American Christianity has been described by Theodore Roszak as “privately engaging but socially irrelevant.”38 There are a number of reasons for this tragic state of affairs. Infiltrating and finally capturing the major seminaries, liberalism gained control of many of the mainline denominations. These liberal churches ceased to preach the gospel and devoted their energies to meeting the social needs of men. In reaction, evangelical churches separated themselves from liberalism, establishing new denominations, waging war against the liberals, generally avoiding the social needs of men and often withdrawing within the safety of the church walls. The result was the failure of the evangelical church to penetrate the unsaved community in which it was located. The church not only failed to reproduce itself, but its activities were disdainfully labeled “churchianity.”
About this time the “electronic church” was born out of the technological revolution and the resulting mass media. When the gospel was preached and people were saved, they felt little obligation to become a part of a local church. If they were “turned off” by the local church, new converts could simply “tune in” each week. A small contribution of money was a tempting alternative to the commitment required by church membership.
One deficiency with this kind of Christianity is that entertainment is often more prominent than edification. Fellowship and worship are also minimal.
Responding to the failures of the church, parachurch organizations also arose. They took up the neglected tasks of evangelism, engaging the world in conversation about Christ, and converting many. All too often, those involved in ministry through such organizations had become disillusioned with the church and had little commitment or involvement themselves, so it was no wonder that a number of those who were converted did not join evangelical churches either. The result of these and other factors is a kind of Christianity which is “privately engaging but socially irrelevant.”
In our previous study we discussed the implications of the incarnation for our personal lives. In this study we will explore the implications of the incarnation for Christians corporately. The irrelevance of contemporary Christianity is due, in large part, to its failure to understand and to apply the implications of the incarnation for the church. Let us approach this study prayerfully, asking God to keep us from error and to guide us into His truth.
God has chosen not only to manifest Himself through human flesh individually (through our Lord, first and foremost, and through individual saints), but also through men corporately. Look once again at the text we have previously referred to:
Then God said, “Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” And God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Gen. 1:26-27).
Notice the use of the plural pronouns here: “us,” “Our,” and “them.” The plural, when used in reference to God is no doubt at least and allusion to the doctrine of the Trintiy.39 The image of God may very well be reflected in man’s work of ruling over His creation. But I believe that God’s image is somehow reflected in the fact that God created man as male and female, and that together, they were to rule over creation. If this is true, God chose, at the very beginning, to manifest Himself through plurality--man and woman--ruling over creation.
While God chose one man, Abraham, through whom the promised redeemer would come (Gen. 3:15), He chose to raise up a nation from his descendants (Gen. 12:1-3). It was through the nation Israel that God purposed to reveal Himself:
“‘For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am holy. And you shall not make yourselves unclean with any of the swarming things that swarm on the earth. For I am the Lord, who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; thus you shall be holy for I am holy’”(Lev. 11:44-45; cf. 19:2; 20:7).
While we are interested in knowing that God chose to reveal Himself through men corporately in the Old Testament, our primary concern is to demonstrate that He has purposed to do likewise in this age in and through the church. A number of New Testament passages reveal this truth:
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).
The “you” of these verses is not singular, but plural. Our Lord was not giving individual instructions here, for who could, as an individual, do all that is commanded here? Neither is the “you” referring only to the eleven disciples, for they did not fulfill this commission either. Furthermore, when our Lord said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (v. 20), it is clearly implied that the “you” refers to the church in the days after the apostles had passed from the scene. My point is that our Lord gave the church the great commission corporately. It is the church corporate to whom the great commission was given and thus it is the church corporately which must fulfill it.41
The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach (Acts 1:1).
Luke’s introduction to the Book of Acts reflects the fact that it is the church corporately which, as the body of Christ, continues to live out the life of Christ in the world since His ascension. The remainder of the Book of Acts is consistent with this theme of Christ’s “incarnation” through the church. Just as our Lord’s birth was supernaturally brought about by the Holy Spirit (Lu. 1:35), so the church was born miraculously through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:4-5; 2:1-4). As our Lord was empowered by the Spirit (e.g. Lu. 4:1), so the church has been endowed with the power of the Holy Spirit, manifested by spiritual gifts (I Cor. 12; Rom. 12:3-8; Eph. 4:7-16; I Pet. 4:10-11).
In order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places (Eph. 3:10).
God not only has chosen to manifest Himself (His wisdom) through the church to men, but also to the angelic hosts, fallen and unfallen. The principle of incarnation is applied to the benefit of men, but there is more here than “meets the eye.”
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light (I Pet. 2:9).
And so, not only did God choose to manifest Himself through the nation Israel, He has also chosen to manifest Himself through the church. In the present age, God has joined both Jew and Gentile in one new body, the church, breaking down former barriers:
For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups [Jews and Gentiles] into one, and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity (Eph. 2:14-16).
There are various ways in which the church corporately manifests God (in particular, the person of Christ, since the church is His body). As you might expect, there is an overlap of the personal and the corporate manifestation of God. Below are some of the ways incarnation is practically demonstrated through the church.
(1) The church manifests Christ by its godly character and conduct.
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body (I Cor. 6:19-20).
Hopefully, you are astute enough to have observed that the context of I Cor. 6:19-20 is that of one’s personal conduct. How, then, does this passage relate to corporate holiness? Not only are we individually temples of the Holy Spirit, but we are collectively a temple as well. In the same book, the apostle Paul wrote:
Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are (I Cor. 3:16-17).
In the context of I Corinthians 3, Paul is stressing the character of the church as a whole. In particular, Paul is warning those who are leaders or would be leaders that they will suffer dire consequences for adversely affecting the church, which some in Corinth were guilty of doing (cf. 4:4-13; II Cor. 11:12-15).
The backdrop to Paul’s words in I Corinthians 6 can be found in chapter 5, where a professing Corinthian Christian was known by the church to be living with his father’s wife (5:1-2). Paul first conveys his response, which was to commit this man to divine chastening by delivering him over to Satan (5:4-5). He then went on to rebuke the church for not expelling this man themselves (5:9-13).
The character of Christ is to be manifested in and through the church. One corporate expression of God’s holiness is the painful, but necessary, practice of church discipline, just as Paul has indicated in I Corinthians chapter 5. To allow sin to go unchecked in the church is to corrupt the church corporately:
Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (I Cor. 5:6b-8).
Holiness is not only to be preserved in the church, but also is to be practiced outside the church:
“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing any more, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:13-16).
Admittedly, this passage refers to personal righteousness, but it can hardly exclude corporate holiness. The church ought to serve as a preserving, purifying agent in the community. While we may not all agree as to how this should be accomplished in a given circumstance, we should all be able to agree that we have an obligation as a church to promote righteousness in the world in which we live.
The church is not only to manifest Christ by its character, but also by its conduct. As Luke suggests in his introduction to the Book of Acts, what our Lord began to do and to teach, the church continued to do and teach, through the power of the Spirit of God. As our Lord sought to minister to the physical needs of men, such as by the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6), so the church concerned itself with feeding the widows (Acts 6). Our Lord’s ministry to men provides us with a pattern for ministry to those about us.
(2) The church manifests Christ when it gathers corporately.
When the church gathers as a corporate body it does so primarily for mutual edification, fellowship, and worship. Our Lord ministered to His disciples for several years, teaching, encouraging, and admonishing them. Through the church and the mutual ministry which takes place in its gatherings, the body of Christ is built up, equipped for ministry (Ephesians 4). Thus, the guideline for participation in the church meeting is that it be edifying (I Cor. 14:3, 12-19, 26).
As our Lord had intimate communion with His disciples, so the church comes together to have fellowship with Christ and with one another (cf. Acts 2:42). As our Lord continually communed with the Father, so the church corporately gathers for worship (cf. Acts 2:47). Through His Spirit, God indwells the church (Eph. 2:22). God particularly indwells the church in its praises, just as was the case in Israel of old:
Yet Thou art holy, O Thou who art enthroned [lit. dost inhabit] the praises of Israel (Ps. 22:3).
(3) The church manifests Christ when it disperses and infiltrates the community.
Unfortunately, the church has misunderstood and misapplied our Lord’s words, recorded in Matt. 18:20:
“For where two or three have gathered together in My name, there I am in their midst.”
The context of this statement is the matter of church discipline. The Lord did not mean that He was with the assembled church in a greater degree than when they were dispersed. We seemingly have drawn this conclusion. Consequently, the church avoids infiltrating the unbelieving community, often under the guise of “separation.” Paul puts this matter to rest very clearly when he writes,
I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters; for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he should be an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler--not even to eat with such a one (I Cor. 5:9-11).
Paul informs us that separation is a matter of avoiding those who profess to know Christ but deny Him in their persistent practice of sin, without repentance. We have made the doctrine of separation an excuse to avoid contact with the world. We hide behind stained glass windows, consoling ourselves by occasionally inviting a pagan friend or neighbor to church, knowing few will ever show up. The principle of incarnation demands much more than this from the church.
At His incarnation, our Lord identified Himself with fallen humanity. He was criticized by the “religious leaders” because of this, for they expected Messiah to shun sinners. Our Lord, however, came to save sinners, and thus had to come into intimate contact with them (cf. Mark 2:16-17). Peter had to be dramatically shown that intimate contact with those he considered “unclean” was a necessary part of his Christian commitment and calling (Acts 10). You and I, my friend, need to learn the same lesson. The world about us will not find God in this building, primarily because they will not come into this building. The principle of incarnation demands that we take God to lost men, by dispersing and identifying with the lost, yet without imitating them.
Because of the principle of incarnation our Lord prayed, “I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15).
So, too, the writer to the Hebrews urges us to go “outside the camp:”
Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Hence, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach (Heb. 13:12-13).
From this text we can see that we not only come to church to seek His presence, but we also go from church, outside the camp, to go “to Him.” The church therefore manifests Christ in its gathering and in its dispersing.
The church is a corporate manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ. It practices the principle of incarnation when it demonstrates and promotes that which is consistent with His character. It manifests Him when it practices those things which He Himself did while on the earth. It manifests Him by gathering together and by going “outside the camp.” As we conclude this message let me leave you with three specific areas of application.
First, let me urge you be become a part of His church.
I am not speaking about church membership in the traditional sense. I am not encouraging you to join this church or any other church at the moment. I am exhorting you to be very certain that you are a member of the church universal, the body of Christ. The universal church can only be joined by a personal commitment of faith in the person of Jesus Christ, who died for the church, and who is the Savior of every true member of His church. There is no way that you can have a part in the corporate manifestation of Christ without first trusting in Him and thus becoming a member of His body. If you have never made this commitment, or if you are not certain of this, I can not urge you with any greater sense of urgency than I do at this moment. Confess to Him that you are a sinner, deserving of His wrath, devoid of any righteousness worthy of His approval. Acknowledge your faith in His death in your place. Trust only in His righteousness, rather than in your works, and you will become a member of His body, the church universal.
Second, make a commitment to a local church.
While we have benefited greatly from the electronic church and from parachurch organizations, the New Testament writers never conceived of anyone coming to faith in Christ apart from becoming an active participant in the local church. Thus, Luke can describe the salvation of souls as “being added to the church” (Acts 2:47). The local church needs you as badly as you need it. You need the ministry of others, just as others need the ministry God has given you in and through the church (cf. I Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4).
Third, we need to make a commitment as a local church.
All too often the local church has fallen into the sinful trap of corporate selfishness and self-interest. The church begins to build its own empires (membership, ministries, money). The church begins to demand that its members become involved in the church’s activities so much that the saints are kept from infiltrating the world and penetrating it with the gospel message. We need to corporately have the “mind of Christ” which Paul spoke of in Philippians chapter 2, not seeking our own interests, but those of others.
Just the other day I read of a church which had a large building program under way, with a large sum of money already set aside. Construction was about to begin when word reached the church of the terrible earthquake which struck Guatemala, leaving many churches with no place to meet. As a congregation this church in America was convicted that it had no good reason to build a more comfortable place to meet when those churches in Guatemala had no place at all in which to meet. They drastically modified their plans, reducing their construction to bare minimums. The largest portion of the money set aside for their building was sent to Guatemala, along with a commitment to match this with a similar amount. That, my friend, is the mind of Christ, manifested corporately. May God grant that we, too, as a church may have this mind.
Let us seek not only to be faithful as a church in gathering together (Heb. 10:24-25), but also in going “outside the camp,” practicing the principle of incarnation as we disperse and infiltrate our community for our Lord Jesus Christ.
I honestly do not know what our Lord would have our church do as a church to penetrate this community and to practice the principle of incarnation. This is a matter about which the elders and others are praying. Let us all begin by praying that our community would see something of our Lord because we are here, as a church, in this place.
39 There is a “plural of majesty” and this may be the primary sense in which the plurals are employed in reference to God. While the plural pronouns “us” and Our” do not prove the doctrine of the Trinity, they certainly leave room for it.
40 The passages in Isaiah certainly refer primarily to our Lord, the Servant (cf. Isa. 42:1). Israel was also known as the servant of Jehovah (Isa. 41:8-9), and thus was to be a “light to the Gentiles.” What Israel failed to do as a nation, the Lord Jesus Christ, Israel’s Messiah did (cf. Lu. 2:32; 4:16-21). It is also evident that the early church saw the Isaiah passages as applying to God’s people corporately, in addition to their fulfillment in Christ (cf. Acts 13:47; 26:23).
41 Many have erred here, using the great commission as the proof-text for personal discipleship. While personal discipleship may be one expression of our personal obedience to this commission, it is not the essence of it. The great commission was given to the church corporate. The reason is because it can only be fulfilled collectively. The tasks involved in this command are various, and thus the church, the body of Christ, has been diversely gifted, equipped, and called in order to fulfill it.