Publication: Pastoral Letter, June 2001
Dear Friend in Christ:
I trust this letter finds you well. This has been a very challenging letter for me to write, but I pray it will be of encouragement to you. I want to talk about the Church and what is on my heart. The Church that I believe in, and the Church that I see, are not the same. But I love them both. Loving the first is easier; the latter is a bit more difficult.
Jesus died for the Church. I have not died for it, but there have been times when I thought that it might at least kill my spirit. It has killed others. But, all in all, it has blessed me and my family – greatly. Through its faithfulness, I came to Christ.
My sister has been studying our family ancestry. She discovered that our family left Northern Ireland for South Carolina in the early 1700s, as part of a Reformed congregation. Prior to being called “Reformed” they were called “Covenanters” and were sorely persecuted in Ireland and Scotland, and many were killed. My ancestral immigrants to our shores began Presbyterian churches, and for the most part were devoted Christians.
More recently, my grandfather was a Baptist Deacon for about 40 years, and my father was a minister for more than 60 years. My wife, Carolyn, and I have three children, and two of them are in the ministry. Carolyn’s ancestors came to America on the Second Mayflower voyage, and were also persecuted evangelical Christians. Like my parents, her parents were also Baptist. My mother’s people were Catholic, and I have devoted Catholic relatives and friends. In fact, by the efforts of Catholic friends, I was once part of a papal audience. (I thought that the Pope brought a good sermon that day!)
I give this personal history to reinforce the fact that our roots run deep in Church history. We owe much to church life and love the Church. Having said all of that, I confess that I do not understand the Church. It seemed a lot simpler when I first began to preach in 1955. But, the years have taught me to respect the mystery of the Church.
The Church is:
- local, yet universal
- a Bride, yet a body
- eternal, yet temporal
- a vine, yet an army
- visible, yet invisible
- spiritual, yet often carnal
- a family, yet a house
- but it is always a mystery
The Apostle Paul speaks of the mystery of the Church. In Ephesians 3, the mystery seems to be that God’s manifold wisdom will be revealed through the Church, even to spiritual rulers in heavenly places. The Apostle was a wise master builder, foundation layer, and fathered much of Western Christianity. He was the ultimate church planter. I wonder what he would think of the Church as it has developed through history.
Paul speaks of the Church as a city, in Galatians 4. In fact, he speaks of two cities: Jerusalem below and Jerusalem above. He was a citizen of Jerusalem above (see Philippians 3:20), but he had lived in both.
There are many other examples in Scripture of this concept. Approximately 2,000 years before Paul’s time, Abraham had looked for a city whose Builder and Maker was God. He left one city and looked for another. He left one below and looked for one above. Jesus said that the Church is a city on a hill. John had a vision of the city of God coming down out of heaven. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we are going to the city of the Living God (Hebrews 12:22). He goes on to say that on earth, we have no continuing city (see Hebrews 13:14).
Augustine wrote a book in 397 A.D. called The City of God. This book affected all of Church history until now. Augustine tried to differentiate between the kingdom of God and the earthly Church. But, the evolution of Augustinian Theology gave the Roman Church, and ultimately the Roman Bishop, absolute power backed by the State. It entrusted eternal power, salvation, and judgment to mortal hands. It “politicized” God’s Kingdom and gave us a “Continuing City” that is sometimes called “The Eternal City.”
The Bishop of Rome, otherwise known as the Pope, was now seen as representing God. And on matters of doctrine, he was deemed infallible. I believe that the result was devastating and has caused much bloodshed and rebellion, because political authority has since often misapplied spiritual authority. It was against this concept that the so-called “enlightenment” rebelled, and of course the Reformers did as well. But those results were often not good either.
Now, lest someone consider this an “anti-Catholic” issue, let me be clear; it is the concept that I am examining: the concept of equating the earthly Jerusalem with the heavenly one. Protestants and Evangelicals are not without fault in this confusion, either. Many reformers also combined political and spiritual powers. Some of them also tried to make “Jerusalem below” into “Jerusalem above.”
The Galatian problem was this: Paul went into Gentile areas and preached the kingdom of God, salvation by grace through faith, and a Spirit-led life. Along behind him would come “Judaizers” who were said to say to these new converts; “Believing in Jesus is good, but not enough. You need to keep the law, be circumsized, observe Jewish Sabbaths,” and other rules. This infuriated Paul.
Paul’s response to the Judaizers was made very clear to the Galatians and to us. He likened law and grace to two very different cities: Jerusalem below and Jerusalem above. Jerusalem below is tradition, law, human zeal, self-righteousness, temples, priests, and the place to which pilgrims journeyed; one could not live very far from “Jerusalem below” and still keep the law. Jerusalem below was in fact “a bondage.” However, it was the earth’s finest expression of legalistic religion. And, it killed the prophets and crucified the King. “Jerusalems below” often do that.
Jerusalem above is another matter. It is free – a city of God’s grace. Goodness and mercy are its hallmarks. Citizens are born into it by grace through faith. Truth operates by love. Citizens of that city are called to show forth the excellencies of the One Who called them. They put no confidence in the flesh.
Jerusalem below is the result of man’s best effort. Jerusalem above is the result of God’s grace to sinful man. The problem comes when sincere humans try to mix the two: when we expect the city below to be the city above, when we think that the city below is the city above – it becomes anything but the kingdom of God. It usually becomes a political harlot to the kings of the earth, and a cruel one at that.
BABEL BECOMES BABBLE
Remember the city of Babel? “Come let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the earth” (Genesis 11:4).
God did not approve. In order to protect them from their own ignorance and from disaster, He sent confusion. Babel became ever after the symbol of confusion, and He did scatter them. God and history have not been kind to “utopias,” be they Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Communist, or cultic. The confusion of heavenly glory and grandeur, with human weakness and depravity, only reinforces the truth that Jesus has not abdicated His throne in favor of some mortal, or self-appointed human committee.
But fighting organizations and denominations is no answer. We are indebted to many of them, in spite of their mistakes and even persecutions. The challenge is how to rid the earthly Church of the notion that it is the Heavenly City or the kingdom of God – wherever that notion is held, and help to recognize the work of Christ beyond its city limits. We must do so if we hope to avoid being marginalized.
I recall that Jesus commended the Pharisees for keeping the law, but reminded them that faith existed outside of Israel. Paul always went to the Jews first, and never told them to deny their Judaism. But He did not tell Gentiles to become Jews. In a sense, believing Jews remained part of both cities, but understood that salvation was not a matter of race, but grace. However, when believing Jews confused Judaism with the kingdom of God, that was unacceptable – and still is whenever we fail to see God’s big picture.
Though human devotion has constructed many grand structures, it will never construct a tower that touches heaven. However, as we look to Jesus Christ in faith, heaven will come down among us and grace us with its beauty, peace, righteousness, and joy. Then we can see the work of our Sovereign Lord in and beyond our earthly Jerusalems. Indeed, it is all His world.
A CLEARER PICTURE
If the Lord tarries, we will eventually see a clearer picture of the Church. It will become more apostolic and less political. The Reformation is not over. It will be more about mission and less about membership. It will be more about His Kingdom and less about ours. It will be more about Jerusalem above and less about Jerusalem below. It will be about love, grace, and mercy, and less about laws, rules, and traditions. It won’t happen by rejecting history, but by learning from it. Maturity will teach us how to handle our dual relationship with what is, and what we pray to see.
Will you please keep our ministry in your prayers? I believe the Lord is giving us some clear, strategic direction…a message to share that is relevant to this generation. But we need His wisdom and provision every day. Your prayer and financial support are vital to our ongoing mission. June is a very critical month for us. There have been times, even recently, when we wondered whether or not we could or should continue. But the Lord has impressed upon us to continue on in faith, and by His grace, we will.
Very shortly, we will be making some major announcements about the future of CSM and some of the radical changes we are making in order to move forward in God’s will. Be watching our website (www.csmpublishing.org) and One-to-One Magazine for more information. Until then, please pray, pray, and pray! Ask your friends or your church to include us on their prayer lists also.
Thanks for your friendship and support. May the Lord bless and encourage you today and always.
Scripture Reference: Ephesians, Hebrews, Genesis