Discovering Church in an Age of Deception – Part 2
In part one of this article, we came to realize how the spirit of deception sown by the god of this world has found its way into the church and has transmogrified the essence of biblical church from an organic to an organizational state of being. In this transformed state, ritual has supplanted relationships, creation of a clergy caste has usurped the priesthood of all believers and other worldly rewards have displaced the reality and joy of living the new life in Christ. Much of this has transpired as the focus and emphasis of church leadership has shifted from seeking first the kingdom of God to building ever increasingly larger congregations.
Throughout the long history of the church, these incremental changes have served to gradually morph the meaning of the church and the essence of what It really means to be a Christian. Rather than taking up Jesus’ call to follow we are now enjoined to embrace certain doctrines, teachings and dogmas as evidence that we are born again and bound for heaven and that other worldly reward. The Greek word for follow, akolotheo, is rich with significance for the believer. It means to join one as his disciple, to cleave steadfastly to one, conform wholly to his example, in living and if need be, in dying also. To this we add Jesus’ relevant words:
A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple to be like his teacher, and a servant like his master.” Matt 10:24,25 BSB
Only when we start with a biblically accurate concept of what it means to be a Christian can we discover the true essence of the church. Any expression of the church can only bear as much of the life of Christ as those who comprise it are willing to allow in their own lives. Understand here that I am not talking about so-called perfect people. No true Christian would ever claim to be perfect. However, all believers should be perfectly committed to being conformed to the image of Christ, to growing up into the full stature of his life. So, with Paul, we can admit that we have not arrived but that we “…press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.” All disciples bear similar characteristics which are mutually encouraged and enhanced through the building of meaningful relationships. These traits include humility, submission, teachability, receptivity to training and correction, accountability, a biblical world view, obedience to the ways of God, commitment to take up one’s cross and follow, and commitment to see others come into the fullness of Christ.
In the first century, persons were not received into the fellowship of the church before they demonstrated palpable evidence of a changed life. The church was looking for a change of belief, a change of behavior and a change of belonging. Evangelism took place outside the confines of the church proper. It was mostly one on one lifestyle evangelism that was practiced. Others saw something desirable in the lives of the disciples that drew them to Christ. In the beginning, salvation wasn’t principally about an other-worldly reward. It was about a new life lived out in Christ which brought joy, peace, fulfillment and rest in him. Salvation was about the shifting of one’s allegiance and loyalty from the kingdoms of this world to the kingdom of God. It was about a freedom to become everything in Christ he died for you to be.
Somehow over the centuries salvation became more about gaining heaven and avoiding hell. Somehow living by the new ethics such as found in the sermon on the mount and in all the teachings of Jesus were conveniently separated from one’s confession of faith in Christ. Discipleship became separated from evangelism and today has been made to be mostly optional. Discipleship is not an advanced course in Christianity for super believers and thus optional in one’s relationship with Jesus. Therefore, any presentation of the gospel which fails to distinguish the significance of counting the cost and attaching oneself to Jesus as his disciple is deceptive evangelism. It is deception by omission.
The apostle Paul was particularly emphatic and direct concerning any altering of the full message of salvation. In his epistle to the Galatians, he literally called down curses on anyone, himself included, who changed the message of the gospel from that which was originally preached. Paul was dealing with Judaizers who were attempting to retain certain elements of the Jewish law as part of the gospel. Whether adding to or subtracting from the true gospel of Jesus Christ, it is deception pure and simple.
Understanding what comprises the church can only be achieved if we also understand its purpose. If one believes the church is where unbelievers are brought to hear the gospel and be saved through the ministry of professional clergy, then the composition of the church will reflect that idea as well as will the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in its midst. Obviously, I don’t share this perspective. I believe the church, as the body of Christ and the temple of God, is also God’s spiritual instrumentality for furthering the perfection of the saints in Christ.
Jesus promise of his presence is specifically to his own:
For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” Matt 18:20 NKJV
For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.” Matt 18:20 NLT
The passages immediately preceding this promise are virtually all about the functioning church. Here in this passage is Jesus’ assurance of his presence given the gathering of his own. This is not speaking of a random or haphazard meeting that just happened to take place on a whim. The Greek word which is translated “gathered together” is soonago and has the following meaning: to be led together, called together, brought together by convoking. This is speaking of an intentional convocation under the auspicious of Jesus. The bottom line, the church can be defined as the calling together of the disciples of Jesus Christ.
This is what Elton Trueblood developed in his book, The Company of the Committed. Trueblood relates that to be an effective Christian, it is not enough to be an individual believer. “Inadequate as the fellowship of the Church may be, in many generations, including our own, there is not the slightest chance of Christian vitality without it…The crucial question today is not whether we must have a fellowship…the crucial question concerns the character of the fellowship.”
Lee Camp, in Mere Discipleship, puts it this way: “Church is, in other words, simply a community of disciples, gathered together to order their lives according to the will of their Lord who lives still in their midst.”
Sometimes in understanding what something is, it is helpful to first see what it is not. In getting a handle on what constitutes authentic church, I would like to suggest what is not necessary in a biblically functioning church. The church does not require its own building configured with steeple, pews, altar rails, raised platform with flags, candle sticks, lectern and pulpit and a choir and contemporary worship band. It does not require a seminary-trained, ordained-by-a-denomination pastor. There is no need for a precise liturgy. Becoming the real church does not require a denominational affiliation or even a name. Unfortunately, many believers would be entirely lost in their religious experience without most of these props. Probably this is because church has become something they attend rather than who they are. Most believers today are trained to be spectators interspersed with some choreographed participation. Is this what the pristine church was? Is this what enabled the early church to thoroughly permeate the Roman Empire? Is this what 1st century believers were willing to die to be part of?
In Peter’s letter to what was mostly Jewish Christians, he says some astounding things. Peter, as well as most of those he was writing to, would have had a good understanding of the Old Covenant and the Law of Moses. They knew what their heritage was and that their life with God began with the call of Father Abraham. As an ethnicity, a distinct people group, they understood how God had created them to be his very own special people. Therefore, when Peter applied the very same descriptions and claims God used with the Jews to the New Covenant believers in Christ Jesus, it must have been an incredible eye-opening revelation to them. They must have truly begun to comprehend how they were indeed the new Israel of God. In this light, consider these passages:
As you come to Him, the living stone, rejected by men but chosen and precious in God’s sight, you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, to proclaim the virtues of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God…” 1 Peter 2:4,5,9 BSB
Living stones, a holy priesthood, a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, the people of God…This had to be about as heady as it could get for these young followers of Jesus. Once again God had established a unique people through the efficacious sacrificial work of his Son on the cross. However, this time it wasn’t with a covenant and Law that was written in stone; this time it was with the incarnational reality of Christ in you, the hope of glory. This time it wasn’t just the high priest who could enter the holiest place where God dwelt. Now every follower of Jesus had access to Almighty God the Father through the Son. Peter was describing at one and the same time both the composition and the function of the church. These living stones being formed together into a spiritual house for God were none other than committed disciples of Christ. Their commitment included continuing to carry out the incarnational reality begun in Jesus. It meant continuing Jesus’ life on earth through the principle of the cross allowing him to live his life through them.
I have argued so far that being a Christian is biblically tantamount to being a disciple of Jesus Christ and that the true church is the called-together assembly of Jesus’ disciples. The question now is how the church functions without all the religious props we have been trained to accept, expect and practice most of our lives. For most, this represents a tremendous paradigm shift accompanied with fears of leaderless, directionless and meaningless gatherings. Please start by accepting some new premises. The church can gather faithfully in a building which was not specifically designed to accommodate formalities, liturgies and professional clergy. The church can enjoy pastoring without seminary trained denominationally ordained pastors. The church can worship without a designated worship leader, choir and full-blown worship team. The Word can be shared, worship can flow, prayers can be raised, the gifts of the Holy Spirit can be manifested and Jesus can be exulted when the gathered disciples choose to function as the priesthood they were ordained to be. However, for this to become a reality, the shackles of spectatorship have to be cast off while the responsibility to bring something of one’s life in Christ to others must be put on.
We find in 1 Corinthians 14:26 some very valuable direction:
How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.” 1 Cor 14:26 NKJV
Here Paul is giving some very practical direction, encouragement and even caution to the early church. To begin with, does anything in this concise verse suggest what mostly constitutes worship in the majority of church services today? What Paul is encouraging is far from the prepared, choreographed and professionally led rituals witnessed by complying spectators. Paul was talking to “priests.” He was talking to those who faithfully spent time in the presence of God that they might present the fruit of that union in the company of the committed.
In examining this passage, it is important to understand that Paul was not providing the church with a definitive list of behaviors or activities for their meetings. He was priming their pump. He was making suggestions that would guide them in the proper direction. The overarching guideline was twofold: firstly, all believers were encouraged to function in a priestly manner, to bring something of the life of Christ to others, and secondly, everything that was shared should serve to build others up in their faith. It is obvious from Paul’s suggestions that he was also encouraging the spiritual, supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit.
One can readily see from the beginnings of Paul’s epistle that the Corinthian church seemed well endowed with gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paul was in this text shaping and guiding that gifting in the right direction. It seems obvious from this passage that the principal function of the church was the mutual spiritual care and feeding of its members. It is kind of like a church potluck dinner where everyone brings something to share. In the process, everyone is in turn nurtured. Likewise, the spiritual feeding within the body of Christ is meant to come through its various members. What Paul expressed to the followers in Philippi should be the heart cry of every true disciple of Christ: “…I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be.” We are called together in mutual concern and participation in one another’s coming into the full stature life in Christ. Failing of this, we would find ourselves in denial of the body of Christ.
In our earlier passage from 1 Peter 2, we saw ourselves being likened unto living stones whom God was building—the act of edifying—together into a spiritual house for himself. We are the edifying agents in this wonderfully God-ordained event. Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains that Christianity means community in and through Jesus Christ. Being a Christian means we no longer strive for salvation, deliverance and justification within ourselves. We therefore need one another for the life in the Word of God spoken to us through another.
Help must come from the outside…in the Word of Jesus Christ, bringing redemption righteousness, innocence and blessedness. But God has put this Word into the mouth of men in order that it may be communicated to other men. God has willed that we should seek and find his living Word in the witness of a brother…Therefore, the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him…And that also clarifies the goal of all Christian community: they meet one another as bringers of the message of salvation.” (Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1954)
Discovering church: The called together disciples of Jesus, speaking forming, shaping words of God to one another, calling one another into completion in Christ that God might have a house and Jesus a body.