When I became a Christian, aged 15, one of the things urged on me was to join a “Bible believing” church (by Bible believing, I mean those that tend toward dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s when it came to adherence to sound doctrine). Reasons included our needing to be encouraged and established in “the faith”. My own interaction with Bible believing churches, with some more Bible believing than others and most lacking in Bible practicing, has been somewhat checkered and, while I have in my subsequent 48 years not missed out too much by way of regular church attendance, I can say at times in that period I have felt as I was an outsider and have been sorely tempted to opt out. I feel fortunate that the Bible believing church I was part of for 25 years up to 2 years ago (when it closed) and the one I am part of now, while far from perfect, have more than made me feel welcomed, given me encouragement and supported me when it comes to my own community activism.
I realize that is not true for many and for all sorts of reasons. While the hard line stance is that folk like these are being deliberately obstructive and disobedient (to God), when I listen to their stories, I have in many cases come to realize there is the another side and often feel a good deal of sympathy. I have come to increasingly recognize the importance of both the local church and the universal church, and for Christians this ought to be an important part of the outworking of their Christianity, because God decrees it thus. By “local church”, I refer to gatherings of Christians, often but (increasingly) not necessarily, centred around a building(s) and a particular denomination, and by “universal church” I mean the sum total of true believers whenever, wherever and whoever they are (have been). For one thing, with reference to the biblical metaphor of the “Bride of Christ” that will be fully realized when Christ returns, and it is that radiant and without blemish Bride that God is seeking to nurture and will one day be united in marriage to His Son. Another reason why the church is important is that while God does operate through individual believers, he does so even more when they relate to one another, typically via the church, and the effective working out can be likened to individual body parts (which all believers are) can achieve little alone, but much when these are in unison with the other body parts, directed by the head (Christ).
The role of the church is a question that requires much more consideration than a short blog posting. I have written on the subject, e.g. in my recent blog posting: “Social justice and church mission”, and more generally in my “Theological musings” book. But two things have recently got me to think along these lines. The first was a chance conversation I had a few days ago with a homeless man that had a similar church background (Plymouth Brethren) to my own. I did invite him to my church (and hope he will come) but listened sympathetically to his reasons for being put off church. I suppose these were twofold: firstly, he did not feel welcomed (I suspect his homeless status may have had something to do with it) and secondly, he felt many Christians wore masks such that the real them couldn’t be seen. This was one of a long line of conversations with ex-church goers. While I am reluctant to make hasty judgments where the right lies, it seems besides the sadly common one of personality clashes and fall outs, disgruntled ex-church goers may feel their function in the body had been given short shrift. I mention the word prodigal because that might be one way to describe some returning to the church. The story told in Luke 15:11-32 is pretty clear. While the narrative does not quite apply in some of the cases, the example of the loving father embracing his returning lost son is one those in the church can take heed. The other is to remember that the church is about giving God glory; and all else is secondary.
The second stimulus to my writing this article relates to the suffering church that is all too apparent and specifically concerning the church in Iraq, although there are great needs relating to the church in many other lands, typically as a result of persecution. I was struck by an article titled: “Iraq’s Christians Need Sanctuary, and the West Should Provide It”. I am going to the put this one on the pile for the time being, to consider in a future blog – to do with developments in the Middle East and the approach of the West, such as implied by this title. But quite clearly, this has serious ramifications if we take church and the picture of interdependent body parts seriously, putting aside our natural tendency toward parochialism. As the Bible passage (see 1Corinthians 12), which deals with the teaching of the body, goes on to say: “if one member suffers, we all do”, and we need to look out and care for our suffering brothers and sisters. These thoughts were also along the lines of some discussion preceding a time of prayer at my own church last night. In a sense, we felt helpless when it came to what we should be doing and our understanding of what is happening and why was limited, but we did feel compelled to pray, and we did.
Back to the title and the call to prodigals – not only did Jesus talk about the younger son who took his inheritance and went away from his father (leading a profligate way of life) but also the older son who did not go away but had a wrong attitude that needed to be repented of. Repent is something we all need to do and it is where things begin. The call to return is clear and the consequence for obedience is to open the floodgates of God’s blessing to a world that desperately needs it. “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” John 13:34, 35 and “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” John 17:21. These are where our hopes and aspirations must lie.