Christian theology in a Sudanese context. God lives in the Church.
From Abraham onwards, God has been ‘calling out’ a people to be His own, from among the entire peoples of the world (Genesis12:1-4). The word ‘assembly’ (Hebrew ‘qahal’) is linked to the name ‘Jehovah’ to mean the ‘assembly of the Lord God’; (Deuteronomy 23:1; 23:2; 23:3; 23:8; Genesis 2:4). To assemble in this way, means to gather as a company of people for a specific purpose, including the purpose of giving praise to God (Psalm 22:25; Psalm 35:18; Psalm 89:5; Psalm 149:1). Groups of God’s people have been gathered together at crucial times in God’s dealings with His people: for example,
following the call to Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3:16);
following the Passover in Egypt (Exodus 12:16);
delivering the Ten Commandments (Exodus 35:1);
celebrating feasts in honour of the Lord (Leviticus 23:1-2);
at the provision of water for a rebellious people in the desert (Numbers 20:8);
when remembering the Law of God (Joshua 8:34-35; Nehemiah 8:1);
and for the allocation of the promised land (Joshua 18:1).
Sometimes the meeting is of leaders, while other times all of the eligible people attend. There are many New Testament passages that understand the church as the new, or the continuing development of, the Jewish people of Israel (Romans 2:28-29; Romans 4:1-16; Romans 9:6-8; Galatians 3:26-29; Ephesians 2:11-22; Hebrews 8:1-13). The Old Testament key to understanding the New Testament Church is to realise that God calls out a people and He instructs them, leads them, guides them, disciplines them, and works towards making them all that He wants them to be. The word ‘assembly’ (Greek – ekklesia) is usually translated ‘church’ in the New Testament. Jesus used it twice. In Matthew 16:18, following Peter’s recognition of Who He was, Jesus said, “on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it”. Jesus speaks here of a worldwide, century-spanning, universal church. In Matthew 18:17, in dealing with discipline for an erring brother, Jesus said, “If he refuses
to listen to them, tell it to the church”. This time, Jesus is referring to a local congregation of believers at a particular point of history. We must keep both these understandings of ‘church’ in our minds.
Paul uses the same word to refer to slightly different things. For example he writes “To the church (singular) of the Thessalonians”,
(1 and 2 Thessalonians 1:1). He also refers to “the churches (plural) in Judea” and elsewhere,
(1 Thessalonians 2:14;
2 Thessalonians 1:4). It seems there were city-wide congregations, there were more localised congregations, and there were even house congregations (Romans 16:3-5; Romans 16:16). The universal church is seen to exist in many different gatherings of Christian people. The church is the community of people who have been born again to live under the rule of the King of kings, Jesus. As people come into this invisible kingdom, they choose to join the human expression of the Kingdom, the locally organised church. The local church is people who are seen to witness to the existence of a Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that is not a territorial kingdom on this earth. By Christ-like living under the rule of God, within the laws of Sudan, Sudanese Christians show they have been called out by God from among all the rest of the Sudanese population. Where there is a clash between the laws of God and the laws of the land, Sudanese Christians can choose to follow the New Testament church in embracing persecution and accepting the personal cost of it (Matthew 5:11-12; Acts 4:1-31; 1 Peter 3:13-18; 1 Peter 4:12-19). The recent unjust suffering of some Sudanese Christians has been inspirational to Christians in other parts of the world. But we all need to be careful not to lose eternal blessing merely for political and material gains in this passing earthly world (Hebrews 12:1-3). The New Testament uses word pictures to describe the church. We are ultimately “the bride of Christ” (Revelation 19:7-9; Revelation 21:2-4). We have an intimate and exclusive relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. We recognise His love, His care, His provision of purity for us, His self-sacrifice on our behalf (Ephesians 5:22-33).
In the church we are a building of people in which God lives by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the foundation of the building. Inspired by God the Holy Spirit, Paul and others have built on that foundation. We have a corporate and individual responsibility to live in a way that brings honour to God. We are the household of God. Although this building is built, it is also still under construction! Perhaps the incredible building developments around the three cities can remind us that God is building His ‘church of people’. Physical church buildings will come and will go, but the ‘building of people’ does not need any physical buildings in order to exist. (Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Corinthians 3:10-17; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 1 Timothy 3:14-15; 1 Peter 2:4-8).
The church is also called
“the body of Christ”. There are many different parts of my human body working away as I write this. My eyes see, my fingers type, my mind thinks, my mouth and my stomach enjoy regular food and drink. All together these (and other) parts of me combine to make the complete body of ‘me’. There are many parts in ‘the body of Christ’, but there is an organic unity, under the control of Jesus Christ, Who is the undisputed Head (Ephesians 1:22-23; Ephesians 4:15-16; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Colossians 1:18).
The Bible uses many other metaphors to help us see what the Church is like. We are
like harvested crop, (John 4:35);
like ‘branches on a vine’,(John 15:5);
like a flock of sheep, (Acts 20:28);
like a cultivated field, (1 Corinthians 3:9);
like a pure virgin, (2 Corinthians 11:2);
“the church of the firstborn”, (Hebrews 12:23); and
like a lamp stand set to channel the light of Jesus Christ into a dark world, (Revelation 1:12-24).
The New Testament does not know the church as an institution nor a physical building. It sees only ‘the people of God’, ‘the community of the set apart’, ‘the gathering of called out believers’.
The Church is the whole community of all true believers throughout all of time. We may look at the All Saints Episcopal Cathedral building in Street One, Khartoum 2. We may admire the St Matthew’s Roman Catholic building, on the corner of El Meknimir street and Nile Avenue, or the fine ‘Mar Girgis’ (St George’s) Coptic building near the Palace hotel in Khartoum North. We may worship ourselves in any of these, or in a mud-walled plastic/ bamboo/ zinc-roofed area of Soba Aradi, Shigla, Hillat Koko, Haj Yousef, Mayo or Zagalona. We may worship as a house church, with a few others in someone’s home. It makes no difference. The real church in Sudan, as anywhere else in the world, is the invisible church. The invisible ‘church of people’ is the church as God sees it.
Thinking it through. (a). What are the differences between the ‘universal church’ and the ‘local church’?
(b). Which of these two is one hundred percent made up of genuine, born-again believers?
(c). What lessons can you learn from seeing the Church as ‘the household of God’? (Ephesians 2:19).