Monday, 19 October 2009

What is the Church? Part 1

Have you ever asked yourself the question, “What is the church?” If you are a believer, it’s a good question to ask. There are lots of definitions around today, and depending on which one you believe, will radically effect the way you do church. In order to fully understand church we need to do a number of things. First we need to explore the pages of scripture to see what God has to say. It is after all His church.

Second we need to look at history to see where we got it right and where we got it wrong. “Any people not interested in their past are not likely to be much concerned over their future.” So says Dr. Winthrop S. Hudson, president of the American Baptist Historical Society. I agree. If we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. I may have what I believe is a Biblical view of church that has been tried in the past with disastrous results. I would be wise to know that.

Finally we need to be sensitive to how we outwork our understanding of church within our cultural context. Some things don’t cross over. Preaching for an hour and a half in Africa is possible but in most Western churches it is a big ask. In this series I will try and integrate all three of these approaches as we look at this important subject.

Here are some statements I often hear that bother me. “I don’t need to go to church I am the church”; “You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian”. There is enough truth in them to be believable and enough error to be deadly to any real spiritual progress. And that is the problem with lies. They always contain an element of truth that is taken to an extreme. I will challenge both these statements along the way by explaining my understanding of church. Further, I will try to show how deeply rooted these statements are to a Western mindset.

We find the word church on the lips of Jesus in only two places in the gospels, Matt 16 and Matt 18. The first time the church is introduced is when Peter has a revelation of the person of Jesus. He finally gets who Jesus really is. No one told him this truth. It came by revelation from the Father. The Jesus he had followed, heard speak and seen heal was in fact the Messiah; more than a prophet, more than a good man and more than a great teacher. And when Peter sees who Jesus is, Jesus begins to tell Peter who he is – a piece of the rock built onto the foundation of Jesus Himself. That’s how it works. We get to know who we are by getting to know who He is first.

The second time Jesus mentions the word church is in Matt 18. It is in the context of church discipline and dealing with personal offences. I will return to this text later in the series. For now the key thing to observe is that both these passages are highly relational. They point to the reality that church is about people in relationship with Jesus and in relationship with each other. This is foundational. Before we commit to buildings or programs we commit to Jesus and each other.

The first distinguishing feature of the church is that it is a regenerated community of Spirit-filled believers. The New Testament bears witness to the life changing power of Jesus Christ. People are lost; dead in trespasses and sins, Eph 2.1. Jesus has made forgiveness and reconciliation possible. We can be born again or born from above, John 3.3. Jesus doesn’t just model a new pattern for living; He imparts His life through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. And His Spirit fills us in order for us to continue in His mission, Acts 1.8.

This is what distinguishes the church from a club or any other association. It is not first and foremost organisationally constituted. It is organic. He is the head and we are the body of Christ. It is relational, not just at an emotional and intellectual level but at a spiritual level. Regardless of our past we must all wrestle with the claims of Jesus and His gospel. The Corinthian church had some very shady people with very shady pasts. Paul lists their sins; fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers and extortioners. He declares; “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the Name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God”, 1Cor 6.11.

They had a past but God broke in and changed them, renewed them, regenerated them. Now they were indeed the church, despite their immaturity and failure to live up to their call. And that is why Paul wrote to them. He needed to address issues that were hindering their witness and progress in the faith. Their past no longer defined them – the gospel did. They were now under the Lordship of Jesus and that had to be worked out in the context of community; the community of faith residing in the midst of the larger community acting as salt and light.

Jesus was anointed by the Spirit, Luke 4.1,18. He lived with a conscious sense of His presence. Not only that, He moved in the power of the Spirit, Luke 1.14. And John prophesied that it would be Jesus who would baptize believers in the Holy Spirit. It was that baptism on the day of Pentecost that literally gave birth to the church. It makes the church highly distinctive and unique. We cannot fulfil our call or the mission of Jesus without the ongoing power and filling of the Spirit. When we sin we grieve the Spirit and in time power is lost to the church. We lose our distinctiveness. The salt loses its savour.

It is not enough to be regenerated. We need to heed Paul's advice to ‘walk in the Spirit’, Gal 5.16 and to be ‘filled with the Spirit’, Eph 5.18. This verse has a number of features in the Greek. It is in the present continuous tense. A better translation might be, “be continually being filled”. It is also on the imperative mood, which means it is a command. We don’t have any real choice if we are to be obedient disciples. This is not about being Pentecostal it’s about being Biblical. Finally it’s in the passive voice, meaning we can’t make it happen. We can only position ourselves in faith to receive what God wants to do; fill yeilded vessels.

The second distinguishing feature of the church is Biblical leadership. I grew up in a little Brethren church. There were many things about it I can commend. The sincerity of the friendship, the hospitality, the commitment to simplicity and scripture were all helpful foundations for me. However, there was such a strong emphasis on the universal priesthood of all believers that little room was left for real leadership to be practiced. My recollection of the elders was that for the most part they functioned more like caretakers and managers than leaders.

For the church to be the church there must be qualified leadership. And by qualified leadership I don’t mean those who have a BA in theology or have been to seminary. That may help. I mean that the leaders have a clear sense that they are called and gifted by God for this function. For leadership is a gift, Rom 12.8. It is Christ’s gift to the church to equip and mature the church. He does not leave it leaderless.

In Matt 9.36-38 we have a telling account that reveals a lot about Jesus attitude to leadership. But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The Harvest truly is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the Harvest to send out labourers into His Harvest”.

The word for weary is better translated harassed. It’s not simply that they were tired. They felt ‘got at’, by life, by circumstances, by others. The problem was a lack of shepherds; people who could care and help, the way Jesus did. People with hearts like His, moved with compassion for their distress. God’s love for people is demonstrated by Him giving leaders – shepherds after His own heart, Jer 3.15, “who will feed you with knowledge and understanding”.

Many of the leaders in Israel were sent to “Shepherd” the nation. David is the prime example. He was a warrior, a poet and a King but fundamentally he was called to shepherd Israel; 2Sam 5.2, Ps 78.72. When Ahab betrayed this sacred trust God warned him of Judgment. Eventually he died in battle. Micaiah prophesied the outcome of the war he would have with Syria; “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, “These have no master.....” 1Kings 22.17. The sheep were scattered because their evil leader was dead. In the same way Jesus prophesied the impact of His arrest, trial and death; Then Jesus said to them, "All of you will be made to stumble because of me tonight, for it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.' Matt 26.31. A lack of leadership leaves the sheep vulnerable.

And so Jesus encourages His disciples to pray. Pray to the Lord of the Harvest for labourers to be sent out into His harvest. Notice there is nothing wrong with the harvest. That’s not where the problem lies. Unsaved people with needs are all around us. We need leadership; labourers who can shepherd like Jesus does. Jesus took time to train twelve men who could lead the church into His mission. It was the first issue that the apostles resolved in the book of Acts. They replaced Judas.

When the Holy Spirit began to form disciples from those who shared the gospel with non-Jews, Barnabas was sent by the apostles to Antioch to see what was going on. He ‘saw’ the grace of God at work, Acts 11.23. A great many people were added to the Lord. But Barnabas knew that if this was going to have any meaningful shape to it as a church it needed leadership; a specific kind of leadership; one that understood the universal nature of the gospel. And so instead of returning to Jerusalem he went off to Tarsus to seek for Saul. Together they met with the church. What God had begun they gave shape to. That is what leadership does. Antioch became the foremost missionary sending church in the NT.

Notice that in Acts 13.1 Luke records the names of the leaders in Antioch along with their spiritual gifting. What began with Paul and Barnabas grew and three more leaders were added in the first year. Notice too that Luke does this to help us understand that when the Holy Spirit separated Paul and Barnabas there were three others leaders in place to take over. They did not leave a leadership vacuum, Acts 13.2-3. God’s care for the flock is always expressed through the appointment of shepherd or servant leaders.

When Paul wrote to the elders at Ephesus he reminded them to, “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock of God among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood”, Acts 20.28. Paul was leaving these men. He did not anticipate seeing them again; so he reminds them of their mandate. This was Paul’s pattern throughout all his church planting activity. He established churches and then appointed elders. It is why he left Titus in Crete, Tit 1.5; and why he sent Timothy back to Ephesus years later. New leaders needed to be appointed because Hymenaeus, Alexander and later Philetus had strayed concerning the truth, 1Tim 1.20; 2Tim 2.17-18.

In the first missionary journey recorded by Luke we find new believers referred to as disciples, brethren or believers. It is not until Paul appoints elders that they are called a church, Acts 13.52; 14.2, 20-22; 23. In the NT governance is an important part of what constitutes a church, for without it there can be no discipline, equipping or maturity, Eph 4.11-16. Paul sees this authority as necessary for the good of the church, 2Cor 1.24; 10.8-11.

So we need good leaders. I find that there is an absence of Godly leadership in the church. When I first went into ministry people emphasised the call of God. We don’t hear much of that today. We speak of salaries, job descriptions, boundaries and accountability. All that stuff has its place. But fundamentally we need to know we are called. Moses had that conviction as did Joshua, Samuel and Jeremiah. They all had an encounter that left them with an overwhelming conviction that they were first and foremost a servant of God.

At Paul’s conversion Ananias prophesied that he was a ‘chosen bear My Name before Gentiles, Kings and the children of Israel, Acts 9.15. He had a deep sense of call. This is what Jesus is telling us to pray for in Matt 9.38. We need the Lord of the Harvest to ‘send out’ labourers into His Harvest. The Greek for send out here is telling. It comes from two words; ek – out of and Balo – to throw. It is the word consistently used in the NT to describe the action of Jesus when He commanded demons to leave people. They were ‘sent out’, thrown out, cast out.

A certain violence or conflict seems to attach itself to this phrase. In the same sense God had to challenge many of the leaders He called. Moses was reluctant to go, as was Gideon and Saul. There is an inertia that must be overcome. Just like a space craft has a huge rocket to help it break through the earth’s atmosphere so we need an initial thrust to launch us into ministry. Once in space retro rockets are sufficient to steer the space shuttle. Jesus is clear. Sheep need a shepherd but God has to be the one who calls them. Ordination is only a formal recognition of what God has done. As John the Baptist said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from Heaven”, John 3.27.

Without leadership we may have a group of disciples but we don’t necessarily have a church. It may be a church in potential or it may just be a group of disgruntled Christians avoiding real accountability or hurt from overbearing leaders in the past. Our willingness to trust again is crucial to our wellbeing. Without taking that step we are locked in to the pain and disappointment of the past. Kings rose up in Israel that did not follow God. Consequently they were scattered. But when the people turned to God, He gave them good Kings – and they dared to trust again.

When on the run from King Saul David attracted all the men who were in distress, in debt or discontented to him at the cave of Adullam, 1Sam 22.2. Perhaps they felt they had no other option. He became Captain over them, the text says. By the time we read of them in 1Chron 11 he has transitioned most of them into mighty men; outstanding men of valour. This is what Godly leadership is able to do and why we desperately need it in the church.

My prayer is that we will be careful when we talk about church. We need a fresh appreciation for what Jesus died for; “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her....Eph 5.25”. When we talk against the church we dishonour the head of the church. Rather we should be moved with compassion to pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send out labourers into His Harvest. And when they come, let’s welcome them and make room for them. They can help us prepare the Harvest for the end of the age.