Here’s what I’ve learned from forty years as a Believer.
What is the Church?
Can we agree that the Church is the body of believers, the disciples of Jesus, the living body of Christ in the earth, and the soon to be bride of Christ forever? If we can, the rest should make some sense.
The Church’s Two Great Traditions
Throughout the centuries the Church has developed two traditions: one institutional and the other spiritual. The institutional being the structural form, and the spiritual being the living substance. You may disagree, but hang in there.
The church in its institutional form, is locked in time and space, where things change, but it doesn’t. We are the ones who have to change the structure. We have to amend it. We have to restore it.
The institutional structure is “the wineskin,” and in and of itself, has no life. It’s a container, a house, an organization, if you will, a corporation. Every institution will continue, long after the faith of its people has died. This is evident by the thousands of denominational structures today, slowly imploding.
The Heart of The Matter
As a “wineskin,” the life is in the wine, or the spirit of the people. As a house, it’s the Bride that makes a house a home. God doesn’t dwell in temples made with human hands. He dwells in our hearts through our faith by Jesus Christ. We are the temple of God. We are the Bride of Christ.
Now, let’s break down our understanding of the Church by spiritual practices or traditions, rather than by institutional or structural forms. This way, we get at the heart of the matter.
That’s because, as God changes our hearts, we work out in practice, what changes our world. Then, we make the difference.
The Grand View
There are six traditional spiritual practices that make up the whole Church.***
Six expressions of Christ discipleship in our lives.
We can see it as six streams of living water, six traditions, six lifestyles, or six practices of spiritual community.
Six Living Spiritual Traditions:
- The Prayer-Filled Life or ~The Contemplative Tradition
- The Virtuous Life or ~The Holiness Tradition
- The Spirit-Empowered Life or ~The Charismatic Tradition
- The Compassionate Life or ~The Social Justice Tradition
- The Word-Centered Life or ~The Evangelical Tradition
- The Sacramental Life or ~The Incarnational Tradition
These are Spiritual Traditions, not structural traditions.
They are ways we live out our Christian faith and our discipleship in community.
These spiritual traditions are ways we express the Gospel in our hearts and lives. They all flow out of our deep relationship with Jesus. My thesis here, is that, all six of these living traditions flow within a larger river, the seventh stream which is Jesus himself, the living water of God. They are like living currents in the greater stream of God.
When we are in one or more of these spiritual traditions, it’s hard to see anything else.
As they are living systems, they appear to be complete in and of themselves.
But as we step out into Jesus, our horizons broaden. We see the forest and not just the trees. We see the river of life that flows from the throne of God.
Our problem arises when certain spiritual traditions see themselves as the whole ball of wax. We develop closed and reinterpretive systems to defend our stands, and the turf wars ensue. They can go on for generations, and nobody wins.
For example: If we are the Holiness or Social Justice traditions in our spirit, we can rage against the world and see nothing else.
It’s critical that we see our distinctives and see beyond them…to Jesus.
So what Spiritual Practice does your Church Tradition most embrace? What spiritually stirs your heart?
When I realized this, it did it for me. It changed my heart. I was no longer at war with the Church. I could come in out of the cold.
As a contemplative, I’ve walked in each of these traditions. Some more than other’s And now I can go to a Pentecostal or an Orthodox Church and see Jesus…a Baptist or a Catholic Church and feel at home. Why? Because I’m with Jesus, the author and finisher of my faith. And he tells me to love my brothers and sisters like he does.
Here’s the take away: The Church turf wars can end with you.
You can embrace the whole Body of Christ. God does.
***I’m deeply indebted to the primary theological work done by Richard J Foster in his ground breaking books: Streams of Living Water and Devotional Classics. He solidified the discoveries I was making and gave me the language. I’m so grateful.
If you’d like to dive into this radical subject, I highly recommend these two foundational books. If you know of others, let me know.
Picture Credit: Bob Holmes This is a picture of Christ Church in Pensacola, Florida. Some time ago, my wife Elizabeth, did a story on its two unsigned Tiffany windows. This impressive structure speaks of its institutional tradition as a center for art and creativity.
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