A few years after arriving in Gaston County in July 1976, I was approached by two eminently respected ministers, the late Dr. Hoyle Allred, director of the Gaston Baptist Association and Dr. Doug Aldridge, Pastor at 1st Baptist Church, Gastonia. They invited me to serve on a task force assigned to conduct a research study of religion in Gaston County that was part of a larger visioning effort organized by “Look Up Gaston.” The study confirmed Gaston County had about 650+ churches and the religious community, in most cases, was the most segregated and fragmented segment of the local culture with regards to biblical beliefs, race, education and socioeconomic standing.
The study also brought to light a more troubling dynamic, namely, the toxic mix of deep seated suspicion, lack of trust and fear that constantly percolated below the surface around the biblical and theological differences which divided the religious community. Influenced by suspicion, mistrust and fear, each church found it easy to settle into their unique religious bunker which provided a comfort zone and safe haven from the errors and corrupting threats posed by all those “other religious folks” who just did not measure up morally or who possessed unhealthy, deficient or dead wrong distortions of biblical truth. The chief drawback to this mode of ministry is the unsettling realization that a church centered in suspicion, lack of trust and fear of others reflects little or no similarity with the message proclaimed by Jesus Christ and the ministry into which Jesus called the church. And from a practical standpoint it is difficult to get churches to work together long enough to accomplish anything of substance when suspicion, lack of trust and fear are the dominant motives driving ministry.
Fortunately, there are some signs suggesting the situation may be changing. Pivotal in the church’s move toward a more biblically grounded and theologically informed ministry will be ongoing conversations with one another in the context of prayer, scripture and worship regarding the church’s biblical and theological roots. Below are some key biblical narratives which I think are essential if the church is to become more faithful to its calling and more effective as the yeast in the loaf of life. The list is not exhaustive but, hopefully, will help foster creative and fruitful conversation.
1. Servanthood not Smugness: (Genesis 12:1-4) – The biblical understanding that our being blessed by God also contains the inseparable call to be a blessing to others is grounded in the blessing, covenant and promise God gave to Abraham. Abraham is blessed by God and is called to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. The Hebrew language underscores the inseparable linkage between our being blessed by God and the call to be a blessing to others through the use of the two similar Hebrew words %rB (barak) meaning blessing and hk’r’B. (barakah) meaning to be a blessing to others. Servanthood, not smugness, defines the people whom God blesses and calls.
2. The Church: The “called out” people of God: (Matthew16:17-19) – The New Testament Greek word translated “church” is evkklhsi,a (ekklesia). This word is a combination of two other Greek words ek (ek) “out” and kalew (kaleo) “to call” which literally mean “called out.” The church is not of human origin. Only by God’s divine action through the power of the Holy Spirit and God’s Word is the church created. The church, evkklhsi,a (ekklesia), is the “called out” people of God. It is God’s church, not ours. The church’s mission is far greater than any human endeavor and the church serves as an instrument of God’s love and will, revealed in the Scriptures and focused most clearly in Jesus – The Christ, God’s Living Word.
3. Jesus’ Call to Servanthood is the basis for the Servant Church: (Mark 10:42-45) – Jesus informs his disciples that true greatness is not measured by the metrics of the world’s standards for success but in terms of service to others. Jesus then cites his own ministry and announces he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.
4. Grounded in Love not Fear: (John 3:16-17) – The NT Greek word agaph (agape) is used in this text and is the primary word the NT uses to describe God’s unique love that is infinitely greater than human love in both quality and quantity. Unlike human love, God’s agaph (agape) love is: (a) Infinite – without end. It goes on forever, (b) Unconditional – We can never be good enough to deserve God’s love and never evil enough to destroy God’s love, and (c) Transformative – God’s agaph (agape) love transforms, changes for the better and makes new all that it embraces. This is the love that brought forth the whole creation (ex nihilo) out of nothing, that prays for forgiveness amidst the agony of crucifixion, that raised Jesus from the dead, that brings ultimate victory over Sin, Evil and Death and promises to make ALL things new.
5. In but, not of the world. (John 17:1-26) Jesus prays for the unity and oneness of the church in its mission and purpose. The church is also sent into the world. There is no dimension of life that is beyond the concern and the ministry of the church. Yet, Christ’s call to ministry involves the exceedingly difficult task of struggling to maintain the delicate balance of being in, but not of the world. The servant church should engage the world prepared and grounded in intellectual and theological rigor, seeking to lovingly and passionately foster wisdom, understanding and justice and also speaking truth to power, yet, do so without losing its biblical and theological moorings and becoming too much of the world.
6. Jesus Christ is God’s Living Word &The Linkage of Grace and Truth: (John 1:1-14) – In John 1:14, we learn the incarnate and living Word of God, Jesus Christ, is the perfect blending and incarnation of both grace and truth. When differences run deep and the temptations to anger, hatred and despair rage within and around us, sinful human beings and the church have difficulty discerning God’s will and keeping grace and truth connected and in proper balance. Here we need the Redeeming Presence of the Living Christ, who – like He did at the Last Supper – loves us and gives us a new commandment that we love one another as Christ has already loved us. God’s agape love draws us into a new way of living. Perhaps church historian and theologian, Martin E. Marty, is instructive when he reminds us that the spiritual giants and sages over the millennia have shown us that, as fallible human beings, a degree of humility is wise and God’s purposes are often better served when God’s will is sought rather than claimed. May our struggle to become a more “Christ like” church be sustained and shaped by the prayer of the late theologian, Albert C. Outler, “O Lord deliver us from a truthless love that deceives and a loveless truth that wounds. Amen.”
Rev. Gary Weant
Philadelphia Evangelical Lutheran Church