The early Christian community “remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brother-sisterhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers……...all lived together and owned everything in common….went as a body to the Temple every day but met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously; they praised God and were looked upon by everyone. Day by day the Lord added to their community those destined to be saved.” Here is the plain and simple record of the humble beginning of the early Church in Palestine, a forlorn, occupied territory of the Roman empire.

It is almost impossible to investigate the meta-physical phenomenon, the historical events, initial theological formations including successive global reformations, spiritual renewals and experiences of the Church in the past two millennia without being partial or restricted and perhaps a bit nostalgic, even poignant about the state of affairs of the modern-day separated and divided Church to which Christians all persuasions belong. However, it is equally hard not to ignore the depressing reality of the once leading, thriving, high and mighty main-line Christian denominations now being relegated to the margins as mere inconsequential among the mass global Christ believing community. For example, the ninth assembly of the World Council of Churches is being held § in Porto Alegre, Brazil to examine and reflect on the theme ‘God in Your Grace, Transform’; unlike its early assemblies held around the globe since 1948, in our world of pandemic, child poverty, ubiquitous culture of terrorism, religious bigotry, endless political anarchy, natural disasters etc. this is a non-event unlike the bird flu, Winter Olympics being held in Turin, Italy!. Another example from my home turf, when I joined the United Church of Canada in 1974, the membership was over 6 million, which now has only over 600,000 members! Conversely, the population of Canada from 18 million in 1974 has now almost doubled to over 35 million. In spite of all these, perhaps because of the challenges ahead, over three decades in Christian pastoral ministry inspires me to sing:

“My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.”

And I love the church, although I am reminded of an odious but candid saying that the church is like Noah’s Ark: if it weren’t for the storm outside no one could stand the stink inside! Paul writes, “I hear that when you all come together as a community, there are separate factions among you………Surely you have enough respect for the community of God not to make the poor people embarrassed? What am I to say to you? Congratulate you? I cannot congratulate on this”.

During the World War II the Dutch Calvinist church of one of the fathers of apartheid in South AfricaÅ, Abraham Kuyper ( 1847-1920 ), the treacherous story of ‘Unholy Trinity: The Vatican, The Nazis and The Swiss Banks’ and so forth are miserably appalling misrepresentations of what the early apostles planted the church in North Africa, South Asia and Southeast Europe. The words of Jesus are reassuring: ‘I shall build my church and the powers of destruction shall not prevail against it.’ As we come together to reflect on the genuineness and the validity of the Church undeniably we lug our own varieties of ecclesial baggage, some original and historical; some fresh and revolutionary still struggling to define what the Church is about. The next step is to inform our colleagues the names of the prominent theologian each one of us chose to figure out the ambiguities of this exercise. The names begin with the inescapable North African Saint Augustine, then Thomas Aquinas, Jean Calvin, Martin Luther, John Knox, John Wesley, Karl Barth, Leonardo Boff, etc….when it comes to my turn, I am a bit hesitant to choose one of the traditional European or Western Christian pundits well known to my colleagues who are versed themselves in Western Church History, which is for me an acquired pedagogic curiosity. Finally my choice is ecumenist M.M. Thomas, a 20th century ecumenist who brought in a breath of fresh air to the World Council of Churches—one of the progenies of the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference.

I have lived in Northern Ontario longer than anywhere else on this planet including my native land. Every year I look forward to the arrival of our ‘Canada geese’ from their exotic winter retreat in the southern United States and Central American places. Have you ever seen a flock of geese flying in a large V formation? When they are in Canada during the summer months they are busy training for the winter months! The organization of Canada geese during flight demonstrates significant ideas about leadership, teamwork and organization. The geese always fly in a V formation. As each goose flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the goose that is following behind. By flying in a V formation the whole flock adds about 70% greater flying range than if each goose flew by itself. If a goose falls out of the formation it immediately feels the resistance and drag of flying alone. The goose will quickly move back into the formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the bird in front. Hence, you normally see a perfect V in a flock of geese. Taking on the role of lead goose is tough as it is this goose that gets no benefit of “uplift”. This lead role is not assigned to the strongest or toughest goose; they ensure that there is a regular change in leadership. When the lead goose gets tired it moves back into the formation to take advantage of the lifting power of the others and another goose takes the lead. The geese recognize their interdependence and they take turns sharing the hard tasks and the leadership.

This analogy of leadership of geese in flight is fitting and interesting as we examine the pattern of ecclesial leadership not as individuals but as traditions and confessions within the Church, figuratively, the Body of Christ. Several ecclesial traditions, not necessarily the strongest or the wealthiest, in the past 2000 years have taken the role of the lead goose. The formation is ever changing with the ecclesial geese taking their roles of participation and leadership. The most important thing is that they are on the move with the leadership of the Western church, Latin church, Asian church and /or African church.

In 1970, Andrew Walls, a well known Scottish missiologist, predicted that “the young, the poor and the women” will lead the church in the next five decades. In 1910 when the World Missionary Conference met in Edinburgh-the towering point of Western missionary movement and the point from which it tragically declined, well over 80 per cent of those who professed Christianity lived in Europe and North America and now 80 per cent of those who practice Christianity live in the southern continents of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Pacific. During my pastoral ministry in the past three decades, I have observed that the center of gravity of the global church has shifted from the west to the south and the east, from the North Atlantic to Africa, Asia, Latin America and the South Pacific. John Wesley’s Methodism began in England but the largest Methodist congregation is in Seoul, Korea! John Calvin’s Presbyterianism began in Geneva but the largest Presbyterian congregation is in Seoul, Korea! Pentecostalism as a modern movement began in Southern California but the largest Pentecostal congregation is in Seoul, Korea! If the Church is the Body of Jesus Christ, no part should boast of its tasks as all parts are expected to do their best in all aspects for the common goal, namely the well-being of the whole body…..such as liturgy, sacraments, theological reflections, church polity etc. Unfortunately, some parts claimed to have done more and some are blamed to have little or less! Most important thing is that the Church is still alive and well in new turfs, if not in the old familiar turf of Christendom. Wilfred Cantwell Smith once made an interesting comment at an Interfaith gathering in 1983, “When I left Christendom (meaning Canada!) in 1943 to teach in India….”. I questioned him, “You left Christendom? You don’t leave Christendom. You perhaps left the Constanteanian Christendom and you arrived in an older Christendom, founded by Apostle Thomas!”. Then he encouraged me to write on World Christianity. Therefore, here in this exercise, my focus is not just one branch of the Body of Christ but the whole One, Holy, Apostolic, Catholic Church, the body of Christ , the body , the household of God, the commonwealth of Israel , God’s temple or Christ’s bride.

Leonardo Boff, in his Ecclesiogenesis, is wrestling with the issues of the Church and a careful reader feels for his difficulty of being not free to call a spade a spade. For example, he offers two conflicting notions of the Church. “If by “church” we mean grace, liberation, the irruption of the Spirit, the new creation, the heavenly Jerusalem, and the kingdom of God, then Christ willed the church. Indeed there is nothing else in this world did he will……But if by “church” we understand the visible institution, its sacramental organization, its hierarchical ministerial institution, its sociological structures as the service of the grace of the kingdom, its theological self-understanding, then this question takes on a very different look….a historical question…”. Exegetical studies on the church in the New Testament by all denominations/theologians are exceptionally unanimous. First, Church as the community from the resurrection onward and second, church as an eschatological salvation-community. It is not an invention by any one denomination but all Christians agree on this fundamental teaching. The community of the historical Jesus is not yet the church, the community of the redeemed in the future kingdom is no longer church. Therefore, we need to ask: Is the Church an entity in between the Resurrection and the Parousia – presence-coming / epiphaneia – appearing / apokalypsis –revelation?

The Foundation of the Church:
Jesus’ death and faith in his resurrection are the foundation of the Church. Statements/questions such as, ‘Do Christians need the church and why?’, Does God need the Church and why?’ ‘ Does the church have a sacramental nature?’ ‘What does it look like?’ ‘How can we let the church be the church?’ are inconsequential and redundant queries. In fact, questions like, ‘What is the church?’, ‘What is the role of the church in the life of its membership?’, What is the role of the faithful in the life of the church?’, ‘What are the traditions and ordinances of the church?’, ‘What does the church do?’ are helpful for those who belong to the church and those who don’t. Why does the church exist? The church exists to offer opportunities for worship and community.

The English word ‘church’, which is commonly used in the western society, has its root is kyriakos (Greek) ‘belonging to the Lord’; while qahal (Hebrew), used widely in the older and eastern Christian traditions, refers to a religious and/or secular assembly or congregation from which we have the New Testament term, ‘ecclesia’, a meeting called together’. Ecclesiology, therefore, is the study of the church.

A Christian Anthropology:Who are Christians and how do we/they relate to God? The problematic expressions to describe the church such as the church triumphant [Christians who have died]and the church militant [Christians now living] are at best distressing and in particular the latter repulsive to my theological thinking. While older pioneering generations sang “Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war”, for the post-modern ecumenical sensibilities, an understanding of church as ‘Church triumphant’ is misleading and troublesome to both the church and the community at large. The phrases like the visible church and invisible church maybe helpful. The church is part of God’s mission but not all of it. The Body of Christ existed long before we were added to it. It will thrive long after we have moved on. Raymundo Panikar introduced the phrase, “anonymous Christians of Hinduism” while M. M. Thomas made us aware of the ‘acknowledged Christ of India’. Jesus Christ is the church’s high priest and through his priestly ministry [diakonia], all believers are priests or ministers in order to fulfill the Hebrew/Old Testament requirements.

A Christian Sociology:
The church is people. How do Christians understand their/our social identity? Is this identity any different from that of those around us? Church, in general, is the global community of all believers who follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. It is undeniably true that some denominations feel and believe that they exclusively are the ‘true‘ church and they fence around sacraments, membership etc. in order to keep others outside. Most Christians believe that there is no such thing as ‘true church’ as all Christians belong to the community called church. The question of true, genuine, apostolic, one, holy, catholic church became part of the discussion and study largely due to heresies and distortions such as hellenization of the church in Europe. Here I agree with H. Richard Niebuhr who exposed Tertullian as a prototypical Christian “against culture” who rejected the Greco-Roman cultural environment that discolored the good news of Jesus beyond recognition! Does this sociology of church include its institutional, hierarchical structure? Human social patterns of change and growth in the community of Christians are the same as other human groups.

Church, A Community:
The communal nature of the church is undeniably clear as the church is the inclusive, global community, koinonia / fellowship. The New Testament describes the birth of the church as a community, with roots in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the history of Israel. Peter, on the day of Pentecost, reminded his listeners of this historical relationship with God’s work in the past, “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel’.

Through the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit of God over three thousand people became a living community at Pentecost. It is impossible for 21st century Christians to exist without a meaningful relationship with the early church. As is it is today, each living Christian community is different form other ecclesial expressions for a number of reasons. The Jerusalem church primarily made up of Jewish converts mentioned in the very first chapters of Church History in the Acts of the Apostles is much different from the multi-ethnic community at Antioch.

The Biblical pictures of the church, for example, the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the flock of God, the living temple of the Holy Spirit etc. propose an indispensable, living bond of love between Jesus and the church. If the church is the body of Christ, the fundamental means by which Christ the head is able to act in the world is largely/exclusively through the church. Is the life of the church imperative to the salvation of believers?.

The Church as an Organism: The New Testament mentions 188 ways of describing the Church [temple, salt, light, bride, building etc.] and the most familiar analogy is body. No one part makes up the whole body and no one part is more important than the other. We can have relationship with Jesus only as we are connected to his body. This relationship is crucial to our personal and public identity as Christians. How crucial is the membership of Jesus’ body, the Church? Can a normal human body afford to have anything to do with a detached leg, arm or another organ “over there”? A detached leg is useless as it does not support and propels a torso; in that sense, is a detached leg is a leg at all? An eye detached from nerve and brain an eye at all? A detached body part is a piece of flesh - dreadful, putrid and useless.

Is the Church a collection of separate and independent parts? “There is no other way to enter into [Christian] life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, gives us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly unless she keeps us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives”. In an age of increasing secularism, when more and more people claim to be spiritual but not religious, Calvin’s words emphasize the fact that the church’s nurture and protection are essential to God’s economy of salvation.

Church as ‘a kind of ‘ Sacrament: Lumen Gentium addresses the mystery of the holy Church and Christ, the light of all nations. ‘By her relationship with Christ, the Church is a kind of sacrament of intimate union with God, and of the unity of all mankind, that is, she is a sign and an instrument of such union and unity.’ An appropriate and helpful footnote to this statement reads: ‘The Church itself is a sort of “general sacrament”, since, as the Constitution here explains, it is a “sign and instrument” of the grace which unites men [watch the peculiarly medieval church language of the early 1960s!] supernaturally to God and to one another”.

The Two Facets of the Church; Divine-Human & Local-Universal:
Is the church created by humans or was it designed by God through what Jesus accomplished? The reality of the human component of people is grounded in the Hebrew tradition. God has been preparing “a chosen and special people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God”. . The church is made up of laos [Greek root word for laity] people. M.M.Thomas would emphasize the universality of the church here, even those acknowledged Christians outside the church, or in Panikars’s anonymous Christians. Therefore, the church is human with its origin in God’s plan of salvation. Besides the human-divine facet, the church has another transfixing aspect, namely the local and universal. The church is viewed as a community in the New Testament with these two distinct characteristics. The goal of the apostles’ ministry was to establish and nurture Christian communities from Spain to India, from Ethiopia to Italy. Augustine’s City of God influenced Calvin’s model city of Geneva and Luther’s doctrine of ‘two kingdoms’ where the state and church exist in harmony.

Church as the Eschatological Presence:
The church exists to announce the kingdom of God. The church is called to be the salt and the light in the world but the church is not of the world. In the past 2005 years, often times the church has failed to embody the reality in its life and work. The Nicene Creed affirms the One , Holy , Catholic, and Apostolic Church, acknowledging One baptism and waiting “ for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”.

The following biblical texts are useful in order to learn more the development of the church.: Genesis 12:2; 17:7; Exodus 19:4-6; Matthew 16:18; 18:17; Luke 12:32-34; Acts 2:47; 4:32-35; 5:11; 7:38; 20:28; Romans 16: 1-5, 16 ; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 11:18; 10:32;12:27-28; 14:4; Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:12,15; 5:23-32; Colossians 1:18, 24; 1 Timothy 3:15;Hebrews 12:22-24; 1 Peter 2:4-10

Church and Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven:
The Old Testament identifies the Kingdom of God with the people of Israel. Chemosh –the god of Moab, Molech – the deity of Ammon ; therefore, Yahweh is the god of Israel. . Yahwism promoted excluvist worship of Yahweh. During the exilic and postexilic era Yahweh became El Elyon (God Most High, the head of the pantheon ) whose kingdom included the whole earth and the cosmos ; therefore Yahweh attained new status as the “great God, and a great King above all gods” with ‘his kingdom over all’ . The central theme of Jesus’ ministry is the kingdom of God, which is expressed in three ways:

  1. Theocracy
  2. Spiritual reality and
  3. Total submission to God, personified by Jesus’ example
Where does the church fit into this equation? Is the church the household of God? Is not the church part of God’s mission? The church’s mission, therefore, is to carry on in the world the works of the kingdom of God which Jesus began. That “mission remains what it had always been: worship, witness, life, and service in response to the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for the salvation of the world”.

Jerusalem: Acts of the Apostles 2: 42-47
Hymn by William R. Featherston, 1864
Boff, Lohfink and Yoder.
Mark Aaron
ibid 5:25
Boff, Leonardo, Ecclesiogenesis Page 47
Boff, Leonardo Page 50
Institutes 4.1.4, Jean Calvin The Coherence of Christology: God, Enmattered and Enmattering by Marilyn McCord Adams p170Princeton Seminary Bulletin Vol.XXV1 No.2 2005
The Documents of Vatican 11 Page 15
The Missionary God and the Missionary Church by Daniel L. Migliore page 14 The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vol.X1X No.1 1998

1 Corinthians. 11: 22
Matthew 16:18
Ephesians 4: 12, 15
Ephesians 4:4
Ephesians 2:19; 1 Timothy 3:15
Ephesians 2:21-22
Matthew 24:3 1 Thess.2:19, 5:23, James 5:7-8, 1 John 2:28
2 Thess.2:8
1 Cor. 1:7, 1 Peter 1:7, 2 Thess. 1:7
Acts of the Apostles 2:14-21
1 Peter 2:9,10
Epesians 4:4-6
1 Peter 1:15
Colossians 3: 11, Galatians 3: 28
1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8-9; Galatians 1:15-16
1 Chronicles 28:5
1 King 11:7
Joshua 24:14-24
Deut.32:8, Ps.46:4
Isaiah 40:18-26, Jeremiah 10:7-16
Ps. 103:19

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