Edmund Clowney wrote in his book The Church in the IVP Contours of Theology Series that the church essentially has three functions which apply both corporately and individually, 1) Worship, 2) Nurture, and 3) Witness. For clarification as I find nurture to be an odd term, but he means nurture in terms of the responsibility of the church to care for one another, to love one another. I’ve found his simple and clear functions of the church refreshing. We live in a world where church can mean anything from a building, a people, a cult, an atheist social club, an orderly worship service, a disorderly worship service, worship tied closely to a historic tradition, worship untied to all tradition, or simply whatever anyone wants it to mean.
I would like to propose that the church has a definitive meaning, purpose, and function in the world which is both rooted in the very nature of God as revealed in the Bible. Despite the modern tendency to balk at all forms of structure, establishment, and order (Well, at least, some younger generations tend to do this – my generation), I believe something important is lost when we so quickly and flippantly discard the biblical definition and function of the church. Now, one might already be objecting in one’s mind even though I haven’t technically really said anything yet, and that’s my point.
What is the purpose of your objection to church? What is the purpose behind your quickness to claim there isn’t really a definition or structure or order to the church? Not all of you are doing this now, but many do and are. You know who you are. Just because there isn’t a Webster’s dictionary definition of the church in a proper sense in the Bible doesn’t mean that the Bible doesn’t define, describe, and detail the functions and purpose of the church.
So, what is the church you might ask? If you look at the Apostle Paul, you might say the church is those who have been called out of sin and reconciled to God by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, and consists of different genders, races, ages, and people from various backgrounds. If you look at Peter, disciple of Jesus, the church is something that is built on Jesus Christ and also in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the head, the cornerstone of the church and all the faith, hope, trust of individuals lies in Jesus. Also, the church is something that the world will not like and the church will suffer, be persecuted, and endure hardship. If you look to James, brother of Jesus (granted James was born of natural means and Jesus supernatural), you will find the church is not only comprised of people who believe in Jesus and have faith in Him, but also live their lives in accordance with that faith caring for the poor, living good moral lives, and loving one another. If you look to John, the church is a community of people who have been purchased by Jesus Christ who laid down His life for them, so that they might in turn be willing to love one another to the extent that they might lay down their lives for one another. The church, in John, is also a people forgiven and saved by grace, so they are to show grace to others, to forgive one another.
The Apostle Paul also talks about the church being the bride of Christ and the mystical body of Christ, exemplifying the unique union and unity that the church is to share with one another and with God. The Old Testament is about God creating, blessing, and redeeming a people for the glory of His name. Originally, the people God called were Israel as part of the old covenant, but in both the Old and New Testaments we learn that a new people have been “grafted” into the God’s people. Those whom God would call ‘not my people’ God would call ‘my people.’ Salvation would go to the ends of the earth, not simply to Israel. At once a community bound by the Law of God, then later a community bound by grace through faith in God through Jesus Christ. Able to obey the Law because of the gift of God’s grace given to them. This is the church.
In fact, as Jonathan Edwards and others have mentioned, not only is marriage itself meant to be an experience and reflection of the unique, eternal, loving community that is God (Father, Son, Spirit), but the church is to find it’s identity rooted in the trinity as well. The Father predestined the church to be established and called out for His purpose and sent His Son by His grace to redeem us from sin. The Son revealed God to us and called us to believe in Him so that God’s redemption might be effectually applied to us, and called us to follow Him, obeying His commands, and proclaiming the Gospel together about Him. The Spirit is what turns hearts of disbelief into seeking and eventually believing hearts. The Spirit is how the believer’s life is tethered to the life of God. We are united to Jesus Christ by faith in Him which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is the spirit of Jesus within us as God is Father-Son-Spirit. 3 yet 1. As the Spirit dwells within us, the Spirit is the power of God for salvation to the believer in applying the Gospel, but also sanctifying us, making us more like Christ as we live for the Gospel daily. In addition to this, the church is to be a foretaste of the Kingdom of God in the world. In this way, it is like an embassy of Jesus Christ in the world where the world can come to find shelter and safety and life and experience a whole different sort of world, a world different from the world beyond the church. Yet…
We talk about music. We talk about projectors. We talk about lights. We read about scandals. We read about hate-filled bigots. We see wealthy and multi-millionaire pastors on tv and hear about tax fraud and various scandals. Anti-homosexual, anti-tolerance, anti-movies, anti-music, anti-this, anti-that, anti-, anti-, anti- …
We often hear about what the church isn’t and we often see the bad examples of the church, where the church fails to be biblically faithful to it’s calling, purpose, witness, mission. However, how do we respond to this? What do you say about a church that seems to have lost it’s purpose and seems so saturated with what the church would call, sin?
I believe there is a misconception in the world about the church and there is a misconception in the church about the church as well. Which came first, I don’t know. However, what I do know is that many people look at the church as if it were supposed to be perfect. The church should be just like Jesus Christ. Christians and non-Christians tend to hold the church on this incredibly high pedestal. However, we’re forgetting something. Christ came to save sinners. The church is comprised of sinners. The bride of Christ is called to be faithful, but that doesn’t mean the bride doesn’t have a history of adultery. Look at the prophets, especially Ezekiel, who commonly refer to God’s people as adulterers. As we learn not only in the Old Testament, but also through Jesus, God loves even the adulteress and calls them to repentance and faith. Someone once said, “the church isn’t a museum of saints, it’s a hospital for sinners.”
I believe this is a very wise saying. We often forget the Bible when we look at the church in our world today. We forget that Paul wrote to a church in Corinth where some members were apparently committing such grievous sexual sins that even the surrounding non-Christian culture was looking at them like, “Whoa! That’s messed up.” We forget that the famous Apostle Paul which many Reformed Christians love to quote and read so frequently once lived for the purpose of destroying Christianity by going around and ensuring that Christians were rounded up and killed or imprisoned or both. That’s in the Bible, look it up. It’s in Acts. We forget that David who bravely slew Goliath and wrote many beautiful Psalms and was a great king was also a man who betrayed a friend by sending him to the front lines to die in order to have sex with his friend’s wife.
We forget that Abraham was called by God to wait patiently upon the Lord and that God would provide a son to him, but instead of waiting he took matters into his own hands and slept with his wife’s servant. We forget that even Peter who proclaimed in the Spirit who Christ was only just after was used by Satan to dissuade Jesus from even going to Jerusalem which merited an incredibly strong rebuke by Jesus to Peter. Then, Peter who would die for Jesus instead denied Him 3 times. We point at Thomas as the doubter, however, we forget that all the disciples abandoned Jesus and that all the disciples needed to see Jesus to believe and that Thomas was singled out only because he wasn’t there when Jesus first appeared to them, the others had already seen and touched Jesus.
We sometimes get the idea in our heads that the church is comprised of Mother Teresa’s and Billy Graham’s, then when we see the news which constantly shows only the extreme sinful cases of Christianity, suddenly we are shocked and ask, how can the church be like this? Shouldn’t the church be perfect and holy, like Jesus? The answer is a resounding “YES!” and amen, but we also need to remember that Jesus is the only one without sin. All of us are sinful. If we are human, we are sinful. When we believe in Jesus, our sins are forgiven. However, that doesn’t mean we become like God in the blink of an eye. That’s naive, although that seems to be what the majority of people in the church and outside believe. When we believe in Jesus, the Holy Spirit who has caused us to believe already having transformed our heart from unbelief to belief, then works in our lives helping us more and more to be transformed into the image of Jesus. We will not attain the perfection of Jesus until He returns according to the Bible, but we are still called to strive for Jesus and to run the race and to persevere by faith.
So, what is prompting this post? Why a message about the church? The reason for this post is we live in a world where everyone is redefining and defining church in their own eyes apart from Scripture. American Christianity has become a Christianity of convenience. Much like a store. If a church is convenient for you, you go and get what you want. If it isn’t, you move onto the next store. As R.Kent Hughes has suggested in Disciplines of a Godly Man, we have become a country in the US of church hitchhikers, constantly hitching a ride from church to church. We need to reclaim the discipline of cultivating both a healthy theology of church (ecclesiology) as well as the discipline of being a part of the local manifestation of God’s church. We should not let postmodern confusion of truth and disillusionment dissuade us from taking the Bible, the church, and our lives seriously.
We need bold Christians to live out their faith and to show this world what the church is really about. We need bold Christians to live out their faith in community and to show the church, other Christians, what the church is really about. If we don’t reclaim what the church is called by God to both be and to do, I’m concerned that the McDonaldization of American Christianity will take the church out of it’s high calling in Christ and transform it into merely a human institution for our own glory as opposed to the glory of God. In many places this is already taking place. We need bold Christian leaders to start showing this world who Christ is and what Christianity is really about. We don’t just need leaders, we need lay people. We need garbage men, fast food employees, city workers, stock brokers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, engineers, architects, scientists, and all manner of worker in the marketplace to show this world what it means to believe in Jesus, that it isn’t simply lip-service, but there is a life lived unto God that is connected with our message.
May we reclaim a biblical understanding and theology of church, and may we live as the community of the redeemed, called out, chosen, and elect of God, for the purpose of proclaiming the great acts of God to the broken and faithless and destitute and downtrodden. May we serve in this world while we worship God individually and corporately, nurture one another, and witness to the world for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not for any human glory, but for the glory of God and that His name might be magnified all the more. Amen.