Friday, March 1, 2013

Ecumenism: Witness and the Church, Part 1

Part 3.1 of an ongoing Bible study on ecumenism. See links to other lessons at the bottom of this post.
taken from

We've spent the last two lessons talking about foundational truths of the Christian faith, and the heresies that attack these truths. The idea was to establish the lowest baseline possible for Christian ecumenism. Anyone who self-consciously rejects any of the truths we've discussed is not a fitting partner for Christian ministry, let alone membership in the church.

Now, in order to move forward, I want to look at what the book of Acts tells us about Christian ministry. And the stand that I have taken since my college days is that all Christian ministry must be closely tied to the local church. Hopefully you're all with me on this issue, and if you're not, I hope that by the end of our lessons I would have convinced you through Scripture to change your views. Now that's my premise.

If all Christian ministry must be closely tied to the local church, then we should not be able to talk about ministry without talking about the local church, and we should not be able to talk about ecumenism without talking about the local church. At the same time, our notion of the local church would be incomplete if we didn't recognize that every true local church is part of the worldwide Church (big “C”). So if we want to “do” ecumenism correctly, then we need to understand God's plan for the local church. And this is exactly what Acts will help us to do.

Turn with me to Acts chapters 1 and 2 and keep your finger there, because we'll be coming back to those chapters for today's lesson.

TEXT – Acts 1:6-11
6So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" 7He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." 9And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."”

Exegetical Data. If Acts 1:1 sets the literary and doctrinal context of the book of Acts, the passage we just read sets the historical context.
  • The Church exists in what theologians call the “Messianic Age,” which was innaugurated by Christ's First Coming and will be consummated by his Second Coming. During this time, the kingdom of heaven is “here but not yet.” That is to say, Christ's incarnation, ministry, atoning sacrifice, ascension and sending of the Holy Spirit has brought about certain aspects of the kingdom of heaven, but much remains to be done. The world continues to be under the control of Satan, and sin and death remain unconquered. But all that will change when Christ returns to fully establish the kingdom. Then, all of God's enemies will be put under His feet. Death and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire, all unrepentant sinners will be judged, and believers will reign as co-heirs with Christ in the light of God's presence forever.
  • But that hasn't happened yet, and until it does, the Lord has given the Church a mission to fulfill. That mission can be summarized in one word: “witness.” Jesus commissioned the disciples to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. And the rest of the book of Acts shows us that this is exactly what the disciples did.

Now, when we read Acts 1:8, the first thing we probably think about is evangelism and missions. This is correct, since this is the clear thrust of the verse. However, in recent decades, with the disenchantment of a significant number of Christian leaders with the local church and the rise of large, international parachurch ministries, I think we need ask ourselves
  • Q: How does this commission fit in with our idea of the local church? What is the primary purpose of the local church?
    • “The church exists to carry out missions.” Then what place do we assign to ministries like counseling, cell groups, Sunday school, music ministry, technical ministry, and other such localized, inward-oriented ministries?
    • If we compare the commission in Acts 1:8 to that in Mt 28:19-20, I think we will get a more balanced idea of what it means to be Christ's “witnesses.” Certainly, it means to proclaim the gospel to all people. But it also means to explain or expound the gospel more and more to those who have believed, and to train them to live in light of the gospel. As the apostle Paul advised Timothy in 1Tm 1:5, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” This more balanced understanding of Christ's commission fits well with Acts. Notice that the first chapters of the book are concerned with the growth of the church in Jerusalem in terms of number as well as maturity. Even when the focus shifts to Paul and the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles, notice that Paul—the quintessential frontier missionary—also devoted much of his time and energy to discipleship.
My point is simply this: we shouldn't miss the value that this verse has for the ministries of the local church, and therefore for ecumenism.
  • All of the church's ministries should be oriented towards this thing called “witness,” which involves gospel proclamation to unbelievers, and explanation and training for believers. By implication, then, any partnership between Christian churches and organizations should be gospel-oriented.
This then begs the question, “What qualifies as gospel-oriented ministry?”
  • It is the gospel that the kingdom of God has been innaugurated in Christ. This was the warp and woof of Peter's sermon to the crowd during Pentecost in chapter two. We don't have time to study the whole sermon, but thankfully, Peter himself summarized his thrust in a single statement. Acts 2:36,
“Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
  • The Messiaship and Lordship of Jesus was the theme of Peter's teaching, and of Paul's teaching. It was the theme that all of the NT holds up as central to sound doctrine and the life of the local church.
Challenge. This is why I have to question some ecumenical activities that have been promoted by certain evangelical groups.
  • Interfaith prayer rallies. Recently, a certain evangelical organization hosted a National Prayer Assembly. The promo poster had this for its come-on: “Maging bahagi ng dakilang pagkilos ng Diyos sa ating bansa! Dumalo sa 'Mahal ko ang Pilipinas' National Prayer Assembly, with His Excellency President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III and other leaders, artists, celebrities, and children.” A note at the bottom read, “In cooperation with various interfaith groups, NGOs and Community-based organizations.” Does that sound like a gospel-oriented ministry to you? The church is called to bear witness to the gospel, which involves repentance and faith in the exclusive claims of Christ. How can an interfaith prayer rally accomplish that, when non-Christians are being given the false assurance that they already have a right relationship with God, since they can pray just as well as Christians? It may be politically correct, but it obscures the gospel and undermines the real purpose of Christian ecumenism.
  • Politics. Some evangelicals argue that it is the church's duty to fight injustice through politics. One author I read argued that part of the kingdom of God is to overcome social injustice by changing the power structures of corrupt and unjust government. She used a lot of verses to prove her point, too. Unfortunately, she used isegesis instead of exegesis. Instead of explaining what the passages really meant, she just used them to prove her point. Look, it's not that I don't want social justice, or think that our government is not corrupt. In fact, I'd be glad to see more Christians taking on the corrupt system in the name of Christ. Politics may be God's calling for an individual Christian, but it is not his calling for the church! Even though sometimes I personally would like my church to be more involved with evangelical organizations that take political action, that doesn't matter at all because I'm not the one who sets the agenda for the church. It's Christ's Church, and he sets the agenda. You and I need to know it, and embrace it. And even when we can't understand the reason why he commands certain things to be done in a certain way, we are called to obey wholeheartedly. The agenda is clearly taught in Scripture. It involves “witness,” not politics.
  • Charitable Action without Evangelism. There are evangelicals who like to quote Francis of Assisi, saying “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” Francis of Assisi didn't actually say that, but anyway the implication is that the gospel can be preached simply by doing good deeds and sharing the love of Christ with people even without explaining the Christian faith. Some might even use a spiritual sounding phrase like “incarnating the gospel” to describe this kind of no-evangelism approach. This can take shape in many ways: a feeding program for the poor, ministering to orphans, maintaining a free clinic in a poor baranggay, or gathering relief goods for flood victims. While such altruistic projects are good in themselves, again, they're not the primary mandate of the local church. Charitable deeds should be undertaken in order to manifest God's love alongside or as an adornment to the preaching of the gospel (Tit 2:10). We want to remain faithful to Christ's commission and be good stewards of the finite resources He has provided us by properly allocating them.

(to be continued...)

Related Posts:
  1. Ecumenism: The Need for Ecumenism
  2. Ecumenism: Heresies, Part 1
  3. Ecumenism: Heresies, Part 2
  4. Ecumenism: Wolves in Sheeps Clothing
  5. Ecumenism: Witness and the Church, Part 2
  6. Ecumenism: The Holy Spirit and Reformation
  7. Ecumenism: Witness Begins at the Center

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