The church and its mission: visible and invisible
By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream.
What is the church for?
In chapter three of his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul reveals his understanding of the purpose of the Church. He doesn’t look at this in sociological terms, from a human perspective, but from a supernatural, spiritual viewpoint. The primary purpose of the church is to be like a ‘broadcasting tower’, a means of making known to invisible spiritual powers the wisdom of God – wisdom which is described in most familiar translations as ‘manifold’ but which literally means something like ‘multi-faceted’ or ‘variegated’ (Ephesians 3:10).
[If you don’t have a Bible to hand as you read this, you might like to open the text of Ephesians here is a separate window:]
Ephesians is a contextual theology, explaining the Gospel to people living in a culture very aware of, even fearful of and obsessed by, spiritual powers. Paul, following the rest of the teaching of the Bible and the life of Jesus himself, recognizes the existence of these invisible forces, which include angels and demonic spirits, but does not go into detail about their nature, their hierarchies and so on. Rather there is an emphasis on the much greater power and supreme authority of Christ over these powers (Eph 1:20-21). Nevertheless the continued limited but death-dealing influence of evil over human individuals and societies remains (2:1-2), and the response of Christian believers should be to “be strong in the Lord”, and taking up a military posture against demonic forces through prayer and the application of the Word of God (Eph 6:10-18).
So it’s not just the church’s traditional position on sexuality which looks totally “weird and odd” (to use Archbishop Justin’s language). The whole project of the Christian faith and the Church is defined in the Bible in ways that are unintelligible to those on the outside, especially with a secular worldview. This is why evangelism is difficult from a human perspective – not just because traditional sexual ethics are out of touch with where ordinary people are.
The church’s purpose is to communicate to the heavenly, ie spiritual realm, that God remains in charge, and he will bring about his ultimate plan, to bring all things under Christ as head (1:10). If this is God’s plan, then what needs to happen for it to be effective? Following on from his declaration of the church’s purpose, Paul prays for its members (v14f) to be strengthened by God’s power, to experience the indwelling of Christ, and to grasp how amazing his love really is.
Instructions for correct set-up of the church
But then Paul moves to more practical matters. Yes the church needs prayer, and it also needs to take responsibility for its common life and the behaviour of its members. Chapter 4:1-6: the unity of the church is a given: members must “make every effort to keep” that unity. There is one body and one baptism, and also one hope, one Lord, one faith. In other words, it’s not possible to have unity in the body without agreement on basic beliefs. Only yesterday I heard of a vicar, new member of a team in a multi-parish benefice, who questioned the credentials of a lay reader whom he heard doubting Jesus’ resurrection, only to be accused by a fellow vicar of causing division. The idea that somehow the ‘body’ (seen as the institution, or visible community), based on common baptism, is the basis of the church, and that the Gospel message is optional or open to different interpretations, is completely foreign to the New Testament. Getting the basic message right as the main foundation of unity is emphasized as Paul goes on to talk about the teaching roles of various gifted people given to the church by God, so that people grow into unity, maturity and service (4:11-13). The passage goes on to warn specifically about “deceitful” teaching which does not conform to the truth-in-love (4:14-16).
The passage goes on to be more practical still. Even good teaching on its own is not sufficient for the health of the church. The “mystery” of the church’s missional purpose in the material and spiritual realms needs to be incarnate, lived out visibly, in the world. Paul emphasizes, in fact he insists (4:17) that believers must make a clean break from the pagan practices which they repented of at conversion, and which continue to be practiced by the people around them in the communities in which they live. It is not just what “the Gentiles” do, it is their thinking, their worldview and ideologies, their attitudes which perhaps have been imbibed unconsciously from the culture. Because they are “darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God” their lives are characterized by “sensuality…impurity …greed”. This is described as the “old self” of all Christians, who have been given a “new self” by God and who should consciously put on that renewed identity.
Paul gives some examples of behaviour which belongs to the old life: lying, rage, stealing, coarse speaking and malice. As Christians put off this behaviour and the wrong thinking which underlies bad habits, they are to replace it with the new Gospel-centred thinking of the forgiven and loved child of God, and the behaviours which follow: kindness and compassion.
Sexual purity not optional
How do we reconcile the author’s encouragement to be kind and loving with his next instruction: “among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality”? In much of the ancient world, like much of the contemporary Western church, adherence to Judaeo-Christian sexual ethics was not seen as important or relevant to one’s religious devotion, or goodness in the community. In fact to insist on faithful, monogamous, heterosexual marriage as the only option for intimate exclusive human relationships, and both Paul and Jesus did, (and which is the meaning of Ephesians 5:3), would have been seen as perhaps a bit harsh, even “unloving” in much of Gentile society then just as it is now. Paul links sexual immorality, impurity and greed; he says they are “improper” but then goes further to say that to get into the habit of these behaviours, so that one becomes an “immoral person”, actually disqualifies someone from the Kingdom of God. The passage immediately goes on to say “let no-one deceive you with empty words” – as if the writer is anticipating an objection and a counter argument. Not surprising since Paul is putting the issue of sexual purity centre stage in his portrayal of the authentic church.
Like John in his Gospel (eg 9:3-5), Paul goes on to contrast living in the light and producing fruit accordingly, with the sterile “deeds of darkness (5:8-13). This is not a picture of a church embedded in the local culture, no different in terms of values and behaviours but with a distinctive religious practice and some charitable activity. It is a light in the darkness, and a witness of the life and grace of Christ to the spiritually dead. The passage continues with a solemn warning to believers: “be very careful how you live…because the days are evil”. And yet there are “opportunities” for witnessing to Christ, and the wonderful shared life in the Spirit in the worshipping community (5:18-20).
Counter-cultural holiness in relationships
The advice becomes more practical still as Paul continues to outline God’s guiding principles for his church. The “household codes” – the instructions about the relationships of marriage, family and employment which are foundational to any community (Eph 5:21-6:9) have often been criticized by liberal scholars. They are seen as conservative, validating the oppressive hierarchies of the day, supporting patriarchy and slavery. But of course in the context of the time, the command to husbands to “love your wives as Christ loved the church” (5:25) in the context of a marriage based on mutual submission (5:21), and masters to “treat your slaves in the same way” (ie “with respect, fear and gentleness of heart” 6:5) would have been seen as radical and egalitarian. Today they have continued relevance, as today’s radio carries features about a mass-market clothing company promising to improve working conditions and pay for its workers, and the police addressing cases of sexual assault and ‘misogynistic hate crime’.
These passages are often taken in isolation and out of context. While a sermon on marriage from Ephesians 5 is always useful, it is appreciated with its full force when it is seen as part of God’s design for his ‘broadcasting tower’, the church (Eph 3:10). Christian marriage is Paul’s primary, practical, visible, lived example of God’s people living in a way different from pagan thinking and behaviour (4:17), controlling one’s anger and bitterness (4:31), being kind and compassionate (4:32), not indulging in sexual immorality (5:3), living in the light (5:8). And those who are not married are children or perhaps have responsibility for them; they are employer or employed – the same standards apply to all. Again, the well known passage on spiritual warfare is the conclusion of this way of thinking. Transformed attitudes and behaviours of those who have been saved by grace and included in God’s family and workforce are the basis of the army which takes its stand against evil in spiritual warfare (6:10ff).
The church members: saved by grace, representing the nations
If Ephesians 4-6 describes what the church as a whole should actually look like and Ephesians 3:10 gives its purpose, then the first part of the letter explains how the church has actually come into being and what its constituent parts, it members, consist of. Individual men and women, according to 1:1-10, blessed, chosen, adopted, redeemed, forgiven by God. The passage continues: included in Christ, marked with the Holy Spirit, with full access to the resurrection power of Christ, and the guarantee of a glorious and permanent inheritance. Chapter 2 goes back a bit to the post-fall human condition of sin, enslavement by Satan, death, from which believers are rescued, given new life and seated spiritually in God’s presence in union with the Messiah. The message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone is vital, otherwise chapters 4-6 can be interpreted as rules that Christians have to follow in order to achieve holiness, rather than a practical outworking of it.
So the church is made up of individuals who were ‘over there’, lost and dead, who are now ‘here’, rescued and alive. Paul then distinguishes between those who relatively speaking have not had so far to travel – those with a background of the Scriptures and knowledge of the one true God – and those who have had much further to move, from polytheistic cultures with worldviews far removed from that of the Bible (2:11ff). And God has done an amazing thing: through the death of Christ on the cross, all are reduced to the same level of sinners needing forgiveness and transformation.
The result is something new and extraordinary – a new religious building made of people (2:20-21); a new nation with a diversity of ethnicities (3:6). It is a mystery, says Paul – Jews and Gentiles together. This doesn’t mean many faiths united in one world, but the opposite: many worlds united in one faith. The diversity of the church is seen in many ethnic and cultural expressions of worship, mission and other aspects of church life. We must beware the limitations of a monocultural church, and if we find ourselves in such a local expression of church, we need to consciously find ways of participating in the global networks. But the unity of the church remains based on a single shared understanding of salvation in Christ, his expectations in terms of attitude and behaviour, and his transformative power of the Holy Spirit which makes this possible.
“In response to Christ’s Great Commission, the scope of Anglican orthodoxy is worldwide, embracing “every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). By God’s providence, the Anglican Communion is represented in every region of the world, by Christians from different races…who now belong to indigenous and autonomous churches…It is this very desire to maintain the true unity of the Body, that has led many orthodox Anglicans to unite together in the face of false Christianity that has sprung up within the Communion.”
Being Faithful: The Shape of Historic Anglicanism Today (A commentary on the Jerusalem Declaration of GAFCON). Latimer, 2009, p10.]
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