Biblical Theology of the Collective Call of the Church

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pictureby Paul Kazim

The idea that the church has a collective call is a natural response to missio dei. God has always had a mission and He has called the church to participate in the accomplishment of His purpose. That is, God calls the church as a body to fulfill its purpose. Collective call explains that the task that God assigns to an individual must fit within the overarching purpose that God has for the church. Emphasizing the collective nature of God’s call requires a body of Christ united in purpose. God’s purpose for the church takes precedence over any one individual call. This does not eliminate the individual call. God calls some to expand the vision and ministry of the church. Their call requires that they launch out on their own, but the question remains how the pioneer’s call and every other calls fit within the overall plan of God.

Paul’s Emphasis on Unity

Paul frequently wrote about the importance of the local body of Christ united in essence and purpose. The Roman Epistle provides helpful starting point. Early in the life of the first-century Christian community, Jews and God-fearer in Rome’s synagogues debated the identity of the Messiah. As a result, the emperor Claudius followed the example of the earlier emperor Tiberius and banished the Jews from Rome. “Given the context in our sources, this may have happened about the year 49 CE”. (Keener 12). Claudius died in 54 CE. His successor, Nero, rescinded the edict and many Jews returned to Rome. Not all the Jews had left, but the Roman church had passed five years during which the bulk of the church leadership, style and culture was decidedly Gentile. Paul’s letter arbitrates between Jewish and Gentile believers (14).

This provides a backdrop for reading the letter. Paul spends the first three chapters showing that righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, neither in judgment of sin or in justification (Rom. 3:22). Abraham is the example of this faith for Gentiles as well as Jews (4). Everyone’s ancestry traces back to Adam, through whom sin has entered creation (5). The law does not make one righteous (7), and God’s election does not depend on ethnicity (9:6-13). Paul continues by explaining what life in the reunited congregation looks like (chaps. 12-14), and then he arrives at the culmination of his argument:

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the  Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy (Rom. 15:7-9a).

As he finishes his letter to the Romans, Paul urges the congregation to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned (Rom. 16:7). Lack of division was not enough. Earlier Paul told the church that:

Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:4-6).

After five years of separation, combined with the cultural and religious issues that would surface in any Jewish/Gentile congregation, the call for unity seems natural. However, the sum of Paul’s argument is much more than a desire that everyone get along. Paul will explain in other places that the mystery that was not made known to other generations has now been revealed, namely, that the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus (Eph. 3:5, 6). Jesus removed the division and Gentiles are included in the promises of God. For He is our peace, who has made the two one (Eph. 2:14) His purpose was to create in himself on new man out of the two, thus making peace. In addition, in this one body reconcile both of them to God through the cross (15b-16a). Writing to the Galatians Paul directs his comments to fellow Jewish believers in Christ when he says, He redeemed us in order that that blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:14a).

 Who Fulfills the Promise to Abraham and How?

For Paul the importance of unity in the body of Christ (1Cor. 1:10, 3:1, 11:18; Titus 3:10) is not pragmatic as much as it is essential. God’s desire was a new creation, one group united in their dependence on Christ. This group had one purpose, that is, to confirm promises made to the patriarchs. It was necessary that Messiah be Jewish in order that the Gentiles might participate in the promises of God.

The promise to Abram (Gen. 12:1-3) reaches its culmination when God explains the purpose of the blessings. Speaking to Abram, God promises blessing on Abram and his future family. Everything the proceeds the final clause happens so that all the misphahot of the earth will be “blessed through you”. In response to human pride and autonomy, as evidence by the Tower of Babel project in the proceeding chapter, God announces here His plan to bless the Abram, to bless Abram’s name, to bless all who bless Abram and ultimately, the world. The nation that God would create from a couple too old to bear children was to be the means by which the world receive blessing. The text does not explain how his family would accomplish the task. At this point God’s only requirement of Abram is that he leave his country and people. God acts.

God chose one man, who would be the father of one nation, which He would use to bless all the mishpahot of the world. The blessing the family would receive would be their salvation, but the purpose of their election as the founding family is for the benefit of all. The concept of election is too often viewed as a “who’s in, who’s out?” question. From the start, the purpose of God’s election was for the blessing of all. In NT terms, and key to the understanding of collective call, is that God chose the church to bless in order to bring the blessing of Abraham to the Gentiles (Gal. 3:28-29). In other words, collective call affirms the election of the church as the means of blessing for all the families of the Earth and not just the election of individuals who escape judgment.

As Christopher Wright points out the skeleton message of Genesis 12: 1 – 3 is “Go… and be a blessing…and all nations will be blessed through you.” This he states is a “great commission”. God’s plan to bless the entire Earth begins with the promise to create a family through whom the blessing will come. This family eventually became a great nation that God intended as His instrument of blessing. Ultimately, the promise extends to an international community of faith, which exists for the blessing of all the mishpahot. God cannot bless the church without blessing individuals, but He blesses the individuals because they together form the church.

What remains unclear is how God will bless the mishpahot. In the section that follows, God’s blessing and cursing are evident and specific. He curses one who has not even cursed Abram intentionally (12:10-20). He blesses Abram’s rescue of Lot and gives Abram military victory against great odds (14:13-16). In addition, the pagan priest Melchizedek is the first person in Scripture who blesses Abram directly (14:18-20).

Next, God clarifies the promises to Abram by speaking in terms that are more general.  God challenges Abram to believe in the promise. First, He explains that Abram will have a son, from whom the promised nation will come and upon whom the fulfillment of the blessing of the mishpahot depends (Gen. 15). Despite the delay and his old body, Abram believes God rather than circumstances. The proof of his faith was his obedience. Perhaps Abraham’s greatest test occurred when God told Abraham to offer his only son as a burnt offering. Abraham obeyed and God responded, “…because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you … and through your offspring all the nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Gen. 22:16b, 17a, 18). God tied the blessings of the nations to Abraham’s obedience.

At 99 years old and 24 years after receiving the promise for the first time, God tells Abram that the whole land of Canaan will belong to his descendants (Gen. 17). God then established circumcision as a sign that his descendants will participate in the covenant God instituted with Abraham. At this point, other than obediently practicing circumcision, it is not clear how the relationship between the promised progeny and the blessing of the nations are related. What is clear is that as God fulfills the promise to Abraham, it expands from a promise of personal blessing to a promise a blessed nation.

Abraham will only live once. How will God deliver on His promise to bless all mishpahot through Abram? The subject of God’s judgment of Sodom, begins with three men getting up to leave after having a meal with Abraham (Gen.18:1). The Lord seems to be talking with himself when He says, “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through him:

  1. For I have chosen him
  2. So that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord
  3. So that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what He has promised him (Gen 18:1

Christopher Wright comments, that Genesis 18: 19 is a remarkable text, for it puts together in a single sentence God’s choice of Abraham, God’s moral demand on Abraham’s community, and God’s promise to Abraham (which the immediately preceding verse 18 has spelled out yet again, that “all nations on earth will be blessed through him”). The church is heir to both the promise made to Abraham and to the responsibility laid on him.

The two purpose clauses are significant. The purpose of God’s election of Abraham was to create a community that knows and walks in the ways of the Lord. God miraculously developed this community so that the promise to bless the nations can be fulfilled. Without Abraham’s obedience, there could have been no fulfilled promise. Equally true is that without a community, discipled in the way of the Lord, there will be no fulfilled promise. Instruction in the way of the Lord is the condition for the formation of a nation that blesses the nations.

Individuals in the community may have any number of ministries, callings, or activities in which they participate, but ultimately any of these ministries and the purpose of election and of discipleship is to produce a community through which the nations can be blessed.

 Israel a Nation of Priests

After the Exodus, God spoke to Moses and told him that He intended for Israel to become a kingdom of priests …then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex. 19:5b, 6). One of the purposes of God’s election of Abraham was to produce a nation from his descendants. Israel was the fulfillment of that purpose. However, as in Abraham’s case, their election also had a purpose, which fit within the original plan to bless the nations. God elected Israel so that they would fulfill priestly responsibilities.  Priests serve as intermediaries between God and the people. Priests teach the decrees of the Lord (Lev. 10:11). Priests bless the camp of Israel (Num.6:22-26). God chimes in at the end of Aaron’s blessing and adds that He will bless Israel (6:27). Two questions remain, first if Israel is a nation of priests for whom were they supposed to intercede? Certainly, a priest class could intercede for non-priest Israelites. However, and especially in the context of what Moses repeatedly said to Pharaoh, “By this you will know that I am the Lord” (Ex. 7:17, see also 7:5; 8:10, 22; 9:14, 29; 10:2; 11:7; 14:4, 18) God called Israel to make the name of the Lord known to nations other than Israel. Second, what kind of priest were they to be? God separated the Levites from the other tribes. This suggests that they were a priestly class, who had the task of maintaining the cult. This was their special responsibility. Nothing in the early chapters of Numbers, which describe the organization and tribes of Israel, suggests that the other tribes had priestly responsibilities. Yet, God intended that all Israel be a kingdom of priests. Nothing in Ex. 19 suggests anything different. Whatever “a kingdom of priests” means, every Israelite had some kingdom responsibilities. God put some in positions of leadership. He gave others positions of lesser importance, but collectively they were all to represent God to the world and the world to God. Can an individual have a call of God to a specific ministry outside of the collective purpose of God?

It is important to emphasize that the main character in the biblical text is God himself. He reveals himself through the text. His mission to bless the nations began with a man, but Abram did not create the plan. Moses, Joshua and others are the people God used, but ultimately the story is not about them. Moses the man God called was a citizen of Israel the nation that God called.

Israel Accepts Election but Rejects Their Calling

Walter Kaiser points out that immediately after Moses went down to the people with the Ten Commandments, the people called to be a kingdom of priests respond in this way:

When the people saw the thunder and lightning, heard the trumpet, and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “speak to us yourself and we will listen. But not have God speak to us or we will die. Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, God has come to test you, so the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” The people remained at a distance while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. (Ex. 20:18-21).

The people’s rejection of their priestly responsibilities occurred almost immediately after God informed them of His purpose for them. The temptation for them, as well as many in the church, is to hand over their place in the collective call of God to a professional class who will deal with God and with people on a more intimate level.

Over time instead of a kingdom of priests, Israel evolved into a monarchy supported by a system of sacrifices, which the prophets continually challenged to return to God´s original intentions. The repeated cycles of rebellion, the appearance of a charismatic leader, and repentance followed by a return to rebellion that began with the time of the Judges, reaches its climax with the judgment of the North and the South by Assyria and Babylon.

What Will Become of the Nations?

Yet the hope of the fulfillment of the promise to Abram remained. There are hints of Gentile involvement in the promises of God throughout the OT. Scholars debate the identity of the servant in Isaiah’s servant passages. Sometimes the servant appears to be a person (42:1). When God says, “you are my servants” the servant must represent Israel and that God calls the servant to before Him no god was formed. (43:8-10). God will call the servant to testify to the nations that their gods are not God. Speaking directly to the servant (Is. 49:6) the Lord tells him, that you the servant will be a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the Earth.  Whether this servant is Messiah or the nation is not significant. Missio dei has not changed. He will bless all the families of the Earth. His servant will assume a priestly role. Mission can change if it is a human effort that we undertake. The mission of God is what He has purposed and accomplished from the creation to the new creation. Collective call means that mission is radically theocentric. Christopher Wright answering the question Whose mission is it anyway? Says, Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb (Rev. 7:10). Since the whole Bible is the story of how this God has brought about his salvation for the whole cosmos, we can affirm with equal validity that mission belongs to our God and to the Lamb. The mission of God is the prior reality. God does not have a mission for the church. He has a church for his mission. Others authors have argued for a missional hermeneutic. This paper adds to that idea that in all cases, whether it be Israel´s or the church´s involvement in missio dei, mission is a collaborative effort. God called a man in order to form a nation.

Paul and the Collective Call

Confronted by the Jews’ rejection of his message, the Apostle Paul quotes Is. 49:6 in Acts 13:37. He applies the singular “you” of Isaiah to the plural “us” (himself and his small band of church planters). Paul applied the title Servant to himself and his group. For Paul individual conversion formed the basis of community, the community itself was the goal.

The Epistle to the Romans and Collective Call

After his lengthy theological introduction (Rom. 1-11), Paul gives practical instruction. He begins by asking the congregation to present their bodies as living sacrifices. They are not to conform to the world but be transformed by the renewing of their minds. (12:1, 2).  What follows explains what transformation looks like. Notice that instead of the extreme individualism that often is a response to the Paul’s call to present, not conform and renew, here is a sample of his application of transformation,

Do not think of yourself more highly that you ought

We have different gifts

Love must be sincere

Hate what is evil

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love

Honor one another above yourselves

When something requires diligence, do not be lazy

Share with the saints in need

Practice hospitality

All the practical expressions of transformation and renewal relate to corporate life of the local congregation. The purpose of the theological introduction (cap. 1-11) was to establish the basis for their community.  However, that community life should not be divorced from what God had intended from the beginning. While church culture can explain this passage (Rom. 12) as a pattern for the individual discipleship of its members, both the prior and following context in Romans offers another explanation. As stated, the prior context offers the theological foundation for the establishment of the community. The following context reflects how Paul understands the church’s place in the world.  God calls the church collectively to be an alternative community that participates in missio dei. This was done not because God came up with a new idea when the OT mission failed. For Paul this local body of Christ was where the original plan to bless the mishpahot of the world took place in a first century Roman context.

Selected Bibliography

Carter, Warren. (2006). The Roman Empire and the NT: An Essential Guide. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Kaiser, Walter. (2000). Mission in the OT. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Wright, Christopher J. H. (2006) Story and Biblical Theology, in Craig Bartholomew, Mary Healy, Karl Möller and Robin Parry (eds.), “Out of Egypt”: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 144-171.

——— (2010). The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Biblical Theology for Life). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

 

3 Replies to “Biblical Theology of the Collective Call of the Church”

  1. Excellent thoughts, Paul. It would be interesting to discuss the implications of this train of thought in the missionary commissioning/assignment process. For example, if our calling is to a collective purpose, should we then be open to input along the way from pastors, missions boards, national churches, etc. regarding our final destination and task?

  2. I appreciate the way your article throws light upon the tension between God’s call to an individual and the collective call of the church to participate in Missio Dei. No doubt our Western culture struggles with this as we have been taught from the cradle to the grave that God has a wonderful plan FOR OUR LIFE…instead of a wonderful plan FOR THE CHURCH. Missionaries do not have to be afraid of submitting their divine call to church leaders and asking how that call fits into God’s plan for the church and our collective participation in Missio Dei.

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