It matters with whom you are believing and confessing: there is no believing without confessing together as a local church
Here's the rub: it's not just simply believing in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead and confessing that Jesus is Lord, but with whom you are believing with and confessing together with that matters.
There is a remarkable interchange between Aslan and one of the children getting ready to embark on a dangerous, yet important journey. In C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, Aslan, the Christ-like figure in the story, is speaking rather seriously to Jill. It was important, crucial for her to remember these signs that will guide her on her perilous quest to rescue the Prince Rilian. She must cling to Aslan’s words and follow the signs that he gave her:
. . . first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.
Remember the signs.
True, our text, Romans 10:5-13, is not explicitly about signs . . . but it is, actually, in the two marks of faith, signs if you will, that are given: believing and confessing. Signs that signify! My parallel in using Aslan’s words to Jill in Lewis’ The Silver Chair also isn’t apparent . . . so let me explain before we get to the text itself.
First, believing and confessing are indeed the marks (signs) of a believing community and these signs are true and should to be true of the house-churches in Rome:
These are the two signs—they are clear on the mountain top (that is, in theology and, perhaps, in our belief systems), but they won’t be so clear in the thick air of the valley (in the mundane and crises of life). The two signs: believing God raised Jesus from the dead and confessing that Jesus is Lord. Sounds so easy. So simple. Especially living and breathing in a nation and within a place and time when church seems so normal and natural and pretty easily defined. But, actually, not so much. Certainly not so easy in that first setting, the city capital of the world, Rome. Believing that God raised that traitor—that man crucified on that Roman cross. Being raised from the dead was incredibly naïve and ridiculously dangerous in an Empire where people stayed dead once they were declared guilty of treason and put to open shame on a Roman cross. And, confessing this One raised from the dead—confessing out-loud, in public, in the lifting of that fourth cup at that supper meal—that Jesus is Lord is not only scandalous, it was treason against Caesar (for he was to be confessed as Lord). This believing and confessing was dangerous—and if you didn’t see this and hear this believing and confessing happening, well, it wasn’t church. It wasn’t a church.
This is one certain place where the Christian life cannot, biblically, be lived apart from a local, concert, embodied group of believers—a church. A “confessing” Christian simply cannot confess apart from others, others who are seated around that table. In fact, there is no believing without confessing and there is no confessing without being a part of a local, concrete body of believers, a church.
We are believing, not as individuals, not as disembodied, church-less Christians, but as confessing Christians together that Jesus is Lord . . . and who is around this table, that is, who is supposed to be around that table: the elite-Greek, Barbarian, Jew, the educated and the uneducated . . . this is Paul’s point to the house-churches in Rome—this is Paul’s point to us in Romans 10:9-13:
because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Why is there no distinction between Jew and Greek? Why is there no distinction between the Jew and the elite-Greek, the barbarian, the educated and the uneducated (cf. Romans 1:14), because God’s solution to our sin is not out of reach for anyone. Why is it found in our believing that God raised Him from the dead and by us confessing that Jesus is Lord . . . why? . . . because “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Everyone—the elite-Greek, barbarian, Jew, educated and uneducated. (Feel free to translate that string into today’s population, social, and cultural, dividing, and separating demographics.)
While we often use this text—and the next regarding sending preachers (10:14ff.)—as witnessing texts, evangelizing texts, they are not used in this way here in Romans 10 nor are they used for the house-churches in Rome to evangelize; but to help promote unity among the house-churches in Rome . . . how so? First, the unwelcomeness (Romans 14-15) among the house-churches in Rome between classes of people (social and cultural), it disavowed, negated what Paul is saying about the “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”
We, too often, gather in worship together like NOT EVERYONE who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved . . . it looks like in our gathering as church, in our supper-room, around the table, that only “our kind,” only our friends and peers, only those in our political party, only those we’d want our children to marry, only those on this side of the rail-road tracks (as it were), this side of town . . . only these are who call upon the name of the Lord who will be saved. This is the context and purpose of Romans, and is a fair and appropriate reading of the significance of Paul’s words concerning “believing” and “confessing.”
The early church would not have had to fence the table and, in fact, we do not see them doing that amid the New Testament testimony. Strangely, most of the supper-rooms where the first Christians gathered would have been public or at least semi-public where outsiders could see what was happening . . . and, thus, to participate in the Lord’s supper, surrounded at that table by fellow-Jesus-followers from differing classes, genders, age groups, slaves and masters would have been crazy unless you actually believed that God raised Jesus from the dead; for you were confessing with these strangers and unequals that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord.
This crazy mixed company of peoples, believing and confessing together was the sign that it was all true—the gospel and the church were all true.
The church at worship:
“If there is to be a ‘committed people as the sign and agent and foretaste of what God intends, it can only be insofar as their [church’s] life is continually renewed through contact with God himself’ in worship . . . ‘True worship enables us [as church] to be conformed more and more inwardly to the Cross of Jesus.’ The cross of Jesus means a total and costly identification with the world [around us], on the one hand, and yet a radical separation from its idolatry, on the other. Worship renews us in this life of Jesus.”
~Michael W. Goheen, in his The Church and Its Vocation, as he reflects on Lesslie Newbigin's concept of God’s missional means of grace.
"We can no longer afford our historical sentimentality to the past. Christendom is not the biblical mode of the church. It was/is merely one way in which the church has conceived of itself. In enshrining it as the sole form of the church, we have made it into an idol that has captivated our imaginations and enslaved us to a historical-cultural expression of the church. We have not answered the challenges of our time precisely because we refuse to let go of the idol. The answer to the problem of mission in the West requires something far more radical than reworking a dated and untenable model. It will require that we adopt something that looks far more like the early church in terms of its conception of the church (ecclesiology) and its core task in the world (missiology)." ~ Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come
Each spring I attempt to write a brief paper for our Northeast Regional Evangelical Theological Society. This year (2016) I thought I’d put together a study on the Synoptic writers’ use of “crowd” (oxlos) in their Gospel narratives. Below is my paper submission abstract and outline, along with a brief reflection on how I came to consider “crowd” as a Gospel character.
A Real Time, Messy Missional (Local) Church: What “Crowd” as a Gospel Character Teaches About Being Missional-Church
Pastors and lay-teachers tend to be more comfortable focusing on cognitive effects and propositional aspects of the gospels like Jesus’ preaching, parables, and teaching. Characters are another matter in the gospel narratives, for they are more likely to be “identified with” or used as “lessons” in which they tend to be allegorized, devotionalize, or typified rather than seeking how they are used in the story and, thus, developed for their contextual interpretive significance. The “crowd,” on the other hand, is rarely viewed as a character in the Synoptic Gospels and, thus, often not considered for its interpretive value.
The “crowd” character presents a difficulty for the interpreter of the Gospel narratives. The “crowd” is that messy, unclear presence at much of Jesus’ ministry—sometimes for Jesus, sometimes against him, occasionally believing, oftentimes unbelieving, and, then, more so, it is split believing and not believing. And what makes the interpretation-application process even more troublesome, often the reader is left just not knowing the crowd’s confessional state of mind.
One thing is consistent, however, the “crowd” is almost always present at Jesus’ public activities, teaching, and travels. Conversely, one could posit that Jesus was present among the crowd in much of the Synoptic Gospel narrative. Assuming that the Gospels were written to help local, believing communities to imagine how the gospel was to inform and form their discipleship and missional purpose, the “crowd” has value at the teaching level. What does the Synoptic Gospel crowd reveal about a church’s mission and presence among others? Is our building-centered church experience prohibitive of such crowds? What can the significance of the Synoptic Gospel crowd (as) character tell or instruct us on how we should do church, today?
To give this a contemporary social location, the forming significance of “crowd” as a Synoptic Gospel character should be juxtaposed with the forming power of a building-centered church experience and how this affects the missional life of the local church. We should grasp how a building-centered church experience is anti-crowd; the “crowd” as a Gospel character should inform our exegetical-significance-application process; we should observe how the role of “crowd” and its impact in the text informs the missional purpose of a local church; and, the significance of “crowd” shows is what is suitable “space” for a local church. This effort here [in the full paper] seeks to demonstrate (conclude) that a missional-church creates space for crowd to engage the gospel of the kingdom.
A preliminary reflection on “crowd
After studying and writing on the Mark 3 Beelzebul passage and “the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” (it isn’t what you think it is; trust me), I was fascinated by Mark’s use of “crowd” throughout his Gospel. If we take Mark as inspired and his use of “crowd” as a strategic character in the gospel story, it seems to me, we should grasp the crowd’s significance within our understanding of both the gospel and, as well, the (local) church. Obviously more needs to be studied and written on this, but a brief forethought on crowd is worth it as we strive to rethink church.
One specific characteristic of the “crowd” worth noting, it is always around Jesus (or Jesus is in the midst of the crowd), meeting and greeting him, listening to him, and sometimes literally jumping over one another to be near to what Jesus was doing or saying. Second, another aspect to grasp, the “crowd” is sometimes believing and sometimes unbelieving, and sometimes, well, you just can’t tell one way or another. Sometimes the “crowd” is even split by belief and unbelief. Yet, the presence of Jesus was marked by the presence of "crowd" (ochlos).
I have come to the conclusion this is the way it should be with the (local) church, which is God’s fullness, Christ’s body local (e.g., Ephesians 1:22). Seriously, as the body of Jesus, the church, that is, a local church, should be surrounded by “crowd” in a similar fashion as Jesus himself was surrounded by “crowd.” We read out such inferences (to “crowd”) in the Gospels and mostly cannot conceive the church’s role in this way. This is one of the negative aspects of our building-centered church habits. We need to stop thinking church as a building, and acting like it is—in fact, a building-centered church experience is prohibitive of this crowd-missional aspect of the church's purpose and, can be, antithetical of gospel. We, as evangelicals, are uncomfortable with crowds “at” church; uncomfortable where the categories of believing and unbelieving are rather foggy. (This does havoc on a high fencing view of communion, for sure.) This suggests we need to rethink church and where “church” (and possibly how it) happens.
Whereas the inner circle of followers and disciples (we more comfortably refer to as the church members or regulars attenders) are believing (and sometimes maybe even struggling to believe) and, at differing levels, learning obedience, on the other hand, the outer circle that surrounds the church (and sometimes crowding inside as it were) is a little foggy on the issue of belief. But, they ought to be there—sometimes they’ll look like believers, sometimes they won’t, and sometimes you just will not be able to tell one way or another. We need to see “crowd” around the (local) church as a vital character in the (local) church’s story within the community it seeks to minister and serve. Perhaps more biblically accurate, we should experience church in the midst of “crowd,” for the church is Jesus’ body--and this is what Jesus displayed in the Gospel narratives.
The ferment of the early church: we are unprepared to live out patience (well, I am unprepared that's for sure)
Brad Brisco has put together a good list of Missional church related books. Additionally he includes a four-part series of blogs that will help us understand the term and use of “missional.”
A number of the books on the list I have read--some I need to. From his list, here is a few I can highly recommend. If you are a church planter, concerned about evangelism and missions in the local church, these will feed your soul:
Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America by Lois Barrett and Darrell Guder
Missional Essentials by Brad Brisco and Lance Ford
The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the Church from Big Business, Parachurch Organizations, Psychotherapy, Consumer Capitalism, and Other Modern Maladies by David Fitch
ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch
Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture by Michael Frost
The Church Between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America by George Hunsberger, and Craig Van Gelder
Misisonal: Joining God in the Neighborhood by Alan Roxburgh
Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus by Smith, Christopher Smith and John Pattison
Confident Witness – Changing World: Rediscovering the Gospel in North America
by Craig Van Gelder
The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit by Craig Van Gelder
Sometimes we should be deeply impacted by a text of Scripture, not so much as an encouragement or a comfort, but seriously scaring us to death. We are conditioned to seek solace, comfort, encouragement, even exhortation, in the Bible. We are told and, perhaps, have taught others to hold on to its promises. But, this is only half right. We should be consoled by texts meant to console, yet scared to death by texts meant to slay us. Ephesians 3:1-13 is one such text of Scripture (despite most preachers never presenting this path of relevance or application from this pericope of Paul’s words–at least to my knowledge).
“For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
Here some of my thoughts that arise from Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus:
I recall, now too many years ago to acknowledge, telling some bible college students that were complaining about the rule that all hats, including baseball caps, were to be taken off inside a campus building:
“If you can’t take off those caps now, what makes you think you’ll be able to die for your faith in some god-forsaken land when all indication seems to indicate that God has abandoned you?”
If you are a Christian (especially a Christian leader), you shouldn’t be able to read Ephesians 3:1-13 with any measure of comfort either—and it should scare the hell out of you, as well. The question remains, nonetheless, where will you go? To whom will you go to? With whom will you live and ministry so that all, that is those now outside the church, may have access to the Father?
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.