The Church and the Holy Spirit

 

1. Introduction

In preparation for this presentation, I reflected a little on the theology of the Holy Spirit I remember hearing as I grew up in The Wesleyan Church.  In other words, what was the “pneumatology” on the street that I heard proclaimed from Wesleyan pulpits in my early years.[1]  I suppose most of the theology of the Spirit I remember had to do with entire sanctification, so it was focused mostly on me as an individual.  I would later learn in college at Southern Wesleyan that Wesleyans also believe we receive the Holy Spirit when we are “saved” and are “initially sanctified.”  In other words, I better appreciated the idea that entire sanctification is about the “fullness” of the Spirit, not when you get the Spirit for the first time.  But I don’t recall hearing much about initial sanctification growing up. 

 

Another image of the Spirit I remember as a child related to God’s guidance.  We seek the guidance of the Spirit in prayer, particularly when we are facing significant decisions, like whether to ask out a particular girl.  This teaching was also oriented around me as an individual.

 

Then in preparation for this presentation I asked myself a question that did not come naturally for me, for whatever reason.  This is the question of what I might have heard about the Spirit as I grew up that applied to more than just me as an individual.  In other words, what was the relationship between the Spirit and the Church that I remember hearing in my youth?  I came up with two images.  One is again the idea of guidance.  Perhaps a local church was seeking God’s guidance on whether to enter a building program.  Perhaps a church board was praying to know the “mind of the Spirit” on whether to call a certain pastor.

 

Even more commonly, a preacher might ask for the Spirit’s guidance in relation to a sermon he or she was about to preach.  While this prayer clearly had to do with the individual preaching, it was a prayer for the Spirit’s guidance in the context of a gathered group of Christians (perhaps including some non-believers).  This was a prayer that the Spirit would give the speaker the right words to say to the congregation assembled there.

 

A special kind of corporate prayer for the Holy Spirit’s help was a prayer for God to send a revival.  Prayer for a revival would include individual conviction and recommitment on a mass scale.  Revival would be contagious and would be expected to spread beyond the walls of those gathered. Sinners would come to repentance.  Lives would be rededicated.  A new power over sin and drive to witness would accompany.

 

All of these images from my childhood seem appropriate to me, although I do not think we process these matters quite the same way the early church did.  For one thing, I think the early church prioritized the relationships between the Spirit, the Church, and the individual a little differently than we do.  We tend to see the corporate dimensions of the Spirit as the sum of all the individual ones.  In other words, we think of all our individual experiences of the Holy Spirit adding up to make the experience of the church as a whole.  By contrast, the New Testament seems to assume that most individual experiences of the Holy Spirit take place in the context of a group of believers, with “two or three” as a quorum (Matt. 18:20). 

 

This is the main challenge of my presentation tonight.  Our modern Western culture has led us to emphasize personal relationships with Jesus Christ.  So we tend to see the relationship of a group like this one as all the personal relationships with Christ we have added together.  But the New Testament more sees my individual “relationship” as a subset of our corporate relationship with God as a whole.

 

In the recent volume we Wesleyans put out, The Church Jesus Builds, I mentioned three key intersections between the Spirit and the Church.[2]  First, I suggested that the Spirit defines the Church.  Secondly, I reminded us that the Spirit empowers the Church.  And finally, I affirmed that the Spirit directs the Church.  Few Wesleyans would deny any of these three in theory. 

 

What I fear is that I did not make sufficiently clear in that chapter that these three truths apply most powerfully to the Church as a whole and then somewhat derivatively to us as individuals.  So we might say, “The Spirit defines the Church, first as a whole, then for us as individuals.”  “The Spirit empowers the Church, first as a whole, then us as individuals.”  “The Spirit directs the Church, first as a whole, then us as individuals.”  As I reflected on what I had written in The Church Jesus Builds, I began to worry that I had not sufficiently guarded against what I see as the rather unbiblical and unchristian trend in the broader church typified by George Barna’s recent book, Revolution.[3]  This book is so focused on our individual relationships with God that it renders the local church unnecessary.  I do not believe such ideas would have made any sense at all to any of the New Testament authors.  Tonight I want to return to these three points to make sure we get our priorities straight. 

 

 

2. The Spirit defines the Church

It is easy enough for us to grasp the idea that the most important ingredient in becoming a Christian—in fact the determinative ingredient par excellence, the efficient cause extraordinaire—is the Holy Spirit.  Baptism was important to the New Testament church to be sure, but we Wesleyans believe a person can be saved even though never baptized in water.[4]  And while repentance and faith are necessary pre-requisites to become a Christian, they are exactly that: pre-requisites, elements that are generally necessary before one receives the Spirit (I say almost always because John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from birth; Luke 1:15).[5]

 

So in Acts 8 when a group in Samaria have been baptized in water but have not received the Holy Spirit, Peter and John travel there and lay hands on them (8:10).  Almost all Wesleyan Bible scholars today would see the problem here as the fact that these people were still lacking the most important ingredient in conversion—namely, they lacked the Holy Spirit.[6]  Peter sets out the template for conversion in Acts 2:38: “Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

 

Paul’s discussion of the Holy Spirit coheres well with this teaching in Acts.  Thus in Romans 8:9, Paul says, “If someone does not have the Spirit of Christ, this one is not of him.”  The Spirit actually witnesses to our spirit that we are God’s children (8:15-16).  The love of God is poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit (5:5-6; 8:23).  I personally do not see this “love of God” as some subjective feeling of God’s love that we experience at conversion.  Rather, I follow those who see the “love of God” here as a shorthand for the things God’s love accomplishes, objective things like atonement for our sins and the concrete assurance of our future glorification.[7]  In the words of Hebrews, when we are “enlightened,” we become “partakers of Holy Spirit” (Heb. 6:4).

 

2 Corinthians 1:22 implies the same theology of the Spirit.  God is “the One who has sealed us and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts.”  Very similar is 2 Corinthians 5:5: “The One who has made us for this very thing [the resurrection body] is God, who has given us the earnest of the Spirit.”  The NIV translates the sense of 2 Corinthians 1:21 correctly when it says that God has put His “seal of ownership” on us by giving us the Holy Spirit.  Paul did not mean “sealing” as in “sealing up a jar” but sealing as in placing a seal of ownership on something.  It is like branding, thus indicating that we are in fact God’s property.

 

The notion of an “earnest” will be familiar to anyone who has bought a house.  Earnest money does two things.  It guarantees that you will receive the house (rather than someone else) if the agreed conditions are kept by both parties.  But it is also a down payment toward the purchase of the house.  So also the Holy Spirit in us is a “foretaste of glory divine,” as we see in Hebrews 6:4-5.  Although it is not clear what our spiritual bodies will be like (1 Cor. 15:44), it would fit with Paul’s overall imagery to see it related in some way to the down payment of Spirit that is already inside us. 

 

The metaphor of an earnest also implies that the Holy Spirit is a guarantee of our future inheritance.  This is not an absolute guarantee, for one can grieve the Holy Spirit of God (Eph. 4:30).  But it is never God’s fault if the “deal” falls through or better yet, “falls away” (Heb. 6:6).

 

The problem we face today is that it is far too easy for us to take these comments in purely individualistic terms: the Spirit inside of me defines me as a Christian.  This is of course true.  But is it true independently of the Spirit in the Church as a whole?  Which comes first in priority and which is a subset of the other?  In terms of the way the early church thought, it seems far more likely that they thought first of the Spirit being in the Church as a whole and then more secondarily of the Spirit in us as individuals.   

 

Let us start building this case with 1 Corinthians 3:16: “You [plural] are the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in you [plural].”  Paul does not say here that I as an individual am the temple of God, as the English might mistakenly deceive us into thinking.  As most of you will know, Greek distinguishes between a “you” singular and a “you” plural, something you cannot see very well from an English translation.  Like the difference in English between “me,” singular, and “us,” plural, Greek has one word for one “you,” singular, and another word for “y’all,” plural.  In consequence, many if not most of the passages we Western individualists regularly apply to individual Christians more accurately refer to groups of Christians. 

 

Most of you will know the celebrated “Christians don’t smoke” verse, 1 Corinthians 6:19: “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.”  Fascinatingly, this verse consistently uses a plural “you”: “Y’alls body is a temple of the Holy Spirit in y’all, which y’all have from God.  Y’all do not belong to yourselves.  Y’all were bought with a price.  So y’all glorify God with y’alls body.”  Now these comments probably do apply to our individual bodies as well—after all, Paul is talking about visiting a prostitute, something usually done alone.  But he strikingly—at least for us modern individualists—places that individual act with a prostitute in the context of the entire body of Christ at Corinth.  When one man’s body in the Corinthian church does something like this, the body of Christ as a whole at Corinth does it.

 

1 Corinthians 12 is of course full of this corporate body language.  The imagery focuses primarily on the local Corinthian church as the body of Christ, although it is only part of a much bigger body of Christ that consists of believers everywhere.  1 Corinthians 12:13 puts it well, “By one Spirit we all were baptized into one body.  Whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, we have all drunk one Spirit.  The emphasis of Paul here is clear.  It is not on each one of us as individuals receiving the Spirit.  In his imagery, we do not even have the whole Spirit without the whole body.  As he says earlier in the letter in reference to the Lord’s Supper, “Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17).  Our use of countless individual wafers and cups in communion today is symptomatic of a pervasive obliviousness to one of the most important meanings of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament—the oneness of the body of Christ.

 

While Paul’s language here is universal, he is primarily talking about the “local” Corinthian church and the inter-relationships between its members, a group that was full of divisions and factions, a group that was prone to fragmentation.  It is the general consensus of Pauline scholarship that the Corinthian church probably consisted of only 40-50 people at this time, in other words, a small enough group to fit into a single house when desired.[8]  The basic argument here is that Paul does not refer to the churches at Corinth, plural, but to the church, singular (1 Cor. 1:2).  As we see in many of Paul’s closing greetings, he generally uses the word “church” in reference to single house churches: “Greet Priscilla and Aquila—my co-workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their neck for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but also all the churches of the Gentiles—and [greet] the church [singular] at their house” (Rom. 16:3-5).

 

This seems as good a point as any to explore the meaning of the word church, ekklesia in Greek.  We might do well to use the word assembly instead of church for a while just to get back in touch with what we’re talking about here.  The old idea that the church is the group of “called out ones” makes for a good sermon illustration (and it makes a true point).  But it almost certainly has nothing to do with anything the New Testament authors would have been thinking.  This is the quintessential example of the so called etymological fallacy, where one defines a word by breaking it up into its component parts. 

 

So, the idea goes, the Greek word for church is ek-klesia.  Since kaleo means “to call” and ek means “out of,” the ekklesia must be those “called out.”  It makes for a nice illustration.  Sometimes such etymological antics work and sometimes they don’t.  For example, I would never try to explain the English word understand this way, as if to under-stand is to stand under a concept somehow.  A brief glance at Acts 19:41 should heal us of thinking this is the real meaning for this word, for there the “assembly,” the ekklesia, turns out to be an anti-Christian mob.

 

A church is thus an assembly.  In its most literal sense, it is a local assembly, and no more than you might fit in any one place.  It is in this sense that Paul refers to assemblies that meet in the houses of individuals, and the “church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2) is the local assembly that likely meets in Gaius’ house (cf. Rom. 16:23).  Notice in 1 Corinthians 12, when Paul speaks of the body of Christ in which the Spirit dwells, he does not picture an ear going off to be by itself with the Spirit or the eye disconnecting from the rest of the body to hammer out the issues alone with God.  Such an alternative is not even on Paul’s radar. 

 

As we will see in a minute, when Paul urges the Corinthian church to put one of its members out of their fellowship—when a member is placed outside their assembly—Paul is handing that person over to Satan, to Satan’s domain outside the church (1 Cor. 5:2, 5).  The Spirit is with the local church; Satan is outside it.  Similarly, John the elder suggests that those who separated from fellowship with his group showed thereby that they were not in fact Christians, “they were not from us, for if they had been from us, they would have remained with us” (1 John 2:19).

 

Of course Paul can also use the word ekklesia in an extended sense, in a metaphorical sense.  He can speak of an assembly of God that is bigger than just a local assembly.  Galatians 1:13 uses the phrase “the assembly of God” apparently in reference to the believers of Judea and its environs.  Of course Colossians and Ephesians use the term “church” universally, as in 1 Corinthians 12:13, when they identify the church as a whole everywhere as the body of Christ (Eph. 1:23-24).[9]  Hebrews 12:13 then uses the image of the assembly in the broadest way of all when it thinks of the spirits of all Christians in heaven as the “assembly of the firstborn,” including all believers both dead and alive.

 

Now let us return to the matter of how the Spirit defines the Church, first as a whole, then secondarily us as individual Christians.  First, in all that we have explored thus far about the Church, it is striking that all the earthly imagery of assembly presumes embodiment and visibility. The local assemblies are clearly visible. And Hebrews’ assembly in heaven is a gathering in heaven we are meant to picture.  Then when Colossians and Ephesians extend the scope of the assembly metaphorically to include all Christians, the metaphor is visible and embodied.  It is the visible body of Christ that is the church, not the invisible Spirit of Christ!  Indeed, There is one body and one Spirit” (Eph. 4:4), and Ephesians understands that body to be the Church.  The Spirit thus inhabits the church as its visible embodiment in this world. 

 

It has become standard to refer to the universal church as the invisible church.  But this metaphor is only valid in the sense that we cannot identify the universal Church with any one denomination or political body.[10]  But the Church as the body of Christ does not support physical division or atomism as its default, whether on the individual or denominational level.  Rather, the image of the body implies that Christian individuals bond and group together on a small scale.  And Christian denominations likewise must bond and group together on a large scale.[11]  The unity of the Church visibly is the default and separation is only by way of exception.

 

Second, we see that by very definition, the church is a collective concept, that is, it involves a plurality.  There is no such thing as an assembly of one.  Matthew 18:20 implies that a quorum of at least two is expected for the authoritative Spirit of Christ to be present: “where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.”  There are no instances in the New Testament where the church refers to one person.  It implies both gathering and plurality.  It is true that when we come to appropriating this imagery today, new questions emerge that none of the NT authors would have imagined.[12]  Can there be a church of one?  Is a person a part of the assembly of the firstborn without interaction or connection to the rest of the body?  Such questions are completely foreign to the Bible. 

 

So when we return to the passages above that indicate that the most definitive element in becoming converted is receiving the Holy Spirit, we perhaps now notice something we might have missed the first time.  True, Romans 8:9 does speak of an individual who does not have the Spirit of Christ.  But all the verses around it are talking of the Spirit in y’all, plural: “Y’all are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in y’all” (8:8).  So also 8:10-11: “But if Christ is in y’all…  and if the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in y’all…”  Paul’s default is not the Spirit in the individual, but the Spirit in the audience at Rome as a whole, whom he urges to submit their bodies as a singular, living sacrifice in 12:1.[13]

 

And in Acts, no one receives the Holy Spirit alone—not on the day of Pentecost, not in Samaria, not the Gentiles in Acts 10, and not the followers of John the Baptist in Acts 19.  Even the apostle Paul does not receive the Holy Spirit on the road to Damascus, but only later when another, Ananias, is there to lay hands on him (Acts 9:17).  And it is while the believers of Jerusalem are together in a visible, embodied assembly that they are filled with the Holy Spirit a second time in Acts 4:31.

 

So when Ephesians suggests that we have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:5-6), the theology doesn’t work unless this is a unity expressed across a plurality of individuals, in this case, across the ethnic divide of Jew and Gentile. We are not to forsake the regular assembling of ourselves together (Heb. 10:25).  In short, we might say of the lone Christian the same thing that Paul told husbands and wives at Corinth: a believer should not stay away from the body of Christ except for a time, perhaps to devote oneself to prayer, but then come together again so Satan will not tempt you (1 Cor. 7:5).

 

 

3. The Spirit Empowers the Church

I have rather less time to mention how the Spirit might empower and direct the Church first as a whole and then secondly as individuals.  With regard to empowerment, we might mention again several ways in which the Spirit empowers individuals in Christ.  First, the Spirit sets individuals free from the law of sin and death.  There are two main options in the manuscripts for the text of Romans 8:1.  The Greek tradition behind the King James reads, “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.”  Perhaps the more likely original text read that the law of the Spirit has set “you [singular] free from the law of sin and death.”  On either reading, an individual in Christ is empowered to be victorious over the power of sin in his or her life.  As 1 John 3:9 says, “Everyone who has been born of God does not practice sin, because God’s seed remains in him [/her].  S/he is not able to be sinning, for s/he has been born of God.”[14]

 

Yet, as we saw with regard to the Spirit defining the Church, Paul often speaks of this empowerment over sin in corporate rather than individual terms.  Thus 1 Corinthians 10:13 addresses the church of Corinth as a whole: “No temptation has overtaken you [plural] except human [temptation].  But God is faithful, who will not permit you [plural] to be tempted above what you [plural] are able but will make with the temptation also the way out so that [you] are able to bear up under [it].”  This verse is not strictly about individual empowerment, but about the empowerment of the whole community to bear up under temptation.  We notice that Galatians 5:16 is, again, expressed in plural terms: “[You plural] walk in the Spirit and you [plural] will never fulfill the desire of the flesh.”

 

Similarly, the often quoted Philippians 2:12 is a plural “you”: “with fear and trembling, [you plural] work out your [plural] salvation.”  Salvation here for Paul is about escaping, being “saved” from God’s wrath on the Day of Judgment.  He tells the saints at Philippi to work together so that they all make it in the end.  How are they to do this?  They are to do it through God’s Spirit among them, “for it is God who works among you [plural] both to will and to work on behalf of His pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).  Here we see the corporate guidance of the Spirit along with His empowerment.  The goal is that they corporately be [plural] “blameless and pure, faultless children of God in the middle of a crooked and perverse generation” (Phil. 2:15).  1 John 5:16-17 gives us a great picture of how the prayer of a fellow believer on behalf of a brother sinning a sin not to death can effect that brother’s forgiveness.

 

Even that great verse of Wesleyanism, 1 Thessalonians 5:23, is plural in address: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you [plural] completely and may your [plural] entire spirit and soul and body [singular in reference to the whole church] be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  This verse applies first to the body of Christ as the whole assembly of believers at Thessalonica and then only secondarily to us as individuals.

 

The Spirit also empowers individuals to do miracles, to speak boldly, to suffer, and so forth.  We see from Acts and John that it is in fact the Spirit that empowers all the functioning of the church.  It is the Spirit that gives the early church boldness to proclaim and suffer.  It is the Spirit that brings unity of spirit and mind. 

 

But I want to end this section on the Spirit’s empowerment by reminding us of the authority Scripture places in the Church, even the “local church,” over the individual.  First, the local church’s authority to exclude from the body of Christ implies a group authority over an individual within the church.  Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, “In the name of the Lord Jesus, when you are gathered together and my spirit with the power of our Lord Jesus, deliver such a person to the Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit might be saved on the Day of the Lord.”

 

Notice the ecclesial dimension to this expulsion.  It is not an activity of Paul alone but Paul with the church in the Spirit.  This action is the removal of this person from the visible, corporate “midst” of the church at Corinth (5:2).  The putting of this person out of the physical gathering of this individual is his delivery over to the realm of Satan, which is outside of their physical gathering.  The importance of “contiguity,” of being in physical contact with the rest of the body of Christ, should not be overlooked.  In the same way, an unbelieving spouse, as well as the children, are sanctified by a believing parent (1 Cor. 7:14).  It is in connection with the believing spouse that the unbelieving one is sanctified.

 

Secondly, the Spirit brings authority to the Church to retain or forgive sins.  In John 20:22-23, Jesus says to the disciples, Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of certain ones, they are forgiven.  If you hold on to the sins of certain ones, they have been retained.”  Certainly the disciples/apostles were a special group of believers, but the Gospel of John was not written for the apostles alone any more than Matthew 18:17-20 was: If he [the sinner] does not listen to them [the one or two that go with the offended], speak to the assembly [church]. If [the offender] does not listen even to the assembly, let him be as a Gentile and tax collector to you.”  Matthew goes on, “Truly I say to you: whatever you [plural] bind on earth will [already] have been bound in heaven. And whatever you [plural] loose on earth will [already] have been loosed in heaven. Again I say to you: if two of you concur on earth concerning any matter whatever he ask, it will happen to them from my Father in the heavens, for where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst.”

 

As we read passages from the gospels like these, we must remember that none of the gospels record the words of Jesus out of a pure antiquarian interest.  The gospel writers were not nerdy historians whose main interest was to reconstruct the historical Jesus in the minutest detail.  The gospels were written as good news for their audiences, up to date good news for them.  The Jesus we find in the gospels is not just the Jesus whose audiences were the Aramaic speaking peasants of the Galilee.  The Jesus of the gospels is even more importantly Jesus for the audience of Matthew and the audience of Mark and the audiences of Luke and John and indeed for the whole Mediterranean world of that day.[15] 

 

Most importantly, the Jesus of these gospels is the Jesus for us.  John would scarcely have recorded the authority Jesus gave the disciples unless it was an authority that continued even in his day, when perhaps only he alone survived and all the other disciples had already died.  And the Gospel of Matthew also gives us strong reason to believe that its words were for its generation, also likely more than a decade after the passing of the “Rock,” Peter, to whom Jesus gave the keys to the kingdom.  The authority of which Matthew 18 speaks is an authority Jesus gave to the assembly, to the Church, understood in its corporate sense.

 

 

4. The Spirit Directs the Church

Finally, we close with a sense that the Spirit directs the Church corporately first, and then us as individuals in addition.  For example, there are certainly moments of individual direction in Acts, such as when the Spirit snatches Philip and takes him to Azotus (8:39-40).  Yet such individual direction is more the exception in Acts than the rule.  Most of the Spirit’s direction takes place corporately.  So it is in the context of corporate worship and fasting at Antioch that the Spirit tells the church there to set apart Barnabas and Saul for a special work, and they are publicly commissioned by the laying on of hands (13:2-3).  And the Spirit of Jesus forbids Paul, Silas, and their company as a whole not to go into Bithynia or Asia (16:6-7).

 

Similarly, Jesus tells the disciples in John that “whenever that [Advocate] has come, the Spirit of truth, He will lead you [plural] in all the truth” (John 16:13).  Much of the Advocate’s work in this world is in relation to non-believers, whom He convicts of sin and of judgment (16:9, 11).  But with regard to believers, He convinces them “concerning righteousness, because I [Jesus] depart to the Father and you [plural] will no longer see me” (John 16:10).  Jesus tells the disciples that they will not have the example of himself to follow and thus that they will need another Counselor to show them the way. 

 

Again, the Gospel of John was likely completed long after the vast majority of these disciples had themselves passed from the scene—I would argue even after John himself had finally died.  The reason for perpetuating these words in John’s community must surely be because the Spirit of truth continued to guide believers into all truth and to show them what true righteousness was beyond the lifetimes of the disciples to whom Jesus was here said to speak.  The “you” of John relates as Scripture to all believers, and it is indeed a plural “you.”  It applies to us as individuals, yes, but the default assumption is plural, the corporate direction of the Holy Spirit.

 

With regard to the gift of prophecy, it is of course in its very nature that it takes place in community.  This fact is very important for us as Wesleyans when it comes to women in ministry, for when Paul tells the women at Corinth to cover their heads when they are praying and prophesying, he cannot be giving them an instruction to follow in private.  His very instruction implies that women were free to pray and prophesy within the corporate worship of the assembly.  This fact implies that whatever silence 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 may urge on the women of Corinth, it was not silence with regard to prophetic or spiritual speech.  It can only have been a silence with regard to disruptive speech.

 

But which takes priority—the individual prophesying or the community in which the individual prophesies.  Both Paul and John assign corrective authority to the community over the individual.  “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32), Paul says.  The voice of a single individual with the Spirit is subordinate to the Spirit as He inhabits the broader prophetic body.  So also 1 John, “Do not believe every spirit but test the spirits [to see] if they are of God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

 

But the most challenging words I have to say this evening with regard to the corporate direction of the Spirit go to much more fundamental issues than the mere interpretation of individual passages in the Bible.  They have to do with our use of the Bible itself.  We are prone as conservative evangelicals to think that God’s direction for us today is simply a matter of interpreting the Bible.  But reality dashes this sentiment into over 20,000 different pieces—pieces we might call Protestant denominations.  Under the idea that the correct appropriation of Scripture is as much an individual as a corporate matter, we have seen Protestantism fragment into tens of thousands of little groups.

 

It is easy enough to pinpoint some of the problems here.  There are at least three central elements in the process of hearing God’s Word in the words of Scripture today that the Bible itself cannot provide for us.  For example, the Bible itself does not tell us what books belong in the Bible in the first place.  Romans does not tell us that Revelation is in.  And, if we are honest, Matthew does not tell us that Sirach is out! 

 

Further, the individual books of the Bible by and large do not tell us how to connect their teaching with the other books.  James does not tell us how its words on justification by works (Jas. 2:24) fit with Romans’ words on justification by faith (Rom. 3:28).  Matthew does not tell us how to fit its statement that Jesus did not come to destroy the Law (Matt. 5:17) with Ephesians’ statement that he did destroy the Law (Eph. 2:15).  And 1 Timothy 2:12 doesn’t tell us how it can prohibit a woman from teaching a man when Acts 18:26 tells us that Priscilla did.

 

Finally, these books that tell us they were literally written to someone else—ancient Corinthians, Romans, Israelites, etc.—do not tell us how to cross the divide between their audiences and us as an audience.  Internet pornography did not exist in biblical times, nor did stem cell research.  For that matter, a democratic society where it might be possible for Christians to make the laws of the land did not exist for the New Testament believers.  The Bible does not explicitly tell us how to connect its teaching to today because its teaching was originally addressed another time. 

 

We are forced to look outside the Bible to bridge these gaps.  To pretend that we do not need help on these matters is to substitute some help blindly without even realizing it, mistaking who knows what for the very voice of God.  Surely it is the Holy Spirit we need here.  Without the Holy Spirit, how will we ever fill any of these gaps correctly?  But where are we to hear the Spirit’s voice on which books belong in the Bible?  Where are we to hear how to join individual texts with the other texts?  And where will we find out from the Spirit how to bridge the distance between their time and our time? 

 

Certainly God can and wants to give us each individual direction.  But if the one Spirit inhabits the one body that is the whole Church, then surely the most correct answer for the Christian is that we will find the core answers to these questions in the Church.  The Church has not always agreed on everything, but there is much that we Christians have believed in common since the earliest centuries.  This is the consensus of Christendom, the commonly held beliefs of the universal Church, the communion of the saints of all the ages. 

 

The Bible itself does not tell us that 1 Clement is not Scripture, while 2 Peter is.  This understanding percolated up and was recognized through the Church in the 300’s.  How do we know that the New Testament completes the Old Testament and is not a deviation from it?  It is possible from the text alone to read it the other way around, as orthodox Jews would.  But this is not the Christian way to read the biblical text.  The Christians of the ages have universally agreed that Christ inaugurated a new covenant. 

 

How do we know that the baptism for the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29 is bizarre and not normative practice?  How do we know that we shouldn’t take Colossians 1:15 to imply that Christ was a part of the creation rather than “begotten not made”?  How do we know that the virgin birth is so important when it plays almost no role at all in the theology of the New Testament itself?  The answer to all these questions is the Church, the common ground between the saints of the ages, common ground forged even beyond the writing of Scripture, some of which is still being forged today on new issues. 

 

 

5. Conclusion 

My goal tonight has been to try to right the ship of the Church in relation to the individual.  Our culture has pushed us to emphasize our personal relationships with Jesus Christ in a way that potentially could sever us as individuals from the body of Christ.  As Protestants it has been all too easy for this to happen, for we emphasize the priesthood of all believers and the availability of the Word for all.  These things are of course true.  We do not need to abandon the truths of Protestantism, only to rebalance them with the corporate dimensions to faith that we have largely neglected.  A personal relationship with Jesus Christ is essential to being a believer, yes.  But that relationship will die like an uprooted flower unless we have it in the context of relationship with the rest of the body.

 

So the Spirit does define us as individual Christians, but He defines us so because He defines the entire body as the body of Christ, the Church.  The Spirit empowers us as individuals over sin and empowers us to serve and witness.  But if we do not remain plugged into the body, this power will soon fade away.  And the Holy Spirit is always willing to direct our lives.  But more often than not, He does so as we are in fellowship with the assembly of the firstborn.  From both a biblical and a Christian standpoint, there are no lone Christians.

 



[1] Of course I would not claim to be “every Wesleyan.”  This preaching would include about 7 different pastors in addition to all the revivals, camp meetings, conventions, and ministerial retreats of my youth.

 

[2] “The Church Jesus Builds is Spirit-Led,” in The Church Jesus Builds: A Dialogue on the Church in the 21st Century, Joseph Coleson, ed. (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing, 2007), 151-62.

 

[3] Revolution (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 2005).

 

[4] This was particularly true of our Pilgrim Holiness side, which had significant Quaker influence.

 

[5] So John Wesley, “The Repentance of Believers.”

 

[6] An informal polling at the Salvation Conference of The Wesleyan Church two years ago yielded the striking result that not a single Bible scholar at Wesley Biblical, Nazarene Theological, Asbury Seminary, Indiana Wesleyan, Houghton, Southern Wesleyan, Bartlesville, or Bethany was found who understood the Spirit-fillings of Acts to be experiences of a second work of grace.  In this conclusion Wesleyan Bible scholars have apparently come to agree with the virtually unanimous sense of biblical scholarship in general that receiving/being baptized with the Holy Spirit in Acts is an entry experience rather than a secondary experience subsequent to conversion.  The turning point in Wesleyan scholarship might be marked from Robert W. Lyon’s 1979 article in the Wesleyan Theological Journal, “Baptism and Spirit-Baptism in the New Testament,” WTJ 14 (1979): 14-26.  The best known scholarly monograph on the topic is James D. G. Dunn’s, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1970).

 

[7] So, for example, Simon Gathercole, in Where Is Boasting? Early Jewish Soteriology and Paul’s Response in Romans 1-5 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 258.

 

[8] Likely the house of Gaius mentioned in Romans 16:23.  For a deeper exploration of these sorts of issues, the standard work is Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1983).

 

[9] The imagery of Colossians and Ephesians involves a slight development from 1 Corinthians, for in Colossians and Ephesians Christ is a part of the body, namely, the head, and the body as a whole is the church, the assembly.  In 1 Corinthians the body as a whole is the body of Christ.

 

[10] Cf. Karl Barth, Dogmatics IV/1, 653-54; Hans Kung, The Church (Garden City, NY: Image, 1976), 59-65.

 

[11] I want to thank Kevin Wright, Wesleyan MDiv student at Duke Divinity School, for pushing the argument to this valid conclusion.

 

[12] The New Testament world was a collectivist culture rather than an individualist one such as we are in the Western world.  They did not by and large define themselves as lone individuals but as “group-embedded” individuals whose identity was largely a function of the groups to which they belonged.  See in general Bruce Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993), esp. 63-89.

 

[13] I want to thank Brian Russell, Wesleyan professor of Old Testament at the Asbury Orlando campus, for this insight.

 

[14] Following the gender bias of the Greek language, John uses the masculine article and pronoun at the beginning of the verse.  But of course it is virtually certain that he would understand the verse to apply to women as well. 

 

[15] As Richard Bauckham has strongly argued in The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).