Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, was this grace given, to preach unto the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; and to make all men see what is the dispensation of the mystery which for ages hath been hid in God who created all things; to the intent that now unto the principalities and the powers in the heavenly places might be made known through the church the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ephesians 3:8-11).
For the past two hundred years the proclamation of the Gospel has featured a very individualistic focus; it seems the ultimate goal of preaching is to "get people saved". This tendency is understandable in a post-Enlightenment and particularly American context, maintaining a strong focus on the individual and his or her autonomy and independence. Unfortunately this emphasis has led to a Christian spirituality perhaps more wide but significantly less deep. When salvation is described strictly in terms of God solving the sin problem we cannot solve on our own, it is tempting for people to prove willing to "get saved" however they are told to do so and then feel as if the problem is solved and they can get back to their lives.
In such an environment we do well to get back to a fundamental premise of both theology and God's interaction with humanity throughout time: God works through His people. God has never expected to save an assortment of scattered individuals in various times and places; God intends to save a people, a nation, a people for His own possession, and those people are expected to share in community (1 Peter 2:9).
God's work through His people makes sense in terms of God's nature within Himself. The New Testament speaks of God's unity not in personhood but in relationship: the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. Yet God is one, so unified that we can speak of God in the singular (John 1:1, 1 Peter 1:2, 2 Peter 1:29). This unity in relationship is described in John 17:20-23 with the appropriate conclusion: the Father is in the Son, the Son is in the Father, and since the Son is dying and being raised again so that people can be reconciled back to the Father, the Son prays for the people of God to be one, both with God and with one another, as the Father and Son are one. For God to be only concerned about the salvation of individuals without consideration for others would be a denial of Himself; as He is one in relationship, and man is made in His image, so man seeks after relationship both with God and with each other (Genesis 1:26-27, Acts 17:24-28, Romans 1:18-20).
Throughout time God has first established a people for His own possession and then worked with and through them. God began by making Adam and Eve and through them all their descendants (Genesis 2:4-6:32). He began again with Noah and his family (Genesis 6:1-9:28). Yes, God chose and worked with the individuals Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but always in view of the "great nation" which He established through Jacob, called Israel (Genesis 12:1-49:33). God intended for all Israel to serve Him as priests and to bless the world through Israel, giving them His own Law to follow (Exodus 19:1-20:17), yet Israel continually chose to reflect the nations around them than the particular inheritance given to them by God.
And so it is, as Paul states in Ephesians 3:10-11, that God's ultimate and eternal purpose in Jesus was to display His own manifold wisdom through the church. The church is the visible manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth, inaugurated through Jesus' life, death, resurrection, ascension, and lordship, looking forward to the promise of His return, judgment, and resurrection (Philippians 3:20-21, Colossians 1:13). Paul speaks of the church as the Body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23, Colossians 1:18), and emphasizes the need for the members of that body to work both independently and together to strengthen and build up that body (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Ephesians 4:11-16). It is not for nothing that as Jesus gives a vision to John of the beauty of the saved after the day of resurrection it is in terms of the "holy city Jerusalem," the "bride of Christ," that is, as the church, in unspeakable glory, forever in the presence of her God and Savior (Revelation 21:1-22:6).
At no point in the New Testament do we see commendation of "Lone Ranger Christianity." To "pick yourself up by your own bootstraps" is a good Americanism but it is never found in the pages of Scripture. Instead Scripture speaks of the need to love one another, to serve one another, to care for one another, to strengthen one another, and to participate together with one another in the faith (John 13:14, 34, Acts 2:42-47, 1 Corinthians 12:26, 1 Thessalonians 5:11). Peter reminds us that the devil goes about as a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8); as anyone who has watched lions on a television documentary can attest, lions always like going after the loners, the isolated, the weak and ill of a group. Individualism and independence may be virtues in American society yet they prove to be vices in the Kingdom of God which values joint participation and interdependence (Acts 2:42-46, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 12:12-28). Even that which we have as individuals is to be used to serve one another (1 Peter 4:10-11)!
Therefore we can see that the God who is one in relational unity works through His people, presently found in the church. God's working in and through His people has many important implications for discipleship and evangelism.
First and foremost is the need to emphasize that those who are truly God's people work together in community as the church to glorify God. The Gospel is proclaimed not as the ultimate self-help fix, but to emphasize the need to be reconciled back to God and also to His people; notice in Ephesians 2:1-22 the thrust of Paul's explication of the salvation process has led to both Jews and Gentiles being incorporated into one body and to share as fellow-citizens of the Kingdom of God. How can one preach Christ without preaching His Body? How can a Gospel truly reflect God's purposes if it does not emphasize the need to join and share with the community of God's people to build up and be strengthened in turn? Those who were baptized in Acts 2:41 immediately devoted themselves not only to the Apostles' instruction but also the fellowship (the association, the joint participation, the community) of believers (Acts 2:42). The call of conversion demands not just a change of mind and heart but also a change of primary identification, no longer of the world and the various ways it divides people, but of Christ and by necessity the Kingdom of Christ, declaring one's identification with the fellow people of God (Philippians 3:20).
Likewise, as we proclaim the Gospel, we cannot do so entirely independently of the people of God and expect God to bless it or for it to truly succeed. After all, what is the goal of all evangelism? Just to baptize people? That is not even the primary goal of the Great Commission, which sees baptism, along with teaching, as the means by which disciples are made (Matthew 28:18-19). The goal of evangelism is to make disciples and then to help them grow to maturity, and if nothing else, that growth process can only take place in the context of the community of God's people as it has for millennia. Such is why the members of the church are to strengthen and care for one another; that is why the members of the church assemble, to spiritually build up and strengthen one another toward maturity (1 Corinthians 12:26, 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16, Hebrews 10:24-25). Even the most zealous and driven self-directed disciple still needs the encouragement, exhortation, and often redirection or perhaps rebuke which comes from joint participation with the people of God as we all seek to come to the appropriate understanding of God's message to us (Ephesians 4:11-16, 2 Timothy 2:15).
We all are who we are because of God and His grace; yet how often has God worked through some of His people to be the sources of information, instruction, encouragement, exhortation, and perhaps even rebuke in our lives? As the Gospel was proclaimed in the first century, even if great divine effort was necessary to arrange for the hearing of the message, its proclamation was still accomplished by His people (e.g. Acts 9:1-18, 10:1-48). Since God works through His people, we must take care so as to be people in whom and through whom God can work. Are we doing our part to facilitate an environment among our fellow people of God in which disciples can grow in trust, faith, and strength? Are the parts of the body doing the functions God has given them both independently and interdependently? Are lives being transformed to better conform to the image of Jesus so that Christ's body is growing in Him?
As He did in the original creation of humanity and in Israel, God now works through His people now in the church. On the final day He will glorify the saved as the collective and communal people of God. That which is not connected to the Body of Christ will not stand nor endure for eternity. Let us therefore strive to work effectively in community as the people of God, manifesting among ourselves the unity shared by God in Himself and with God so that He can work through us to make disciples and help them grow to maturity!
Ethan R. Longhenry