Monday, September 03, 2012

Only connect!

John Donne the seventeenth century preacher/poet famously wrote, “No man is an island entire of himself.” In a culture that prizes the rights of the individual over our responsibility to the community, Donne’s words need to be heard once more. Christians are not immune to the individualistic spirit of the age. We can see ourselves as consumers rather than servants. As such we are more interested in what we may get out of church life than what we might contribute by serving the Lord among his people. This attitude encourages a loose connection to the local church, or perhaps no meaningful connection at all. We have forgotten that the church of the New Testament was a connected church.

Connected to God in Christ

God unites us to Christ by his Spirit in order to bring the believer into fellowship and communion with the Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one in divine being and glory. The three Persons dwell within each other in loving communicative action. God’s triune life is the model and dynamic for church life.[1]

This is the most important connection – union with God in Christ. Individuals need to be united to Christ and receive all the blessings of salvation in him. But on being personally united to Christ, we also become members of his body, the church, of which Jesus is head. Coming to him we become living stones in the temple in which God dwells by his Spirit. The Good Shepherd calls his sheep by name and gathers them into his flock. Apart from being connected to him we can do nothing.[2]

Connected to each other in local churches

We do not loose our personal identity when we are united to Christ and his people, but our identity as Christians is realised in the context of church life. Living stones find their niche in the temple. Body parts belong in a body, sheep in a flock.

All true Christians are joined to the invisible and universal church the moment they believe. But the Jesus has ordained that the ‘one holy catholic and apostolic church’ should find expression in gatherings of believers in particular localities[3]. Those who were converted and baptised on the Day of Pentecost were added to the church at Jerusalem[4].

By and large, the New Testament letters are not addressed to individuals, but to churches. They were written to be read to the gathered church[5]. Paul had a deep and abiding concern for local congregations. He wrote to establish churches in the gospel and warn against false teaching. He wanted the people of God to be united in their love for one another and in their witness to the world.

The means of grace are deployed in the context of the local church. The Word is preached and read, corporate prayer is offered to God, hymns and psalms are sung in praise of the Lord's name. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are administered. God has ordained all these things to enable his people to grow in grace and equip us for his service. With the wonders of modern technology people can stay at home and listen to sermons on the internet rather than go to church. But to take the Lord’s Supper, you have to meet with the gathered people of God to eat bread and drink wine together as Jesus commanded. It is an expression of our connectedness in the body of Christ, that “we though many are one bread and one body” (1 Corinthians 10:17). You can't download the Lord's Supper.

Connected to other local churches

With the publication of Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones[6], fresh attention is being given to ‘the Doctor’s' call for Evangelical unity in 1966. Most tend to focus on the preacher’s controversial call for Evangelicals to come out of the theologically mixed denominations, but the burden of his 1966 address was not ‘come out’, but ‘come together’. He wanted Evangelicals to “stand together as churches, constantly together, working together, doing everything together, bearing our witness together.”[7] Many have heeded the call to separate, but have we realised Lloyd-Jones’ vision of local church-based Evangelical unity?

Readers of this newspaper will largely belong to fellowships that are not in Churches Together. Rightly so. The gospel must define the extent and limits of inter-church fellowship. But that doesn’t mean that instead we should subscribe to an isolationist Churches Not Together mentality. On biblical grounds I believe in the independency of each local church. But I don’t think that independency, properly understood precludes a measure of interdependency and connectedness[8]. Read Paul’s greeting to the church at Rome in Romans 16[9].

Many of our congregations will belong to a Grace Baptist fellowship of churches, the FIEC, an Evangelical Presbyterian grouping, or Affinity. That’s all well and good. But unless we work hard at fostering links between gospel churches in our locality, belonging to one or more of these groups will mean little more than a snazzy motif on our church notice boards.

In West Wiltshire a number of FIEC and Grace Baptist churches have been working together in holding open air preaching meetings in town centres. Within our larger FIEC area we have created three small clusters of churches to facilitate deeper fellowship between local congregations. It is still early days, but we have already seen some encouraging developments.  We want to stand together, pray together and work together for the advance of the gospel in our locality. 

Connected to the community

Jesus has charged each local congregation to play its part in fulfilling the Great Commission[10]. We cannot make disciples by keeping ourselves at a safe distance from non-Christians. We must go to where the people are and proclaim the word of life to them. Through literature distribution, door-to-door work, open air witness, children’s meetings, Christianity Explored courses and in other ways too let us endeavour to reach the lost with the good news of Jesus.

Beyond the organised activities of the church, every Christian is to be a witness to Christ in their daily lives. Believers can get involved in their communities by visiting residential homes for older folks, by becoming school governors, or simply by offering a helping hand to those in need.

When non-Christians come along to our meetings, let us make sure that their spiritual blindness is the only barrier to them understanding the gospel. We have been called to be the church in 21st century. That fact should be reflected in the Bible translation we use, the prayers we offer, the sermons we preach and the hymns we sing. By all means let us sing older hymns. They bear witness to the fact that the church is not a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ fad. But we should not neglect the best contemporary hymns that show that our God is the God of today as well as yesterday.

Our churches must make every effort to connect with the local community for the gospel’s sake.

Connected to the nation

The New Testament teaches that Church and State are separate institutions with distinct roles and goals. That is one reason why the Free Churches do not believe in a national Established Church such as the Church of England. But that does not mean that the Church has no connection to the nation, or has no concern for the wellbeing of society. The church not to meddle in party politics, but part of making disciples is teaching Christians to be good citizens[11]. Believers like William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury and Elizabeth Fry had a powerful impact on our national life. The clear stand of Christians on the issue of ‘Gay Marriage’ has made some government ministers openly question whether changing the law should be a priority.

Connected to the world

John Wesley famously said, “I look upon all the world as my parish”. The vision of the local church is to be wider than the neighbourhood, or even the nation. Our God-given task is to reach all peoples for Christ[12]. No single fellowship is large enough to do that all on its own. But our churches should have a lively, prayerful and financially generous interest in the cause of world mission. Mission societies don’t exist to do mission for the churches, but they enable local churches to pool their resources for the evangelisation of the world. Concern for mission can be fostered by devoting the midweek Prayer Meeting to prayer for the worldwide spread of the gospel on a regular basis. Operation World is a helpful resource for encouraging prayer for world mission. Preachers can incorporate the intercession for the nation that is featured on the Lord’s Day into their prayers. Let us pray, give, send and go that God’s salvation may be known among all nations.

Only connect!  

The New Testament church was a connected church. In the words of E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, “Only connect! Live in fragments no longer.” How connected are you?

* An edited version of this article appears in September's Evangelical Times

[1] See John 17:20-22, also 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 and Ephesians 4:4-6.
[2] Ephesians 1:22-23, 4:15-16, 1 Peter 2:4-5, Ephesians 2:19-22, John 10:11, 16, 27, John 15:1-8.
[3] 1 Corinthians 1:2, 1 Thessalonians 1:1 see also Romans 1:7 and Phippians 1:1.
[4] Acts 2:41.
[5] 1 Thessalonians 5:27, Colossians 4:16.
[6] Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones, IVP/Apollos, 2001.
[7] Knowing the Times, D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Banner of Truth Trust, 1989, p. 256.
[8] The Savoy Declaration of the Independents and the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith reject the Presbyterian connexion-based model of church life found in the Westminster Confession of Faith. But both documents have sections on the communion of the saints that finds expression beyond the confines of the local church. See Chapter 27 of the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689.
[9] Also note the close fellowship between the churches in Colosse, Laodicea and Hierapolis, Colossians 4:12-13.  
[10] Matthew 28:18-20.
[11] Jeremiah  29:7, Matthew 5:13-16, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-4.
[12] Genesis 12:3, Isaiah 49:6, Luke 24:46-47, Revelation 7:9-10. 

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