When we began this semester’s series on theology, I asked you to think about being an amateur theologian:
To continue this study, we focus today on a theology of church. Jesus said He was building His ekklēsian, ἐκκλησίαν, assembly gathered. This assembly is not created by any other, not any one of us. It is not crafted by us. It is not even gathered by us in the ultimate sense. Though we are among the gathered, He is the head, the builder. He is among His gathered still today! (see Revelation 1:17-2:3)
The ‘church’ is not just among 2 or 3 gathered in the sense that some think: as though Matthew 18, out of context, could support us creating churches of our own, redefining church, or considering a group of friends “my church” or “the true church.”
My “church” history
To begin I’m going to tell you a bit more of my background, that you might see why I love Christ’s Church so much. I grew up in a church that had begun well–but by the time I was old enough to understand what was going on, the congregation had pushed out a pastor that simply oozed Christ’s love, and rallied around one that loved golf and football and movies…and rarely was the Word preached from the pulpit. In eighth grade I was old enough to realize there was more gossip among my church friends than there was good old fashion conversation. I told my parents that I’d rather not keep going.
If that happened to most families today, the parents would quit, the family would forget what worship was–and forget that they had been created by God for His good purposes, forget Who God is, and that we cannot make a god for ourselves after our own current cravings; “sunday funday” is the norm for many such ex-attenders. Thankfully my parents looked for another church body to worship with.
To my surprise, in this new-to-us church, people my age read their Bibles. Youth group had discussions on the Word, and Bible Studies. I began to learn and grow and change. By my junior year of high school I realized the power of His Cross in me, and began putting to death the deeds of the flesh (Romans 8) and experiencing more joy and peace than I knew possible. Which meant losing a lot of “friends” who were only my ‘party’ friends…that was hard. I felt alive, and a strange mixture of aloneness and belonging, and hopeful.
In my college years, I realized there were big differences between the many varied denominations. Some are not really Protestant denominations, they fall into such grand heresies, yet call themselves Christians. Some people tried to convince me that the differences in denominations were like the beauty of a kaleidoscope, or a patchwork quilt, or a mosaic. These differences are not merely opinion though, some stray from the Word, and from the One Builder of the Church–Jesus Christ.
This was hard to navigate as a young adult, confusing. How could these leaders treat Christ’s Body like a mere business organization? And why did preachers keep telling me it was ok for them to use the Word out of context, as long as people were being introduced to the Gospel? Discipleship was lacking, and the Truth was being maligned. There was an ethos among the leadership, though, an unspoken one, that Christians do not struggle with sin, we are above that, we do not sin. I entered leadership roles in the hopes of changing all this, of spreading truth and love; I had read of the True Church and I wanted to experience it.
This was my season of immersing myself in the Word, in my Biblical Studies classes, and in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings. I read every sermon in published in A Testament to Freedom. I read Cost of Discipleship, I read Life Together. And as I graduated college with all this angst against Baptist leadership, I looked for a church to become a member of–I would now be living in this city, so I wanted to commit, to belong. That frustrating season ended happily when my former professor and mentor agreed to host a house church.
This was a very healing season for my soul. I knew it would not last forever, but while it did I was growing, and exercising my spiritual gifts, and experiencing rich life-giving fellowship. Looking back, I must not forget though how most of us were filled with pride. Before ‘deconstructing’ was a thing, we saw problems and were convinced that we would “be the church.” In His patience and goodness, God used this season in my life, and in His faithfulness He did not give up on me, though I had tried to build the church in my own way. I gave up for a season, walked away from His work; but He is faithful when we are faithless.
By this time I was now engaged, and we wanted to find a local body to commit to together. This story ends by us, after two years (and by this time we were married) finding a PCA church plant. While no denomination is perfect, and no local church will be perfect, this denomination has been faithful to the Scriptures. More information on the PCA can be found here.
A history can be found here.
I have been hurt more by people who were once members of this local body than by unbelievers. I have experienced ‘friendships’ severed by people who operated in the flesh rather than the Spirit, and who fully embrace the notion of church hopping–they fall prey to the notion that ‘church’ exists to meet my needs and give me good feels, or that the church is ought to be an organization full of programs for me to choose from. I have had fellowship impacted by sin, and even severed by ‘members’ who do not keep their membership vows or who view the church as a club to join or leave as the wind blows. I have also been loved, cared for, nurtured, accepted, and felt the joy of using my gifts to serve others. I have lived out the call to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep–sharing God’s comfort. I have had brothers and sisters in Christ with whom there was mutual upbuilding. What a blessing!
This is not a fully detailed story, but enough for you to know that I do not look at my local body or at this doctrine itself with rose colored glasses.
An outline of the basics?
The Church is being built by the Head of the Body, Jesus Christ Himself; it is explained in the Scriptures with metaphors: Body, Building, House, Temple–it is a community, and cannot be reinterpreted as unnecessary or superfluous, as the eye cannot say it does not need the other body parts. It is His Church, He reveals what it is, who is a member, and what members are expected to do. God has detailed in His Word what true worship is, and that the church exists for worship.
Sinclair B. Ferguson has written a book that I would highly recommend whether this is your first time thinking through this doctrine, or your fortieth time. Devoted to God’s Church: Core Values for Christian Worship is informative, instructive, encouraging, invigorating. My copy is well underlined, dog-eared, and filled with marginalia.
Rather than wondering where to start, or starting from a humanist point of view, let us consider the Westminster Confession of Faith chapters 25-26:
The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all. 2. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion;b and of their children:c and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. 3. Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. 4. This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them. 5. The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will. 6. There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof.
1. All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by his Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with him in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man. 2. Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.
These chapters, including all the Scriptures they are based upon, can be found here. These chapters are wonderful to chew on, journal your way through slowly, and return to.
Perhaps the most instructive book in my early years was Life Together, by Bonhoeffer, written during his years serving in the underground seminary in Germany, during the Kirchenkampf–or German Church Struggle. Those years when Hitler took control of the churches, imprisoning and killing pastors who defied him. Many pastors obeyed Hitler, but Bonhoeffer obeyed the Word of God, as did many in what was then called the Confessing Church. Our own generation has no such enemy, and yet many seek to define and redefine ‘church’ from ‘their own truth’ rather than from what God revealed. This book is not a concise outline of the doctrine, but it helped me understand why I long for deep fellowship, and why superficial emotionally driven worship services with all the bells and whistles and fog machines seemed so empty.
I highly recommend these books for those who want to grow in understanding this doctrine:
Devoted to God’s Church, Sinclair B. Ferguson
The Church, by Edmund Clowney
Blessed, by Nancy Guthrie
Calvin’s Institutes, Book Four
Commentaries on the the Pastoral Epistles, including:
Guarding the Truth, John Stott
The Letters to Timothy and Titus, Robert Yarbrough
The true church perseveres to the end; persevere, brethren!
Next up in our theological series is Christology!
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash