Reclaiming Christian Witness and Authority
3. Invisible, unrepresentable, unassimilable
The second area of distortion in our understanding of God and of following Christ is about how we express our faith and spirituality. This has to do with the nature of God as Spirit and therefore invisible.
Os Guinness and John Seele write about the Roman general Pompey entering Jerusalem in the first century B. C. He wanted to see the Jewish representation of their god. On entering the Jewish synagogue in Jerusalem, he found nothing. The inner sanctum was empty. There was no graven image of God. Pompey was stunned and infuriated. Pompey “could invade Jerusalem and carry Jews back to Rome but he could not lay his hands on the Jewish God for his Roman pantheon. What was unrepresentable also was unassimilable. Such a God was intolerable to Pompey. The God of the Jews was an utterly impossible God… He who is, beside whom there is no other — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who is also the God and Father of Jesus Christ — is an impossible God.”
The crux of the issue is this. The God of the Bible, the infinite and immeasurable God is also Spirit. Therefore He is invisible. He who is invisible is unrepresentable. He who is unrepresentable is unassimilable. This is what makes the God of the Bible impossible. And His people too are impossible people when they remain unassimilable like their God. But alas, that is not the story of the church in the last 2000 years! We have made that which is impossible, possible – the invisible, visible; the unrepresentable, representable; and the unassimilable, assimilable!. This is our SIN and our GUILT!
How has this come about? This has come about precisely by letting the Christian faith to be represented as any other religion and by adopting lifestyles which are totally antithetical to the teaching of the New Testament.
Within a few decades after the death of the last of the twelve apostles – we started building places for Christian gathering which began to be called sanctuaries or houses of God or churches. We then appointed special people to conduct the services in these special places. Then we gave them a special procedure or liturgy to conduct the services. The insistence on attendance at a church service on Sundays, the giving of tithes and offerings as part of the service as an act of gratitude and worship unto God completed the representation of Christian faith as a religion. We now have religious places, religious people and religious customs and traditions like any other religion. Is this not the reason why we are now reckoned and numbered with other religions of the world?
Neither Christ nor any of the twelve apostles taught nor encouraged any religious system nor any religious custom nor talked about building any religious structures. The New Testament is totally silent on any of this. We might try to read religion into some of the statements of the apostles but no where do they explicitly talk about it.
On the other hand apostle Paul in Galatians 4: 1-7, talks about the Old Testament law and its system as ‘guardians and governors’ appointed over a son while he is still a child. A child is no different from a slave, says Paul. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”
Later in Colossians 3: 16-23, he argues that several religious practices prevalent among Christians were a mere ‘…shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.’ Suggesting that since the substance is now with us we do not need these shadows any longer.
The Letter to Hebrews leads a scathing attack on all external, physical and temporal forms of religion, religious structures, systems and traditions. The author talks about all the Old Testament forms, traditions, priesthood and sacrifices including the old covenant as a copy, a shadow and now obsolete. “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9: 11). He concludes that ‘the just shall live by faith’ and goes on to draw portraits of people who lived by faith.
It is very sad and unfortunate that these passages from the Letters in the New Testament were interpreted as referring only to the Mosaic Law and its requirements of sacrifices and priesthood. While primarily such an interpretation is correct, my thesis is that the passages and their essence must be extended to include all forms of religion. Because both the Lord Jesus and his twelve apostles make it plain that ‘to follow Christ’ is not to follow a religion but to come under the authority of God as revealed and represented in Christ. This is not a religion but a life in relationship with the God of the universe through the mediatorship of His Son, Jesus Christ.
Christian life therefore is a life of faith. It is represented in the way we live and not by any religious system, structure, tradition or custom. Any teaching or insistence on any practise as mandatory to Christian faith and living makes Christian faith like any other religion of the world. Hence even a legalistic insistence on attendance at a ‘church service’ and the teaching about regular tithing and offering is no different from the insistence by any religion to offer different forms of oblations and sacrifices to appease the gods. All such forms even in the Old Testament were only symbolical, a shadow and were given as guardians and governors in childhood. But now since Christ has come, we now have the substance. We do not need shadows and symbols any longer. We ‘look to Jesus, the author and the finisher of our faith’ and live our lives by faith and freedom in Him.
The point I am making here is simply this. We have made Christian faith representable and thus made it assimilable into the surrounding regions of the world. We did this by introducing different forms of practices, customs, patterns, systems, structures whether in the form of buildings or institutions like any other religion of the world. Practically all of us are guilty of it. Some of us have taken it to a religious extreme some of us are a little more circumspect.
Even the groups and congregations who are not affiliated to any mainline denomination and boast of being different from them have lapsed into same religious forms and practices which they originally resisted. Practically all of them began in rebellion to the mechanical and religious forms of worship in the denominations. But in the end each of them turned out to be equally enslaving in the patterns of their worship. And the reasons are the same – a lack of right understanding of the God of the Bible.
Today the world over Christianity is almost assimilated into the world of religions and is considered no different from any other religion. And by pursuing political and economic power we have begun to be counted with the nations of the world unlike the people of God about whom Balaam prophesied in Numbers 23: 9, “I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations.”
What more? In many instances apart from creating these different forms, patterns, systems and structures, we have raised these to the status of absolutes. Thus committing idolatry. Because only God is absolute and everything else and everyone else is relative. When that which is relative is given the status of an absolute, we raise it to the status of God.
When we make God and faith in Him representable by anything that is not commanded by Him then we not only reduce God to less than what He is but make Him relative to and comparable with the created and man-made. This too, is idolatry.
To raise that which is relative to the status of the absolute and to reduce the absolute to the status of the relative is idolatry and therefore sin against God. Oh, how many Christian groups and congregations have fallen into this trap by making God representable in some form or the other through the patterns, systems and structures they have created. Or by giving the place of God to these patterns, systems and structures and in some cases to the leaders or the teachers who teach and lead them. Is it any wonder that we have lost our power and our witness?
Some one has said that the human heart is an idol-making factory. Do you now see the subtlety of the deception? In the name of worship and devotion to Christ how often we make our own systems, patterns, programmes, leaders and even churches the measure for everyone. And when you notice that many well-meaning and sincere Christians are in it, one cannot but lament!
The God of the Bible is an impossible God and His people are impossible people too. He is impossible because He is immeasurable. Therefore invisible. Therefore unrepresentable. Therefore unclassifiable. Therefore unmalleable. Therefore unassimilable. His people are shaped by His truth and therefore are uncompromising to all pressures, molds, and seductions. Their allegiance is to Him alone. Their love for Him is unconditional therefore they are unconquerable.
Os Guinness & John Seel write, “A central consequence of the vision of such an impossible God is God-centered relativising: God and His truth call into question all opinions, customs, loyalties, and claims that differ from their own… God alone is absolute, so all that is not God is relative… Unconditional obedience to God therefore means unconditional refusal to give God’s place to anyone and anything else. Thus those who confess one God are those who are ready to criticise everything else – nation, class, race, party, power, wealth, ideology, science, government, and church – whenever it threatens to usurp the place of God. After all, there is no other.”
As if giving representation to God in the religious forms and systems were not enough there is one other more dishonourable and repugnant things among Christians today. This is to think that we can give representation to our God through the ‘blessings’ we have garnered from our pursuit of the world. This only shows how biblically puerile our thinking has become. So we have the sad spectacle of many Christians chasing the knowledge, the power and the glories of the world. What more? When Christians think that they can use these ‘blessings’ to serve God, what can one say? It is like Judas Iscariot wanting to fulfill the ‘great commission’ with the thirty pieces of silver he gained from selling His master! Alas, I lament!
We have forgotten that a church or people who have pursued and benefited by the gifts and blessings of the world have no gospel to preach and would lose their witness and authority. We forget that if worldly blessings were the measure then there are more people in the world who have more of the said ‘blessings’ than most Christians. But the saddest part of it is when you see so many enslaved to the world – to acquiring knowledge, wealth and respectability you cannot but lament with Jeremiah, “How the precious children of Zion, once worth their weight in gold, are now considered as pots of clay…Those who once ate delicacies are destitute in the streets. Those brought up in royal purple now lie on ash heaps….”
This is the reason why I wonder, if much of today’s evangelism and ministry were not from guilt than from a true devotion to Christ, notwithstanding the sincerity of those who do it!
It is no wonder that we seem to be producing people in our own likeness through our evangelism and missions. “For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.” Jesus warned. What a shame if after all our efforts to convert people to Christ we make them more worthy of hell, because we don’t seem to be converting them to Christ but to our structures, patterns and lifestyles. And I wonder if it is to such people Jesus would say, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ Oh, the prospect of being ‘banished from the presence of Him who is present everywhere and of being erased from the knowledge of him who knows all’! (C.S.Lewis) One cannot even imagine how it would be!
But the question still remains, if God is invisible how can he be represented then? What representation does God allow of Himself, if He does at all?