Wednesday, March 2, 2011

In Search of the Expression of biblical Unity

Posted on 3 March 2011

In Search of the Expression of biblical Unity
- my personal Journey

A major turning point in my life occurred when two teenage peers nudged me to attend the evangelistic outreach of the Students’ Christian Association (SCA) at the seaside resort of Harmony Park that was scheduled to start just after Christmas at the end of 1964. At that time I was not only spiritually revived, but there I also received an urge to network with other members of the body of Christ, with people from different racial and denominational backgrounds. I was deeply blessed to see Jesus' prayer - 'that they may be one' (John 17;21) - answered in subsequent years. Biblical unity implemented in limited ways also made me quite happy. Simultaneously I sensed and discerned in practical terms that the ideological apartheid teaching - that the unity of followers does not have to be visible - was a demonically inspired lie.
A church-sponsored stint in Germany in 1969 and 1970 included study and practical experience in youth work, as well as studies of the biblical languages. Wherever I had the opportunity to address groups there, I highlighted the ecclesiastical disunity - the fragmentation of the Body of Christ - as a problem of South Africa. (The other two problems that I mentioned in these talks were racial discrimination - apartheid was still fairly unknown in Germany - and alcoholism). Over there I was strongly influenced by the books written by Martin Luther King (They were regarded as 'dangerous' literature in our country.)
I met Rosemarie, my future wife in May 1970 in an infatuation-at-first-sight encounter. The importance of the visible expression of the unity of followers of Jesus Christ grew further after my return to my home country in October 1970. In a rather overdrawn and misguided anti-apartheid activism, I joined the Christian Institute (CI) soon thereafter, hoping in vain that White members would also be willing to expose themselves with me to the possibility of arrest for breaking petty apartheid laws.
After my wife-to-be had been refused a work permit and also entry as a tourist into South Africa in order to get reclassified as a 'Coloured', the Moravian Church Board assisted me to return to Germany.1
During the final part of my theological studies in Bad Boll (Southern Germany), the views of Jan Amos Comenius, the 17th century theologian and last bishop of the old Czech Unitas Fratrum (Unity of the Brethren) and Count Zinzendorf, the leader of the renewed Moravian Church, became very dear to me.
In the first few years of my (in)voluntary exile in Germany there was little opportunity to convert my conviction of the importance of the visible expression of the unity of the body of Christ into action. At the latter end of our two year stay in West Berlin Rosemarie and I were introduced to the work of Moral Re-armament. In that movement I was deeply challenged by the power of personal confession and forgiveness.
In September 1977 we left for the historical town of Zeist in Holland with our oldest son, serving the predominantly Surinamese Moravian congregation of Utrecht till the end of 1980. I discerned ever more clearly with the passing of time that racial and denominational hurdles were hampering a deep work of the Holy Spirit - notably in South Africa. The need for racial reconciliation and the attempt to help close gaps between ‘ecumenicals’ and ‘evangelicals’, as well as between the rich and the poor, became increasingly important to me as I became aware how much of a micro-cosmos my home country actually was.
At the end of a six week visit to my fatherland with my wife and son in November 1978, I experienced healing in a special way from my anger towards the apartheid government and my disappointment at my denomination for their insensitivity towards some of the gross injustices of the day. I hereafter dived into activist correspondence with various agencies in a multi-pronged attack on apartheid. I committed myself to work towards racial reconciliation in my divided home country. Furthermore, a strong challenge developed to oppose the demonic tenets of church rivalry and competition. We stressed the unity of the body of Christ, while attempting to address the diabolical economic disparity and structural injustice in a low-key manner. These were to become other facets of our personal ministry as a couple. I hoped and prayed that South Africa might become an example to the world at large, not only in respect of racial reconciliation, but also in the voluntary sharing of resources.
Linked to our ministry at various places was also the blessing of united prayer, which was repeatedly confirmed - such as in 1981 during a six-month residency in South Africa.2 We attempted to address the racial barrier in a low-key way. In another networking initiative with local ministers of other churches I became deeply embroiled in the Crossroads saga, which included some great personal risks. (Xhosa women and children were brutally and forcefully 'deported' to the Transkei due to the enforcement of the unjust pass laws that affected only Black people.)
In Holland I had already been trying to put the lessons of the unity of the Body of Christ to good effect that I had been learning. I was quite happy to join a weekly Bible Study with Christians from different denominational backgrounds while pastoring the Utrecht Moravian congregation. During our absence in South Africa a new Christian fellowship started in our town that had no formal membership. We joined the group, although I was not happy at all that the believers congregated on Sunday mornings. In my view that caused more fragmentation of the body of Christ. (I had been impressed by the idea of the base communities of South America that gathered on Saturday evenings.)
Soon Rosemarie and I were leading the Goed Nieuws Karavaan (GNK) initiative of Zeist and surrounds. This we did from 1982 till the end of 1991. Our vision to unite the Body of Christ locally was partially realized during this ministry. We were blessed with holistic practical fellowship, in which believers from different denominational backgrounds participated. During our stay in Holland I was intensely blessed to discover how we as foreigners were given the chance to be a blessing to the Dutch nation (The American Floyd McClung and Jeff Fountain from New Zealand were promintent personalities in Holland at that time whom God used to counter liberal and atheist teaching that were threatening to sweep evangelical theology aside.) Many years later this would inspire me to assist various migrants and foreigners that came to our city. starting the low-key agency Friends from Abroad in Cape Town in 2007.

A golden Thread through the Bible
A golden thread going through the Bible is that the Almighty loves the world and that He chose the tiny nation of Israel, to bring salvation to the world. From this nation, one person - the Messiah – was chosen to bring millions from all tribes, peoples and nations in voluntary faith back to the Creator, the Father and supreme ruler of the universe. God was active all the time in revealing Himself and working through prophets and kings, also outside of the Jewish line. Other ancient non-Jews, such as Jethro and Job, are held in high regard in the Hebrew tradition. In the 'New Testament' three Oriental 'Wise men' are mentioned who came to worship King Jesus when he was still a newly born infant. That was in line with the Messianic prophetic Isaiah 60 where we read 'All those from Sheba will come; they will bring gold and frankincense, and will bear good news of the praises of the Lord'. The same Messianic context mentions also Nebaioth and Kedar (Ishmael's two eldest sons) and the camels of Midian as an indication of the future harvest from the descendants from those wives of Abraham's other than Sarah. Next to the unintentional attendance of a mosque service in the West African city of Abidjan in February 1990, where I discerned the emptiness of Islam, these verses inspired me from the mid 1990s to expect a turn about towards Jesus by Muslims in big numbers ultimately. This has started to transpire in recent years. Muslims from the Orient have been coming to the Lord in their thousands.

God's Reply to the Onslaught on the Unity of true Believers
The unity of the body of true believers has been attacked already from Creation. The arch enemy - called by Jesus a murderer from the beginning... a father of lies and one whose native language it is to lie (John 8:43, 44) - caused estrangement all around. He brought a rupture in the relationship between man and his Maker, between the first human beings, between male and female. Friction between man and nature was caused simultaneously. God's original plan for the creation of man was intimate relationship - communion with us! Satan, the deceiver, the liar and diabolos (separator), robbed humanity in this way.
God's reply to this onslaught was what is called redemption. The Bible explains redemption by using pictures or models such as how God freed the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. The Almighty thus became their redeemer. This exodus event was however only a fore-runner of the great redemption still to come. All mankind needs redemption. The 'salvation' of the small nation of Israel was like a demonstration of God's loving nature and care for man. What the arch enemy has stolen – sweet intimate communion with the Almighty - had to be redeemed. To this end, God became flesh, coming to the earth in the form of the new man, Jesus Christ, who reconciled the world with himself (2 Corinthians 5:20) when Jesus shed his precious blood to deliver mankind from the bondage of sin.
Pleading with Corinthian believers to be reconciled to God themselves, Paul, the apostle, taught that followers of Jesus should consciously attempt to get men and women reconciled to God. In the extension of this, every believer in Jesus Christ is challenged to be and to become an agent of reconciliation, consciously also addressing all visible and perceived rifts. On the basis of the foundation that in Christ the 'dividing wall of hostility' between Jew and Gentile has been broken down (Ephesians 2:14), the Church should be a channel and instrument for the breaking down of all man-made and demonically inspired barriers.

The Church at large missed its Destiny
The Church has sadly not fulfilled its biblical role in this regard. All too often people from the ranks of churches have not only started rifts, separating themselves, but some Christians consciously chose to be partisan or biased, even in cases where the biblical message is clear enough. One of the most striking but tragic examples is the situation in the Middle East. The Bible teaches that there was a special blessing resting on both Isaac and Ishmael. If there had been some schism between Abraham's two sons – which would have been natural after all that had transpired with Hagar and her son, this was probably amicably resolved in their life-time. At the funeral of Abraham both sons buried their father together (Genesis 25:9) - reconciled to all intents and purposes. The notion that the descendants of Isaac and Ishmael have been eternal enemies (and should remain that way?) has some biblical basis.3 The whole issue of Jews and race was abused by Adolph Hitler, when he honed in on serious flaws of an ageing and disappointed Martin Luther. As a German my wife had to deal with national guilt in this regard very much.
The issue however is essentially spiritual, not racial. Only the twelve tribes stemming from the patriarch Isaac via Jacob are counted in the Bible as ‘proper’ Israelites. Thus one finds the Midianites mentioned as Ishmaelites (Judges 8:24, Genesis 37:28).4 Furthermore, Zipporah, the first wife of Moses, was the daughter of Reuel or Jethro, a Midianite priest (Exodus 2:21). To all intents and purposes Moses seems to have had a good relationship to his father-in-law, possibly also learning a thing or two from him. Later he readily accepted advice from Jethro to delegate his responsibility. Three female ancestors of King David, namely Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth, did not stem from one of the twelve Jewish tribes. In stead of being an agent of reconciliation, e.g. by bringing together Jews and Muslims who got reconciled through common faith in Jesus and working with followers of Jesus Christ from those backgrounds, Church leaders have all too often jumped on the bandwagon of taking sides in the age old problem of Israel and Palestine.

Distortion of central biblical Messages5
Furthermore, the arch enemy has been succeeding to abuse mistakes of great theologians and Church leaders, to distort central biblical messages. A major aberration is still doing the rounds that the Church is said to have replaced Israel, whereas Paul clearly taught that we as Gentile Christians have been merely grafted into the true olive tree Israel (Romans 11:17,18). Another distortion happened when it was taught that the institutional Church dispenses salvation via the christening of infants. Hebrews 9:22 teaches clearly that there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood. The 'New Testament' equivalent of the shedding of blood is the 'circumcision of the heart' (Colossians 2:11,12), i.e. believing in faith that the atoning death of the Lamb of God 'takes away the sins of the world' (John 1:29,36). This happened when our Lord was obedient to be made sin, to be ultimately nailed to the Cross (see 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Colossians 2:14). This was the vehicle to get 'born again' (John 3:3-16).
Whereas the persecution of the early Church brought about its rapid spread, the stopping of it ran concurrent with Emperor Constantine's paganising of the body of Christ. The heathen temple - rather than the secret catacomb and house church -became the model. Doctrinal bickering, the final side-lining of Jews and the use of force to bring the erring back to the Church, were a few other tenets that ripped the Church apart. In the latter case, the abuse of Luke 14:23, ‘Force them to come in’ was an argument that paved the way for Islam to sweep through North Africa, and later for the Inquisition. Here a travesty of justice became the common practice. Ultimately thousands of Muslims and Jews were brutally slaughtered during the Crusades. As Christians we can hardly express clearly enough our regret for these atrocities and a few others performed in the name of the Prince of Peace, our Lord and Saviour.
The biblical example of 'Jews first, and then also the Greeks' (Romans 1:16f), was practised by Jesus and Paul. This has however still not been discerned generally. Humble and loving Jewish evangelism could have united the Body of Christ. Acts 13:1-3 shows how the fellowship of Antioch was multi-cultural with a leadership consisting of two North Africans, Barnabas a Cypriot, the Gree background Jew and Pharisee Saul from Tarsus and Manaen, the childhood companion of Herod.
The example of the Moravian missionary involvement of loving Gospel outreach to Jews in Amsterdam and in Bethlehem (Pennsylvania, USA) in the 18th century appears to have remained worldwide exceptions for centuries. Only in recent decades has there been some shift with a positive attitude by evangelicals. However, instead of being (re)conciliatory, this was often partisan and biased against Muslims and Palestinians.

Unity in Diversity
Unity does not imply uniformity. Unity in diversity should demonstrate to the spiritual powers in the heavenlies‘the manifold wisdom of God’ (Ephesians 3:10). William Barclay (New Testament Words, 1973:234) noted that the original Greek word for the adjective describing the divine wisdom, poikilos (meaning literally multi-coloured) 'describes anything which is intricate or complex.' The Church world-wide will possibly only really only come into its own if the unity of the Body of Christ in all its diversity is restored across all man-made barriers, thus displaying the manifold wisdom of God. The next verses and the following chapter of Ephesians give us an extraordinary glimpse of the universal Body of Christ, the whole family in heaven and earth (3:14). Paul prayed for the believers to be empowered by the four-dimensional love of Christ (3:14-19). Something of this rainbow-coloured wisdom of God was evident in Antioch and should also be evident locally when believers with different cultural backgrounds worship God together - at least occasionally.

A possible Catalyst towards spiritual Renewal
To get the Body of our Lord at the Cape in action for bringing the Good News to its two main unreached groups, the Muslims and the Jews, however remains a major challenge. I believe that combined expression of the Body of Christ in remorseful confession and repentance could be a catalyst towards spiritual renewal. It would be great if local churches could muster forces in prayer and action towards godly governance. This would be but a small - and yet significant – step. How wonderful it would be if Church leaders could be the channel, voicing regret which could ignite remorse; that so many of our forebears claimed that the Church came in the place of the nation of Israel; that a co-religionist, the Ebionite priest Waraqah bin Naufal has been misleading Muhammad and because of that, millions are now still caught in the web of religious bondage.
A nudge - humanly speaking - could be the repentant acknowledgement that Islam is the result of heretical Christianity and distorted Judaism. A precedent has been set in Rustenburg in 1990 when White participants confessed their ‘racial arrogance toward black culture’. It is high time that the Church in this country should follow this up regarding Judaism and Islam. It is my firm belief that the verbalizing of remorseful regret – along with any restitution that might be appropriate - could go a long way towards ushering in a new future for all of us on the African continent and beyond, as followers of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords! In Luke 4:18-21 our Lord has set out the path of God’s mission to the world, viz. an evangelizing dimension – Good News to the poor; a healing and liberating dimension - restoring sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed, also to the spiritually blind and those bound with religious chains!

I believe that we as Christians should follow the example of our Lord and Master to be the least in humble repentance and confession. Furthermore, it is my considered contention that the city of Cape Town – with significant numbers of Jews and Muslims in its midst – has the very special and unique opportunity to make a reconciliatory contribution. We could be instruments to bring about a biblically based renewal and transformation of our society, under the banner of the suffering and slaughtered Lamb that has conquered the one who goes around like a roaring lion but whose teeth has been extracted on Calvary – let us follow Him!


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