A Google search of “together” yields 1.93 billion results. Everything from definitions to musical lyrics to social activity to global projects to urban building initiatives bandy the word “together.” With the desire to popularize an activity or idea, “together” provides a warm feeling, a united course, an attempt to coalesce humanity toward a particular goal.
We were led to believe last year that the Egyptian people were together when they rallied against Hosni Mubarak and elected Mohamed Morsi as their president. But evidently the togetherness had little substance as a year later the Egyptian people came together again to remove Morsi from office! “Together” seems to wear thin on political and social ideologies.
Christians readily use the term “together” as well. One might think of the theological initiative by the late Richard John Neuhaus and late Chuck Colson, Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) that attempted to find a common togetherness when it came to the way that these distinct traditions viewed justification in Christ in order to give a more unified approach to global evangelization. After the dust of its publication and discussion settled (at least somewhat settled!), the consensus seemed to be: Evangelicals and Catholics are not together on justification!
So why do we use such a freighted word in our church purpose statement? Realistically, can it be said that a congregation of sinners—albeit saved by grace—can ever be perfectly together in theology and practice?
While dropping the adjective “perfectly”—and reserving that for when we see Christ face-to-face—and allowing for the reality of sinful people saved by grace, united by the Holy Spirit, and in covenant with one another, yes, “together” remains an apt description of redeemed people joined with a uniting passion and bond for ministry and missions.
That has been the subject of this present blog series as Chris Wilbanks, Matt Sliger, and I discuss our congregation’s purpose statement: “We purpose to make disciples who joyfully serve Christ together in ministry and missions.” Remove “together” and the whole aim of congregational ministry and mission vanishes. Why is “together” so essential to what we do and why we exist as a church?
The gospel brings people together “in Christ.” Consider Paul’s repeated use of “in Christ” and “in Him” when addressing the Ephesian church. What Christ accomplished in the Ephesian Christians through His redemptive death, He did as not only an act that granted “the forgiveness of our trespasses,” but also to unite the church in all the spiritual blessings found in Christ Jesus (Eph 1:3–14). In doing so, Martyn Lloyd-Jones comments, the Church serves as the supreme illustration “of God’s gigantic, cosmic plan to restore harmony in every realm and sphere” [God’s Ultimate Purpose: An Exposition of Ephesians 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978), 209]. We make an interpretive blunder when we think of this epistle as focused on the individual Christians in Ephesus (and in Memphis or Rio or Nairobi). Paul’s repetitive use of the plural “you” makes it clear that he targets the whole congregation “together”—in harmony—when explaining the implication of Christ’s redemptive work throughout this epistle.
I realize that this corporate concept of the outworking of Jesus Christ’s redemptive work goes against the grain of western individualism. That ideology arose as the particularly dominant way of thinking during the seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenment. It may have been enlightening but it was not biblical! Nor is it Christian to maintain such strident individualism. For instance, even a brief look at the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20) refutes the individualism that has saturated American churches to their detriment and to the loss of effective ministry and mission, resulting in reliance on manipulation and techniques rather than the power of the gospel. We are tasked with making “disciples” (plural), baptizing them—not in solitude but with reference to a corporate body—with whom they will be regularly taught together the full implications of living out the gospel.
Additionally, Jesus trained the Twelve and the Seventy together before sending them out on specific tasks of ministry and mission. Aside from Philip’s remarkable ministry in Samaria—which was not solo for long—the rest of Acts exemplifies corporate involvement in the spreading work of the early churches. The church at Joppa sent out a team with Peter when he preached Christ to the Gentiles in Caesarea (Acts 10:23, “. . . and some of the brethren from Joppa accompanied him,” with brethren as Luke’s common way of referring to the church). The Jerusalem church heard what was happening in Antioch and so sent out Barnabas who looped Paul into the work in that new church (Acts 11:19–26). That young church, in turn, sent out Paul and Barnabas (and likely others) on the first missionary journey, and who returned to give report to their sending church upon completing their labors (Acts 13–14). Such sending suggests togetherness in a level of training, financial and material support, prayers, encouragement, and unity for ministry and missions. In other words, while some were involved in training, others in providing material support, and some were sent, all were joyfully serving Christ together in ministry and missions!
Together is certainly not a new idea but an old one, and a necessary one according to Jesus in the high priestly prayer of John 17, if the church would function the way that He intended. So we’re glad to make disciples who joyfully serve Christ together in ministry and missions. That’s the way that Jesus designed the church.