We talk of the local church, and the universal church. The local church is the community of faith, while the universal church is the Body of Christ or Bride of Christ, depending on your metaphor of choice.
Baptists, of which I am lumped, often tend to focus on the local church. I like the idea of the autonomy of the local church. Frankly, however, the local church doesn’t really matter all that much if there isn’t a spiritual unity among all communities of the Christian faith.
The unity of the church is identified in metaphors (body and bride), as well as rituals. In the Eucharist, the unity with Christ is shown through the eating and drinking of the elements. but it is also done as a group… suggesting community. Paul connects baptism with uniting with the death and resurrection of Christ. However, baptism appears to be identified with unity of all believers as well. The (Matthew version of) the Great Commission suggests this. Ephesians 4:4-5 points to baptism as linking all believers. The metaphor is taken even further in I Corinthians 12:12-14 where the spiritual unity of the church is described through the metaphors of being immersed in the spirit (like Baptism) and drinking of one spirit (like Eucharist). This passage doesn’t only describe the unity of the church, but also its diversity. Both unity and diversity are vital to the church.
But I believe it is valuable to consider the church as a unity not only in space, as described above, but in time as well. Romans 14:9 states “For this reason Christ died and returned to life, so that He might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.” The dead in Christ are seen as equal with those living, and sharing in the having the same Lord. I Thessalonians 5:10 says a similar thing, “He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.” Personally, I find it interesting that the Eucharist connects the past with the present and future. I Corinthians 11:26 notes that “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup (PRESENT), you proclaim the Lord’s death (PAST) until he comes (FUTURE).”
Okay, that may not be compelling, but for me, I think it is better to think of Thomas Aquinas and Charles Spurgeon as part of the church rather than having once been part of the church. Here are a few thoughts related to the idea that the church exists as a unity in both time as well as space.
- We should study church history, not only for practical experience, but because they are family. They are as relevant to who we are as the church today.
- Restorational movements, and movements that ignore much of church history in preference for the “primitive church” or the recent church, has done much to ignore God’s work in the world.
- We should recognize that we are the bridge between the past church and the future church.
This last point is actually quite important. Far too often, Evangelical churches ignore this point, acting on the presumption that not only are we theologically in “the last days,” as we have been for almost 2000 years, but that we are in the “last minutes” of the church age. This presumption seems ill-advised, especially since Jesus seems to make it clear that trying to time Christ’s return is bad. The parables of the faithful steward and the 10 maidens point to being prepared for a long wait. Rather than assuming that the church today is spiritually childless, we should plan for spiritual children, grand-children and great-grandchildren, preparing for the church of the 22nd, 23rd, 24th, and 25th centuries (and perhaps farther still).
To fail to prepare for the church of the future is disrespectful of our spiritual forefathers who prepared and trained us. It is also unconscionable to plan NOT to disciple the next generation, and transform communities, on the presumption that Christ is returning very very soon. Further, since each of us are only a few skipped heartbeats away from seeing Christ, we should be planning for this inevitability rather than something that will happen someday, but with no certainty of happening in our lifetimes.