Tuesday, September 23, 2014

“Visible and Invisible” Christianity – Part Two: An Introduction Is Not a Relationship – Why it is essential to reconcile our views of an “invisible” Christianity with our “visible” relationship to Christ and others

Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man
In my previous post (found here: http://deathpastor.blogspot.com/2014/09/visible-and-invisible-christianity-part.html), I explored the imaginations some hold (going back at least to Augustine’s theology) that there is an “invisible” church of ideal purity, imperfectly and vaguely expressed in a “visible” church that comprises both believers and non-believers congregating together. This most often results in the clergy, or the corporately-structured institution, being identified as the “real” church (presumably, but wrongly, on the basis of the clergy and denominational officials being pure and faithful in greater proportion than the “average” Christian). In this view, the tangible church is excused from living up to that ideal. This is, as I noted, a false dichotomy. There is only one church, and its “invisible” relationship to God through Christ is, scripturally, “visible” in the effects of that relationship. Rather than “living-up” to an ideal, the church is the body through which Christ is “living-out” His continued ministry.
Some will ask, “What does this mean to me as an individual Christian?” So, here’s why it matters.
In a recent post, Paul Louis Metzger appears to extend the false dichotomy of the visible and invisible church into questions of a person’s relationship with God through Christ. (His post on the topic can be found here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uncommongodcommongood/2014/09/gated-communities-and-the-visibleinvisible-church/) Dr. Metzger refers to Christians who have experienced an “invisible transformation.” In my experience this involves presumably receiving salvation from Jesus Christ as the result of a specific event. It is often emphasized in our consumer-oriented culture as what I would consider a “transaction” in which we exchange our “sinner’s prayer” or baptism or other symbolic testimony in return for a contractually-based salvation to heaven, Christ’s promissory note of a future relationship with Him being payable upon our death.
H.G. Wells, author of The Invisible Man
For clarity’s sake, I would prefer to reserve the term “transformation” to refer to the actual effects of having chosen to follow Christ. These effects are variously described as the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), fruit in keeping with repentance (regarding John’s baptism in Matthew 3:8; reiterated regarding Paul’s preaching in Acts 26:19-20), the fruit of the light (Ephesians 5:9-10), and in other ways in other passages. In contrast, the concept of salvation through a singular event (which I hold to be essential to entering into the transformation process) would better be termed a “transaction.”
But Dr. Metzger is making an important point, even if he fails to confront, at least as directly as I would prefer, the presumptuous nature of anyone’s conversion that assumes a “transaction” without resulting in  “transformation.” His concern is that where there can be only one church, even if it is made up of both those whose transformation is invisible and those who, in my view, have become actually engaged in a relationship with Christ (where the transaction and transformation, or the introduction and ongoing relationship are both evident). As for any question about Dr. Metzger’s view of the vague and uncertain nature of congregating believers and non-believers together as an expression of some pure, ideal, and invisible church? He writes, “Jesus sets an open table, not in some invisible fashion, but in a very visible way.”
Claude Rains, in The Invisible Man
The “open table” is a regular theme of Dr. Metzger’s. By it, he demands an inclusivity of the local church beyond our nebulous, invisible, claims that “all are welcome.” These claims are, of course, betrayed by the corporately-structured, territorially-defensive, and mutually-competitive congregations that continue to proliferate like paramecia throughout urban, suburban, and rural communities. (Why “paramecia?” Because to “breed like bunnies” they would have to have some tangible interaction with at least one other congregation, and that is more and more rarely an occurrence.) Our tendency to segregate congregations from one another, and to splinter more and more dissatisfied sub-groups from within the local body of Christ is, however tragic, not the worst of the damage.
When we claim to be open and accepting of “whosoever will may come,” and yet allow our subtle, even subconscious stereotypes and prejudices to exclude others from fellowship with us, we sin just as egregiously as if we were to hang signs on our doors, “No ________ allowed.” (You can fill in the blank with whatever categories you choose. They’re usually identified best by remembering who you’ve seen visit your church, about whom you’ve thought, “They’re not going to fit in here.” “I’ll bet they’d be happier at some other church.” Or “I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do about them being here.”)
Another invisibility I want to change.
But you may be one of the “invisible” Christians, who presume that you have completed a business transaction for salvation, but are not part of a local congregation. Or you may be absolutely certain of your ongoing relationship of loving devotion to Jesus, except for the part about you having to hang-out with a bunch of His other friends as well. It may be that the one about whom you say, “They’re not going to fit in,” is you. You may have good reasons. You may have been hurt by fellow Christians. You may not know the words to some of the songs. You may find that the available service times interfere with your regularly-scheduled programming. Or you may have any number of other excuses, beyond a good-sized handful of relatively justifiable reasons. Go anyway. Connect anyway. Be Christian anyway. Because in your refusal to congregate with other Christians (or even your decision to segregate into more comfortably convenient sub-groups within the local body of Christ), your “relationship with Jesus” is invisible, because it’s non-existent. Get real. Get to church. (And to the “professional ministers” who read this: get the church back together again.)
So, can we see our Christianity? The Apostle John seemed to think so.
“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer; and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.” (I John 3:14-18, NASB)
As persons, we can choose to become interrelated to others, proactively engaging in conversation and other activities in order to establish and deepen relationships that give visible expression to our too-frequently-invisible claims. Or, we can depersonalize others, and ourselves, by talking more about how we are mystically, metaphysically, invisibly related to Christ, without becoming vitally connected within the congregation and community to which He has called us.

One practice expresses the life we have been given so freely, generously, and graciously. The other is a damnable heresy that is crippling the church and disrupting her mission. Be a visible Christian, or stop lying about being a Christian at all.
It seems that things may be looking up for the invisible man.

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