Before You Were Here | Dom Ruso
A few days ago, my son saw a picture that was taken before he was born.
He seemed confused about this and asked, “Was I around when this happened, Dad?” As is common, young children struggle with understanding the complexities of the time, history and memory that shape our connection to the larger world. To hold these elements in tension requires growing up, maturity.
As a pastor, I’m learning that a similar lesson is true in ministry. One of the most important signs of spiritual maturity is learning to see ourselves as belonging to a larger story of which we are not the centre, a story which started before you or I were here.
The Bible invites us to see God slowly working out his redemptive plan through both his people Israel and through the church. This story was set in motion before we were here and yet for many, recognizing our place in this story today is becoming increasingly difficult.
The original word for church, ecclesia, was not particularly religious. In fact, the Greek word referred to an assembly of citizens of a region who had decision-making authority. Knowing it would help in spreading the good news, the first Christians used this same word to refer to their gatherings, with a unique emphasis on Jesus, whose authority was now manifest through their love for each other and the world.
As Christianity grew and spread, four essential words emerged to describe this new, authority-invested church of Jesus.
These markers pointed people to the uniqueness of this new people centred on the Triune God: one, holy, apostolic, and catholic.
Christian doctrines took shape in a world of many beliefs. For this reason, the doctrine of the Trinity was criticized as strange. How could one God be three? Because the church is one, it remains rooted in monotheism under the authority of one God revealed as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. True worship in every church remains grounded in this same truth.
To emphasize the oneness of the church is also to commit to the hard work of embracing unity. This does not come naturally to us, yet it the practice of those who are the church. This defining marker prevents simplistic solutions in a world which tends toward quick fixes. The church is forever intricately and mysteriously linked to the relational nature of God’s very being. We strive toward a united diversity in the pattern of the Triune God we worship.
Holiness is often a messy and misunderstood word. For most people it has come to mean to be perfect, clean or pure. While aspects of that are true, the idea of holiness in the Bible also holds the beautiful meaning of “being set apart.” Hence, the church is holy, meaning it is set apart by God. As with Israel, the church is made up of those who have been set apart to model God’s freedom because of what Jesus did. No, we are not perfect but we are passionately pursuing God’s ways so as to be a blessing to others.
The church is holy and is constantly called to an even deeper holiness. In this way, the church is symbolic of a bride awaiting her wedding day. We are reminded that regular gathering as the church allows our sinfulness to be confronted by regular acts of confession, stirring our hearts to be set apart for God’s purposes in this world.
The earliest witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were his apostles. Because of their testimony and courageous leadership, we not only have the Bible, but we have confidence when teaching the good news that Jesus is alive. The earliest members of the church were not only apostles but soon became martyrs. Because they testified with their lives that God’s goodness was larger than the world’s persecution, we gather as the church in this apostolic tradition.
As the church works through numerous challenges today, we remain rooted in the promises of God, as first presented and lived out through this apostolic trajectory. God is still sending out those who are willing to surrender everything for the sake of God’s kingdom. It is within the church that these types of disciples are formed and sent.
The fact that the church kept growing and reaching people from every nation made it different from many other religious gatherings from the beginning. For that reason, the term “catholic,” which means “universal,” became an essential marker. The church distinguished itself not only as a local expression for a specific ethnic group, but as a new, transnational reality. All the nations, by to the Spirit’s power, were being brought into this new family.
This marker is meant to stir in us a deep humility that reminds us that our perspective must always take into consideration the larger and growing family of believers. (Remember, the church is also “one”). In Philippians, Paul writes, “Consider others better than yourself” (2:3). He’s not just saying be nice but consider what it means to be a church that listens and learns and celebrates that we, the church, are catholic.
If our faith is going to withstand the new changes of our world, we are wise to return to this picture of the church, which has been around long before you or I were here.
This doesn’t mean we put up with outdated thoughts and practices that no longer apply in our context. Instead, we can face our changing world with an assurance that these four points have anchored the church for thousands of years, and Jesus is still building this same church.
More importantly, when we commit to grow in maturity and move beyond childish tendencies, we learn to embrace the biblical truth that some things that ground us today were affirmed long before we were here. In a world that offers us private, efficient and consumer-driven choices for everything, Christians must choose the community of the church instead. Only then will the world see what it means to be a church who makes disciples who can withstand the temptations and idolatries of every age.
The Apostle’s Creed by Ben Myers
“The Need for Creeds” episode on the On Being podcast, with the late Jaroslav Pelikan
Evangelicals and the Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness by Timothy George