Universal Lord 3

International Theology and Ethics Symposium

3: Christ, Universal Lord of the Church

(Back to Introduction and Post 1, Post 2)

 

To call Christ “the Lord of the Church” is in a way a truism. Christ is by definition the author of our faith, the head of the Church. The Church is in turn the body of Christ, the community of those who profess Christ as Lord and Saviour. Yet we know that alongside these truths we must take account of the reality that the Church – whether in its organisation or individual members – has not always demonstrated the spirit of Christ, has often misunderstood his will, and has not always done his will even when we have understood it. In one sense, then, we could say that Christ is Lord of the Church in the same way that he is Lord of the World – whenever and wherever his Lordship is not only acknowledged, but also truly reflected in action. However, this would be to deny an essential aspect of the Church, and indeed of our relationship with Christ as individuals: The Church belongs to Christ, even when it goes astray. The Christian belongs to Christ, even when s/he fails in obedience.

Salvationist doctrine states that “continued obedient faith” is necessary for us to remain in a state of salvation. In the Norwegian translation, this has become “one must continually obey and have faith”. The translation is unfortunate, because it can imply that any act of disobedience will lead to losing our salvation. This is surely not what we believe. A soldier who rejects the call to officership, for example, is not therefore “a backslider”. Nor is obedience to Christ primarily a matter of obeying laws or commandments. Instead, “obedient faith” describes our personal relationship with Christ. Because I have faith in him, I want to be like him, I want to reflect his spirit in the world. I may not, in my human weakness, have the courage to say “yes” to every opportunity for service that he shows me. I may struggle to make a sacrifice that he asks of me. And yet my innermost desire is to be like him – and it is this that constitutes obedient faith. There is obviously a connection to our holiness teaching here. If we reduce holiness to a legalistic avoidance of deliberate sins, it may be easier to be “holy”, but we are more likely to be seen as self-righteous. A holiness that focuses on living in relation with Christ and growing increasingly like him, will certainly be more fruitful, even when we do not succeed in every aspect of our lives.

In the same way that we as individuals live in this tension, so does the Church as a whole. Christ is Lord of the Church, even when it fails in practice. But just as individual Christians need to grow in holiness, so must the Church. We must strive to narrow the gap between what the Church actually is and does, and the ideal of the body of Christ living his life in the world. This is a challenge which calls us not only to seek personal holiness – but also to consider the way we do business, our management structures, our communication, the way we exercise leadership: In other words, every aspect of our organisation. Do we, in fact, seek the Lord’s will in our decision-making, or are we merely guided by the same considerations as any other agency? Do we allow office politics to dictate our actions, or are we aware of Christ in our midst? Does our leadership reflect the spirit of Christ and the values of the Kingdom – or administrative expediency and current management culture?

The challenge for the Church, then, is the same as it is for any Christian: to be in practice what God has declared we are in principle. Christ is Lord of the Church – but still we must make him Lord in practice. Faced with such a challenge, however, we recognise that Christ is not only Lord, but also Saviour, and it is in his grace that we find the means of fulfilling his calling.

Universal Lord 2

International Theology and Ethics Symposium

Post 2: Christ, Universal Lord of Mankind

(Back to Introduction and Post 1)

There is inevitably an eschatological aspect to the title “Universal Lord of Mankind”. We look forward to the day when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:10-11). The implication of this is naturally that the Lordship of Christ is not universally recognised in the present age. But in what sense can we say that Jesus is Lord, even when he is not recognised as such?

Again we must make a contrast with the Reformed view that God is the ultimate cause of everything that happens – and everything we do. Such a view, although not perhaps consciously thought through, may lie behind phrases such as “God willing” (as in – “I’ll see you tomorrow, God willing!”) or the song text “the days I cannot see have all been planned for me”. It is however one thing for God to have a plan for my life, and another to believe that I have no choice but to follow that plan. Although the Bible does occasionally give the impression that people are not entirely masters of their own actions (e.g. Genesis 45:4-8), there are far more references to people making choices, and specifically choosing either to obey God or reject him. It is quite clear, throughout the Bible, that people are held to account for the choices they make, and that they are responsible for the consequences of their actions (e.g. Joshua 24:15, John 3:18). Wayne Grudem, in his “Systematic Theology” maintains that our choices are real, and that we are therefore responsible for our actions – but that God nevertheless is the ultimate cause of everything that happens and everything we do. This is self-contradictory. If God is the ultimate cause of all of our actions, we cannot be said to have made real choices – and therefore we are not accountable. In the end such a viewpoint must undermine the gospel, for if we are not accountable, our sin is not real, and there is no need for forgiveness or atonement.

The opposite of this is viewpoint is the Pelagian heresy that we are entirely free, and that by consistently choosing the good we may attain salvation. Pelagianism has in a sense resurfaced in Existentialism, so that Sartre, for example, can insist that mankind is bound only by itself. Each individual has the freedom to make choices in life, regardless of other influences, and in this way we can construct our own unique identity. It is not hard to see the extent to which this individualist philosophy has influenced Western society in recent years, but the idea is nevertheless flawed because it fails to take into account that people’s choices are not, in the final analysis, entirely free. We are naturally influenced by our genetic history, our environment, and by our (and our parents’) previous choices, which may develop into habits of thought and action that we no longer question.

The Salvation Army, then, has again maintained a middle position. We insist that people are accountable – and this must mean that our actions are not determined in advance, or entirely directed either by God’s agency or sociological determinism. Despite everything that influences us, we have a genuine choice – or at least an element of choice – in what we do. Habits may be broken, circumstances overcome – at least to some extent. But we also recognise that our choices are not entirely free and unfettered. In many ways we are caught in the patterns of behaviour that our background and circumstances dictate, and, humanly speaking, our freedom of choice will always be limited. Nevertheless, as Salvationists we also believe that mankind is influenced by God’s prevenient grace – the work of the Holy Spirit who calls us to Christ and makes it possible for us to break free from our circumstances.

All this means that the Lordship of Christ in the present age is in a sense a matter of potentiality rather than an actual fact. Although as creator God he could force his will on mankind, he has chosen to limit himself. His power is revealed not in his controlling people or events, but in his spirit of love and self-sacrifice, and it is when this spirit is evident that we can recognise his lordship. Each individual has the opportunity to accept or deny his lordship over their life – and it is ultimately this choice which will be decisive when Christ is finally acknowledged to be Lord indeed. (At this point it would be relevant to explore what form this choice takes for those who have not heard the gospel, or who have only heard a caricatured version of Christianity, but that lies outside the field of this post).

In addition, Christ asserts his lordship over mankind in a number of ways. The first of these is his universal standard of behaviour: The dual command to love God and our neighbour. This command is not just a matter of discipleship, but sets the bar for all mankind. This is what God expects of us, and but for redemption through Christ, it is the standard we will be judged by. In a sense, then, we can say that Christ’s lordship is visible whenever anyone acts in a way that reflects his spirit – whether or not they are conscious of following Christ. An example might the act of mercy in which an Iranian couple forgave the man who killed their son, saving him from the death penalty, or a simple act of kindness for a colleague at work.  Secondly, then, Christ’s lordship is apparent in universal judgement. Although the Bible speaks of a final judgement at the end of the world, Jesus also made it clear that the most important judgement is the one that happens in this present age. By choosing to follow him or to reject him, to acknowledge his lordship or to cling to our supposed freedom, we in fact judge ourselves. The eschatological lordship of Christ is in this sense a present reality. Thirdly, however, we assert that Christ’s redemption is also universal. Not universal in the sense that “everyone will be saved in the end”, but universal in its potential application. Whoever responds to Christ’s invitation, will be saved, and Christ’s desire is that everyone will respond to him. It is the tragedy of our world that some, at all times, reject him, but the atonement is nevertheless universal in its scope and intention.

Again we see that the dual roles of Lord and Saviour come together in the person of Christ, and are ultimately inseparable. He is our Saviour because he is also our Lord, and in his lordship we find salvation.

Universal Lord

Last weekend The Salvation Army hosted an International Theology and Ethics Symposium, considering the statement

Jesus Christ, Universal Lord and Saviour.

In the run-up to the Symposium, they invited Salvationists to comment on what this phrase might mean to them, and this and the next two posts were my contribution. Obviously, these posts only scratch the surface of some of the issues that the subject raises – but for what they are, here they are…

International Theology and Ethics Symposium

On reading the title of this symposium, I was first drawn to the phrase “Universal Lord”. Thinking about what that means raises all kinds of questions, and I have tried to categorise some of them below:

  1. Christ, Universal Lord of Creation
  2. Christ, Universal Lord of Mankind
  3. Christ, Universal Lord of the Church

I will attempt to say something about all of these aspects in separate posts: In this post I begin with the first:

 

  1. Christ, Lord of Creation:

Col 1:15-17  He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

In the New Testament, Christ is several times linked directly to God’s acts of creation, and so when considering his Lordship, it is appropriate to consider also what we mean by his sovereignty over the created universe as Triune God.

At one end of the spectrum, we have the theistic view of the “watchmaker God”, who creates the universe with its regularities and laws and then lets it live its life without further intervention. This is a view which is very convenient in the context of the natural sciences, as it allows room for theories about the development of the Universe and the evolution of life on Earth which are independent of theology. It also to some extent lets God “off the hook” in relation to the human pain and suffering that natural events can cause. This view of God as inactive and distant is however very problematic in relation to Christ, who in the incarnation represents God as active and involved in the World.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Reformed/Calvinist view that God’s sovereignty is absolute and specific, so that every event in the natural world, whether harmful or beneficial from a human point of view, is seen as a reflection of God’s will and purpose. This is a view which fits well with the general view of the Old Testament, but which may be offensive to modern ears, both because we can demonstrate the natural causes of most events, and because we are reluctant to admit that God would wish to cause the pain and suffering that follows from natural catastrophes or epidemics.

As I understand it, the Salvationist understanding has been a middle way between these extremes. We believe that God has created the Universe, and sustains it – which is to say that its continued existence is dependent on his continuing creative will. But for the most part the Universe has developed according to laws and regularities that are part of God’s original creation, so that any particular event may be seen as the outworking of the mechanics of the Universe, rather than a direct “act of God”. Nevertheless, we also believe that God can and does from time to time intervene directly in his creation, so that an unexplainable healing or other “unnatural” event may be seen as a sign of his active presence in the World. The laws of nature belong to God and may be bent to his will.

The question that then arises is whether this middle way is genuinely the consensus view in the Army, as I have supposed, and whether we have a biblical foundation for it?

Finally, of course, the Bible promises that there will be “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1). Exactly what this phrase means is impossible for us to know, but it emphasises that creation belongs to the Lord, and that (regardless of “natural laws”), it is in his power to renew it when his purposes are fulfilled. From this point of view, the dual roles of Lord and Saviour eventually come together in Christ’s ultimate victory.

 

Swimming Against the Tide

As I said in Dear Pink Panther, I don’t want to get into the debate about the Bible and same-sex relationships. But anyone that follows that debate – or participates in it – should read this testimony. Actually – anyone can read it, because this is about God working in a man’s heart to change his life, and that is what Christianity is all about, isn’t it?

http://wordinmyheart.wordpress.com/swimming-against-the-tide/

“Have I been a fool to view these events as ‘spiritual experiences’? A sceptic would say, “Yep, read some rational stuff on suggestibility and lucid dreaming”. I’ve read the ‘rational stuff’ all of my life. The skeptic’s point of view makes sense and I want to believe it. But I no longer believe it. I now place my trust in Christ.”

Dear Pink Panther – Did I Ever Say Sorry?

pembe-panter-2During my first year at university, someone calling themselves “The Pink Panther” wrote a letter in the campus magazine. I don’t remember the details, but it was about homosexuality and the church – a pretty radical topic all those years ago, when the the churches’ – and secular society’s – attitudes were much more fixed than they may seem to be today. My reaction was to send a response to the next issue – a knee-jerk conservative reaction worthy of the most Southern of Southern Baptists. Basically I wrote, “Do what you like behind closed doors, just leave my religion out of it!” It was judgemental, dismissive, uncaring and unchristian, and probably revealed more of my own insecurity than anything else. But later on I was introduced to the Pink Panther, and was pretty embarrassed. Attacking someone in the letters column is one thing  – meeting them face to face is something else. It turned out he was not a faceless representative for sinful immorality, but a living, breathing person with actual feelings … Even so, I’m not sure I ever specifically apologised for that first letter, so before I write any more – Pink, I’m sorry. Truly. That letter should never have been written, and I’m so grateful to you for apparently forgiving me before I even asked. These days, the climate has changed, and society as a whole – at least in the West – is more tolerant of same-sex relationships. Some Christians have concluded that the Bible doesn’t condemn homosexuality after all, and that the Church has been wrong all these years, as it once was wrong about slavery. Many are unsure, and no longer know what to think. The majority, certainly in a global perspective, are still of the opinion that same-sex relationships are contrary to God’s will. I’m not going to get into that debate here. What I want to do instead is to focus on something that ought to be common for all Christians, no matter what stance they take on any particular issue. And that is simply that Christians have a duty to care:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Matthew 22,37-39)

Now, loving someone doesn’t mean approving of all their actions or life-choices. I’m sure my children at some stage in their lives are going to make choices I disagree with, and I dare say I’ll tell them so. But I’ll love them all the same, and I hope they will always know that. ‘Love’ in the Bible isn’t really about feelings, anyway. It’s about showing people good-will. About helping them when they need it. About having respect for them as people and wishing them well:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13,4-7)

In the words of Bob Goff, biblical love isn’t a feeling, it’s an action: “Love does”. So whatever the Bible teaches or doesn’t teach about same-sex relationships, it teaches us that as Christians we are supposed to be caring, sensitive and patient – all the things my letter to the Pink Panther were not. And that should have consequences – I say it again – for all Christians, no matter which ‘side’ of the debate they are on. So when we hear about gays and lesbians being harrassed, persecuted and criminalised, by governments or anyone else, Christians should be raising their voices to protest. When we hear our fellow-Christians – even church leaders – condoning or even encouraging aggression or violence against gays and lesbians, we should be taking them to one side to tell them, as someone should have told me at university, that that is not the way. That is not what Christ would have done. That is not what God wants. So why don’t we hear more about the church standing up for gay rights? I think one reason is that people are worried about their own integrity. They are worried that if they speak out on behalf of gays, people will assume that they’ve ‘changed sides’. This issue has become so polarised that if you’re not clearly ‘against’, then you must be ‘for’. People don’t want to be seen as supporting something that they’re against, so they end up saying nothing, even when the evil they are not talking about far outweighs any qualms they may have about sexual morality. Jesus had no problems of that kind – or if he did then he ignored them. Jesus was the World’s most perfect man – and yet he was criticised for associating with swindlers and prostitutes, and was executed as a criminal between two thieves. Apparently he wasn’t worried that anyone might be confused about which “side” he was on. His supporters were in no doubt that he was on the side of morality and obeying God – but also on the side of compassion and loving his neighbour. . He didn’t seem to see any contradiction in that. Neither should we. We can continue the discussion about biblical ethics and what is or isn’t God’s will: But ‘Love your neighbour’ doesn’t have sides.

Jesus-is-Savior.com

Some people are hard to love. But we have to – I mean, that’s what Christianity is all about, right? Particularly hard to love are all the people I don’t know except by their opinions. And there are lots of them, and a lot of them are Christians. And there are some Christians with whom I really, profoundly, disagree. It’s not that they’re not entitled to their views – the problems start when they suggest that I’m not entitled to mine. It’s really not easy to greet someone as a brother or sister in Christ while they are condemning you as a heretic. One such is the author of the web-site Jesus-is-Savior.com. This sounds like a great web-site, doesn’t it? A web-site proclaiming the love of God in Christ for the salvation of the World. And that is indeed what Jesus-is-Savior.com wants to be:

This website is a pulpit, a VOICE reaching around the world. By the grace of God, this website is presently receiving over 315,000 visitors per week. That’s more members and visitors than most churches could see in a hundred lifetimes. Praise God! I thank God for giving me the humble opportunity to influence people for Jesus Christ in this needy area.

But if that is what you want to do – then why oh why oh why must you fill page after page condemning more than half the Christians of the World as heretics or blasphemers? Here’s an example:

Many heresies have crept into our churches because of corrupt versions of God’s Word, especially the damnable New International Version (NIV). Why would anyone use the NIV? Our Final Authority on ALL matters of faith and living is the inspired and preserved Word of God, which in English is our beloved King James Bible.

There is a whole page devoted to the NIV, with a pretty picture of a couple of corrupt clerics conspiring with the Devil to promote their book:

We hope you like our Bible

There is another page devoted to Catherine Booth, co-founder of the Salvation Army and staunch defender of women’s right (and duty!) to preach the gospel. Not only is Catherine described as «a blaspheming liar», but William «compromised his beliefs to appease the wickedness of his wife» and preached a number of heresies (another web-page lists the supposedly heretical teachings of the Salvation Army) and apparently The Salvation Army is «in bed with Rome». The Roman Church, of course, being heretical by definition.

I could go on – the web-site does go on, at depressing and judgemental length, although to be fair to the author, he claims to be «as narrow-minded as the Bible» and nothing more. As far as I can gather (his name appears on some pages but not others), the author is David J. Stewart, about whom I know absolutely nothing except what he writes. What he writes makes him hard to love. But then he also writes

… the entire Bible is based upon the FACT that God loves mankind, so much so that God the Father sent His only begotten Son into the world to suffer and die for our sins

And that opens up a whole new perspective. Because that is the whole point. All of us, fallible, misguided, weak-willed people – God loves us! So David – whoever you are. You probably don’t care what I think of you or your web-site. You may call my beliefs heretical if you wish, and I can call yours misguided. But apparently we agree about this one amazing fact: God loves mankind and sent Christ into the world to save us all. And because we agree on that, I wish you all God’s blessing, and hope that all the thousands that you say read your web-site will be able to filter out all the opinions – and just accept the love of God in Christ. Because in the end, that’s what it’s all about. Not that the other stuff doesn’t matter. It just matters less.