The Devil is in the detail – Stuart Johnson

It has been nearly eighteen years since I first read The Human Person as an Icon of the Trinity by Kallistos Ware.  This transformed my whole way of thinking from confusion to peace of mind.  It has been a journey of coming to grips with the truth of God revealed to us as Triune in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  Since that time, I have seen how the Trinitarian movement has grown.  I have been blessed to meet many people over the years thanks to social media.  The encounters I have valued most are those in whom I have the privilege of talking face-to-face.  The common thread for our fellowship is the axis for all that we talk about, Jesus Christ.  When we focus on Him, we find there is much common ground and way forward.  It is understanding Jesus Christ as a whole Person who is fully God in the bosom of the Father.  We understand we are in the midst of this relationship that cannot be questioned or judged by anyone.  It is the security of knowing the resurrected and ascended Lord Jesus Christ is God’s judgement to us all.  Whatever we have been led to believe prior to this is irrelevant in the Light of Christ’s ever present truth in us all.

When I started at the seminary here in Adelaide, there were signs that the Trinitarian message was beginning to have an impact on the way the Christian message was being delivered in our lecture classes.  For some, the writing was on the wall.  Unless there is a revolution in the whole way we view ministry, then the future of the institution of the church was doomed.  There was quite a tension between the faculty who started to see positive implications for ancient Trinitarian theology and those who were determined to hang on to evangelicalism and her benefits for those involved in her ministry.  Many churches here in Adelaide have many empty seats.  Many of the mega-churches are like a revolving door with as many going in as leaving the church.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not against the institutional church.  However, the writing is on the wall.  I have had so many conversations with people regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ according to the ancient tradition.  The vast majority love what I have to say.  Now if I mention the church, just the mere idea of suggesting it undermines everything I have said and jeopardises what I have tried to lay out.  In Australia we have historically resisted coming under authority and resented being told what to do.  The perceived style of the modern church by people I speak to clashes with our culture.  Yet, the gospel I endeavour to share is so appealing to them.  Either there is something wrong with the gospel I preach or there is something wrong with the message the institutional church is portraying of itself.  Christians appear to be much more comfortable asking people to come to church than telling them of the good news of utterly staggering cosmic proportions.

I can only speak of my own personal experiences over many years and I have to say that I am empathetic with the people I speak to who object to what the church communicates to society at large. So my conversations do not speak about the church at all.  I speak only of Jesus Christ.  I confident that when I converse with people, the Spirit is at work in them just like He is at work in me.  I leave it up to the Spirit to teach people the significance of the church.  I do not represent and will never ever represent any church institution. Jesus Christ is the Head of the church and the church itself is made up of many parts of the body.  I believe all those in the body must direct people to the Head, which is Jesus Christ.  Yet, what many do is to try and point people to their particular body part instead of the Head.  Then once people become part of the body part then they are directed to the Pastor, Priest, Reverend etc who is in charge of making sure people are taught their version of the church’s doctrine on the gospel.

The very early Christians were largely made up of the lowly kind and it took considerable time before those who were more educated to take seriously the gospel of Jesus Christ.  What this tells me is the gospel was far less complicated than what it has become today.  During the time of Paul’s ministry, there was no established New Testament to speak of.  From the very start, there was harsh persecution but the conviction of those first believers was very strong.  This is in contrast today where there is such an emphasis on the Bible that one has to do “Bible” college, degrees and doctorates to be qualified not only to understand it but to also teach it.  In so doing, the vital work that comes out of these years of study can be locked tightly within the bounds of the elite members of campuses.  It appears to me that the gospel has become a commodity rather than a gift.  For some, it is the means of making an extraordinary amount of money.  The work that may be so vital to the community at large may be locked into copyright agreements held tightly by publishing companies that might restrict its availability to the Western middle class. Good quality teaching material is often way out of reach of people in the underdeveloped and developing countries.

With such an emphasis on accreditation on understanding and preaching from the Bible, my concern is the simplicity of the gospel has been severely eroded.  It has been hijacked by the church institution and kept behind the pulpit.  I know this is a sweeping statement and I do take into consideration there are many who go out into the community to share the good news.  However, I do not believe sharing the gospel is reserved for the evangelists.  Many times since I first became a believer when it came to the issue of the gospel, the common response would be, “I am not an evangelist.”  Yet, the very same people would scrutinise how I would preach the gospel.  There tends to be an attitude, “I am not an evangelist and so it is not my place to share the gospel.  I will just critique how you do it.”  It has only been recently where there there is such simplicity of the gospel expressed through the ancient Christian understanding that we are starting to find a unified conversation.  In addition, more and more people are finding it easier to share with people around them without the need to be certified by the theologically so called elite or the need to drag people to church.

We must remember the gospel is the fulfillment of the New Covenant which is expressed in the resurrected Person of Jesus Christ.  On the one hand we have Jesus Christ who is fully in mutual relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit.  On the other hand we have Jesus Christ who fully and mutually indwells in humanity.  In Jesus Christ, God is made fully known and declares ALL will know Me.  We see clearly the nature and character of God in Jesus Christ and it is His nature and character that Jesus Christ promises all people will know for themselves.  Then we have the church establishments along with their educational institutions that train candidates to become leaders in varying capacities and roles to oversee people who are involved in the church in same way.  People who go to church depend on the leaders who have been trained to lead them and their community of believers.  They are called to be ambassadors of Jesus Christ.  Then we have the community who are outside the church doors.  If these people have the intuitive knowledge of Jesus Christ within them then we are obligated to show them the nature and character of Jesus Christ in them matches with what we believe the nature and character of Jesus Christ to be.  If we preach any other message, then, generally speaking, people may not buy it.

It is incumbent on the community of believers to reflect the nature and character of Jesus Christ in how they engage with the wider community.  Jesus truly showed His nature and character by engaging with the sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors.  He was doing precisely what God was doing among the so called unclean, outcasts of society.  There was no indication the people He engaged with stopped being sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors.  Nevertheless, He loved them while they were sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors.  Yet, the culture within in much of the church today is people must stop being sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors if they are to be included in the community of believers.  People with questionable characters start to dictate whether or not the sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors of our day have questionable characters.  By all means, if the Spirit urges them to take a different path then let them do so.  Jesus counted these people as His friends, healed and fed them.  He just loved them even in the face of their violence.

Today, people are expected to climb the morality mountain and and determine what is right and wrong before anyone can participate.  Why can’t we let people be loved as Christ loves us.  There is a tendency to want to put a demarcation of some sort that will exclude.  The latest craze is mimetic theory.  This theory’s view of non-violent atonement risks placing another means of exclusion and that is contrary to the gospel.  People who are inherently violent are questioning the characters of Christians around them who appear in their own violent eyes to be inherently violent.  Lots of pots calling kettles black!  In a nutshell, it is hypocrisy.  There is one Lord Jesus Christ whose body contains all manner of people who for whatever reason cannot get it right, with me right there at the top of the list.  It is filled with people who all have faults.  It is people who continually fail each and everyday.  If one wants to find a fault with the church, they will not have to look very far.  If we preach Jesus Christ, then we preach that despite all our faults and questionable, violent characters, we are loved to the uttermost.

When we engage with people within or outside the church, there has to be a unity between the nature and character of Jesus Christ as God of God and Light of Light of the same being with the Father.  There is love and reciprocity between the humanity of Jesus Christ and God which we have been caught up in the Incarnation. When we share the gospel, it is not first-hand news.  The Spirit of Christ is already at work and each person has the capacity to recognise that what they are hearing reflects who Jesus Christ is in Himself and their union with Him.  If we preach Jesus Christ then they may overlook our own faults and see the true nature of Jesus Christ, the one who loves them to the uttermost.