Results tagged “Local Church” from Reformation21 Blog

As Jesus Sees It

|

One of the benefits of having young children while being a pastor is that it affords you the opportunity to get plugged into the local school system. When we first met with someone who worked at the school, we told them the name of our church. Their immediate response was, "Oh we used to go there! It's a great church! But...there just weren't enough teens for my kids to have friends." I also heard this from another person who had visited our congregation.

When I shared this with a friend of mine, he told me that he has had similar experiences. He noted that he had followed up with two families who had visited the church he pastors; but, that they ultimately decided to go elsewhere. Their reasoning was the same. The sound preaching of the Word was there--and that was the most important thing for them--but there just weren't enough young couples their age with whom they could connect.

As I was relaying these two episodes to a mentor, who is himself a retired pastor, he wistfully looked to the corner of the room and mused to himself, "You know, if every family that complained we didn't have a big enough youth group had just stuck around we'd have had the biggest youth group in town!" If I didn't laugh, I would have cried.

There are a lot of things that people look for in a church. Those things can be superficial (e.g. "the building needs to be beautiful"). They can be substantial (e.g. "The Word needs to be preached faithfully"). Others are understandable (e.g. "I want people my age with whom I can connect"). Often the things for which visitors are looking are things that lie outside of their control. For instance, a visitor may like certain things about a local church but cannot change the pastor's preaching. But, when visitors leave a church because of its composition (e.g. young, old, racial or otherwise) they are giving up on a church because of one aspect of the life of the church that they actually have the ability to do something about.

What amazing things would happen in local churches all over our nation if people attended solely for the sound ministry of the Word of God and then contributed their time, talents, and treasures to help make the church what it could be in other areas that are secondary, tertiary, preferential or understandable. What if, instead of seeing the church that isn't there, we saw the church that is there?

One of the things that the Apostle John sets out for us in the book of Revelation is how Jesus views seven churches. He views some as faithful but small (Rev. 2:9). He views some as needing to repent over serious issues (2:16). There is one church that Jesus sees as having a great reputation and seeming healthy on the surface, but which He explains is actually dead deep down (3:1). This last church in particular shows us that first impressions are often deceptive. If someone had shown up at the church of Sardis they would have said, "This church is respectable. They have a good reputation. They look good. And wow, check out that youth group. Sure, they're a little spiritually sleepy (3:3), but you know, every church has its problems."

When we consider the seven church that Jesus addresses in the book of Revelation, we find that He takes issue with almost all of them; and yet, He doesn't simply walk away from any of them. When it comes to the secondary issues, what if we all started seeing the church that Jesus sees? What if we all said, "You know, the church isn't what it should be or could be...yet; but, maybe the Lord will use me with my time, talents, and treasures to make it a place that can meet the needs of the saints? Instead of seeing the church as a place where people serve me, what if we all started to see the church that Jesus sees-a place beloved by Him (that may not be where it should be yet) and in which God may use me to build it up?

When in Babylon...

|
Regard for the Lord's Day is on a steep decline, and, sadly, has been for quite some time. Disregard for the Lord's Day is evidenced by the fact that many churches have decided to cancel their worship services this Sunday in order to encourage families to spend time together on Christmas. The Babylon Bee recently ran an article titled "Church Honors Birth of Jesus by Cancelling Worship Service." The satirical (though it would be straining to call it entirely fictional) piece goes on to hilariously put words in the pastor's mouth: "I can think of nothing more worshipful on the Lord's Day than foregoing worship services in order to tear into gift after gift after gift from under our ornate tree... Also, I'll get to play with my new iPad that I just know my wife, Kate, got me. I felt the package. I'm pretty sure it's the Pro edition."

It's a brilliant piece of satire. However, many have become extremely defensive about it. I know that I shouldn't be surprised, but I'm naïve enough that I was shocked at the vitriol in the comments section under the Facebook post. It is clear to me that very large segments of the readership of The Babylon Bee don't have what we might call a "robust" view of the Lord's Day.

Now, I also know that massive swaths of the church (sadly even those in the Reformed camp) would like to see the Larger and Shorter Catechisms consigned to the dust bin of history. And it causes me no loss of sleep to think that someone, somewhere, is having fun on a Sunday. What does concern me is the sorts of arguments that people are offering in favor of cancelling church whenever the Lord's Day and everyone's favorite holiday should come into conflict. Here are some of the more troubling comments from the Facebook post:

  • "Love the Bee but, since the church is not a building, place or event, it is never closed. There are other ways to BEE the church this coming Sunday, Christmas Day!"
  • ""Thus saith the Lord, 'Thou shalt have a church service every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night without ceasing, and shouldest never to cancel any service for any reason under the sun'." II Opinions 3:12"
  • "Don't be so hypocritical to condemn those who realize that church isn't a building you have to go to worship but the fact that through salvation we are able to worship him in our heart."
  • "I'm not trolling and have intention of starting a flame war but only legalism dictates church has to be open...ready and willing on Sunday morning or God is not honoured."
  • "It seems that many people prefer the sacrifice of 'going to church' on Christmas, but maybe Jesus desires the compassion of letting people have the freedom to worship the day as they see fit. Go and learn what this means..."
  • "Our church building IS closed on Christmas day and we are not holding services. We can spread the Good News in other ways."
  • "Some people spend too much time in Church, and not enough time with their families. I think it's important for families to be thankful together at home. We as a church must never stop worshipping, but we can get caught up in feeling as if going to church service and true worship are the same thing."

The comments go on and on like this. One could fill pages with the arguments that have been set forth. The most serious problem is that arguments of this sort prove too much. If these arguments are correct, then the end result isn't just that Sunday worship can be displaced whenever it comes into orbit with a better holiday. The logical result is the elimination of any day of the worship of God in the gathered assembly of the people of God for local churches.

If it's really true that we can "spread the Gospel in other ways" than holding services, it is reasonable to ask why we have services in the first place. If the "doors of a church don't need to be open" in order for God to be honored, then why should they open at any time? If it's enough for us to "worship him in our heart," then why do churches even gather? If we should "have the freedom to worship the day as [we] see fit," then everyone can have their own Lord's Day - why have any services? If "it's important for families to be thankful together at home," and if it's not the case that "going to church service" is true worship, then there is literally no reason I can think of why churches as local gatherings of God's people need to exist at all.

On top of all of these problems, these sorts of arguments lead to a church that is not only scattered geographically already, but is also scattered chronologically. If you take for granted that any day is fair game, and if it's just a matter of when you want to worship, then an anarchic approach to picking which day to worship on means the church would no longer even be temporally united. While the early church gathered on the first day of the week to break bread, meet as one group (Acts 20:7; 27:35), to take up offerings as a collective, and to meet with the Apostles (Acts 20:11), many of these arguments would have the believers disband out of a sense of "compassion" (see the third comment from the bottom in the list of comments above) or out of a sense that it is sufficient to "worship him in our hearts." We have entered an era when it is actually viewed as lacking in compassion for the early church to have met every time the first day of the week rolled around.

What I can't help but think in the midst of this all is that many actually have such disdain for meeting together with believers as The Church that they view Sunday worship as "lacking compassion." And I'm left just shaking my head. Is it really that bad? Meeting together with our family which is closer than blood? With people closer than blood - with whom we share the Holy Spirit? Is it really that bad? Hearing the Savior tell his people from his Word that he loves us? Is it really a burdensome yoke that God would call us together?

While this disdain for the worship of the Lord is troubling, we need to know that there are more than just fellow evangelicals looking in on this whole situation. I conclude with one comment which beautifully illustrates the ugliness of it all for "Protestant" churches:

  • "For real, if your church is closed, the Catholic Church will welcome you in, standing room only, with lots of smiling folks making room for you. Gathered together near the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist."

Our churches need to be open, because there will be people looking to worship with God's people in spirit and truth according to His command (Exodus 20:8-11; Hebrews 10:24-25), and they will be expecting to do it on the same day that God's people in the New Testament era have always gathered (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). If we don't hold out the light, someone else will be holding out the imitation.

"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." 2 Corinthians 13.14

B. B. Warfield long ago observed that the apostolic writings do not develop but rather presuppose the doctrine of the Trinity. The New Testament is not evidence of a transitional stage in the evolution of a trinitarian faith that is only conceptualized and codified in later centuries. The New Testament exhibits the presence within the apostolic church of a deeply ingrained trinitarian faith that, almost effortlessly, articulates itself in trinitarian summaries of the gospel events (e.g., Gal 4.4-7), trinitarian formulations of sacramental practice (e.g., Matt 28.19), trinitarian outbursts of praise (e.g., Eph 1.3-14), and trinitarian benedictions, such as we have in 2 Corinthians 13.14. 

This little verse is a trinitarian theology of salvation in miniature. As the God in whose name it blesses is one and three, so too is the salvation it commends. 

Second Corinthians 13.14 coordinates each phase of God's saving work--from its conception to its accomplishment to its effect--to a different person of the Trinity. Thus "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" coordinates the accomplishment God's saving work to the Son: our Lord and elder brother who graciously humbled himself to bear our curse and who was gloriously exalted to bestow his Father's blessing (2 Cor 8.9). "The love of God" coordinates the conception of God's saving work to the Father: whose love initiated the sacrifice of his beloved Son (John 3.16) and whose love intended our adoption as that sacrifice's gracious consequence (Eph 1.4-5). "The fellowship of the Holy Spirit" coordinates the effect of God's saving work to the Spirit: who brings us into adoptive fellowship with the Father (Gal 4.5-6), through mystical fellowship with the Son (Eph 1.3), in and by the corporate fellowship of the local church (1 Cor 12). 

The text does not coordinate the three persons of the Trinity to the three phases of salvation because all three persons are not united in all three phases of God's saving work (the external works of God, after all, are undivided) but in order to highlight the distinctive glory of each particular person in each particular phase of salvation. Consequently, as the Father's distinctive personal character lies in begetting the Son and breathing the Spirit, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in conceiving the plan of salvation in love. As the Son's distinctive personal character lies in being begotten of the Father and breathing the Spirit, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in accomplishing the gracious plan that brings many sons to glory. As the Spirit's distinctive personal character lies in being breathed forth by the Father and the Son in their mutual fellowship and love, so too does his distinctive personal character shine with particular brilliance in welcoming us into the fruit or effect of God's gracious plan of salvation: the fellowship of the Spirit.

Two quick observations follow from the preceding discussion. 

First, contrary to Warfield's reading, this verse does not contradict the principle that an ordered procession of persons exists within the Trinity; it rather confirms it. Though syntactically the Son precedes the Father and the Spirit in this verse, his position in the work of salvation corresponds to his personal order within the Trinity, as we saw above. The significance of 2 Corinthians 13.14 for trinitarian theology, we might say, lies not in syntax but in semantics. 2 Corinthians 13.14 presents to us a salvation initiated by the first person, accomplished by the second person, and perfected by the third person in correspondence with their eternal relations.

Second, as with the persons themselves, the phases of God's work of salvation may be distinguished. However, as with the persons, God's work of salvation cannot be divided. God's salvation, like God himself is one. No conception of salvation without salvation's accomplishment. No accomplishment of salvation without salvation's effect. 

This observation, it seems to me, holds powerful implications for how we think about the place of the local church within God's saving purpose. If it is indeed true that the fellowship of the Spirit (with the Father, through the Son, in the local church) is inseparable from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father, then we cannot expect to enjoy the grace of the Lord Jesus or the love of the Father apart from the church, the community within which the fellowship of the Spirit flourishes. Accordingly, to the extent that we would lean into the love of the Father and into the grace of the Lord Jesus, we must lean into the fellowship of the Spirit in the place where he pours forth the realities of that fellowship, in the local church.

And this also seems to be why Paul concludes a series of exhortations toward restoration, mutual comfort, agreement, and peace (see 2 Cor 13.11) with a trinitarian benediction: because the triune God of love, grace, and fellowship is the one whose blessing and presence is absolutely essential in forming a community characterized by restoration, mutual comfort, agreement, and peace.

On the Beauty of the Local Church

|
Our dear brother Paul Levy, who obviously needs a decent baptism, has affirmed that "networks, associations, affiliations and fellowships don't cut it," which is a fantastic assertion for a fellow whose standard confession of faith stops short of actually affirming the role of elder and pastors in a local church.  Of course he will affirm Synods and Councils in good form and order, but I wonder when the last time was his session conferred with the local PCUSA session for a little iron-sharpens-iron?

Far be it from me to say that we Baptists have the local/universal tensions all worked out and tidy -- because I think we don't by a longshot.  But given the limits of presbyterian (small-"p") government as actually practiced, I'm not sure throwing rocks at confessionally-united associations of independent churches is the most clever approach to advocating for the superiority of the sprinkled over the dunked in this case.

Should we ask for an editorial call regarding how to engage here, or does everybody know something about this issue that I don't?


See It Publicly

|
When I made arrangements to start blogging here, I told the fellows in charge that it was unlikely that I would blog more than twice a month at Ref21, but I'm about to only have posted once in my premiere month.  That's a soft start to be sure.

Last time, as you remember, I made the point that Christ must have his Church - but not just some universal church, some church without particular people in it.  And I left you with the pointed affirmation that if we want what Jesus wants, we also ought to want the church in a particular sense.  For those of you who aren't getting what I mean, let me say it plainly: if you don't belong to a local church, you're disdaining the people Jesus has called to himself.

There are a lot of places to go from there - places most people avoid studiously so they can do as little as possible for those who are fallen and only Jesus can get them back up again.  But I'm going to make my second post here about someplace I think you need to think about before the weekend kicks off: your worship is too puny if you worship this weekend without God's people.

Look: How Sweet the sound that Saved a Wretch like Me, right?  Everybody reading this blog understands how great is the grace which is used to save "me personally," (whosoever you personally may be), but that fantastic, impossible, immeasurable grace which God used to save you is magnified when you stand next to someone else who was also saved by that grace - your spouse, for example.  Or maybe your kids.  Or maybe all of you - and some of you are planning to House Church it this weekend because you have two or more gathered together in His name.  In that way, you think your job is done, your obligation and gratitude toward God Almighty and the Lamb who was Slain before the Foundation of the World is all set.

But I want you to think about this:  Jesus didn't die for us so that those who were born of the will of man could (or merely might) worship with us.  He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.  But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.  That doesn't mean that you were surprised at how many children you and your spouse had because they were all born when God appointed them to be born: it means that there are many more people born into the family of God than you and your spouse can have made.  It means that somehow God's grace and mercy in Jesus Christ is greater than the will of any man or woman.

That's why you need to get together with other people not related to you by blood or marriage or because they are like you in some ordinary way based on your preferences: because God is glorified when we get together all of us who are born into His family and show it and say it and see it publicly.  It Makes God's greatness obvious to all and confuses the world in all the right ways when we do it - because they have no idea why every tribe and tongue and neighborhood ought to be able to sing the same (unpopular) songs and eat the same (small portioned) meal and hear the same (sometimes complicated, sometimes apparently-clichéd) words of life.

But we do.  And we should.  And if we don't, shame on us - for making too little of what God has done for us.

Nobody Wants Jesus to Offend

|

Hi everyone.  Thanks to Carl for inviting me, the Top Men at Ref21 for allowing a menace like me to cause my brand of mayhem here in this part of the mostly-respectable blogosphere, and to my wife for her always-generous approach to my one-line life (which looks a lot like "don't ask, don't tell.").

Let's get to it.  In Matthew 16, Jesus declares the following:

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! [He says] For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

That's quite a declaration from Jesus.  He started with what looked like some sort of opinion poll or a survey of ideas about what it is that was happening as he was going around with these fellows teaching, and he changes the discussion from what everyone is expecting from Jesus to what God Himself is doing, and is about to do, through Jesus.

See: Jesus did not come to appeal to flesh and blood, or to fulfill the desires of our flesh and blood: Jesus came to do what God Himself wants accomplished.  Those who see it, says Jesus, will be "like a Rock" - like Simon who is the first to say it out loud.  This is why he calls him "Peter."  He's like a rock.  This is plainly a reference back to the parable in Matthew 7 -- the wise man and the foolish man, yes?  The foolish man built his house upon the sand; the wise man built his house upon the rock - and the rain came tumbling down.  Right? This is the end of the sermon on the mount -- "the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock."  So on the same rock which caused Peter to declare Jesus to be the Christ and not merely a prophet, Christ himself will build what he calls "my church" - and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.

Consider this carefully:  Jesus wants to set up or expose the priority of things, contrasting what "everyone" thinks against what the Disciples think - and in doing so, as I said earlier, he starts with Himself.  "Who do you say that I am?"  It's clear: Peter's answer is God's answer to the question, because Peter got this answer from God.  But as soon as He gets the right answer, Jesus draws a conclusion: Since I am the Messiah, the Christ, I will build my church on the rock of faith which God has given.  The first conclusion Jesus draws about the priority of things - in this passage anyway - is that if there is a Christ, there is a Church.

Now, look: the hang-up that will appear immediately is this - some people will say, "Jesus is here speaking about the universal church, or the invisible church - the set of people from Adam to the last person saved in Revelation - and that is as broad as the scope of the cross-work of Christ."  The reason they do this is simple: they read Jesus here to be saying, "I will build a church in general, with an indeterminate number in it."

The reasons to read this in that way are simple: nobody wants Jesus to do anything which offends.  We want Jesus to be saying things which are inviting only, and not in any way intimidating or putting demands on us.  And let's face it: it is easier on us if we think the church is merely an indeterminate and disembodied set of people because that means there's nobody in particular in that church.

I think Jesus is making a different point here.

When the apostle Paul reflects on those consequences, he says this to the Corinthians (1Cor 1):

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."

In Paul's view of it, the idea that Christ builds a church is not a theoretical idea which we can sort of modestly ponder in its ineffable wisdom.  Look: in Paul's view, he can write a letter to the church.  You can't write a letter to a theoretical group of people.  In Paul's view of it, the church is nothing if it is not a real gathering of people.  But they are not together not because of who they are.  Who they are is stupid and foolish.  They are brought together because of who Christ is - and look at this: they are not together in theory but together in fact.  As we read 1 Cor 1-3 with Paul, that's his point - it's even an insult to God to say things like, "well, I follow MacArthur, and you follow John Wesley, and you follow Paul Washer, and you follow Rick Warren."  

We must see this in Christ's declaration that he will build his church - because he's not saying that to the wind, or writing it in a manifesto as a claim for the ages to people not yet in evidence.  He's saying it to the disciples who are right here, right now, in front of him.  This fellow here here? He is Simon Peter.  He's standing on the rock of faith Jesus was talking about back on the hillside.  And what he's got is what Jesus will build his church on.

This gets buried behind that word "church."  In Greek, it is the word "ecclesia."  Most of you have heard that before, I am sure.  The word means "an assembly," or "a group called together for a common purpose."  It is not a word like "citizen" - although Christians are called "citizens" elsewhere in the Bible.  A "citizen" can be in a place but not of a place - or at the same time, they can be an American, but present in Canada or Mexico or China.  To be a "citizen" is to be a class of person without regard to your current whereabouts.  "ecclesia" is not like being a "member" - because I can be a member of a political party and never vote and never meet another soul who believes what I believe.

But an "assembly", a "church" as we translate it: it's not an association in theory.  It's an association in person, a coming together in one place.  In an "ecclesia," everyone is present.   When the Greeks used this word, they used it to describe a body of people which is called out in public for a purpose of ruling, or doing the things required for government.  I'm working this over for you only to say this: for us to misread Christ here to mean some kind of invisible body where the people are vitually linked together merely by a mark or a quality entirely misses Jesus'  point.

He's saying that as the Christ, he's going to bring a real body of believers together, starting with this fellow Simon Peter.

Christ will build his church - it is the first necessary consequence Jesus tells his Disciples.  This is interesting because Jesus had what we might call a target-rich environment in Judea and Caesarea.  The Romans occupied the land; the religious rulers were corrupt and hypocritical; the standard of living, let's face is, was, to say the least, impoverished - and Jesus was the Messiah.  He could have said anything as the first order of business:

"Flesh and Blood did not declare this to you Peter, and because of your faith I will rain my wrath down on Caesar, after whom Caesarea Phillipi is blasphemously named."

"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah - and to show you my power as Messiah, bring the Scribes and Pharisees as my enemies before me so that they I may lay them under my footstool!"

"Upon your faith, Simon, I claim healing upon the whole land, and wealth, and prosperity, and good marriages!"

No: the first order of business was to declare that as Christ, he must have the Church.  He must have people who have faith in Him, built upon the rock which cannot be shaken.  Since that is the case, let me propose something to you when we think about this fallen world which we live in which is full of trouble: our first order of business, if we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, ought to be to have the church, that is "that which Christ builds on the basis of real faith in him in real people like Peter."