Humanity: The Global People of God

In the first part of the Humanity series, the early chapters of Genesis showed us what humanity was originally created for in the first place. Aside from what we are to do as Christians, what is our role as humans?

We were created to worship and serve God by being his rulers on earth. And not just rulers, but priestly rulers. Rulers that mediate the presence and reign of God to the whole creation. And along with it goes our task as sub-creators. God did not create a completely finished world in Genesis. He left room for human creativity and work to bring about the end-times garden-city of Revelation, where God’s presence is all in all, as Paul would put it.

Therefore, understanding who we are as Christians is vastly incomplete apart from a knowledge and awareness of the global church. The global church is that part of humanity which is on the course and is in the process of becoming the people that God has always longed to make for himself.

So this lesson is a rough introduction to your brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, our fellow rulers, priests, sub-creators. Those people that we join in the vision of Revelation 7 of the worshiping crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language.

I want to frame and focus our question this way: How do we best understand 1 Cor 12:12-27 in light of today’s church?

The context is about the use of spiritual gifts, but what Paul says here applies to the idea of church unity at large. But as much as it is about unity, is just as much about the need for diversity. Both diversity and unity are crucial to the church the way God has designed it.

This passage is about the well-being of the community, not just the individual. What binds Christians together, reflecting the community that humanity was created to share, is the concern they are to have for one another as each of the parts of the body plays its equally important role.

The thing is, however, that Paul wrote this when the church didn’t yet span many, many cultures and languages and nations. 2000 years later, the people of God, the church, has grown and expanded across the entire globe. How do we best understand and apply this passage in today’s time?

This question is especially important for those of us in this part of the world. Because Christianity is so common in the West, we have been accustomed to thinking of the wider church as just the American church, or perhaps the European and North American church.

And it’s often said that such a church is not doing so well. That numbers are dwindling and its influence is weakening. In one way, this is true to some extent. In the 20th century (it’s probably even worse now) people were leaving the Western church at a rate of 4,300 a day. But in Africa 22-24,000 were coming to Christ daily. China as a country that claims 16,500 new believers everyday, the largest growing church in any one country.

The church is doing very, very well. Christianity is still the largest and will continue to be the largest religion in the world.

However, Philip Jenkins notes the huge shift that has taken place and must be taken into account. This is one of the most important things that today’s Christians need to know:

Christianity is now rooted in the Third World and the religion’s future lies in the global South.

It is in those places that Christianity has historically not been very widespread that it is growing at a rapid pace.

By 2025 Latin America and Africa will be in competition for most Christian continent. By 2050 only about 1/5 of the world’s three billion Christians will be non-Hispanic whites. Philip Jenkins: “Soon the phrase ‘a white Christian’ may sound like a curious oxymoron.”

Soong-Chan Rah, a Korean missiologist sums it up this way: “In the year 1900, Europe and North America comprised 82% of the world’s Christian population. In 2005, Europe and North America comprised 39% of the world’s Christian population with African, Asian, and Latin American Christians making up 60 % of the world’s Christian population. By 2050, African, Asian, and Latin American Christians will constitute 71% of the world’s Christian population.”

Rah continues:”Fifty years ago, if you were asked to describe a typical Christian in the world, you could confidently assert that person to be an upper middle class, white male, living in an affluent and comfortable Midwest suburb. If you were to ask the same question today, that answer would more likely be a young Nigerian mother on the outskirts of Lagos, a university student in Seoul, South Korea, or a teenage boy in Mexico City.”

Thus with greater clarity and sharper vividness we see the vision of Revelation 7 of the great crowd that no one could number. People worshiping Christ as the Lamb of God that are from every nation, tribe, people, and language.

Speaking of language, not only is the church in the process of spreading to more and more nations, tribes, and peoples, but also over 2,000 languages are used to worship Christ in the world today. That’s more than any other religion. Jenkins adds, “Spanish has since 1980 been the leading language of church membership in the world, and Chinese, Hindi, and Swahili will soon play a much greater role. In our lifetimes, the centuries-long North Atlantic captivity of the church is drawing to an end.”

Far too much in the church we have an “us, them” mentality that is foreign and even poisonous to the biblical portrait the body of Christ. We have it with the Methodist church down the road, with the other denomination, and especially with the churches of other countries. We hear about China adding 16,500 everyday, and what do we think? “That’s them.” No, that’s US!

And the thing is, increasingly nowadays we don’t have to go far out in the world there to see the phenomenon of global Christianity. In this country it’s increasingly becoming a reality right here in our neighborhoods.

Although it is often perceived this way, in actuality the Western church isn’t shrinking! Frankly, it’s only the predominantly white churches that are shrinking. In other words, it isn’t only in the world that the church is becoming multiethnic; in America itself we are soon looking at a nonwhite, multiethnic majority. It is the ethnic churches that are the fastest growing in America.

Christianity Today recently reported that 85% of Yale’s Campus for Crusade for Christ is Asian. On the other hand, the Buddhist meditation meetings on the same campus were almost completely white.

So what it means to think of the body of Christ today, not only globally but here in this country alone, is to think of a wide variety of cultures, races, classes, etc. And this variety is only getting wider, and further from Western and North American culture. It’s necessary to differentiate the Gospel and who we are as God’s people apart from who we are in our races, nationalities, and so on. We will thereby see God for who he is and what he is all about in more fullness.

And so, back to our Bible question. What does it mean to read 1 Cor 12 today in light of all this?

As Paul says, “God has placed each of the parts in the body just like he wanted.” Diversity is a good, necessary diversity, but it is all within the one body of Christ. Paul says here that the eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you,” or the head can’t say to the feet “I don’t need you.” I’ve heard a Kenyan pastor apply this passage in this way: “The American church can’t say to the Chinese church I don’t need you. The church of Brazil can’t say to the church of Uganda I don’t need you.”

There ways that are obvious to us Westerns about the ways the Third World church needs us, with all of our resources. And that’s true. But, How do WE need THEM?

The Western church faces many troubles today that can be aided with such power by the Third World majority Christians. They have an extreme devotion to their Christian life. They have plenty that can and is helping us through struggles. Timothy Tennent has said that “Global Christianity is the greatest force for renewal in the northern hemisphere.”

Part of our problem is that there is too much of a sending mentality and not enough of a receiving mentality in the way we think about being global Christians. It’s not just about missions. It’s world Christianity.

In 1 Corinthians 12:25-26 Paul says God has arranged things this way so that there might be mutual concern among everyone. If a part suffers, the whole suffers. If a part rejoices, the whole rejoices. Paul uses here the same word for having concern or caring for in other places to say don’t have it for yourself. Here he says, have it for everyone else.

It is in this way that we see Jesus and grow in our knowledge of him. “You all are the body of Christ and parts of each other” (1 Cor 12:27).

Andrew Walls said “Christian diversity is the necessary product of the Incarnation.” God became human in order that humanity would become the humanity it was supposed to be, and we are seeing as a result how widely varied are the people that bear the image of God. To see what God looks like, we see Jesus. And the primary way we see Jesus is by looking at the faces of the true humanity that is being shaped to look more and more like him.

“You all are the body of Christ and parts of each other.”

Modified from a talk given at Christ United Methodist Church on 6/27/12 entitled “Humanity: The Global People of God.” Listen to it here. Find the handout under “Transcript.”


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The Sovereignty of God Needs No Defense

On several occasions I’ve come into contact with some remarks by some Christians to depreciate humanity in order to uphold the sovereignty of God. And I have a good deal of trouble with them.

One is that human powers of reason are warped and therefore untrustworthy. Or, even worse, that God is somehow “above” reason or logic. I frequently encounter this as a response to a theological proposal that is based not on explicit Scriptural evidence. For example, If I say “I think this is true because I reason that …” some would respond that human reasoning is incapable of making valid conclusions about the nature of God. As if only that which is explicitly revealed about God in the Bible is all that can be known or believed about God.

This just strikes me as an attempt to defend the sovereignty of God. Which I’m sure always has a completely admirable motive behind it. BUT, there is one major problem.

And it turns out to be a self-defeating problem. Here it is: God’s sovereignty needs no defense. Why? Because it is no way challenged. It definitely isn’t by human reasoning abilities. As if the trustworthiness of human reasoning abilities in regards to the divine would thereby diminish God in some way.

Don’t get me wrong — God will never be completely understood nor will he be limited in any fashion. But there’s a difference in saying there’s a limit to the quantity of our understanding of God instead of saying there’s a limit to the quality of our understanding of God.

Besides all that, I don’t see much reason to conclude that human reasoning powers about God are warped. Sin being fully and properly accounted for, I still don’t see how our rebelliousness as sinners means that every one of our human capacities are completely and utterly inept. Paul, the author of Hebrews, etc., all felt free to reason about the nature of God. And they do it confidently.

The other way some people depreciate humanity in order to uphold God’s sovereignty has to do with the teachings of Calvinism in regards to salvation.

God must determine that certain people will come to know him because, some say, the opposite position requires free will on the part of humans. And human free will and divine free will cannot co-exist.

Now, though I don’t currently believe this is the case, God may actually determine that certain people will know him simply by his own choice. But it won’t be because he has to step in because human free will somehow challenges his sovereignty.

To clarify, when we say human free will, we should denote a derivative free will, a will that is secondary to that of God, but a will that is free nonetheless. Free will on the part of humans is one of the Bible’s biggest presuppositions. It is everywhere assumed, and so nowhere explicitly stated. I don’t think those that deny human free will have really thought their position through. If it is true, it makes for a completely unlivable and meaningless existence because all of our actions are predetermined.

In the end, both positions skewer themselves, and for this reason: in these efforts to defend the sovereignty of God, they imply that the sovereignty of God is of such lowly nature that it could be challenged at all. Some of the smartest people I know have made these arguments, but I remain baffled. I don’t see, and I don’t think I will ever see, how human reason and human free will in any way challenge the sovereignty and power of the God who brought us into being in the first place.

Paige Benton Brown

At least one source attests that Tim Keller calls Paige Brown the best Bible teacher in America. I do know Paige attended the church Tim pastors in New York for a while, so this wouldn’t surprise me. While there are teachers whose works I have read that have proven to be a more formative influence on me, the group of sermons I have heard from Paige have certainly been the most valuable that I’ve ever encountered.

And you’ve probably never heard of her. I have a feeling she prefers it that way. Not to say that those Christian leaders who make a name for themselves were simply out to make a name for themselves, but there is no question in the case of Paige that she’s just about speaking the truth. Though I wish she has, she has not written a book–which is often the first step toward making yourself known in the world of Christian teaching. She just did campus ministry for several years at Vanderbilt and Virginia, has a degree from Covenant Seminary, and basically is just a stay-at-home mom with her three kids and occasionally speaks at conferences.

And so, without knowing anything about her, and having heard nothing about her before, a couple years ago I went to the Christian Life Conference at Second Presbyterian in Memphis that featured her as a speaker for that year’s theme, “A Heart for God.”

Making her way through the Saul and David story of 1-2 Samuel, Paige shows how vital the condition of the heart is in light of the God who claims our lives as his. And she does it with a keen literary sensibility, wit, and honesty, and all in an appropriately worshipful and humble stance.

I have listened to these sermons many, many times and they always lead me to look at my own heart with discerning and critical gaze and yearn to have the heart of God.

Click on the names of these resources to check them out. The Christian Life Conference sermons are available on the website of Second Presbyterian.

Here’s a great article on singleness that she wrote before she was married entitled “Singled Out for Good

Here’s a couple of talks she gave for The Gospel Coalition:

And a video of a plenary session speech she gave for a Gospel Coalition women’s conference entitled “In the Temple: The Glorious and Forgiving God.”

And a video of session she gave for the Gospel Coalition’s women’s conference entitled “Fearing God in a Fallen World.”

Here’s a conversation with Jenny Salt about women’s studies in the church.

That’s all I’ve been able to find from her. If you discover anything else, let me know.

And I can’t find an email address anywhere for her, so if she somehow sees this, thank you Paige.

N.D. Wilson on how we all have faith.

One of the main insights I’ve had while reading N.D. Wilson’s one-of-a-kind book, Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World, is that I didn’t know that we could write this way.

Not to say that even if I felt like I was “allowed” to write such a book then I would have, but the greatest value of this book so far has been the way Nathan David has put some of my own thoughts into words so simple, beautiful, powerful, and witty that I could never come up with them. He puts into expression some of my deepest thoughts and feelings. It makes for a very satisfying piece of art.

So, use the following paragraph to get to know him a little bit. His question in this book is what the world is, and what it’s for.

Just to be clear, I live on a near perfect sphere hurtling through space at around 67,000 miles per hour. Mach 86 to pilots. Of course, this sphere of mine is also spinning while it hurtles, so tack on an extra 1,000 miles per hour at the fat parts. And it’s all tucked into this giant hurricane of stars. Yes, it can be freaky. Once a month or so, my wife will find me lying in the lawn, burrowing white knuckles into the grass, trying not to fly away. But most of the time I manage to keep my balance despite the speed, and I don’t have to hold on with anything more than my toes.

It was six or seven times that I kept coming back to this paragraph and laughed every time before I went much farther with the book. It’s only on page two.

Now that you’ve been introduced to him, I’d like you to read how he articulates that all of us have faith. It’s not a question of religious affiliation or rejection of anything having to do with God; everyone lives in faith.

On pp. 22-23, he provides three options that have been put forward to explain just where it all came from. And all of them have been called Sophia at some point in human history. “Wisdom.” N.D. says, let them walk the runway. “Which is the most beautiful and has the best birthing hips? Which could have mothered such a world as ours?”

Sophia 1: Matter is actually infinite. Where the regress stops, there is some physical element that is made from nothing else and … has always had existence.

This is the atheistic evolutionary story. The universe consists only of time and chance acting on matter. At some point, the ancient matter blew up, and now here we are.

Sophia 2: Something immaterial is infinite, has always had existence, and at some point created the material world.

Ooh, I like her. Every little thing she does is magic.

Sophia 3: Blend. There is some material in the world that has always had existence, and there is something immaterial that has always had existence.

This is actually the creation story of most theistic and polytheistic religions. A god grabs hold of fluxing chaos, or their offspring, or their own thigh, or something with prior existence and reshapes it into the world around us. Norse, Greek, Aztec, and even Muslim creations begin this way.

Of course, any number of flavors and stories fit into these categories, particularly the last one. People and peoples have watched the stars and made their choice, shaping themselves and their cultures in doing so. The choice is not a question of logic, though we may make it logically. We cannot boost logic to the level of a transcendent arbiter here. It cannot whisper the answer in our ear. Any knowledge at this level, at this fundamental question of origins and ultimate metaphysics, must come through something else.

Welcome to the world of faith.

Humanity: The Original Commission of God

What were Christians created for?

Trick question. God didn’t create Christians; he created humanity.

We humans, who happen to also be Christians, are very good at focusing our attention on and engaging in God’s mission with the Great Commission of Matthew 28. To make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of God.

We don’t do so well, however, with focusing on the Original Commission. What we were meant to do as humans, not just Christians? Have you ever thought about this? It’s all there in Genesis 1-2.

When God created humans, he created them to be in community as image-of-God bearing priests, rulers, and sub-creators. Or put another way, priestly rulers who contribute to the perfection of creation through showing the world who God is. Because, though we often don’t think this way, there is only one perfect world in the Bible and it is not the one in Genesis. It is the one in Revelation. The garden-city-temple of Revelation is what the garden of Eden in Genesis was meant to become in the power of God working through his image-bearers.

And it’s not the power of God working in us only to gain converts. And it’s not the power of God working in us only to feed the poor. It’s the power of God working in us in everything that we do as humans meant to work, create, and ultimately rule on earth.

So why do we bother with everything that we don’t typically think of as being the Christian activities? Why do we engage in the arts? Why do we share in an awesome view of the ocean? Why do we build, organize, imagine, toil?

Because this is the Lord’s work. Not just preaching and doing marriage ceremonies.

And we engage in this work and creativity of God not because we are earning our salvation in Jesus; of course not. And not because we are merely showing how grateful we are for our salvation in Jesus, although that may certainly be part of it.

We do this, because this is what we were created for. Therefore, we are less human without it. We become properly and completely human when we are mediating the presence of God and instituting his reign in the world.

So it’s a matter of what is central. So many theological issues in the church could be resolved today if we understood that salvation is not central. If our personal salvation is made central, we struggle to know what to do with the rest of the world. But if our role in the world is made central, then salvation has its proper place as the means by which we get there. Salvation is a restoration to the humans we were meant to be, not an end in itself.

Humankind wasn’t created for salvation, but for God’s kingdom. You were not created to be saved. You were created to reign.

In order to biblical Christians, and humans, what if we kept Genesis 1-2 alongside Matthew 28 in our thinking and in our practice?

Modified from a talk given at Christ United Methodist Church on 5/30/12 entitled “Humanity: The Original Commission of God.” Listen to it here. Find the handout under “Transcript.”

Thanks to Asbury Seminary student Liz McClellan for the picture of her freshly painted fire hydrant on the streets of Wilmore, KY. I’ll leave you to figure out why I included it here.