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!

12 comments:

Alan said...

This is the second post I have seen today about the church, the other over at the M blog. I would just like to say that the points you bring up are valid and important, however, we must never forget that there are things God forbids. It is good to look at the NT for how we should do church but we must not forget the OT. The Bible is one story and in times past God has killed people for worshiping in ways He has not commanded, I think this is all to often ignored in modern evangelicalism and in places like my Arminian undergrad school chapels consisting of what I liked to call "Anything goes worship." We are not free to do whatever "feels" right to us.

Aussie John said...

Eric,

I'm looking forward to reading your
series. Apart from our Lord Jesus, the proper understanding of what the "church" is, is my consuming passion in these later years of my life.

As I mentioned in my blog recently we have had a much anticipated visit from my eldest daughter, her husband and children. He is a deacon and very obviously sees his role as a board member managing the affairs of a business called "church". The business operates very much along the lines of, what we call Service Clubs (Rotary, Lions, etc.)whose foremost accepted functions are benevolent and material. Doctrinal or theological issues are absolutely forbidden areas of discussion. Love is one of those "touchy, feely" qualities which will never insult another by challenging heresy. As a result the concept of "unity", which is common in Australia, and I also found in my visits to the USA, is unanimity on all things, and to simply not deal with issues, false hood, bad lifestyle decisions, etc., which arise.

If I use the term "church" it is understood as "the enterprise".

For what my opinion is worth,we need to use terminology which is Biblical, but sharply differentiates from the common understanding of what many words, such as "church" mean, by using words which more closely describe the blessed organism of God's people, such as "assembly", "congregation". Such an action would also help to set a boundary between much heretical activity which operates under the name "church".

To alter the status quo is an unacceptable proposal to most of the leadership/churches I have been associated with and know. I do believe in miracles and genuine revival, both of which are a work of the Holy Spirit, so I trust He will sovereignly open hearts and minds to efforts such as yours and Alan and others.

My dream is an Acts 2:42ff people of God, who realise the building they belong to is made of "living stones", in a "spiritual house", "chosen and precious in God's sight" called to be "holy...royal priesthood", "a people to be his very own and to proclaim the wonderful deeds of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." (2 Peter 1 ISV)

Eric said...

Alan,

You are right to bring up the OT. I agree that we must look to the whole counsel of God's word in our belief and practice. I have emphasized the NT church in order to contrast it with the modern American church, not to exclude the OT.

As for worship, you make a good point that some things are acceptable while others certainly are not. I plan to tackle the topic of worship in a week or so.

Thanks for commenting.

Eric

Eric said...

John,

Thank you for commenting. I appreciate your insight into what the church is and what it should be.

I think you might be right about using a word other than "church." Personally, I like "community" and "fellowship." Your suggestions of "assembly" and "congregation" seem solid, too. Unfortunately, "church" appears to have taken on too much baggage.

I hope these posts so far have not seemed too man-centered. I realize that God is certainly the only One who can bring about real change in his church. If we attempt to be biblical, I believe God will bless our efforts.

Eric

Alan Knox said...

Eric,

This is a good start to your series. I'm glad that you started with a biblical understanding of "church". There are so many definitions out there right now that have nothing to do with Scripture. If we start with a wrong definition, then we will not end with the biblically described "church". Thanks again!

-Alan

Jeff said...

Eric,

Long time reader, first time commenter.

I agree the "church" is in peril. If we realize the true definition of the "Church" then I don't think reform is necessary let alone possible. We can't fix something God is building. The modern "church" consists of believer and nonbeliever alike unequally yoked simply attending the same meeting absent love, which is the bond that holds us together in unity. There is no fellowship between light and darkness. There must be divisions here.

On the other hand I think the "Church" is in the process of being recognized for what it is and is not and could be creating what appear to be symptoms of sickness(division) when in reality it could be getting healthier. I don't know though, that's just my opinion.

-Jeff

Eric said...

Alan,

Thanks for your kind words. Your study of scripture and the church kind of inspired me to walk down this road.


Without a correct understanding of what the bible says, a church has no chance of being what God wants it to be.

Eric

Eric said...

Jeff,

Thanks for adding your comment (and for reading this).

I agree with you that we cannot fix something God is building. He is sovereign over all things. However, I think we can point out unbiblical practices in the local church, and then try to help the church become more biblical. This is certainly difficult when the church is a mix of believers and unbelievers.

I want to respond to your second paragraph, but I'm not sure exactly what you mean. Sorry about that. Could you state it another way for me?

Thanks again for your comment.

Eric

Jeff said...

Eric,

I apologize for not being more clear. What I meant is maybe as the body matures in Christ those who are approved are being recognized apart from those who are not. Potentially seen as a division in the bodies to us, but in reality a sign of health for the One body of Christ. In other words: It is getting harder to "play church" and get away with it.

-Jeff

Eric said...

Jeff,

It certainly is difficult on a body of believers when it becomes clear that some of the body is unregenerate. Ultimately God will deal with those people. As followers of Christ, it seems that our responsibility is to continue to love them and preach the gospel to them. Of course, if they are in disobedience, the church may have to bring discipline upon them in the hope that it will lead to their repentance.

All this points to just how critical it is for a body to ensure that new members are actually saved.

Thanks again.

Eric

David Rogers said...

Eric,

On my blog today, I link to some articles by John Woodhouse that, for me, shed some very good light on the questions you bring up.

Here is long quote that helps capture the essence:

"In other words, these and many other expressions in the New Testament—including ‘church’—refer to the gathering that God is gathering to himself. The word ‘church’ translates the Greek ekklesia which in turn translates the Hebrew kahal. The Old Testament recalled “the day of the kahal,” “the day of the assembly,” when God brought the people to himself at Mount Sinai (Deut 9:10; 10:4; 18:16; cf. 5:22). We saw in the last study how the Old Testament experience of Israel involved their subsequently being “scattered” as a result of their apostasy. Then there was the prophets’ promise that God would one day again “gather.”

The gospel is the fulfilment of those promises, and the ‘church’ is the consequence. It is called in Hebrews 12, “the heavenly Jerusalem”, “the city of the living God”, “the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven”. And it is to this church that the readers of Hebrews 12 are said to have “come”.

We might therefore regard the word “church” in this sense as itself a metaphor—a metaphor for those who have come into the relationship to God of ‘sons’, those in whom God's Spirit now dwells, those who by that Spirit have the same access to God.

This church is real, and our membership of it is as real as our relationship with God. However it is not a physical, or visible reality. It is known by faith. This church is not to be identified with, and is in no way dependent upon, any institution in this world. Jesus is building this church on the foundation already laid.

Peter was speaking of this church (without using the word ‘church’) when he wrote to “God's elect scattered through Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1 Pet 1:1):

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— 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. (1 Pet 2:4-5)

The scattered believers did not belong to any physical gathering or organization in this world, but they belonged together by virtue of having come to Christ, the living capstone. Many of them may never have met, but they were being built into the one “spiritual house”."

Eric said...

David,

Thank you for your comment. You bring up some excellent thoughts about the church that I did not even begin to address. Thank you.

I must admit that I tend to have my eyes so focused on the local church (with all its positives and negatives), that I do not often ponder the church as you have described it.

In this series, I will mostly be attempting to address what we would refer to as a local church, and how to bring about reform there. However, I'm glad you reminded me, from scripture, of the spiritual house which is the church.

Thanks again!