I stumbled on some college records months ago while searching for a still-elusive reference. Among the odd collection of term papers and graded exams I had kept for a future ego boost, I found a sheaf of handwritten summaries for all the epistles of Paul.
I grimaced again, remembering how I had detested such assignments. They were a kind of roll-call duty: along with making your bed and brushing your teeth, could you prove that you had actually read all the Pauline letters for which the class was named?
Time has a way of distancing you from even things you once created, and I stared at the college-ruled sheets written in a rolling script I now barely recognize as mine. But it wasn’t only the handwriting that had changed.
Like many other young Adventists of that era, I read Paul’s letters for their truth—for their sublime, unequaled expressions of the way God saves broken humanity. My summaries revealed that I thought Paul was all about ideas—great ideas, grand ideas. In an Adventist college town officially wagging its finger at those who frequented movie theaters or listened to Neil Diamond, there was a near-euphoric promise in Jesus’ famous declaration: “And you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
The latter portions of each Pauline letter—the passages in which he shows what truth means to the community he called “the body of Christ”—these I summarily dismissed with phrases like, “Again, Paul urges the believers in Philippi to get along with each other, and wishes them well.” My teacher hadn’t objected to my curt abbreviation of Paul’s counsels, for he was also a man of ideas.
But 40 years and 14 lived-in congregations later, I now read the Scriptures and the body of Christ differently. I’m no less enamored of Paul’s great ideas than I was at 19, nor any less convinced of their inspired truthfulness. Now, however, I’m quite sure—convinced, in fact—that Paul wrote his letters for the church, and not primarily to edify solitary believers.
It was the church, a formed and yet still-forming community of disparate believers, that was the object of Paul’s inspired thinking. Justification by grace through faith will certainly warm a hermit’s heart, but it wasn’t to hermits Paul wrote. Salvation through the atoning blood of Jesus will rescue any sinner, but God’s higher goal was to create a loved and loving community where the forgiveness offered by Jesus becomes the forgiveness we offer each other.
And lest we miss the connection between divine truth and the church that Jesus founded, Paul offers this: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (2 Cor. 5:19, 20, NRSV).¹ It was the us, not just the me, for whom salvation was enacted. Read Paul’s description of the goal: “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15, 16).
It’s time—past time—that we Adventists come to value the church formed by the truth as much as we value the truth itself. A candid look at our present circumstances reveals that we frequently distract ourselves with visions of correctness and differentiation from the others God has called into His end-time remnant. Along with sad Elijah, we need reminding that there’s a larger, vital community to which we belong: “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). We were meant to live together, weep together, struggle together, and, ultimately, triumph together.
“Enfeebled and defective as it may appear, the church is the one object upon which God bestows in a special sense His supreme regard. It is the theater of His grace, in which He delights to reveal His power to transform hearts.”2