A couple of days ago I did a post called “Why Love the Church” wherein I analogized from some words of G. K. Chesterton to the effect that we ought to love the church simply because she is the church, the bride of Christ and mother of the faithful. In that quote Chesterton was speaking of the difference between admiring the nation of England vs. loving it. Admiration demands reasons, love is without reason. I think he is spot on in his manner of thinking there and this applies well to the church.
I’d like to follow up on that in this post with a couple of more quotes. One of the things that mitigates against love for the church in our day is our obsessive individualism. It’s difficult to escape, individualism is the air we breathe and we import individualistic ways of thinking into how we relate to the church. Our personal, individual spiritual growth is our top priority. Here’s a quote from Mike Horton’s book “Made in America” which points to at least one prior generation that understood that corporate piety is more important than personal piety, that the church takes priority over the individual.
The Puritan was concerned that even his calling served the neighborhood or commonwealth rather than himself. He hardly doted on himself. Even religious activities were not to be done from selfish motives. God has justified him, having punished Christ in his place. Acceptance has been freely given, not achieved. Therefore, even developing one’s personal relationship with Christ at the expense of the community was viewed as antisocial and, consequently, anti-Christian behavior. One no longer had to work for his own salvation (for instance, by helping others), so he could give himself to the good of others from unselfish motives. Puritan William Gurnall insisted that the one who was truly pious “did others more good in this world than himself in the next.”
It’s not that personal piety is unimportant, it’s just that personal piety is for the sake of the church. Along the same lines, in his article “An Unmessianic Sense of Nondestiny,” Carl Trueman illustrates that our individualism is combined with a sense of terminal uniqueness and specialness.
As I look round the church, it strikes me that this zen-like condition of a lack of ambition is much to be desired because far too many Christians have senses of destiny which verge on the messianic. The confidence that the Lord has a special plan and purpose just for them shapes the way they act and move. Now, just for the record, I am a good Calvinist, and I certainly believe each individual has a destiny; what concerns me is the way in which our tendency to think of ourselves as special and unique (which we all are in some ways – D.N.A. etc.) bleeds over into a sense of special destiny whereby the future, or at least the future of myself, comes to be the priority and to trump all else.
Put bluntly, when I read the Bible it seems to me that the church is the meaning of human history; but it is the church, a corporate body, not the distinct individuals who go to make up her membership. Of course, all of us individuals have our gifts and our roles to play: the Lord calls us each by name and numbers the very hairs of our heads; but, to borrow Paul’s analogy of the body, we have no special destiny in ourselves taken as isolated units, any more than bits of our own bodies do in isolation from each other. When I act, I act as a whole person; my hand has no special role of its own; it acts only in the context of being part of my overall body. With the church, the destiny of the whole is greater than the sum of the destinies of individual Christians.
This is an important insight which should profoundly shape our thinking and, indeed, our praying. My special destiny as a believer is to be part of the church; and it is the church that is the big player in God’s wider plan, not me. That puts me, my uniqueness, my importance, my role, in definite perspective. The problem today is that too many have the idea that God’s primary plan is for them, and the church is secondary, the instrument to the realization of their individual significance. They may not even realize they think that way but, like those involuntary `tells’ at a poker game, so certain unconscious spiritual behaviours give the game away.