A preacher was once asked, “What is it that has kept your church from becoming all the church it could be for Christ: ignorance or apathy?” His reply was a terse, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Unfortunately, behind the humor lurks a tragic reality. Far too many believers either do not know or they do not understand the importance of the local church. Even worse, too many do not care!
This article on the centrality of the church—including both the people and the place—was born out of my deep desire for God’s best for His people. It is time that we recognize that in order to stay biblical in our walk with Christ we must understand the importance of the local church. We cannot be right with God if we fail to understand and apply the essential plan of God’s church in our lives. I’m talking not exclusively of a place but also of a people. As has been His practice through the ages, God uses people to get His message out. He had used Israel in a spectacular way in a previous era, similar to how He now uses the church. God has called out a people to display His grace and mercy. Whereas He formerly used Israel to show Himself and to display His glory to the world, He now uses the church to accomplish this purpose of showing forth His excellencies (1 Pet 2:9). In order for us to be effective in His work, we must understand and implement the fundamental priority that the New Testament places on the Church.
Vince Lombardi, Hall of Fame coach of the Green Bay Packers, became notorious for his emphasis on fundamentals. His team won championships because the players could block, tackle, and execute moves better than anyone else. When frustrated by his team’s performance, Lombardi held up a football and said, “Gentlemen, this is a football!” He is also popularly noted as saying that winning isn’t everything, but making the effort to win is.
The Apostle Paul knew the importance of winning—being true to the task God called us to. The age of law was on its way out and the church age was being ushered in as a new “mystery” (i.e., an old truth that is being revealed). Now that Jews and Gentiles would serve together as one body, the church, I can almost see Paul saying, “Folks, this is the church…here’s what it is and how it is supposed to operate.” He fleshes out the fundamentals of the church, especially in the Pastoral Epistles. As we study together about the significance of the church, I trust you desire to be faithful to being the beacon of truth that God desires every part of His Bride to be.
Paul sounds a refreshing call for us to get back to the fundamentals on the significance of the church in his epistle on the church’s structure in1 Timothy. In three short verses (3:14-16) he expresses the centrality of the church in the Christian experience. It was the notable, quotable A. W. Tozer who exclaimed that “the church is the highest expression of the will of God in this age” (The Vital Place of the Church). If God used one of His apostolic messengers to record God’s central plan for the ages and uses present day teachers of His truth for the same purpose, why aren’t people getting it? What is the problem?
The problem with believers’ indifference towards church life can be clearly seen through observable symptoms such as lack of faithful attendance and diligent service. A common attendance equation looks like this: cut the number of morning worship service attendance in half and that figure is what you have for the evening attendance (if there even is an evening service). Cut that number in half again, and, if you’re lucky, that’s how many might show up to the midweek service of prayer and Bible study. No, we’re not looking to promote religion (i.e., merely outward symbols of spirituality), knowing that folks can be present, though not engaged, but we are seeking vibrant fellowship, involvement, and engagement in grateful service. There is no guarantee that just because a person is in the church building, that they are in fellowship. But by not being there, they are indicating they are not interested in fellowship with other believers or the Lord through singing and the Scriptures. Yes, each member of the body is to be actively fellowshipping, serving, worshipping, and learning as part of the body.
Deficient attendance is not the only visible symptom of apathy. What about supporting the church through prayer, financial giving, and serving in all aspects of ministry? There are believers who attend church and enjoy all the blessings that their local church provides but who have not become an active, growing part of the church by joining as members.
There’s a story about a church that was having air conditioning installed in the sanctuary, and the pastor was meeting with the contractor. The man asked the pastor a number of questions about the seating capacity, square footage, usual attendance, etc., all the while taking notes. Then in the midst of his calculations, he suddenly crumpled up the paper he was figuring on and started over. “What’s wrong?” the pastor queried. “I was figuring for a theater instead of a church,” replied the contractor. “What’s the difference? Wouldn’t they be the same?” inquired the pastor. “No, not really,” answered the contractor. “You see, in the theater with all that’s being projected onto the screen, there are certain biological changes that take place: heart rate is elevated, blood pressure increases and body temperature can begin to climb. In other words, there is a greater need for cooling when people get excited. In a church, on the other hand…”
After reading a story like that, you almost have to laugh to keep from crying. Too often, I’m afraid the contractor has been right. The number-one spectator sport in America isn’t NFL football…it’s church. Somehow we’ve lost our perspective and view the church as a sanctified slumber party rather than a vibrant opportunity to praise the name of Jesus Christ and submit our lives to the scrutiny of His Holy Word.
This brief sketch should show rather succinctly that one’s attendance and participation is a fair indication of one’s interest in church. Furthermore, one’s interest in church is a fair indication of one’s interest in Christ, the Lord of His Church.
The Bible seems to distinguish two aspects of the church: it is both an organism as well as an organization, with neither to be disassociated from the other. Paul, in his address on church organization, as well as in his other epistles, identified the local church as the visible functioning unit of the universal church. All individuals are made part of the ‘universal’ church when they repent of their sins and trust Christ as personal Savior and Lord. Then all who are part of the universal church are to become members of the local church. Notice that pattern in the record of the early church: folks got saved, baptized, and joined the church (Acts 2:41). It is the local church that is to be the guardian and propagator of the mystery of godliness to its particular location. It is her job to proclaim the truth of Christ’s incarnation, earthly life, death, resurrection, ascension, and the necessity of a believing faith.
“I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth. By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” (1 Timothy 3:14-16, NASV) It is this group called the church that Paul addresses in the above passage. He shares the main theme of the letter in the text we will look at. His message talks about how believers, who make up the Church, should conduct themselves as a local church.
Paul hits hard at the issues of living two lives. You cannot have a life you live at work or home and another that you live at church. The issue here is a way of life, a consistent pattern of living. Christians who are part of the local church, who have been made part of the universal Church, the body of Christ, when they came to Him as Savior and Lord, are to show the change that took place in the way that they conduct their lives. For instance, Paul reflects with the church that was in Ephesus about how their lives had changed. “Among them we too formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as the rest. But God…made us alive together with Christ…and raised us up with Him…that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace…for we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works” (Eph 2:3-10).
House of God
This implies a family; not a place, but a people. This helps us to understand that when we speak of church, we are first and foremost speaking of the body of Christ, an organism that breathes and gives life. This is what we refer to when we speak of the universal church, that which the Holy Spirit makes everyone who trusts Christ a part of. Many references in the New Testament refer to this living “house” consisting of people who are saved (1 Pet 2:5; 4:17; Matt 16:18; Eph 5:25; Heb 12:23). Church ought to be a way of life, something that demonstrates authentic Christianity. When someone gets to know you, do they get to know the Lord? When someone sees your life—how you conduct it and behave—do they see your Savior that you represent?
Church of God
Here’s where Paul introduces the organization. He never stresses the universal church as being sufficient apart from the local assembly. As you begin to understand this aspect of the church, you’d have to agree with A. W. Tozer that “whoever scorns the local church scorns the body of Christ.” The Greek word ecclesia, which means “a called out assembly” is used for church(es) in the NT 115 times. As has already been stated, this refers to two categories: the local church, with a specific geographical location and the universal 4 church, which includes all believers from Pentecost to the Rapture. Of the 115 references, four have no direct application and only sixteen are applicable to the universal church. So it is impossible to misconstrue where the stress of the NT lies. God’s plan and desire for us once we are saved is to join and become an active part of a local assembly. It is our responsibility and privilege to show our obedience to His plan for the age in which we live.
To be continued…