One of the analogies used by the apostle Paul to explain the mystery of the church – for it is a divine-human mystery – is drawn from the Old Testament idea of the ‘people of God’. Such a definition bridges the two fundamental realities of the church – on the one hand its historical existence in the present world, and on the other its transcendent existence in the world to come, when the church will be with God in glory.
In his book Church in the New Testament (NY, Seabury 1965), R. Schnackenburg argues that in Hebrew thought, the Lord’s people constituted a whole – a corporate entity – to the extent that every individual was absolutely and deeply involved in the future of the entire community (p.149). The extreme individualism seen in much Western thought is simply not biblical.
As with their Hebrew predecessors, the church, as the new people of God, must be characterised by a corporate personality. As Paul says, ‘When one suffers all suffer; when one is exalted all are exalted’ (1 Corinthians 12:26). The community of those who trust in the risen Christ are one in Christ.
Behind the establishment of this new unified people of God lies the reality of the risen Christ, ‘who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good’ (Titus 2:14; emphasis added).
Citizens of heaven
We must not, of course, spiritualise this oneness with one another and with Christ in some unreal gnostic sense. This new reality is a historical community of living persons, present in the flesh in time and space.
Yet, it must be recognised and emphasised that although the church – Christ’s unified body – lives in this world, it is not of this world. Rather, it is an eschatological community with its gaze fixed on the Parousia, the return of Christ.
Moreover, the historical people of God are simultaneously citizens of their lands and ‘citizens of heaven’. In other words, the church is both of this age and of the age to come, existing in both history and eschatology.
The wedding of history and eschatology in the life of the church parallels the simultaneous nature of its historical and eschatological mandate. The historical mandate is ‘Go into all the world’ (Mark 16:15); the eschatological mandate is ‘Come you blessed of my Father’ (Matthew 25:34).
Coming and going
The life of the church has many facets and needs careful study, but we can state in general terms that its dynamic is determined by the relation between ‘go’ and ‘come’ – that is, between missions and worship.
Historically, some have overemphasised missions to the detriment of worship, while others have emphasised worship to the detriment of missions. In other words, some ‘come’ but never ‘go’, while others always ‘go’ and never ‘come’. A biblically balanced church emphasises both worship and missions.
Additionally, some neglect the eschatological nature of the church and (under the pressure of history, culture and trends) pursue evangelism as a merely human enterprise. The result is that the church is no longer distinct from the world it seeks to evangelise. The irony of such an approach is that although we all know that the world cannot save itself, some are still bewitched by the methods of the world.
The apostle Paul reminds us all that while ‘we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds’ (2 Corinthians 10:3-4).
Alternatively, others have transformed the church into a eschatological ghetto. It is no longer relevant to the world in which it lives but instead resembles a museum or antique shop.
The main concern of such a church is to preserve its structure and tradition – not to win the world for Jesus Christ. To such people the apostle Paul would say, ‘Though I am free and belong to no man, I made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.
‘To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so as to win those under the law.
‘To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.
‘I have become all things to all men so by all possible means I may save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings’ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).
In Paul’s teaching we see an extraordinary balance between the historical and eschatological natures of the church. This interplay of the divine-human and historical-eschatological dimensions of the church provides a theological frame of reference for the relation of evangelism to the local church.
We conclude that evangelism is the way of life of a worshipping community. In other words, evangelism is the present lifestyle of the believing community of the age to come. The evangelist is not a Lone Ranger on earth, but a member of this community.
Dr Negrut is President of Emanuel University, Oradea, the Romanian Baptist Union and the Romanian Evangelical Alliance Fellowship