Unity Without Uniformity: Three Pillars of Our Primary Identity

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Unity Without Uniformity

Unity Without Uniformity

We live in an age when far too many people have experienced either a bent and sugary love devoid of boundaries, or a stern and legalistic law divorced from grace. Too often, these extremes are practiced by those who most vigorously proclaim their exclusive possession of “The Truth.” Not only is the world largely unimpressed with our faulty display of God’s nature, but our congregations are increasingly abandoned by disillusioned and disappointed seekers and hearers. I can’t imagine a time when it is more important for these indivisible aspects of God’s character—law and grace—to be experienced together.

Undoubtedly, the recovery of the Jewish Roots of the Christian faith has been a move of the Spirit for our era, but like most times when the Spirit blows, there are many divisive, confusing and competing spirits striving to distract, discourage, and destroy the legitimate work of God. In times like these, a sure and steady course can be set by relying upon the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit to bring to our aid the tri-fold tools that have faithfully served those who have gone before us: Scripture, Reason, and Tradition (properly used in that order of priority).[1]

I hope to outline three points upon which I believe the Church must agree in order to be effective in fashioning disciples of Messiah. Though I don’t believe a robust unity requires absolute uniformity, it seems there must be some sort of foundation upon which to base our common labors. I will argue that we need:

  1. An unchanging standard,
  2. A primary identity, and
  3. A corporate mission.

I shall take the late J.C. Ryle as my model in this endeavor, who, noticing the deplorable lack of sanctification that characterized the late 19th century English Church, worked to “[restore] biblical breadth and depth to evangelical minds that had been swept away by fashionable holiness teaching that was actually extreme, shallow, biblically incorrect, and a hindrance to growth in grace. Ryle’s response was not to cross swords with its exponents, but to lay out afresh, biblically, systematically, and in practical terms, the true fundamentals of Christian sanctity, with constant appeal to…others…who had trodden this path before him.”[2]

I will assume that you are reading this precisely because you have recognized the necessity of an unchanging standard, and thus are in agreement with point #1. (Feel like you might be out of this loop? Consider the words of Willem VanGemeren in the footnotes below.[3])

I will move quickly to point #2 then, and attempt to articulate our primary identity; an identity to which we can all subscribe and which, I believe, must be in place before subsequent conversations can take place in a constructive manner. Pertaining to a corporate mission (point #3), I hope to evidence that the Great Commission is phase two of God’s original purpose: an expansion of God’s phase one mission for Israel.

We Need an Unchanging Standard

If you will allow, despite our agreement on the necessity of an unchanging standard, I think a brief excursus on the topic would be appropriate. We need to be careful that our language does not leave people puzzled. In my experience, 80% of Americans to whom I say “law” actually hear “legalism.” This is a problem. Regardless of what I mean to communicate, regardless of how diligently we have labored to point out that law and grace are allies and not opponents, if our audience hears “bears” when we say “pears” then we are left anticipating and they are left distressed!

Now you and I realize when we speak of the law as God’s unchanging standard that love is intrinsic to God’s law. But it may be wise on our part to speak of God’s character as the unchanging standard.

God is completely loving and entirely lawful. He cannot be otherwise, for His personality is the definition of both love and law. If we embrace God’s love without embracing his law, we end up redefining love in our image rather than in his and are therefore robbed of true love. If we embrace God’s law without embracing his love, we pervert his law into something burdensome instead of life-giving, and are robbed of the full experience of His character.

God’s character, as expressed in love and described by law, outlines the only form of conduct that fully satisfies human nature. So we, being made as we are, in His image, only find fulfillment in the full embrace of the twin legs of God’s indivisible character: His law and His love. This is what we were both made and redeemed for.[4]

“Love and law are not opponents but allies, forming together the axis of true morality. Law needs love as its drive, else we get the Pharisaism that puts principles before people and says one can be perfectly good without actually loving one’s neighbor. … And love needs law as its eyes, for love … is blind. To want to love someone Christianly does not of itself tell you how to do it. Only as we observe the limits set by God’s law can we really do people good.”[5]

If love emphasizes people and law emphasizes principles, without the dynamic interplay of both aspects of God’s character, we get an unhealthy (i.e. sinful) imbalance. Therefore, if it is lawful, “so far as it depends on you,” to “live peaceably with all,” then it seems it would be loving to use language that puts, “no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry.”[6]

So I suggest that we might helpfully speak about the unchanging standard as being God’s character, which is equal parts loving and lawful.

“God’s love gave us the law just as his love gave us the gospel, and as there is no spiritual life for us save through the gospel, which points us to Jesus Christ the Savior, so there is no spiritual health for us save as we seek in Christ’s strength to keep the law, and practice the love of God and neighbor for which it calls.”[7]

We Need a Primary Identity

“There is something going on in evangelicalism where everyone is always reacting against whatever error they encountered in childhood. A lot of people who grew up in legalist, performance-based churches are over-reacting with an antinomian, repentance-lacking gospel.”

“The problem biblically is: legalism sends people to hell and antinomianism sends people to hell.” [8]

How interesting is it that the Evangelicals of the 1950s seemed to have a primary identity and a common mission, but lacked an unchanging standard (or better, lacked a firm grip on that standard’s unchanging nature), while too many within the re-awakening of the Church to our Hebrew Roots seem to have a sort of kaleidoscopic grasp on some combination of our three main points. Some, it seems, have regained an unchanging standard, only to get crosswise regarding our primary identity. Others have our primary identity and an unchanging standard locked in well, but begin to claim a unique mission. It seems some new permutation pops up on a blog, a forum, or in some book every other month.

In what follows, I hope to convince you that we might most accurately identify ourselves as those who were created to imitate, commune with, and glorify God; as those who, having fallen from our original purpose, have accepted the offer of His strong right Hand extended in salvation, and have been subsequently re-joined to the family of those who are invited and enabled to imitate Messiah, in order that all who are willing from the watching world might also come to know Him for Who He Is—the Good News of God: All-Holy, All-Loving: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”[9]

“My word,” you might say, “that sounds like the Gospel.” Indeed! Ought it not? I cannot think of an identity more fitting than one with the fragrance of the Good News; one that in its very name speaks of He upon whom all my hopes rest. “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”[10]

To unpack this primary identity more thoroughly, we need to ask, “Who is the Body of Messiah?” I will labor to speak clearly and carefully here.

First, the Body of Christ is all who believe; regardless of what era they have or will live in, and regardless of their ethnicity (Gal. 3:6-9). In other words, when it comes to the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:15-16) and the “Church,” these are one and the same: a testifying body of those who have been made new in Messiah (2 Cor. 5:16-17). At least so far as primary identity is concerned.

There is a valid secondary difference, or theological distinction, which should be made. For example, while on the macro level the “Israel of God” and the “Church” are the same edah/ekklesia (witnessing body),[11] on the micro level one should accurately distinguish between “Israel,” the body to whom “belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises,” and the “remnant of Israel,” or the “Church” (Rom. 11:5), that portion of Israel (and her descendants) upon whom the Holy Spirit descended with an anointing to expand the household of God beyond Israel after the flesh, to in fact, carry news of God and his promises to every nation.

Israel, then, received that precursor to the Great Commission so well summarized in Jeremiah 7:23, “But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you,’” and to which we might append, that “all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD” (Ex 34:10b).

It was the Church, on the other hand, who—empowered by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost with a renewed emphasis (the spreading rather than simply the keeping of God’s Way)—inherited from the disciples our revitalized mission: “Going, therefore, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.”[12]

In other words, the New Covenant—God’s plan to accomplish His original goal—was first revealed near the beginning of the world. It was hinted at in that promise made to the serpent, “The seed of the woman shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” It was more plainly spoken to Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And thus we see that it has always been evangelistic—witness-oriented—and that it was a mission intended for all nations to participate in.

We Need a Shared Corporate Mission

Genesis 12:3 has always contained the seed of God’s singular mission: “a divine program to glorify the Lord by bringing salvation to all on planet earth.”[13] This primary mission was expressed at times in secondary strategies. The time-bound focal point of God’s commission to Israel after the flesh (though the eternal plan of universal inclusion was foreshadowed even then, in individuals like Rahab, Ruth and Caleb, and in the message of prophets like Isaiah, Jonah and Obadiah) was for the world to marvel at the revelation of God as He worked on behalf of Israel, and to witness God’s character incarnated in the lives of His law-abiding people, in the midst of a land He would give them:

Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.

Observe (shamar) what I command you this day. … Take care (shamar), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst.

… for the LORD, whose name is El Qanna (Jealous), is a jealous God, lest you…whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.”[14]

See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today?[15]

What is our purpose? Why were we created in His image? Because He designed no other image-bearers! If we confound the reflection of His loving and lawful nature, how is this world to believe in Him they have never seen accurately?

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”[16]

Note that Paul, intriguingly, starts out his plea to spread the Gospel with a declaration that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile; this in the midst of a passage that conflates the Gospel message itself with Deuteronomy 30:12-14 (cf. Rom.10:6-8), a description of the New Covenant declared to Israel, long before Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 37.

Israel and the Church Share A Common Mission

“God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem”
– Genesis 9:27a

In the Torah, Israel is given a mission: in the Land that I will give you, witness of me, guard and faithfully observe my commandments that the world might know me. The Church is given the same mission in an expanded fashion: you are the heirs of an unfaithful family that has experienced judgment; as you, therefore, wander outside the Land I will once again restore to your family, make faithful observers of all peoples, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you.

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

How will your light shine? Same passage, next verse:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. ( Matthew 5:17)

In other words, this shared mission of imitating and proclaiming our Father requires a common and unchanging standard. Otherwise, the people of God will not be identifiable by the watching world. Of necessity, those who aspire to the same goal will adopt a mutual primary identity.

Historical Examples of “Pillar Confusion”

Let us briefly consider two historical examples where confusion pertaining to our three pillars of discipleship hampered the Body of Messiah.

It should be noted from the outset that Tradition ought to be a good thing. Appropriately prioritized traditions will enable us to live out God’s commands in a particular time and place. Tradition often gets a bad rap in today’s world, but without it we could not function. What’s more, without a collection of consistent practices we will be unable to successfully reflect God’s image to the watching world, because we don’t reflect as individuals so much as we reflect as a Body.

Everywhere and always, wherever there have been believers, tradition has been a part of what may be called a three-legged stool that supports the lives, decisions, and practices of God-followers.

The three legs of that stool are Scripture, Reason, and Tradition. All three are used under the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit to form the basis of our decision-making. The Scriptures are the words of God, written by the pens of men as they were carried along by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Throughout time the community of the faithful has continually recognized and affirmed the inspired nature of these words, and they came to be known to us as Scripture—the inerrant and reliable words of God to us His children.

These words, however, were written to different cultures than our own, between 2000 and 3000 years ago, to people who spoke different languages, and lived in a different part of the world under very different conditions than our own. As a result, in the process of wrestling with the meaning and significance of these very words of God, we consult the way that believers who went before us understood and applied them. The practices of those who have gone before us are known as Tradition.

Tradition—by its very nature—is a flexible, changing collection of practices. Traditions exist to aid in the honoring and observing of God’s way, and they vary from location to location, from time to time, and from society to society. Consequently, we must use our Reason to contemplate the words of Scripture and the history of Tradition in seeking to ensure that our practices continue to serve the same purpose for which they were created.

It must be remembered that Tradition is a tool that exists to serve the principle that is obedience to our Father. Whenever we begin to keep traditions for tradition’s sake, we have allowed that which exists to serve to become that which we serve, and a sense of bondage inevitably results—a new law is created.

This is what had happened to Israel at the time of Christ. Because their identity was more, “we are Israel” than “we are those rescued by God,” they grew proud in the accumulation of their efforts to be godly, thus prompting Yeshua to rebuke them vigorously: “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”[17]

Similarly, having largely abandoned the idea that God’s law, as the description of His character, serves as our eternal standard, the Evangelicals of the 1950’s ended up accumulating a collection of practices that helped them remain distinctive from the world, but in the absence of God’s law, their traditional applications became the engine of a new legalism. We are created to be law-abiders; if we forsake God’s law, we will fashion our own.

The Evangelicals were further destabilized by a failure to understand themselves as late-coming inheritors of Israel’s promises; instead, they saw themselves as new and distinct from Israel, an interpolating entity, designed to propagate God’s message of repentance and salvation to the Gentiles, while God held Israel in abeyance, blinded and judged for their failure to recognize the Messiah.

In other words, while both Israel in the 1st century and the Evangelicals in the 20th century identified with at least a portion of a common mission—Israel emphasizing the call to obey, and the Evangelicals emphasizing the call to go and witness—they were each shaky as it pertains to God’s law and their primary identity.

I suspect that if we can maintain a balanced and biblical perspective on these three presuppositional ideas, then this movement may burn brightly for longer than the historic norm, or even, by God’s grace, usher in the longed for olam haba (world to come).

Conclusion

“My strong conviction is that the Lord is restoring the Hebraic foundations of the Church so that together we all can move forward in greater faithfulness and maturity in the service of the Messiah and the Kingdom of God. Toward that end we should be Father-focused, Christ-centered and Spirit-saturated. We should stand with and pray for Israel. Our teaching should strive to be biblically balanced and theologically sound.”
– Dwight A. Pryor

The unchanging standard of God’s character, expressed in love and described by law, condemns all those alienated from Messiah, and instructs all those brought near to Him by grace through faith. Resting in thorough assurance of Christ having fulfilled the requirement of matching God’s character on our behalf, and subsequently planting His nature within us, we enthusiastically aspire to imitate Him ever more faithfully, as those declared brand new, set apart for God’s purposes, empowered and released to the process of transformation, and entrusted with ambassadorial responsibility—God making His appeal through us.

While the ekklesia has many parts with different tasks and varying emphases, it is a single body, with a coalescing identity and mutual purpose: to imitate and share the good news of God, his existence and his nature. This universal congregation is to be formed by the immutable character of our shared Savior, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to a common mission, envisioned by God from the beginning and progressively revealed through the pages of Scripture.

While the Body of Christ is comprised of both natural-born and adopted children, it is crucial for us to commonly maintain our deepest identity as those re-born in Messiah. Ethnic variation is good and should be cherished, but in the economy of God it is a secondary identity that gives benefit to the whole Body only as it recognizes its subsidiary place. The inappropriate emphasis of Jewish or Gentile identity will inevitably result in aberrant theologies.

On the other hand, it is imperative for Gentiles to remember that we share an existing purpose; that we former strangers to the covenants join an old history, are adopted into an ancient family, and participate in promises made to Israel. May we never forget that in Messiah we are brought near to a continuing commonwealth, and that we never replace her, but rather, are blessed along with Israel, and anticipate her full restoration.

The Scriptures describe our corporate mission variously, but it may be accurately and succinctly expressed as an invitation to imitate Messiah, in order that His character will be reflected to those who do not yet know Him, and that His name may be exalted by the observation of His actions on behalf of His beloved people, Israel. We must, therefore, be singularly identifiable, compared to a common standard, and pursuing the same purpose. We are invited in order to invite, redeemed in order to redeem, and healed that we might heal.


Footnotes

[1] “Be it in matter of the one kind or of the other, what Scripture doth plainly deliver, to that the first place both of credit and obedience is due; the next where-unto is whatsoever any man can necessarily conclude by force of reason; after these the voice of the Church succeedeth. That which the Church by her ecclesiastical authority shall probably think and define to be true or good, must in congruity of reason overrule all other inferior judgments whatsoever.” —Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, book V, 8:2

[2] J.I. Packer. Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J.C. Ryle. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2002) 10.

[3] “The wise application of the law of God to every situation in life is sanctification. The death and resurrection of Christ assure the follower of the Lord Jesus of a new life. In union with Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the believer desires to know and to do the will of the Father. Concern for God’s will alters the source of one’s happiness. Instead of being open to divine instruction in some unspecified way, the law of God in the school of Christ is a mirror by which the Christians may receive encouragement and discipline. They receive encouragement from knowing that, like Christ, they are seeking to please the Father. It is also an instrument by which the Lord Jesus corrects his followers, reproving them of sloth and of the sins of omission and commission. In submitting themselves to a standard or norm, they see a change in their approach to life. Gone is the sense of self-satisfaction based on a personal standard of achievement. Their desire is to do God’s will and, in so doing, to reflect the perfections of God. In dependence on the grace of the Lord Jesus and on the power from the Holy Spirit, the disciple works out his or her salvation “in fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).” – Willem A. VanGemeren, “Response to Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.” in Greg L. Bahnsen, Walter C. Kaiser, Douglas J. Moo et al., Five Views on Law and Gospel, Zondervan Counterpoints Collection (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999), 202, 203.

[4] This is my re-working of comments made by J.I. Packer; c.f., Growing in Christ, 232.

[5] J. I. Packer, Growing in Christ. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994. 232.

[6] 2 Corinthians 6:3. Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations are from the ESV®, © 2001 Crossway.

[7] J. I. Packer, Growing in Christ. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1996, 1994. 222.

[8] Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, http://bit.ly/NvtmjX, accessed 06/25/13 at 19:46

[9] Exodus 34:6.

[10] 1 Peter 4:16.

[11] It should not be missed that עֵדָה (edah – congregation) and עֵדוּת (edut – testimony) share the same root, עֵד (ed – witness).

[12] Matthew 28:19-20 (author’s rendering)

[13] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Mission in the Old Testament: Israel as a Light to the Nations, Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012. xix.

[14] Exodus 34:10-16 (ESV)

[15] Deuteronomy 4:5-8 (ESV)

[16] Romans 10:12-15 (ESV)

[17] Mark 7:8

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