Michael Key

Unique but Unified (Part Two)

Michael Key
Unique but Unified (Part Two)

Read part one of this article here.

THE LIFEBLOOD OF THE CHURCH // THE ORGANIC CENTER

As good Americans, we tend to consider questions of unity in democratic terms. That is, we turn to ourselves -- the people -- for the proper way to express worship, or the means by which we show compassion and justice, or the most essential doctrines. The focus remains on us -- how or what we worship, serve, and think.

Christian unity, as the apostle Paul instructs in Ephesians 4, looks differently than postmodern notions. In encouraging the Ephesians to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 3), he reminds them that there is one Spirit, one Lord, and one Father “who is over all and through all and in all” (v. 6). Unity can only be found within the perfect harmony, self-giving love, and wholeness (what the OT writers call shalom) of the Godhead.

That still begs the question: How can we enter into the triune life and share that perfect harmony? If you have ever attended Sunday school, you know the answer: Jesus.

In him, this organism that we call the Church finds its life. Paul reminded the Ephesians that our goal is to “attain the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph 4:13). If we do not “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” (v. 15), we are nothing more than a collection of limbs and organs and tissue. And should a Frankenstein-type attempt be made to patch these together, the result would utterly disappoint.

Actually, it would seem a success to our eyes. But whatever unity the body had feingedwould disintegrate because no foundation -- none -- can be as sure and solid as the one who “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, [who] upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb 1:3).

NOT "JUST JESUS"?

How then is this response different than those who claim that they only want Jesus and that the institutional church simply confuses the way to him? At this point, the difference might not seem apparent. How too can we differentiate between Catholic and Protestant, mainline and evangelical, progressive and conservative -- all of whom seemingly proclaim Christ? It might seem like those labels only serve to harm our witness. Let us do away with such labels and unify under Jesus, some might say.

There’s more to unity than “just Jesus.” But here, we are not adding anything to the gospel. Rather, in Scripture we discover that he gives us a fuller, more structured account of what it means to be united to him (and thus welcomed into God’s trinitarian life). Jesus is the cornerstone of the Temple (i.e., the Church), and he laid down a foundation and structural beams upon which we are built up (Eph 2:20). Without that foundation and beams, the Temple crumbles in.

Or to return to the organism metaphor: every body contains not only tissues and muscles and organs but also a skeleton to provide structure. A boneless body -- an image I’d rather not ponder too intently -- can be squished and molded and formed into practically any shape. The Body of Christ is no different. It can be “tossed to and fro by the waves” (Eph 4:14) of social pressure and cultural prejudice without its bones. When a Christian attempts to live without the institutional structure of the church -- when he claims that “all I need is Jesus” --, he might as well dream up a body coursing with blood but limp and lifeless, without anything to give it structure, definition, and mobility.

This is exactly where the postmodern church that “just wants to be authentic” fails.

THE BONES OF THE CHURCH

What are these bones that give the Body its shape, that keep its ideals and telos married to Christ? Bavinck summarizes Scripture’s teaching: “The kingship of Christ over his church consists in that by his word and Spirit he gathers and governs his own and protects and keeps them in the redemption acquired.”

Many will likely recognize that the work of Jesus is applied to Christians through the Holy Spirit. Thus, a truly unified Church will necessarily be a Spirit-filled church. But we must broaden our perspective of what a Spirit-filled looks like. The Spirit certainly moves through subjective, spiritual experience, but charismatic worship or individual contemplation does not necessarily demonstrate the presence of the Spirit. He also works through more objective, some might say institutional, means.

THE WORD

The first of these objective means is unquestionably clear: the word, that is, Scripture. To have the Word (Jesus) as our organic center, we must hear and understand the word (Scripture) which bears witness about him (Rom 10:4; Luke 24:44-49). Without the recognition of and submission to God’s revelation, what we believe about God is false. Instead of worshipping him, an idol of our own imagination sits on the throne, and any perceived unity is imagined as he becomes conformed to our image rather than us to him.

This is a difficult task, for it involves setting aside personal preferences and cultural biases, allowing them to be shaped by Scripture rather than those shaping one’s reading of Scripture.

It might even rightly be called a deadly task, for the initial result is the death of your old self (Matt 16:24-25). The Bible must be the lens we wear to view the theater of God’s glory.

SACRAMENTS

In his list of “ones” which Christians share in Ephesians 4, Paul mentions baptism. With that, we may rightly add the Lord’s Supper. In short, Jesus ordained these tangible elements for our benefit, objective acts which spiritually unite us to him and thus to each other as we participate in his death and resurrection. As baptisms have always been performed by a recognized believer (and in many traditions, an ordained minister) and as the Lord’s Supper is a community meal, these are necessarily communal acts. The means by which these bind us together are mysterious, certainly, but to avoid them is to avoid the joy these means of grace offer.

CHURCH OFFICES AND HISTORY

Returning to Paul’s words in Ephesians 4: “And [Jesus] gave to the apostles, the prophets, the evangelist, the shepherds, and teachers” (v. 11) the task of equipping the saints so that their unity in Christ would be firm. As shocking as that may be to our democratic, libertarian ideals, Jesus does empower leaders of various offices through the Holy Spirit to guide us in the faith, with wisdom and insight guarding against the things that pull us away from God and the love, life, and joy which exist in him.

This ought to be distinguished from a church that finds its sole unity in the organization of church leaders. Too often Catholicism has erred in this direction. A body exists without a soul. Similarly, even in congregational churches, the pastor can become monarchical. How can we avoid this usurpation of power? Carefully, with great prayer and discernment, only accepting the authority of those who demonstrate delegated authority in submission to Christ and his Word.

We cannot forget that the history of the church has been filled with true shepherds as well. To neglect their guidance would be to open ourselves to the same devices of the enemy. In reading the Spirit-led teachers of the past, a fence of orthodoxy can drive us back inward towards Christ, reminding us that “from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever” (Rom 11:36).

THE BODY IS BECOMING BEAUTIFUL

Some might argue that I have added too much to the central point of the gospel, namely, Jesus Christ. These “bones” have been more often the cause of division than unity. To that concern I remind the objector of this: the Church is a Body, not a disembodied soul. And this organism mirrors, though now darkly, the image of our Trinitarian God. Like him, we also demonstrate diversity in our unity. Yes, our diversity too often becomes division. This body has some odd deformities. But I would rather be a wart on the Body of Christ, still welcomed into the love of the Godhead, than a creature of my own making (see Psalm 84:10-12). I will submit to Christ, our one Lord, in the one faith we share, trusting that the foundation he laid is able to bind his people in love for the glory of God.

Thanks be to God who artfully transforms our ugliness, discord, and sin into something beautiful! This is the glad hope that only the Church in its unity and diversity can proclaim.

Having earned degrees from Southern Methodist University and Princeton Theological Seminary, Michael attempts to pass on what he has learned by teaching world and church history and apologetics. If he had to read theology and classic fiction for the rest of his life, though, he wouldn’t be sad about it. Michael loves his beautiful wife, Micaela.