If the church were only people

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15: 5-6) 

“Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:38-39)

If the church were only people there wouldn’t be a church. Instead of tongues of fire and an extraordinary ability to speak another language, the disciples might have wondered aloud if there were any point in staying in a city that had just murdered their rabbi and Lord.

If the church were only people, instead of crowds drawn to them and the word cutting their audience to the heart, the whole movement might have been stillborn. As the Pharisee Gamaliel told his colleagues, the followers of Jesus might have gone the way of the followers of Theudas and Judas the Galilean: with their leader killed, they would be scattered and their memory disappear like ripples on the water from a stone (Acts 5:36-37).

If the church were only people, the crowds in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5) would have seen only a group of people from some Judean backwater, “unschooled, ordinary men” and women, naive and vaguely pathetic for their faith in a man that the religious establishment had executed as a common criminal.

Instead, the Sanhedrin, “when they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).

If the church were only people, Ananias and Sapphira would have been rewarded for their large gift by being made elders or deacons. The rich young ruler would have sat on the church board. The church’s website might have featured an endorsement from Simon Magus because he was so well-regarded in Samaria (Acts 8:9-24) and that “influencer” might have opened doors to ministry.

Instead, none of these had a “part or share in [the] ministry” (8:21). It seems that, just at the beginning, there was still “a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen 3:24).

If the church were, as Paul put it, “mere human beings” (1 Cor 3:4), he might have leapt at the news that a nucleus of followers had emerged at Corinth, taking pride in his ministry over that of Apollos or Cephas.

Instead of self-deprecation for the sake of church unity—”What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants” (1 Cor 3:5)—he might have trumpeted his success, proudly declaring, “The Lord has blessed this ministry, and we’re reaching the nations with the gospel of Jesus Christ like never before!”

Since the Lord had blessed his ministry—he said the Corinthians were knowledgeable and spiritually gifted (1 Cor 1:5-7)—was there any harm in a little self-promotion of something that had borne fruit and showed every sign of continuing? Going from faith to faith, strength to strength, and glory to glory!

If the church were only people, why would Paul be so gauche as to remind the Corinthians of their modest background? “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor 1:26).

And then to say baldly, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him” (1 Cor 1:27-29).   

What is Justin Bieber’s agent going to say about that? Who’s going to invite you to appear on The View with that banner on your website? You can kiss your interview with Wolf Blitzer or Chris Wallace goodbye when they find out what kind of people you really are. If the church is only people, you have to rely on celebrity or notoriety or number of weeks on the NY Times Bestseller List to get noticed.

If the church were only people, we’d have to build massive, attractive buildings with perfect acoustics to accommodate the sonorous pipe organs or amplified guitars and keyboards that will draw in enough people to pay for these costly-to-build churches. (Notice the circular reasoning in the trap we lay for ourselves.)

And the same would go for our teaching and preaching. We’d need to keep telling ourselves that the people learn “line upon line”—a misapplication of the verse in its context (Isa 28:10)—lest we insert too much “meat” and our congregation choke on it and look for another place to be fed.

If the church were only people, we would have no need of the present ministry of the Holy Spirit—the same Spirit Ananias and Sapphira lied to and fell dead in His presence; the giver of power to be His witnesses throughout the earth for all time; the source and distributor of spiritual gifts to edify, serve and encourage the body. If we are “mere men,” we have only varying degrees of natural talent to offer, for apart from Him, we can do nothing. Just how far does natural talent go?

If the church were only people, we could dispense with the Holy Spirit to “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (Jn 16:8). We could simply take the legalistic net woven from countless Wednesday nights’ accumulation of “spiritual principles” and snag virtually everyone. No need to “stop judging by mere appearances” or make the additional effort to “judge correctly” (Jn 7:24).

Measuring church growth and maturity would be so much simpler if “everything they do is done for people to see” (Mt 23:5). No more pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die commendation from the Lord (“Well done, good and faithful servant!”). You’d have your reward now and the minister’s job would be so much easier with the sheep in adjoining pens. If you’re seen on the wrong side of the fence, you’ve fallen from grace; get back on the right side and no one bothers you.

If the church were only people—wait, is that what it has become? Is that all there is?

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