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(The Boastful Church)

By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
Sept. 11, 2017

"You are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of God's own possession, that you may show forth the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; which in time were no people, but now we are the People of God" (1 Peter 2 : 9-10).

The simplest definition of the church, derived from Holy Scripture, is located in the term, "The People of God". The Church visible is comprised of all persons who claim to confess Christ and profess allegiance to him. The membership, in practical terms, also includes the dependents of those parents who attach themselves in some sense, firmly or loosely, to the Lord's congregation throughout the nations. Such a company is a motley entity, a diverse community of varying conditions of mind and spirit before the divine scrutiny. Some are inwardly right with the Lord and many are far from that reconciled relationship. "For they are not all Israel who are of Israel' (Romans 9:6). Within the boundaries of the institutional church in its varied expressions there are those who believe in truth, those whose faith is false, and those for whom faith is non-existent. External belonging is no proof of being a genuine and integrated member of the body of Christ.

Few will subscribe in a hearty and full-blooded way to John Wycliffe's definition of the church, namely, "the whole number of the predestined". That is the truest description of the church and the elect of God mingle with and circulate among the vast crowd that considers itself to constitute the dubious phenomenon identified as Christendom for all sorts of reasons apart from the Gospel (historical, ethnic, political, cultural). Peter's words are emphatically monergistic and powerfully expressive of the omnipotent grace that wrests us from depravity and doom. Grace must take the initiative in our redemption and grace must be irresistible.

Regenerate and unregenerate populate the church. Sin inevitably pervades, and the regenerate are not entirely liberated from human nature's corruption. Far from it. The church is perfect in paradisiacal prospect but not in the present era. Its purification is a long-term program and penitence its perpetual posture in this evil world. Humility and utter dependence upon God befits our demeanor at all times.

The Church witnesses to divine grace and seeks to disclose the divine glory but it is often diverted toward self-reliance and self-elevation. It inclines to being pleased with itself and to be impressive before the world. The undeservedly "blessed beggars" of the Lord (see the Prayer of Humble Access) become bloated with human ambition and pursue the prize of worldly success and acclaim.

The cockiness and crowing of the Church in citing stunning statistics, announcing achieved projects, and touting distinctions to be admired by men is a denial of its lowly Lord. It frequently apes the world in message and method in order to amaze the world and amass its support. The shame, scandal, and secret power of the cross wielded by the Spirit of God in the gospel is dismissed and set aside. We wish to be viewed as smooth operators equipped with faultless expertise. Our celebrity publicity is often nauseating, as is the impression we give that authoring endless editions of books, new and revised, brings us into the elite of the Lord and closer to him. Often there are arrogant academics who function as the new priestly caste, as if only academics can show us the way and save us - believers must not be supine before the experts, but under the authority of the Word and reliant upon the teaching of the Spirit.

We gloat over our mega-churches, ecclesiastical empires, and celebrity gurus. Media grooming is by no means the guarantee of the making of a man of God. The simplicity of our faith and life is sacrificed to the goal of man-centered schemes and accomplishments that redound to our self-awarded praise.

The sense of serving God subtly swerves into self-gratification on various levels e.g. this is what we will do and look what we have done. We have a compulsion to measure the results of our efforts and to pin medals of merit upon our breasts. Simple faith and leaning patiently on the Lord mutates into contentment with our own fabulous feats of mission, organization, and building the kingdom (the Lord's prerogative). The Lord's humble chariot is now a streamlined limousine zooming down the interstate to the gleaming destination of Hollywood glamour and all its grotesque gaudiness.

We are so fixated on our notions of effectiveness, so self-conscious of our efforts, so self-regarding that we forget the humbleness and helplessness of the Church of God (Without me you can do nothing, John 15:5).

An extended quote from Alan Richardson, liberal evangelical sage of the 60s and 70s Church of England may be salutary:

"The Church is not a man-made institution at all; it was called into being by something which God has done, by his action in the world in biblical history and supremely in Jesus Christ. The inner necessity of the church, as based upon God's will and not upon ours, is not something that can be perceived by the ordinary unenlightened eyes of non-Christian people. It is seen by those whose eyes have been opened to recognize and understand God's purpose in history and therefore in his Church, for the Church is God's instrument in history, whatever the secular mind may think.

It may seem to the man in the street a particularly weak and useless instrument, unimpressive and foolish, but it has always been God's wisdom to work in his own way and not in ours. It has always been his policy to choose the base things of the world and the things that are despised, the things which are weak and which seem foolish to worldly eyes, in order to achieve his purpose which in the end confounds the wisdom of the worldly-wise and brings to naught the things that are seemingly all powerful.

An oppressed slave-tribe, engaged in building Pharaoh's pyramids, does not seem a likely beginning for a royal priesthood, for the instrument of the divine education of the world. A stutterer like Moses, a fruit-grower like Amos, a shepherd-lad like David - these do not seem the kind of people we would have selected to be the bearers and instruments of a great world-purpose and message. An obscure village maiden in a backyard province of the Roman Empire - why did not God choose someone who could have carried more weight in worldly eyes, a queen or a famous prophetess, to be the mother of his incarnate Son? The answer is, of course, that God did not need to use worldly methods, simply because he is God and worldly prestige would not have added anything to the greatness of his divine revelation of love. Hence, if we are tempted to think that church around the corner is not a very impressive affair, that it is rather dull and composed of not very progressive people, we have not even begun to understand the way God works or the purpose of his Church. St. Paul, who had obviously reflected deeply on these points, cared little that his church at Corinth contained few who were accounted wise in the eyes of the world, or drawn from the ranks of the aristocracy (1Corinthians1:26).

Small congregations and falling resources are not things which should worry Christians who know what the church really is: its significance and its future do not depend on our efforts - especially our efforts to bolster up churches with worldly prestige or box office glamour. The unconverted eye does not penetrate beyond the externals of church life - all of which are dispensable and do not affect the essence of the Church - the buildings, the forms and ceremonies, the size of the congregation, the bazaars and or sales of work. It is because the man in the street does not see the real essence of the church - the Church which in a sense the churches hide - that he remains in the street and does not come inside the church. The real life of the Church is 'only visible to the eye of faith; it is 'hid with Christ in God", it can only be known from the inside, not the outside, and let us add, it cannot be known by reading books (like this one) about it!" (Science, History And Faith, Oxford University Press, 1950, pages 120-122).

Our motivation about anything embarked upon by the Church is to be challenged by searching interrogation. We must address ourselves with the question as to whether our exertion is for our prestige, popularity, and the praise of man? We long to see the unbeliever unite with us in faith in the Triune God, but not through cajolery, hectoring, or manipulation but by the truthfulness and winsomeness of the Lord Jesus who indwells us and expresses himself through us. Godly men and women are the "living epistles" who are the best evangelists in the ordinary scenes of life and who win outsiders into the fold of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:2-3) . In them the power of God resides and works (Ephesians 3:20-21), sometimes imperceptibly - especially to those whom God is using - for all the ballyhoo of contrived techniques that cultivate artificiality and self-congratulatory backslapping.

The thoughts of William of Thierry are of enormous benefit:

"But do not fear, servant of God. Do not move your feet, do not waste your steps! Infidels seek signs, the hesitant require wisdom. But you embrace Christ crucified, a stumbling block to those predestined to ruin, foolishness to those who are wise in their own eyes, but to all those who are called and justified the wisdom of God and the power of God, for the foolishness of God is wiser and his weakness is stronger than all men. If you consult the sense of the flesh it seems foolish and weak. Yet if, with the apostle, you have the sense of Christ, you will understand that the Word of God is the supreme wisdom but the foolishness of this wisdom is the flesh of the Word. This is so that those who are carnal, who are not able through the prudence of the flesh to attain to the wisdom of God, may be healed through the foolishness of preaching and simplicity of faith, that is, through the flesh of the Word. Be foolish that you may be wise, and there will be lighted up for you the economy of the mystery hidden for all ages in God who created every creature. Be as weak as God's weakness and you will learn how exceedingly great is the greatness of his power in [those of] us who have believed, according to the workings of the force of his power" (The Mirror of Faith, 18).

It is salutary to know that when we are weak then we are strong (2 Corinthians 12: 1-10).

The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church

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