I may be getting my facts mixed up, but in his best-selling book Guns, Germs and Steel, Jared Diamond describes the history and fare of several people groups located in the South Pacific. At least in that book, theirs is the story of non-ascendancy in the face of the continuous, precipitous rise of Western, continental nations. To summarize a 300 page award-winning book in only a few words, they were destined to be conquered because they were isolated. As these islands were settled, they arose to precisely the level of density that the land could support, a level too low to develop specialization, on islands too isolated to acquire technologies in the normal interactions of men. Their first contact with foreigners inevitably came in the form of invaders with vastly superior armaments.
The odd thing about these islands though, is that it was rarely as simple a situation as one nation per island. Sometimes a nation would consist of one island, but it was just as likely to be several kingdoms on a single large island, or an “empire” reaching across an archipelago. This strikes me as remarkably similar to the churches I grew up in.
Sometimes a church consisted of those who met in a single building. Sometimes you’d find an association of churches in a single town who considered themselves fundamentally distinct from other groups of (orthodox, Christian) churches in the same town. Each of these churches, while assiduously refusing to deny the legitimacy of the other groups, nevertheless went about their business as if theirs was the only true church. At the same time, you were likely to find a denomination or movement which claimed member churches in little islands across a whole region. To make another political comparison, the modern Christian church looks remarkably like the political situation in Europe around 1100 A.D.
Now I ask you brothers (and sisters) is this the way it’s supposed to be?
The churches that I grew up in were what you might call small, independent churches. That is, they were between 100 and 500 members (though, in Massachusetts, 500 members is commonly called a megachurch), and they weren’t structurally associated with any other churches. So small and independent is what I’m used to; it’s what I like. I’ve nodded approvingly when I heard pastors of 1000+ member churches criticized (like robber barons) of selfish ambition, accused of “empire building.”
A proper church, as everyone knew, was no more than 500 members. How can a pastor be a pastor when he cannot even say the names of everyone in his congregation? And yet I’ve been wondering, as I study myself to become a pastor, if the island nation really represents everything that Jesus Christ intended the church to be.
We all know Jesus’ “High Priestly” prayer in John 17, in which he asks the Father to make us one even as the Father and the Son are one. It’s easy to read that verse into our modern context, though, and assume it means something relatively easy, like taking a stand against racial discrimination, or perhaps publicly admitting that Roman Catholics are Christians too.
The one thing we never consider, which we may not even countenance, is that Jesus intended us to be united not merely in some mystical sense, but that he actually expected us to form some kind of worldwide unified institution. Surely not! Didn’t even Jesus say, “My kingdom is not of this world”? Yet the view of Christians from the earliest times, while they did not grasp for political power, was that the church was supposed to be an institution, worldwide in its scope, with real authority over its members, its leaders endowed with the power to say who was in and who was out.
The first biblical reference that I am aware of which refers to the church as something separate from the people of Israel is in Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream, and we all know the story of how he wouldn’t tell his soothsayers what it was, but God revealed the dream to Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar saw a statue made up of different elements, each element representing a different empire in succession. Then “a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image.” All the elements which composed the statue
> became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them could be found. But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
It should be easy to see that the stone which struck the image of man’s government was Christ, and that the mountain that filled the whole earth is the holy church, but what seems difficult for we moderns to grasp is that since the image was composed of public, visible institutions, so the mountain which replaced them should also be a public, visible institution. The “kingdom that shall never be destroyed” is intended by God to be an empire, if you will, and not a collection of island nations.