I used to pastor a small, rural church in another denomination. There was a lot I liked about the work. We had people come to Christ and lives were changed. I learned the value of repentance and the value of community. On the other hand, we were a highly autonomous congregation that had little if anything to do with any other church, foreign or domestic. That bothered me. It started getting under my skin when I started preaching through the Book of Revelation. To be honest, I really did not want to do it. Any book that Calvin refused to write a commentary about is too much book for me. It was just that several people in the congregation told me that they would NEVER EVER read it, since it had all of those strange images and codes involved. Well, I got angry. The Hal Lindseys and Tim LaHayes had convinced us that the book was all about obscure references to the future and therefore of little value now. I had to see for myself. What I found was not what I expected. I found a book written to church people about the church going through tough times.
Revelation is, if you can get over the confusing word-pictures a very clear book that is meant to exhort and encourage the church to remain a faithful witness to the world that wishes to hate and persecute it. In other words, it is the ultimate missional book. It is about suffering, despised churches, caught in the vise formed by Rome and recalcitrant Judaism, being exhorted to remain faithful (chapters 2-3). We are introduced to martyrs that want to know how long they have to keep this up (ch 6). They incidentally are told that they have to wait until enough people die before the Lord returns as a savior and judge of the earth. Then we find out that these people are not scattered rarities in the church-they are the norm. They are actually part of an army of faithful witnesses that herald the lordship of the Lamb over the world (ch 7).
Look at the 144,000 for example. It shows us three things. First, if you look at it carefully, you see that it is a representation of the entire believing church that is universal in scope and spans both the Old and New Testaments. Second, the form of the list is the same as an Old Testament census. The thing to remember about that is that it was never simply a list of people. In the Old Testament, it was an order of battle. Israel was never just a people group. It was an army. That brings me to a third point. In Revelation, we are introduced to the picture of a visible, connected church that serves the commander of the hosts, the Risen Lamb, Christ, the Son of God by witnessing to his resurrected Lordship to the world in an uncompromising way, even to the point of death.
There is a lot here. We can see, for example, the core identity of martyrdom to the believers. Remember what “martyr” means. It means uncompromising witness. All believers, not just people in China or Bangladesh are martyrs in this sense. It is our corporate identity. Second, if that is true, then mission, the task of witnessing to Christ to the world is not just something we do . It is at the root of what we are. Third, everyone is part of one army, not separate armies. In other words, there are real, physical, organic ties between believing martyr-witnesses in one place and those in another. Additionally, it implies that if there are many churches that are part of the one Church, they should be connected in mission somehow. Unity was never meant to be a concept that is only consummated in heaven. It is for the here and now.
It was hard to think of anything more practical as I labored in my own given field. At the same time, I had to rethink my own church identity. I belonged to a church that seemed to really contradict Revelation in so many ways. We were an autonomous entity, disconnected in any meaningful way from the rest of the body of Christ. Could I continue to work within a church that seemed so out of variance with what I was confronting in Scripture? To make a long story short, I found myself in an office with Frank Barker becoming convinced that I should be a Presbyterian teaching elder. Much of my motivation for the move entailed embracing the vision for the church given by Presbyterianism, e.g. its connectionalism and interdependence. Finally, I could say, after having been raised Greek Orthodox, a church that claimed universality, that I could be part of a universal, visible, connected evangelical church. What good news, to find home, at least good news to a point. There is another problem raised by Revelation that I am confronting now. Here it is.
When I think about all of that, I realize that we often have a huge disconnect between the ideals of connectionalism and interdependence found within our own church tradition and the way we think about missions. Let me give you a couple of examples. First, every church I know supports the idea of missions, but what exactly does that mean? I think that in many if not most cases it means supporting missionaries that do missional things (whatever they are) in places beyond the access of the local church. There is, in this way, no real connection between the local church and overseas mission fields or believing communities. Where then is the oneness of the church? Remember, there is no parachurch in Revelation. There is only church and there are only churches. Another way to say it is that mission is to be done church-to-church.
If that is true, then missionaries themselves are actually churchmen and women that serve as liaisons between churches. Second, this implies something else about our relationships. At present, our highest aspiration is often to see independent churches flourish around the world that carry the gospel. That is good, but not good enough. Revelation also does not posit independence as an endgame. We are on mission together. In chapter 15, we see the entire church at the edge of a glass sea, in a way that is reminiscent of the Israelites waiting at the Red Sea for God to act and deliver them. They are on a journey together. So should we be. Being free of financial coercion from Western organizations or churches has become our endgame, but it cannot be. The goal is not independence or even codependence but true interdependence. We were meant all along to be one, interdependent church on mission.
Therefore, we need to work at developing two things. First, we need strong, active partnerships between groups of churches in America and groups of churches overseas that is facilitated by missionary liaisons. Second, we need to use these to develop connections between the believing communities in both locations that enhances mission in both places. In other words, the churches in America should partner in work that builds up the missional work in Bangladesh and America and so should the church in Bangladesh. We need a Revelational church, not autonomous ones.