Sunday, September 9, 2012

People of God


            The people of God; this is a title that has been a part of the Christian religion since the beginning. In fact, it is inherited from the ancient Hebrews who founded modern Judaism. The term is not one that pious religious adherents take lightly as it is one of the most characterizing terms that is unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition; namely, that God is relational and (for whatever divine reason) chooses to have a people. Just as it has for Jews of all eras, the phrase “people of God” gives Christian believers a pattern to follow, a name to live up to and a future to pursue.

            The term “people of God” is found in Hebrew texts as early as the exodus of Moses and the Hebrews from the slavery of Egypt. When Moses and his brother, Aaron, approached the pharaoh about releasing the Hebrews, they said “This is what [Jehovah], the God of Israel, says: Let my people go…” (Exodus 5:1)[1] From this very early record of the historical Judeo-Christian tradition, we see YHWH, the God of the Hebrews, claiming the people of Israel as his special possession. We continue to see the Israelites called the people of God as time progresses. For example, we see that the temple worship performed by the Levite priests contained this notion strongly. In a blessing recorded in the priestly handbook, Leviticus, we read of YHWH speaking of Israel and saying “I will walk among you; I will be your God, and you will be my people.” (Leviticus 26:12)[2]. By Davidic times in Jewish history – approximately 1000 BC[3] – Israel was a well established world power and had really engrained the concept of being special to YHWH into their religion and culture. In the psalms, we read of God delivering his people, protecting his people and giving justice to his people (psalms 53:6, 94:14 and 135:14)[4]. No other passage of scripture sums up the Jewish understanding of how they related to YHWH better than the Deuteronomic text that reads “For you are a holy people, who belong to [Jehovah,] your God. Of all the people on earth, [Jehovah,] your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” (Deuteronomy 7:6)[5].

            I draw out the early sightings of this phrase only to demonstrate that as Christians, we must remember our roots. Often times, in western Christianity, we forget that our beginnings were much farther back in time than the incarnation of God. In order to gain a correct understanding of our own inclusion as the people of God, we must give credence to how the writers of the bible understood the term. Obviously, there is a real exclusiveness to the way the Jews understood their repute with God. This idea that they were better than every other people group drove many of their political and economical decisions. More than the way that they understood their relations with the world around them, the title “people of God” shaped their self-image. Piousness was prized due to the self-imposed standard of holiness. I don’t say this in a condemning way – indeed, it is good to strive for holiness – I only mean to demonstrate that this was their primary definition of self and from this definition they looked to the coming of the Messiah with the hopes that he would restore their former glory and power in the same way that they had seen David do as king. In short, the early Jew’s idea of being the people of God meant that they deserved to be in power according to earthly politics. Jesus turns this notion on its head.

            In keeping with the traditional understanding of what it meant to be the people of God, we read in the gospel of Luke, the prophecy of Zechariah (father of John the Baptist) in which he speaks of the impending incarnation and what it will mean. He says in verse 68 and 69 “Praise [Jehovah], the God of Israel, because he has visited and redeemed his people. He has sent us a mighty Savior from the royal line of his servant David…”[6] The actions of Christ on earth were far from what traditional Jews expected out of their Messiah. Effectually, what Jesus did was push the boundaries of the small circle that enclosed the people of God to the point where it could include the entire world population. After Christ’s ascension, we see the early church founders writing letters in an effort to guide new Christians in navigating this new definition of being the people of God. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul gives a decisive voice in the matter of the Jewish ceremony of circumcision. He says “It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation. May God’s peace and mercy be upon all who live by this principle; they are the new people of God”[7] (Galatians 6:16; emphasis mine). Paul understood those who believed in the deity of Jesus and in the message he came to proclaim to be a part of God’s people via a metaphysical transformation of self.

In order for contemporary Christians to understand what it means to be the people of God, I would like to speak briefly on what it means to be a people. In America, we often forget what it means to be a people. This is largely in due to the fact that our nation is built of people from all nations speaking all tongues. Couple this demographic hurdle with the hyper-individualism of the twenty first century and it is easy to see why post-modern people tend to forget how to identify as a people group first and an individual secondarily. To be a people means that the corporate is greater than the individual. It is in this context that we encounter the phrase “people of God”; Israel, while obviously being made up of many individuals is regarded consistently as a single entity by God throughout the bible. Drawing from the New Testament scriptures, we must continue this understanding of personhood. We are the people of God because we are a part of the single entity that is the ecclesia. Our primary allegiance is to what is traditionally called the Kingdom of God and it is in this kingdom that we are freed from the kingdoms of this world.[8] We then identify with the story of redemption and intimate relationship with the creator which gives us a future of eternal association with the divine to look forward to.

Progressing into our daily lives, we should be like the early Israelites who utilized the title “people of God” as the life defining title over and against every other label they could possess. Understanding that we are God’s own private possession and object of affection is foundational to our own self regard. When we view ourselves in this manner, we find value in the mundane decisions that we encounter in life; this is how we determine our conduct and stewardship of our possessions. This is what makes us distinct from the world around us. We are the people of God; this is our definition of self.
The Dread

[1] Townsend, Kenny. "Exodus." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 103. Print.
[2] Townsend, Kenny. "Leviticus." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 195. Print.
[3] Tullock, John H., and Mark Harold McEntire. "Israel's Time of Glory: David and Solomon." The Old Testament story. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009. 152. Print.
[4] Townsend, Kenny. "Psalms." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 900, 944, 985. Print.
[5] Townsend, Kenny. "Deuteronomy." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 275. Print.
[6] Townsend, Kenny. "Luke." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 1673. Print.
[7] Townsend, Kenny. "Galatians." Life application study bible: new living translation, black, bonded leather, personal size.. S.l.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005. 1996. Print.
[8] Wilson, Jonathan R.. "The Story of the Kingdom." God so loved the world: a christology for disciples. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001. 23-39. Print.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Understanding the church

Here's something to chew on B-)

One topic of theology that seems to be the most under discussed and yet is incredibly obvious is the understanding of the church. Often times Christians get so caught up in doing church and knowing the language of “christianese” that they end up not being able to see the proverbial trees for the forest standing in their way. Our fundamental understanding of whom and what the church is supposed to be is vital to our functioning in a practical Christian lifestyle. There are many definitions of the church that abound, so I will not be attempting to cover every definition; instead, I will attempt to bring out a diversity of opinions and then give my own thoughts on the topic.

            In a discussion of the Christian church, I think it’s fair to make some observations of a couple of perpetuations that have invaded traditional Christian theology and are character of what I like to refer to as “pop-Christianity”. The first is a term that I most definitely did not coin; it describes well the illness that has beset the church; it is called “the gospel of prosperity”. This is the teaching that God wants you healthy, attractive and wealthy. Then, the logic goes, God’s will is supreme and since God wants all those things for me, I guess I’ll just be ok with that. This belief is not only contradictory to the more ascetic foundations of Christianity in the desert fathers, martyrs and even Christ himself but, it excludes that majority of the world who is either ill, poor, ugly or some combination of the three. The gospel of Christ is one of open arms to the marginalized, not one that excludes them or treats them as secondary citizens or “not fully Christian” Christians.

            Unfortunately the gospel of prosperity is alive and well in charismatic or (as Simon Chan says in his book Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community) charismaniacal[1] circles. Preachers such as Joel Osteen even add to their statement of beliefs that “God intends for each of us to experience the abundant life he has in store for us”[2]. This is not only an inaccurate view of how God regards us, but it is exclusive to those who have not experienced the “abundant life”; are these people simply not included in God’s intentions for prosperity? This is a dangerous doctrine that chases people away from the church due to the narrowness and exclusivity of the gospel of prosperity

            Another major cripple to Christianity is what Author, Kendra Dean, calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in her book Almost Christian[3]. This belief is also alive and well in our churches and misconstrues the purpose of the Church. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism displaces the original story of believers who had struggles to remain holy with a story that simply says “do good, feel good and then maybe include Christ. The church is called to much more than feeling like good people, doing nice things and remember Jesus once a week.

            This is a problem of nurture over and against nature. We are directly responsible for showing a correct theology of the church to our children. In the west, we get so sidetracked to keep up with things that we forget the ever-present God who is truly in control of things. Being a Christian is more that simply being nice, doing good things and then sprinkling on a little Christ. We must be intentional now about the future generations and how they will worship.

            Moving on from some of the more frustrating issues that plague the church, we must look at a remedy. One solution to the cheap faith of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and the inaccurate proclamations of the gospel of prosperity is that of a liturgical theology. Chan does a fair job of demonstrating the importance of the worship of the Christian church. In fact, Chan defines the church as primarily a worshiping community rather than any kind of social functioning group that serves a purpose. Chan goes so far as to say “like play, the liturgy has no purpose, yet it is full of meaning”.[4] What he means is that it is unfathomably important to encounter God and yet there is no other agenda to be pursued. Truly, being a worshiping gathering of people is an end in itself.

            In order to demonstrate the balance that liturgy strives to maintain, I would like to defer to Theologian John Zizioulas. In his book Lectures in Christian Dogmatics he succinctly states that in relation to the world, “the Church should be offering itself to the world rather than imposing itself on it”[5]. While the church as a worshiping community should be focused on worshiping of God, we must not draw a strict dichotomy between the church and the world. While there are many arguments for being distinct from the world, there are few strong arguments to justify departing from it entirely and as Zizioulas says, we should be offering the world something. That something is a relationship with the creator and his church; this is something that is worth living for and (as many martyrs have demonstrated) worth dying for.

            I have already started to share some of my own ideas on what the church is supposed to be. I do like the way that Chan identifies the church as a collection of worshipers primarily. As a worship leader, I have found that it is incredibly important to maintain a worshipful lifestyle in all ways. Everything from eating and drinking to prayer and scripture reading can be forms of worship. Worship is any action that one executes in order to acknowledge God for what he is. As a community of worshipers, our focus becomes on God instead of on humanity and all of the ways that we are different or even similar for that matter. We often substitute traditional worship for feel-good songs that have little to no theological backing. How sad that the bride of Christ should forget the importance how to say “I love you” to her lover so soon after the church’s inception.

            In conjunction with seeing everything we do as worship and seeing ourselves as a worshiping community, I think it is almost as important for the church catholic to be as relevant as possible in any case; however, it is important for us to remember that the pragmatics of trying to be relevant necessitate moving outward and focusing our energies on the world who will persecute us. Following the example of Christ, we welcome this persecution for the payoff is much greater; the waking up of sleeping souls to the reality of the Kingdom of God. We as the church, the bride of Christ acknowledge our responsibility to preserve the ecclesia at every opportunity through the truth that our traditions import. This doesn’t mean the liturgy is the only answer – no, it is but one of many – but it does mean that the handing down of our faith is the only way that the church will survive; to this end, tradition is the answer.

Leave me a comment and lemme know your thoughts too!

The Dread

[1] Chan, Simon. Liturgical theology: the church as worshiping community. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2006. Print.
[2][2] "What We Believe Joel Osteen Ministries." Joel Osteen Ministries. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 Aug. 2012. <
[3] Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: what the faith of our teenagers is telling the American church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
[4] Chan, Simon. "The Worship of the Church." Liturgical theology: the church as worshiping community. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2006. 54. Print.
[5] Zizioulas, Jean, and Douglas H. Knight. "The Church." Lectures in Christian dogmatics. London: T & T Clark, 2008. 161. Print.