Fighting for Corporate Identity
Paul's letter to the Philippian church was written from a Roman prison, near the end of his term there. Acts 21 through 28 show how he was put in this position: going into Jerusalem, stirring things up, going before councils, getting beat up, going before Felix at Caesarea, being left in prison, appealing to Caesar, and then being shipwrecked on his way to Rome. There's more detail in these passages, but in my desire to be concise in laying a foundation, going before Rome and witnessing to his faith along the way was a part of what Jesus had in mind for Paul (Acts 23:11). Paul's suffering throughout this journey bore witness to "The Way" throughout the region.
This epistle to the Philippian church is relatively informal, a thank you letter to the body for sending their pastor Epaphroditus with a life-sustaining gift. Death was staring him in the face, and the gift given would help him continue in the midst of great struggle. As he struggles, Paul shows how understanding who he is in Christ allows him to rejoice and be content regardless of circumstance. His letter is that of encouragement to the local church calling them to rejoice in the midst of trials.
By bringing this gift to Paul, Epaphroditus was making a public proclamation of support for Paul who was in this mess due to his faith. It was a risky endeavor for this faithful pastor from Philippi. But he did it, as part of the body of Christ and a brother at war alongside Paul, he took the risk to bless his friend and ministry partner. That's what the Body does, and it's beautiful (Matt. 25:36).
As Paul was writing, the Philippian church was enduring some form of persecution for their faith. In chapter 1, verse 28, Paul encourages them not to be frightened by anything from their opponents. He goes on to point out that their faith in Christ and suffering are not mutually exclusive. They go hand in hand. But it's also something they face together, as a church community united by their faith in Christ.
Paul addresses them as a group, and their corporate identity does include conflict (Phil. 1:30). This conflict is spiritual and cosmic as Ephesians 6:12 lays out pretty clearly. The Philippian church was in the midst of spiritual conflict, as we are today. The battles we fight individually and corporately are the same that Paul and Ephaphroditus fought back in the day. As Paul was experiencing in Rome, the spiritual conflicts being fought in Philippi included real, tangible difficulties that required shepherding by the founder of their church, even if he was locked up.
The reality is that part of our corporate identity as the body of Christ is that of conflict, battling against the spiritual and cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the schemes of the devil. We fight individually, warring against our flesh and our old nature, but we also fight as a group of people. We help, encourage, and shepherd one another toward maturity in the faith which results in personal holiness and a shared wartime mentality. We fight for our individual identities as we understand the nature of the corporate war we participate in.
I'm afraid this collaborative attitude has been pushed to the background, which is natural as we still battle the flesh, pushing and pulling our hearts in every direction but that of deeper faith and reliance upon God. We forget we're at war as a people as our flesh lulls us to sleep. Ironically, we battle the flesh but in doing so, fail to see the battle we fight alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ.
John Piper sees it play out in his life this way:
"I am wired by nature to love the same toys that the world loves. I start to fit in. I start to love what others love. I start to call the earth 'home.' Before you know it, I am calling luxuries 'needs' and using my money just the way unbelievers do. I begin to forget the war. I don't think much about people perishing. Missions and unreached peoples drop out of my mind. I stop dreaming of the triumphs of grace. I sink into a secular mind-set that looks first to what man can do, not what God can do. It is a terrible sickness. And I thank God for those who have forced me again and again toward a wartime mind-set."1
My prayer for our church and for our Missional Communities (MC's) is that we do what Piper is so grateful for, forcing each other toward a united, wartime attitude.
And this is not foreign to Scripture, there's plenty of explicit and implicit allusions to living life as a follower of Christ as part of a spiritual war. An explicit reference would be Ephesians 6:10-20, Paul's exhortation to put on the Armor of God. An implicit reference would be Peter's definition of the body as a "holy nation" in 1 Peter 2:9 where he's encouraging his audience as a group to live in a way amongst the lost where they can't help but see something different about them.
We are at war, individually and corporately. My conviction from what I've seen in our church and in our MC's is that we're missing 50% of this truth. We're great at caring for one another as individuals, for fighting for each other's individual identities in Christ. That's a huge praise! Thanks be to God alone for what He's done and what He's doing in our body at River City Church!
However, we need to affirm and highlight our corporate identity as a "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession…" (1 Pet. 2:9).
Back to Philippians 1.
As Paul wrestles with whether to live or not to live, to be at home with the Lord or to remain, he shares his conviction in trusting God's purposes in keeping him alive. Verses 19-26 show how he sees his role, even as he ministers from prison, in how he relates to the Philippian church. While alive, he exists in part to encourage them toward "progress and joy in the faith" that they may have "ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus."
The phrase in verse 27 "let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ" is directed at them as a group. We know that from the corporate language used throughout the epistle, but also the Greek phrasing. The translation of "let your manner of life" entails conducting oneself with proper reference to one's obligations in relationship to others, as part of some community.2
His desire in shepherding them toward progress and joy in Christ is to hear that they're "standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything" by their opponents (1:27-28). Taking it further, Paul shows how their faith and suffering for it go hand-in-hand (1:29), and that they're engaged in conflict as a group, as a body (1:30).
Our corporate identity involves warfare and conflict. We have a clear mission from our Commander in Chief to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, teaching them to obey all He's commanded, and remembering He's with us to the end of the age and has all authority on heaven and earth (Matt. 28:18-20). When Jesus gave us the command to go, there was no way that the 12 disciples could go to all nations, but that did not mean they disregard this commission they'd just received. What, then, do we make of Matthew 28:18-20?
We've taken this charge from our King and used it as a church to define our mission. River City Church exists to make disciples of Jesus who make disciples of Jesus through living out the gospel. Clear, but my conviction is we can make it even more specific when we take this to our Missional Communities. We need to understand our individual identities in Christ, but we also need to be clear about the nature of our identity as groups.
As we live out this corporate identity as groups at war, we need defined missions for our MC's. Lord willing, this will help in various key areas:
- Keeping the wartime mentality front of mind.
- Creating ownership in those who attend our MC's.
- Bringing a focused direction to our ongoing discipleship and pastoral care.
- Allowing for the various giftings in the groups to be leveraged.
- Confronting the consumeristic mentality of many we'll be ministering to.
My heart is to glorify God, through sharing the Good News of what He's done in Christ to reconcile a people to himself, whether I'm telling it to someone who's never heard it or a seasoned saint. I love the Body of Christ. She's beautiful because She's covered in the cleansing, pure blood of Jesus. I love the Church, because the very fact that there is a Church shows the gracious, merciful, loving, forgiving character of our God. I want to spend all of my life fighting for the individual and corporate identities of the Body. At the same time, I need people in my life to fight for my identity in Christ. I need others to point me toward a wartime mentality that will sustain me in the mission God has for my life, empowered by His Spirit.
As we fight individually, we fight for one another. Robert Murray McCheyne said it well, "The greatest need of my people is my personal holiness." As we put on the Armor of God as individuals and lock arms, striving side-by-side for faith in the gospel, as a holy nation, with the message of reconciliation, we will see disciples made! As we believe the truth individually, we will join together missionally with brothers and sisters in Christ for the glory of God. Our individual holiness is tied directly to our corporate holiness, and it's our corporate holiness that will be the ultimate apologetic for the gospel (John 13:35, 2 Cor. 10:3-5, 1 Pet. 2:11-12, 1 Tim. 4:6-16).
My conviction is that this happens in the context of the local church, under the guidance and leadership of a plurality of elders, appropriately facilitating the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper, shepherding people toward maturity in the faith. The vehicle in which this takes place at River City Church is our Missional Communities. Therefore, each MC should then err on the side of specificity when it comes to why they exist.
What am I getting at?
Tangibly, this starts with having a specific and defined mission statement for each Missional Community. One sentence, that's all I'm asking for. Where has God by His Spirit directed your group to make disciples? Maybe a better question to ask first is whether or not you and those in your group are passionate about making disciples? I'm not talking about passion about evangelism alone, but about seeing people come to faith (Point A), see them growing in their faith over the course of their life, and then dying (Point B) with an abiding, tested faith that trusts God's promise that there's no condemnation as they go to face their God (Rom. 8:1).
That will come as we disciple one another on our God-given mission, but it must be in place as we shepherd our groups in this direction. Without a specific, defined mission, disciples won't have the opportunity to see the joy and grace of playing a part in God's work. That love for disciple-making will come as they see crazy things happen on the battlefield. As they're called to this lifestyle, they'll be equipped to play their part, to fight in the manner they were made for.
We go out as a group of people, leveraging the various gifts given by God to live out his mission. There are apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers given us by God to actually live this out (Eph. 4:11-16). Living, ministering, seeing people grow in their faith is a community project, not individual endeavors as no one is given all five of the roles listed in Ephesians 4.
The local church is where we seek to draw people who haven't placed their faith in Jesus, we baptize people into the family of God as they place their faith in Christ. This happens as we live out the defined mission of our groups. This also happens in our individual lives, in our neighborhood, at work, or school, in our families. We do not abandon the mission fields God has placed us in where we fulfill economic responsibility (fancy way of saying where we work) or to grow in knowledge to help fulfill our economic responsibility well (a.k.a. school). In these contexts, we seek to see people come to love the body of Christ as they place their faith in him. We invite these people into our communities where they'll experience transformation and have the opportunity to utilize their God-given gifts.
Our corporate identity as God's people, His possession, needs to be highlighted in our groups. I'm excited to see how one concise statement can force people into a wartime mentality, create ownership, focus our study and care, utilize gifts, and confront consumerism.
Disciple Training vs. Disciple Making
Therefore, Missional Communities at River City Church are both discipleship training as well as ultimate discipleship. It's not only the means to an end, but the end. It's where we live out our corporate identity, growing in our ability to make disciples, while actually being discipled. It's a both/and proposition, not just one or the other. We train each other in disciple-making and in so doing, disciple one another! As we exhort and encourage one another to believe the truth (Heb. 3:12-15), love for Jesus and what He's done increases and the message of reconciliation is more easily shared. Fear of man melts, bold gospel witnessing ensues, and people are brought into the family of God, being transformed from one degree of glory to the next by the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).
My prayer is that as we develop our concise mission statements group-by-group, we can look at our MC's and see them "standing firm in one spirit, striving side-by-side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything" by those hostile toward the faith (Phil. 1:27-28). God has people in this city who are His (Acts 18:10)! He's called us and is equipping us to be intentional in how we live as missionaries here in Fargo/Moorhead/West Fargo. Do we trust him in this? Are we putting ourselves in a position where we can see God at work, building his kingdom?
Join me in this prayer, seeking guidance from the Spirit as we seek to bear witness to the finished work of Christ, all to the glory of God alone.
1. Piper, John. Don't Waste Your Life. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003. Pg 111.
2. Louw Nida 41.34