The Importance of a Genitive in Your Practical Theology of Church

thiseltonWhile it’s easy to gloss over the introductions to Paul’s letters in everyday reading, virtually every commentator would say that’s a disastrous approach to reading Paul. The Apostle is very careful in making every phrase count, setting the theological stage for his later corrections and encouragement to whatever church he happens to be addressing. The intros and thanksgivings are like theological overtures dropping hints at themes to be developed at length in the broader symphony of Paul’s argument.

Paul opens his letter to the Corinthian church in this way:

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: (1 Corinthians 1:1-2)

Though there are many riches to be gleaned from this particular intro, the phrase that caught my eye in my study this week was this little genitive ekklesia tou theou; the first thing Paul calls the Corinthian gathering of believers is “the church of God.” Anthony Thiselton notes in his massive commentary that this phrase is ‘possessive’. Paul will say many other things about the believers in Corinth, but the first thing he tells them is this: you are God’s. Thiselton continues:

The church, Paul insists, belongs not to the wealthy, or to the “patrons,” or to some self-styled inner circle of “spiritual people who manifest gifts,” but to God. —The First Epistle to the Corinthians (pg. 73)

It pays to reflect on that reality. At the risk of exaggeration, I’d say that most of the current pathologies plaguing our current church practices, or at least the worst ones–consumerism, over-authoritarianism, individualism, pragmatism, etc–have their root in the fact that we have forgotten to observe this little genitive: “of God.”

How often do think of the Church as something other than the body which God purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28)? How often have we thought of our church primarily in terms of the fact that it’s the place we’ve grown up? Or the church ‘I’ve decided to attend’? Or, the ‘building I helped pay for’? Or in terms of its denominational affiliation? Or how many times have we asked “oh, whose church is that up the way” with its pastor in mind?

Or even more, pastors, how often have we let that attitude creep into our own thought? Have we slipped into the attitude of confusing our call to a congregation with our possession of a congregation? Do we tend forget that we are but ministers of the Gospel, not its authors? Are we constantly remembering that we are but construction managers under the great Architect and Lord of the house? That we are under-shepherds to the Great Shepherd and owner of the flock?

Whatever else we might say of the Church universal, or the local body that instantiates is, Paul reminds us that first and foremost we must recognize it as God’s. Any other description insofar as it is uttered apart from this confession is thereby transformed into falsehood. We are his inheritance, accomplishment, and achievement. He has called us, redeemed us, and sanctified us for himself. The Church’s existence is to, by, and for Him.

Soli Deo Gloria

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