Grace, Communion, and International
When our church decided to change its name from Worldwide Church of God (WCG) to Grace Communion International (GCI), some were puzzled. The new name didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. We found ourselves stumbling over it, often getting the words in the wrong order. But more to the point—what did it mean? The name WCG may have had baggage, but it at least described what we were. But GCI?
The recent international conference in Orlando, Florida, was the first time the ministry had gathered together under the new name. As over 1,000 ministers and wives from around the world gathered together to learn, fellowship and worship, it was a vivid demonstration that GCI is indeed the right name for our church. It brings together three elements that precisely describe what we are today—an international community, bound together by God’s grace.
The theme of the international conference was “Renewed in Christ.” The conference was a vivid reminder that this was no mere slogan. As a church, a ministry and as individuals, we had been and continue to be renewed, and not by our study, scholarship, or righteous behavior, but by the grace of God in spite of ourselves. We have learned that grace is far more than just a religious word; it’s the kindness of God actively transforming human hearts and minds.
We had lived through, and helped facilitate, the remarkable—some say unprecedented—transformation of our church from legalism to the freedom that comes from understanding the gospel of grace. It was not an easy transition (ironically, God’s grace seems to be a hard pill to swallow), and many did not make it with us. Most of us have lost friends who decided not to change.
The trauma that accompanied our denominational transformation is in the past now, and our church has settled down. But the experience has led to a special camaraderie, and we met in Orlando as perhaps soldiers who have shared in a battle might meet, with mutual understanding and respect.
Someone who had known us in the past might not have recognized this as a ministerial conference. Not just because of the casual dress, or the more informal worship styles or the fact that men and women alike were attending in leadership roles. The abandoning of legalism has led to a much more relaxed atmosphere all around. The artificial barriers erected by an authoritarian structure and rank consciousness had disappeared—somehow they seem irrelevant in the new climate of freedom. We reconnected as friends in a ministry transformed by grace.
“Communion” is one of those words that tends to get lost in religiosity. Certainly it describes the taking of bread and wine in memory of Jesus’ sacrifice. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. We as a fellowship are beginning to understand more fully that to follow Jesus is not about laws and regulations nor even imitating Jesus as a role model. It is about genuine relationships: real fellowship with the Father through the Son in the communion of the Holy Spirit, and therefore, in Christ, real fellowship with one another.
The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one Being in perfect communion, and Jesus prayed that his disciples would share in that relationship and reflect it to the world (John 14:20; 17:23). The underlying theme of the workshops and plenary sessions of the conference was the importance of congregations and individuals building genuine community in Christ in the bond of the Holy Spirit—true fellowship rooted in the love by which 1 John 4:8 defines the eternal communion of the Father, Son and Spirit.
Unless a church sees its primary function as building community, it runs the risk of seeing people as tools to “get the job done.” And that, as James Torrance pointed out, can lead to a program of evangelism that will be both legalist and exclusivist. He wrote, “The triune God is in the business of creating community, in such a way that we are never more truly human, never more truly persons, than when we find our true being in communion” (James B. Torrance, Worship, Community and The Triune God of Grace, p. 74).
This is a truly exciting and refreshing concept. It is as old as the gospel, and yet it is easy to lose sight of in our modern world that “gets the job done” by organizing business, firms, programs and corporations. In such structures, people can be seen as a consumable and perhaps even disposable commodity.
Getting together in Florida, we were reminded that the church—any church—is most effective when it is first and foremost a loving community. In our case, we have a most unusual opportunity, for our community, our communion with Christ in the love of the Father by the Holy Spirit, reaches across racial, cultural and national boundaries; indeed, around the world.
We came from all over—from nearly every state in the Union, from Canada, from Mexico, the Caribbean, South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa and the islands of the Pacific. It was a vivid reminder that we are very much an international church—in fact, not just in name.
At each meal, one of our international mission directors reported on the spiritual growth and gospel outreach in his region. And in President Joseph Tkach’s address to the conference, he featured even more of the work God is doing through our denomination in the many outposts of the gospel God has given us around the world.
We were reminded that God has drawn us together into a church that is truly international in scope. Caribbean Director Charles Fleming summed it up after a visit to our small congregation in Haiti following the devastating earthquake earlier this year. “In many ways,” he wrote, “the most striking aspect of this visit for me was the realization that our Haitian brothers and sisters draw strength from the solidarity they sense coming towards them from our worldwide church family. It is as if members around the world are a ‘distant presence’ in their daily lives. They repeatedly asked us to pass on their thanks and stated that they take comfort from knowing that people are praying for them. I found myself wondering whether I was experiencing some aspect of the ‘oneness in Christ’ Jesus described in John 14:19-20 and John 17: 20-26.”
It is a blessing that our church is large enough to have opportunities to work together and small enough that those opportunities can be personal. Friendships are continually being built across the national and cultural boundaries that more often than not create division in our world.
As we met together in Florida, we experienced again the abiding love of God as an international communion that has been transformed by his undying grace.
Grace Communion International is a good name for that.