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It seems to me that few American Evangelicals have a strong sense of the role of the church in the strategy of God. From my knowledge of church history, I don’t think Christians in previous generations would have thought to question the importance, or the centrality, or the necessity of the institutional church in a previous day. But something happened in the church over the last 100-150 years that has resulted in this unprecedented disillusionment, disaffection and sidelining of the institutional church. The Church has lost its respect and its relevancy in the eyes of many believers. This has been especially true in America where the society in general is more individualistic than other countries and where specifically our society has gone through a major disillusionment with authorities and structures since the 1960's.
This is why you don't hear much teaching today on the subject of the church. It's not the kind of popular subject that attracts big crowds or makes a lot of best-sellers. In fact, in my seminary they generally don't teach on the subject at all. I was talking with the president a few years ago and I told him that in my opinion the most severe gap in the theological education that I received was in the area of the church (or ecclesiology, as it is called in theological jargon). Here is an institution that's first priority, so they say, is to prepare men for careers in the church and there is virtually nothing taught on the subject of the church. He responded by saying that the professors aren’t willing to teach on the subject of the doctrine of the church because it's too controversial. It is much more comfortable to avoid the subject altogether.
And the fact is that there is very little demand for teaching on the church. Why is this? Well, it seems to me that one reason is because many in the church today became Christians in college or in high school through a parachurch organization like Young Life, Navigators, Campus Life, Inter-Varsity, or Campus Crusade for Christ, groups which usually emphasize evangelism, Bible study and discipleship, but they have very little if any interest in the doctrine of the church.
Now why would the parachurch organizations fail so regularly to teach their participants what the Bible says about the church? First of all, many who are giving their time and effort to parachurch ministry are disillusioned and disenchanted with the church. And second, I think that on some level teaching their disciples about the importance the Bible places on the church seems self-destructive and counter-productive to their ministry.
What Is the Church?
The Bible sure talks a lot about the church. And it says some pretty incredible things. For example, here are the things said about the church just from Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, along with a few of my observations:
Eph. 1:22-23 - "And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all."
-The risen, triumphant, reigning Christ has been given to the church.
-The church is Christ's body.
-The church is "the fulness of God."
Eph. 3:10 - "...in order that the manifold wisdom of God might be made known through the church to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places."
-God makes His wisdom known through the church.
-God makes His wisdom known through the church not just to the world but even to the heavenly powers.
Eph. 3:20-21 - "Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen."
-Two entities are mentioned as containing God's eternal glory: Christ (the bridegroom) and the church (the bride).
Eph. 5: 25-27 - "...Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless."
-The church is the bride of Christ.
-The church is the one Christ loves.
-The church is the one Christ gave Himself for.
The Meaning of ‘Church’
All this begs the question: What is meant by the word 'church' in these verses? Does He mean the church as an institution? Does it mean all true Christians?
Probably most American evangelicals think of the "church" in Scripture as merely referring to the sum total of all individual Christian believers. I think there is also a common notion that the LIFE of the church comes from God but that the STRUCTURE of the church is man-made. Perhaps you have heard it said this way, "The church is not an organization but an organism."
It seems to me that we can get some help on the meaning of ‘church’ from Paul’s first epistle to Timothy. In 1Tim. 3:14-15 Paul explains the purpose of the letter: "I am writing you these instructions so that...you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth." So, by examining the instructions given in the rest of this letter we should be able to tell what Paul means by "church." If they are instructions merely about matters of personal faith or about things pertaining only to true believers, then that would lead us to believe that that’s what is meant by the word ‘church.’ When we look at the instructions in the rest of the epistle, we find that the topics addressed are these: instructions about corporate prayer (1Tim.2:1-8), the proper role of men and women in the church re: teaching and authority (1Tim.2:8-15), the necessary qualifications of those who are to be chosen to serve as elders and deacons in the church (1Tim.3:1-13), guidance for Timothy about things he ought to impart to the congregation both by teaching and by example (1Tim.4:1-16), how to treat various kinds of people in the church (1Tim.5:1-2), instructions about which widows in the church should be supported financially by the church (1Tim.5:3-16), the elders (1Tim.5, :17-21), a warning about ordaining leaders prematurely (1Tim.5:22), special instructions of things to teach those in the congregation who were slaves (1Tim.6:1-2), guidance about how to deal with false teachers in the church (1Tim.1:3-7, 4:1-5, 6:3-10), pastoral advice about how to minister to the rich (1Tim.6:6-10, 17-19), and personal advice to Timothy about living faithfully before Christ (1Tim.6:11-16, 20-21).
Read it for yourself! The letter is all about matters of the local church! And, as we said, in the middle of it all, Paul explains his purpose in writing: "I am writing you these instructions so that...you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth." (1Tim. 3:14-15) Is it not clear that by the word ‘church’ Paul is not merely speaking about all true believers, but about the church which has leaders and worship services and proper procedures and people with problems and need for sound teaching and widows who need to be cared for, etc.? 1Timothy is filled with instructions about how to conduct the affairs of the institutional church, not the invisible mystical church.
Someone might respond to this by saying, "Well, Paul must mean 2 different things by the word 'church'. In I Timothy he means the church as an organization, but in some other places he means the church as a living body." But this seems like a false dichotomy. Look at 1Tim. 3:15 again, where Paul refers to “God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” Apart from the rest of the book, doesn’t this sound like the church as an organism? For instance, take the word ‘household.’ Is this an organizational word? Look at 1Peter 2:4-5 - "As you come to Him, the living stone...you also are being built into a SPIRITUAL house to be a holy priesthood." (House here is the same Greek word as household in 1Tim.)
The point is this: God has not only ordained a message of salvation, He has also ordained an institution where that message is to be lived out and followed on the earth. This institution that God has set up is the focus of His presence and work on the earth. It is His kingdom, it is His church. The church is not just another man-made institution as some seem to think. It has life in it, it has power in it. It does not have life and power in itself, of course. It has life and power because it is Christ’s church. He’s the One building it, as He promised in Matthew 16:18. But in addition to Christ’s life and power, it has order in it, a structure that God spells out in His word. You see, the Bible refers to the church as both an organism and an organization, as both a body (organism) and a kingdom (organization). It is a family, which is both an organism and an organization. Actually, the distinction between organism and organization is something of a false distinction because every organism also has organization.
Christ is not just building individual believers. He is not just building Christian fellowship. He is building His church. "Upon this rock I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).
In light of the individualism of American society, it is not surprising that it has so affected the Christian community. And all of us have been affected to one extent or another. In secular individualism the ultimate entity on earth is the individual soul. In Christian individualism the ultimate entity on earth is the individual soul and its relationship with God. The corporate body of believers which is Christ's church is often neglected. Many people who call themselves "Christians" are not affiliated or even involved in any branch of Christ's church. They may watch Christian TV or listen to sermons online or read Christian books or listen to Christian radio. Many attend a neighborhood Bible study or parachurch ministry events. But there is little or no concern for Christ's church.
In the Bible, there is no room for the people committed to Christ to not be committed to Christ's church. If Christ is the center of our lives then His church will also have a central place in our lives.
The common approach to the church today is to point to its ministers and say, "It is their thing." But according to the Bible the church is CHRIST'S thing and therefore it must be OUR thing.
Can we love the Bridegroom but hate His bride? Can we hold the Bridegroom in high regard and think little of the one He calls precious in His sight?
We cannot separate Christ from His church. Whether we understand it or not, whether we MEAN to or not, when we disregard Christ's church in some sense we disregard Christ.
In 1Corinthians 12 we find out that saying to others in the body of Christ, "I don't need you!" and "You don't need me!" is sinful! But isn’t that what we say when we think that we can make it on our own without the body of Christ, without the church? Gifts were given to each Christian in order that they might be used for the building up of the body. That means that if you are not using your gifts in order to build up the body, the body is not being built up as it should. Each of the parts of the body must work together for the welfare of the body.
Jesus said to Peter, "Do you love Me? Then feed My sheep." Now Peter was an apostle and an elder so he had a special calling to feed Christ's sheep. But still each of us is called to use the gifts that God has given to us to build up His body. So, for us God says, "Do you love Me? Then love My bride, the church. Do you love Me? Then build up My body, the church."
I understand weariness re: the church, with all its squabbles, its controversies, its traditionalism, its trivialities. I also understand that it may be hard to hear this message from a church pastor. It may sound like I just want everyone to help me in building my church. And I also understand that many err on the other side, having plenty of church but very little Jesus. But please don’t let these be the issues for you. The issue for each of us must always be, What does God say in His word? God says to love Jesus and to love His church. If churches don’t love Jesus, we need to change them, or find or start ones that do.