What Must Be Preserved of the Churches of Christ? (The Assembly, Part 2)

churchofchristWhen we read in the scriptures that we are to become like Jesus, we tend to interpret “like Jesus” based on our own personalities and religious upbringing.

For example, many take “like Jesus” to mean “sinless,” which is true but largely misses the point.

The Eastern Orthodox define “sin” as “missing the mark,” and they define “the mark” as Jesus. And I think they’re right. Adam and Even were driven from the Garden because they fell from the image of God. When they sinned, they didn’t just break a rule, they acted contrary to the image in which they’d been created, and so the image became broken.

Therefore, sinlessness is not merely never breaking the laws of God, or obeying all the rules, but rather it’s being true to God’s image in which we were made, that is, it’s becoming like Jesus.

And yet, this is all very circular. We still haven’t really dug into what “like Jesus” means. Moreover, even those who have done so have nearly always done so at the individual level, but here we’re talking about a congregation of Jesus’ church becoming “like Jesus.” After all, how could any congregation wear the title “Church of Christ” and have any other goal?

Michael Gorman, in Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (is that a catchy title or what?) argues that the New Testament’s core understanding of the nature of being like Jesus is found in this passage —

(Phi 2:1-4 ESV) So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Paul could not express himself more urgently. This is as serious as Christianity gets. And he is saying that the way to “complete my joy,” that is, to bring the gospel to full realization, is to GET ALONG with your fellow Christians.

I know that sounds simplistic, but some of the deepest, most serious passages in all of scripture are about getting along as followers of Jesus. I mean, that’s really the core of the Sermon on the Mount, 1 Corinthians 13, and Romans 12.

Stanley Hauerwas, one of the great theologians of our time, teaches that the church is supposed to create an alternative society within a society, displaying in the Eucharist and the congregation a new, better way to live. The lost world should be drawn to Jesus by seeing Jesus in the church — by how we treat one another, by how we sacrifice for each other, and how united we are around Jesus.

I would take it a step further. I think the most important apologetic or Christian evidence for the reality of Jesus is his church. If we don’t display the life and character of Jesus in our congregations, there’s not an argument that will persuade anyone. If we will actually live like Jesus, the need for proof will have been satisfied — because our love for each other and unity should be so great as to appear miraculous. After all, it can only happen with the help of the Spirit.

Now, how many of us would say to our friends and neighbors: “Jesus really lived and is alive today. If you doubt me, come visit my church and you’ll see him there!” How many of us live in a Christian community that, because of its intense love for and humility toward one another, plainly shows Jesus to the world?

(Phi 2:5-11 ESV) 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Commentators believe this to have been an early Christian hymn. This is what the early church sang in the assembly! You’d think someone would have written a hymn based on these words for today’s church, but I can’t find one. Maybe the teaching is too hard.

Here’s the closest I’ve  been able to find —

I guess we find the teaching so difficult that we can only hear the drums of its demands. It’s so foreign to us that we can’t hear its melody.

Anyway, the gist of the passage is found in a few overlapping thoughts —

* Jesus did not “grasp” equality with God. “Grasp” translates a term meaning “to seize as booty.” Obviously the dictionaries use “booty” in the sense of “loot.” Equality with God, you would think, would be the greatest possession imaginable! But Jesus considered his love for humanity of greater value.

Therefore, when our leaders argue about God’s will with no compassion for the needy among us, they have no concept of God’s will.

* “Emptied himself” can also be translated as “made himself nothing” or “poured himself out.” (The Greek is kenosis.) Jesus voluntarily went from the grandeur of God to the humility of humanity — indeed, a human whom many considered illegitimate at a time when illegitimacy carried a great stigma, and a human who lived in poverty under the boot heel of the Romans’ oppressive police state.

* “Became a servant.” The Greek for servant is doulos, meaning bondservant or slave. Slavery in biblical times was not as dehumanizing as European and American enslavement of blacks, but it was still a terrible thing. As PBS explains,

All slaves and their families were the property of their owners, who could sell or rent them out at any time. Their lives were harsh. Slaves were often whipped, branded or cruelly mistreated. Their owners could also kill them for any reason, and would face no punishment.

According to another source,

If a slave married and had children, the children would automatically become slaves. Young children were sometimes killed by their parents rather than let them become slaves.

Moreover, the Jews had been freed from Egyptian slavery by God. For a member of the Godhead to voluntarily become a slave would have been utterly unthinkable.

Now, in what sense did Jesus become a slave? I think he was a slave because he submitted to a punishment suited to a slave — crucifixion, a form of execution often used against runaway slaves.

We learn from history,

 In fact slaves were so routinely crucified that crucifixion become known as the “slaves’ punishment” (servile supplicium; see Valerius Maximus 2:7.12).

More generally, Jesus did what he did for the benefit of others. He served the needs of humanity, not his own needs, at the cost of his life. It’s the giving up of everything, even his own life, for others that is slave-like.

So what would a church look like if the church were to be like Jesus?

And what would a weekly assembly be like if becoming like Jesus as a congregation was understood as the central goal of the congregation and its weekly gathering?

How might that change our song service? The preaching? The Lord’s Supper?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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7 Responses to What Must Be Preserved of the Churches of Christ? (The Assembly, Part 2)

  1. Yes, when the emphasis of a congregation is on the love of Jesus, manifested by sacrifice, everything changes. I’ve seen this happen when the emphasis of the preaching changed to Jesus (from a constant diet of legalism). Joy abounds through the congregation as more folks begin to serve and then experience for themselves a deeper love for others. Our understanding of scripture is also enhanced when viewed using Jesus as the filter. Some scriptures we never understood come to light because our hearts become ready to receive. Inevitably, this also has a purging effect on a congregation and there are those who will leave as a result. So I guess we do need to figure out “what must be preserved.”

  2. Somewhere, somehow, we changed the reality of being in Christ.. The unbeliever says, “Show me!” But where we used to say, “Watch our lives,” we now say, “Read our book.”

  3. Mark says:

    The sermon might be shortened to a homily with one point and focus on what Jesus taught and how to reduce it to practice, to borrow from the patent lawyers’ jargon. The communion might get longer because the focus would be out on the sacrifice of Christ, which I know sounds quite Catholic, but the sacrifice was for all. There also might be a prayer for unity and persecuted Christians, regardless of which branch they belong to.

  4. rich constant says:

    WHAT I think is ,after all of the discussion over the last few months…LETS just throw “what needs to be preserved” out and
    build a brand new (old) fellowship… A true family an intimate relationship of true reciprocation and and say we have about $100,000,000. IN TODAYS MONEY that would put down about a 400 room resort four star 18 hole golf course.

    build a mega church… anyway we think is to gods good and glory
    just saying this because as the church stands today…we have no relationship / community of love with each other, WHAT WE REALLY HAVE IS AN ARRANGEMENT WITH EACH OTHER WHICH IT SEEMS TO ME IS BUILT AROUND THE FACE WE PUT ON SUNDAY’ THE FACE OF TRADITION.
    using grace as the escape clause of our bad behavioral characteristics

  5. rich constant says:

    if the shoe fits ya gotta wear IT…

  6. Regarding hymns based on Philippians 2, see, e.g., http://www.hymnary.org/browse/scripture/Philippians/2 which includes “When I survey the wondrous cross.” Also, google search “hymns based on philippians 2” and work through the 126,000 hits. So, yes, there are more than a few songs from that passage.

  7. David Himes says:

    For me, Philippians 2 makes the case that the “ekklesia” is the result of individuals seeking to be like Jesus. The ekklesia is not the goal … it’s the natural result.

    If we have truly understood what Jesus calls us to, and devoted ourselves to that, it is almost inevitable that we will associate with others share that commitment, and collaborate with them.

    If our goal is to perpetuate any given “congregation”, any given “organization”, we run the risk of focusing on extraneous, if not erroneous criteria.

    So, in the context of “what must be persevered” in the C of C, Philippians 2 is important because it highlights the devotion to Jesus, rather than the devotion to any organization or any set of traditions, or common practices.

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