Being the Bodyby Charles W. Colson, Ellen Santilli Vaughn
In this new, revised and expanded edition of The Body, Charles Colson revisits the question, 'What is the church and what is its relevance to contemporary culture at large?See more details below
In this new, revised and expanded edition of The Body, Charles Colson revisits the question, 'What is the church and what is its relevance to contemporary culture at large?
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September 11. No matter how much time goes by or what has happened since, it still seems unbelievable. A dividing line in all our lives. Before and after.
Whether we watched it unfold on television from far, far away, or knelt in the ash-strewn streets of Manhattan, or lost someone we loved in the fireball at the Pentagon or in the field in Pennsylvania, it is a universal touchstone of horror and violation.Catastrophe.
C. S. Lewis said that in every human story, as in divine history, there are two catastrophes. The first is utter ruin: the catastrophe of disintegration and undoing, the end of life as we know it, light extinguished and death's dark triumph. The crucifixion.
The second is the good catastrophe: the reintegrating and remaking, new hope rising out of the ashes-the good that would otherwise not be. The resurrection.
Both catastrophes dwell in the unsought stories of September 11. We cannot begin to do them justice. We cannot capture the horror of evil's fiery day.
Nor can we adequately portray the triumph of hope: every candle lit in a nation whose heart was broken, every selfless act of service to those who were hurt and bereaved, every pint of blood given, every fragile tie of community restored where it once was not.
Like the unity of the heroes of Flight 93, who made sure their plane plunged into a Pennsylvania field rather than through the White House or the Capitol dome. They said farewell to their families on the phones. They prayed the Lord's Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm, their hoarse voices rising together in the shadow of death. And then they took a last deep breath and rushed the plane's long aisle to the end-in order to save others.
Just as we cannot do justice to September 11, we could not begin to detail all the ways that churches across our nation lived their faith in its wake. In the darkest hour, so many of the people of God stood as His church, doing what the church does best: being the community that brings hope and comfort to brokenness and pain.
Think of that New York homeless shelter, a beacon for the weary and burdened, where cups of cool water were offered in Jesus' name. Or of the churches that helped widows and orphans in their distress . . . the essence of "true religion," as the book of James says. Or of the communities of believers gathering together in homes and churches across that great city-singing praises to God, bringing their pain to Jesus, and drawing their grieving neighbors to the love of Christ.
Think, too, of the service at Washington's National Cathedral a few days after the disaster. Government leaders, foreign dignitaries, and four ex-presidents gathered for an extraordinary service of remembrance.
Speaking with humility and power, Billy Graham laid out the gospel. "This cruel plot," he said, leads us to "confess our need for God. We've always needed God . . . many who died [in the attacks] are in heaven right now. They wouldn't want to come back. . . . Each of us must realize our own spiritual need. . . . The cross tells us that God understands our sin and suffering. He took it upon Himself. And from the cross, God declares, 'I love you!'"
Billy Graham went on to challenge Americans to use this terrible calamity as a wake-up call to focus on the reality of the hope of the gospel. Hope for the present, that this be a time of spiritual revival, and hope for the future-"not just for this life, but for heaven and the life to come."
In the weeks that followed, networks carried profoundly moving memorial services for those heroes-firefighters, police, and ordinary citizens-who died in the tragedy. Life as usual was no more, and millions of Americans went about their daily tasks with a thoughtful reverence born of brokenness.
Complacency-the greatest enemy of spiritual vigor in the West-had been shattered by the catastrophes of life and death, good and evil, hope and despair. Churches filled across our nation, as thousands of people realized-or subconsciously sensed-that the terrorist attacks of 2001 had actually changed everything.
In 1992, the year The Body was originally published, professor of public policy Dr. Francis Fukyama published The End of History and the Last Man. It became a bestseller, voicing the exhilarating hope of the times: The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Iron Curtain had rusted away, the Soviet Union had crumbled, the Cold War was over. The world as we had known it had changed, and America, to its exuberant surprise, found itself the lone remaining superpower: King of the World.
The End of History became standard fodder for commentators and op-ed writers, its ideas trickling down to the masses. It was an irresistibly seductive notion: Western liberal democracy had won the great ideological struggle of the twentieth century. Communism and fascism had been vanquished. A new era of enlightenment had dawned. Defense budgets were slashed, fueling the great economic boom of the nineties. Nothing could now derail a future of peace and prosperity, with America and its ideas reigning throughout the planet.
Had human nature indeed been transformed and evil banished?
Any such utopian hopes collapsed the day the Twin Towers fell.
Perhaps a more prescient prophet of the twenty-first century was Harvard professor emeritus Samuel Huntington, who in 1996 wrote The Clash of Civilizations. Huntington's controversial book posited that the world is divided along the lines of the great religious civilizations: those states comprising the Eastern religions in one bloc, the Judeo-Christian West in another, and yet another being the scattered nations of Islam, which form a belt around the globe's girth from Nigeria in the west, eastward to Indonesia. The great confrontation, predicted Huntington, would be between the Muslim world and the West, a clash that Huntington said Islam will win.
While we challenge Huntington's ultimate conclusion, his analysis was prophetic. Many Christians did not see the coming confrontation between Islam and the West; we were distracted by the simmering culture wars between Judeo-Christian tradition and the aggressive forces of secular naturalism.
Then 9-11 jolted us to the reality of another, more chilling front in the war of world-views. While the culture war, for the most part, is conducted with clever words in Hollywood, on Capitol Hill, and in newspaper editorials, this new war of world-views is literal. It is waged with bombs and hijackings and murderous annihilation.
Islam is intrinsically a militant religion, which, if true to its own doctrine, expands by force. Some moderate Muslims say the term jihad, which literally means struggle, is used figuratively as a picture of the individual's struggle to achieve holiness. That is doubtless so for millions of Muslims. Yet it was during an intense time of local wars that Mohammed, seeking to unite his people against aggressors, wrote of jihads. Many scholars believe that he meant it quite literally; indeed, the new religion Mohammed founded soon vanquished its enemies by the sword.
Some Muslims still follow that paradigm today, including terrorist cells scattered throughout the world. This is why those who have been privy to classified information, like former CIA Director Jim Woolsley, believe that we are in the middle of World War IV. (The Cold War was World War III.) That's a harsh thought; it pierces any complacent visions of the end of history.
Any who question the seriousness of the confrontation with radical Islam should examine the differences between its world-view and Christianity's.
First, consider their respective views of human nature. The Muslim believes that human beings are inherently good, that all that hinders paradise is the failure to advance Islam, and that once it is fulfilled (by whatever means), there will be peace and happiness.
What militant Muslims seek, therefore, is no different than what Hitler and the Marxists desired: Give us power and we will usher in the perfect state, the super race, or the workers' paradise. The greatest horrors of the twentieth century were perpetrated by utopians, who always suppress liberty (usually with bloodshed) because they will, by force if necessary, put their views of what is good ahead of your right to determine that for yourself.
The Judeo-Christian world-view believes that human beings are sinful people who need individual redemption and the continuing restraints of law and culture. (As G. K. Chesterton said, this doctrine of original sin is the only philosophy validated by thousands of years of recorded human history.) Paradise is not achieved by anything we can do-spiritually, politically, or otherwise-but by the gift of God.
Second, Islam is a theocracy. The Koran is the law, and under that law, those of other faiths cannot truly exercise full rights of citizenship. This is why Christians are not allowed to practice their faith, even in private, in Saudi Arabia-and why in most Islamic states, people other than Muslims cannot hold office and indeed in some places must pay extra taxes. There is intense persecution of Christians in many Muslim states like Sudan, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Pakistan.
While secular elites in the West carp about religious groups (usually meaning Christians) "imposing their view on others" (as if we could) or chipping away at the proverbial "wall of separation between church and state," nothing in our experience is even remotely close to theocracy.
In reality, the democratic ideal of the West-one that is not understood by those who seek to banish religiously informed values from public life-is genuine pluralism. This is the religious freedom and healthy tolerance that respect people's unalienable rights-not just Christians'-to pursue and practice their religious beliefs. As for religious persecution, it is noteworthy that the West came to the aid of Bosnian Muslims against their Serb oppressors, who were largely Orthodox Christians in name.
Third, the Koran's view is that Allah rules by his will, with no assurance of ultimate redemption for his followers-unless a Muslim dies as a martyr in a jihad to repel the infidels. Hence the seemingly endless supply of suicide bombers. For most Muslims, any hope of redemption lies in being able after death to walk across the sword of judgment, being pronounced by his or her deeds as acceptable to Allah.
On the other hand, the God of the Bible is the deity of such supreme love that He sent His Son to die a substitutionary atoning death for all who believe. He promises heaven-not for good deeds, and surely not for the murders of opponents, but by the extravagant gift of His grace for those who put their trust in Him.
This leads to yet another major difference. Islam rejects the Trinity, saying it is the worship of three gods and is thus blasphemy to Allah. Muslim students on American campuses today are handing out tracts showing a diagram of three separate gods-Christianity's fundamental heresy, they say.
But for the Christian, difficult as the mystery of the Trinity may be, it goes to the heart of our belief. God the Father and Creator, Jesus the Redeemer and the Word become flesh, and the Holy Spirit the Sustainer are one essence. The same God who made us sacrificed Himself to save us and lives in us by His Spirit.
Finally, Islam advances inevitably by force as it achieves power in each state. This is why militant Muslims are fomenting unrest and violence around the globe. They must, if consistent with their own beliefs, seek political power. But the Christian gospel, by definition, advances in the world only as God's love is extended, people are redeemed by Christ, and by His Spirit believers perpetuate His good in the world around them.
This sketch is brief, but it highlights the fundamental differences between Islam and Christianity. No one who understands these distinctions can be sanguine about the clash of civilizations. Two immense belief systems are contending for influence and for the advancement of their beliefs-and their basic suppositions are fundamentally at odds.
Thus we cannot accept the mushy civic religious ecumenism that sprouted after September 11. In the many religious services that followed the tragedy, organizers scrupulously gave equal billing to all faith groups. The nation received a massive dose of politically correct sensitivity training-and it stuck. Polls showed that Americans' respect for Islam actually increased after September 11.
President Bush, understandably anxious to reach out to moderate Muslim governments and to avoid a backlash against Arab Americans, hosted the first dinner ever held at the White House for Muslim clerics. Other politicians were equally sensitive; appropriately so, considering the volatile circumstances. After all, the politician's role is different from the pastor's.
But some pastors evidently didn't make that distinction. Muslim imams not only appeared at interfaith services, but also spoke from pulpits in some Christian churches. And incredibly, a poll showed that nearly 50 percent of highly committed evangelical Protestants agreed with the statement that many religions can lead to eternal life.
It is important not to inflame a difficult situation or trigger a reaction against Muslims in this country, the overwhelming majority of whom are surely patriotic, peace-loving Americans. But it is also crucial for Christians not to blur the clear differences between our beliefs. How can we contend for Christian truth if we don't know the distinctives of our faith or why the truth claims of other world-views fall short? Our case must, of course, be made in a loving manner; that's a given. But being loving doesn't mean ignoring truth.
In fact, if we follow Jesus, we will love Muslims so much that sharing the love of Christ with them is the most natural thing we can do. This is more important now than ever, for thoughtful, peace-loving Muslims should find terrorist violence abhorrent. Is this, then, not a good time to introduce them to the love of the Christ, who died and was bodily raised from the dead, and to the promise that their sins can actually be forgiven and that they can have the assurance of paradise with Christ forever?
I have found that Muslims respond to this message, particularly the historicity of the resurrection. Once, during a trip to visit with Prison Fellowship India volunteers and workers, I was invited to address a Christian Businessmen's evangelistic luncheon in Bombay. It was a particularly sensitive time in India. Several missionaries had had their visas revoked, and a former Indian president had issued a public warning against Christians who were seeking political power.
Four hundred businessmen, about half in Western dress, the other in traditional Nehru jackets, gathered for the luncheon in one of the city's luxury hotels. I described my own conversion to them in detail. Then I talked about why my experiences in the White House and Watergate had convinced me of the historicity of the resurrection of Christ.
Many decisions for Christ were made during that luncheon, and a long line of people waited to speak to me as I was leaving. One was a jovial, round-faced man. "Oh, Mr. Colson, that was wonderful," he said. "I believe in Jesus too." He proceeded to explain that he was president of the All-Islamic Conference of India. "We believe the same thing," he said in an obvious gesture of friendship.
As he stood there with an expectant expression, I hesitated, questioning what I should do. Should I just nod and be polite? There was a lot of ferment against Christians there and I could get in trouble. Besides, he was such a kind-looking man. Or should I . . . ? The answer came swiftly.
"I'm sorry, sir," I said, "but we do not believe the same thing. I believe Jesus was raised bodily from the dead-and as a Muslim, you don't." The man looked deflated.
But then he straightened and put one hand on my shoulder. "I know," he said slowly. "Today is the first time I have really understood that."
I beckoned to two of the host committee members, who escorted the Islamic leader to a quiet table where they could talk. Leaving the room moments later for a flight to south India, I glanced back over my shoulder to see the three men huddled together deep in conversation.
So even as we take stock of the mammoth struggle and unprecedented challenge of our times, we must remember what phrases like "the clash of civilizations" and "culture wars" sometimes obscure. As with that man in Bombay, we are dealing with individual men and women whose hearts can be lured to the love of Christ. Therefore we must stride forward with love and hope, even as we understand the extraordinary stakes of the big-picture spiritual war all around us.
As America and its allies wage war on terrorism, our nations have powerful tools at hand: elite special forces, sophisticated weaponry, economic sanctions, massive electronic intelligence, armies, navies, and air forces on alert. These are the tools of war in the kingdoms of this world.
But in the kingdom of God, the tools are different. We are armed with faith, hope, truth, love, and the good that overcomes evil. It's a great paradox: Bearing these weapons that seem so weak, the church is the one institution in society that can provide strong moral resolve and spiritual inspiration that feeds the soul, cares for the needy, and guides those who have lost their way. It is the church that creates the character that will carry us through the historic struggle of our times. It is the church that will endure forever, even as the kingdoms of this world topple and fall.
To do this, however, the church must recapture a core understanding of its biblical identity. What does it really mean to be the people Jesus called His own, against whom the gates of hell will not stand? As individuals and as a corporate entity, how do we understand our high calling as the Body of Christ?
There are no more crucial questions. And their challenge caused my longtime colleague, Ellen Vaughn, and I to write this book-well, actually to write it twice.
The first edition of this work, The Body, was published in 1992. It reflected our conviction that the church was infected with the most virulent virus of modern American life, what sociologist Robert Bellah called radical individualism, with many Christians consequently perceiving Christianity as "Jesus and me," a solitary belief system.
Energized by the conviction that, in fact, there is no such thing as Christianity apart from the church,we studied contemporary theologians like Francis Schaeffer, Christopher Dawson, Carl F. H. Henry, Richard Neuhaus, and Helmut Thielicke, as well as the classics, both Protestant and Catholic.
And then, as we began writing, the Berlin Wall came down, and out of Eastern Europe began coming extraordinary stories of the role the church had played in the defeat of communism. Ellen traveled to Romania, Hungary, and Poland for interviews with remarkable church leaders. I traveled to the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. Here at home, Ellen and I visited scores of local congregations, from the country's fastest growing megachurch to a tiny band of believers on death row.
The result was The Body, and to our delight, it struck a tremendous chord with readers. Thousands of church groups studied the book in tandem with its study guide and video program. The book won awards and sold hundreds of thousands of copies. There was a sense that The Body's stories and its focus on unity, truth, and being light in the darkness resonated powerfully with Christians from a cross-section of different denominations and church traditions.
But now, while the doctrines we believe about the church have not changed, our world circumstances have. So W Publishing urged Ellen and me to rewrite The Body, updating the stories, adding new ones, looking at the role of the church in light of today's new challenges.
So we did.
In the pages that follow we'll look at the church as it is commonly perceived, from the outside and inside. We'll address the biblical definition of the church and its characteristics, both the universal Body and the local confessing congregation.
Understanding the character and purpose of the church is absolutely vital. Many Christians are anxious to organize antipornography or anti-abortion campaigns, work for criminal justice reform, clean up inner-city neighborhoods, and defend religious liberty. All these are noble and worthy good works, but all are doomed to failure unless they proceed out of who we are as God's people.
For we cannot give what we do not have. We cannot do until we are. To be the church-our highest calling-depends on understanding the very character of the Body of Christ on earth. It's organic: As we draw our identity from Christ, the great Vine, we will, like healthy branches, produce fruit that nourishes the needy people around us.
So what exactly is the church? In part 1 we'll consider that question. In part 2 we'll explore the great tension: the church against the world. In the battle for truth-the great issue of our times-how can the church be the custodian of the truth, the guardian of God-breathed holy Scripture? In part 3 we'll examine how the church operates in the world, for the world. How should the church serve the world around it? And how might churches equip their people to do so?
But before we begin, a few caveats are in order.
First, this is not a book about churches. It is a book about the church.
Some readers may wonder why great churches (like the ones they belong to) are not discussed in detail; others will be looking for specifics on how to improve evangelistic efforts or expand prayer groups. They will be disappointed. Many helpful how-to books are already available on these subjects. Our desire here-however imperfectly realized-is to highlight the great doctrine of the church, inspire the grand vision of the church, and restore a high view of the church.
This hasn't been the trend. Over the last number of years, there has been a noticeable dearth of both scholarly and popular work in this regard, at least among evangelicals. Pastor Robert Patterson has cited this as evidence of the low view evangelicals have of the church. Evangelicals disregard baptism, the structure of ministry, and accountability, he says, putting emphasis chiefly on the individual's personal relationship to Christ. This is in part due to the entrepreneurial nature of the parachurch movement and the fierce independence of many evangelical churches. Some seminaries, in fact, do not even offer courses on the doctrine of the church.
In the course of our research we have discovered at least one of the reasons for this neglect: You cannot deal with the doctrine of the church without walking through doctrinal and denominational minefields-and setting off some explosives in the process.
Which brings us to the second warning. While we have attempted to address this subject from the most inclusive perspective possible, believing passionately that the church consists of God's people from every race and nation and confession, we are nonetheless aware that our own views will invariably color how we perceive the church. I am a Baptist with a thoroughly Reformed theology, Ellen is a Presbyterian (PCA, or Presbyterian Church in America), and we both have a catholic-small "c" -universal view of the church. The reader will have to take this into account. However, we have made every effort to write a book that is consistent with the great creeds and confessions of the church, the commitments orthodox believers have held through the ages, pledging ourselves in loyalty to "one holy catholic and apostolic church," as the Nicene Creed puts it.
But-and here is the third caveat-some readers may find this inclusiveness difficult to accept. Some cannot surrender the old prejudices that not only make them feel comfortable, but affirm that they are really right. Others genuinely believe that the fundamental differences within the church are irreconcilable. We understand that belief. But if it is true, we have a bigger problem than this book-because Jesus Himself called us to be one.
Of course there are doctrinal differences between sacerdotal and nonsacerdotal churches, between Arminians and Calvinists, between premillennialists and postmillennialists, between Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox-and we should not attempt to gloss over these differences as some twentieth-century ecumenists have done. Differences do matter, and doctrinal disputes exist. And, as will be discussed later, some may even serve a healthy purpose.
Despite these differences, however, we need to come together around the great truths all believers have shared regarding Christ's teaching about His Body. It is a difficult line to walk, but walk it we must if the power of the church is to be felt in today's world.
As a fourth caveat, we would note that there are issues other than confessional differences that may offend some readers. For in the course of our work we found ourselves questioning some comfortable modern evangelical practices. Like the notion that evangelism is the only call of the church. Or hit-and-run witnessing. Or tried-and-true methodologies that are obsolete in today's post-Christian culture and thus guarantee that Christians end up talking only to themselves. Or the presumption that unless certain words are said, certain prayers repeated, one may not make it into the kingdom.
We didn't set out to be controversial. But some called the original version of The Body just that. Yet better to stir up healthy debate than simply be complacent and comfortable. At any rate, we have consulted with some of the best theological minds, whose help we later more fully acknowledge and for which we are profoundly grateful, and we can only hope that if this book spurs discussion, it will invigorate the church.
During a trip to the Midwest after the first publication of The Body, I encountered a young pastor who enthusiastically told me about the book's impact on his church. "We read The Body and took it seriously," he said. "The elders and I decided to see what would happen if we really incorporated its principles in our church.
"You've never seen such controversy," he went on. "At one point, the church was divided right down the middle and I was asked to leave. Dissident groups broke away. It was horrendous. But then it began to change. People got serious about being Christians--and today we're people on fire for God."
Finally, we want to point out that we've drawn many examples from prisons and from the oppressed church in other parts of the world. It is natural that we use the former since, through Prison Fellowship, we spend a great deal of time with the church behind prison walls. And we chose the latter because some of the greatest challenges for the comfortable church in the West come from our brothers and sisters living in much tougher places and situations around the world.
Some critics have asked, Why would Chuck Colson write on the church? What are his credentials? After all, he is a layman who never attended seminary [which happens to be one of my great personal regrets] and never pastored a local congregation [for which, I'm quick to confess, I would lack the patience].
Fair question. My answer is that I've been part of the universal church for thirty years, and as leader of Prison Fellowship for twenty-seven of those years, I have worked with and gathered insights from pastors and laypeople in thousands of vital congregations in the United States and around the world. I may be an "outsider" to the pastorate, but then again, that may not always be a disadvantage. As theologian Os Guinness has said, "If you want to know about water, the last one to ask is a fish."
During the Reformation, Coram Deo became a rallying cry for the Reformers. It meant "in the presence of God" or "before the eyes of God," and as theologian R. C. Sproul has written, nothing marked the Reformation more than an awe of the holy, majestic God who calls men and women to Himself.
Coram Deo. Filled with this holy fear and reverence, the early church changed the world. Recapturing the biblical vision for God's people in the world, the Reformers were used to transform the culture around them. And fearing God rather than man, the persecuted church in the former Soviet empire changed the maps of the world at the end of the twentieth century.
Today, in the early years of the twenty-first, what the church needs most desperately is holy awe: to understand that we live day by day in the presence of God; that, in truth, we live each instant not knowing whether in the next we will meet Him face to face.
The catastrophe of 9-11 served as a profound reminder of that truth. It also reminded us of a fact that applies every single ordinary day of our lives: Life is a mess. Any Christian who chirps platitudes to the contrary is deluded. From the beginnings of His church, Jesus made it clear that we would be the Body in the midst of a sinful, broken world.
Once we understand that severe challenge, it can set us free. For it is in the darkness that the light shines most brightly. It is in alienation that Christ's healing power is seen most clearly. It is in our weakness and brokenness that God's great strength is revealed. God did not design us to be robots in a sterile environment- "Stepford" Christians who are programmed to spout cheerful inanities and cannot handle any deviations from carefully constructed conventions.
No, as September 11 should remind us forever, we are to be the Body-the manifestation of God's hope-in the blood, dirt, dust, and tears of the battlefields of this world.
The question is, Are we ready for that challenge?
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