The Christian who believes he belongs to God, and who wishes to belong to a particular people, must also believe he belongs to its church.
Here in Egypt, however, that is a bit of a complicated matter.
The church in general is multifaceted, diverse in styles, practices, doctrines, and denominations. While this has been rife with and deserving of criticism for its putting the lie to the claim of the universal unity of the church – “My prayer is that they may be one, as we are one” – it can also, with not too much difficulty, be interpreted as a strength. The Bible is a flexible document open to various interpretations, most especially in the area of church structure and practice. While the arguments for and against the claims of competing ecclesiology are valid and useful, in general each and every one can be both supported and exposed Biblically. This gives the church worldwide, as well as the local Christian, the freedom and ability to shape and to choose a community of worship as is fitting both with culture and with personality, if bound primarily in principle to the guidance of Scripture.
Belonging to a church, however, is at least somewhat an expression of exclusivity. While one may be open to the ideal of Christian unity, in practice, one must belong to a particular local extension of the universal church. It is there that Christian principles are lived and experienced in community, as a place both to serve and to be served, to gain and to give spiritual nourishment. In the messy realities of life together our ideals are put to the test, and while we are often found wanting, we also spiritually develop. This process is impossible apart from organic membership in a flawed, deficient, yet strangely God-inhabited body of believers.
It was in Jordan that we first experienced church in an Arabic context. Right down the street from where we lived, after a walk of only five minutes, was a vibrant congregation of Arab believers, in an Evangelical Free denomination that was largely modeled on Brethren polity and, at least for the weekly Sunday evening service of Breaking Bread, practice. I qualify about their practice because the main service on Thursday evening was patterned almost exactly on the typical order of worship in many evangelical churches in America. It was composed of popular worship songs, brief prayer, a sermon, and announcements. Except for the language, it was as if we were back home. Before going to Jordan we were excited to see how Christianity might be expressed in a different culture, but as the similarities were comforting, especially in helping us overcome the language difficulties, we quickly abandoned the quest for discovering Christian diversity.
That is not exactly true, though. On one hand, it could be said we never really adopted the quest. We attended once or twice the historic Catholic or Orthodox churches of Jordan, but found them, with apologies to our respected Catholic or Orthodox readers and friends, very dry and boring. Of course, language difficulties made the appreciation of them near impossible. But on the other hand, we did fully delve into the Brethren aspects of the church’s worship, and experienced therein a warm fellowship and weekly experience of Communion for which we have been grateful, and by which we have been affected. We thank God for our time of belonging to that body.
Here in Egypt we face again a similar situation. There are international churches in which the language of worship is English. There are evangelical churches which are fully Arab. There are Catholic and Brethren churches which have a long history. Yet it is clear that the dominant expression of Christianity in Egypt is Coptic Orthodoxy. Hopefully in our next post we can continue the story, not yet completed, of where we can find a church in which to belong…