We are praying and laboring for two conversions—one to Christ and one to the Church. One of the problems with American Christianity is that it conceives of Christian faith too narrowly. There is far too much room for one to be a “Christian” without being part of the Church. The notion of a private faith in Christ is not found in the New Testament. On the other hand, there are far too many “Christians” who go to a church but are not part of the Church. The fact of church “attendance” should not comfort a pastor’s soul that he is, in fact, shepherding the church. Now, by “church” I do not mean a building, denomination, or membership roll. Rather, I am thinking of the people of God who confess and submit to Jesus as Lord. In other words, to be a Christian is to be converted to the Head and to the Body, to embrace the people of Christ as you have embraced the Christ of the people.
However, we are not merely converted to Christ and consequently the Church. The reason that there is no place for private Christian faith, a faith that doesn’t embrace baptism into a body of believers is that there is one Lord. That Lord is not Jesus alone. 1 Corinthians 8:6 reads: “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” The oneness shared between the Father and Son is expressed in a common identity as Lord. This text is a Pauline reworking of the Great Shema, the Jewish confession and daily prayer that YHWH was one: “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one” (Deut 6:4). Here Paul in locating the Jesus in the identity of YHWH; they are both Lord. This shared lordship, witnessed to by the Holy Spirit in human hearts, is proof that we are converted, not to Christ but to the triune God—Father, Son, and Spirit. True conversion, then, produces a new creation that lives in communion with the Divine Community. We are converted to one Lord who is three. We are converted to Community. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the New Testament repeatedly conceives of true community as a salvation project, something that springs from faith in the one Lord. There are two conversions, one Lord. To quote Leslie Newbigin, “true conversion involves both a new creation from above, which is not merely an act of extension of the existing community, and also a relationship with the existing community of believers.” (The Finality of Christ, 107).
Church is not Optional
Therefore, church is not optional; they are essential. Fellowship, service, love, and mission with the family of God is critical to fruit-bearing faith. Just as salvation is a community project (we rely on others to persevere in our faith), so also community is a salvation project (the gospel of Christ converts us to a community gathered around a common Lord, common faith, and common baptism, Eph 4). In other words, the gospel produces two conversions. Conversion to the Lord and conversion to the Church, but Jesus alone is the atoning power for both, with his Spirit supplying all the grace needed to love, serve, and share life with an imperfect people saved by a perfect Christ.