God’s Global Church: The Faith of Jesus for the Whole World (Part 1)

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God’s Global Church: The Faith of Jesus for the Whole World (Part 1)

The Worldwide Church?

The world is becoming increasingly smaller in some ways (i. e. technology- media, information access, social accessibility) and larger in others (information overload, social isolation, cultural heterogeneity).[1] In varied ways, this can create blessings for a global community of faith as well as impediments to true koinonia or fellowship (1 Cor. 1:9; 2 Cor 13:14; Phil 1:5; 1 John 1:3–7). A plethora of synonyms express the sentiments of this Greek word: “close association involving mutual interests and sharing, association, communion, fellowship, close relationship, generosity, fellow-feeling, altruism, brotherly unity, contribution, and sharing.[2] The impasses to true community remind me of Babel in some ways. The pursuit of social cohesion in and of itself is not a bad thing. However, the foundational motives for such a quest all too often leave God out of the picture and are often myopic in its view of the goals of the biblical community. Or just as bad, taking an accommodationists view of God espoused in the name of unity making Christianity lose its vitality in proclaiming the Living God.[3] All too often the methods and modes meant to establish unity are geographic and culturally specific. In other words, we as Christians must have something that enables real unity outside the constrictions of cultures which are finite and limited. So, while technology has made the reality of a worldwide church plausible and identifiable, it cannot construct a global church mentality or reality.

We are living in an age of “mediated reality,”[4] that is a socially constructed world through media. The pull of a mediated reality has drawn the church into the vortex of “creating” community with slogans, soundbites, pitches, clichés, etc. via idealistic, pluralistic, and ahistorical mediums that mainly appeal to structures already embedded mostly in local and in limited ways, national communities.[5] I’m not demonizing these things, only trying to raise our spiritual antennas of how these can become substitutions for authentic growth as the body of Christ on a worldwide level. This point gets at the heart of why the global church seems fractured in so many pieces that many have resolved to a Congregationalist[6] mindset in the worldwide church. For example, the way the prosperity gospel is framed can only lead to the conclusion that Christians who suffer in deplorable socioeconomic conditions “lack faith” because they are not “accessing” God’s economic blessings. Another example is the failure of liberation theology’s quest for worldwide justice to account for its definition of justice framed mainly in ways that are central to its localized problems. If we look at Christians in Lebanon for instance, without any assessment of how their geographical place in which highly charged political tension, militarized factions, and religious intolerance affect their daily lives we make faith subservient to our own situation without thought for the global church and how biblical theology speaks to them. Thus, theology becomes mere anthropology.

What mediated reality cannot account for are the tensions within the global world surrounding race, class, ethnicity, gender, political orientation, and the list goes on. So, what is the remedy, what is the link that truly binds together people from every nation, tribe, language, and people (Rev 14:6)? Hopefully, this short series of articles can add to the discussion by showing how we truly connect and build community as a worldwide church in a globally connected world. I suggest three ways this is possible: (1) organic biblical faith (service and ethical life), (2) a biblical worldview (theology and mission), and most importantly (3) communion with the Risen Christ. These may seem simplistic, but as we consider much of the language in Christian contexts what these three mean are substantially different on a sliding scale of being biblically based to being culturally oriented. We first take up faith thematically.

The Genealogy of Faith

This article deals with the organic nature of faith. I use the word organic for two reasons. First, faith is not generated by human ingenuity. Faith is not courage that we muster to believe against logic or all odds, or because we have no other means of explanation. Simply put, faith is a gift, a gift of trust (Rom. 12:3), and God gives it in the measure of our trust in Him to express it. Paul states in Romans 12:6–8;

“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”

He further adds in 1 Corinthians 12:7–9

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another, the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit…”

Faith has an origin outside of our ability to explain it, defend it, or apply it, i. e. control it (though God calls us to do all three; 1 Pet. 3:15; Phil. 1:7, 16; 2:12). Since God is the source of our faith, it is supernatural and has global reach, and it should not look wildly divergent in our diverse world. Circumstances in which we live our faith vary, but faith is unchanged. Notice that in Romans 12:3, Paul said that we ought to think with sober judgment according to the measure of faith God has given us. Faith is not a content-less blind belief; it frames the way we think, what we think, and why we think. Anyone familiar with the history of Christian thought from the first century up to the present day will immediately recognize that unity on this basis has been elusive and this sadly contributed to destructive acts throughout history.

It seems that part of our ability to see the church as a global phenomenon is to see faith as a global need and global gift. If everyone has the same need and the remedy is the same across the board our natural affinity for distinctions is humbled because God in effect is telling us we are all in the same sinking boat. When I say “need” I mean not only the material needs of life but also the existential angst that material prosperity cannot assuage. In fact, the first call to faith in a global context, following a cacophony of confusion (Gen 11) was a call to a living faith that would be a blessing as well as receive blessings (Gen 12:1–3; Heb. 11:8). Abraham was called away from Ur of the Chaldeans westward while there was a great migration toward the fast-growing urbanized Mesopotamia. Hebrews 11 shows that faith is not just belief but response in trust and action in obedience.

When all God’s people respond to His Word, we avail ourselves of an organic faith that transcends the customs and values of our immediate space and time and helps us to love and serve in ways that are in harmony with God’s global agenda (Matt 28:16–20). In the Bible, Jesus commands us to love one another. Only the gift of faith can enable us to love someone whom we may not have anything in common with other than our faith. This means that we have, among other things, the same experience of redemption, the same world-shaping biblical worldview, and the same expectation of hope in Christ’s soon return. People try by various means to simulate a sense of corporate identity (sports games, political parties, nationalism, social media). However, the definitions, motivations and end goals vary so much that often these venues become a source of tension rather than community. One need only observe the current political state in France, Britain, and the US. The church cannot maintain attempts at an independently defined identity if it is ever to embrace the global impact of the gospel.[7]

Second, faith is not a static emblem of religion. We are either growing in faith or shrinking back (2 Thess. 1:3; Heb. 10:38–39). So, our God given ability to have a substantive community with fellow believers should always be growing as our capacity to love is deepened (Rom 5:5). One of the biggest detriments to a loving global Christian community are the distinctions we (at times unknowingly) make in causing others to feel less-than because they “lack faith.”[8] We already explored how faith is a gift, and now we have seen that it is something that grows by God’s grace. A surface reading of 1 Thess. 3:10 may seem to suggest that someone can lack faith, but a few verses before Paul commends the Thessalonians for their faith (vv. 6–8). It is not the quality of the Thessalonians’ faith that was defective; rather, there were important areas in which they required further instruction. So, it is the content of faith of which Paul is speaking about, supplying a deeper understanding of the Second Coming (cf. 4:1–18). Until we start experiencing the humility that stems from the gift of faith and learn that there are no hierarchies of faith we will continue to make it seem like some people have more faith than others. It is true that certain places in the world have garnered reputations for (fill in the blank)__________. Faith thus becomes a contest, where one must reach up to another’s ideal rather than receive it as a gift and prayerfully encouraging each other in it (Acts 14:22). Peter teaches us that faith is multifaceted and that God’s goal is for each of us to be effective and fruitful in the knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 1:5–8). Paul tells us how faith is made effective “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).

A Community of Faith

Coming full circle we see that faith is not something that is a “mediated reality” because it is not defined, developed, deployed, or disseminated by human means. The living, loving, and sharing of the gospel are available because of a “divinely mediated reality.” Paul says In Galatians 3:1–3,

“It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”

The Gift of Salvation means we all have the same need that can only be filled by the same Person. The gospel of Jesus Christ puts Him front and center, and we can only be a part of that community through His gracious invitation and meritorious work. Paul said in Ephesians 2:8 that “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” Commenting on the word “this” Andrew Lincoln comments, “τοῦτο is probably best taken, therefore, as referring to the preceding clause as a whole, and thus to the whole process of salvation it describes, which of course includes faith as its means.[9] So the community can have true fellowship when we together receive the gift of faith that enables us to experience the gift of salvation. If something else becomes prominent in defining, developing, or deploying the community we belong too, we can be sure that problems will follow.

The pivotal question is, what does faith look like in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual setting? Well, the Bible gives us plenty of examples of what it should and shouldn’t look like. The book of Ruth gives a beautiful picture of how the gift of faith transmits into true community despite all the road blocks (Ruth 1:15–18). Though geographically close and linguistically similar, culturally Israel and Moab were worlds apart. Their worldviews were diametrically opposed as Israel served and worshipped Yahweh (God) and the Moabites primarily served and worshipped Chemosh (1 Kgs 11:7). Ruth understood and experienced that the bonds of faith superseded familial loyalty, geographical roots, cultural expression, etc. It meant a change of heart and a change of life, but it also meant a clinging together in a covenantal bond (Exod 6:7, Deut 29:13; Jer 24:7). At least in her life, God’s gift of faith was global on two accounts. First, by owning this faith, she crossed all types of social, religious, and political boundaries (Ruth 1:17). Secondly, the global impact of her expression of faith was part of God’s universal plan for our salvation (Matt 1:5). Ruth’s reception of God’s grace and gift of faith shows us how we can connect with believers and in ways unknown to us can be part of something bigger than our own individual benefit. Our next article will look at how a biblical worldview can help create a global community.

Click here to read the rest of this series.

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Notes.

[1] Though there are plenty other modes and methods of interaction I chose technology, which is amoral, to make the point that the greatest web of interconnectivity in our day presents challenges as well as opportunities.

[2] “κοινωνία, ας, ἡ” William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 552 (BDAG).

[3] Theologian and philosopher Paul Copan has written several books on this emerging attitude. See True for You but nor for Me: Overcoming Objections to Christian Faith, rev. ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), and That’s Just Your Interpretation: Responding to Skeptics Who Challenge Your Faith,

[4] For a balanced analysis of whether the postmodern mediated world is a social world that is stable and liveable, or one that is increasingly unstable and unliveable, see Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp, The Mediated Construction of Reality, 1st ed. (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2017). I touched on the issue of mimesis (imitation) in a different context. The notion of mimesis (imitation) is fundamental to personal conviction of how reality is perceived that spans from Plato to Postmodernism. The perennial question is, does our search for meaning mirror external realities (natural or supernatural) or does our portrayal of reality mirror the medium we seek to project? In other words, was Ludwig Feuerbach right when he argued that Religion/God is the outward projection of human inner nature. See The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989 [1841]), 1–32.

[5] Couldry and Hepp hit the nail on the head of what impacts society {I would add our thinking of a global church} when they ask, “Since our ‘reality’ as human beings who must live together is constructed through social processes, what are the consequences for that reality if the social itself is already ‘mediated’; that is, shaped and formed through media?”, 1.

[6] “Congregational churches (also Congregationalist churches; Congregationalism) are Protestant churches in the Reformed tradition practicing congregationalist church governance, in which each congregation independently and autonomously runs its own affairs.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Congregational_church

[7] God has blessed the church with a functional worldwide church structure that meets together corporately every five years to pray about, discuss, and make plans for the mission of the church. The only other “denomination” that has such global reach is Catholicism. The global structure enables the interrelationship of mission, community, and theological consistency at least to be possible. For example, the Sabbath School lesson is a way for the church to move together globally in its thought and life.

[8] I say unknowingly because this shows up intellectually (pride of theological knowledge), socially (pride in cultural expression), politically (pride in political associations), and even religiously (pride in the practice of religious virtues).

[9] Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, vol. 42, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1990), 112.

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Jerome Skinner, earned his Ph.D as an Old Testament scholar at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. He focuses on the Psalms and Wisdom literature and on practical Christianity. Jerome is active in following American Christianity and social issues.