Bishop Nazir-Ali: Jesus, Lord of His Church and of the Church’s Mission
If you have any time to read at all, it will be worth your while to spend it reading this excellent talk given by The Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali at the London GAFCON meeting.
Now when we read these exalted statements about the Church, naturally we ask: to what or to whom does this apply? And there are several senses of the church, both in these letters and generally, I wish to draw to your attention. First of all, is that church, elect in Jesus Christ, which has existed from all ages, God’s people throughout the ages and throughout the world as a result of God’s gracious purposes for his creation. St Paul calls this in the Letter to the Galatians [4:26] “Jerusalem our mother which is above.” That is the Church that is meant, not simply a human institution, but of and from the divine plan. Certainly that Church is meant. But Paul is very capable of coming down to earth, so in the Letter to the Colossians certainly there is this sense of God’s eternal purposes being worked out among his people, but there are also references to local churches. St Paul speaks of the church of God at Corinth or we might say at Laodicea or Rome or Ephesus or whatever it may be. This is the church in a particular town or a particular city as it is gathered together by God’s will and the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer. It is a very important manifestation of the Church. So much of what is said in the New Testament is addressed to churches such as these.
But there is, I think, another sense in which the word ‘church’ is used in the New Testament. In his letters to churches in various towns - Romans, for example or Colossians - Paul often remembers the church that is in people’s homes [Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:15]. Now of course the early church did often meet anyway all together in someone’s home, but I think this usage is different. This means a part of the church in Laodicea that is at Nympha’s house or a part of the Church in Rome which is to be found in Prisca’s and Aquila’s home or part of the church in the home of Lydia or Chloe (it is interesting to see how many women are mentioned in this context). Each of these is properly called God’s church. The church in someone’s home clearly shares a likeness – people are like one another, it is a family representation – and this also allows us to express church where people are like one another, in interest or profession or ethnicity perhaps or language. I used to be rather hostile to people speaking of the church in this way, where the church is characterized by homogeneity, but I now see, from a more careful reading, if you like, of the New Testament, that there is a valid understanding of the church here that is possible. A church like that of Fresh Expressions - so many of the Fresh Expressions in this country are characterized by homogeneity. That is fine but a church like that is not enough. It has to be balanced by other things. One of them of course is the diversity of the church in the wider community. In the New Testament it is a town: Rome or Ephesus or Corinth or Laodicea, wherever it might be. These churches in the town – I suppose our parishes are not unlike this church, parishes like this one - such churches are now characterized not by homogeneity but by diversity. It is here that we noted both in St Paul and in the Letter of James instruction given about poor and rich together for instance, people of different social status - cosmopolitan centres many of these cities were – and so people of different races and languages, Jews and Greeks and many different sorts of people. So when we speak of the church, we have to keep all of this in mind.
When can we say in this situation or that, that the church of God, the church of Christ is present to a sufficient extent that the Lord is among his people? Article XIX, which is appropriately titled ‘Of the Church’, says that ‘The church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered.’ And I think each of those phrases is important. If congregations - Ashley [Null] was telling us in our seminar that ‘congregation’ is nearly a translation of ekklesia - congregation of faithful men, however that may be expressed - in a household or town-wide in a parish church, the faithfulness, faithful men, faithful people (that is important), people who have come to know the Lord, people who are committed to the following of Jesus Christ, in which the pure Word of God is preached. How often we are told here in the Church of England: ‘Vicar, you are going to keep to seven minutes, aren’t you?’ I think it is possible to preach the pure Word of God in six or seven minutes, but it is not desirable. And so ‘sermonettes lead to Christianettes’, as is so often said. The whole counsel of God has to be brought out. ‘The pure word is preached and the sacraments duly ministered, according to Christ’s ordinance’. That is, brothers and sisters, what makes the church, not a sociological understanding of community – I mean, that’s useful to have – not an understanding that relies purely on venerable tradition and place – I’m not saying those are unimportant - but faithful people, the preaching of the pure Word of God and the sacraments. Without these things there may be denominations, there may be ancient traditions and churches, but are they any more the church of Christ? Or has the glory departed?...more
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