The church is the essential institution. The church is not our only nation, city, and family, but it is our first nation, city, and family. The church remakes and disciples these other institutions to serve the good of humanity. The church is a supernatural institution through which God acts to restore natural institutions to their original design. The church is its own nation, city, and family, but it also transforms and Christianizes natural nations, cities, and families.
The Church Is Not Optional (Sermon Follow Up)
- Written by Rich Lusk
- Category: Church
- Hits: 94
This is a follow up to last Sunday’s sermon on 1 Peter 2:4ff, “The Greatest Nation on Earth."
But the church’s telos cannot be limited to earthly ends. When we are incorporated into the church, we become citizens of heaven. The ultimate goal of the church is union with Christ in the glory of the final new creation.
One of the reasons the church in the West has declined is because the individual has replaced the church as the focus of God’s work. This can be seen in many different ways. For example, Larry Siedentop argues that the church dismantled the ancient pagan social structures (e.g., the pagan Roman empire and the Roman form of patriarchy). But the Siedentop claims that the Christian faith replaced these ancient institutions with the individual. That is not true. The Christian faith put the church — an altogether other worldly institution in a very real sense — at the center. Yes, Christian faith did produce a new found respect for the individual (and eventually for the rights of the individual), but Western individualism originally arose from within and under the umbrella of the church. Thus, the Magna Carta (focused on the rights of the church) preceded and paved the way for the Bill of Rights (focused on individual rights) and the liberty of conscience doctrine we are so familiar with today. There is a healthy balance between the institutional church and the individual Christian, but the church comes first, just as a mother precedes the child she gives birth to.
An example of Western Christendom moving towards a more individualistic version of the faith can be seen in the WCF. While the WCF has a high ecclesiology (I quoted 25.2 in the sermon), the longer section on soteriology (chapters 10-18) focuses exclusively on the salvation of the individual. The question, then, becomes how to integrate WCF’s high ecclesiology and sacramental theology with its individual-oriented soteriology. Most modern Reformed people have given up on thast integration project and have instead embraced a form of individualism. This has been especially evident with the highly emotionalized Awakenings and revivals that have characterized American religion.
The Christian faith is not centrally about a personal relationship with Jesus. We do have a personal relationship with Jesus, but that cannot be so emphasized that the church gets pushed to the margins. So often when American Christians have presented the gospel, they have either left the church out of it altogether, or they have even made the church irrelevant. I can remember when I was young, hearing evangelists say things like, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian.” Or, “It’s a relationship, not a religion.” Or, “I’m calling on you to follow Jesus, not join a church.” If anything, the church was treated as an enemy, an institutional road block to spiritual progress. There may be grains of truth in these claims — simply attending church does not make you a Christian and will certainly not guarantee eternal salvation — but they all miss crucial truths.
The Christian faith is a religion. We do call on people to join the church when we call on them to follow Christ since you cannot be united to Christ without being united to his body. If you want to have God as your Father, you need to embrace his family.
Our culture is suffering from an atomized individualism that has been taken to a whole new level by technology, especially social media. We live in a world in which almost everything can be custom tailored for each one of us. We value self-expression as the highest form of communication. We stress the need to create one’s own identity from scratch, out of our own feelings, instead of receiving identity from the communities and relationships of which we are a part. It's no wonder everything seems to be in flux.
We individualize, privatize, and personalize everything. We prioritize the individual over the community. It’s “me” over “we.”
This is a large reason why we are living in such a dark time, full of loneliness and alienation.
Christians have all too often been sucked into this way of viewing life and it's a big reason why our churches tend to be so weak.
Our culture is a mess because the church is a mess. And we cannot transform our culture unless we first reform our our churches. And that means recovering Peter’s vision for the church in 1 Peter 2:4ff.
A couple generations ago, T. S. Eliot put it this way (paraphrasing): “The world is trying an experiment, attempting to form a civilization with a non-Christian mentality (or even an anti-Christian mentality). The experiment will fail. But we must be patient awaiting its collapse, preserving the faith alive through the dark age before us so that when the time comes we can renew and rebuild civilization.”
If we are indeed on the cusp of such a dark time, there is no priority greater than this: The church must learn once again what it means to be the church, the people of God, his house, his royal priesthood.