Wednesday, November 29, 2006

What is a Church?

I know many people who have grown up in church that cannot define what a church is. I don't really know that I can. I have a definition that I think is workable although there is a niggling doubt that it is somehow incomplete.

Before I get to my working definition, I think it is important to ask, "Do we need a definition?" Since most people cannot define it does it need definition. Is the understanding sufficiently clear to negate the need for a clearer casting of the term? The reason that there needs to be a clear definition is that it affects how we choose, join and leave our churches. Without a firm biblical idea of what a church is, even the concept of church membership is moot. If a church is merely a chance gathering of Christians then I can come or go as I see fit. Or, if Matthew 18:20 defines a church than I can stay home and have church with my family. It is important to know what terms mean and the word "Church" is no exception.

Another quick digression is the matter of local vs. universal. I realize that there are some who deny the existence of the universal or invisible church. It seems evident from a passage like Ephesians 5:25 that there is some kind of universal body of all who truly believe in Christ and He relates to that body. At the same time there is clearly a need to focus on some kind of local church who is actually able to work together in time and space to edify each other and to evangelize the lost around them. So my question is essentially: "What is a local church?"

I have this definition from the Catechism for Boys and Girls: "A church is an assembly of baptized believers, joined by a covenant of discipline and witness, who meet together regularly under the preaching of the Word of God."

The key points of this answer are crucial. Assembly is the actual Greek term that has come to translated as "church." It emphasizes the community and the need that we have to be in regular conversation and contact with others who are striving to live godly lives. Furthermore, it underlines that while we have a private duty to the Great Commission there is also a corporate responsibility. Baptized: while I am not at all a Big-B-Baptist, the Bible stresses this step of obedience in the life of true believers. To some the placing the word Believers in a definition of church might have seemed ridiculous. But from the Puritan's "Grandfather Clause" to the modern problem of allowing "seekers" to join churches there is a trend by some to allow membership to those who have shown no desire to repent of sin and turn to Christ in faith.

That people should be held or Joined together is a state of nature. People can not be counted on to do what is right or even to act in their own self-interest. One only has to witness a crisis where people will do foolish things instead of banding together for their own safety and the common good. Mankind is in need of accountability to accomplish almost any worthwhile task. This joining is two-fold. First is an agreement for Discipline. Our salvation starts with justification when we are judicially declared righteous in the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. Unfortunately that is only the beginning. It is interesting that it is not Paul, Peter or James who tells us how to confront sin among believers but the Lord Himself in Matthew 18. We need to pursue holiness and we need to encourage it in others and we need to be ready to let others pursue holiness in us. This kind of "iron sharpening iron" sets up the second part of the covenant. Witness is the feet of the Gospel. The Church as a corporation can not witness without the individual lives of the members. The members can witness so much more effectively when it is not just their story but a multitude of witnesses all saying to the world, "Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand!"

And all this is accomplished by the regular Meeting of God's people to encourage each other to discipline themselves to holiness and to spread the Gospel. As they sit under the regular Preaching of the Bible they are built up and equipped to allow the Holy Spirit to fill them with the mind of Christ and to go out into the world to tell others the good news!

I hope that this gets you thinking about what your view of Church is. In part 2 we will look at how this should impact our church life and, we will look at practical implications of this viewpoint. It is important to know what we are talking about. Everything we believe about church membership, church purpose and methodology is based on what we believe a church really is.

So, now you have my definition. What is yours?

Pastor Appreciation

There is an excellent article here about appreciating your pastor. It lists some scary statistics and some good suggestions. It is well worth reading.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Recommended Reading

Dan Philips over at Pyromaniacs has written another great article excoriating the kind of mushy post-modern thinking that is increasingly common in evangelical circles.

Christian Duty: An Oxymoron?

Is the concept of "christian duty" an oxymoron? To hear many people in Evangelical Christianity today it seems so. Just mention the term in sermon or conversation and see if people don't start to squirm and mutter about "legalism" and "phariseeism." Recently there has been a resurgence of the whole "Lordship Salvation" controversy. It touches on this issue. Do I have a duty to obey God as Lord and Master and is that duty somehow tied to my salvation or assurance of salvation?

I do not think that I can conclusively solve this debate when great men have fought across the field without victory. But, I will wade in with my little two cents!

The concept of duty is definitely a New Testament one. We find the word in the mouth of the Lord Jesus Christ when he tells his disciples that men ought to pray and men ought to worship (Lk 18:1; John 4:20). The word is used 104 times in the NT and it is frequently translated as ought, should, or must. It comes from another Greek word that is often translated as "bound." Sometimes these are references to things that need to be done like, "I must work the works of Him that sent me…(Jn 9:4). But there are plenty of things that we must do. They are duties. We are bound to do them.

Here is a brief list:
•We must be compassionate and forgiving (Mt 18:33)
•We must not be troubled by the world situation around us; we must preach the gospel (Mk 13:7-10)
•We must speak the gospel (Lk 12:12; Ep 6:20; Col 4:4-6)
•We must observe the sabbath (Lk 13:14)
•We must pray (Lk 18:1; Ro 8:26)
•We must worship God in spirit and truth (Jn 4:24)
•We must obey God rather than men (Ac 5:29)
•We must go through trials (Ac 14:22)
•We must be generous (Ac 20:35)
•We must be humble (Ro 12:3)
•We must know some things (1 Co 8:2; He 2:1; He 11:6)
•We must encourage those who minister to us (2 Co 2:3)
•We must walk in a way that is pleasing to God (1 Th 4:1; 1 Tim 3:2-15; Ti 1:7; 2 Pe 3:11)
•We must follow godly leaders (2 Th 3:7)
•We must be gentle (2 Tim 2:24)

Here is the rub. By what are we bound to these duties and what do they accomplish. Doing duty can never accomplish any form of salvation. Throughout scripture we are reminded of our inability to please God or measure up to His standard of righteousness. The best verse is Is 64:6 where the prophet posits that even if we could be really righteous it would not be enough to earn favor with God. Our only hope for salvation is Christ. So what then is this duty?

The fact that our duty does not save us in no way obviates us from that duty as some would simplistically have it. The idea that we can partake of God's saving grace and mercy and yet be unchanged is absurd. Salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. But the work of Christ is to save us from the sin that separates us from God. So this saving faith must perforce include repentance from the sin or else we have nothing from which to be saved. And the evidence of this saving faith is revealed in how we do our duty to God and others.

The Westminster divines state, "The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in … their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind." This is not the drudge duty of slavery but the joyful duty of the family. I do not need to instruct my children of their duty to receive gifts from me. I rarely need to be reminded of my duty to eat my supper that my wife has prepared. My wife does not need to remind me of my husbandly duty to her. These are duties that we willingly perform.

So Christian duty is no oxymoron! It is what a heart that has submitted itself to Christ will joyfully and willingly perform. The reason that we have these duties enumerated to us is that, in the bent of our natural man, we do not know these duties. We are like children who have never seen a wrapped present and so do not understand the joy that comes from unwrapping and receiving the gift inside.

Christ is the Lord of all the cosmos. We must come to Him in belief that He is able to save us as the one that He is. As we enter into His Kingdom we take upon ourselves duties. They may look just like the duties that our previous religious background had saddled us with. The difference is in the heart that informs our obedience.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Dying for Freedom

If you made it through the last few days without hearing someone say, "Freedom ain't free!" then it probably just reflects American ambivalence to Veteran's Day. Being married to a Canadiene and reading BBC news, it has struck me how much more seriously this holiday is to our friends. You might want to look at this article to see what I mean. Of course we did not lose a whole generation on the fields of Flanders like they did.

But at this time when we commemorate people who fought and died for freedom, I can't help but think of those who are dying for what is not freedom. All around us are people that are fighting to remain free to do what they want to do; to be free from God. And yet what they are pursuing as freedom is not at all freedom but slavery to sin and selfishness. As our country becomes increasingly post-modern we are seeing a tremendous rise in anti-christian attitudes and paganism. At my workplace I have coworkers who are witches and who will (almost) literally spit at the name of Jesus. And yet, from my point of view they are in a prisonhouse of sin.

These thoughts lead me closer to home. What about those who are Christians. Evangelical Christians are increasingly looking more like the world around us. And even in Fundamentalism the stain of worldliness has crept in. We have been set free from the enslavement of sin and selfishness but are we really living in that freedom? Or has our Christian liberty become an excuse for allowing ourselves to be enslaved again. Are we simply the house slaves who have nicer clothes and quarters than the field hands?

As we celebrate those who died for freedom, I cannot help but think of the one who died to make all men free. He died to free men in this life and to give them life that will never end in the hereafter. And He suffered like no other man has ever suffered, even those who endured the unimaginable hell of World War I. And He gives the freedom to all who will reach out and accept it humbly!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Confronting Leaders

For the second time in 6 months a high-profile evangelical leader has been found to be in sin. Now, I have no wish to delve into salacious details or pontificate about hypocrisy. I am all to aware that if I had been present when Christ said, "Let the one without sin cast the first stone," I would not have been the last to slink away. But there is a trend here that I have been thinking about for the last 3 days.

An accusation comes to light. A leader is lovingly confronted by men who love him. Lies are told and smoke screens are thrown out. After a passage of time the leader acknowledges that he did indeed sin and tried to cover it up.

So, I have been wondering how you avoid this. I have a thought (of course! I am a blogger. Duh!) But I would like to hear the thoughts of any who read this as well. So here is the scenario. You are a church leader. It has come to your attention that the pastor has been involved in some kind of behavior that is not in keeping with the scriptural qualifications of elders. How do you handle it?

My initial thought

I would pray about it and of course be sure that there is some substance. (Although, often in this day and age even a baseless charge needs to be dealt with carefully.) I would then share with my fellow leaders the information I have. Some will say I have just jumped out of Matthew 18 and I am aware of that. I will explain why. After praying with the other leaders for forgiveness and repentance and making sure that we are in the right frame of mind and spirit to confront sin, I would lay out the accusation to the pastor. I would then ask him to no speak. I would ask him to take some time and get before God in prayer about how he should handle the situation. I would then schedule a meeting later to hear his reply. I would make it clear that we would wait to hear his response before passing any judgement.

My rationale

In both situations that I referenced above, a man was confronted with strong accusations. He immediately replied and went into "spin" and damage-control mode. My first impression is that some consideration needs to be made of the society in which we live and the human nature that we are saddled with. By confronting such a leader fairly and openly and then giving him time to think about his reply instead of getting his reaction I think that we would open up the door for immediate confession and start quickly on the path of reconciliation. A moral lapse like these 2 cases means that such a man is not going to be eligible for ministry. But why compound that crushing news by setting the man up to lie and dissimulate? My rational for confronting corporately instead of first confronting individually is this. I think that these kinds of accusations have a large corporate component. I think they require corporate response. This is not an issue between me and a brother. It is a problem between the flock and the pastor and it requires handling at that level.

Well, that is my well-considered (ok, three-day) opinion. I look forward to hearing your remarks.