October 4, 2012

Book Review: The Life of God in the Soul of the Church by Thabiti Anyabwile

The full title of the work is The Life of God in the Soul of the Church: The Root and Fruit of Spiritual Fellowship. It is published by Christian Focus under the 9 Marks imprint.

Henry Scougal was a 17th century Scottish pastor who wrote a small book for a friend entitled The Life of God in the Soul of Man.  Although the book was small, it has proven to possess enduring quality and powerful insights even to this day.

Enter Thabiti Anyabwile, a 21st century pastor of First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman.  Pastor Anyabwile, inspired by Scougal's original work has written a book designed to extend our understanding of the Life of God beyond the individual soul, to encompass the overall fellowship of the local church. 

Pastor Anyabwile's book is offered as a corrective to over-emphasized individualism found in many evangelical churches. He seeks throughout the book to highlight discipleship pursued intentionally through relationships in the the local church, using the rich tapestry of fellowship found throughout the New Testament as the basis for this course correction.

The book is essentially a lightly edited sermon series that Pastor Anyabwile preached in his home church in 2008.  As expected from a sermon series, the book is not written in a heavily academic tone but rather carries a pastoral feel, with strong contextualization within the body of his local church.  Publishing a collection of thematic sermons has both strengths and weaknesses.  It is written at a very understandable level, avoiding unnecessary theological jargon. This makes it accessible to nearly every adult Christian. As expected of sermons, many illustrations and most applications are chosen and emphasized from within the congregational life of a pastor's local church. Since this work is a collection of sermons, this means it requires some re-interpretation for your own local church context, with little instruction within the text itself in how to do this.

This book is a hard read.  Not hard to read.  Anyabwile challenges us across the spectrum of church life. There is a mix of ideas presented, from strongly exegetical to less binding personal preference. This is one of the reasons it is a hard read. A variety of Anyabwile's examples could be directly applicable to your church.  Others may need to be applied as a concept and not necessarily using the explicit example offered in the book.  It takes effort to grasp these differences and thoughtfully mingle them with the character of your own individual local church.

The book has two major divisions. Part 1 builds the foundation for Christian fellowship as union with Christ.  Part 2 has specific examples of union with Christ expressed through fellowship in the local church.  The specific examples cover a broad range of fellowship, including: loving one another, spiritual gifts, restoration, suffering and comfort, giving, acceptance, and singing to one another among others.

A sample of quotations follows to whet your appetite.

"Membership in the local church is a biblical idea and an implicit requirement for the Christian life."

"I pray that you would see how indispensable you are to everyone in your church according to God’s design."

"There are not two classes of Christians— super-spiritual and ordinary. Because every Christian possesses the Spirit of God through faith, every Christian is spiritual. In that sense, the gospel flattens the world for us. We are all equal; we all live on the same plane."

"It’s really remarkable to see how Trinitarian the Christian life is from beginning to end."

"To see and experience this joy, we must commit to carrying ‘each other’s burdens’ (Gal. 6: 2). Restoration cannot be achieved a hundred yards away from the burdened. We cannot restore people by shouting across a football field, ‘Hey! Get it together! Get it right!’ The idea of carrying burdens requires proximity, intimacy, and teamwork."

"The Christian church is an astounding thing. It is the bodily presence of Christ in the world. Where is God in suffering? He’s in His people administering comfort. Christian, you’re not just you. You’re you— with God working and flowing through you! You’re an utterly strange being, and the only lasting source of compassion in a world gone mad with suffering."

"The stubborn pride of man that clings to self-reliance may be so strong God may sit death before us in order to shake us from it."

Finally, one quote surprised me quite a bit, considering it is coming from a baptist pastor.

"People often ask why the church is not flowing in the gifts the way the early church was in Acts— or like the church at Corinth which had every spiritual gift (1 Cor. 1: 7). They ask, ‘Why are we not seeing miracles and things like that?’ Just reading through 1 Corinthians 12– 14, I think the answer can be boiled down to this one problem— churches are not flowing in the miraculous because the commitment to love is so weak and partial in very many churches. Congregations are not bent on loving one another so that equal concern is shown for every member (12: 25) and so that the common good is the main goal (12: 7)."

In my thought, this is a less-than-helpful explanation why God does not move through miracles displayed commonly in the church today.  I fear that this statement could be taken to extremes by many readers, laying a deep burden of guilt on the church as a whole. Perhaps my fear is unfounded, but it is my conviction that there is danger lurking here.  It could easily cause burnout in most churches as the people attempt to love one another enough so that their church is flowing in the miraculous.  When the miraculous fails to materialize, where will the church turn?  Will they speed up the love treadmill and try even harder, or pull the ripcord and float away in exhaustion?

To summarize, I recommend that this book be read broadly but with care, as should be our approach with all theological writing.

Full disclosure: I received a free review ebook from Christian Focus to prepare this review.  This has not unduly influenced me and I offer this review with a clear conscience.

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