We said above that the first “C” of Christlikeness is “Communion” and that the second “C” of Christlikeness is “Character”—character that flows from our union and communion with Christ. But there’s another source and context for character change, namely, the third “C” of Christlikeness: “Community.”
The church is the new Community of God ushered into existence according to His plan, through the redeeming work of His Son, by the power and personal ministry of His Spirit. The church is God’s first, post-cross redemptive act in the recreation of His fallen world. This one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community was created by God and is loved by Him.
The church is our Trinitarian God’s unique and dynamic presence, activity, and life in the world through a specially redeemed, human community—a community that is created, indwelt, empowered, and missionaly directed by His Spirit. Thus the Spirit of God has created and shaped a new people of God, having transferred them out of the dominion of darkness so that they might declare His praises, love one another, and represent the Father’s interests until the Son returns.
Though the church exists throughout the world, in a variety of cultural, sociological, and political contexts, it is really only one church. Christ has only one body, not many! Every member of the church has been baptized into the body of Christ and made to drink of the same Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). Though there are millions of local churches around the world, our oneness is positional, secure, rooted in God’s saving work, and unites each local expression with all the others..
Now the positional oneness we share as believers in union with Christ ought to lead to oneness in experience and practice. We ought to humbly strive for unity and a spirit of cooperation with other believers. We ought to protect and promote our unity and celebrate our diversity. In short, while the doctrine of the church’s oneness does not mean “sameness” among all the members, it does entail persistent seeking for practical unity and the strengthening of the bonds of peace. There is no need for a particular community to give up certain doctrines they feel God has revealed through scripture, but it must be remembered that He did not reveal such truth so that one element of his body could despise another. In my experience, most division has little to do with deviation on major doctrines and more to do with broken relationships, hurt, and unresolved bitterness.
Recognizing the truth that our lives all flow from the saving activity of the One God, we ought to take pains to encourage brothers and sisters within our local communities and outside as well. We ought to encourage unity and participation with other churches in our neighborhoods as well as around the world. With such things God is pleased. Many churches are already doing this and they are to be commended for their efforts. Others are slow to respond for a variety of reasons, but in many cases it’s simply due to pride and indifference, not to disputes over major doctrinal issues. Again, in most cases, there is no need to throw away doctrinal differences.
The church is both holy and human. It is holy in that it is a creation of God in which He dwells by His Spirit. But the church is also a human organism in that it is composed of redeemed human beings—redeemed, I say, but nonetheless, human. Thus, as a genuinely human institution, the church will need to assume certain structures, organizations, and methods of operation in any culture in which it exists.
The recognition of what the church is should lead to greater discernment and clarity in terms of the posture we are to adopt in relation to our culture and its beliefs and practices. Knowing that we are a creation of God should caution us in the West against an over reliance on technology, media, pop methods, etc. in the living of our corporate life or in the promulgation of the gospel. We may certainly use elements from these realities, but we must be careful of what beliefs are driving these choices and how those Christians who come after us will relate to these cultural practices. In short, the church needs to be constantly updating its theology of cultural engagement. We do this not because truth changes, but our understanding of it most certainly does; each generation has new challenges not always anticipated by earlier thinking and practices and thus fresh reflection on biblical truth is required. On the other hand, we must be critical of those who argue that since we are all priests, the church needs no structures and no visible leadership. Not only does this deny different giftings (e.g., the gift of leadership), it also ignores the reality that we are still human beings who need, and therefore, create structures in which to live, move, and have our being. Even the anti-structuralists always advocate some kind of structure.1
Now in this new community created and loved by God, gifted for service, and living wisely in this fallen world, there is an uncompromising ethic of love in relationships. The church values loving, admonishing, and nurturing relationships. Genuine, heartfelt worship is enjoined and the truth of Scripture is proclaimed, not to make us smarter sinners, but to draw us unto deeper fellowship with the Master and with each other. Where there are broken relationships, forgiveness is to be sought and restoration aimed for. Deeper and more satisfying relationships are enjoined between husbands and wives, parents and children, families and families, etc. in any local church. This is all to be done to the glory of God, our flourishing, and asa testimony to the world (John 17:21-22)!
This means that any church that does not create structures where people can experience real community is falling short of what the Spirit desires. We are to be rooted and grounded in love, not just truth and not just our own experiences. There are churches that meet only once a week and everyone sits and listens to one man/woman teach. In this model there are a lot of wasted gifts (and relationships) sitting in the pews. On the other hand, there are churches that meet in small groups each week, particularly many cell-based churches, but have no value for corporate worship and even less value for more broad based gifts such as teaching and preaching.
Finally, the church is God’s presence in the world in a unique and redemptive way. The Holy Spirit rests in power upon a humble and seeking community of believers and will use them in the defense, dissemination, and blessing of the gospel. Often, entire neighborhoods are transformed for Christ through men and women of like mind who repentantly set out to cleanse themselves from all known sin, to worship God in truth, and to reach out to their friends with the good news of Jesus Christ (2 Tim 2:20-21). The church is a witnessing community, firstly, by her presence in a fallen world (since God lives in her). Secondly, as she walks in the power of the Spirit, she is able to stand against the darkness wherever it is found and to boldly, with love and sensitivity, preach the resurrection and life eternal.
As a witnessing community, then, we must forge credible pathways into the world, and into the lives of our neighbors and friends. Have your church ask itself what group of people God would have you reach. Begin praying for these people and then initiate with relevant activities. Love people where they’re at. Accept and love them as God himself does. Do not communicate that these non-Christians must clean up their lives before they could ever become a Christian. They do need to repent and believe in Jesus, but Jesus will take them where they’re at.