On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions.
Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it?
The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning.
It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.
For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
The First Announcement of the Church in the Bible
The church is not mentioned in the Old Testament--Paul confirms this in announcing that the mystery of the church was being made known for the first time in his day--in Ephesians 3:
"...I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles--if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel, of which I became a minister according to the gift of the grace of God given to me by the effective working of His power. To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him.
Therefore I ask that you do not lose heart at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what [is] the width and length and depth and height--to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him [be] glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen."
Actually Jesus had revealed his intention to build his church just a few months before He died on the cross in Jerusalem. At the time of this announcement He was at the foot of Mt. Hermon is a city now known as Banias where one of the sources of the Jordan River springs forth from the cliffs.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that the Son of man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:13-19)
In this announcement it is clear that Jesus intended that His church would overcome everything which opposed God, and that not even the defenses of Hell would be able to resist the onslaughts of the church.
The Calling of Israel Preceded the Church
That Israel was chosen by God as a model nation for all the rest of the nations is made clear by such passages as Deuteronomy. 4:1-8. and 2 Samuel 7:22-24:
"And now, O Israel, give heed to the statutes and the ordinances which I teach you, and do them; that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, gives you. You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it; that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you. Your eyes have seen what the LORD did at Baal-peor; for the LORD your God destroyed from among you all the men who followed the Baal of Peor; but you who held fast to the LORD your God are all alive this day. Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land which you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, `Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law which I set before you this day?"
"Therefore thou art great, O LORD God; for there is none like thee, and there is no God besides thee, according to all that we have heard with our ears. What other nation on earth is like thy people Israel, whom God went to redeem to be his people, making himself a name, and doing for them great and terrible things, by driving out before his people a nation and its gods? And thou didst establish for thyself thy people Israel to be thy people for ever; and thou, O LORD, didst become their God."
Israel: The Non-Portable Nation
God did not give Israel a plan to travel to the corners of the world and to win converts from all peoples by sending out emissaries. The Jewish state sat in the middle of popular caravan routes where people could easily come to see first hand what God's chosen people were like. It was there in Eretz Israel they could learn and observe what God's people were like in word and in life-style. One clear example of this "in place" evangelism is found in the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon recorded for us in 1 Kings 10 and 1 Chronicles 9. With no natural resources to speak of, Israel would prosper because God's hand of blessing was upon them, not because of gold, oil, or minerals dug up from the rocky ground. The people of Israel were not seafarers as were the Phoenicians, nor well-known for their commerce and trade with other nations. They were farmers and animal husbandmen. Israel's national life was to based on kingly rule, a supreme court, the centrality of temple sacrifices and services and the Aaronic priesthood. Gentile individuals who wished to become God's people were welcome to join the nation, and could become Jews by conversion. God's justice and mercy were to be demonstrated daily in Israel, for Yahweh is a holy God. Family life and culture were close knit and the people lived in close alliance with the land itself. Feast times and festivals throughout the year and other special events appointed by God called constant attention to everyone that God's people were different than the people of other nations. No other nation has ever enjoyed such a covenant relationship with the Creator of the universe.
"For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Therefore know that the LORD your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments; and He repays those who hate Him to their face, to destroy them. He will not be slack with him who hates Him; He will repay him to his face. Therefore you shall keep the commandment, the statutes, and the judgments which I command you today, to observe them. Then it shall come to pass, because you listen to these judgments, and keep and do them, that the LORD your God will keep with you the covenant and the mercy which He swore to your fathers. And He will love you and bless you and multiply you; He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your land, your grain and your new wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the offspring of your flock, in the land of which He swore to your fathers to give you. You shall be blessed above all peoples; there shall not be a male or female barren among you or among your livestock. And the LORD will take away from you all sickness, and will afflict you with none of the terrible diseases of Egypt which you have known, but will lay them on all those who hate you..." (Deuteronomy 6:6-15)
Israel's failure to be what God intended her to be (this happened little by little over many centuries), resulted in a "temporary" transfer of calling to the Church--for 2000 years! From the beginning God intended to reach the entire world with the proclamation of His love and forgiveness to undeserving mankind. Israel was not the only vehicle through which this was to be done. Even so, God's promises to Israel remain in effect to this day and have never been repealed. Many people today confuse the different calling and plan God has for Israel as compared to the calling of the church. What God gave Israel was by a series of unconditional covenants:
"...to them [the Jews] pertain the adoption, the [Shekinah] glory, the covenants, the giving of the [Mosaic] law, the [Temple] service of God, and the [patriarchal] promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Messiah came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen." (Romans 9:4-5)
Jesus officially rejected Israel after the nation's leaders had officially rejected Him, Matthew 21:42-43. This occurred during His last week in Jerusalem after he had cast the money changers out of the temple, stopped the temple sacrifices, and denounced the religious leaders in the most scathing language found anywhere in literature
Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: `The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it."
The Church as a Portable Nation
The "nation" to whom the kingdom of God was to be given was the church. The Apostle Peter says of the church,
"...you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." (1 Peter 2:9)
The church, composed of Jews and Gentiles joined together in one community, was to be drawn from all peoples of the world, and it was to be formed around a better set of promises known as the "New" covenant, or New Testament, featuring a superior priesthood, greater indwelling power from God, and more intimate connections between believers. After the church was completed, God would return and restore Israel as is outlined clearly for us in Romans Chapters 9-11. The New Covenant (which God had originally promised to Israel centuries earlier) was put into effect on the night of the Last Supper while Jesus spent His last hours instructing his 11 remaining disciples about his future plans. The church would immediately become the beneficiaries of this "new arrangement for living" including its powerful life-changing promises and its superior priesthood. Later, Israel as a nation would be called back to God--and the nation would finally enjoy their long-awaited kingdom promised to their forefathers beginning with Abraham. Their restoration would be under the terms of the New Covenant.
"This is the covenant that I will make with them [Israel] after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws into their hearts, and in their minds I will write them," then He adds, "Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more." Now where there is remission of these, there is no longer an offering for sin. (Hebrews 10:16-18)
The church was to be a "portable" body of people who would dispatch missionaries everywhere. planting new congregations in distant lands. They would translate the Bible into all languages and reach out to every corner of the earth (by all available means) spreading information about the one true and living God and His plans for the universe (which He had created in the first place). The good news, or gospel, was to form the central proclamation of the church to the world. The gospel is about God's great love for all mankind, and the perfect sacrifice for all their sins which he Himself had provided in the death of Jesus, the Son of God. It includes a simple announcement of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as outlined in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul announced this gospel to the intellectuals in Athens in the following words,
"God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands. Nor is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things. And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, `For we are also His offspring.' Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man's devising. Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead." (Acts 17:24-31)
Nowhere in the New Testament is the church described as an organization! To understand the nature of the church, God has given us in the New Testament at least seven figures to illustrate what the church is to be like. Underlying all these symbols, the church is a family, the people of God. Non-Christians are not called "God's people," though he created them.
Seven Figures of the Church: *
(1) Vine and Branches (John 15)
(2) Sheep, Shepherds and Chief Shepherd, (John 10).
(3) The Pearl of Great Price, (Matthew 13:45)
(4) The Body of Christ, with Christ the Head, (Romans 5, Ephesians 2)
(5) A Building of Living Stones, in which God dwells, (Ephesians 2:19-22)
(6) A Priesthood with Christ as Great High priest. (Hebrews)
(7) The Virgin Bride of Christ waiting for the Bridegroom (2 Corinthians 11:2)
Vine and Branches
The symbolism of vine and branches applies directly to Jewish believers more than to the church, since grapes and vines are common symbols for Israel, but the illustration of branches abiding in the vine and drawing all their life from the life of the vine applies to believers of every age. Jesus is the true vine, all life flows from Him, and fruitfulness comes only by drawing on His life imparted to believers by the Holy Spirit.
"I am the true vine, and My Father is the vine dresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples. As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you. You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you..."
Sheep and Shepherd
The 23rd Psalm is but one of many Old Testament passages that speak of believers as sheep, and their teachers as shepherds. Old Testament shepherds were the teaching priests, the prophets, and the scribes, who transmitted the meaning of the Scriptures to the people accompanied with the same thorough care a good sheep herder shows for his sheep. In the New Testament those called as pastor-teachers are under shepherds who report to Jesus who is the chief shepherd of the entire flock. Hence, I Peter 5:1-4:
"The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away."
The Pearl of Great Price
Matthew 13:45, 46 is a brief but very helpful parable of Jesus:
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it."
Oysters are not kosher and Jews have no special interest in pearls, the pearl of great price speaks of the church. Pearls grow around a grain of sand within the oyster who responds to the irritation of the foreign body by covering it with lustrous concentric layers of nacre of great beauty.
The Body of Christ
The Old Testament calls Israel God's people and His chosen nation, but the church has a unique relationship with God symbolized by the organs and systems of the human body. Christ is the Head of this Body, but all members are connected with one another. The skeletal system is analogous to the apostles whose task it was to build the support structure of the church--the doctrinal foundations which would anchor the believers to the absolute truths revealed by God. New Testament prophets (a type of preacher or Bible teacher) are comparable to the nervous system which energizes and galvanizes the body by imparting vision and energy to the body. Pastor-teachers as shepherds cleanse and feed the body in a manner similar to the circulatory and lymphatic systems of the human body.
The interdependence of each member of the body and the fact that the overall health of the body is dependent on the health of each individual member is developed thoroughly by the Apostles (see for instance 1 Corinthians 12-14). It is obvious that disease or malfunctioning in any one part of the human body can jeopardize the entire body, and the same is true of God's church. Paul says that the low-profile, inconspicuous, or parts of the body not in public view are equally important as are the obvious public spokesman for the church.
Christians are "members one of another" and thereby enjoy a more intimate union with Jesus the Head and with one another than was the case of individual believing Jews in the Old Testament in their relationships to God and to one another. Furthermore members of the church are each given supernatural endowments called "spiritual gifts" which equip them for ministry and service in the church and in the world.
The church described as the Body of Christ is a symbol which also calls attention to the non-hierarchical nature of the church. Each member of the body reports directly to the head and it is the head who directs and coordinates the entire functioning of the body insuring that the members work together according to design. In fact, God's purpose for the entire church is for her to be built up in love,
"And He Himself [Jesus] gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ--from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. " In our experience it seems to be relatively rare when one finds a church where the members are working together properly enough to allow much upbuilding in love."
The Old Testament "house of God" was the tabernacle during the Exodus and the temple, after Israel settled in the land. But the New Testament "house" is very clearly people, not buildings!
Individual believers are reminded in 1 Corinthians that their bodies are the very temples of God. John's gospel opens with the announcement that God, in Christ, had "tabernacled" in the midst of His people as a man (John 1:14). In Ephesians Chapter 2 we are introduced to the church as a spiritual building composed of individual believers who are living stones:
"Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit." (2:19-22).
The foundation and the cornerstone of the building are at the base, so the building is held up and supported from below, not from the roof! This is, of course, exactly the reverse of the org charts of companies and businesses in the world which are always run by top-down management rather than by the servant-authority designated as God's way or running His church. Church members are furthermore fitted together individually into the invisible building as "living stones,"
...Coming to Him [Christ] as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, 'Behold, I lay in Zion A chief cornerstone, elect, precious, And he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame.' Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, 'The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone,' and 'A stone of stumbling And a rock of offense.' They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed." (1 Peter 2:4-8)
The imagery of the church as the body of Christ and also as a living building draws clear attention to the fact that every Christian "fits into" his or her special place as a living stone in the church. We individual members fare poorly when we act alone in independence of the church as "Lone Ranger" Christians and we also are thwarting God's purposes for building the church in the first place when we charge off and do things on our own. Likewise the common idea of para-church ministries can not be supported by teachings from the New Testament. The calling out of the church (ekklesia) is what God is doing in our age and all those who name the name of Jesus and know Him their hearts are part of that church. This does not deny that the church has branches and special projects and auxiliary functions which are best supported by their own Boards and helpers. Care should be taken to see that Christians, such as those working for instance as missionaries, are valued and important members of a local church where they are treated as members of the family. Every Christian needs to experience the balanced congregational life of a healthy local churches. He or she is part of an extended family of young and old, rich and poor, new Christians and mature Christians. This is the family of friends and fellow priests who can offer reparenting and support in this life and these are one's traveling companions on a journey to a whole new kingdom. Christians will spend eternity with these brothers and sisters, as Paul says, "If for this life only we have hoped, we are all men most to be pitied."
Priests and Great High Priest
In the Old Testament the priesthood was limited to members of the tribe of Levi, the high priest was mortal as well as sinful, and the sacrifices were not really efficacious since they only "covered" sins until sin could be actually removed by Messiah's perfect blood sacrifice on the cross. In the New Testament we are taught that a powerful new priesthood has been instituted. All Christians are priests and our Great High Priest is not only perfect and sinless, but alive forever. He serves us in a manner that was only hinted at by the vague shadows of given in the Old Testament. A good portion of the Epistle to the Hebrews compares and contrasts the former and the present priesthood.
The Bride of Christ
Paul told the Corinthians that he was..."jealous for you with godly jealousy. For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ." (2 Corinthians 11:2) This introduces us to the church as the bride of Christ. The consummation of this marriage of God's people to the risen Lord Jesus Christ is described for us in the Book of the Revelation.
During his lifetime on earth, Jesus did not marry. For a man not to marry was very rare in Israel (then as now). Following the typology in the story of Abraham's servant going to a far country to select a bride (Rebekah) for the patriarchs beloved son Isaac, (Genesis 24) we could say that God the Father dispatched the Holy Spirit into the world to call out and prepare a people who would be a suitable bride. The Spirit would also give the church a suitable wedding dowry that she might be a fitting love-gift from the Father to His beloved Son, Jesus.
All sorts of people are welcome to be part of Christ's wife, the invitation is open to everyone,
"A certain man gave a great supper and invited many, and sent his servant at supper time to say to those who were invited, `Come, for all things are now ready.' But they all with one accord began to make excuses. The first said to him, `I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.' And another said, `I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.' Still another said, `I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' So that servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house, being angry, said to his servant, `Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in here the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind.' And the servant said, `Master, it is done as you commanded, and still there is room.' Then the master said to the servant, `Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. `For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper.'" (Luke 14:16-24)
Marriage is the oldest of social institutions established by God on our planet, and it is honorable for non-believers as well as for believers. The New Testament further elevates the dignity and importance of marriage by comparing the relationship of man and wife in marriage directly to the relationship Christ has with His bride, the church,
"For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish." (Ephesians 5:23-27)
The intimacy of man and wife in marriage is another indication of the oneness believers have with their Lord Jesus, because Christ and His church are one body, not two,
"For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one body, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren..." (Hebrews 2:11)
Apart from the above pictures which are clear, vivid and helpful, we are of course given a great wealth of doctrinal teaching about the church in the New Testament. All Christians are given spiritual gifts, and all are to participate in the work of the ministry. There is no distinction anywhere in the New Testament which divides the church into clergy and laity. God desires that we understand who He is, what He is doing in the world and what His standards are. Within His church He appoints elders and deacons and special teachers to equip his people. The church is to guard not only what it believes and teaches, but also it quality of spiritual life, or fellowship.
The figure of the "bride of Christ" (a feminine image) pictures the church gathered in worship around the indwelling Person of the Lord Jesus. The "body of Christ" is, however, the masculine counterpart. Jesus came to reveal the Father by His teachings and His life. The church in turn reveals Jesus but being open and transparent so the Lord Jesus might shine through into the world through the church which constitutes His body in the world.
The Church Universal and the Church Local
Looking at the entire church around the world we realize that the church of Jesus Christ has been under construction for nearly 2000 years. New members are being added every day. It is common to speak of "The Holy, Catholic, (universal) Church" and also to speak of "Local Churches." Since "God is not the God of the dead but of the living," (Luke 20:38) the universal church is made up of all true believers in Jesus from the Day of Pentecost until now, whether they are currently dwelling in heaven with Christ, or are still with the rest of us here on earth, awaiting the resurrection. Thus the true, universal church is a living body consisting of a visible group and a vast invisible group of all those who have gone on before us.
But the visible church on earth is by no means identical with the true church! The true church is a sub-group--often a very small sub-set (or in fact a "remnant")--within the local visible church. Spiritual rebirth and a personal commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ is the only legitimate gateway into the family of God. The reality is that many people who attend church cervices do so for social reasons, or out of habit, or they may even be still seeking truth but have not yet entered into it, or they may merely be enjoying the quality of life that is available to them by hanging out with Christian people. Many deceive themselves into believing they are God's children when in fact they are not. It is actual fruitfulness that proves one is true Christian, not merely a profession of faith or a recitation of the right creedal formula. Thus one finds stern warnings in the Bible, for instance the following:
"Not everyone who says to Me, `Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, `Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' "And then I will declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matthew 7:21-13)
"Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame. For the earth which drinks in the rain that often comes upon it, and bears herbs useful for those by whom it is cultivated, receives blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and briers, it is rejected and near to being cursed, whose end is to be burned. But, beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you, yes, things that accompany salvation, though we speak in this manner. For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises." (Hebrews 6:1-12)
Unity and Diversity in the Church
A high degree of freedom of expression is indicated in the New Testament so that a wide variety of music, worship, style of meetings, and special distinctives of each local church is common within the boundaries of what is considered orthodoxy. God likes variety, and around the world one finds many different, unique, and beautiful congregations varying in style of worship and styles of teaching, all with the bounds of what is considered Biblical and sound. There is a core body of essential truth all Christians are to adhere to, but in many other areas of church life we are given great latitude for expressing our faith. Jesus told the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4) that "God is a Spirit and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." Thus the life of a congregation consists of teaching and doctrine combined with worship and praise. Churches differ in the degree of importance they place on the "in truth" vs. the "in spirit" aspects of true worship.
In the Book of the Revelation, Chapters 2 and 3, are letters addressed to seven local churches that were then extant in Western Turkey at the end of the First Century. Jesus as the Lord of each of these churches (He is of course Lord of the whole church as a whole), gives words of commendation and suggestions--or even rebukes--that are needed in these churches. The believing remnant in each of these seven churches (called "overcomers") are given words of special encouragement from the Lord. Most Bible scholars believe these 7 churches represent types of churches that may be found in the world at any point in time during the past 2000 years.
However there is also a historical progression in this list. Each of these seven churches has enjoyed its own season of greatest power and influence during history. In this view the church of Ephesus represents the Apostolic church, Smyrna pictures the persecuted church of the later Roman emperors when there were many martyrs. Pergamum reflects the church that resulted when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire--opening the door to the weak and compromised state churches which still dominate much of Europe today. Thyatira is the Roman Catholic Church which had great power and world wide influence in the Middle Ages. Sardis is the church of the Protestant Reformation when many evils (but not all) were corrected. The age of the Philadelphia church has probably just ended in our century. This was the missionary church, committed to world evangelism, noted for its brotherly love and love for the Jews. Laodicea is the weak, compromised and luke-warm church that is the prevailing church today most everywhere--indicating the end of the church age is very near. When the "full number of gentiles" has come into the church, (Romans 11:25) the true church will be removed from the world, the bridegroom will catch away His bride as described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff.
Meantime it should be noted that God has in the last 100 years brought back many of the Jews out of the world-wide Diaspora (where they have been for almost 2000 years)--to their own land. This is in preparation for the closing events of this age. This present age (called "the times of the gentiles" in the Bible) will culminate in the triumphant return of Jesus Christ to rule and reign on earth from the throne of His father David in Jerusalem. While we in the church are awaiting for the torch to be passed back to Israel after the "great parenthesis" of the church age, it is helpful to note that the church consists of both Jews and Gentiles. God has in fact been saving millions of Jews during the church age while the nation as a whole was set aside.
The history of the Christian churches shows that local churches in a given community generally do not enjoy God's blessing for more than a generation or two. All of the great churches started by the original apostles were gone in a hundred years or less. Every generation of Christians seems to have to learn the same lessons all over again.
Counterfeit forms of Christianity, which look like the real thing but are clever imitation, are everywhere (to say nothing about cults and proliferating non-Christian religions). Ray Stedman's book Authentic Christianity is very helpful in showing us how to identify and how to live the genuine Christianity taught by the Apostles. As individuals we can tune in and begin to live the real version, even when we are not in the common of others who are doing so. God will soon put us in touch with like-minded brothers and sisters with whom we can join forces.
God has periodically granted "times of refreshing" (Acts 3:19) in his church down through the centuries. Great revivals often begin in simple ways with ordinary believers who have done nothing more than seen the need of the hour, repented of their own sins, and prevailed in prayer until God acted. Revivals can be local, starting in perhaps an isolated city or remote area. But generally the entire Body of Christ is eventually refreshed by the new life from God which has been poured in from the God of all grace and mercy. As Ray Stedman often remarked, "resurrection power works best in a cemetery."
The general course of the age of the church is downhill towards apostasy and compromise. After the removal of the small numbers who constitute the true church out from among the millions who are merely professing Christians, the left-over church will quickly coalesce into the harlot-church of the Book of Revelation, vividly described in Chapter 17. The parable of the mustard seed in Matthew 13 tells us that the church will become an ungainly, useless and bureaucratic organization as the age draws to a close. When He was with us on earth, Jesus asked the rhetorical question, "When the Son of man returns will He really find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8)
Since the Day of Pentecost it has been the custom of Christians to gather on the First Day of the week, not on the Jewish sabbath (Saturday). Sabbath observance belongs to the former dispensation of the Old Covenant and to Israel, not the church. (A "dispensation" is a form of administration exercised by God over the household of faith. These divine management distinctives change from time to time).
Gathering Together and Scattering Through the Community
The local church is never a building, it is always a group of people. On Sunday mornings the church assembles itself at a given location for instruction, worship, fellowship, and prayer. Then the entire church then disperses throughout the community, all week long--each member being an agent, an ambassador of Christ at home, office, school. Jesus had told His disciples before he left them that it was expedient for Him to leave because otherwise the Holy Spirit could not come to indwell them each. While he was on the earth, Jesus could be only at one place at one time, now He is represented everywhere in the world where one of His genuine followers is available to Him. Because of His great heart of love for all mankind, Jesus desires to draw all men to Himself. "God is not willing that any should perish, but desires that all men should come to the knowledge of he truth." We need to think of the church not as "Sunday morning: 11 o'clock" but as a community of aliens from a foreign kingdom who are scattered throughout an entire community so the king they report to can work effectively through each member, day in, day out, seven days a week. Each Christian is in fact a "living letter" and is intended to be read and known by everyone! Two hours a week meeting with other Christians in church services is only 1% of an entire week, and Christians are God's representatives all the time not just on Sundays!
Paul the apostle writes,
"You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; Now thanks be to God who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and through us diffuses the fragrance of His knowledge in every place. For we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life. And who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, as so many, peddling the word of God; but as of sincerity, but as from God, we speak in the sight of God in Christ...You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart. And we have such trust through Christ toward God. Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.(2 Cor. 2:14-3:6)
Christians are to live out their attractive, winsome, joyful new lives in Christ, ready at all times to be used of God when He sets up opportune moments for sharing the reality of Jesus with those around them. Christians are also said to be "salt" and "light" in the world. In addition to adding flavor to foods, salt was in ancient times the best available means of preventing food spoilage. Light is what makes invisible things visible, light shows us the path and helps us to separate good from evil.
The idea is that God's people are come together once or more per week to be revitalized, renewed, build up and informed. They are to gather to exchange important news in a world full of disinformation. The living Lord Jesus has promised to meet with His own whenever they assemble in his name in groups larger than two or three. He wishes to impart instructions and marching orders for the next week and to strengthen and undergird them..
If the Sunday sermon is poor or seems less than relevant, (there are very few good preachers these days), then the family of God can still seek fellowship in the patio or in the morning Bible classes. The church comes together to meet with her Lord and He is in the midst. God dwells individually in each member of the church, but He also indwells the entire assembly. When Christians meet together, each should be conscious of the fact that this is no ordinary meeting they are attending. The house of God--the living stones--are assembling and God will come to indwell His House.
"Do not not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and all the more as you see the Day [of the Lord] approaching." (Hebrews 10:25)
Because many modern churches are large, a single Sunday morning gathering can not provide adequate fellowship and interaction so that the church functions as the body of Christ. Indeed the default mode these days is for the people to sit passively in the pews while the trained professional "clergy" provides them with free entertainment and hopefully enough good teaching to help them survive another week in a wicked world.
Likewise the music, choir and worship portions of church services are not to be forms of entertainment competing with Sunday afternoon television. Worship is to directed to God--He is the audience--not us! Of course good music and worship is important and edifying to the Body as well.
Small groups are very helpful to provide support, personal interaction and teaching during the week. Ray Stedman says this.
Christlike love is the answer to the great problem of our age the pervasive mood of meaninglessness and worthlessness that afflicts so many in our society. Why do so many people feel insecure and worthless? And why do they try to hide their insecurities by boasting and seeking status symbols and scrambling after success? Because, deep inside, they feel rejected and unloved. They are seeking a kind of love and acceptance they can't understand, and in the words of the old country-western song, they are "looking for love in all the wrong places."
God offers the most complete love anyone could ever know. It is agape love, unconditional love, a love which does not demand performance or beauty or intelligence or anything else. It loves without asking anything in return. It loves even the unlovely and the sinful.
When our love is like that of God, people see God through us. They feel loved and accepted. They learn that they no longer have to prove themselves or earn God's love. Our message to the world is, "God loved you so much He sent His Son to die for you. You are precious to Him. He wants to affirm you, make you whole, and give you back your humanity." People respond to that love. When they find that kind of love, they want to know Jesus and love Him back.
Not only does Jesus command us to love, and tell us how to love, and exemplify love, He goes on to say what that love will look like. Certainly, there is more to agape love than mere words. There is more to love than joining hands on a Sunday morning and singing, "They will know we are Christians by our love." The love Jesus commands is a love that is manifested not only in words and song, but in deeds.
"Greater love has no one than this," says Jesus, "that one lay down his life for his friends." Those words are inscribed on the headstone of Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators, who drowned while saving lives after a boating accident in upstate New York. To lay down your life is to love to the uttermost. You cannot demonstrate any deeper love than that...
But there is even more to what Jesus is saying than that. He is not only talking about dying on another person's behalf, because death is a once and for all event. Jesus was talking about love as a lifestyle. He was talking about laying down one's life as part of a continual process.
Jesus goes on to say, "You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you." Notice how He elevates these men from the level of mere servants, who must obey in order to avoid punishment, to the level of friends who want to obey because they have been admitted into the inner secrets of another person's life.
What is the difference between an acquaintance and a friend? Acquaintances are people who know us on the outside, on the surface. With friends, we share what we are going through joys, hurts, failures, the secret places of our lives. Jesus has let these eleven men approach Him, closer than the level of servants, closer than the level of acquaintances, all the way to the innermost level Of friends. He has shared His secrets with them. He has shared the secrets of the Father's nature and of His plan for the world. More than that, Jesus had shared His own struggles, His pains, His emotions with these disciples. Very soon, as they enter the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus will say to Peter, James, and John, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death...Stay here and keep watch." That kind of honesty and openness is love the sharing of yourself with another human being, the act of removing the facades and exposing the reality of your heart. Jesus loved His disciples with that kind of love.
One way we can express this kind of Christlike love is by being open and honest in sharing ourselves with others. I don't mean that we should tell our secrets to everyone on the street-corner! Rather, we should expose the reality of our hearts with a few trusted believers in a small group setting, just as Jesus shared Himself with the Twelve.
I believe all Christians should be in small groups, studying the Bible together, worshiping God together, fellowshiping together, serving Jesus together, sharing their lives together. Small groups were the essential building blocks of the first-century church, and they are the essential means to transcend the bigness of big churches today. If you have never been involved in a small group Bible study, I urge you to find one or start one right away. Find a few like-minded believers and agree to meet together on a weekly basis, agree to do some ministry together, agree to spend time sharing yourselves with one another, learning about God together, and really loving one another as Jesus commanded...
To me, that's what a great small group ministry is like. That's what our Lord is describing here to His eleven remaining friends. He is telling them that mutual sharing is a form of love.
(Ray C. Stedman, God's Loving Word: Exploring the Gospel of John, Discovery House, Grand Rapids, MI., 1993)
As he bade farewell to the elders of Ephesus for the last time (Acts 20:17-38) the Apostle Paul left them many wise words of counsel for the future,
From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church. And when they had come to him, he said to them: "You know, from the first day that I came to Asia, in what manner I always lived among you, "serving the Lord with all humility, with many tears and trials which happened to me by the plotting of the Jews; how I kept back nothing that was helpful, but proclaimed it to you, and taught you publicly and from house to house, testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ. And see, now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that chains and tribulations await me. But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.
"And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, will see my face no more. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God. Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. So now, brethren, I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel. Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, `It is more blessed to give than to receive.' And when he had said these things, he knelt down and prayed with them all. Then they all wept freely, and fell on Paul's neck and kissed him, sorrowing most of all for the words which he spoke, that they would see his face no more. And they accompanied him to the ship."
Paul implied that the flock of God should be taught Biblical truth so thoroughly that all of God's people would become knowledgeable in what he calls "the whole counsel of God." Pastors and elders have an immense responsibility to research and discover what the people in the church understand, what they are lacking and what they need to be taught. Pastors need to address current issues God's people struggle with, so that the relevant scriptures can be applied promptly. The congregation is being made ready by the Spirit for the life which is to come, not merely propped up week by week so they can struggle through this present life. Most preachers today seem to like to hear themselves speak on their own favorite topics regardless of whether or not they are addressing real needs in God's church! Little by little the content of doctrine and theology and knowledge of God and His ways has eroded away in recent years, and the conduct of many Christians is very worldly to saw the least. Considering the fact the the work of the ministry has been assigned to the whole congregation, members of the church need to find their gifts and get involved in the ministry God has called them to!
The Church of Jesus Christ has rightly been called the "Secret Government" of the Planet Earth! Governments have been placed in the world to bring law and order, to reflect the just character of God, and to reward good citizenship and meritorious behavior. But only one group of people in the world has the power and resources to alter the status quo. The church has been given an understanding of the root problems of mankind, and God's powerful solution to these problems. The world remains completely in the dark about these matters! Schools can not transform human nature. Medical science can not cure original sin which is the reason people grow sick and die. World religions do not impart eternal life nor can they forgive sin nor heal the inner man. Improving the economic situation of the poor, reducing unemployment, or raising health standards does not change the human heart. Only the true church can do this! In addition to all this responsibility here and now, God expects the church to judge angels (1 Corinthians 6:3) and the world as well (1 Corinthians 6:2)!
Adapting Biblical Truth to a New Generation
God usually gives local churches a set of distinctives or specialties they are to focus upon. The elders will need to periodically call the church back to these foundational principles as the membership changes and grows. But the church must also continuously adapt to changing culture around them. Jesus taught this at the close of his great parables in Matthew 13:
Then He said to them, "Therefore every scribe instructed concerning the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old."
Christians are to be "in the world but not of the world" but if God's people do not both know their Bibles and become astute world watchers, they will be of little use to God who loves the current generation as He does the previous. As mentioned above, all Christians are given spiritual gifts by the Spirit of God at the time that person becomes a Christian. The total number of gifts is about 19 or 22 and it is not unusual for Christians to have more than one. They are listed and described in 1 Cor. 12-14, Rom. 12:3-8. The spiritual gifts divide into "teaching gifts" and ministry or "serving gifts"--it is important for every Christian to discover his or her gifts and to allow Jesus to use us in accordance with these supernatural endowments. God is ready to begin to use His people in exciting ways. The usual obstacle seems to be that many Christians do not invite God to use them but prefer to think of Christianity as a spectator sport.
The Work of the Ministry
From the days of the apostles God established by appointment local leadership in each church. Ephesians 4 describes gifted teachers set apart by God for two purposes (1) to equip God's people for the work of the ministry, and (2) to build up the body of Christ to maturity. Authority in the church of Jesus Christ is very clearly described for us as "servant authority" not hierarchical management from the top down.
Jesus called his disciples to Himself and said to them, "You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42-45)
Leadership in the Church
Authority in Christ's church is based on how well we serve others! The spiritually mature members of the body of Christ carry more weight when they speak and act among us. But in the church our relationship with God is vertical as individual members of the body, and all other relationships between the members are horizontal. Even in the discipleship of new Christians the teacher is not "over" his student, he an older brother who is also learning and growing. Pastors and elders are not "over us" in the sense that the world uses these terms to describe our bosses and supervisors. The New Testament urges us to "be persuaded by" our leaders and elders and to hold them in highest regard because of their work. Furthermore elders and leaders must give account to God concerning their care of each member of their flock, so we sheep are to work together in serving and helping them and supporting their God-given special assignments in the Body. The life of the real church is distributed all week long so the elders and leaders and "central" staff should of course go where the church goes as much as they are able during the week.
"Obey (be willing to be persuaded by) those who rule over you ("stand before you"), and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you." (Hebrews 13:17)
Unity of the True Church
The Body of God, as God adds to it one member at a time, has a built-in unity which needs only to be discovered and preserved,
"I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with long-suffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." (Ephesians 4:1-3).
Jesus prayed for the unity of His church down through 2000 years, but this unity is organic and largely invisible, it does not come by visibly uniting churches into denominations with a central top-down command structure. The so-called "high priestly" prayer of Jesus just before He went to the cross tells us a lot about God's plans and program for the church:
Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: "Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do. And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was. I have manifested Your name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world. They were Yours, You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they have known that all things which You have given Me are from You. For I have given to them the words which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me. I pray for them. I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them. Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in Your name. Those whom You gave Me I have kept; and none of them is lost except the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare [it], that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them." (John 17)
Elders and Deacons
Church government in the local church as given to us in the New Testament includes the appointment of elders and deacons. These mature shepherds and servants (whose credentials are very carefully defined in the New testament) hold their offices especially to guard (1) the kerygma (teaching and doctrinal content) and (2) the koinonia. (the fellowship or quality of spiritual life in the assembly). Elders and church staff members are not however program managers! Jesus is the Lord of the church--He wishes to run all church affairs through the members of the Body. The elders and deacons watch over the flock to guard against danger, and to encourage new and genuine workings of the Holy Spirit. Because of their experience and depth of knowledge these gifted special members of the local church are vitally important if the church is to function as God intended. Elders are called to be alert to false teachers and faulty doctrine which deflects the church away from her main callings and weakens and destroys the assembly. If uncorrected, doctrinal error will be sufficient reason for the Lord of the church to remove the Lampstand from a church, leaving it powerless and ineffective. Deacons guard the ministry of the church--the serving aspects of Christian life. Teaching and serving are the two main functions of the church. Leadership and administration are gifts of the Spirit found throughout the church and these gifts are especially helpful when they are also found in staff, elders, and deacons.
"When Jesus sent the disciples out into the world in what is called 'the Great Commission,' he said, 'Go into all the world, preach the gospel to every creature and lo, l am with you even unto the end of the age.' (Matt. 28) That is the great and exciting fact that the churches of our day have largely forgotten. In church after church that I visit, I detect very little consciousness that people think of Christ as being a living Lord in their midst; that Christ is still in his church, ready to direct its activities which will challenge the culture of the day and explore the great possibilities that arise as the changing circumstances of men's lives create hunger for deliverance from bondage, slavery, degradation, heartache and misery. It takes a living Lord in the midst of his people to direct the activities of the church, and the elders are the human instruments for the divine direction of the church. They are the means, the channels through which these innovative, surprising approaches to life, which the Lord in his church knows about, are carried out and brought into being through the body of Christians who meet together.
"I hope it is clear to all of you that every Christian is in the ministry. The moment you became a member of the body of Christ you are in the ministry, and you are given gifts for ministry. It is not the elders who are to do the work of the ministry-you are. You are directly related to the Lord Jesus so that he can say to you at any time, 'I have opened up a door here in your neighborhood for you. I want you to reach these people.' That is the way the Lord works. Elders are to be watching for this. That is what the word for elder, episkopos means--'looking over.' Elders are to be looking to see what the Lord is doing with his people and utilizing the opportunities that arise on every hand. They are to be instructed in what the Lord has said in his Word so as to be able to guide this new and exciting thing that is coming into being, correcting it if need be. That is the work of elders. So it is a 'noble task,' as Paul says.
"To be an elder is to be, in a sense, at the control board of the most dramatic and exciting thing going on in any day, at any time, because the church, in God's estimation, is the most important body in the world. God has set the church at the center of life. He has given us the opportunity to control the level of morality around us, the openness of people to hear and respond to his Word. To be given a position as one of those leaders through whom the mind of Christ is revealed and who is able to encourage and train the people of God to fulfill the ministry Christ has given them is surely a very exciting and noble task.
"Elders, as individuals, have no special authority. No elder can be a 'boss' in a church. Churches that allow pastors to become tyrants and dictators fail to fulfill the New Testament pattern. No pastor or elder is to be alone, individually, given any kind of authority. Elders are ordinary Christians, just like everyone else. They are brothers; they are not in command. But they, corporately, as a body of elders, are to meet together to seek the mind of the Lord. They know they have succeeded when, in the most remarkable way which only God could bring about, they agree together about what the Lord wants done. It is the Lord's task to so lead them through all the problems and difficulties and personal resistances of their own individual personalities to a sense of harmony and union, of unanimous agreement together. Then they have found the mind of the Lord for that church--not for other churches, only for theirs." (Ray C. Stedman, Series on I Timothy, DP#3770)
Neither Pope nor Mini-Popes in Christ's Church
Many churches today, probably most, have reverted to the senior pastor model of church government deliberately ignoring the clear teaching of the apostles to the effect that Jesus is the sole Head of the Church. There is to be no internal hierarchy in the church of Jesus Christ--which is a method which imitates the way worldly organizations operate. The claim of many modern churches is that decisions by a plurality of elders acting in unanimity does not work in practice. They say that the church should be led by visionaries and leaders who take charge and get the job done.
In churches where the governmental system is in the hands of elders and deacons who each have equal rank, the question to ask is whether or not the elders and deacons are qualified for their posts and eldering according to New Testament guidelines. If elders are elding according to New Testament teaching, the Lord Jesus Himself will step into the midst of His church and He will feel welcome there, and He will begin to act! Soon new life will break out all through the congregation. All of God's people will begin to feel important and useful to the Lord--as indeed they are important to the Lord of the church--He says so.
In churches where all final power and authority resides in a "senior pastor" at the top of the chain of command, the church may grow in numbers and appear to flourish for a season at least This does not mean the Lord of the church is pleased with what he sees. Jesus may even be excluded for all practical purposes, on the outside looking in, as was the case in the church of Laodicea (Revelation 3:20). If the pastor and "clergy" of paid professional ministers do all the work of the ministry the "laity" has nothing useful to do except to show up and pay the bills. But it is the people who are called to do "the work of the ministry" --this is the Biblical model of Ephesians 4.
Finally, there are major problems when a senior pastor falls into adultery or is otherwise disqualified and must be replaced. Pastoral search committees, like the headless horseman, then must frantically go forth on a "find and call" mission in order to quickly reestablish the worldly command and control structure of their church. Until the missing replacement head of the church is found, nothing works very well. in such churches All the while the real Head of the church silently observes as an outsider, unneeded and unwanted.
A plurality of teaching pastors does tend to help balance the overall teaching and preaching in a church, provided effort is made to maintain continuity and to be sure the overall body of knowledge the people are being given is complete and thorough. It is true that when there is no senior pastor, care must be taken to be sure the church does not default into government by committees. In churches where authority and leadership are distributed throughout the body there is always a need to maintain and to impart vision to the congregation as a whole. But, as a rule God does raise up mature and wise leaders in most churches in every generation. he does not leave His people forsaken like sheep without a shepherd.
Christians are called citizens of another world, ambassadors from a different kingdom (not of this world) temporarily on duty on planet earth in the service of their King Jesus. Thus they are to walk as a aliens, strangers, pilgrims leading distinctly different life-styles from the pagan life-styles that surround them in all sides (1 Peter 2:11-17). The world-system is controlled by Satan and is a hostile place for Christians. Furthermore, on a daily basis the follower of Jesus is opposed by the flesh, the world, and the devil. (1 Cor. 10:1-13)
Guarding the quality of the spiritual life (koinonia, the fellowship) is also of very great importance in a local church. In the Bible, leaven, (yeast), is a symbol of evil which corrupts. Five Types of Leaven in the church are described for us in the New Testament. Briefly these are: (1) The leaven of the Herodians (Materialism), (2) The Leaven of the Pharisees (Hypocrisy) (3) The Leaven of the Sadducees (Rationalism), (4) The Leaven of Legalism (Galatians), and (5) The Leaven of Sexual Immorality (I Corinthians). For special insights into the importance of guarding against leaven in the church see Ray Stedman's powerful and relevant exposition of the parables of Matthew 13.
Life in the Church
The church of Jesus Christ is called upon to cultivate a whole new world view in her members, and a set of values that run counter to the ways of the world at many points. This radically different lifestyle must be developed in the presence of resistance and opposition from within and without. This is one reason it is so important for the local church to seek biblical leadership and make sure the members are each spiritual alive and growing. The First Epistle of John emphasizes that truth, righteousness and love are all important. John means by righteousness that each believer should adjust his or her life style regularly so that one's outward actions in public and in private correlate with inward biblical truth. Godly elders with pastoral experience are again the men called by God to take the temperature of the body and monitor her health. They should take regular actions to keep the church vital, alive, growing, balanced, healthy. A lot of this task can be accomplished effortlessly when the leaders know their people well and are constantly alert and in in prayer about problem areas as they arise. Very often it is not what a given church is doing that is at fault, but often there are gaps where great areas of important truth are neglected or ignored. Also, leaders tend to forget the there is also a new generation of young believers moving up the ranks and they need to be taught all the same things the previous generation has to learn--truth does not pass by osmosis to the the newcomers.
As a family, the local church should schedule meals, informal get togethers, lots of small Bible classes, home meetings, and special seminars for its members. These are not to be alternatives offered to replace the world's forms of entertainment, but to create situations where family members may become better acquainted and find new ways to work together, and to help one other. As pilgrims on a journey, like the Jews during the Exodus from Egypt, the church is a great company of old and young, strong and feeble, rich and poor, all headed for Zion. God gives us wonderful traveling companions but we are to pay attention to all those God has called to be on the same journey as we.
The Power of the Church
Individual Christians are admonished to walk in the Spirit acting trusting in Christ who indwells them. Living in the power of the flesh (self-effort) does not produce live but death. Likewise the entire church is to live on resurrection power.
"I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way." (Ephesians 1:18-23)
Resurrection power comes from Christ Himself. When any of us come to Christ we are connected in a mysterious and marvelous way to the actual sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Our sins are transferred to Him ("He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us.."). We are identified in baptism not only with his dying on the cross, but also with His burial and resurrection. In this sense the cross is an even in eternity which protrudes into time. Paul reveals to us that in his own identification with Christ he is willing to be the channel by which God imparts new resurrection life to the church.
"I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church..." (Colossians 1:24)
"I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." (Galatians 2:20)
"For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to [give] the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed--always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus' sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you." (2 Corinthians 4:6-12)
Thus the church is a supernatural organism, a "great mystery" hidden for ages past and now made known. We are part of the greatest thing God is doing on earth today, we are part of
"...the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ; to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord..." (Ephesians 3:9-11).
The Armies of God
"The Lord is a man of war" says Exodus 15:3. Jesus, the head of the church--the coming King of Israel and ruler of the entire world--commands today a great army composed of men and angels. When Jesus returns to stand upon the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem He will first defeat in battle and overthrow the kings and generals of earth. When He comes He will bring with Him not only His holy angels but also His church,
Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His]robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS." (Revelation 19:11-16)
We are taught in the New Testament that our enemies in this world are not men nor the institutions of the world system, and yet as followers of Jesus Christ we are already, now, engaged in a great conflict. The church is neither a country club, not a safe place to retreat from the cares of this life--it is the assembly place where God's army on earth gathers to hear their Commander speak and to answer back the enemies of this present darkness with powerful weapons of military combat,
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled" (2 Corinthians 10:3-6)
Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual [hosts] of wickedness in the heavenly places.Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." (Ephesians 6:11-17)
The church which Jesus is building will overcome the world, her commander "always leads us in triumph" and she will find herself ruling and reigning with Christ in the coming age of the kingdom. She is the church militant and triumphant mentioned in the great hymns of the church. She is the Queenly warrior serving at the right hand of her king, Jesus the Lord.
"Who is she who looks forth like the dawn,
fair as the moon, bright as the sun,
terrible as an army with banners?"
(Song of Solomon 6:10)
* Other symbols of God and His relationships with His people
not limited to the church:
See also "The Names of God."
Stedman, Ray C. Authentic
Stedman, Ray C., Body Life (book)
Stedman, Ray C., What Did We Come Here For? (Worship)
Stedman, Ray C., Why Worship?(Worship)
Ritchie, Ron, Spiritual Gifts
Ritchie, Ron, et al., Deacons in the Church
Zeisler, Steve, Honored Servants (Deacons)
Winslow, Paul, Leadership in the Church
Stedman, Ray C., The Authority of the Word
Stedman, Ray C., A Pastor's Authority
Stedman, Ray C., On the Seven Churches, from Commentary on Revelation
Stedman, Ray C. Expository Studies in 1st John
Stedman, Ray. C. Expository Studies in I, II Timothy
Stedman, Ray C., The Lord and His Church
Leadership, Government, and Eldership Principles at Peninsula Bible Church
The Church and Israel--Compared and Contrasted
List and Description of the Gifts of the Spirit
The Church at the End of the Age--and What to Do about it
Jesus and His Church During the Tribulation
The Concept of the Remnant
Rediscovering the Body of Christ, Part II: Reforming the Church, added May 2, 2001.
February 6, 1998, Revisions, February 28, 1998.