Stretch Marks

The church Jesus founded, built by God (Mt.16:18), has grown, matured, and changed since its historic inception. Is it an institution? An organism? A hybrid of both? At the Nicene and Constantinople Councils, the church looked again at it meant to be the church, at what it meant to represent Christ in their context and culture, and how the church was essentially different than the non-church. In the formulation of the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, four historic marks were identified; the church is described as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. At the time of their formulation these marks were perhaps clear, even unchallenged as the church wrestled primarily with the boundaries of the nature of Christ and the Trinity, yet what these boundaries are to mean to us in our context remains awash in challenges. This is a cursory re-examination of the historic marks of the church in light of its contemporary challenges, many of which those at the Nicene and Constantinople Councils could never have anticipated in their bare-bones fourfold set of marks.

The Apostle Paul develops the theme of the church as Christ’s body, a body that is essentially one and particular (1 Cor 12:12-26). Likewise, Ephesians 4:4-6 emphasizes a church united, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Yet those who claim Christ in our day lack a great deal of credibility in claiming to be one church in light of Protestantism’s constant fracturing as seen in its ever more numerous denominations and non-denominations. On the other hand, unity does not require uniformity or unanimity to achieve God’s purposes; for God can use division where healthy multiplication remains to be sought. Despite its many challenges, there is a growing ecumenical movement seeking reconciliation. Despite the ecumenical movements’ theological hurdles and its various institutional incarnations, the church “militant” is becoming more globally connected than ever before. While the church of our day may have its own form of Dissociative Identity Disorder, effectually saying with its many divorces that, “Because [you are] not a hand, [you] do not belong to the body,” this does not, in a sense, make it true (1 Cor 12:15). It simply reflects the sinfulness of the church, a reality that also must be both acknowledged and dealt with.

At its best the church is holy, set apart for God’s purposes and obedient and responsive to God’s commands. At its core, holiness stems from love, for God is love (1 John 4:8). The church as a representation of the Trinity, and as the body of Christ, is called not only to return God’s love, but also to share God’s love with others; to love God, love others, and in doing so follow Jesus (Mt. 22:36-44). The church—like Jesus its founder, is called to love the world enough to do something about its plight (John 3:15-17). Holiness is more than a list of shoulds and should-nots—where one by legalistic zeal might embrace a checklist approach to life, it is a call to the highest good; the highest love one can attain with divine assistance, giving glory to God.

The main challenge to this vision of a holy church is the church’s own sinfulness, a sinfulness that is demonstrably real and must be accounted for. Luther’s understanding of the church as simul justus et peccatore, or “simultaneously justified and a sinner,” is helpful for describing the paradox of the church’s “now and not yet” struggle with sin. Luther’s perspective affirms the reality of the sin of the church, yet also allows that God’s sanctification is in fact at work and progressively enacting real change in the hearts, minds, and actions of those who allow the Holy Spirit’s work to continue unhindered in their lives; i.e. those who are working with and not against God’s plan of redemption for the world. The Holy Spirit, with and in spite of the sinfulness of humans, is leading the church to be remade from within into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ, presenting all that we are as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God as an act of love and worship (Rom 12:1-2).

Jesus’s church, while particular as “one,” is also catholic or universal. All believers are essentially part of the same body, that of Christ. Just as God as Trinity has many facets, so does the church. Though essentially one, the church is profoundly complex, encompassing the full range of those who have fellowship with Jesus. This fellowship is global consisting of numerous people, cultures and even ages. It consists of uniquely gifted people who each reflect God’s image, yet the church is more than the sum of its parts. Within the church’s unity is not uniformity, but room for the truest of freedoms, for in being remade in the image of its creator we are encouraged to co-create with God. The church reflects the character and nature of God from its smallest subunits to the local church as a congregation, and even the global context of the church at this moment. One of the greatest expressions of the catholicity of the church is the biblical metaphor of being the Bride of Christ (Eph 5:25-27; 2 Cor 11:2). In marriage, there is more at work than merely a covenant between two people, there is an expansion into all the familial possibilities and descendants that will arise from that covenant. Though this union is between the finite and the Infinite, the covenant is to all who participate in this human/divine romance; it also stretches beyond time extending to when the whole church becomes “triumphant” at the great wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-9).

The church is apostolic, both in the sense of being stewards of the apostle’s teachings, as well as in its mandate to be “sent forth.” The relationship between these two specific senses of “apostolic” do not stand in contrast to the other. Both are intimately connected, for in the great commission “go” and “teach” are a part of the same imperative command. The church—like Jesus its founder, is called to love the world enough to do something about its plight: it is to bear Christ’s message as witnesses to a watching world. As a sent people, we image (or in a sense incarnate) God just as Jesus did, by both a proclamation and demonstration of the gospel with our whole selves, wherever we are, and wherever we are called to go. Yet the greatest challenge to this is that the message of an incarnate God, suffering and dying on a cross, and sent on a divine mission of love, is a hard one to accept; especially as sin is increasingly viewed through a different lens in our post-scientific clinical psychology enamored world.

There are also great challenges arising from human evolution to a historical Adam, and thus it is hard for people who see the story of humanity’s fall as non-historical to accept the biblical rational for a savior. Moreover, the “now and not yet” quality of the church is not satisfying to some who see Jesus’ noble work as an enterprise that seemed to capture the hearts of many, yet still left sin both alive and well in the world, and alive and well in the church. One must humbly accept the reality Nietzsche pointed to as he wrote, “for me to believe in their Savior: his disciples would have to look more redeemed!”

Apostolic Revisited
In an American context where the “church hour” is one of many options in a sea of social activities and nonprofit organizations, what does it mean to be sent? In a time when people are more concerned about “this world” answers than afterlife concerns, what might the gospel look like contextualized for our time? I think the church should reevaluate its understanding of apostolicity in light of Pannenberg’s understanding of election as “for service,” not merely for salvation. A practical application oriented approach is needed which focuses on making a difference in this world, especially in seeking out the marginalized and oppressed, and expressing God’s love tangibly to a world that is hurting.

The work of witnessing is not merely the work of marketing the message of Jesus and the kingdom of God, but enacting it. I do not—like many social gospel or liberation theology proponents—believe this can be done without an explicitly connecting these humanitarian efforts to the glory and message of Jesus. This work cannot be done at the expense of the message of a God who loved the world enough to come and save it; it must be more than merely disseminating information and hoping for transformation. For the church to be sent, it needs to reevaluate where it is being sent, lest faith become a mere “Jesus stamp” on what we were already going to do anyway, like perhaps finding a comfortable life in the suburbs.

Psychology and social sciences are helpful, but the church needs to get past merely helping people feel relieved about their future experience in the coming afterlife. As Cavanaugh demonstrates, there are very real dangers inherent in seeing the church as a mere “shepherd of souls,” (relegated only to the realm of the spiritual) while leaving the physical world behind. Like God in the incarnation, the church needs to be sent—to be among the hurting, and get its hands dirty. We should fearlessly ask, if Jesus is our model, why do we look so tame? If this is supposed to be the Kingdom of God, why does it look so much more like the rotary club instead? Sin is a tangible thing, a universal experience. A big part of being “sent ones” is not sweeping sin under a big warm blanket of denial, or helping people find the right therapist, or feel better about or manage their sin—but to contextualize the hope we find in Jesus even there: to break free of the superficiality that prevents us from being transformed, and engage the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

The historic marks of the church are still with us, though challenged on nearly every side. The church is one, holy, catholic and apostolic in ways both old and new. We, in our day, may never get a chance to expand upon the historic marks of the church in a way that becomes widespread. Though we may desire to propose some more marks of the church, and in certain contexts would benefit from remix and reinterpretation, holding new global church councils to create new benchmarks or theological parameters seems beyond the realm of feasibility. Perhaps what is needed is even more grace and humility. Through the patchwork spider web of the church’s brokenness; its particularity and universality, its sinfulness and holiness, its mission and message; may we weigh all of it under “Paul’s rule” of glorying (boasting) in Christ.


About jtower11

Hi there! I am James Tower: A husband, father, dreamer, visionary, thinker, poet, mystic, metal-worker, and scholar. I have served College Avenue Friends since 2013. I like to describe the way God has been at work in my life by saying that "He has been creating in me the heart of a pastor, the mind of a scholar, and the zeal of a missionary." I have an extremely nontraditional background as Jesus has given me freedom from the slavery of addiction to drugs, and my journey to faith came later in life after an overdose in 2000. I graduated with a M. Div with an emphasis in biblical studies from George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland Oregon in 2016. I have a love for teaching and revealing the historical and doctrinal context from which the biblical text arises, and connecting its redemptive message to life today. Other interests include teaching a leadership class based on the Friends Testimonies at William Penn University, writing, and metalwork such as blacksmithing, a passion which I enjoy teaching others as a way of discipleship. View all posts by jtower11

6 responses to “Stretch Marks

  • quakerirene

    Friend, thee speaks truth. Blessings, Irene

    Sent from my iPad


  • Ellis Hein

    I will start by asking two questions and making one referral.
    1. What is the distinguishing mark between an association of religionists and the church?
    2. Can you explain John the Baptist’s statement, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world? Please include your definition of sin and how this taking away works.
    The referral is Stephen Crisps’ sermon 14, The Kingdom of God Within. This can be found at
    I am sorry if this sounds like an essay exam, but these are the areas I am concerned about in reading over your post. I could jump in and start writing, but it seems more productive to first ask questions and see what your thoughts are.

    • jtower11

      No one expects the Spanish Inquisition! Lol. Ok, well I will try to take a stab at your astoundingly complex questions with as much brevity as I can muster…

      1. What is the distinguishing mark between an association of religionists and the church?
      First off, I am not as interested as it seems you are in you in drawing hard and fast lines about who is really in the church, and who falsely claims to be in the church. I don’t want to accuse you of thinking in black and white, cult-like terms, because frankly, I don’t know you very well at all. But have you considered Jesus’ words found in Mt 13 and John 4, and how they might inform this thinking? See Matthew 13:24-30, I have a question about John 4 that will come later… I believe that in all people God is at work, even those who do not recognize it. The main mark of the church would be, in my mind, those who recognize God is at work, but not only that, who partner or “co-mission” with God in building his Kingdom here on earth as a response to Jesus’ call. I would ask a question of my own, what is the meaning of Jesus’ description of the gift of God in John 4, and especially how it relates to vs 23?

      2. Can you explain John the Baptist’s statement, “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world?

      Sin is a subversion of God’s good and beautiful purpose for humanity and creation. Paul described is as missing the mark, but that is only one aspect of it. In my understanding, sin is universally experienced… not just genetically as it were, but environmentally. Sin is also a falsehood, and a kind of addiction to falsehood. Jesus brings truth and light and life to a people who have gotten comfortable in the familiar insanity of lies, darkness and death. Paul puts it pretty clearly in 1 Cor 15:20ish…
      ”20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.”

      John the baptist heralded Jesus as the messiah, and foreshadowed his role as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. The book of Hebrews connects Jesus’ work of bringing salvation as him uniquely serving as both priest and sacrifice. In the Hebrew understanding of sin, there was a legal side of it for sure, but the overarching metaphor for sin was a stain. Isaiah 1:18, one of my favorite verses, says this:“Though your sins are like scarlet,they shall be as white as snow;though they are red as crimson,they shall be like wool.”

      Jesus came, like a solvent, to solve the problem of sin. He became sin, to wash away sin. He became human, though he was God, and identified with us in our weakness and brought to us salvation and everlasting life.W e could never have gotten the tar of sin off by ourselves, there wasn’t enough elbow grease in the world for that.But Jesus was strong enough.He came to set us free, that we would be made clean, holy, and unashamed.That we could stand in his presence as white as snow.

      Penal substitution, as we see in Romans, addresses the consequences of sin… and has its place as a useful metaphor, but the side of atonement we see in Hebrews addresses the relational damage of sin.It addresses the broken trust and relational vandalism involved in our sin, which quite literally, separates us from relationship with God. And to understand the atonement fully, I believe we need to see not just the penalty of sin, but the stain of sin, the shame of sin… the relational vandalism of sin… and how Jesus is the answer to those questions too.

      But to do that we must understand how this was addressed on the day of atonement, a special day when the high priest took two unblemished goats chosen by lot. One was set apart as a sacrifice, burned on the altar. The blood from this animal was brought into the holy of holies, the most holy place of the temple,and poured out on the ark of the covenant. Before the day of atonement, the top of the ark was the seat of God’s judgment against the people for their sin. But after, it was the seat of God’s mercy extended to the people anew. Though it is a weird symbol to us, the blood of the sacrifice represented life, which cleansed the relational damage of sin by washing work of a priest, which is the work of making the things of earth mirror the things of heaven. It is the work also, of intercession, bridging the gap between our hearts, and God’s heart. Adam was made human, and God put humans over everything in creation, but Adam stumbled into sin. He gave up his freedom and experienced shame. But Jesus became human, he took a step down from heaven, he lowered himself even below the stature of angels to the place where we live.He became like Adam, but was victorious where Adam had failed.

      Jesus identified with us, he experienced suffering, temptation, even death…for our sake.Through his mercy and faithful service—as both priest and sacrifice—we can experience atonement, “at-one-ment” with God. We can have relationship, the relationship the new covenant was meant to restore.

      Hebrews shows us the complexity and completeness of Christ’s sacrifice and also why it was necessary in the larger redemption story of the Bible. In the work of the cross, Jesus is the perfect sacrifice that ends the sacrificial system of Israel forever, he is the high priest who bridged earth and heaven, and later ascends to heaven to continually intercede at the right hand of the Father. As Fox described in his metaphor of going up through the flaming sword, Jesus came to bring us the freedom we had in the garden, where everything was under our feet, where we are allowed access to God, and have the freedom to stand before God holy and unashamed. He broke the power of death and the chains of fear enslaving us to sin’s death. God himself experienced temptation, that he might help those who are tempted. God himself revealed to the world the experience of freedom, that we too might experience the freedom we were created for.

      It is easy for some of us Protestants to think of atonement only in terms of Jesus doing time for our crime, but God offers so much more than a get out of jail free card. He offers us relationship. He offers us freedom. He takes away the stain, the shame, the pain. He tears down the works of the devil that hold us back. But he doesn’t do this so we can be free to do anything we want. He gives us this freedom that we could come closer to him. That we could serve him, and know his heart well enough to be priests for his sake. He does it so our lives can be reset to reflect his kingdom, that God’s will would be done in our hearts, in our lives, on earth as it is in heaven.

      In taking on the perspective God gives us found in the mystery of the gospel. In the midst of living toward that reality we find peace and hope and I dare say, freedom. And we find that freedom grow. Sin has left its marks on us, but through faith we live into a new reality, and like in the example with the mirror, the gospel reveals to us the shape of things to come. It reveals for us a healing and wholeness we can find nowhere else than learning to see ourselves as God sees us, looking at ourselves and our world through the eyes of faith, and living into the truth that has been revealed to us there about who we are, what Jesus has done for us,and how we should live in response.

      All of this comes through faith and repentance. The greek word usually translated repentance is metanoia, a word that has its origins as a money changing term. Jesus invites us to be a part of his kingdom, the kingdom of heaven. We must exchange the things we value in the kingdom of this world for the things that are valuable in God’s kingdom.That is for me the bottom line of repentance. At its core, repentance is a new direction in life, a direction of getting back on the right path with God. This is what Jesus offers, and it is of the utmost importance to all of humanity.

  • Ellis Hein

    Thank you, James, for your response. I do not know why you felt compelled to be brief. If we could sit together in the shade of the large pine tree in the meadow, I think we could have many hours of conversation on these topics. As it is, I shall endeavor to uphold my end through this medium. Though I am bound to leave out something important.

    Perhaps the best place to begin is my definition of sin as reflected in John the Baptist’s statement, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” We can look at sin as specific acts “commissions” or failures “omissions.” But that route is not helpful in this case. Rather what I find to be more useful is to see sin as being a state of death within where God rightfully expects there to be life. This condition is odious to him, a stench in his nostrils more offending than the smell of rotting flesh to us. This death came about and comes about by mankind listening to the voice of the serpent, the teacher of disobedience, rather than hearing the voice of God who would teach us to live. Thus God’s primary condition to the covenant people in Exodus is: “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6) The question, then, is “How are we to hear the voice of God?”

    The answer to that question and the antidote to this sin is the subject of Jesus’ statement to the Samaritan woman, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you…you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” This gift of God is the antidote to that uneraseable-by-man’s-efforts, inward death. On various occasions, God has outlined this gift: Deuteronomy 18:18-19 “I will raise up for them a prophet like you [Moses] from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not give heed to my words which he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.” And it is to this passage that the woman refers in John 4:25, “I know that Messiah is coming…when he comes he will tell us all things.” And Jesus identifies himself as that one. As to how that relates to verse 23, the passage concerning worshipping in spirit and truth, see my blog post on Spirituality, What Does That Mean? ( ). I think referring to that whole post is a better answer than trying to summarize something I can’t make a summary of.

    Continuing on with the “If you knew the gift of God…” passage: On the mount of transfiguration, God speaks saying, “This is my chosen one, hear him” again referring to the Deuteronomy 18 passage. In Deuteronomy 8:3, Moses reminds the children of Israel how they were humbled and made to be hungry and were fed with manna so that they should know first hand that “man does not live by bread alone. But by every word proceeding from the mouth of God shall man live.” Jesus picks up this theme in his confrontation with Satan in Matt. 4. You have quoted Isaiah 1:18, but left out the thing that makes those scarlet sins white as snow, “Come, let us reason together…” Then there is Ezekiel 37 and the valley of dry bones. The vision ends on this note: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off. Therefore prophesy and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people…And you shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and raise you from your graves…And I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it says the Lord.” Again, Jesus picked up this prophecy and reissued it in John 5:24-25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” And finally, John 6:63, “The flesh profits nothing, the words I have spoken/am speaking to you, these are spirit and these are life.”

    The antidote to death within is to hear the Word, Jesus Christ, as he speaks to us. The mark of the church is the presence of the risen Lord in its midst speaking life to it, ordering it in the kingdom of life, feeding it with life, washing it in life, empowering it to live in life. Members of this church are those who will hear together (instead of stopping their ears), obey together, and together suffer the consequences of dwelling in life amidst the kingdom of the dead. This church is not sinful for it lives in the virtue of the life and power of the one who has taken away their death, bringing them to the state beyond that of Adam and Eve before the fall to sit down in Christ Jesus who never fell. It is this fellowship of the living that makes an effective witness for God’s power rather than those who profess words that they can’t live up to.

    Concerning the parable of the tares. The field, which is polluted with tares, is the world, not the church. The good seed are the children of the kingdom of life while the tares are the children of the devil. This is the picture of the church, as I have described it above, living in a sinful world rather than that of a “sinfull church.” Those who are come to the church have experienced the harvest, they have been threshed, the wheat is separated from the chaff, the grain is gathered into the grainery and the chaff burned with unquenchable fire. They have been purged from tare seed. They have come to the end of the world and are brought into the kingdom of God. They, like me, have heard the voice of God saying, “There is a weed in your field” and have been made weed-free.

    So why bother about this anyway? Is it just my cult-like quirk of trying to draw hard and fast lines about who is and who is not in the church? If there is a power that can raise up a pure, undefiled people to stand as light and salt in this dark and unsavory world, then the news of this power is of vital importance to that body called Christendom, which you and others have identified as “sinful.” My purpose in raising this issue is to declare, by the power of God, that a “sinful church” is an abomination. The lines drawn are not my lines. My commission is to point them out and to proclaim the power and life of God, the virtue of which gathers a purified, holy people who live by the Word of life spoken within and among them. The organization which lives by and for the performance of ritual, no matter how beautiful, no matter how meaningful, no matter that they claim the name of Christian; such an organization does not live by the power to make them a living people. This is a state that George Fox referred to as “the apostacy since the apostles’ days” for they have gone from the power of God.

  • The Nature of the True Church | This was the true light… (John 1:9)

    […] of the material of this post comes from a comment I left on James Tower’s blog post, Stretch Marks. Please read the original post if you want the full context. In that post James raises the question […]

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