Several GCI Home Office employees and guests gathered on January 20 to honor Nancy Akers on the final day of her 33 years of employed service to GCI. In retirement, Nancy and her husband Terry (who works part-time in the Home Office) will remain in Southern California.
Nancy began working for WCG in 1973, first as a mail processing clerk/typist, then as a secretary in personal correspondence. From 1981 to 1995 she worked in mail processing and landscape administration, then in May 1995 she began serving as executive assistant in Church Administration and Development where she served for almost 22 years.
We extend to Nancy our thanks and congratulations. Job well done, faithful sister! You will be missed.
Richard Morgan, husband of Edythe Morgan and father to GCI Treasurer Mat Morgan and his brothers Tim, Tom and Mark, died peacefully on January 19 surrounded by family after a battle with cancer. Richard was known for his strong character, hard work, honesty and ability to fix anything if he put his mind to it. He was a veteran who served in the 11th Airborne division and the 187th Airborne Combat Team in Korea.
Richard is survived by his wife of almost 61 years, his four sons and their spouses, eight grandchildren and twelve great grandchildren. A new great grandson was born the same day that Richard passed, making for a bittersweet day.
Mat sends his thanks to all who have sent prayers and well wishes. He says that the family looks forward to seeing Richard again in the fulness of God’s kingdom.
Cards may be sent to:
Edythe Morgan 1203 East Mountain View Ave. Glendora, CA 91741
We were saddened to learn of the recent, unexpected death of GCI-Canada pastor Chris Starkey. At about 11:30 p.m. a passing motorist noticed a person lying in the driveway. He stopped to check, then went to the neighbor’s for help. The neighbor identified Chris, and called 911. The ambulance arrived within minutes, but Chris had already died from a heart attack.
Chris was pre-deceased by his parents, Tom and Sarah Starkey and is survived by his two daughters, Sara and Victoria, his brother Ray, sister-in-law Lynn, and their children ZoAnne and Dustin, as well as a large community of family and friends.
GCI-Canada Director Gary Moore made this comment about Chris, who turned 63 in August:
I’ve known Chris since he arrived at Ambassador College in 1970. We were in the same dorm and became good friends. He was a humble, loyal servant of Jesus Christ and his people. I will miss him, as I know those of you who knew him will as well. Please pray for his family, and our members in St. John’s, Cornerbrook, and Gander, Newfoundland where Chris served as pastor.
Cards may be sent to:
Sara and Victoria Starkey 59 Hayward Avenue St. John’s, NL , Canada A1C 3W6
Please pray for GCI-USA pastor Wayne Mitchell who will be having emergency triple bypass surgery on January 26. The doctor has told Wayne that he should be able to return to work on a limited basis in about six to nine weeks, and full-time in about three months.
Cards may be sent to:
Wayne Mitchell 14509 254 Avenue SE Monroe, WA 98272-9333
In the U.S., February is Black History Month—a time to highlight and celebrate the substantial contributions of African-Americans to the development of our nation. To add to your celebrations as a congregation, we recommend use of the video below. It celebrates the history of GCI’s South Side Chicago church, which has a long and storied history of African-American leaders and members who contributed, often at great personal cost, to the development of both their congregation and the whole denomination. We celebrate and honor these brothers and sisters in Christ.
Here is part 4 of an essay from Gary Deddo on the nature of the church and its ministry. For other parts of the essay, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. We encourage you to add your thoughts and questions in the “comments” box at the end of each post to get a discussion going. To read the full essay in booklet form, click here. To read the related essay, “Clarifying Our Theological Vision,” click here.
A Brief Theology of the Church
(with a view to equipping the saints for the work of ministry)
by Dr. Gary Deddo
Part 4: The church as God’s creation under the Word
Last time we saw that the church (ekklesia) is “gathered together” and “called out” as the people of God. This time we’ll look at two additional ways Scripture defines the church.
1. Creature and creation of the Word of God (Living and written)
The church not only belongs to Jesus Christ, it’s called into being by the Word of God. The church is thus the result of an act of creation (or re-creation) that resonates with the Genesis account of God saying, “Let there be,” and “there was.” God calls out to the church by his Word and says, “Let there be a people for my name.” The church, then, is the creature and creation of the Word of God (both Living and written), from the Father, in the Holy Spirit. The church comes to exist by the grace of the triune God acting in time and space, and in flesh and blood on our behalf. The church’s life is thus lived out under and in relationship to the Living Word. It has no other Lord, no other Savior, no other Redeemer. It is formed and shaped by our belonging to Jesus Christ as we hear and respond to him as God’s Word to us. He tells us who he is and who we are in relationship to him as our Lord and Savior. He is the one who leads us to abundant life as we live out a relationship responding to him.
The church then, is drawn together and formed and transformed in Jesus as those called together to live under him and by means of him, the Living Word. Though absent bodily, the Living Word is able to call and commune with us through his written Word—the words of the apostles and prophets inspired, preserved and illuminated by the Spirit for us.
Jesus gave himself and his word to the apostles, and by the Spirit Jesus spoke uniquely, authoritatively and once-for-all through these men. He entrusted to them his word and sent them out by his Spirit to proclaim his gospel. Now, by the same Spirit of Christ, we are given ears to hear him speaking again in and through the apostolic words of Holy Scripture, which serve as the final authority for us in all things pertaining to the life of faith and practice.
The apostolic writings of the New Testament point relentlessly to the fact that their authors regard Jesus Christ as their cornerstone—their authority. The apostles do not speak for themselves or by themselves—they are under the orders, directions and directives of their Source and Origin, Jesus Christ. Consequently, what these Christ-appointed apostles convey is not just information, data and facts. They pass on to us their receptivity, attitudes, approach and authoritative regard for the gift of revelation and the meaning of the message given them. Their subjective orientation and receptivity to the meaning of the message is also authoritative. We cannot receive what they have given us by separating the information conveyed from their personal receptivity to it, deciding for ourselves, apart from them, its meaning and significance. We cannot divide asunder the appointed messengers from the message without distorting it. We trust the written Word of God because the Living Word entrusted the apostles to be his interpreters, conveying accurately the content of the message, and the receptivity appropriate to the message.
If we trust Jesus Christ, we will trust in these apostles to be Jesus’ interpreters. Refusing to do so would indicate a refusal to fully trust Jesus and the working of his Spirit. It would signal a calling into question of Christ’s judgment, decision and wisdom in entrusting this vital responsibility to the apostles. In our day, such a refusal would likely signal that we are making one or more of the following wrong assumptions:
That Jesus misjudged in selecting the original apostles to be his appointed interpreters.
That Jesus failed to take into account the historical, linguistic, cultural, social, intellectual and personal obstacles that we face in our day in being able to hear an authoritative word from Christ through the witness of his original apostles.
That the ministry of the Holy Spirit in inspiring and preserving the written Word was ineffective.
As a result of these wrong assumptions, we make the even bigger mistake of becoming our own final authority—taking it upon ourselves, apart from the biblical authors, to determine what Jesus’ words mean. We then have no choice but to speculate about who God is and what he wants since we have predetermined in our own minds that God is not able to clearly and authoritatively communicate in our day anything normative for us and our salvation. Thus we can only resort to using our own methods trying to uncover the truth behind the biblical author’s own understanding. When we regard the written Word of God as unreliable and incapable of conveying to us God’s Word, even given the ministry of the Holy Spirit, then we rely on our own methods to sort through the data left behind in the biblical revelation. Taking this approach, we stand in judgment of the written Word, sifting through it to see if any of it ought to be believed, trusted and lived by, disregarding that this is exactly what the appointed biblical writers did.
There is also another, though opposite way, that some stand in judgment of the written Word. It involves seeking to hear and receive a Word from Jesus through the Spirit apart from a careful listening to the written Word. This approach results in an almost magical view of the Word where we think we hear God speaking through private revelations—subjective feelings, personal convictions, impressions—a sensing of what we feel God has said. Though looking for such subjective signals might include the reading of Scripture, that reading typically is rather casual, readily permitting us to take what the Word says out of context, and even thinking our own personal thoughts and opinions concerning its meaning are inspired by the Spirit. This approach indicates a distrust in the wisdom and judgment of Jesus, and in the capability of the Spirit to work in such a way that we are able to hear and receive a word from God spoken in and through the written Word of God, not apart from it, or apart from the way it was received by the apostles.
In approaching the written Word of God, we must be careful not to separate the Son of God from the Holy Spirit, or the Word of God from the Spirit of God. The members of the Trinity are not separated in their being or in their doing. Instead, they are perfectly coordinated, working together. They share completely the one will and purpose of God, which is to make God known and to draw us into right relationship with himself.
Perfectly capable of taking into account the limits of human language, the problems of transmission and translation and the socio-cultural context, the Father, Son and Spirit enable us to hear and respond to Christ the Living Word and cornerstone, and to those Christ appointed to author the church’s foundation, the written Word of God. As leaders, we are called to serve the church by faithfully teaching and explaining to its members the written Word, which by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, puts us in contact with the Living Word of God. In this way, we facilitate the church living as the creature and creation of the Word of God, Living and so written.
2. Church under the Word of God (Living and written)
With Jesus at its center, shedding light on it all, the written Word of God is our authoritative source for hearing and living under the lordship of the incarnate Living Word of God as his Body the church. Although absent in body, by the presence of his Holy Spirit, we, the church, are enabled to hear Christ speak to us. He does so in and through the biblical words in such a way that we hear those words as a Word from him, not merely words from his apostles. Note these comments from the apostle Paul:
We also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12)
Through Scripture, we receive the Word in the same way the apostles authoritatively first received it—being moved (illuminated) by the same Spirit. We receive this Word in a spirit of humility—a readiness to respond in faith, hope and love to the Speaker of this Word. Like Jesus’ mother Mary, we both receive the Word and are responsive to it. We have “ears to hear” what he is saying, as noted by Paul: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17 ESV). We stand alongside the apostles to receive from them the word of God, receiving it in the same way they did as the word of the Living Word himself.
We then submit to the authority of that apostolic revelation, knowing it came to us by those who had been assigned by Jesus Christ. Submitting to biblical authority is about more than just analyzing its words, ideas, concepts and directives. We submit to the Living Word who speaks to us in the written Word by accepting, revering and mirroring the receptivity of the apostles and their submission to Christ and his Word to them. By the gift of the Spirit, we listen with the same ears to hear what those apostles had been given. Taking a purely “objective” or neutral stance towards the Word, which involves holding back on being receptive to it until after we’ve analyzed and judged it, amounts to a rejection that it truly is the Word of God, both written and Living. Receiving and benefitting from the objective content of the revelation given to the apostles preserved in Scripture, requires sharing in the same subjective orientation to the content of the message that those apostles had, namely faith in the One who is speaking. Hearing the objective word of God requires the working of the Spirit in our subjectivities so that we have the freedom to welcome and receive the Word of God. In short, we read and study Scripture by faith in the One whose Scripture it is.
Summary and implications
In the life and practice of the early church we find an openness toward and trust in the Word, both Living and written. When called together by the proclamation of the gospel, they gathered daily and weekly. What did they do? Note this:
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day [Pentecost]. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Acts 2:41-42)
As creature and creation of the Word, in the Spirit, the church’s worship and fellowship, along with its ministry and leadership, were generated and enlivened by the written Word, which is the Word of Jesus Christ, the Living Word. Did you notice that the church “accepted” the message then “devoted themselves” to the teaching? Both the objective element of the message and the subjective element of personal receptivity or trust were in operation—by the grace of the working of the Spirit of Jesus among them. In our day, we recognize the written Word as belonging to the Living Word when we receive it and listen to it carefully in the same way as they did—led by the Spirit, under the direction of the apostles. In this way, the church, along with the apostles, bears witness to Jesus Christ and his Word, the cornerstone.
Here are two primary implications of the church being Christ’s Body and being a creature and creation of his Word:
a) The Church is Christ’s Body not ours. He remains Head of his Body still today. He remains Lord over his Body.
The church does not belong to us. We remain our Lord’s Body and he remains its one and only Head. Body and Head are inseparably connected, but ordered as Head to the Body. Jesus remains Lord over his Body, the church, precisely because the church is his Body. He has not handed over his leadership/headship to us. The church does not have another head and needs no other earthly mediator. Jesus is still our great Mediator bearing our humanity, and making intercession for us. He, the Living Word, has provided us a witness to himself and to his Holy Spirit by means of the written Word. Note Paul’s comment: “There is one God, one mediator also between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5 ASV).
Thus we understand that the church does not create or sustain (perpetuate) itself. We are not in control of the church—it belongs to Christ. It is his Body, and belongs to no one else. It follows that there is only one ministry in his church, and that is Jesus Christ’s ministry, not ours. He does not need us to stand in for him! Instead, he wants us to participate with him, in his ongoing ministry. We are guided in that participation by his written Word, which he has provided for us with his Spirit. By the Word and Spirit (always together, never separate) the church has its life and leadership. The church and its ministry belong to Christ as its Living Head who gives life to his Body by his Word. The church participates in his ongoing ministry in communion with the Living Word as addressed by the written Word, through which he calls the church together. Thus the church and Jesus Christ, though joined as a Body to its Head, are and remain distinct, yet inseparable.
b) Those leading in Christ’s ministry lead first by following him, by being under him and his written Word, as interpreted in the light of who he is as the Living Word of God.
Church leaders are to lead by living under Christ’s Word, modeling and teaching others to do so as well. Leaders are thus first followers of Christ, according to his Word. Knowing Christ according to his Word is a leader’s most important task. One who leads in Christ’s ministry must know the Living Word through his written Word.
The primary ministry of a leader is the ministry of the Word, Living and written. The primary ministry of the church, as a creature and creation of the Word, is to know and live in fellowship with the Living Word, responding to his written Word as did the apostles who were the human authors of that written Word. All those who serve in the church, in one way or another, are called and appointed to lead in Christ’s Body by first following Christ according to his Word.
A leader in the church never serves the church on his or her own, but in fellowship and communion with others who have gone before—those known to be faithful followers of Christ according to his Word. The church, with all its leaders, aims to be faithful to Christ and therefore to his Word.
Leaders in the Body of Christ, who know Christ according to his Word, gather others primarily by a proclamation concerning who Christ is according to his Word. Christ’s Word, and who he is as expressed in his Word, is the drawing power. The proclamation of the good news (the gospel) is what calls together the church, the called-out ones. Thus church leaders seek not to draw attention to themselves, but to Christ. They bring not their own word, but seek to pass on to others Christ and his Word. Leaders (including pastors) are not the center of the church—that role is reserved for Christ, who is received in the Spirit, with and through his Word. The apostle Paul put it this way: “What we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).
The key to leadership in the church in all ages, including ours, is to know and respond to Christ according to his Word, received in his Spirit. This is what the apostles did, leading to the written Word. In our day, as we hear and respond by the Spirit, we are able to participate in what Jesus, by the Spirit, and through the church, is doing in our world.
My thoughts turned to some of the themes of science fiction when I learned of the discovery of an earth-like planet named Proxima Centauri b, orbiting a red star named Proxima Centauri. It’s not likely we’ll be able to find extraterrestrial life on Proxima b (given that it’s over 25 trillion miles away!), yet people will continue to wonder if there is human-like life beyond Earth. Well, the disciples of Jesus did not have to wonder—they personally witnessed the Lord’s ascension, and thus knew with certainty that the man Jesus now resides bodily beyond Earth in a place Scripture calls “heaven”—a place above and beyond the visible “heavens” of what we call the universe.
It’s important to know that Jesus Christ, who is fully God (the eternal Son of God), remains fully human (the now glorified man Jesus). As C.S. Lewis noted, “the central miracle asserted by Christians is the incarnation”—a miracle that continues forever. In his divinity, Jesus is omnipresent, but in his continuing humanity he now resides bodily in heaven where he serves as our High Priest, awaiting his bodily and thus visible return to planet Earth.
This God-man Jesus is Lord of all creation. As Paul tells us in Romans 11:36, all life that exists is in, for and by him. As John says in Revelation 1:8, Jesus is the “Alpha and the Omega,” who “is and was and is to come.” And as Isaiah 57:15 declares, Jesus is “the high and exalted One” who “lives forever.”
The exalted, holy, eternal Lord Jesus Christ is executor of his Father’s plan to redeem the world. Note the important statement about that plan in John 3:17: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” Those who say Jesus came to judge, in the sense of condemning or somehow punishing the world, are simply wrong. Those who divide humanity into two groups—one predetermined by God to be saved, and the other predetermined to be damned—also are mistaken. When John (perhaps quoting Jesus) says our Lord came to save “the world,” he is referring to all humanity, not just a predetermined part. Note these other verses:
“The Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14).
“I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
“Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish” (Matthew 18:14).
“God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
“Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Yes, Jesus is Lord and Savior of the whole world and, indeed, of all creation. That’s Paul’s point in Romans 8 and John’s point throughout Revelation. What the Father has done through the Son and in the Spirit cannot be broken into parts. As noted by Augustine, “the external works of God [towards creation] are indivisible.” The Triune God, who is One, works as one. His will is one and undivided.
Unfortunately, some people teach that Jesus’ shed blood redeems only those God decreed to be saved. The rest, they claim, were decreed by God to be condemned. This understanding says, in essence, that God has a divided will and purpose for his creation. But there is no Bible verse that teaches that idea, and any such assertion misrepresents and ignores the key to it all, which is an understanding of the nature, character and purpose of the triune God revealed to us in Jesus.
If it were true that God is equally predisposed to save and condemn, then we would have to conclude that Jesus did not accurately represent the Father, and therefore we are not able to know God as he actually is. We would also have to conclude that there is an intrinsic disunity in the Trinity and that Jesus revealed only one “side” of God. As a result, we’d not know which “side” of God to trust—should we trust the side seen in Jesus, or the side hidden in the Father and/or the Spirit? These wrong-headed ideas contradict John’s Gospel where Jesus clearly proclaims that he has made the invisible Father fully and accurately known. The God revealed by and in Jesus is the one who comes to save, not condemn humanity. In and through Jesus (our eternal Mediator and High Priest), God gives us the power to become his eternal children. By his grace, our nature is transformed—giving us, in Christ, a perfection we never could achieve on our own. That perfection involves an eternal, perfected relationship and communion with the transcendent, holy Creator God that no creature can achieve—not even Adam and Eve before the fall.
It is by grace that we have communion with the triune God who transcends space-time, existing in the eternal past, present and future. By, in and through that communion we are nourished by God, body and soul, giving us a new identity and an eternal purpose. In our union and communion with God, we are not diminished, nor are we absorbed or turned into something that we are not. Rather, sharing by the Holy Spirit in Christ’s resurrected and ascended humanity, we are brought to fullness and ultimate perfection in our humanity with him.
Yes, we live in the “now”—within the limits of space-time. Yet, through our union with Christ by the Spirit, we transcend space-time, for as Paul notes in Ephesians 2:6, we are even now seated with the ascended God-man Jesus Christ in heaven. In our temporality, we are here on earth, tethered to time and space. Yet, in a way beyond our full understanding, we also are citizens of heaven in eternity. Though living in the present, we already, by the Spirit, are participating in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. We already are connected with eternity.
Because this is our reality, we proclaim with conviction the present reign of our eternal God. From that vantage point, we look expectantly forward to the coming fullness of the kingdom of God in which we will live forever in union and communion with our Lord. Assurance of this eternal inheritance gives us a hope that roots us, then sends us out to an ever-restless culture searching for the change that makes an eternal difference.
Rejoicing in this view from eternity,
PS: On January 19, GCI’s Board approved my appointment of Dr. Greg Williams to the office of Vice President. I felt it important to appoint Greg to this position to coordinate the 2018 move of our Home Office from Glendora, California, to Charlotte, North Carolina. In this new position, Greg will continue as Director of Church Administration and Development (CAD) and will add oversight of media and our educational programs, both throughout the move and once we have relocated. In his expanded responsibilities, Greg will be working closely with me and Mat Morgan on personnel and other issues as we work as a team to tackle the increased work load (due to the move), seeking a smooth transition.
By way of clarification, I note that the Vice President serves at the discretion of the President of the denomination, for the duration of projected assistance, and is not seen as filling a permanent position. In any case of emergency, the Vice President would serve as Interim President, reporting to the Board which would be led by the Vice Chair, who presently is Russell Duke. That said, we do not anticipate any emergencies, and I am in good health, but as a ministry of Jesus Christ we feel it is important to have a secure plan for the unforeseen future, and to best organize leadership for the present ministry. I will continue to give oversight on the move to Charlotte, and will be continuing my church visits, President’s letters, and Speaking of Life programs as we progress through this important move to North Carolina.
Thank you for your prayers for leadership during these eventful times. I appreciate the assistance that Greg has provided already with both GCI-USA (via CAD) and with our international leadership. We look forward to continued growth as we serve our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
As noted in the Church Administration Manual, GCI-USA Church Administration and Development (CAD) is a team of administrators and developers working together to “serve and develop pastors who serve and develop churches, who live and share the beautiful, inclusive gospel of Jesus.” In keeping with that mission, and in accordance with available resources, Greg Williams (GCI Vice President, CAD Director, and Supt. of U.S. Ministers) recently implemented changes to CAD’s structure and staffing.
Two team members have left GCI employment for new chapters in their lives, Charles Albrecht, who worked 29 years for GCI, is now a financial analyst at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. NancyAkers, who worked 33 years for GCI, retired on January 20 (click here for a report on her retirement party). On behalf of GCI, Greg expressed his thanks: “A big, heartfelt thank you to Charles and Nancy for their sterling service to our pastors and churches over the course of the past three decades. Their faithful service and spirit of love have made a significant, positive difference!”
The CAD Office team now includes:
Pam Morgan, previously with GCI’s Accounting Office, now serves as CAD’s Operations Coordinator and Archives and Records Center Manager.
Michelle Fleming, previously a teacher in Florida, now serves as CAD’s Communications and Training Coordinator.
Ted Johnston, previously a U.S. Regional Pastor, now serves as Special Assistant to the CAD Director and Publications Editor. (Ted works from his home in Alabama.)
The CAD Church Administrationteam now includes five U.S. Regional Pastors: Tim Sitterley (West), Rick Shallenberger (North-Central), Mike Rasmussen (South-Central), Randy Bloom (Northeast) and Paul David Kurts (Southeast). Former Regional Pastor Lorenzo Arroyo now serves as Consultant to Tim Sitterley and Heber Ticas.
The CAD Church Developmentteam now includes three National Coordinators:
Jeff McSwain serves as Church Development National Coordinator (coordinating the work of the Church Development team) and Intern Program National Coordinator.
If you’re like me, you’re amazed by cell-phone technology. At times, I have to be reminded that the device I use to take pictures, send messages, search the Internet, and play music and videos, is also a phone. Not being tethered to a cord brings a sense of freedom, but that sense disappears when the battery runs low and I must plug into a power source. Then there’s the panic that sets in upon realizing I forgot where I laid my phone! What seemed so freeing, is revealed in such moments to be less than true freedom.
I share this cell-phone illustration to remind us how easy it is to misconstrue the nature of true freedom, settling for freedom that is not freedom at all. In thinking this through, I coined the term “cell-phone theology” to refer to a line of thinking that leads to false views of freedom. Cell-phone theology sees freedom the way someone (rather shockingly) described freedom to me: “It’s the ability to do whatever I want, whenever I desire.” That viewpoint misdefines freedom as absolute autonomy. But we’re never absolutely autonomous. Just try to stop breathing for ten minutes with no device to assist, and you’ll see what I mean.
Theologians refer to the freedom we actually have as “contingent freedom”—a freedom that, rather than absolute, is dependent (contingent) upon a number of things, one being time itself. Though time travel makes for fascinating movies, we know we can only live in the here and now, moving through time in linear fashion. We have freedom to act within time, and we can somewhat plan for and have an effect on the future, but we don’t have freedom to act apart from or control time.
What’s most important to know is that our freedom, in the ultimate sense, is completely dependent (contingent) upon God who created and now sustains time. Our freedom, being contingent, is dependent upon on what God has done, is doing, and will yet do within his good, yet fallen creation. To imagine life in isolation from God is not only a mistake, but a deception that leads to all sorts of slavery, particularly of the moral, spiritual and relational kind.
Grace and freedom
In its fallen state, humanity, to one degree or another, is in bondage—bondage to death, temptation, unchosen suffering, unjust circumstances, and to our past. Conversely, true freedom leads to life and harmonious relationships. It comes as a gift from God, extended to us by and in Jesus, through the Holy Spirit. This grace is received as we live out a deliberate relationship with God in faith (trust/belief), hope and love—for God and for his ways. Understanding this connection between God, grace and true freedom helps protect us from the bad doctrine and practice of a “cell-phone theology.”
Tethered to God
True freedom comes from acknowledging that we truly are tethered to God, our creator and redeemer, so that we might live in relation to him whether we acknowledge him or not. Think about it—existence itself is God’s gift. If God forgot us, even for a nano-second, we’d cease to exist. God alone has life in himself and we are all upheld in our existence by his grace of creation (Hebrews 1:1-3).
Some might not like my use of the word “tethered” (bound), seeing it as something contrary to grace and thus quite negative, as if we are bound to God against our will. But understand this: by grace, and for love, God has bound himself to us through Christ so that we can experience the true freedom that is ours being tethered, through Christ, to him. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” is how Paul puts it in Galatians 5:1. By the grace of God, we are bound to a relationship that involves an exchange of gifts: God freely gives us freedom, and we freely receive it as we freely give (surrender) ourselves to him. True freedom thus is about living in a worship relationship with the ever-gracious God of love.
The fruit of true freedom
The better we understand true freedom, the more we will experience God’s peace, joy, love, forgiveness, renewal—his grace in its many forms. When we live in correspondence to our freedom in Christ, we are set free to be truly human as God created us to be as his children and partners. True freedom is based on our receiving his freedom in our relationship with God and expressing it in our relationships with one another.
When people think they are free to misuse their life in one way or another, they typically are not thinking of how their actions affect others—how they hurt parents, children, a spouse, their communities or even countries. Instead of thinking about the purpose and direction of human life, and about how their attitudes and behaviors affect others, they are focused on the self and some personal, typically empty, gain.
Some say being free is about rugged individualism. But more often than not, rugged individualism is just another form of slavery to sin (see Galatians 5:1). In contrast, God has set us free for real participation in what he is accomplishing for all humanity. That participation leads to thankful obedience, an obedience moved by faith, resulting in great joy—a joy both in the here and now, and forever in eternity. Don’t forget that Jesus described the fullness of God’s kingdom as a wedding feast—a joyful celebration with great abundance.
Freedom for real relationships
Because we humans are “tethered” together through our shared history within time and space, being truly free is not about being able to choose, without constraint, between various alternatives. The freedom God gives us is not about standing aloof from others. A Christian aphorism applies here: “True freedom is not freedom from, but freedom for.” True freedom is not freedom to be detached from others, but freedom to understand that we are interconnected in relationship and then to live into that truth. Said another way, true freedom is not realized in solitary detachment from people, but in communion with them. As followers of Jesus, we have been freed to live in this fallen world with people who know of the hope we have in the glorious future that is ours through God’s promise, and also with those who do not yet realize that hope (see Galatians 5:13 and Romans 8:1-2).
There is an obvious difference between humanity’s typical view of freedom (focused on self) and God’s view of freedom (focused on living in our true humanity, received daily as a gift from him). The life of true freedom involves dying to our self-centeredness, and living instead in a way that is centered in the worship of God, lived out towards others through an obedience that comes from faith in God and all that he has accomplished and still promises to us.
Free within God’s freedom
Theologian Karl Barth reminds us that God’s freedom takes precedence over human-centered expressions of freedom. In Church Dogmatics, he wrote this: “In this positive freedom of his, God is also unlimited, unrestricted and unconditioned from without” (CD II/p. 301). Barth’s point is that God’s freedom, rather than being limited by something outside himself, is grounded in his own being. His freedom is not conditioned—God is free to be true to himself, to his own nature and character, and nothing can prevent him from being faithful to his good, just, holy and blessed name. This stands in marked contrast with false notions of divine freedom that involve projecting our own views or fears on God, seeing him as arbitrary, capricious and thus completely unlike the nature and character we find in Jesus. God has a certain nature and character, and his freedom is to be true to that nature and character as revealed in Jesus Christ.
God in his freedom is never compulsive, erratic, unfaithful, or tyrannical. Instead he is always faithful to who he is as the Triune God of love. We should therefore not imagine that our human freedom (which is contingent upon God’s freedom), is about acting on our whims, impulses, and arbitrary or disordered desires, unaccountable to anyone or anything. True human freedom depends on knowing God and his sovereign freedom, which makes it possible for his grace to be unconditional, unforced, and thus given freely to the undeserving like you and me.
Freely given, freely received
God has solely determined and established the blessing of his grace upon us in order for us to experience true freedom. Further, while his freedom is not dependent on anything (our response or behavior included), we experience that freedom when or as we respond to Christ in repentance with faith, hope and love. Our freedom is a gift freely given and so to be freely received as we are moved and set free by the Holy Spirit who ministers on the basis of the completed work of Jesus Christ. Thus we experience freedom because Jesus, by his Word and Spirit, has set us free (John 8:36)—first in relationship to him, and then to live out that freedom in community with other people.
As we respond to Christ, we find increasing freedom to live untethered by the whims of this world’s ever-changing culture with its capricious demands and arbitrary conditions. In freedom, we live in joyful proclamation that the reign (kingdom) of God currently exists, all the while expectantly awaiting its coming fullness. As we participate here and now in what God is doing, we are sent into the world to make a difference, helping others know and experience the true human freedom that is found in relationship to God as Lord and Savior. Oh, and as we go, let’s not forget to take our cell-phones! But remember, your phone (as amazing as it is) is not your freedom, though, perhaps, it will now remind you of what true freedom actually is.
Living in the wonderful freedom given us by God our creator, reconciler and redeemer,
A significant challenge faced by many pastors and other congregational leaders is knowing when and how to close down ineffective programs. Sadly, some programs, despite having little or no relationship to the congregation’s mission, have become “sacred cows.” What do you do? Click here for a podcast and blog post from Tom Rainer with some helpful advice.