Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Church Reform - Membership and Discipline

I am a Southern Baptist. Most statistics I have seen suggest that there are 16 million of us. Unfortunately, only about 50% or so bother to attend church on any given Sunday. I imagine that percentage is similar for many other denominations as well (at least in the USA). What does this mean? It indicates that in most cases church membership means little to nothing. Because of this, the church often ends up looking like the world.

In the early church, we see a community that looks very different from the world. A glance back at Acts 2 and 4 makes this very clear. That church was by no means perfect (see Ananias and Sapphira); however, in general the early church looked far different from the world in which it lived. Today, how can we get back to looking like the early church? Is there anything that can be done?

I believe a key in all this is the combination of meaningful church membership and church discipline. If these are put in place, then the church should look far different from the world. Let’s take a look.

In many Southern Baptist churches (I use SBC churches as an example because they are what I know best), all a person has to do to join the church is to “walk the aisle” and tell the pastor that he wants to join. The pastor announces this and the body gives a hearty “Amen.” That’s it.

In the above situation, the church body is inviting a person to join with no evidence that the person is even saved. This leads to unregenerate church membership, which in turn creates all sorts of problems. What could be better?

Why not have prospective members have to wait a while prior to joining? This would allow the body to watch their behavior. If true Christians bear fruit (see John 15), then it will be clear who is saved and who is not. During this time, these folks could also take a few classes offered at the church in basic doctrine, church history, ministry opportunities, etc.

Related to this, new members should have to agree to live by a church covenant, which of course would be based entirely on scripture. This covenant, which all the members would agree to live by, would state both what the church believes and how they are going to live. A key aspect in a covenant should be the “one anothers” of life in the church; members would be clearly told that they are to love one another, care for one another, etc.

Part of the covenant must state the standards by which the church body will live. If these are followed, then the community will look much different from the world. If these standards are broken, then church discipline comes into play.

Church discipline is a practice that used to be alive and well in American churches. However, it is rarely seen today. Within SBC churches, discipline is something that most members do no even know exists.

When enacting church discipline, churches must be careful to follow the biblical model. Discipline should only be applied to an unrepentant member. The goal of discipline should always be repentance and restoration.

When a member is in unrepentant sin, the process seen in Matthew 18 must be followed. This should be followed methodically, and the member should be given time to repent. Passages such as I Corinthians 5 and Galatians 6:1 should be consulted also. Again, the goal of church discipline must be the restoration of the member. Those enacting discipline should also beware of pride during this process.

To summarize, churches today do not look much different from the world. This can and must change. How is this to happen? Churches must switch to practicing meaningful membership and consistent discipline. In essence, this means that it becomes more difficult to become a member, and more of a responsibility once you become one.

The purpose of all this must be the glorification of God through the practices of a holy church.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Safe Return from the Frozen Tundra

We thank the Lord for returning us safely to our home in Georgia after two weeks in the frozen tundra of northern New York State. We had a very nice time visiting with Alice's parents up in the "North Country." We were on the road for the last several days, so I decided to take a break from the Church Reform series for a bit. I'll get another post out later this week. As for the photos here, the first one shows me just after my daughter Mary dumped a shovel full of snow in my face - that was a joy. Other pictures show a lot of snow and cold, our snow fort, and our van after we reached Virginia. Needless to say, I quickly took the van to a car wash for a de-salting. Our kids could play in snow forever, but I've had enough to last me a couple of years. I remember why we moved south.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Church Reform - Edification and Fellowship

Most church families like to spend time together. I think this is a wonderful thing. Some people criticize churches by saying that they care too much about each other, and not enough about the lost world. Frankly, I do not see this as an “either/or” issue. Yes, churches should care about lost people. But it is also fine and good for them to care about each other.

If we return to Acts chapters two and four, we see people who enjoy being together. Acts 2:42-47 says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

A simple look at these verses tells us that the early church enjoyed being together. In fact, they probably spent much more time together than churches do today. As the church gradually faced more persecution from the pagan world, I imagine that they continued to fellowship with one another a great deal.

When the church gathers for fellowship today, what do we see? In many churches fellowship = food consumption. When the food (meal) is gone, the people go home. I’m not sure why this is the case, except that people have very busy lives and often are preoccupied with various sorts of entertainment.

While the early church appeared to actually share their lives with one another and depend upon one another, the church today seems to like spending time together, but does not actually depend on one another. This is a sad thing. When we rely upon the Lord first, and our Christian brothers and sisters second, I believe we have the sort of fellowship that Christ desires.

Another key thing to keep in mind is that when the church comes together (for fellowship, worship, discipleship, etc.), all things should be done for the edification of the body. In I Corinthians 14, where we actually get a peek at the gathering of the early church, we see the word “edification” used four times (NKJV translation). I Cor. 14:26 tells us, “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.”

So whenever the church gathers, everything that occurs must be done for the edification, or the building up, of the body of Christ. This includes fellowship.

If real fellowship means more than hanging out together at a meal, what can we do to move toward real dependency upon one another? If all things that occur when fellowshipping are to be done for edification, how can we spur this on? How do we promote real, biblical fellowship?

I have a few ideas, but would really like to hear from you all. Honestly, I’m somewhat stuck on what to suggest here. This is what I have at this point:

  1. The church must teach what biblical fellowship is, and how that differs from what we often see today.
  2. Along with #1, the church must teach about how important edification is.
  3. The church should have more opportunities to get together when specific programs are not scheduled. These get-togethers often lead to genuine, Holy Spirit-guided interaction and fellowship.
  4. The church needs to rid itself of as many committees and extra programs that it can.
  5. The church should encourage all members to take the time to get to know one another, serve one another, and share life with one another.
  6. The church needs to strive to meet one another’s needs. In general, those within the church should not have to depend upon government sources to meet their needs.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Church Reform - Prayer

If the bible is the primary way that we know God and how to please him, then prayer is how we experience God and communicate with him. The bible and prayer are not an “either/or,” but a “both/and.” Churches need the bible and prayer.

As Christians, we know that we need to pray personally. In fact, we are told to pray “without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17). In this post, I will not be addressing personal/individual prayer, but will focus instead upon how the church prays when it gathers.

When you gather with your church family to pray, what happens? What are the priorities? Who prays? What is the focus of the prayer?

The answers to these questions will certainly differ from local church to local church. However, I’m afraid that many times the prayers of the local church look something like this: It is the pastor who prays the most, especially at the Sunday morning service. On Wed. night, at “Prayer Meeting,” the body’s prayer requests mostly focus on the physical ailments of the membership. In general, when prayer happens, the priority is not the glory of God. The priority is not for the salvation of souls. Prayer also seems to lack expectation that God will act. These are generalizations, but they are accurate in many churches.

When we read the scriptures, what do we see? Three things stand out to me. First, we are given, by our Lord, clear evidence that prayer should focus first and foremost on the glory of God. In Matt. 6:9-13, commonly referred to as “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus instructs us to begin praying for the glory of the name of God himself. Related to this, in John 17, Jesus begins his prayer to his Father by praying that God would be glorified. This seems to be the first priority of prayer.

A second aspect of prayer we see in the bible is prayer for the lost to be saved. In Acts chapter two, we read about the early church in action. One of the characteristics of the church was prayer (2:42). A few verses later (2:47), we read that “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” Later in the N.T., in Romans 10:1, Paul writes, “Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.” It is clear that early followers of Christ prayed regularly for the lost to be saved.

Third, when we look at the early church, we see a body of believers who prayed with an expectation that God would act. As an example, Acts 4:31 says, “And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness.” Notice also that many people appeared to be praying. Furthermore, Paul tells us in Philippians 4:6-7, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Clearly, we are expected to pray with an expectation that God will act.

What can we do to follow the biblical model today? How can we get away from the “organ recitals” (prayer primarily for God to heal our relatives’ ailing organs) that we hear on Wed. nights? I propose a few ideas, but would as always like your help.

  1. When we have the opportunity to pray in the local church, let’s follow the model Christ has given to us.
  2. If we teach, we must take time to instruct the body in how Jesus said to pray, how Jesus prayed, and what the remainder of scripture says about prayer.
  3. We must encourage the church to set aside regular times for lengthy prayer where all members are involved.
  4. We must pray for the magnification of the glory of God’s name.
  5. We must pray for lost souls to be saved by God.
  6. We must pray with expectation that God will act.
  7. We should teach and model that prayer is a foundation for the church. Apart from biblical prayer, not much will happen.
What do you think?

Church Reform Series:

Getting Started
Definition of Church

Friday, January 18, 2008

Church Reform - the Family

I have chosen to follow the “Discipleship” post with this post on the family because it is my strong conviction that the church has the responsibility to assist families in the discipleship process. All we have to do is look to Deuteronomy and Ephesians to see this. However, let’s first take a brief look at the state of the family in the American church today.

When the typical family arrives “at church” on Sunday morning, an immediate segregation takes place. The parents go to an adult Sunday School class, the youth attend a youth class, the younger kids go to their areas, and the infants & toddlers are dropped off at the nursery. After Sunday School, the parents (most of the time) meet back up with their elementary age kids and head to the “worship service.” They sit together until it is time for “Children’s Church.” At that point, the kids leave for the remainder of the service. The youth, meanwhile, sit together in the service, and do not meet back up with their parents until after the service. When everything has concluded, the parents rush to the nursery to pick up the little ones.

What can we learn from all this? The modern American church has a philosophy that separation into age groupings is a positive thing. Almost all churches do this to one degree or another. What has this led to? Is it a positive thing? When we look at the church, we see families that, in general, do not hold to a biblical world view. Neither the children nor the adults are well-versed in the scriptures. Additionally, carnality within the church is not much different from what we see in our pagan culture. The majority of youth actually leave the church altogether once they graduate from high school.

I find it interesting that most churches defend their age segregation practices even though they cannot be supported biblically, even though age segregation is a relatively new phenomenon for the church (and is based upon secular, public school practices), and even though these practices simply are not effective in bringing about strong Christian families. When divorce, which destroys families, strikes inside the church as much as it does secular America, it is clear that something has to change when it comes to the family.

When we look to the scriptures, what do we see? We see many of the same things that I previously mentioned in the “Discipleship” post. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is again a key passage (click here to read passage). Another key passage is Ephesians 5:31-6:4 (click here to read).

Both of these passages show us that it is the parents’, and in particular the father’s, responsibility to teach the children about the Lord. This is beyond question. However, we do not see this when the church gathers. In fact, in most churches the philosophy is that people other than the parents should be teaching the children. This sends the message to the parents (intended or not) that the parents do not need to teach their children. Most fathers hear this loud and clear, and as a result do not obey the biblical mandate to teach their kids.

What can we do, then, to strengthen marriages, to strengthen families, and to promote fathers taking responsibility for spiritual leadership in their families?

First of all, churches must begin to stress repeatedly that fathers have to disciple their children in what it is to live a Christian life. This is simple obedience. The pastor-teachers of the church should equip the fathers to do this (see Ephesians 4:11-12). Because the fathers will have to study scripture in order to teach it, they will grow spiritually as a result of this. This, in turn, will strengthen both the marriage and the family. I highly doubt that many fathers who are consistently leading their families in devotions are also looking to get a divorce.

One option that I favor is a church taking a family-integrated approach. This model stresses the importance of the family remaining together during worship, and also spurs the fathers on in their discipleship roles. If you are interested in this model, or just in parents discipling their children, I highly recommend Voddie Baucham’s recent book entitled, “Family Driven Faith.”

Although I prefer the family-driven model, I don’t necessarily believe that this model itself will cure all the ills of churched families today. I also realize that the vast majority of established churches will not, under any circumstances, switch to a family-driven model. So what else can be done?

Churches must decide that families will be a responsibility. In light of this, those in leadership positions should determine to assist families in growing in Christ. As is mentioned above, this occurs most effectively when the biblical model is followed. Fathers and mothers should be not only encouraged to disciple their kids, but should also be taught how to do so. Many Christians have never seen this done because their parents didn’t do it. The pastors and teachers need to get very practical in how this is to occur, and even model it to the parents directly.

Another priority of the church must be to try to keep families together whenever possible. Without moving to a family-driven model, churches can make moves to head in this direction. I propose, for example, that churches do away with any form of “Children’s Church.” Families should be worshiping together. Related to this, the youth should sit with their parents instead of in a segregated group (I'm going to tackle the issue of the "youth group" in a later post). A family-integrated Sunday School class ought to be offered. When the church has activities, these should include the entire family whenever possible.

I realize that the above changes will not be welcomed by some people, but if churches want to strengthen families, at least some of these will be put in place.

In short, the two ways the church can strengthen the family are simple. First, keep the family together whenever possible. Second, exhort fathers to fulfill their duty of discipling their families. This is not a complex matter – it is simply a matter of obedience.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Church Reform - Discipleship

When it comes to the issue of discipleship, the American church is in desperate need of reform. I think we can all fairly easily agree on this.

We know that we have been ordered to make disciples. In Matthew 28:18-20, the command we are given by Jesus is not “to go,” but “to make disciples.” Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

American churches today desire to make disciples and are trying to do so, but are failing. We can easily see this by the large number of young people who graduate from high school and youth group, and then disappear from the church never (or rarely) to be seen or heard from again. It is also evident in the lack of biblical knowledge and holy living on the part of many/most church members today. Why is this happening? The reason is that the American church has strayed far from the biblical model for discipleship. What we see today in church is age-segregated Sunday School classes and (usually) Sunday evening “discipleship” classes. These are the primary means of discipleship within the American church.

What do we see in the bible? We must look to our Lord and our example in all things. Jesus spent approximately three years with his twelve disciples, teaching them all they would need to know for ministry after he ascended to heaven. Jesus spent time. Jesus exerted a great deal of energy. Jesus was intimately involved with his disciples. This is far different from what we see in churches today.

Another key factor we see in the scriptures is that the family should be the primary point of discipleship. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 says, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Similarly, we read in Ephesians 6:1-4, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

What is the pastoral role in discipleship? Is it the task of the leadership within the church to disciple the people? That is certainly part of it. However, a more important role seems to be the equipping of the body to do ministry, which would include discipleship. Ephesians 4:11-12 says, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

Keeping the biblical model in mind, what should we do today to help our churches be more effective in making disciples? Here are a few ideas:

1) We must imitate Jesus Christ in all things.

2) We must model appropriate discipleship to others (time, effort, intimacy).

3) If given the opportunity, we should teach appropriate discipleship methods (time, effort, intimacy).

4) Older, more experienced Christians should be strongly encouraged to disciple younger Christians on a one-on-one basis.

5) Family should be emphasized as the primary location for discipleship. Age segregated classes for children must not be relied upon to be the sole or even primary discipleship for kids.

6) Instead of offering “discipleship classes,” the pastoral staff should teach the body how to disciple others. One critical point of emphasis would be teaching fathers that it is their responsibility to disciple their children.

7) Evangelism and discipleship must be viewed as tied together. New believers should be (and probably want to be) discipled by those who shared Christ with them.

8) We must exhort all believers to be both discipling others and being discipled at the same time.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Church Reform - Worship

Worship is such a large topic that I certainly cannot begin to touch all aspects of it in a blog post (maybe one of you readers could do a series all about worship in the church; I would like to read that). Books have been written on worship by folks much smarter and more learned than I. Therefore, in this post I just want to focus on one aspect of worship that I believe is problematic in American churches today: the compartmentalization of worship.

If you walk into many evangelical churches today, you will eventually enter the “worship center” for the “worship service.” This seems to imply that worship does not take place in other areas of the church building, such as the Sunday School rooms. At some point early in the service, the “worship leader” will ask you to stand and worship (Does this mean that the people who read scripture, give a testimony, or preach are not leading worship?). The worship time is understood by many to be the time when the people sing. This seems to imply that the worship concludes when the people sit down after the last song. I’m not sure what everyone thinks is going on during the remainder of the service.

Most Christians realize that they need to worship more than just in song at church. They would probably admit that all of the service is actually worship. When asked about the rest of their lives, they would also probably say that they should be worshiping through prayer and bible study. Beyond that, they would say that they should be living out their Christian witness each day.

The problem I see is that Christians seem to be putting worship into different artificial categories. Worship is viewed as falling into the categories of worship in song at church, worship in private, and worship when serving others. What this leads to is a view of worship only taking place at certain times and places. It suggests a life where worship occurs in small blips here and there as the day rolls along.

This is not what the bible tells us about worship. I believe scripture tells us that worship is something that all followers of Christ should be doing at all times. The life of the Christian is a life of worship all day, every day. Romans 12:1-2 give us our daily “marching orders.” Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

We are to present our whole selves to Christ as an act of worship. This is something we are to do each day as a living sacrifice. This may certainly take place as individual worship (Psalm 95). It should also be expressed in corporate worship (I Cor. 14:26). As noted above, it must be a part of all of life (Rom. 12:1-2).

Hebrews 12:28-29 may help us see this more clearly. The writer of Hebrews tells us, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”

This verse falls into the broader section of Hebrews that is dealing with living out the Christian life (application of the wondrous truths found in the previous eleven chapters). However, these two verses also immediately follow a section of Hebrews chapter 12 that deals with individual and/or corporate worship. One thing we can glean from this is that the biblical writers did not intend for worship to be compartmentalized, falling into isolated acts throughout the day. Rather, we are intended to worship as a way of life. This may be through prayer, bible study, song, listening, service, living a holy life, etc. as described in the scriptures.

So what can we do to help our fellow Christians see that worship is not just singing on Sunday? What can we do to help our brothers and sisters in Christ realize that worship is not supposed to be isolated blips occurring here and there? Can we do anything to assist others is realizing that worship is a way of life?

These ideas may be a place to begin:

1) We must live this out. Others will see what we do. We must view worship as something we are doing all day, from scintillating times of prayer and song to acts that may seem like drudgery (washing dishes, taking out the trash). Let me say that I am in no way equating the importance of prayer with trash removal. What I am saying is that all acts that honor God should be viewed as worshipful.

2) When given the opportunity, we should teach this. The teaching may occur one-on-one, or in a group format (Sunday School, preaching, cell group, etc.). It would be interesting to ask churched people to write out their definitions of worship. You could then walk through Romans 12:1-2, and compare these two verses with what they had written.

3) Remind people that faith apart from works is not real faith. In other words, if they are only worshiping in tongue but not in deed, then they are not offering acceptable worship to God.

4) On a pragmatic note, it would do a lot of churches much good if they would simply rename a few things. For example, get rid of names such as “worship center,” “worship service,” “worship leader/pastor,” and “worship songs.” Be creative; this is not difficult. Names such as these only exacerbate the problem of worship compartmentalization.

Agree or disagree? Any other ideas to help the situation we face?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Where Did I Take this Photo?

I needed a short break from talking so seriously about the church. I'll return to that in a few days. Therefore, I took a photo of this semi-cute guy. Do you know who this is supposed to be? Do you have any idea where I took the picture?

When living in India, we developed a love for South Asian food. We now like to visit an Indian store in Savannah called Shivam (notice the "Shiva" in the name). While Alice looks for food items, I usually walk over to the false god side of the shop to see what's new. It saddens me and intrigues me at the same time. I took this picture while in that shop in Savannah. I think he is supposed to be the Buddha, but I doubt the real Buddha, if he was alive, would feel too flattered.

This picture reminds me of how the world is literally coming to us here in the USA. So even if we aren't called to move overseas to witness for Christ, there is a good chance that people from other parts of the world are coming to where we live. As Christians, we probably all need to be more aware of the fact that we can sometimes go to the "ends of the earth" by just by meeting those folks in our neighborhoods that might come from cultures that have little or no Christian witness.

Let's all be more proactive in finding out who has moved to our communities from other countries and/or cultures. Let's then be active and creative in trying to meet them with a goal of sharing the gospel. Alice and I are frequenting this Indian store in Savannah in the hopes of building relationships with the owners. It is a long road ahead, but we hope that someday they will reject Shiva, Buddha, and the other false gods to serve the one living, triune God.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Church Reform - Purpose

(I will be leaving with my family to drive from Georgia to New York State over the next few days. We are happy to be able to visit with Alice’s parents over the next week or so. During our trip, my access to the internet will be sporadic at best; therefore, I may not be able to moderate comments or post again for a few days.)

Let me say up front that I am not a fan of Rick Warren. However, that does not mean that he hasn’t done some good. One of his books, The Purpose Driven Church, has caused some people to do something they may never have done before: look at what the purpose is for the church.

While I do not agree with all of Warren’s conclusions, the very popularity of his book illustrates the need for churches in America to look at why they even exist, and why they do what they do. We all know that many churches gather a few times a week and do nearly the same things each time with no thought given as to why they do what they do. It is easy to do things just because they have “always been done that way,” and haven’t been altered for years.

Most of us have been able to visit, as we have traveled about to see family and friends, many different churches in our lives. Some of these local bodies seem to know why they do what they do, while others do not ever give it a thought. This raises an important question that all bodies of believers need to routinely ask: What does the bible say about the purpose of the church? Is there a core purpose around which the church should rally?

I believe the answer is yes. If we look in Ephesians, where Paul focuses quite a bit of his attention on the church, we get an answer. In the first three chapters, Paul deals with different doctrinal issues (much of it is about what God has done). In chapters four through six, Paul writes more about the application of biblical doctrine – how the Ephesians should live out the truths of chapters one through three.

At the end of chapter three, just before Paul transitions to application, he offers a short doxology to God. Keeping in mind that Paul has been talking about what God has done for his people (the church), we read in 3:20-21, “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

The primary purpose of God’s church is well stated in the phrase, “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” The main reason for the existence of the assembly of God’s people is that he be glorified and honored for who he is and what he has done.

Paul echoes this in another doxology, Romans 11:36 (again just prior to a call for application). In this verse, Paul writes, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

As the church, we should, therefore, be striving to glorify God through all we believe and practice. All of our gatherings, services, events, activities, etc. should be designed to honor the triune God.

Is this what we see in the church today? The answer is that it is very “hit-and-miss.” Some local bodies appear to be focused on this goal. Others have no idea what they are doing and don’t seem to care. My guess is that most churches fall somewhere in the middle.

So what needs to be done for a local assembly of Christians to focus on glorifying God in all they do? I’m suggesting the following:

1) Those with teaching responsibilities within the church need to directly teach from scripture what the purpose of the church is. Obviously, the two texts mentioned above are good starting points.

2) Based upon scriptural teachings, the church should develop a short vision statement that focuses on God’s glorification. This statement should be regularly stated by the church as a body and preferably memorized. Ephesians 3:20-21 would be great for this.

3) Using the vision statement as a guide, the church should work together to devise a mission statement for the church. This would be more detailed than the vision statement. It should be reviewed regularly to determine whether or not what the church is doing is focused on bringing glory to God.

4) Regularly remind the body that the vision is accomplished most readily when the body lives out the “one-anothers” stated in the bible. The body needs to avoid at all costs the temptation to rely on church programs for God to receive glory.

5) Avoid pragmatics.

6) Model church life after Acts 2 and 4.

What do you think the primary purpose of the church is? Do I have it right, or does scripture teach something else?

Do you have any other scriptures that would support the assertion that God’s glory is the main purpose of the church? What bible verses might suggest otherwise?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Church Reform - Doctrine

When writing a series of posts like this, it is difficult to determine what the correct order of topics should be. I’ll take my best shot at it, but I’m sure others would do it differently. Also, as we discuss these issues, I’m sure that we will find much overlap between topics.

In this post I’d like to address the issue of doctrine within the church. In the modern, American church, doctrine varies tremendously between different denominations and local bodies of believers. Therefore, I will have to deal with generalizations rather than specific instances.

For the most part, when Christians today hear the word "doctrine," they think that it refers to what they believe on subjects such as the trinity, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the atonement, the Holy Spirit, the church, etc. We face at least two problems with this. First, many Christians actually know very little doctrine beyond the bare basics of the gospel. Second, for those who do know quite a bit, their views often lead to arguments and division over minute doctrinal points. This is why we have multitudes of denominations in America.

When we look at the early church, what do we see? We know that doctrine was important, especially as it related to the purity of the gospel. Paul, in Galatians 1:8-9, wrote, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”

In I Timothy 1:3, Paul wrote, “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.” Along those same lines, Paul told Titus (2:1), “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.”

It is clear that doctrine was important. While it seems reasonable to assume that not everyone was an expert in biblical knowledge, we do know that the church in Acts 2 devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching (see Acts 2:42). Because of this devotion, the people seem to have been well-versed in doctrine.

Despite their knowledge of doctrine, this does not seem to have led to disunity in the church (as we often see today). Acts 4:32 tells us that they were “of one heart and soul.” The unity appears to have been very strong. I don’t see any denominations in scripture.

Why was this? Why did their knowledge of doctrine not lead to disunity as we often see it do today? I believe the reason is that while we think of doctrine as a group of beliefs, the early church thought of doctrine as something to be both believed and acted upon. A quick glance at the church in Acts shows us people who lived out their faith in how they cared for one another.

In Acts 4:32-35, Luke tells us, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

Those four verses are amazing to me. I’ve certainly seen isolated acts of charity within the church, but I’ve never seen anything like what we see described by Luke. My guess is that when people live out their doctrine, this causes unity to thrive. This will, in turn, cause less division over doctrinal issues.

I’m not suggesting that what we believe is unimportant. I do believe, however, that based upon what we see in the bible, the line for division should be the gospel (click here for more on this). It should not be the ordinances, music style, eschatology, Calvinism, etc. that cause us to separate.

Regarding doctrine, three problems today stand out to me: First, many Christians do not know doctrine. Second, for those who do know doctrine, it often ends up being a point of division. Third, many Christians view doctrine as simply a set of beliefs rather than something to be actively lived out.

So what can we do about these problems? I have a few suggestions, but I would also like to hear from you. Here is what I propose:

1) Doctrine must be intentionally taught in the church.
-Teach through books of the bible.
-Teaching must be based on the bible, not tradition.
-Along with scripture, teach through a confession of faith (I like this one).
-Encourage personal bible study.
-Work through a basic catechism with children (encourage fathers to take the
initiative in this) and new believers.

2) Doctrine should not be divisive after the gospel.
-Teach from John 17 and I Cor. 1 about the importance of unity.

3) Doctrine must be lived out.
-Teach from James 2 about faith and works.

Any ideas?

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Church Reform - Definition of Church

In order for reform within the church to occur, three basic things have to happen. First, we must take a look at what is happening in the church today (diagnosis). Second, we need to look at what the bible has to say (health). Finally, we have to figure out how to get from where we are today to what the bible describes (treatment).

One of the most important problems facing the church in America is a fundamental lack of understanding of what the church is. To put it another way, most Christians, if asked, could not provide a biblical definition for “the church.”

Why is this important? It is of critical importance because it dramatically affects the functioning of the church today. Because people do not know what the church is supposed to be (according to the bible), then almost any practice not forbidden by the bible is deemed acceptable when the church gathers.

It is not my intention in these posts to delve into the meaning of Greek words such as “ekklesia.” That has been done well in many other places (for treatment of this and many other subjects related to the church, click here).

When we look at the church today, what do we see? I’m afraid that in most cases we see an organization. For example, there is almost always a building that requires a great deal of time and resources; many times the building itself is even referred to as “the church.” Most churches also have a paid pastoral staff that has been hired to do most of the ministry. Service within the church is usually composed of either serving on one of many committees and/or participating in some of the many programs. When the church gathers, people scatter is different directions based upon the needs of the age groupings. Pragmatics tends to rule the day.

When we look in the bible, what do we see of the church? We can learn a great deal from the book of Acts. In particular, Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 4:32-35 are critical for a NT understanding of what the church is. In these two passages, Luke shows us that the early church was a community as opposed to an organization. The believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42). The Christians spent a great deal of time together, edifying each other and taking care of one another’s needs. They prayed fervently, and expected God to act. They were extremely generous. Finally, they were united in “heart and soul” (4:32).

A plain reading of the above two texts shows us just how far we have strayed today from the biblical plan for what the church is supposed to be. Can we return to this model? If so, how?

I’d like to propose a few things that I think/hope will help the church return to its NT roots. Here are three ideas:

1) Those in teaching positions must do two things at the same time. First, they must teach the church what the bible says the church is. Second, they must model this in all their actions. In this way, the people will hear and see the NT church in action.

How is this to be modeled? A key is that those modeling really try to get involved in the lives of other folks at their church. They do not rely on church programs to bring this about, but rather take the initiative to invest their lives in the lives of others. This will show community in action. This will edify the church.

2) Church members should encourage the church to do what it can to take the focus off the “organizational” type qualities of the church. For example, the church should do away with as many committees and programs as is possible. In conjunction with this, the people should be exhorted to practice serving by carrying out the "one-anothers" of scripture. This will cause them to invest in each other, while not depending on an artificial church structure to make this happen.

3) Unity should be stressed to the people as being non-negotiable. This should be taught from scripture on a regular basis. If taught and practiced by the leaders within the church, unity can become a cornerstone of the body. If this happens, then people will strive to understand one another, serve one another, and build one another up. This can only happen if the church is a community.

These are three simple ideas (simple in that they are easily understood; not simple in that not all people in churches today would want to see them happen). Some readers of this blog may say that these ideas are too simplistic and will not happen. I agree that reform is not easy. However, the church in this country is in peril. Something must happen. I believe that if we can get back to a biblical understanding of what the church is, then we will be moving in the right direction. We have to try.

Do you have any ideas? I would like to hear from you. I expect to learn a great deal from these posts based on your comments. Please don’t disappoint me!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Church Reform - Getting Started

I think the majority of us would agree that the church in America (I can’t speak for the rest of the world) is in desperate need of reform in a variety of areas. The need for reform ranges from discipleship to doctrine, from evangelism to edification, from giving to growth, and the list goes on.

Some folks would question whether or not reform is even possible. I believe it is. For example, the church in Corinth in the first century was an absolute mess and in need of many changes. The Apostle Paul did not give up on them, but instead visited with and wrote to them in order to bring about reform.

In order for reform to occur today, we must have some sort of goal to move toward. Of course, that goal must be the bible (this point is so obvious that I’m not even going to argue for it). The church in America falls far short of biblical standards in many areas. If reform is to happen, the goal and purpose must be to move the church to be more like what we read about in the New Testament.

In the bible, we have commands about how we should live, what the church should be like and do, etc. We also have what is modeled for us by the church in the bible. Often what is modeled is not commanded, and that is where we, in America, have run into so many problems.

It is my belief that most churches today want to follow the commands of scripture, but have little intention of following much of what is modeled in the New Testament. Just as one example of this, almost all churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper. However, only a small percentage do this as part of a larger meal, which seems to be what the early church did.

It is my contention that in order for real reform to occur, churches today must strive to not only follow the commands of scripture, but also must model their actions after the church of the New Testament.

In the upcoming weeks, I plan to look at various aspects of church life in America. It is my desire to discuss with you what the problems are, what we see modeled in the New Testament, and how we can work together to bring about reform.

I realize that ultimately only God will reform his church. However, we also know that he is faithful to his word, and desires that his people live according to it. I strongly believe that when we strive to be the church that he shows us in the bible, this pleases him and spurs him to bring about change.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Bad Parking Photos

Click here to see some bad parking photos taken by my wife Alice. I'm not sure what happened this day, but no one seemed to remember how to place the vehicle between the lines.

The Ubiquitous Misinterpretation of John 3:16

How have we gotten to this point? In evangelical Christianity, how have we arrived at the place where one verse dominates all others? How have we granted one particular verse the right to be the filter through which all others must pass? Why is John 3:16 always the first verse taught in Sunday School? On top of that, how have we arrived at the place where John 3:16 is not only ubiquitous in presence but also in misinterpretation?

One of the reasons for the ubiquitous presence of John 3:16 is that it is a fairly concise summary of the gospel (as single verses go, I prefer II Corinthians 5:21, but that is another matter). Also, John 3:16 is simple for almost anyone to memorize. Therefore, parents and Sunday School teachers like to teach it to children. I have no doubt that John 3:16 has helped some children understand the basics of the gospel for the first time.

John 3:16 is a beautiful verse. I cling to its truths. For example, I'm thrilled that God loves the world. I am overjoyed that He gave His one, unique Son. I'm extremely happy that God has said that whoever believes will not die eternally, but instead will receive the gift of eternal life. I'm happy that I memorized John 3:16 early on in life and have never forgotten it.

The problem for evangelical Christianity has come with the ubiquitous misinterpretation of the verse. Because the verse is the first one that many people learn, and because it summarizes the basics of the gospel, it holds a great deal of importance. If it is not interpreted correctly, this will cause many problems. This, unfortunately, has occurred and is still occurring in most of evangelical Christianity (at least in the USA) today.

The problem comes with over-interpretation. In other words, more meaning has been granted (by well-meaning people) to John 3:16 than the verse actually says. John wrote the verse to mean one thing; many people have added to what he wrote to make it mean more. I have written about this before, and will summarize it here: John 3:16 offers a simple, beautiful promise to us. We are instructed that God loves the world and gave his son. Because of this, whoever believes in Christ will receive eternal life. This is a straightforward cause-result statement.

John 3:16 does not tell us that God desires that everyone be saved. It does not say that God wills for everyone to be saved. It does not say that everyone can be saved. It does not tell us that men have freedom of the will.

Despite the fact that John 3:16 does not say the things in the above paragraph, most evangelicals believe and teach that it does. What we have today is a sort of “reign” of John 3:16. What do I mean by this? Not only is the verse misinterpreted, but it passes judgment on all other verses. I have experienced this several times. Here is a prime example: When I bring up Ephesians chapter 1, which says that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world,” I have been repeatedly told that this verse cannot possibly mean that God actually “chose” us. Then I am told that this is because man has free will. Why? Because, so I’m told, John 3:16 says so.

What can we do about this? First, we need to teach adults (especially Sunday School teachers), youth, and even children how to properly interpret scripture. After this, we need to encourage all people to memorize many verses, not just John 3:16. At a proper point, after the folks understand proper principles of interpretation, John 3:16 itself must be addressed. This must be done fairly, calmly, and methodically. As this is done, there will be some resentment and opposition.

Despite the opposition, we must teach the real meaning of John 3:16. We must also exhort people to take this verse off its throne, and place it within the whole counsel of God’s word. Let’s encourage Christians to read scripture for what it says instead of passing it through some sort of artificial John 3:16 filter.

The bible deserves proper interpretation. We can begin with, “For God so loved the world…”