Jul 28, 2005

What Is the Church and Why Should I Care? - Part 5

V. The Church Has Three Ministries that the Lord Has Givenit to Perform

We conclude our study on the nature of the church by discussing her mission. The mission God has given the church is that she fulfill three vital ministries—a ministry to God, a ministry to believers, and a ministry to the world.

(1) Ministry to God: Worship. The first and foremost purpose of the church is to worship God. The Bible has a lot to say about worship. The place to start is with Jesus words to the Samaritan woman: "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). To worship in spirit means to worship God with a sincere heart, a heart that loves him and desires to please him. Only believers can worship God in spirit. To worship in truth means to worship in accordance with God’s Word; to worship only as God instructs us to worship.

(2) Ministry to Believers: Edification. The church has been given the responsibility to build up believers in their faith (See Matt. 28:19-20; Eph. 4:11-12; 1 Thes. 5:14-15). Helping others grow in Christ is not just the duty of pastors. All Christians are commanded to encourage each other, warn each other, comfort each other, and uphold each other. There is no such thing as a "Lone Ranger Christian." Without the help of other believers, a Christian will wither up and die! This is why the Book of Hebrews says, "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Heb. 10:24-25). Here we are reminded of the importance of helping each other grow in Christ. But notice that this duty is connected with the command to not neglect assembling together. The saints cannot be edified if the saints don’t meet!

(3) Ministry to the World: Benevolence and Missions. We are to reach out to the unbelieving world with benevolent concern; to work for justice in the world and to care for the sick and poor in his name (Matt. 25:31-40). Even more importantly, we are to minister to the world through missions, by taking the gospel message to our families, our neighbors, and to the ends of the earth. We seek to evangelize the world and bring into God’s kingdom people from every tribe and nation. As Jesus said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations."

Jul 15, 2005

What Is the Church and Why Should I Care? - Part 4

IV. The Church Is Distinguished by Three Marks

There are three marks or indications by which we can tell a true church from a false church; three marks by which we can tell if a church is a church in God’s eyes.

(1) A true church preaches the gospel. In Acts 2:42, a text we saw earlier, we are told that the early church devoted itself to the apostles’ "doctrine." Primarily this refers to the message about the Person and Work of Christ; the gospel message which is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). This message includes as well any and all doctrines that flow out of the gospel message. A true church teaches the gospel and clings to the Word of God. A church which fails in this is not really a Christian church. Notice the seriousness with which Paul addresses this issue:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (Gal. 1:6-9)

Paul pronounces a curse on those who preach a false gospel, such as the Judaizers who taught that one must follow the ceremonial law of Moses if one was truly to be saved. We may presume that any church which preaches a false gospel, or fails to teach the true gospel of justification by faith alone, would receive the same curse.

(2) A true church faithfully administers the ordinances in accordance with God's Word. The ordinances, of course, are baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We have already addressed the meaning and importance of baptism, but the New Testament equally stresses the significance of the Lord’s Supper. Looking at Acts 2:42 once again, we note that another thing the early church devoted itself to was "the breaking of bread." This is most likely a reference to the Lord’s Supper. This ordinance symbolizes the sacrificial death of Christ, the bread representing his broken body, and the cup representing his shed blood. Paul speaks of our solemn obligation with regard to this rite:

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Cor. 11:27-29)

A true church observes both the ordinance of baptism and the ordinance of the Lord's Supper, and it does so with reverence, guided by the teaching of the New Testament.

(3) A true church practices church discipline. The Lord Jesus commands the church to hold members accountable to holy living. We find an allusion to this in his Great Commission:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matt. 28:19-20a)

Jesus tells the church to teach Christian disciples to obey all of his commands. He also gives us specific instruction on what to do if a church member fails in this regard:

"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." (Matt. 18:15-17)

Jesus expects the church to confront sinful church members with their sin, and he lays out the procedures to follow in doing so. But, if a church fails to carry out biblical church discipline, allowing sin to flourish in the church unchallenged, then Jesus has very harsh words for that church:

"To the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘These are the words of the Son of God, whose eyes are like blazing fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first. Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.’" (Rev. 2:18-23)

A church that fails to discipline wayward members is under God’s judgment, and ceases to be a true church. J.L. Dagg, the famous Baptist theologian, once said, "When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it."

Jul 7, 2005

What Is the Church and Why Should I Care? - Part 3

III. The Church Is Overseen by Elders Appointed by the Holy Spirit

The church, as we have seen, is not just an informal meeting. Nor is it disorganized and haphazard in the way it conducts its work. The Lord has established a way for the church to be organized and properly managed. This God-given organization is outlined in the Book of Acts at the end of Paul’s First Missionary Journey.

They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," they said. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust. (Acts 14:21-23)

Notice that before the apostles left these churches in God’s hands, they appointed elders in each church. We learn more about biblical elders from Paul’s farewell speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. In verse 28, Paul says to them, "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood." There are several things we learn about elders from this text and the earlier one in Acts 14. First of all, each church had a plurality of elders. That is, there was more than one elder appointed in each church.

Second, we have a job description of the elders. The elders are said to be both overseers and shepherds. An overseer is a leader, a supervisor. A shepherd is one who cares for the flock, feeding them, comforting them, and guiding them. As shepherd of God’s flock, a pastor is one who teaches, warns, corrects, and encourages the members of the church. The elders/pastors, then, are the spiritual leaders of the local church. It is their responsibility to provide direction to the ministry of the church, and to guide the spiritual growth of each church member.

Third, notice that Paul says that it is the Holy Spirit who put the elders in their leadership positions. Though the church is involved in appointing elders, ultimately it is the Holy Spirit who puts them in office. And this means that the elders are ultimately responsible to God, not the church. It also means that church members have solemn duties to their pastors. Paul outlines some of these duties in his first letter to the Thessalonians:

Now we ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. (1 Thes. 5:12-13a)

There are two duties required of Christians in this text:
(1) Christians are to acknowledge their pastors' right to lead. The NIV translates the Greek as "respect." Other translations say "appreciate" or "know" your pastors. But, the Greek carries more the idea of "acknowledge" or "recognize." The idea here is that church members are to acknowledge that their pastors are indeed their pastors! They are to consciously submit to the elders’ leadership.

(2) Christians are to esteem their pastors. The NIV says it well when it tells Christians to hold their pastors in "the highest regard." Pastors deserve to be respected, not so much because they are anything special in themselves, but because of the noble work they have been called to do. The author of Hebrews echoes Paul’s instructions, writing,

Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb. 13:17)

This verse commands Christians to obey their pastors. Why? Because the pastors have the difficult task of watching out for the souls of God’s flock, and Christians are called to make their job joyful and not burdensome. This requires obedience on the part of the congregation.