So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19–21)
A woman (not a Christian yet) had been in Africa. She told me that the local believers spoke of missionaries coming, starting churches, but then complained because the missionaries later left them. In the past, when missionaries stayed to run things they were criticized of colonialism. Now, when the indigenous church is established and they leave, they are accused of abandonment.
While we are to care for one another, I told her that it was important that these new churches learn to rely on the Lord, not on the resources of missionaries, which often happens in poorer countries. I also said that those churches must develop so they fit into their own culture. If missionaries lead the church that will not easily happen. She was still skeptical.
I could have told her that a new church is like a child. Eventually it must stand on its own, and the people who were involved it is growth need to let it go, trusting Jesus Christ to build it and care for it. While the ‘parents’ must not be heartless and totally abandon it, they need to be aware of the fine line between trusting the Lord and being controllers.
Jesus exemplifies this. He began a church, then left, at least physically. Luke, who wrote the Gospel that bears his name, also wrote Acts, the story of the early church. He begins with these words . . .
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen . . . (Acts 1:1–5)
He said, “all that Jesus began . . .” implying that there was more work to do and more truth to teach. Jesus was not done yet. This is true in the lives of individual Christians and true of the Body of believers known as the church. He will finish the job He started.
One note: I tend to read the New Testament very personally, but need to remember that most instances of the word “you” use the plural version. God is speaking to us, not just me. His promises are for the Body of believers, not just individuals.
Paul wrote to the Christians at Philippi stating his confidence that God is capable of taking care of them: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” (Philippians 1:6–7)
He knew these people were Christians whose hearts were with him in his situation, but also shared the grace of God that he shared. For that reason, he could trust them to the Lord knowing that the Lord would bring them (plural) to maturity.
The writer of Hebrews encourages believers who are in a tough and touchy situation. They were pressured from the outside to the point they wanted to leave the faith, but he tells them Christ is better than anything they could run back to. He also points to the many faith-filled people who went before them. Since this “great a cloud of witnesses” surrounds them, he encourages them to “also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
We hold hands in this race because we run it with each other, but that is not the point made by the author of Hebrews. Instead, he tells the church to “look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” (Hebrews 12:1–3)
From all this, I see for myself a lesson: while relying on one another is important, my first priority is to rely on Jesus Christ. It is His church and He will take care of it, all of it. Whatever my role is, He is in charge and can be trusted to build the church and finish what He started in it, and in me.