A Different Incantation

A lot has been said, and argued, and wrestled with, regarding the unity of the Church. If you were to merely cast your eye over the Nicene Creed, you would be impressed with a sense of deep and inadvertently cohesive poetry. "We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, of all thing Visible and Invisible... And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds: Light of Light, Very God of Very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father... And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the Prophets..."

Whether they meant it to be lyrical or not, I don't know; perhaps it is merely my vivid and emotional imagination that conjures up this feeling of a bound whole when I read these words. Perhaps it is that: perhaps it is merely emotional. I had the misfortune of casting my eye just today over an article in the newspaper which started off unabashedly by talking about how the author of the article knew what both what the congregants and the men in the pulpit felt when the church was rocked with schisms created by immorality. I stared. He said it with such frankness, brushing over the fact of wickedness to garner the sympathy of the readers. He took the wickedness for granted. I was almost doubtful for a moment if he thought the wickedness really was wicked. But the disunity is a sad fact, and lust, his example in use, is not the only problem to break up congregations: the other six deadly sins have clawed happily through many a gathering before. So perhaps the lyrical script of that ancient creed really does produce nothing more than an emotional and unfounded reaction in me. Division, it seems, is inevitable.

To what shall we liken the Kingdom of Heaven? It is like a man who had two sons... The creed takes a man back to what is believed: of God, of man, of life, of death. The creed is that script written down by the hand of a man from the heart of a man, telling the world what he knows in his heart is true. But there is another step back to take, an inscription that predates the Deep Magic, written by another hand by another heart on another wall. It is an inscription that can affirm or deny with authority every "I believe" that man has ever or will ever or can ever write.

...we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to his purpose...

For some time now a portion of my own congregation has been studying the many "one anothers" of Scripture. "Be of kindly affection to one another, be of the same mind as one another, love one another, receive one another, admonish, salute - so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members of one another." We have raged long and studiously over these words, and many more like them, but the simple truth is that only two words in that brokenly quoted passage are important. They are, quite frankly, the cornerstone on which all the others rest.

in Christ

You may believe in the creeds of the Church written down in the blood of the martyrs. You may hold fast to sound doctrine, abstaining from evil, walking in righteousness, and all this is merely the right conduct of a servant of God. But the heart of man is desperately wicked, and in the heart of man even good conduct can cause schism and division, breeding such hateful terms as "carnal Christians" and "holier-than-thou." Whence unity? In Christ - in Christ. Listen to those words: they ring through Scripture. This takes the concept of Equality by the Divine to a whole new level of existence. It is not by man that man is made at one with God and man and creation - it is by the God-Man Jesus Christ. There in the physical body of Christ, in the breath that goes in and out of those physical lungs by which a man receives the Spirit of God, there is the firstfruits of unity. By decree, not by fiat, but by legal decree, a man is inscribed in the Book of Life - which is to say, in Christ.

It is by adoption, not merely by creed, that a man enters the Kingdom of Heaven. Not all who say "Lord! Lord!" will enter. Oh, we love our neighbour...but what of keeping our brother? With a kind of fierce and laughing glory the Word spelled out the answer to that question all across a nation's history and signed it with a bloody flourish. In cultures older than our own (in cultures within our own) family meant something. These cultures did not spend long evenings discussing what it means to keep one another (though we are stupid, and must be reminded from time to time): you stuck to family, you looked out for family, family was everything to you: one of the worst sins a man could commit was to become a "kinslayer," a murderer of his own blood people. And this tie was not by virtue of anyone's personality or creed (though, naturally, these play a part in families) but by the simple virtue of being of the same family.

"We...are one body in Christ, and every one members of one another." After all our talks about unity and all our struggles to make believers act like believers, what does it boil so restfully down to? Adoption. The irreducible minimum of the Body of Christ is the legal act of adoption. Within any family, despite the endearing moments that are bound to occur, it is generally understood that, until a certain age, children are not very helpful and often troublesome. I have a young niece and nephew. I know this. But I understand, and most people usually understand too, that usefulness (or lack thereof) is not what makes an individual a family member. If he is born in the family, he is part of the family. Just so with the Church, a person's membership is not determined by how competent or useful he may be (although these aspects are important) but by whether or not Christ's legal, and rather gory, act of adoption has his name written on it. "Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God who justifieth." It seems almost escapist, but - Good Lord! - it isn't, and that's the beauty of it. This is the foundation on which unity itself is built, and the acknowledgment of this irreducible minimum forces the competent creedsman to suffer with charity the incompetence of other believers, and urges the incompetent on to greater solidarity of spirit.

On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

7 ripostes:

  1. Jenny, you've left me speechless again. Further comment on your words seems redundant, somehow--which makes it awkward when I'm trying to write an insightful comment. :P

    But in spite of the fact that I'm really going to have to mull over this more, I can tell you now that what you said about the ancient meaning of kinsman struck the deepest of chords with me. I think that even as the Church has grown in years and learning and insight provided by archeological discoveries we have lost a good deal of that familial closeness, that bond of brother-to-brother. For the most part, we have become more like an Institution than a Family.

    That's a sad truth, but I'm sure it's not inevitable. There have always been Christians who try to turn love into legalism, and there will always be Christians who won't stand for that sort of thing. Thank you, my sister, for being one of the latter. I am glad to be beside you in the faith.

    (And on another note, the picture you chose is stunning. I love the lonely, windswept, contemplative look. ^.^)

  2. Thanks for this. I wish it was always this easy - that our unification in Christ would be enough to prevent the schisms and arguments. Unfortunately we as humans have this tendency to make everything more complicated - while the Enemy looks on and laughs.

    I want to add a little something one of our elders likes to say. This is not to take away from what you've written, but as a lover of certain Roman ideals (the importance of kinship being one of them) I think you'll appreciate it.

    This man says that it is important to differentiate between our rebirth as children of God and our adoption of sons of God. While the picture of us being adopted as children of God is powerful, he reckons that it is not thoroughly accurate. When we enter the family of Christ, it is not through adoption, but through birth. We are "born again" as children of God - we are blood relatives.

    When the bible speaks of "adoption", he goes on to say, it is not "adoption" in the modern sense of the word. It is "adoption" in the Roman sense (which was current at the time the NT was written). Romans would adopt full-grown men to be their heirs. Adoption was a question of inheritance. Ben Hur is adopted by Arrius as a grown man. The Roman Emperors, if they had no suitable heir, would adopt the man whom they wanted to rule after them. I don't have all the verses, but he goes on to argue that the passages that speak of adoption speak of a future time, whereas our rebirth has already taken place. We are already children of God through our rebirth in Christ's blood. But we look forward to the day when we will be, in addition adopted as sons and receive the inheritance as co-heirs of Christ.

    I thought it was worth pointing out because, as powerful as it is, your argument is more powerful if you think of us as, not only adopted by God, but as blood-born children of God. This makes our kinship of which you speak a much greater bond.

    Ajjie >'.'<

  3. I am glad you pointed that out, Sonja. As I was writing the piece I considered mentioning it myself, but the opportunity never presented itself. So your comment is appreciated.

    Megan, I've had the pleasure of being able to experience the tightness of kinship myself in my own family. I'm afraid being "close-knit" has gathered a slight patina in recent years, but I hope we rise above that. So when I read older works and see the unspoken and powerful bond within a family, I get it. I know what it is like to feel that, and be a part of it.

    I appreciated your comment about the church being turned from a Family to an Institution. I think you are right. It has in many ways ceased to be the Body of Christ following the Way of its heavenly calling, and become a "gateway" to heaven. It is not the means to heaven - Christ is that - but that congregation of humanity within which we progress. Harry Blamires' book Highway to Heaven is an interesting portrayal of this, I think.

  4. I'm not sure that I agree with Aj on our Adoption as sons being separate from our status as Children of God. If we are not yet adopted, how can we then say that we have an inheritance? Wouldn't that be jumping the gun, so to speak? I believe that's even covered in the Bible- forgive me, I can't recall the passage and it is too late in the night for me to pull out the concordance. But suffice it to say, if we're going to use an Ancient Roman model then let us also remember that children of a house had very little worth in general until they came of age to make something of themselves. Birth into a family didn't save you from having your head bashed in if your father found you inconvenient. So then that outlook renders spiritual rebirth somewhat useless until the grand future day of adoption. It seems to me to abolish all certainty of the Holy Spirit's entrance into one's heart, or even of salvation, until a secondary, later goal is achieved.

    Sorry, perhaps this is not the time or the place, as it addresses a comment and not the post.

    I agree with Megan's comment on family vs. institution. When I first joined my church, whenever there was something done congregationally (such as singing), the bulletin would indicate "Family" instead of "church" or "congregation". Not so anymore. Now it's being run like a business. One of our elders even spoke of us being "in competition" with another denomination for the souls of a Honduran community to which we minister. Not another religion. Another /denomination/. Unity in Christ is indeed becoming more and more scarce even as the world cries for it.

  5. Ah, I am sorry, Sarah, I must have missed that paragraph. That is what I get for reading hastily over someone's shoulder. We are entering into a tricky business. The act of the kinsman redeemer is that act of Christ's death by which he bought back to himself that portion of fallen humanity which he had elected to be redeemed from before time immemorial. But the predestination does not negate the calling. "For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son...and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified." I hope I make it clear that I do not wholly confuse the act of the kinsman redeemer with the act of regeneration by the Spirit. They are, of course, mysteriously linked - perhaps you might say they are one, but they are not the same.

    The acts of birth and of adoption on the human level are perhaps mere shadows of what is happening in the Meta-Drama. It is told us that we are both born of the Spirit (John 3) and that we have received adoption as sons (Galatians 4). As I pointed out within my post, I don't see a difference on the spiritual level between these terms. It is true that this idea of adoption was much closer to the Roman ideal than our own (I'm very grateful to Sonja for mentioning that). But it is not true that our spiritual birth/adoption is nothing more than a combination of human ideas raised to a spiritual level. If anything, we are attempting with meagre tools of knowledge to understand a mystery which goes on between us and the Godhead.

  6. I think Jenny's right to say that these aren't mere metaphors by which we approach some spiritual concept through association with human institutions or customs. It would be more accurate to say that the human institutions were created as metaphors of the spiritual processes, rather than the other way round.

    Still, such are the tools that we have, and we have to take the inspired language to mean what it says. There is a sense in which adoption must be necessary, as we are not begotten of the Father in the way that the Son is (obviously), and so must be made to share in His righteousness by a judicial act of imputation. On the other hand, we are born from above, into the likeness of the second Adam, and are a new creation. Both ideas are necessary for a complete understanding of the glorious work God is doing in us.

  7. An excellent observation - in fact, probably the best yet. Both concepts are necessary to balance our understanding of our relationship with God the Father because, alone, neither quite explains it. But really, I feel as if Jonathan has summed it up best and I can't think of anything to add to make it clearer.