(This is part fourteen of a multi-entry blog series exploring the Apostles’ Creed.)
I think this may be the most widely misunderstood line of the Apostles’ Creed. What does it mean to say…
“I believe in the holy catholic church.”
How many sermons have you heard on ecclesiology? Yeah, zero, right? That’s because many Christians, pastors included, take for granted the doctrine of the Church. Did you notice that I just used a big-C when I said Church? That’s the focus of this entry: the difference between a church and the Church.
The best definition I’ve heard for “the Church” comes from Wayne Grudem‘s Systematic Theology. He defines “the Church” as “the community of all true believers for all time.” A church is a building; the Church is an eternal group of believers. A church is built out of brick and mortar by the hands of men; the Church is an eternal community built by God. Therefore, there is the visible church (a building) and the invisible church (an eternal community); a church and the Church. To miss the distinction here is to miss the entire point of this entry and what this line is all about. Also, when we talk about the “holy catholic church,” the word catholic simply means “universal”. So in this line, we’re talking about the community of all true believers for all time; this is the universal church (however, this is not universalism).
That’s why, in this line, we also use the word “holy” to describe the Church; the Church is holy because it is not a work of man, but a work of God. So what about the horrible things that have happened in the name of God over the centuries? For example, what about the Crusades? In the Crusades their mantra was Deus vult or “God wills it!” Here’s the interesting part about using any of those historical examples; everyone knows on some level that the Crusades go against what the Bible teaches, right? We all know God’s desire for “the Church” does not match the actions of the Crusaders. At some level, we all have an idea of how the Church should look and how it does look. And we all know the Crusades are irreconcilable to Scripture, right? (And on a more personal level, we all have an idea of how our own personal conduct should look and how it does look.) This goes back to the visible church versus the invisible Church; which one was responsible for the Crusades? Were the Crusades a semi-political cause that was the fruit of widespread corruption within a visible, man-made institution? Or were the Crusades the will of God as His will was done on earth through His invisible Church? One consistent pattern throughout all Scriptures and all human history is that, when people get involved, things go wrong. Because of the taint of sin and because all of creation, including us, is subject to physical and moral decay (Romans 8:21) we need the Church. The need visible churches to fulfill their mission as the invisible Church. And, within the pews and seats of those churches, we need Christians to live their lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ (Philippians 1:27). We live in a world that desperately needs “the Church.”
This brings us to a largely forgotten and likely unappealing Latin phrase: extra Ecclesiam nulla salus! In English, this means “outside the Church there is no salvation.” Notice it’s “the Church”? That’s what this phrase refers to! So why do I bring that up? Hang in there with me!
Have you ever met someone who says something like…
“Oh yeah, I believe in God just not organized religion!”
“I don’t need to go to some building for God.”
“I don’t trust institutions.”
“I have my own little church-like experience without going to a building.”
Well, if you hear someone say that, they’re revealing a deep ignorance of or apathy towards the Scripture. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but I’m just calling a spade a spade! Being connected to the Church, not the building but the true community of believers, is a fruit of being connected to God. People who say they connect with God by themselves are just making excuses for not being involved in a community of Christians; it’s that simple. How can you love God if you don’t love God’s people? First John 4:21 says that if we love God we will love our brother. Who is our brother? Our brother is our brother in Christ. Thus, if we do not love our brother in Christ, we prove do not love Christ (1 John 4:20).
For example, in John 10:14-15 Jesus calls himself the “good shepherd.” What does He lay His life down for? The flock! Sheep travel in flocks. In Acts 2:42, the newly baptized Christians devoted themselves to “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” They were devoted to the fellowship, not to themselves. True Christianity is not a solitary practice but something done within the context of community. In 1 Peter 2:4, the author describes the members of that church as “living stones” that are being built into “a spiritual house.” One brick by itself does not have a purpose; bricks are made to be used together. Peter continues by describing that church (and subsequently all Christians) as “a chose race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people…” (1 Pet 2:9). The context here is very clearly a community; not individual people who never get together. Proverbs 12:17 says that “iron sharpens iron;” it doesn’t say that iron sharpens itself. We need one another to encourage and build one another up, to challenge one another, and to call one another out when we need to repent.
People who share common interests will gather. People who love to run run will form running clubs and will participate in races; people who love to swim will join swimming teams and attend swim meets; people who love to shoot guns (and want to protect the 2nd Amendment) will join the NRA and go to a shooting range; and perhaps the most notorious, people who believe in a political cause will gather together with hopes of enacting some type of change. (Before you argue that people can run, swim, or shoot guns by themselves, please take a minute to consider if you can baptize yourself or take Communion by yourself.) At the very least, people who share common interests will find one another and become friends; unless, of course, your single greatest passion is being alone! People who are passionately in love with God, desire to learn more about His Word, and hope to do His will in this dark, broken world will gather. They will feel compelled to find one another. It’s inevitable! If you love God, then you will want to participate in God’s mission. Guess where that is? The Church! God’s agent in this world is the Church. Thus, if you love God you will want to be involved in God’s Church so as to be part of God’s work in this world. Simple, right?
Let’s look elsewhere at Hebrews 10:24-25, shall we? How can we claim to be connected to the Head (Christ) if we are not connected to the Body (the Church)? Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Reformation, said this about the Church:
Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church. How should we know where Christ and his faith were, if we did not know where his believers are? And he who would know anything of Christ must not trust himself nor build a bridge to heaven by his own reason; but he must go to the Church, attend and ask her. Now the Church is not wood and stone, but the company of believing people; one must hold to them, and see how they believe, live and teach; they surely have Christ in their midst. For outside of the Christian church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.
The idea of a personal connection to God outside of the context of a community is, in the grand scheme of things, a very new concept. While we are individually connected to God through Christ, we become part of a body; no man is an island. It’s the result of post-Enlightenment thinking and its resultant individualism; two ideas that permeate Western thinking and the mentality of Americans. Be careful of those who claim to be connected to God, but not connected to God’s Church.
However, for those who are members of God’s Body, there is a beautiful connection, which is what we’ll be looking at in the next line of the Apostles’ Creed, so don’t touch that dial!
The loss of it is like the sky spread over everything…Pride.
Not the kind that church-goers will tell you your full of when your opinion differs from theirs and they’ve no valid argument to rebut the ideas you’ve proposed. I’ve been there too. No, I’m talking about a general sense of being. My “Condition” renders me utterly helpless in the oddest and silliest situations. And I’m as a child lost in crowd…frozen and full of fear. I’ve been halfheartedly reading through C.S. Lewis’ “A Grief Observed”. The following passages are of his observation and describe more perfectly, more pointedly and more eloquently than any meager attempt I might endeavor…
“I almost prefer the moments of agony. These are at least clean and honest. But the bath of self-pity, the wallow, the loathesome sticky-sweet pleasure of indulgin it – that disgusts me…
And no one ever told me of the laziness of grief. Except at my job-where the machine seems to run on much as usual. I loathe the slightest effort. Not only writing, but reading a letter is too much. Even Shaving. What does it matter now whether my cheek is rough or smooth? They say an unhappy man wants distractions – something to take him out of himself. Only as a dog-tired man wants an extra blanket on a cold night; he’d rather lie there shivering than get up and find one. it’s easy to see why the lonely become untidy, finally, dirty and disgusting.”
I sometimes think that shame, senseless shame, does as much toward preventing good acts and straightforward happiness as ay of our vices can do.
Are these jottings morbid? I once read the sentence “I lay awake all night with toothache thinking about toothache and about lying awake. That’s true to life. Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow of reflection; the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each day in endless grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief. Do these notes merely aggravate that side of it?
An odd byproduct of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll say something about it or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t”
There is no way to put it plainer and harsher than that. The Dilectic here is that while much of what was just read isn’t true – meaning, i’m not an embarrassment to everyone I meet for example, the emotion of it is there none-the-less, so while it may not BE true it still FEELS true and is therefore all the more real. Now, before anyone out there tries to shove that “the Joy of the Lord is your strength” crap down my throat. I KNOW! I read too! And it’s nice sounding, but when you get to where I’m at, when you can’t see how you’ll make it through another day, you don’t want to hear that. Instead, I turn to Moses, Job, PAUL, and the Lord Jesus himself, whom were ALL depressed to the point of DEATH, meaning suicidal. So, don’t tell me christians don’t feel this way and don’t tell me everything’s going to be OK. You don’t know that. But, I’ll hold on, I’ll follow him, I’ll endure whatever cross I must bare because HE DESERVES THE REWARD FOR HIS SUFFERING! Christ didn’t come and die for my comfort. So health, wealth and prosperity pushers, RE-READ your Bible IN CONTEXT, especially those words in red.
And that is my rant for today…you’re welcome!
God has put the idea of surrender on my mind a lot lately. In The Difficulty of Surrender, I basically defined surrender as an awareness and acceptance of God’s sovereignty. The hard part about this definition is that it’s more about a state of being than it is about doing; and as people, we like to know what to do. During one of my discussions about the idea of surrender, Morgan asked me a great question. He said, “The real question is “how do you surrender?”. We are people in perpetual motion, always moving, maneuvering, planning, positioning. It’s tiresome.”
His question made me consider the practical difficulties of my definition of surrender, so I thought I’d take a minute to look at how it can be applied practically in our lives and expand it a little. Since God is concerned with our motives, I think it would be foolish if we never took time to reflect on them ourselves. Thus, I think when we examine whether or not we are living surrendered lives, there are (at least) two really good questions to ask ourselves.
First, is my surrender conditional or unconditional? I know a handful of single people who very, very much want to get married; I was the same way when I was single, too. I actually joined the Air Force because I knew that it was the quickest way for me to be able to provide for a family. When I became a Christian, my prayers sounded something like this, “Dear Lord, I’m ready for the wife you have selected for me.” I thought, for some reason, that God would deem that as an acceptable surrender.
Truthfully, I hadn’t really surrendered that aspect of my life to God. I might as well have prayed, “God, I’m ready when you are…we’re waiting on you here.” I had this silly idea that I could somehow manipulate God by half-heartedly surrendering my love life to Him. In reality, I had simply laid out a check-list of what I felt my love-life should look like and how I expected God to fulfill that request. I surrendered my love-life to Him conditionally. It’s like I was saying, “Yeah, you can have it, but this is what I want You to do with it.” But that’s not really surrender is it?
It wasn’t until I unconditionally set my love-life before Him that I authentically surrendered. I had an aha moment and my prayer changed into, “God, I will love you and follow you no matter what; even if it’s your will that I should be single for the rest of my life, I commit myself fully to you unconditionally.” At this point I believe I finally understood what it meant to release control and let God do as He willed. (Interestingly enough, the exact same week I prayed that prayer, Connie arrived in Alaska. We didn’t meet for about a month after that, but I always thought it was amazing how God worked that out.)
So once you’re committed to unconditionally surrendering your life to God, what does that look like? Well that brings us to our second question concerning authentic surrender.
Ask yourself, do my plans or actions seek to build my kingdom or God’s Kingdom? A while back, Connie asked me how she could discern whether or not a desire was from God. The best I could come up with was to answer her question with a question: whose kingdom was she seeking to build? While our actions are important, I think our motives are of equal importance. Thus, even when we’re doing things that are good, we must examine our motives.
Some actions are not inherently good or bad, such as making money, getting married, or even volunteering at a homeless shelter. It’s actually the motives behind these actions that God is concerned with; getting married so you can be served, making money so you can spend it all on yourself, or volunteering at the homeless shelter so others will think well of you. Suddenly, when good things are done for the wrong reason, they are no longer good. When those activities are done so they build up my kingdom, then my motives are sinful. Thus, it is not a pleasing sacrifice to God.
However, when we surrender all to God, for His purposes and for His glory, everything can become an offering to God. Suddenly, the way I treat my wife, the effort I put into a workout, how I invest my money… It is all an offering to God, for His Kingdom.
This requires an awareness of the fact that your life is not about you. The greatest thing you can do with your life is bring glory to God.
So perhaps an expanded definition of surrender-one that is more practical-should be this: Surrender is an awareness and acceptance of God’s sovereignty and an unconditional commitment to see His Kingdom built and His name glorified, no matter the cost to us.
What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you see or hear the word surrender?
White flag? Giving up control? Cheap Trick? France? Death? These are answers some of my friends gave me.
Surrender is a concept we have great difficulty with. It grates against us. In a world where we’re taught to look out for number one, to get our piece of the pie, and to trust no one, the idea of surrender goes against our entire mindset. How can we ever be great if we don’t surrender? If I don’t look out for me, then who will?
According to WordNet, the word surrender means “acceptance of despair.” No wonder we have such problems with the idea of surrender. Surrender equals despair? Then who would want to surrender? Another definition I found was on Merriam Webster: “to yield to the power, control, or possession of another upon compulsion or demand” or “to give up completely or agree to forgo especially in favor of another.”
Recently, I posted on my Facebook for people to tell me what they thought about surrender and how they felt about surrendering their life to God. The replies were varied, to say the least; the largest portion of us seem to think of surrender as an act of weakness, few seemed to feel as though it would give them a sense of peace. When it comes to surrendering our life to God, we seem to like the concept, but we resist the reality. In other words, on paper we think it looks great to surrender all to God but in our daily lives we have almost no clue what that looks like; it’s hard!
I think our greatest difficulty when it comes to surrendering our life to God is that we feel as though we lose control. Which begs the question: Do we actually have any real control in this world? What isn’t up to God? In what area is He not in control? The truth is that we only have an illusion of control. Yet we cling to this illusion fiercely! It’s funny, really… but then again, it’s not.
Which brings me to something God has taught me very recently about surrender. I’ve been a Christian for around 5 years now, and it’s been a gradual process of surrender to God. He’ll bring me to a precipice and then simply whisper, “Now jump… Don’t worry, I’ll catch you.” Most of the decisions I’ve had to make have not been easy ones; but I guess that’s the price I’ve had to pay to grow closer to God. Slowly but surely, my life has become less and less about building up my kingdom and more and more about building up God’s Kingdom. But there was one thing I knew I was holding back… total surrender.
On January 20th, around 6 p.m., I was driving to a Bible study that Connie and I attend in Eagle River and I finally decided it was time. While driving down the highway I prayed, “God, I’m tired of holding back. I ask you to destroy everything in my life that’s an idol; remove everything that is more important to me than You. I want to love You more than anything else in this world. I want to constantly thirst for Your presence in my life. God, draw me closer to you no matter what it takes.”
To be honest, I had given some thought to this prayer before, but I hadn’t prayed it. I had actually been thinking about this prayer for about a month. It had been in the back of my mind for at least that long. To be perfectly honest, it terrified me! But now, it was too late to take it back. I was all in; and I meant it! There was no turning back.
The first thing I remember is that I felt an intense weight lifted off my shoulders. Pretty soon I realized I was driving down the highway, grinning like an idiot. I was overwhelmed with joy. And that brings us to the simplest yet most counter-intuitive aspect of being a Christian: Surrendering our lives for God’s glory equals our joy. Surrender equals joy.
You know why it terrified me to think about asking God to draw me closer to Him “no matter what it takes”? It’s because I assumed that within 48 hours my life was going to look like Job 3:3-4! I assumed that God would burn down my house, kill my wife, cause my dog to run away (if she survived the house fire), make me lose my job, have one of my legs rot off, and then cause me to go blind. (Okay, so maybe I’m exaggerating but not by too much.)
I think we all feel as though, if we surrender everything to God, He will leave us with nothing. But over the last month I’ve experienced something very different from God. I’ve been given joy I never knew was possible. This leads me to believe that we have a fundamental misunderstanding about the character and nature of God.
I’m now convinced that we worship a God who specializes in obstacle removal. As part of our sanctification (the process through which we are made Holy), God will remove the idols we build up in our lives that keep us from seeing Him. In My Utmost For His Highest, renowned author Oswald Chambers says that “Sanctification means to be intensely focused on God’s point of view. Sanctification means being made one with Jesus so that the nature that controlled him will control us. It will cost absolutely everything in us which is not of God.”
God loves us far too much to let us worship idols; thus He will destroy them until we are devoted to Him alone. I believe that if we surrender all to Him, then nothing is an idol, and nothing need be taken from us. If we commit to build no obstacles between us and God, if we commit to surrender all to Him, then there is no need for Him to remove anything.
Disclaimer! This doesn’t mean that we won’t lose anything; it doesn’t mean life will suddenly have no challenges; it doesn’t mean we will be healthy and wealthy. It simply means that we will be given, as 1 Peter 1:8 says, a “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.”
Which brings me back to the word surrender. Let me ask you a question? Picture a battle in which one of the generals surrenders. Did his surrender actually alter the strength of his army? Did his surrender cause his army to suddenly become weaker than the other general’s army? Or was his surrender an acknowledgement of a reality that already existed? By surrendering, is it possible that he was finally accepting something that had been true all along?
When we surrender our lives to God, it merely opens our eyes to perceive a reality that has been true all along: God is in control; God is sovereign; all we have is actually His. When we stop living our lives as though they revolve around us and start seeing the reality that our entire life should be an offering to God, we receive freedom from fear and worry; it is replaced with the gift of joy. When we stop greedily holding onto our idols and seek Him first, we see true reality.
I’ll be concluding this idea in another entry called The Litmus Test of Surrender.