Mega Church. Simple Church. Emergent Church. None.

February 28, 2011

by Lance Johnson

There is seemingly no end to the debate about what the church should be. There are arguments for and against mega churches, simple churches, emergent churches, conservative churches, contemporary churches, traditional churches, house churches, and almost every other variation the sinful mind of man can conceive. Some are claiming that the church age has past and we no longer need the church. Others are calling for a radical change in our understanding of the word ‘church’, arguing that we should think about church as a verb rather than a noun. All of this is nothing new. The nature of the church has been debated since Paul’s day. Sadly, most of these discussions produce much more smoke than either light or heat and reveal more about the minds of the participants than the will of the Bridegroom. Up to this point I have not thought much about the debates, but at the request of a couple of the sheep entrusted to my care as their pastor, I have done some thinking about what the church should be and pray that I might put aside my own understanding sufficiently to make a few helpful comments.

The current debate about the church is very like a conversation I had once. Many years ago I was ministering to the Hispanic population of rural East Texas. One of the brothers, Pedro Hernandez, asked me one day, “What is a hippy?” The question was a bit unexpected, but he had not grown up as I had during the glory days of the hippies and flower children so it was natural he would be curious. It seemed a simple question, so I started talking to him about what the hippies did—they protested against the “establishment”, they smoked marijuana, they played psychedelic music, they wore tie-died clothing—and what they did not do, such as work, groom their hair, or bathe. This explanation of what the hippies did and did not do simply confused Brother Pedro. At first I assumed his confusion was due to my less than fluent Spanish, but eventually came to understand that the problem was not with my language, it was with my explanation. I was telling him what hippies did. He wanted to know what they were. When I realized this, I was somewhat astounded by his depth of understanding, and ashamed of my own lack of perception and arrogance. Thankfully, that was not the last time this simple, minimally educated man astounded me. His perception was as intense as his faith, and I learned much from him. (One day I will have to share his understanding of the Book of Job, bumper stickers, and cows.)

Of course, one of the things I learned from my conversations with Brother Pedro was that what something is and what it does are not the same thing. Thus before we can determine what the church should do we must understand what God intends for the church to be. If we want to know what God thinks about the subject we must, of course, look to the Scripture. This is not to say that we should necessarily duplicate the early church’s polity and practice. The New Testament does not provide much information about the actual practice of the early church. It is certainly not enough for us to duplicate a workable church structure in our society. Furthermore, John Piper correctly and wisely points out that “historically early” does not mean “theologically accurate.” He goes on to say:

We are in a better position today to know Jesus Christ than anyone who lived from AD 100 to 300. They had only parts of the New Testament rather than the collected whole. That’s how valuable the fullness of revelation is in the finished Bible. Beware of idealizing the early church. She did not have your advantages! [See the entire article here. It is well worth the read.]

Not only does this reflect a proper respect for the Word of God, but it also demonstrates a great deal of common sense, an element lacking in most theological debates whatever the subject. The Scripture may not tell us much about the practice of the church in the first century, but it does provide us with principles to guide the church in the twenty-first century. There are several passages we could look at, but one that has struck me as particularly relevant to the current discussions is the first few chapters of 1 Corinthians. The church in Corinth existed in a social environment similar to our own. It was a society that openly opposed a faith that called for self-denial rather than self-indulgence. It was quite a religious society, but quite ungodly at the same time. The struggles of the early church there reflected those and other social characteristics of the day just as the church in our day reflects our society for both good and bad.

Before looking at a couple of passages from 1 Corinthians, we need to define the church. Because ‘church’ is a noun it must be defined in terms of its attributes and character rather than in terms of its actions. Its actions inevitably flow from its attributes and character (notice I did not use the word ‘characteristics’). For example, dogs bark because they are dogs. Cats don’t bark because they are not dogs. This is true of all entities. We need only look to any governmental body, such as the two chambers of the U.S. Congress, to understand this fact and its consequences. The U.S. Congress makes laws that apply to the citizens and residents of the United States. Those same laws do not apply to the citizens of China, for example, because by its nature Congress has no authority outside of our own nation. Furthermore, the overall effectiveness of Congress is determined by the integrity and character of its members. One only need read a good newspaper to find the evidence of this particular truth.

In the Scripture, the church is very narrowly defined as the called out body of the saints of God. Rather than take up the space to deal with the details of that definition in this article, let me refer you to the article ‘Church’ in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. It is clear and concise and available online. While the church consists of individuals, the emphasis is on the assembly or, in more contemporary terms, the congregation. This has been the biblical pattern from Old Testament times. While the individuals are important, their greatest fulfillment is as part of something greater than themselves, something greater than just the collection of individuals. This is clearly illustrated in the story of Achan Son of Carmi in Joshua 7. Because the church is God’s redeemed, just as the Israelites were at the time of the Conquest, its character is expected to be above reproach.

In First Corinthians Paul addressed at least two serious problems in the church. First, they were divided by personalities. Second, they tolerated sin among themselves, specifically they continued to have fellowship with a man who called himself a believer but was having a sexual relationship with his father’s wife. Even by the openly promiscuous standards of our day, that is a bit creepy. The reason Paul addressed these issues so strongly is because they are at the very heart of the nature and character of the church. The full nature and character of the church and of believers is beyond the scope of this article, but most would agree that the these two items Paul addresses—self-denial and holiness—are foundational issues. Jesus’ entire ministry taught by word and deed the concept of self-denial. You know the passages such as Luke 9:23 “And he [Jesus] said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’” Even baptism, the external sign which marks the believer’s ‘membership’ in the church is a picture of self-denial. As for holiness, that is so obvious it hardly needs explanation, but let me point out one important biblical fact. We tend to focus on the love of God, and his love is certainly important, but the Bible speaks much more often of the holiness of God than it does of his love. Furthermore, while we are commanded to love God with all our being, we are commanded more than once in the Scripture to be holy as he is holy. When it comes to the character of the church, all others are built on these two.

Let us look at the first of these two issues, self-denial. The Corinthian Christians were divided by personalities rather than focused on Christ. (See 1 Corinthians 3.) They were not humble but proud. They were not living in a state of self-denial; they lived in a state of self-indulgence. Paul’s example of self-denial is moving:

To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. (1 Corinthians 4:11-16 ESV)

Does this passage describe most believers? When reviled do we really bless? When slandered do we really entreat? No, for the most part we don’t. Paul’s words do not even describe most of our church leaders. The picture of the humble, simple believer is certainly a thing of the past. Pastor A. W. Tozer addressed this same issue in his classic work, The Pursuit of God:

To be specific, the self-sins are these: self-righteousness, self-pity, self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-admiration, self-love and a host of others like them. They dwell too deep within us and are too much a part of our natures to come to our attention till the light of God is focused upon them. The grosser manifestations of these sins, egotism, exhibitionism, self-promotion, are strangely tolerated in Christian leaders even in circles of impeccable orthodoxy. They are so much in evidence as actually, for many people, to become identified with the gospel. I trust it is not a cynical observation to say that they appear these days to be a requite for popularity in some sections of the Church visible. Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common as to excite little notice. (p. 42-43)

These words are as true today as they were when written more than 60 years ago. When thinking about this concept, it is important that we not simply look at the more blatant examples, such as the TV evangelists, but at ourselves. (We will see later in this article that deflecting the words of reproach towards others was one of the issues for which Paul scolded the Church at Corinth.) The true church is the called out saints of God, and as such consists of those who deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Christ. Anything less is not the church.

Paul goes on to instruct the Corinthians in holiness. He says,

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people– not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13 ESV)

This passage is interesting and convicting. He admonished the Corinthians to correctly apply his earlier teaching on holiness, specifically sexual immorality. They had deflected his previous teachings away from themselves and toward those outside the church. Instead of seeking forgiveness and purging the sin from their congregation, they incredibly held unbelievers to a higher standard than they held themselves. Sound familiar? It should, for the message is as applicable to the contemporary church as it was to the Corinthian Church. It is loudly condemning homosexuality, abortion, secularism, and a whole host of other sins, while tolerating within itself another whole host of sinfulness, particularly sexual immorality, greed, gluttony, pride, racism and hypocrisy, not to mention just plain old worldliness.

Paul had to remind the Corinthian Christians that their concern was not the holiness of those outside the church, but those inside the church. He specifically told them they could not avoid all contact with sinful people unless they went “out of the world.” We cannot, nor should we, avoid contact with unbelievers, but we cannot hold them to a higher standard than we hold ourselves. Paul told the Corinthians Christians that unbelievers cannot share our understanding of morality because it, like all else for the believer, is spiritually understood (1 Corinthians 2:14). Our concern is for ourselves and those who bear the name of Christ. Jesus put it this way,

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Mathew 7:1-5 ESV)

The true church is the called out saints of God, and as such consists of those who seek personal and corporate holiness above all else. Anything less is not the church. Unless and until the church, the called out assembly of the saints, is a body of the self-denying and holy redeemed of God all other discussions are moot.

So, why is it so important that we clearly define what the church is before we worry about what it does? Because, if we define the church by what we do, we have, in spite of any formal statements of doctrine to the contrary, adopted a de facto belief in salvation by works, specifically a doctrine of salvation by church participation.

Lord, forgive me for my own hypocrisy and remove the log from my eye. Amen!

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