The Crisis of Ghanaian Christianity: Lessons from Anabaptism and Beyond

prosperity-dummiesThere is a narrative that has somehow gained traction amongst Western Christians regarding Christianity in Africa. This narrative is that though the church may be declining in the West, it is actually doing well and growing rapidly in Africa and Asia. Well, I can only speak to the African side of the story. And from my vantage point, this narrative needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt when it comes to Africa, especially to West African countries like Ghana and Nigeria. I tend to find myself often amongst Christians who are concerned about the trajectory of Ghanaian Christianity in particular, but also something that is happening in parallel across other African countries with Christian populations. During such conversations, I inevitably hear the refrain – “the churches are not preaching salvation anymore”. This is because of the rise and rapid spread of the innocuous “prosperity gospel” in Ghanaian churches. It’s now on the TV via televangelists, in our so-called “gospel” music and in our pulpits. These friends then, pine for the days when the sermons from the pulpits were focused on “preaching the bible”, condemning sin and teaching us how to be better Christians (on an individual level); basically what Dallas Willard referred to as “sin-management”. I chose then to write this to help my good friends make sense of what the real problems are, and to help my readers not in Africa to better discern when they find themselves interacting with Christianity of an African origin.

I used to think that was the solution as well, but my Christian journey has led me to question not just the “prosperity gospelers”, but the “salvation preachers”. And this is not because I don’t believe in salvation anymore – far from that. My challenge to the salvation gospelers has been that their definition of salvation is too narrow, and has actually actively contributed to the rise of the prosperity gospelers. Let me explain.

Some 30 years ago, the landscape of churches in Ghana was dominated by Roman Catholic as well as churches of a Reformed theological leaning – Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Adventist, Anglican et al – which in Ghana are referred to quite confusingly as “orthodox churches” (whereas globally, Orthodox is used to refer to Eastern Orthodox churches like the Greek and Russian church etc, which have no footprint here in Ghana). At this time also, there was a budding number of Pentecostal churches, and a few charismatic ones. Let’s not forget the African Instituted Churches like the Mosama Disco Christo Church and the like. Most Christians desired to be associated with one of these well structured denominations.

The dominant theology of the Protestant ones among the above was the well known revivalist one of getting souls saved from sin. The regular mantra at crusades I attended was “Jesus is coming soon. You don’t know your destiny after your death. Come to Jesus and be saved, so you will also be with him in heaven when he returns or when you die” or something of the sort. The usual alter calls were made, people were saved and became church members, warming the pews and being taxed every Sunday for a church project or the other that had almost nothing to do with their daily lives and needs. A few of the poorer members of the churches did get some help once in a while, but this was not because there was a concerted effort of these churches to intentionally mitigate poverty, but because of the generosity of a few members who were approached. There was very little effort by the leadership to intentionally integrate the different classes of people that made it to these churches, so the usual social structures from which converts came continued to perpetuate themselves in these churches. But then these weren’t big issues, after all the church’s responsibility was to ensure the convert’s eternal destiny was secured. Being structurally heirarchical, leadership was dominantly more worried about how to get on the next rung of the ladder than what the real needs of the local church was. Embedded in this theology and practice was the subtle but deeply ingrained notion within Protestant Christianity that the gospel was about each individual’s salvation. And this individualism is what has and continues to be it’s weakness to this day.

This state of affairs is what most people with whom I speak on this matter refer to when they talk about churches “not preaching salvation anymore”. And this is what NT scholar Scot McKnight has to say on that yearning.

The revivalists sold us short at times in focusing so much on the past tense of salvation … as well as the future tense, eternal life – but not enough on the present: kingdom life in the church.”( Scot McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents).

Fast forward to 2015. Western individualism has seeped into Ghanaian culture, especially in the urban areas. The landscape is now littered with all sorts, shapes and sizes of churches. A lot of them have no denominational linkages, mostly founded by former leaders who have left the “orthodox” churches described above and who have unfortunately swallowed hook, line and sinker the “prosperity gospel”. Most of these claim a charismatic leaning. Instead of having a few denominational empires that one could at least identify and deal with, we now have a plethora of them, everybody wanting their piece of the pie of the overly religious and superstitious Ghanaian. Christianity has multiplied rapidly, but alongside it has been abuse, scriptural ignorance and bare-faced heresy, syncretism, and greed in the name of “the pastor must be rich to show that you can also be rich”. The segregation in our churches have also grown, with the poor going more to the charlatans running supposed “solution centers”, whiles the rich gather in their nice urban uber-church complexes. It’s now an open marketplace for membership to advance one’s empire. Whatever it is that these new churches claim to have been escaping from their “orthodox” ones, there really is no clear difference to see – maybe except that the leaders of these churches become richer overnight.

In the meantime, the “orthodox” churches are feeling the pinch of this “competition”, and are compromising on their more Reformedish theology to become more “relevant”, more “charismatic”. The words “success”, “breakthrough”, “miracles”, “prophetic”, “destiny” which used to be in the purview of the prosperity preachers, can now be heard on the lips (and seen on billboards) of an increasing number of “orthodox” churches. And this is causing some who would rather see these churches hold their ground – since they have been “hammering on sin and repentance” which is what we all need if we are going to make it to heaven – to have sleepless nights and pine for the days when the churches were “preaching salvation”. But alas, if concerned Ghanaian Christians are not willing to ask themselves the hard, long and uncomfortable questions (both theological and practical) and to take the decisions that need to follow it, then we are only doomed to the trajectory of “relevance” without faithfulness. As the musician Bono of U2 sang

You think it’s easier to put your finger on the trouble, when the trouble is you” ( U2, Troubles from the album Songs of Innocence).

So, being an Anabaptist in a sea of Christendom, I have a few lessons to share with my friends and readers who actually yearn for a better Christianity in Africa. Some of these lessons come from Anabaptist history and some from more recent, academic and critically acclaimed Christian thinkers on this crisis.

1The Problem Starts From Flawed Theology

I’m sorry to say this, but the first and foremost reason why we are in this situation is because of the long dormant flaws in Protestant theology, especially as practiced in Ghana. The prosperity gospelers have simply built on these flaws.

  1. A flawed understanding of the kingdom of God – For centuries, Protestant Christianity has associated anything Jesus said about the kingdom of God with the future of going to heaven. This has affected our understanding of the gospel, and hence our understanding of salvation. The fullness of biblical salvation involves past salvation (salvation from sins and spiritual slavery), ongoing salvation (salvation from personal, social, economic and political structures) and future salvation (life in the new heaven and the new earth).

  2. Sola Scriptura – The teaching that every Tom, Dick and Harry with a Bible in their language can properly interpret scripture with the help of the Holy Spirit has lead to abuse of scripture driven by ignorance and anti-intellectualism. I wince everyday as TV evangelists massacre the bible to support their “prosperity gospelling”, but Protestant friends are loathe to address this dogma which actually gives these people their lease of life.

  3. A fixation on heaven and hell – Due to the influence of Greek paganism on Christianity after the early apostles, Christians moved from the original Jewish and early Christian hope of New Heaven and New Earth and the need to care about what is happening on this earth, to caring only about saving souls from hell to heaven. This was further aggravated by the Protestant Reformation because it was rebelling against the Catholics for insisting that one needed to make indulgences to be guaranteed forgiveness of sins and a move from purgatory to heaven. This has left Protestant churches unable to take practical steps to make their local churches actually care for needs of members in the here and now, because after all “its all about going to heaven”.

  4. “Me” instead of “We” – As a result of these 3 defects above, the bible is read with an eye to personal benefit only. Embedded within centuries of Protestant teaching has been a focus on the individual. That, together with the obvious lack of care of our “orthodox” churches to the bread and butter issues of life on this earth, is what the prosperity gospelers have exploited to this day. They preach that God actually cares about your here and now, but the means to get it is via your individualist effort of “faith” (according to their own definition of it), abundance of prayer and church activities, and of course abundance of giving to them. Brilliant combination, don’t you think? According to Forbes, the richest clergy is actually in Nigeria, despite it’s monumental poverty rates. Which reminds me of a time in history when a Catholic bishop in France had more money than the state. And yet we claim to be children of a Reformation.

Sadly, the leading Christian thinkers who are pointing out these flaws embedded within Protestant Christianity itself are being attacked for pointing them out, especially by the gatekeepers of Reformed theology in America (Anabaptists have been saying that the Protestant Reformation wasn’t far reaching enough for the last 500 years, so we call dibs on this one and watch the Protestants duke it out). One of them, NT Wright, repeats some of the accusations against him below.

Any mud will do: you can suggest that some of us do not believe in Jesus’ atoning death; you can insinuate that we have no gospel to preach, nothing to say to a dying ‘enquirer’; you can declare that we are false shepherds leading the flock astray; you can accuse us of crypto-Catholicism or quasi-Platonic moral Idealism; anything rather than pay attention to the actual arguments, the refraining of debates, and above all to the texts themselves” (NT Wright – Paul and His Recent Interpreters)

2Leading to Flawed Community

Having sorted the theological problems out, here is one lesson that Anabaptism will like our fellow Protestant Christians to freely learn from them. After all, Anabaptists died the most for insisting that church should be separate from state, and should be a community of commitment and sharing with one another long before the modern separation between state and church became established norm. Until we learn to recognize local churches as the place to show in every locality, God’s ideal for the world of different people coming together despite class, social, cultural and economic differences and actively working to undermine those differences by caring and sharing with one another, individualism will reign, and prosperity gospelling, thriving on individualism, will continue to infect good Christianity.

This means some serious structural changes, from the way money goes to the bottomless pit at the top and never descends to the bottom, to what we do when we are gathered as a church. One of the ways in which Anabaptism was able to resist the death (both as threats and actual martyrdom) of their fellow Protestants and Catholics in the 16th century was the practice of caring for one another, which was sorely missing in the camp of their oppressors and was pointed out by Menno Simmons even when he was being tried by his opponents. Same as the early Christians. If our Ghanaian Protestant churches had been up and doing in this direction, people would have clearly seen through the deception of the prosperity gospellers from a mile away.

3Ending in Flawed Discipleship

The other lesson that Anabaptism will like to freely teach our Protestant brothers in Ghana is that the Christian life is one of following in the way of the master. A life spent in “worship” but not in following is a life that leads to exile, an exile that looks suspiciously like Judah’s captivity in Babylon. I see plenty declarations of “I want more of you, Jesus”, plenty “gospel” concerts and shows, plenty “all-night services”, plenty taxing of poor church members to build universities, majority of whose children stand no chance of even getting into Senior High School. Sadly, I see very little of serving one another, being good news to the poor in our midst (not some romantic far away location), treating the widows/widowers and unmarried amongst us like the fully human beings they are, making our homes open to people who are lower on the social ladder, eating with the “wrong” crowd on a regular basis, placing other’s needs above ours daily, being friends with the illiterate so the literate can teach them the bible instead of letting the charlatans twist it and abuse them and then wonder why they go to those churches.

Conclusion

As Anabaptists, we are also learning some ways in which we need to improve, after all till Jesus comes, the job will never be finished and no church is perfect. But it’s very hard to throw some accusations against Anabaptistim for good reason – Anabaptist strove to keep discipleship and community at the forefront, sometimes to the extreme. Things haven’t always been rosy, and we’ve also made our own mistakes. But what we also need is to be strengthened by this renewal in understanding Jesus not as defined by the 16th century European Christianity, but as a 1st century Jewish Messiah, yet a Messiah who is actually God himself.

So if Ghanaian “orthodox” Christianity and other church traditions (be they Pentecostal or Charismatic) have any chance of repelling the onslaught of prosperity gospelling that has so distorted the Christian witness here, then they really need to dig deep and radically reform. Because until then, the prosperity gospellers will continue to have their way, and to survive, they will end up having to join them.

I was glad I met for the first time some members of the Mennonite church in Ghana at the Good News Theological Seminary here in Accra 3 weeks ago. It was indeed a meeting of kindred spirits and I look forward to our further engagement with them as we seek to work towards a different kind of Ghanaian Christianity – a more Jesus looking one. And it reminds me of Stuart Murray.

Anabaptist writers, and others, have rejected the domestication of Jesus’ teaching. They have demonstrated how it applies to political, social and economic issues and that it is much more radical than Christendom’s commentators allowed.” (Stuart Murray, The Naked Anabaptist).

It is for these “others” that I thank God for these days. The likes of NT Wright, Scot McKnight, Richard Hayes, Howard Snyder, Stanley Hauerwas, Walter Wink, Donald Kraybill, Christopher J. H. Wright, Greg Boyd and other evangelical theologians who are pushing the envelope in challenging Protestant Christianity to be more faithful to its own New Testament.

I don’t need to talk about Anabaptism much nowadays. These guys, simply focusing on better exegesis of both the Old and New Testament itself, do the job quite well, though they are not Anabaptists themselves. And that can only be a good thing. That can only mean there is indeed hope for the church worldwide, Ghana included. For the Anabaptist hope is that the church worldwide will become more faithful to Jesus, whatever kind of church they are.

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Understanding the NT from the OT – Pt 3 – The Return of the King

Understanding the NT from the OT – Pt 3 – The Return of the King

Praying at the Temple Mount

Photo Credit: Robert Croma via Compfight cc

I chose to title this post after the 3rd book in the magnificent JRR Tolkien’s fantasy epic series “The Lord of the Rings” – because this post focuses on the eschatological expectations of the Jews vis-a-vis the return of YHWH, and how that forms the basis of what we read in the New Testament. In Part 1, we looked at the 3 main beliefs of the Jews (monotheism, election, eschatology). In Part 2 we looked at the 3 main symbols of land, temple and law (Torah), and the impact of 2 of the above mentioned beliefs on these symbols, as well as the impact of the exile. I intentionally left out the eschatological angle for a longer discourse, so here we go.

An “Eschatologically-Flavoured” Rent Contract?

Recently, New Testament scholar Scott McKnight pointed out an article on the Christian Science Monitor about certain clauses in rent contracts in Jerusalem today. Apparently some landlords living abroad had stipulated in their contracts with their tenants that whenever the Messiah is revealed in Jerusalem, the tenants have a short time (i.e. a week, month, 3 months etc) to vacate their rented houses for their returning owners who want to be part of this prophesied return. Because most Christians (including myself) already believe Jesus is the Messiah, such an actualization of Jewish belief will sound weird to us. But I believe the devil is in the detail of this story, so let’s get on with a short discussion of Israel’s eschatological hopes, because a single post like this cannot really summarize enough the huge tomes that have been written on this subject.

Deuteronomy 30, and the Return of YHWH

When the Babylonian destruction and exile happened, the people of the Land of Yisrael realized that something dreadful had happened – YHWH who had led them with a mighty hand and outstretched arm from slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea; into the desert and wilderness for 40 good years; fed them with manna and quail; led them to defeat Og king of Bashan and Sihon king of the Amorites and given them the land promised to their fathers – this faithful and loving god YHWH had abandoned them to their enemies.

The prophets who had seen this coming destruction and warned them to no avail, had now begun rallying the people back to hope, pointing them to what Moses had said in Deuteronomy 30 about YHWH looking favorably on them again if they didn’t loose hope and rather kept faith with him. Prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah,Ezekiel etc expounded on this hope of YHWH returning to them, and so developed certain beliefs, some which already existed before the exile and needed rekindling, and some which were new. These became the hopes that they held to and believed that YHWH was going to do when he returned to them.

The Return of YHWH – The Kingdom of YHWH and His Messiah

Way before the exile, YHWH had promised David an everlasting kingdom, with his heir being the one to lead that kingdom (2 Sam 7). David himself then pens down Ps 72, expounding what kind of king this will be aka his job description. In this psalm, you see clearly David referencing the promise first made to Abraham – “Then all the nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed (Ps 72:17)”.

Now the prophet Isaiah restates these credentials of the coming Messiah in chapter 42, 49 etc

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations” (Is 42:1).

You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor” (Is 49:3)

Any observant student of the bible will notice that this is exactly what was repeated when the Spirit of God descended on Jesus whiles he received his baptism from John the baptist Mt 3:17;Mk 1:11). Two other things were to be noted as well about Jesus’s style of speaking

  1. He alluded to passages like Isaiah 42,49 when he kept insisting that “I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me” (Jn 8:28;Jn 5:30 ). He was basically saying that being that prophesied servant, YHWH was displaying his splendor through him (Is 49:3).
  2. The OT only spoke of a “Father/Son” relationship in reference to either YHWH and his nation Israel, or YHWH and his servant to come (as in Ps 2). It was therefore highly unusual for Jesus to be speaking of being a “son” to “The Father”. Any observant Jew who listens to the Neviim (prophets) and the Ketuvim (the Psalms and writings) being read in he synagogue every sabbath would notice the allusion to the “Father/Son relationship” as mentioned Ps 2 and many other such quotations from the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh).

Now note lastly the purpose of YHWH putting his spirit on his servant – “and he will bring justice to the world”. The whole chapter 42 seems to dwell on that theme – justice. Jesus’s statements about “the kingdom of heaven/YHWH is at hand” could only mean one thing – YHWH has returned to look favourably on Israel, though the nature of that return was quite unexpected.

The Return of YHWH – The Outpouring of His Spirit

We tend to locate our attempts to look at the pouring out of the spirit of God from only the prophets, but the concept actually dates back to the Exodus and Moses himself. Moses sets the tone by stating

The Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descendants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul and live” (Deut 30:6).

Here lies what Israel felt was the problem leading to their exile. They hadn’t been faithful observers of the Laws of YHWH, leading to his abandonment. Therefore they hoped that YHWH’s return will mean he himself will enable them to be better observers of Torah, making them his true children, as captured by Jeremiah:

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.”(Jer 31:33-34)

The prophet Joel expounds on this, stating that it is God’s own Spirit which he will give to his people when he returns, that will make them true and faithful children of his.

And afterward,I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy,your old men will dream dreams,your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2:28)

So then, to the early Christians, Jesus’s promise and outpouring of the Spirit signified again, that YHWH had indeed returned, and had began assembling his new faithful people who serve him not by their own effort, but by his own Spirit implanted in them. Hence, Paul’s argument in Romans 2

No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God” (Ro 2:29)

In today’s flurry about the Holy Spirit, it seems we haven’t paid much attention to what really mattered to the prophets then. Yes, the Spirit would give us certain gifts that we didn’t have before, but as Paul points out it is meant to achieve 2 clear things

  1. Whatever gift one receives, is for the benefit of all.“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for THE COMMON GOOD. (my emphasis)”(1 Cor 12:7)
  2. The presence of the Spirit was to make us better observers of the Law of God, just as Moses and the prophets had desired.“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Gal 5:22)

So contrary to popular belief of Charismatically-influenced Christianity, the Spirit of God is not a genie in the bottle that we rub in the right way (probably through the rattling of some “tongues”) and use as a tool to pursue our selfish personal agenda. It was given to seal us (1 Cor 1:22, Eph 1:13), to set us apart as the new faithful people of YHWH who go about doing YHWH’s will. Now read Acts 2, and see what the Holy Spirit led them to be – a peculiar people (election) who went about doing good (justice) and healing those under the devil’s control, just as their Messiah did (Ac 10:38).

The Return of YHWH – The Coming in of the Nations/Gentiles

When this Kingdom was inaugurated, then one of the cardinal desires for which the Torah was given to Israel (which we discussed in Part 1) was that the nations/Gentiles will see the light of YHWH, and be drawn to worship and submit to him. One of the tasks he gives his servant in Isaiah 42

I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles”(Is 42:6).

Ps 67 repeats this expectation, asking that

May God be gracious to us and bless us, and make his face shine on us – so that your ways may be known on earth, your salvation AMONG ALL NATIONS”(Ps 67:1-2 my emphasis).

Because the early disciples Jewish as they were born, viewed Jesus life, ministry, death and resurrection as a sign that YHWH had returned, coupled with the pouring out of the Spirit, it meant the door had to be open now for the Gentiles to become part of the new faithful people of YHWH. And so begins this mission, began by Peter to Cornelius, and fully taken up by Paul. Here then is the whole center of the arguments about justification, and why the Torah was now an inhibitor to this welcome of the Gentile. Because Torah was meant to keep the people of Israel separate from the nations, it wasn’t possible to still obey it, and be able to welcome the Gentile as well. The Torah said the Jew must not eat with the Gentile, that the Jew must not marry a Gentile, that to be considered one of the people of God the Gentile must be circumcised and so on. Therefore Paul comes to the conclusion that “the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith (Gal 3:24) i.e. Jesus the Messiah had established a new means of being considered a faithful child of God – faith in Jesus the Messiah.

The Return of YHWH – Judgement

Another expectation of the return of YHWH was judgment – judgment of his own people and judgment of the nations. It was expected that when YHWH returned, he will repay all the enemies of Israel for the wicked that they have done not only to Israel, but to the world. The Psalms are full of such statements, from Ps 110:6; 9:8; 76:9 etc. Psalm 149 says

May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands, to inflict vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters, their nobles with shackles of iron, to carry our the sentence written against them – this is the glory of all his faithful people.” (Ps 149:6-9)

The early Christians viewed this judgment in 2 forms. The first was the judgment that comes on Israel for it’s unbelief in who they believed was the Messiah – Jesus the Christ. Hence they took Jesus predictions about the coming destruction of Jerusalem quite seriously (Mk 13,Mt 24), and many of these Christians in Jerusalem were able to escape to tell the tale in AD 70.

The second was that Jesus will return to now serve justice to the rest of the world, as is expected of the Messiah. One (and certainly not the only) measures by which YHWH was going to judge this world was by the simple word – justice. Ps 82 shows him calling all the “gods” (leaders of the world) before him and rebuking them for showing partiality, wickedness, failure to defend the weak, and general injustice. The world’s political leaders may be wary to pay attention, for their time will come soon enough. Even Paul focuses on the same issue when he speaks to Gentiles in Athens

For he has set a day when he will judge the world WITH JUSTICE by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him [Jesus] from the dead” (Act 17:31, my emphasis)

The Return of YHWH – New Heaven and New Earth

It was expected that YHWH’s return will culminate finally in a transformation of both heaven and earth, such that heaven and earth will now be together, and YHWH will come and dwell with men on this newly merged earth. The prophet Isaiah speaks of this.

See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” (Is 65:17)

The expectation also developed that YHWH will create a new Jerusalem, from whence he will dwell. The prophet Ezekiel seemed to have sparked off this expectation, writing no less than 8 chapters on the subject (Ezekiel 40-48) with the expectation that this city will be built by God himself. This therefore came to be referred to as the “New Jerusalem”. Some apocryphal books like 4 Ezra, 2 & 3 Baruch explore this further.

Coupled with this was the development of the hope of resurrection. Whatever new world God was going to create, how could Abraham (as well as all their forefathers) who was dead, also benefit from it? By resurrection from the dead. The righteous were in heaven with the YHWH, but when he returns with them he will give them new bodies and they will dwell with the rest of those alive in this new world of his.

In Christianity, this hope of a new heaven and earth as well as a New Jerusalem is merged together into one in Rev 21.

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Rev 21:1-3)

Even Abraham is supposed to be looking forward to that same “New Jerusalem” in Hebrews

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went … he lived in tents … for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God”(Heb 11:8-10).

The only city in the OT whose architect and builder is God is the New Jerusalem.

Conclusion

Now with all this eschatological expectations about YHWH’s return, imagine Jesus saying “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand”. What do you think a devout, synagogue-attending, Temple-sacrificing, 23% tithe-paying (not 10%), Torah-obedient Jew would have heard? Come and let’s sit in the synagogue, sing some songs of worship, listen to a “good” sermon and go back the rest of the week to pursue our own agenda?

No I don’t think so. As I’ve said elsewhere, the coming of Jesus Messiah meant a call to action for the early church. It meant each and every local church taking up the task of the Messiah and making it their own – his tasks of justice, redemption, restoration and healing – and finding ways to work with other local churches in that same pursuit. It meant a new heart and a new obedience, without a written law to tell us what to do every little moment. It meant being zealous for good works (Tit 4:12), not something to be done grudgingly. It meant “new is creation” (2 Cor 5:17), because version 1.0 of the kingdom of God has begun. The king has been announced, and we are the people he has called to display what future version 2.0 of his kingdom will be like when he returns – bringing the future of good news to the poor, release for the oppressed and family for the fatherless and motherless and rejected forward to today. Even creation is frustrated in waiting for it’s renewal in that 2.0 version (Romans 8:21-22).

We may laugh at the modern day Jerusalem landlords for still expecting a Messiah when one has already arrived the first time, but they may be onto something (albeit fuzzy) about what his return might look like. For us who believe in Jesus the Messiah, are we busy being his kingdom people, or are we are simply just a collection of individuals who have come to hear what may spur us on in our pursuit of self?

The Church: A Biblical Perspective

I have felt over these few years that we Christians did not fully understand what we are called to be and therefore how that should affect and guide what we do as a people. Over these 2 years however, the Holy Spirit’s revelations of truth only continue to flood us at home, and so I’d like us to look again at what Christ wants his church to be. That enables us to judge whether we are a part of the church Christ is building or whether we are building our own.

The Universal Church

“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb 12:22-24)This passage is part of a warning by the writer of Hebrews to the Christians of the Jerusalem church, warning them not to be deceived into going back to the legalistic Judaism that they have been saved from. Note the use of the tense “you have come”. This is a depiction of the Church not in future tense but in the present, what God sees of his church as a whole. There are some things to note as well in this passage.

1. The church is called the “city of the living God”. It belongs to God and it originates from him. It was founded on Christ.“Simon answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ … And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it”. Therefore Christ has been given authority over it. He is the head of the church and there is no other head given by God “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church” (Eph 1:22).

2. The membership of the church is kept in heaven – “whose names are written in heaven”. That is the church’s headquarters. There can be no earthly headquarters for it.

3. It is also referred to as an “assembly” of both angels and those “whose names are written in heaven”. Ro 12:4-5 states that “For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another”. An assembly gathers or is called for a certain purpose and until that purpose is achieved, the assembly has failed. However an assembly is not made up of one person, but of many. Each member individually contributes in some unique way to the decisions that the assembly reaches, and whatever decision is taken is binding on its members.

A further look at 1 Pe 2:5 will further clarify the uniqueness of the church. “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ.” Peter says we are being built into a house. Not houses, but a house. Each member has their part to play in that house, but the whole house is to be judged as worth living in not by the individual stones, but altogether as a unit.

He further goes on that “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light”(v 9-10). All these references are to a plurality of individuals who together are considered a unit and as special – a “priesthood”, a “nation”, a “people”. But even more exciting is the fact that Christians as a “people”, “priesthood”, “nation” are to declare to the world “the praises of him who called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light”.

It is therefore of non-trivial consequence that Jesus Christ will pray to the Father that his people – the church he was going to be given authority over – should be a united, immovable, invincible and inseparable people. “My prayer is not for them alone, I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you … May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me“.

There is no doubt then that there is a purpose for God building his church up the way he wants it – “I will build My Church”. He wants it to stand out to the world a clear symbol of his victory over the devil. He wants the world to know clearly that a decision to ignore His church is an emphatic decision to ignore the grace of God and to bring judgement upon its own self.

Not only to the world is this open declaration necessary, but also to the spiritual realm “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Eph 3:10). The church of God is the bride of the Lamb, and that choice made for the Lamb must be publicly declared and submitted to by the spiritual realm (Rev 19:6-9).

These are the reasons why Paul says in Eph 2:10 that “We are the workmanship of God, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”. “We” does not refer to himself or the Ephesians only, but to the universal church. The church is the work of art or poem (the original Greek word is “poiema” which gives us the Latin “poema”, the root of the English word “poem”). To both the physical and spiritual realms the church of God is a poem that declares “the praises of him who called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light”. This is what God wants his church to be, and this is the church he will come for because “Forever oh Lord, thy word is settled in heaven” (Ps 119:89 KJV).

The Local Church

Christ used the word church twice in the Gospels, the first of which we’ve already seen – “I will build My Church”. The second however refers to the local church in Mt 18:15-20. He speaks of how disputes among brethren should be resolved in the church and mentions he authority of the church as final. In this passage Christ is emphatic that the local church is the final determinant of moral character among it’s members. There is no appeal to any higher authority than that, except to Christ himself. He reiterates the power that the local church as a part of the universal has in bringing the will of God to pass “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” (v 18-20). The Greek word rendered “agree” is “sumphonos”, the root of the English word “symphony”. If the local church were to come to symphony on any issue, it will be done by heaven. I don’t think we realise the authority of the local church in God’s sphere of things. We’ll delve into how this influenced the actions of the apostles in the book of Acts next. However, Paul again points out the authority of the local church in determining moral character in 1 Co 5. I hope those whose mantra is “Why are you judging me? Christ says we should not judge” will have a look at that chapter.But what about doctrine? Who gives the compass on doctrinal issues in the church? Let us look at the example of Ac 15. The church in Antioch was confronted with some false doctrine emphasising circumcision and obedience of Moses’ laws (v 1), and this forced the church to send Paul and Barnabas along with some others to the Jerusalem church to seek clarification (v 2). There are some things to note in these passages.

1. Paul and Barnabas were sent by the church in Antioch. They were not called by the church in Jerusalem to account to them or anything of that sort. The Jerusalem church exerted no authority on the Antioch one, but churches being interdependent, the latter felt the need to consult it’s brother on this issue of doctrine which originated from the former (v1,24).

2. They were “welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders” and they reported what God had done through them to the whole body (v 4).

3. There was a private session of discussions among the elders and apostles on this question that the brethren from Antioch brought (v 6-11). Peter’s contribution to that discussion is recorded. However, the matter was brought before the whole assembly again for further discussion (v 12-21) and ratification. Again James’ contribution to the discussion is also recorded.

4. “Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church …” (v 22). The final decision rested with the whole assembly, not with a small elitist top-heavy bunch. The NKJV puts v 25 even better “It seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord ...”. It’s interesting that from a point of division in v 5, the whole body has come “with one accord” to a certain agreement to send men with Paul and Barnabas to confirm, along with the letter being sent, what the whole body in Jerusalem had decided. This could not have happened except with the movement of the Holy Spirit amongst them (v 28) “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements …

5. It will be good to take note as well of the following observations from this passage.

a) The leadership was very accountable to the members. No decisions were taken for them. The whole body had to ratify those decisions. This is a mark of a people who are dependent on the Holy Spirit to bring about guidance and conformity, and not on the wisdom of men. Paul and Barnabas after having been sent out in Ac 13 did the work as directed by the Holy Spirit till in Ac 14:26-28 where they came back to those who sent them to report to them on what God had used them to do.

b) It is also very interesting to note the phrase “apostles and elders”. The New Testament church never accepted a single leader as the norm. There was always a multiplicity of leadership, never one elder/pastor/bishop/overseer/shepherd (which all refer to the same post of elder) or one apostle leading the church. As a part of the catholic (which means universal) church, the only authority they submitted to was that of the Holy Spirit as the representative of Christ among them. There was no “Pope”, “District Pastor”, “Archbishop of the Diocese”, “General Overseer”, “Moderator”, “President”, “Chairman” or a single “Pastor”. Only Christ through the Holy Spirit. The same pattern existed in Antioch (Ac 13:1-3) and elsewhere (Tit 1:5,1 Ti 5:17).

c) A system of interdependence between churches based in different locations, allowing men to come from one church in another city/town to bring them a word or revelation (whether it was from God or not was judged by themselves, or by consultation with related churches and in both cases under the guidance of the Spirit).

I’ll leave the comparison between this model of the church and what we have today open to the reader to do. Suffice it to say that what we have today is a clear departure. Let us look at some statistics to confirm the importance of Spirit-filled, house/neighbourhood-based churches belonging to one city wide ministry and unattached to any denomination.

In the bible there are 35 references to “a church” in a city but none to “churches” in a city, 36 references to “churches” in a province but none to “church” in a province, 4 references to “church” in a house, 20 to “church” universal and 16 to a local “church” undefined (Rediscovering God’s Church, Derek Prince). This clearly shows that the nucleus of one city-wide church comprised of smaller house-based churches. I was amazed when I looked up the root of the word “thousands” in Ac 21:20 ” You see brother, how man thousands of Jews have believed …” in E-Sword under Thayer’s and Strong’s dictionaries. It turns out that the Greek word is “murias”, root of the word “myriad” which means not “thousands”, but “tens of thousands”. I guess most of us are used to thinking that the church in Jerusalem was just a small church. Historians will tell you that it had about fifty thousand members. This is not too surprising. History put this visit by Paul around AD 58, which is considered twenty seven years before since that mighty outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Note that around those times, five thousand men was the initial number saved (Ac 4:4). And yet it was called “the church in Jesuralem”. Apparently the church of Antioch also had about fifteen thousand. Interesting.

Therefore it was more the pattern for one city to have a church with many leaders, who are in turn leaders of smaller house/neighbourhood based churches. Such a church recognises itself as only a part of the universal church and directly related to its brother church in another city. It submits itself to the leadership of the Holy Spirit and insists on the indwelling of the Spirit within every member. In this way our unity as Christians will be clearly visible to the world which and we would clearly be the poem of God’s wonders.

I challenge you to begin to look at the church from Christ’s perspective. He is building His Church. Fortunately for us he always gives us a pattern to follow, that we may not get lost. Mt 4:19 says “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men”. He has told us what he wants to make us – fishers of men. The only requirement is that we follow – not men, their traditions, their theologies nor their wisdom – but “Me”. Just as I’ve said in a previous post, though I pray that the grace of God will bring this vision of the church to our existing churches, I don’t see that happening soon to churches that “have forsaken Me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jer 2:13). That is why after all the seven messages of warning that Christ wrote, he ends by saying “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”.