A group of leaders in my faith community have been wondering just why it is that so many Christian groups actually fight so much – and sometimes fight pretty dirty.
If we are honest, often our church groups are not very attractive. We are not the good news we say we believe.
Some years ago I tried to lead a local church in this journey, of actually being what we believe.
It’s worth the effort. Of course, in some ways we failed, indivudually and collectively. But at least we made an effort, and in doing that we weren’t just putting on a pious pretence.
That’s why I am so attracted to the idea of a ‘fair dinkum’ spirituality and faith. This Aussie word means ‘no pretences’, just genuine, honest, truthful relationship. Being fair dinkum.
But more recently I was asked to help suggest some key ideas about how a church group could really be ‘Christian’.
As if is that easy to come up with a formula.
Well, in one sense there is a basic formula. A group can be a genuinely Christian group if they are guided by Jesus Christ. In traditional language this means Christ is the ‘head’ of that group or church.
All Christians agree that Christ is the ‘head of the church’ and that the life of each church and each Christian should be conformed to Christ.
The difficulty is to say exactly what this means in practice. How do we ensure that the way of Christ is the governing principle of our life and practice?
I propose that we need to start at a different place: not with what we need to do, first of all, but with what Christ is doing. The Bible uses a wonderful word closely related to ‘authority’ to describe the Christian life. Christ is ‘the author and finisher of our faith’ (Hebrews 12. 2). The word has the sense of pioneering or initiating and thus it suggests that the life we live in faith is the life Christ himself is authoring. Our life as Christians is a story Christ is writing and telling.
This way of thinking contrasts strongly with the contemporary focus on the self-directed life (and the self-interest encouraged by some forms of evangelism. While the church is a ‘voluntary society’, in fact Christians acknowledge that Christ is their Lord and that his way and purpose governs their lives.
We need to think of the church as participating in a story God is telling in and with the world. If we do, then some basic questions arise for us:
How do we know the way of Christ, the plot of the story?
What is the story? What is known?
How does Christ make this happen?
How do we know the way of Christ?
- The basic answer to this question is that God has made this known. God has given us Jesus, a life lived fully in God. In the divine human person, the way of God is known; and not just as information, but as relationship, as experience. Here, the way of God is seen as redemptive love, overcoming sin and death.
- The way of Christ is known through the Scriptures, as taught and preached, studied and lived. Again, this Word is not information, but a living word, drawing us into relationship with God.
- The way of Christ is known by Christians, alive to faith in God, discerning God’s will and purpose. The experience of Christians and the church in the past and in the present is one medium of God’s self- disclosure. These experiences are, for Baptists, interpreted in the light of scriptural principles and the witness to Jesus. God does not guide us in ways contrary to the example of Jesus.
- The Spirit of God, makes this possible. Jesus has sent the Spirit so that we can continue to know him and be led into truth and freedom as he wills (John 8.32, 15.26, 16.13). The Spirit, as one person of the trinity, lovingly serves Christ by enabling us to know and follow him.
What then do we know of the way of Christ?
- In Christ we know that God is the meaning and hope of all life. God’s love is eternally devoted to the well-being of the creation God has made.
- This saving love comes to us through Jesus, as a call to receive, trust and live into this love. Christ is not dead, but is a ‘life-giving Spirit’ (1 Cor. 15. 45). In the present, the living Christ calls us to God’s way of life.
- The life to which we are called is a common life, a community. As God is a living community of three living as one, so too we are called to life in community, in God and like God’s life.
- The Bible makes it clear this is not possible with us, by our own efforts, but with God it is possible. Where we cannot achieve, God can. The Spirit of God, the spirit of community, enables us to grow into a life together, in Christ. This life together is known as the body of Christ, in which his way reigns. He is the head of the body.
How then is Christ ‘head’ of the church?
- Christ ‘rules’ in the church in the way he lived amongst us: not by earthly power or dominance, but by the strength of love.
- Christ loves the church by directing our lives, individually and collectively, enabling us to live in mutual service, finding fulfilment in this way.
- In shaping a living body which vibrates with living trust and hope-filled love, Christ offers to the Father a restored creation, an offering of glory to God.
- The Spirit moves amongst the creation and especially within the community of the church, evoking awareness of God’s way and enabling people to make these choices, in wisdom, courage and patient commitment.
- In the way of Christ, people become co-workers with Christ, members of his body, active in the things he seeks and wills: in redemptive love, overcoming the power of sin and death (2 Cor. 6. 1).
- Christ is our one high priest (Heb. 2. 17, 4. 14) and the body he directs lives a priestly life. The life of the community of faith is a priesthood, characterised by Christ’s form of priestly service: knowing God and making God known; interceding for the people, even suffering for them, and offering sacrifices of love to God and for them, and in this way making real to the people God’s gift of salvation.
- ‘The priesthood of all believers’ is a common life of loving service to God, directed by the way God lives and acts in the world. It is not a set of rights, but a life together, an offering of living worship, in home, work, relationships and in churchly fellowship.