The twentieth century was not a good century for what the Apostles’ Creed calls “the holy catholic Church: the communion of saints.” In that century the Church witnessed its greatest fragmentation since the Protestant Reformation. Coupled with this, and perhaps developing form it, was the emphasis on individualized Christianity that had begun in the previous century.
By the end of the 19th century, Theological Liberalism had rifled the Church. Within a few years, the Church was a splintered ecclesiastical assortment. The Pentecostal Movement, the Brethren Movement, and the Fundamentalist Movement were among some of the responses to Theological Liberalism, all with their own particular emphasis. While these movements were expressions of a true Christian experience, there was in all of them a disconnect with the historic Christian Church. As the 20th century progressed even these movements became more focused on themselves and increasingly isolated.
Coupled with this denominational fragmentation, there was a new emphasis in other areas of the Church also; particularly in evangelism and hymnology. The 1800s saw the rise of mass evangelism. Over the next few decades, thousands were coming to faith in the evangelistic crusades of Finney, Moody, and others. These crusades were distinctly non-denominational. This was of course because many of the churches had succumbed to Liberalism. However, this distance from the Church gave the sense that one could be saved outside the Church, that the Church did not matter, or was not needed.
This coincided with a distinct shift in hymnology. Songs focused on the individual human experience, from the pen of writers like Fanny Crosby, Robert Lowry, Ira D. Sankey, and Philip Bliss dominated evangelicalism. The “gospel song” was born. This was not just a shift in music style, but in content also. By the beginning of the 1900s, astute Christians had already identified faults in this popular hymnody. One writer said they are too sentimental, too personal, too trivial and too focused on the tune, rather than the text.
Today this individualism has manifested itself in other areas of the Church. Covenantal church membership is ignored. Church discipline is misunderstood and misapplied, or flat-out rejected. The Church has lost its authority and no longer has the right to intrude into the life of the individual. In many instances, it has become a voluntary association, organized along lines of pragmatism rather than a biblical principle. There is no sense of antiquity, or historical connection, and no awareness of the depth or breadth of fellowship in the Christian community. Christianity, in the language of some, has been reduced to an “I love Jesus,” theology and this clichéd phrase seems to sum up their entire Christian experience.
In some more trendy churches, they have drawn a line about 1990. Their “target audience” is 20-30-year-olds. Anything before 1990 is archaic, irrelevant and unnecessary. The Church is reduced to a few redundant buzz words—the songs are contemporary, the singing electrifying, the preaching is hip and relevant, the atmosphere is inviting, and again, “sharing” is inclusive and indiscriminate to accommodate individual expression. Everyone wants to hand out their “wisdom,” and “love on others” and nobody wants to receive, or be corrected. Any “negative” input is unwelcomed. This sort of freelance ecclesiology of entitled individualism has no anchor and therefore no parameters—and no future.
The dysfunction of the Church has led some to reject “organized religion”—more fragmentation. “The Church is so messed up,” they say, “that I don’t go to church, I do my own thing.” It is this individualism and disconnectedness, in part, that has robbed the Church of a sense of awe and authority. Even for many who still attend church out of a sense of duty, it has become a ritual, a drudgery, and an interruption. It’s no surprise that, in many evangelical churches, services have been reduced to one on the Lord’s day.
Part of the problem is that we are so preoccupied with ourselves, our own Church, our own denomination that we have lost sight of the bigger picture.
Sin has fragmented God’s universe. But God is putting it together again. Men and women are being “made whole” (Acts 4:9) and God is “gather[ing] together in one all things in Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).
It was this sense of God’s grand master-plan, a cosmic redemption, that motivated the early Church to take the gospel message wherever they went.
At first, this was difficult for Jewish nationalism to accept. They thought that they had the monopoly on God, no one else measured up to their standards, or deserved God’s recognition. Remember Joshua back when the Israelites were appointing elders. Seventy men were chosen, and the Spirit came on them. But two of the men remained in the camp and continued to prophesy in the camp. This irked Joshua, but Moses’ reply was a prophetic prayer; “would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets” (Numbers 11:29).
At Pentecost Moses’ prayer was answered. The Spirit was poured out on “all flesh!” as Joel had prophesied and this was manifested in the gift of tongues. The repeated use of tongues in the first few months or years of the Chruch, provided proof that the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost was intended for the Church universal; “all” believers. Luke’s record in the book of Acts moves outward from Jerusalem, (1:8) stacking up the evidence of an inclusive baptism of the Holy Spirit for all believers. The same Spirit that they, the Jews, had received at Jerusalem (Acts 2:4) was also given to the Samaritans (8:5-12) then Gentiles (10:1-11:18) and then to uninformed Jews who had not heard of the resurrected Jesus (19:1-7).
It is interesting, and significant, however, that after the Day of Pentecost, it is not the tongues gift that amazed believers, but the fact that the Gentiles were receiving the Spirit also (10:46-47). This became part of the joy of the gospel (15:3). The realization that God was engaged in something bigger than the “thing” that they were in (Judaism), gave the apostles a better understanding of the Scripture, it humbled and amazed them, and caused them to praise God (11:16-18) and it became also an integral part of apostolic preaching (Acts 15:3; Romans 10:12; 1 Corinthians 12:13; 1 John 2:2). It was this realization also that enabled the Apostles to change from the nationalistic Jews that they were (Acts 11:18; 1 Corinthians 9:22) to be more adaptable and vanguards of an expanding global ministry.
This global emphasis was kept before the people. As the apostles wrote letters to the Churches, they continually reminded the people that Christ died, not just for the Jews, but “for the whole world,” (1 John 2:2), because “there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek” (Romans 3:22, 10:12), “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
In the twelfth chapter of Hebrews, the writer exhorts the Jewish Christians to “serve [worship] God acceptably” (12:28).
Let me pause and remind us, that the book of Hebrews was written to encourage Christian Jews to persevere in the faith, not to go back in the inferior old covenant, but to remain faithful to the Christ. A major part of maintaining the faith (i.e. not apostatizing) was communion with the saints. This thought of communion with the saints runs through the entire book (see, for example, 3:13, 10:25, 12:12-13).
As the writer urged the believers to “worship acceptably” he reminded his readers that we do that by understanding the excellence and extent of Christian fellowship.
“But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect…” (Hebrew 12:22-23)
There are some important elements of this description, without getting into an exegesis of the passage;
- It is a spiritual home (“heavenly Jerusalem”).
- It is the dwelling place of the living God (“the city of the living God…the Judge of all.”).
- It is fellowship with thousands upon thousands of angels (“an innumerable company”).
- It is the fellowship of a festive assembly (“general assembly”).
- It is fellowship with the present day Christians (“Church of firstborn”).
- It is a privileged and honored gathering, the inheritance of “the firstborn.”
- It is fellowship with the saints of the Old Testament (“spirits of just men made perfect”).
- It is fellowship with and through Jesus Christ (“the mediator of the new covenant” Vs. 24).
The fellowship of the Church is a foretaste of heaven, it is a joyous and festive assembly. In his Church, God has begun his cosmic “gather up.” The Church is already experiencing the fellowship of heaven. We have become citizens, he says, of a glorious spiritual city. Abraham is there, it’s the city that he looked for (Hebrews 11:10). Thousands upon thousands of holy angels are there and those who have died in the faith from the beginning of time—Adam and Moses, David, Deborah and Esther, and millions of others. But more importantly, this city is the true dwelling place of the Living God and of Jesus Christ.
We should not forget that our Savior, Jesus Christ is there because he “endured the cross” for the “joy that was set before him” (12:2). What was that joy? It was the joy of bringing us into communion with God and with himself in glory.
We have lost a sense of belonging to this glorious gathering. We have failed to enter into the joy in the presence of angels or to join in the fellowship of the saints of old—the Song of Moses, the victories of David, the courage of Deborah, or the patience of Job. These men and women are not just a “cloud of witnesses” (12:1), to encourage us along the way, they are fellow-citizens with us, we are their brothers and sisters in “the household of faith,” (Galatians 6:10). We are co-worshipers in this glorious gathering.
We have been too distracted by the organized Church on earth, that we lost the sense of rising up out of the vanities of earth and of entering into the worship of heaven, the joy of that “festive assembly” (Ephesians 2:6; Revelation 1; 4–5). The Church has lost the enjoyment of our privileged inheritance, as co-heirs with Christ, the firstborn.