inevitably, at least to some extent, be a child of its times. Its precise content and shape will be affected by the issues of the day. This volume is no exception. It has been born in an age when deep and unsettling questions have been raised in practically every quarter of the evangelical community. In the United Kingdom, the long-standing rift between evangelicals who have remained within theologically mixed denominations and those who have seceded into free evangelical groupings of one sort or another is once again under scrutiny. A generation of Christians and church leaders has emerged who know little of the issues which caused that rift in the evangelical family in the first place. The questions of where they belong and to whom should they relate are very much to the fore in their minds. In America the widespread erosion of historic evangelical theology and practice has led to such attempts at recovery of what is being lost as the Cambridge Declaration[3] and the formation of such groupings as the Association of Confessing Evangelicals.[4] The emergence of the Roman Catholic dimension in all of this has called into question the very understanding of historic Protestant Evangelicalism itself. All of these factors are current in discussions at this time and are affecting the course of history. Each in its own way will affect of this book.

  

Chapter One

God’s Multicoloured Wisdom

The Architect and Setting

 

One of the most disturbing and yet enriching experiences of my Christian life was to venture outside the evangelical sub-culture in which I had grown up. The Province of Ulster - Northern Ireland - is renowned for its conservative Christianity and for those for whom this has been their only experience, it can be deeply unsettling to step outside. Thus when I set off for Philadelphia at the age of 21 to train for the ministry, I was not quite sure what to expect. Even though I was heading for a Theological Seminary which was well known for its conservatism and even though I quickly attached myself to a church which was the closest equivalent to what I had left behind in Ireland, I have vivid memories of some three months or more of thinking these Americans had a very poor understanding of what it meant to be an evangelical. I found myself being critical of their piety and their practice in church life and feeling distinctly uncomfortable about many things. I even questioned whether or not I belonged among them.

 

The problem, of course, was that I was measuring what I saw and heard by the standard of what I had been used to at home and which I automatically assumed to be the norm. The reality which began to dawn on me was that the norm does not begin with us and our limited sphere of understanding and experience, but rather with God and with his Word.

 

A lecturer in another institution in Philadelphia used to tease his classes in the same series of lectures delivered each year by asking, ‘How far is it to New York?’ The answer which immediately came back on almost every occasion was ‘120 miles’ - the approximate distance between the two cities. Successive classes were perplexed to see him respond by shaking his head. Only one student apparently has ever answered the question correctly by saying, ‘It depends on where you start!’ The little exercise in relative geography powerfully illustrates the way that we instinctively regard ourselves as the centre of our little universe, an instinct which does not automatically disappear with conversion.

 

Being physically relocated in a very different evangelical sub-culture forced me to take seriously the centrality of God and his Word as the norm for all Christian experience and practice. That meant taking off the cultural blinkers which up until then had hindered my appreciation of the breadth and diversity within the true family of God.

 

It was brought home to me in a very graphic way listening to Sinclair Ferguson preach in Tenth Presbyterian Church, a large downtown congregation in Philadelphia. He had been expounding the verse in the third chapter of Ephesians which speaks of ‘God’s manifold wisdom’ (Eph 3.10) and the way in which it is put on display in the life of the church. The point he was making was that the unity within the diversity of the church is a wonderful reflection of the wisdom of God in salvation. Then, to press this point home, he paused and told the congregation of around a thousand people to look around them. There were people of every conceivable description in the gathering. There were wealthy people and street people, educated and illiterate, men and women, young and old, black, white and coloured - the permutations were numerous. ‘There you see it’, he said, ‘We have in this building what men have dreamed of but have never managed to achieve by politics, force or hard labour, yet God has achieved it by his grace.’

 

The truth contained in that verse encapsulates the sheer wonder of what God has planned, has accomplished and his accomplishing in the salvation of his people. It is there we must begin if we are going to understand the basis of the unity we should enjoy in his church.

 

It would be possible for us to go to quite a range of texts and passages in Scripture which address God’s plan for unity among his people, many of them have been well explored in other books on this subject. It might be helpful for us to consider one verse which has not featured very prominently in the discussion, yet which is undoubtedly central to the issue. It is the verse to which we have already alluded in the sermon preached that night in Philadelphia. If we take the perspective that the one, united church of Jesus Christ is like a building (1Pe 2.5), then it follows there must be an architect and master-builder who lies behind this spiritual edifice and that can only be God. Behind the elaborate design of the end-product there lies the intricate wisdom of the great Designer. It is to this divine wisdom that Paul directs his Ephesian audience. Let us pore over the ‘drawings’ for a moment to appreciate something of the problem facing the architect and what lies behind the solution he proposes.

 

An Earthly Problem

 

Every architect coming on site faces a problem of one sort or another. The problem is how to get a new building in place where currently there is either none at all, or one which is imperfect. The former scenario is always less of a problem because he is starting from scratch, the latter more of a problem because he must work within the confines of the existing structure and space. The plans he comes up with must take account of the needs of the situation with which he is faced.

 

Thus as the divine architect comes ‘on site’ in the world, he is confronted by a problem: that of a fallen fragmented race. Sin has not only affected the upward dimension of man’s relationship with God in heaven, but also the horizontal dimension of the relationship between human beings on earth. The broken fellowship with God which was the major consequence of the fall (Ge 3.22-24) is very quickly followed by the broken fellowship of the human family (Ge 4.1-8). The story of the human race ever since that point of history has been one of ever-increasing fragmentation in families, communities, nations and the world. The problem we face as human beings is the same as confronts God: how can this process be reversed? It is true that God faces the problem from an altogether different perspective, as we shall see below, but its essence is the same: sin has divided humanity and somehow its unity needs to be restored.

 

The issue for Paul as he writes to the church in Ephesus is the fact that this earthly problem - the product of a fallen world - has reared its ugly head in the church. The age-old division between Jew and Gentile, loaded as it was with intense nationalistic and religious feeling, was having a devastating effect on the unity of God’s people in that region. (We do not have to read far in the New Testament to realise that this was the issue which more than any other preoccupied the emerging church of that time.) At one level it was an issue of national identity and pride. The Jewish people had a fervent consciousness of their history, a passion which had been galvanised by years of oppression, persecution and deportation. Even when they were scattered to the four corners of the earth these people carried with them a profound desire to retain their distinct identity. This inevitably affected the way they viewed the peoples of surrounding nations. Their sense of identity was significantly reinforced by the way their national roots were closely intertwined with religious roots in God’s unusual dealings with that nation as recorded in the Old Testament. The regulations God had given his people in his Law had much to say about their relationships with the non-Jewish (Gentile) nations around them. Although these rules were clear and had their purpose, the most zealous Jews over the centuries had added to God’s laws in this area, widening the gap even further between these peoples.

 

As Paul preached the gospel of Jesus Christ to Gentiles as well as Jews and saw many from both sides of that divide converted, he very quickly discovered that old prejudice died hard. Many converted Jews were insisting that the cultural trappings of their former religious system - rooted as it was in Old Testament revelation - were to be required of those from a Gentile background who came into the church. Thus issues like circumcision, holy days and ceremonial practices were being pressed upon new Christians who found them quite alien to the way they understood the gospel. The problem reached such a pitch that it required a special international assembly of church leaders to convene in Jerusalem specifically to debate the issue (Ac 15.1-35).

 

The bottom line (as concluded by the Jerusalem council) was that these Jewish believers had unjustifiable views about their own cultural background and they were not entitled to insist upon these details in their relationships with Gentile converts. They were bringing the problems of a fallen world into the altogether different sphere of the life of the church.

 

Although the Jew-Gentile controversy is no longer a burning issue in church life today (though it is far from extinct) it well illustrates the kind of problem that is commonplace in many quarters of church life and fellowship. The old sinful prejudices of a fallen world are imported into the redeemed community of the people of God. It has manifest itself in some situations through racial prejudice - the make-up of a church being determined along ethnic lines - in others the prejudice is sectarian, or social, intellectual, or even theological. The sinful barriers which have divided the secular community have simply continued (and in some cases been reinforced) in the spiritual community. Where that is the case, something is seriously wrong and its calls into question the credibility of the gospel itself.

 

A Heavenly Perspective

 

The most serious aspect of this earthly problem was quite simply that humanly speaking it had and has no solution. It is possible to engage in political negotiation between divided communities - as seen in the much-feted ‘peace processes’ of recent times - and come up with paper settlements which can be policed and enforced and yet never succeed in changing stubborn human hearts. Thus the fragile peace of these communities is always only one incitement away from disintegration. Beneath the surface issues of the particular problems that divide people is the deeper problem of hearts which are in the grip of sin with all its destructive powers.

 

It is this sombre reality which has gathered a fascinated, yet unseen audience to observe the drama being played out in the arena of the world. Paul refers directly to them in this verse as ‘the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places’. By these he means not only the angels and heavenly beings who wait on God’s command, but also the dark powers of evil who, although they are in perpetual rebellion against God, know better than any human being that God is in control (Eph 6.12). These angels and demons, the invisible inhabitants of the cosmos watch on as events unfold on earth to see where they will lead.

 

These unseen beings were there from the beginning as part of God’s creation. They were very much aware of the uniqueness of man in God’s creating purpose and conscious also of the drastic consequences when one of their number - Satan - seduced Adam and Eve into sharing his rebellion against God their Maker (Ge 3.1-7). The pinnacle of God’s creation - man, made in the image of God - was now under God’s curse and personally incapable of undoing the damage done through his actions. From that point onwards his nature was fallen, sin was in his very being. As a creature it was, in the words of Augustine of Hippo, ‘not possible for him not to sin’. The burning question in the heavenly realms thenceforth was, ‘What can God do about it?

 

God himself appeared to be in an insoluble dilemma: a dilemma which Paul is quick to point out when he speaks of God as being ‘just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Ro 3.26). God’s problem is that of maintaining his own integrity. How can he remain consistent with his own justice and righteousness and yet accept unrighteous sinners? What kind of divine wisdom could be invoked to resolve this problem? The heavenly powers, Paul tells us, watch transfixed as the plan of God’s redemption unfolds on the stage of human history. It soon becomes apparent to them that the divine wisdom which lies behind it is not bland and monochrome as is even the best of creaturely wisdom, rather it is ‘manifold’, or, more accurately, ‘multicoloured’. As we shall see shortly, the wisdom of God which underlies the salvation of men transcends anything that could have been expected of him.

 

The reason these creatures of the unseen realm are so interested in God’s concern for the human race is simply that the destiny of creation turns on the destiny of man. As the sin of man brought God’s anathema upon the world and universe (Ge 3.17-20), so his redemption marks their deliverance (Ro 8.20-21). Those who belong to real, but invisible order of creation, then, have a vested interest in what happens to our race. God’s grace towards the penitent through his Son is the guarantee of the promised renewal of all things (Mt 19.28), whereas his judgement of the wicked will seal the fate of the angels who shared in Satan’s rebellion and expulsion from heaven.

 

The implication of this seemingly insignificant and arguably irrelevant comment is enormous. If the issues which are played out in the life of the church have a bearing on the destiny of the cosmos, then it puts the affairs of the church into altogether different perspective. No longer do we have the right to trivialise our differences within the household of faith. No matter how much we may try to internalise our problems within our own little congregation, or our own little grouping - depriving outsiders of incriminating information about our squabbles - our affairs are on public and inter-cosmic display. To know that we are being observed by a host of interested and affected parties must surely affect how we conduct ourselves.

 

The issues of church unity stretch far beyond the limits of local church life, or the horizons of denominational distinctives. They take us into the outer reaches of the universe itself.

 

An Eternal Plan

 

It should hardly surprise us, given the perspective Paul has introduced, that these issues do not fall into the category of some divine contingency plan, but rather are central to God’s eternal purpose - a fact that Paul states explicitly in the next verse. Going back for a moment to the scale of the dilemma facing the divine Architect when he comes on site in the world, we now realise that it is under control. God is not faced with something that has taken him by surprise, nor posed him with an insurmountable challenge. Rather, it fell within the mystery of his wise and perfect plan.

 

Again this was to have a very practical impact upon the problem in the church at Ephesus. For the Jewish and Gentile parties caught up in the controversy, it was only natural for them to view their situation from their own perspective and perhaps even invoke God as being on their side. God was saying quite simply that both sides were wrong. To view the problem from the finite, fallen perspective of either side of a human dispute was guaranteed to misunderstand the situation and fail to resolve it. The issues, by definition, could only be seen within the limits of space, time and human interest of that particular moment. Any understanding of them was bound to be distorted by reducing them to the level of human plan and purpose and the party spirit which entangles them.

 

God wisely and rightly elevates the matter to a different plane. He provides that eternal vantage point which transforms our reading of all history and every situation in life. Our life as God’s creatures - individually and collectively - can only be straightened out when we are brought back into willing submission to God and his eternal purpose.

 

It is not hard to see how strife within the church and between churches is painfully and needlessly exacerbated when professing Christians refuse to see their situation from God’s point of view. Indeed they defame God by daring to press him into their service as opposed to submit themselves to his. It is of the very essence of sin to turn the universe around and make it man-centred and not God-centred, while it is of the essence of salvation to restore it to its proper axis.

 

An Unlikely Stage

 

We have all watched amusing scenes in cartoons in which the characters think they are doing something completely unobserved, then, to their surprise, a spotlight clicks on and they realise they are in the middle of a stage and the focus of attention. They blush with embarrassment and the action takes a different turn.

 

In a sense Paul turns the spotlight on the church in Ephesus in a way which must have brought not a few blushes to faces in that congregation. An issue which they really thought to be a private affair, tucked away in an unseen corner of the Christian world, was actually a most public affair exposed to the gaze of a watching world and a cosmic audience whom we have already noted.

 

The stage upon which God has chosen to exhibit his ‘multicoloured wisdom’ is none other than the church in the world. It is his chosen medium of communication. Without question it is a most unlikely stage, because it is so imperfect. Yet its very imperfection has a place in its being the display-board of God’s wisdom. The lingering sinfulness of man which continues to contaminate the life of God’s people leaves them with the instinct for boasting in self and personal achievement. The desire to look more to self in salvation than to God and his wonderful provision. Thus Paul has had to make clear in the earlier ground-work of this epistle that salvation is all of grace, received simply with the open hand of faith, precisely so that there is no room for boasting and self-congratulation (Eph 2.9-10). The ongoing presence of sin and failure in even the best of churches is a graphic reminder that none of us have earned our way into God’s family and a powerful declaration to the world that God does not operate on the basis of merit.

 

The striking lesson in this fact is the implications of how the drama is played out. It is one thing to pay lip-service to a doctrine of salvation by grace, as the Ephesians did and even as was the case with the Pharisees, it is an altogether different thing to build it in to the warp and woof of Christian living. It is only as our faces are pressed into the dirty reality of our sinfulness and failure, even as Christians, that our hearts are truly captivated and enraptured by the power of saving grace. It becomes something which actually engages both mind and will in a conscious fashion, drawing us, as opposed to coercing us, back into a right relationship with God.

 

For God’s people to see the church, not as their own little private arena and domain, but as God’s centrepiece of history, can only bring a new dynamic into the relationships which unfold within that context. If we take seriously what Paul is saying, we will be impelled to plead with God for grace - for the daily filling of his Spirit (Eph 5.18), which alone can provide the wherewithal to honour him and bless each other.

 

The Central Figure

 

Such concerns will of necessity drive us to Jesus. Hence Paul brings what he is saying into sharp focus with the comment, ‘This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which he carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Eph 3.11). The central figure on the stage of the church will never be the kind of figure that is so often elevated to that position: gifted leader, eloquent preacher, charismatic personality, or whoever, rather God’s own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. The ramifications of Paul’s statement run deep and wide.

 

They clearly take us to the cross as the place where the destiny of God’s people was secured. It is through the cross uniquely that both Jew and Gentile are brought near to the God from whom sin has alienated them (Eph 2.13-16). It was there on that hill outside Jerusalem that a decisive transaction took place in which the Son of God gave himself specifically and efficaciously for his people. He did not merely die to make salvation possible, but rather to secure and guarantee as reality the redemption of the entirety of God’s elect. He died explicitly ‘to save his people from their sins’ (Mt 1.21). The central place given to the Lord’s Supper - the sacrament of the cross - in the life of the church is the perpetual reminder that she owes her existence to that event. There supremely the multicoloured nature of divine wisdom was revealed in that with one fell swoop divine justice was satisfied and the floodgates of divine love thrown open. The seemingly irreconcilable aspects of the character of God were reconciled,

 

Lovingkindness and truth have met together;

Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. (Ps 85.10)

 

There and there alone the wisdom of God has eclipsed the wisdom of men and made perfect provision for our deepest needs.

 

Christ not only stands centre-stage in the life of the church in the forensic sense of what he accomplished as substitute for his people, but also, in what he is as the source of life for the church and all who truly belong within her fellowship. He is the true vine from whom all branches must draw their spiritual life and vitality. The church is never seen as tedious organisation, or monochrome establishment, rather as vibrant living organism. She is a body with a head (1Co 12.27), a bride united to her husband (Eph 5.32), a vine with its branches (Jn 15.5), an army animated by the Spirit of God (Eze 37.10). She lives only because she is joined to the risen, exalted Christ in living, vital union. Existentially she depends on him. Without him she can do nothing (Jn 15.5). Where he is absent from a church, there is only an empty shell of lives which have the form of godliness, but know nothing of its power (2Ti 3.5).

 

The reason which lies behind disintegration and fragmentation in all too many churches is to be found, sadly, at this critical level. Their exercises in pulling the church together are every bit as macabre as the efforts to manipulate the lifeless limbs of a corpse and no less futile in what they accomplish. A church that knows nothing of Jesus can know nothing of life. Before there can be genuine visible evidence of life in a church, there must be the invisible reality of life in the hearts of its people.

 

Where there is that life from above, even in its faintest flickerings, its welfare is dependant upon actively looking to the Jesus through whom the church lives. He must be consciously given his place in the heart of church life if the church is to practically derive benefit from him. As he is the focal point of the worship of the church in heaven (Rev 5.11-14), so he must be the focus of the worship of the church on earth. In song, through prayer, by the Word read and preached, through the sacraments, in the fellowship, in church politics and by church business, in everything and every way he must be given pre-eminence, because he alone holds the key to blessing.

 

The Master Plan of the Master Planner

 

It is one thing to look at a building and even to wander through its corridors and admire its rooms. It is another thing to have its architect spread his plans on the table and explain detail and design which are not apparent to a casual observer and yet which are critical to the stability and structure of the edifice. To see the plan that lies behind the product can only open wider the doors of appreciation and usefulness of all who use the building.

 

So, to an even greater extent, with the church. What has been written off in the minds of many - not just in an unbelieving world, but even in an all-too-cynical church - the plan of God throws light and dignity upon his believing people in a way that is almost too much to take in. Only as we see the life of the church in the wider context of the purpose of God in redemption and as the instrument of redemption to a dying world, can we begin to appreciate why it is so important to relate within the church in a God-glorifying manner. This provides the polestar which will keep all other reflections on the unity and fellowship of the church on track.

 



[1] The Westminster Confession of Faith 25.5

[2] Evangelicals and Catholics Together is a movement, largely centred in America and the United

  Kingdom, promoting dialogue between Roman Catholics and Protestants on the basis of shared

  evangelical beliefs. Its profile has been raised significantly in conservative Protestant circles by the

  controversy caused by Dr. J.I. Packer’s involvement in the ongoing discussions.

[3] The Cambridge Declaration was issued as the outcome of an historic meeting of 120 evangelical

  pastors, teachers and leaders of para-church organisations that took place in Cambridge,

  Massachusetts, 17th-20th April 1996. It was designed to call the evangelical church in America to

  repent of its worldliness and to seek to recover the biblical, apostolic doctrine that can empower the

  church and provide integrity for its witness.

[4] The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals was formed in 1994 and is comprised of evangelical

  pastors, teachers and leaders of para-church organisations. Its goal is the recovery of the biblical,

  apostolic witness by the evangelical movement..