Doctrine of God
'Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty'
Why your Church needs the Trinity
- Sam Alberry is Associate Minister at St Mary's Church, Maidenhead, UK, and author of 'Lifted: Experiencing the Resurrection Life.' View all resources by Sam Allberry
Theology Network heartily recommends Sam Allberry's new book on the trinity, Connected: Living in the Light of the Trinity.
Buy yourself a copy here.
Some things naturally belong together: Laurel and Hardy; Morecombe and Wise; bananas and custard; Star Trek and singleness. Most of us would probably not add to this list ‘Church and Doctrine of the Trinity.’ These two, while not being complete strangers, would not naturally seem to be best buds. Church is about people, practical activity and Christian living. The doctrine of the Trinity seems not only about theology, but about that side of theology which has very little to do with everyday realities like the church.
Such thinking, to borrow from Edmund Blackadder, could hardly be wronger. It is by understanding herself in the light of the Trinity that the church fulfills her calling. The church is a visual aid of the Trinity. Something of God’s three-in-oneness is reflected in the life of his people.
‘The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.’ (1 Corinthians 12:12–13)
The church is one unit, a single entity. Its members may be extraordinarily diverse. Paul references Jews and Greeks, slave and free: ethnicity and economic status being just two axes along which we can often find huge variety. Yet there is an overriding unity.
Paul is clear where this unity has come from. Paul says that the Holy Spirit has baptized fellow-Christians into the same body. We have all been ‘given the one Spirit to drink’. We have all been baptized into this Spirit, united to him in a way which unites us to one another so profoundly that we are now parts of the same body. And sharing one body, we are to share the same mindset:
‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped, but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.’ (Philippians 2:5–7)
That mark of a healthy human relationship – being other-person-centred – is especially to characterize the relationships of the local church. We above all should most reflect this principle, for we above all have been exposed to the radical self-sacrifice of Christ. If he is truly our example and goal, then his attitude of service will become ours too. We will increasingly be learning to look to ‘the interests of others’ (verse 4), to be doing ‘nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit’ (verse 3).
Christ expressed his unity with the Father by not living for himself and his own interests, but instead by committing himself to the interests of others – chief among them the Father’s glory (Philippians 2:11). To the extent that we follow this pattern, we reflect something of the dynamic of the Trinity.
‘There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men’ (1 Corinthians 12:4–6).
Paul talks about the various kinds of activity the parts will undertake. There are different kinds of gifts, of service, of working. We will not all share the same spiritual vocation. We are not identical cogs in the same machine. And overriding this variety is the one God who enables us all. There is the same Spirit, the same Lord, the same God. ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ are favourite expressions of Paul’s for God the Father and God the Son: Paul is talking here about the Trinity.
Paul is not saying that ‘gifts’ are exclusively the department of the Spirit, ‘forms of service’ the department only of the Son, and ‘different workings’ the preserve of just the Father, as if each were an entirely separate concern and overseen in isolation by a different person of the Trinity. His point, rather, is this: behind the unity-in-diversity of the church is its heavenly analogue, the unity-in-diversity of the Trinity. The operational diversity of the church is a reflection of the Trinity.
Christians, then, are given a variety of ways to be a blessing and service to the body, the church. No Christian is an exception to this: ‘Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good’ (1 Corinthians 12:7).
There is a whole range of ways in which we can be of service to one another. Paul lists some of them in the next few verses:
‘To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues.’ (1 Corinthians 12: 8–10)
In other parts of the New Testament we find other lists that are slightly different from this one. Other gifts not mentioned here are mentioned there, while others mentioned here are excluded there. So what we have here is not the spiritual equivalent of a set menu, but a sample of just some of the gifts. The list is not exhaustive, but representative. Paul’s point is not to provide a checklist, but to illustrate diversity. One body, many parts; one church, different gifts. In the verses that follow, Paul spells out two significant implications of this.
Don’t look down on your gifts
The church is a mix. Far from this being accidental, God has intended it to be this way. We are meant to be different from one another. But wherever there is a mix, there will always be some who feel inferior.
‘If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body’ (1 Corinthians 12:15).
The poor old foot could easily feel inferior, especially when compared to the hand. It might feel less useful, less ‘handy’ (sorry). There is loads a hand can do that a foot can’t. In writing this article it is my hands that have done the key work, not my feet. The hands can pick up books, turn pages, take notes and type words onto the screen. My feet may as well have been on sabbatical. But the foot is no less part of the body. It was my feet that got me to the study, that took me to the bookshelf and conveyed me back to my desk. They were not as uninvolved as we might first think. Trying to do the whole enterprise without the use of my feet would have been a very different undertaking.
And that’s the lesson. It is easy to look at the more obvious gifts and to feel useless for not possessing them, especially in a church context. We find ourselves saying, ‘I’m not musical. I don’t play piano or guitar. I can’t even find a note on a kazoo.’ Or, ‘I’m not someone who knows what to say when someone is in distress.’ Or, ‘I’m not good in front of a crowd: I could never stand up in front of the church and give a reading or say a prayer.’ Or, ‘I’m not good with words, I’m no good at expressing myself. Things never come out the right way and it always leads to a muddle. I could never give a talk or lead a Bible study.’ And in each case we easily conclude, ‘I’m not really any use to anyone in this church. I can’t be part of the action like others are.’
But however you feel when you compare yourself to others, you are as much a part of the body as anyone else. For every visible thing that happens in church, there is a bunch of behind-the-scenes, invisible stuff that needs to have happened first. Just for a regular Sunday meeting at my church, orders of service need to have been put together, printed off, folded and handed out. Rooms need to have been unlocked, equipment set out and prepared. Music needs to have been chosen, printed and rehearsed. Someone will have organized whose turn it is to read, pray, welcome, play or sing in the band, serve refreshments, help with the kids’ ministry, operate the sound system and all manner of other things. All that is before I can even stand up and start the meeting. And that’s just the stuff off the top of my head.
It is no accident that this is how it works. The church is meant to be diverse. We are meant to be different from one another, and to need one another. For God is the one who has made us diverse. ‘In fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be?’ (1 Corinthians 12:18–19).
If we look around our brothers and sisters and feel inferior, we need the encouragement of these verses. God does not want you to be someone else. He made you as you because he wants to use your ‘you-ness’. So there’s no need for envy. But there’s also a challenge here. If you are no less part of the body than the next person, then you have no reason not to be involved and serving others. If there’s no place for envy, then there’s also no place for detachment. The church is designed to reflect the unity-in-diversity of the Trinity.
If we lose sight of this perspective, we risk our churches becoming monochrome. Maturity will be understood in terms of trying to make everyone a certain kind of Christian. There will be a cultural and vocational flatness. Christians will look and sound the same. They’ll be encouraged into the same kind of ministry. A particular gifting will be the hallmark of the spiritually advanced. In some churches today it is the gift of tongues. In others, it is the gift of teaching – those really committed to the gospel will become ‘Bible teachers’. Christians lacking that particular gift will be left feeling like they have far less to offer the body. In both cases, Paul’s point in this passage is being missed. All gifts are needed and God has made us diverse for a reason!
Don’t look down on others’ gifts
If in any crowd there are those feeling inferior, there will also be those who feel superior. People who think they matter more, that they are more special. They are like the eye: ‘The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!”’ (1 Corinthians 12:21).
It is easy for those whose gifting is higher profile to get an unhealthy kick out of that. ‘Everyone else sees what I do,’ they might think to themselves, even if subconsciously, ‘My role is particularly important. Everyone here needs me to be doing this. Lucky them to have me on board!’
The message for the superior is the same: everyone is needed. Everyone. You need others as much as others need you. Don’t look down on others just because their ministry might be more discreet or menial in your eyes.
It is right that not everyone has the same kind of visibility in church. Some parts of the body are particularly tender. You might feel as though your life has been a mess: perhaps it’s your home life or your relationships that have not been smooth running. Maybe you have struggled with a significant addiction that has left you feeling somewhat vulnerable. It might be that you carry within you a significant emotional wound. You might feel like one of those parts that Paul says ‘seem to be weaker’ (verse 22). And yet those very parts are ‘indispensable’. What feels like your weakness might be the very thing God uses to make you a blessing to others. I can think of people who have struggled though the pain of losing a child, or marital breakdown, or having been abused, or addiction, or chronic depression, and yet have been able to exercise a powerful ministry to others with similar struggles.
Other parts Paul describes as being ‘unpresentable’ (verse 23). Let’s face it, there are parts of our body we don’t show other people. I’m typing these words while sitting in a bustling coffee shop. It is well into winter, and the shop is nice and toasty inside. In fact, I’m sitting just near a large fireplace and have been progressively getting too hot. Various outer layers of my clothing have already been shed and lie strewn over the empty chair next to me. But however much I might want to strip off, there is an agreed minimum of clothing that needs to remain in place, irrespective of how hot it is. It’s not that those parts of the body are insignificant. But they have no public role to play!
There are some in the church community who are precious to us, but who it would not be appropriate to put in front of everyone with a microphone in their face. They need to be less visible. I know of dear Christians who have struggled with suicidal feelings and needed hospitalization as a result. For such friends, the first steps back into our Sunday fellowship will be very tentative – slipping in after the service has begun and leaving just before it has finished. They will be ready to see one or two of us to begin with, but not everyone. Brothers and sisters like this will need to be less visible for now, for their own sakes. But they are no less valuable to our church family because of that.
We are different and need to play different roles in the life of the church family. Some will be more visible, others less so. But all of us are needed. There is no-one in the fellowship we can look down on, no type of person we can just do without. Think of your own church fellowship. You need these particular others whom God has put around you, even if you (and they) didn’t know it.
The unity-in-diversity of the church reflects the unity-in-diversity of the Godhead. It is a perspective that will help us to cherish our diversity while functioning together as a single entity.
The night before he died, Jesus spent time with his disciples preparing them for life without him. A good deal of this preparation was taken up with a prayer Jesus prayed in his disciples’ hearing. That he intended them to listen in suggests there was much that they – and we – could learn from it.
In the course of his prayer, Jesus prays for the disciples gathered around him. He also prays for future disciples: those later generations of followers who will come to believe in his name through the ministry of these first believers. It is a prayer for all Christians through subsequent centuries of history, including us. This is Jesus praying for you! If you ever wondered what his priorities for your life might be, here’s a good place to look:
‘I pray also for those who will believe in me through their [the first apostles’] message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’ (John 17:20–23)
Jesus prays for our unity, the very unity he has already been talking about: unity grounded in the Trinity. The unity we are to have as believers is the unity enjoyed by God the Father and God the Son. It reminds us that the unity of the church is not institutional, not man-made. It is unity in the truth of the message Jesus came to teach; unity that comes as we are brought into relationship with God the Trinity. We get to join in the oneness of God!
And it is a unity that is going to have a significant impact. It will cause the world to believe two amazing truths: that the Father has sent the Son, and that we have received the same love from the Father that the Son has. It is a unity that transcends all other earthly considerations: politics, ethnicity, social background, level of education, wealth and culture.
Neptune was the first planet to be discovered by mathematics rather than by observation. It wasn’t that someone chanced upon it while looking through a telescope one day, but that they had worked out that it must exist and even where it would be. I’m told the clever chap in question was John Couch Adams during the 1840s. He and others had noticed various irregularities in the orbit of Uranus. It deviated significantly from its expected path. The only explanation was that there was something else out there, some other planetary body whose gravity was tugging away at it and causing it to move out of its predicted orbit. Individuals like Adams were able to extrapolate from these irregularities exactly where this other planet must be. None of them ever needed to have seen it. The existence and location of Neptune was a mathematical certainty before they ever set eyes on it.
The church is to be marked by the unity of God the Trinity. Our life together is to reflect that same love, mutual delight and other-person-centredness that characterizes the relationships of the Father, Son and Spirit. And as the world looks on, it will see what appear to be all sorts of irregularities, deviations from the normal paths of behaviour: Christians showing unworldly care and concern for one another. Hearts, wallets and homes cheerfully opened to help those in need. Those from backgrounds you wouldn’t normally see together enjoying their unity in Christ. Believers very different from one another but lit by a love of meeting together, of praising their Saviour and taking his word to heart.
All these things should be deeply curious irregularities to a watching world: lines of behaviour that do not move in the directions people have come to expect. An orbit of life that is unmistakably different. Instances of deep love that indicate beyond doubt the gravitational pull of a greater and unseen presence. An undeniable sign that this community of believers is being held together by nothing less than a love that is divine in origin. The spectator who begins to extrapolate from these earth-bound irregularities will, in the end, be directed to the perfect heavenly analogue of them all.
The only explanation for a church like this can, ultimately, only be the reality of God the Trinity.