What makes the Church the Church—and what’s its role in the believers’ life?
So many books are trying to answer these questions and the results vary pretty wildly to say the least. Whether we think the Church should be driven by purpose, simple, vertical, or whatever qualifier you want to put in front, if our understanding of the Church doesn’t flow from a greater knowledge of our union with Christ and its implications, we likely need to reconsider.
Thabiti Anyabwile understands this, and in his new book, The Life of God in the Soul of the Church: The Root and Fruit of Spiritual Fellowship, he explores the foundations and expressions of our union with Christ.
Love as the Mark of the True Church
Why do we need to develop a robust understanding of the Church?
“[Anyone] trying to serve a church without a big, healthy understanding of the Bible’s teaching on the church is like a man trying to catch a 600-pound marlin with dental floss, or like a man trying to build a house by laying his bricks ten yards apart,” Anyabwile writes (Kindle location 175-177).
In other words, an under-developed ecclesiology is a ministry killer. It’s all well and good to say that you love the Church and want to serve her, but if you don’t know what the Church is according to Scripture—and this applies especially to those serving as leaders—you’re setting yourself up to fail.
Anyabwile’s corrective to this is among the strongest I’ve read. While distinguishing between them, he refuses to separate the “vertical” and “horizontal” aspects of spiritual fellowship. You can’t actually build a functional ecclesiology without the two together.
Focusing solely on the “vertical” leads to the division of the body—it’s about me and my personal relationship with God; my experiences, my feelings, my perferences… It ultimately leads to a hand saying to the rest of the body, “I have no need of you.”
Focusing solely on the “horizontal,” on the other hand (no pun intended), leads to the dissolving of the body. There’s nothing binding us together inseparably, so we’ve got no real reason to come together at all.
The Scriptures allow for neither of these—instead, they (shockingly by Western standards) push again and again to the reality of a body united in love by Christ and expressed in love for one another:
[In his first epistle, John] is not saying that loving others earns eternal life. John is saying the opposite. He means that the badge, the seal, and the proof that we have this life of God in our souls is that it works itself out in love for other Christians. We know—with confidence, assurance, and certainty—that we have passed from death to life because of our love for one another. He is saying that loving fellow Christians is evidence that new spiritual life has already come. (Kindle location 905-908)
Want to know how God-centered your church is, asks the Apostle John? Just look to how your congregation loves one another. This point is so important that Anyabwile devotes two chapters to the need for love among the body of Christ. If we miss this, if our ecclesiology doesn’t explicitly express a commitment to love for one another because Christ has first loved us—no matter how right we may be about a number of other elements, no matter how emotionally fulfilling our worship gatherings may be, no matter how powerful our preaching—we may not actually be a church.
We might have the appearance down, but we’re something else entirely.
Raw, Compelling, but Occasionally a Bit Too Context Specific
Because of certain editing choices on the author’s part, The Life of God in the Soul of the Church feels very personal—far more personal than your typical book. Many books based upon sermons are heavily edited; written and verbal communication are so distinct that they cannot be. However, with this book, Anyabwile, by his own admission, has maintained much of the original language and structure of the sermons this book is based upon.
The strength of this approach is its personal feel. Readers gain a tangible sense of this pastor’s concern for his congregation. He deeply loves the church God has called him to and it shows. He wants them to understand the centrality of the local church to their lives as Christians—not out of any concern about attendance numbers or giving or anything of that sort, but because he recognizes that the Christian life cannot be lived in a vacuum. If we truly believe Jesus was telling the truth when He said, “All people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” then we need to be intentional, ongoing community.
The weakness, however, is there are a few instances where readers would have been better served by some additional editing. This is most evident in a chapter where there is a strong appeal for membership at First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman Island, where Anyabwile serves as pastor (ch. 12). (Other instances appear in chapter 2.) While I’m thankful to God that he sees the value of membership and wants people to join, it may have been wise to further revise or remove this altogether to better serve the reader.
Regardless of this one perceived weakness, readers will be greatly blessed by this new book. The Life of God in the Soul of the Church offers a convicting, challenging and Scripture-saturated examination of what makes the Church the Church. All Christians—especially church leaders—would do well to put this book on the top of their reading list.
Title: The Life of God in the Soul of the Church: The Root and Fruit of Spiritual Fellowship
Author: Thabiti Anyabwile
Publisher: Christian Focus (2012)