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.”