Do you want to be the church–or ‘the’ church?

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4: 3-6)

“Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:4)

When I wrote the post The end of the church as we know it? (And you’ll be fine) about six weeks ago, I had a couple of specific things in mind. (1) Was I going to be burned at the Twitter stake for pirating song lyrics, and (2) while the pandemic is forcing changes on the church, in the short term obviously but possibly longer, it seemed to me it would be like pruning a grapevine:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (Jn 15:2).

One of the common mistakes persons make when describing the church is to think the church is “the vine.” It’s not. In this statement by Jesus, “every branch in me” is the church.

And of course a grapevine has branches that divide and then divide again—still part of the same vine, not separate vines—so the branches of the branches are you and me. Church at the micro level and the macro level.

This isn’t a semantic distinction or a distinction without a difference. When something like the pandemic comes along, we think “the vine” is threatened when in fact “every branch in me” is being examined for fruit. Is it fruitful? Or is it producing nothing? If it’s the latter, “he cuts off” that branch. What’s the point of continuing something when it produces nothing? (That may actually stunt spiritual growth.)

This happens in individual lives as well. When I lived in New York, we ran a small Christian bookstore for a while. It came to nothing. We closed it and moved on. That branch bore no fruit. “The vine”—Jesus himself—was (and is) still my Redeemer, my strength and my purpose in life. The dead branch was serving no purpose.

But you will only be able to think that way—and not brood over your “failure”– if you’re serious about the terms in the model prayer we call the Lord’s prayer. In particular, I’m referring to this: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10).

The people who started building a tower of Babel said they were trying to avoid one thing in particular: if they didn’t do something to consolidate and fortify their position (“make a name for ourselves”), “we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:4).

They were supposed to scatter over the face of the earth. It’s usually called the Creation or Cultural Mandate, derived from the creation-era command in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.”

In ancient times, the choosing of Abram/Abraham added the component of a covenant people set apart by (and for) God. But that didn’t mean the “scattering” and “fruitful” operations ended; they took on a different character. God told Abraham (actually still Abram at that point): “’Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’” (Gen 15:5).

Finally, in the Great Commission, Jesus announced the world-wide mandate of making disciples. If there’s any question about defining the task, that would be disciples of him:

“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’” (Mt 28:18-20).

All the elements are still present: Scattering in “go” and “all nations.” Baptizing into the name of the three persons of the trinity, but not “making a name for ourselves.” And subduing, bringing every disciple under the lordship of Jesus Christ (who has all authority, remember) through “teaching them to obey everything” Jesus commanded.

Just to nail this one flush, the identity we have is the body of Christ, not the First Presbyterian Church, the Third Congregational Church or The Church That is Really Bible-Believing and Not Like That One Across the Road. (Am I making straw men here or does something like this really happen?)

When my first daughter was born, I remember having a conversation with one of the nurses on the ward. For some reason the subject of church came up and I told her I belonged to a “nondenominational church.” She gave me a funny look and then said, “I don’t get it. You have to believe in something.

I know what she meant, and I laughed at it on the way home. She meant denominational distinctives that set apart Presbyterians from Baptists from Roman Catholics from [choose one]. And, guided by that understanding, she’s wrong. We have a name that we’ve been baptized in. That baptism seals our identity. We don’t need another name. The body of Christ has worked for 20 centuries. Still works for me.

But in today’s world, there is a subterranean fear not unlike what the builders of the tower of Babel harbored. You can find it in this description of Jeroboam, who was given dominion over the tribes that abruptly left after being mistreated by Rehoboam (1 Ki 12:1-18) but soon became anxious about how committed these people would be:

“Then Jeroboam fortified Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim and lived there. From there he went out and built up Peniel.

Jeroboam thought to himself, ’The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam’” (1 Ki 12:25-27).

That was the fear, and after kicking things off with not one but two golden calves as headliners, here is the rest of the “solution”:

“Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites. He instituted a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the festival held in Judah, and offered sacrifices on the altar. This he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves he had made.

“And at Bethel he also installed priests at the high places he had made. On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a month of his own choosing, he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel. So he instituted the festival for the Israelites and went up to the altar to make offerings” (1 Ki 12:31-33).

Is this “your kingdom come” or “let us build ourselves a cityand “a tower that reaches the heavens”? Is this “your will be done” or “my plans expanded”?

Isn’t this just another version of “saving our life” because we’re afraid of “losing our life”? You’re afraid of “losing” a divided church to “find” the life of the church as “one body and one Spirit”? Why is that causing you so much anxiety?

Jeroboam was the prototypical creator and protector of a following. Some of the denominational distinctives started out as genuine pieces of revelation that God gave to his church. Those pieces of revelation really belonged to the whole church, just as Paul said: “No more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours” (1 Cor 3:21).

But then, ignoring that, those gifts became a point of pride and, finally, evolved into a rallying cry to “make a name for ourselves” in the crowded church marketplace. We’ve found something the rest of the church has missed, misunderstood or suppressed (e.g., the gifts of the Spirit). So come to our church.

Paul recognized this impulse for what it was: something that would only divide the church and subvert the purposes of God for his church. And so he asked the Corinthians, who were lining up behind various ministers:

“For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?(1 Cor 4:6-7)

What difference does it make if you’re calling yourself Presbyterian, the name you made for yourself by exalting whatever you take pride in? Or Baptist? Or His Lighthouse Fellowship Church? (The last one is a real church I once attended. When they run out of their current business cards they should just change it to the First Second and Third Church of Redundancy.)

Some Christians smirk at the names churches come up with to sound cutting-edge: The Uprising, The Surge, The Journey, etc. “You’re just marketing the church like Pepsi and Coke or Utz and Lay’s,” they complain.

For goodness’ sake, I don’t care what you call yourself. Just be the church for a change instead of trying to be “the” church that all the buzz is about.

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