by Deron Smith
January – April, 2006
The church is big.
I realize this statement may seem obvious and simple, perhaps trite. But it is one of the most important beliefs I hold. The church once seemed small to me. Now I can only take it in as much as I can take in stars in the sky. I can see the stars, but I can only really look at a few at a time. Some I simply cannot see; they are visible only from certain spots on the globe. The stars are too numerous and the sky too immense for me to see it all. I can no more wrap my head around the church than I can around the stars or sky—or God.
I cannot pinpoint any one moment in my journey with Christ in Churches of Christ that the worldwide church of Christ became so big to me. It was in Churches of Christ—through preaching, Bible classes, tracts, and conversations— that I learned to love God, Scripture, and the church. I saw Jesus in many people in the congregations to which I was connected. I learned about the importance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in my heritage. In Churches of Christ, Jesus has loved me and shaped me more into His image. I love much about Churches of Christ and hold tightly to many of the principles I have inherited.
Yet, the vision of the church which I received is one I have let go. Into my teenage years, I learned that I was in the church of Christ, not a denomination. I did not capitalize “church” because that would have made it a proper noun, which would have made us a denomination. The denominations were actually different religions. Baptists were in the same boat as Buddhists. I was very clear about the meaning of, “He’s a member of the church.” As a member of “the church,” I was to help preserve its purity, keeping out the contamination of the denominations.
One of my best friends in high school, Stan Mitchell, was from the United Pentecostal Church. We arrived at school the fall of our junior year with resolve to be strong in our commitment to Christ and live the kind of life that demonstrated our faith. Stan and I had been only acquaintances the previous year, but when we discovered the renewed dedication in the other, we bonded. Over the next three years, Stan and I had innumerable conversations about God, especially God in the person of Jesus. There was no question that we had differences in our understanding of the Holy Spirit and church, but the things we held in common were far more substantial. Most of all, Christ was the One who held us together, the One we both longed to live for, the One we trusted for salvation and life.
Stan loved God and he wanted to become like Jesus. He loved Scripture and studied it a lot. Ironically, he introduced me to an author who wrote about Jesus and was from a Church of Christ, Max Lucado (we both pronounced his name so that it rhymed with avocado). I saw Jesus in Stan. At some point I reckoned that he was in Christ and that, because anyone who is in Christ is in His church, Stan was in the church.
My experience on a mission team in Uganda from 1994-2002 taught me more about the big-ness of the church. I developed strong relationships with missionaries from Baptist churches of different sorts, Lutherans, Christian Church, Nazarene, Calvary Chapel, various Pentecostal and charismatic churches, Catholics, Anglicans, Brethren, and missionaries whose church had Bible, Community, or Fellowship somewhere in the name.
We talked about our differences from time to time. Each of us, for the most part, listened carefully and considerately to the perspectives of our colleagues. In fact, it was in Africa that I learned that believers in the Churches of Christ were not the only ones who thought they were the “only ones.” I found out that other followers of Christ could be just as sure that their way was the way. I also saw that the same infighting that I had seen in Churches of Christ was present in these other denominations. They struggled with similar issues such as worship and the role of women. They called each other “liberal” (not in the capital L sense) and “conservative.” Christians in other denominations divided and started new denominations (see John Frame’s Evangelical Reunion for more on this). I peered on the other side of the fence and saw that the grass wasn’t any greener—or browner.
But, as with my friend in high school, our differences were overshadowed by our union in Christ. These men and women were giving their lives for the sake of Jesus, just as passionately and imperfectly as my teammates and I were. We prayed together and worshiped together a few times. I saw men and women cry because they longed to see Christ formed in the Ugandans they loved and served—and it was a struggle, the same struggle of culture and will and God and Satan that we faced in the Ugandans that we loved and served.
My experiences, of course, have been paralleled by my own study of Scripture. My reading of Scripture began a significant transformation under the influence of teachers and mentors like James Walters, Mike Cope, Monte Cox, and the Harding Graduate School faculty, all from Churches of Christ. Instead of giving me answers, they modeled for me a humble, seeking spirit and taught me how to ask better questions. In addition, I was encouraged to read the offerings of Christian authors outside of my own tradition. So, over the past twenty years, I have taken in the words of people like Dallas Willard, Craig Keener, A. W. Tozer, Eugene Peterson, Marva Dawn, N.T. Wright, Henri Nouwen, Elizabeth Achtemeier, and Brian McLaren. These church leaders, scholars, and theologians have rigorously studied and written and have offered perspectives that have deepened my knowledge of and love for God. I feel like I know some of these writers and have joined them on their journey with Christ.
My study of God in community with people like Stan, missionary friends, and insightful writers has changed me. I have learned from these people. I have seen Jesus in them. Jesus has loved me and shaped me more into His image through them. Though God wants every individual member of His body to become increasingly like Him, He knows that individuals are more like Him—Father, Son, and Spirit—when they are in community. One person’s weaknesses are made up for by another’s strengths. No one person has every aspect of the nature of Jesus, but together we reflect the fullness of His nature more (see Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy). I believe that this is true, not only on the personal level, but the corporate level, as well. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians provides the analogy — the body — that best fits my current understanding of the church. Let’s take a look at this metaphor, and then reflect on how it might affect our view of the church today.
Sizing Up Christ’s Body: the Corinthian Perspective
Paul writes to a congregation that was being torn apart by pride — the people were proud of their wisdom and knowledge, their particular teacher, their spiritual gifts, their wealth, and their ability to separate (so they thought) their spirits from their sin-bound bodies. Therefore, Paul calls the Corinthian church back to Christ and the cross (1:17-2:5; 15:1-8), to a unity based on love rather than on knowledge (chapter 13). They should not boast in what they have and know, but in the One who has and knows them.
In the context of his instruction on spiritual gifts, Paul says that the church is the body of Christ (12:27). While the Corinthians have devalued the body, Paul intends to help them grasp its importance. A person’s body must be valued not disregarded, because he or she houses the Spirit of God (6:19-20). In the same way, the church is to be valued because it is the body of Christ, the manifest witness of His presence in this world. Christ lives in His body, the church (3:16-17), and wants to live through it, doing in the world the very things He did when He walked the earth in His own body. He intends for the church to be like Him, and has made it possible through the power of the resurrection of His body and through the presence of the Spirit. God was incarnate in Christ; Christ is incarnate in the church.
We all know that people have different gifts. (Yes, some people may have more spiritual gifts than others, but everyone has at least one.) One person is a gifted teacher, another a gifted singer (14:26). Some have the gift of leadership, while others have the gift of generosity or hospitality. But no individual has all the gifts of the Spirit. Only Christ had the full nature of God manifested in gifts. We limited believers can only grow toward the fullness of God in community, as the Spirit puts His nature in each individual and expresses it through a particular set of gifts. At the same time, we do not all have the same gift: “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers?” (12:29). God’s plan is for the body of Christ to be built up and made whole by the diversity in each member, as each is filled with the same Spirit (12:7-11). Thus, it is through diversity, not in spite of it, that unity and wholeness are created.
The Worldwide Church as the Body of Christ
The Corinthian situation, as I understand it, leads me to certain questions about unity and health in the church today. If no single, imperfect person has all the gifts, why do we think that one denomination might perfectly possess all the workings of Christ? Paul does not have a master list of gifts (1 Cor. 14, Rom. 12, Eph. 4), so is it possible that one congregation might have the gift of tongues and another not? Is it possible that one denomination might have the gift of healing and another not? If no one person in his or her flawed condition displays every aspect of the nature of God, can one particular denomination, with all its flaws, display perfectly the nature of God? Is it possible that the imperfect church throughout the world, then, comes closer to completing a fuller picture of the body of Christ than we do as individual congregations or denominations or non-denominations? Might not our partial knowledge become at least a little fuller if we humbly learn from others who love God and are known by Him (1 Corinthians 13)?
Surely churches of the Stone-Campbell tradition have strengths which we are empowered (and expected) by the Spirit to contribute to the common good of His church universal. Should we downplay God’s work among us and say, “Because we do not have a foreign missions organization like the Southern Baptists, we do not belong to the body”? Or “Because we do not have orchestras or bands in our worship, we are not a part of the body”? (Of course, I do realize that some would say we are the true church precisely because we do not possess missionary societies and instruments.) We are a part of the body of Christ and God needs us and expects us to do our part in His body.
Yet, we are a part of the body, but we are not the body. Just as an individual should not despise her gift from God, neither should she act arrogantly as if her gift is the only gift or that her gift exempts her from the need for community and the gifts of others. An eye is a part of the body, but it is not the whole body. A nose is a member of the body, but it is not the body. Should Churches of Christ say to the Presbyterians, “We don’t need you”? Should the Methodists say to the Assemblies of God, “We don’t need you”? If I only look at what God is doing in the Churches of Christ, could it be that I am simply staring at a nose or an ear? Perhaps Churches of Christ can become a stronger member of the body of Christ by recognizing our need for the gifts and contributions of other members. We can celebrate and love the best of our heritage without the sinful pride that separates us from other believers.
In a way, when we do not acknowledge the presence and power of the Spirit in other members of the body of Christ, we become paralyzed. We cannot feel certain parts, so we neither nurture them nor benefit from them. In Mark 2 the evangelist shows us how some men desperately wanted their paralyzed friend to walk again. Shut out of the house by the crowds and cut off from the Healer from Nazareth, the men climb on top of the roof, dig a hole, and lower the lame man down to Jesus. “When Jesus saw their faith,” he both forgave and healed the man. Perhaps Christ would see the faith of some of our friends in other members of His body and forgive and heal us, too. Or perhaps Christ will see the faith of His followers in the Stone-Campbell churches, who share the vision for unity born in eastern America two hundred years ago, and bring forgiveness and healing to others paralyzed by division. Perhaps the church will come closer to unity, not because Christians think alike on every point (that would be more like uniformity), but because we embrace, rather than try to eliminate, the diversity present in each other. We do this ever calling each other deeper into Scripture and holding on to Christ alone, the One who holds on to us.
My prayer is that Christ will become bigger for everyone who trusts Him and loves Him, so that His church might be what it truly is—big.
Deron is married to Becca, and they have three daughters, Abby, Makayla, and Toria. They were a part of a mission team in Jinja, Uganda from 1994-2002. Deron has been a minister at the East Sunshine Church of Christ in Springfield, Missouri since January 2004. He studied at Harding University (B.S. and M.Div.) and Trinity College, University of Bristol, England (Ph.D. in Theology).