Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Who Belongs?

There are two opposite ideas for deciding who is part of the Christian church. No one really believes them in an unqualified form. Yet, with many qualifications, they still seem to underlie how we think of this.

One of these is the idea that if you become a member of the organization and go through the proper rites of initiation, you are automatically a part of the church. This fits with the idea that those ordinances of entry automatically, or almost automatically, do something to you to bring this about. Now there are always qualifications. Frequently, an outwardly moral life is required. There are certain beliefs that you need to adhere to. Particularly in those groups in the Protestant tradition, there is a requirement of faith, a trust in the promises of God. But after all these, there is still the idea that if I am member in good standing of the organization, I must be part of the church. And unless I do something to radically violate the organizations' principles, I am probably safe.

The other extreme is that all that really matters is my inner spiritual life. The organization and its rituals are largely irrelevant. What organization there is, is merely a gathering of those who have made the grade. Again, from a traditionally Protestant position, this is normally seen as involving faith. Now again, it is difficult, from a traditional Christian point of view, to hold to this view in full form. In fact, if followed to its logical conclusion, it would tend to throw out any ordinances or community altogether. But it also leads to having to continually prove you are truly spiritual and really belong. And it is easy to end up ostracizing someone who does not fit in.

But Scripture starts from faith. It is faith that saves (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Philippians 3:9), resulting in our becoming part of God's people (Acts 2:47; 20:28; Colossians 1:18-23). The ordinances then become a reminder and declaration of our faith (Romans 4:11; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; 2 Peter 1:9) and of our having also become related to one another (1 Corinthians 12:13; 10:16,17; Ephesians 4:4-6). This faith is focused, not on who we are, but on who Christ is and what He has done for us (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). This is not merely one factor in an inner spiritual change, but it takes hold of Christ, which, in turn, brings about whatever spiritual change is produced, however imperfect (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11-14; 2 Corinthians 3:18). Therefore, the key to who is part of the church is faith. The other aspects, the outer organizational expression and the inner life, spring from this. Faith should result in a change in our inner spiritual life. But it is faith that makes us part of the body of Christ, and it is through this body that God works. Starting somewhere else distorts the picture.

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