Lesson 1: The Gospel Community

There has always been some controversy about the nature of the church. When I entered the ministry about 60 years ago, an Evangelical pastor friend of mine described the controversy as  a tension between those who see the mission as calling people to accept Jesus’ offer of eternal life against those who try to provide a caring Christ-centered community. He lumped his group with Pentecostals who also focused on the certainty of being saved. The only difference was they used speaking in tongues as the sign and the Evangelicals upheld believing certain fundamental principles such as the inerrancy of the Bible. He described the rest of us, Roman Catholics and mainstream Protestants, as sacramental churches that tried to supply spiritual gifts that supposedly maintained an ongoing community.

He expressed genuine sympathy at my willingness to take responsibility for sustaining unity in a large congregation. He felt no concern about the large numbers who answered his altar call one week and disappeared the next. His only obligation was to make the call.

What a different world that was! We could congenially discuss our different concepts of ministry. We might note some members of our two groups condemned each other to hell in a future life and follow that with my disbelief that he thought the most important parts of any ministry were air conditioning, a good sound system, and proper lighting in that order.

Looking back, it all seemed harmless and naïve. Yet, even though I studied with some of the finest theologians in the world, I was intrigued with his clear-cut distinctions.

I cannot imagine those conversations taking place nowadays. If they did, the quiet religious discussions would be violent political arguments. The division now has to do with social issues, such as the congregation’s position on abortion, human sexuality, and environmental care. Academic talk about the distant future has turned to dangerous threats in the present. Churches such as Roman Catholics and Evangelicals who once damned each other have formed unlikely alliances to work together politically.

In hopes of finding some grounds for creative conversation, I thought it might be helpful to relate the gospel community in the Bible to our present situation. I use the term simply to describe the community that formed around the gospel in the first century.

Obviously, the first thing I have to do is define the Gospel, which is not without controversy. Scholars debate whether the Gospel is the message about Jesus himself, the message he proclaimed in his earthly ministry, or a combination of both.

Having said that, I am fascinated by the parallels with my Evangelical friend’s distinctions. If the Gospel is about Jesus’ person, then it focuses on the atonement he achieves for us and how we take advantage of it. If it is about the message Jesus proclaimed, then it describes a caring community that continues Jesus’ mission. Let’s see where this takes us in the coming weeks.

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