Friday, November 25, 2005

Ekklesia -- Conclusions, part 2

The final element I think I should add regarding the "True Church" of Jesus Christ is the imperative of unity. This is in stark contrast to the ultrafundamentalist demand for "separation," which has become so distorted and abused as a Biblical teaching that in has marred the Gospel message to the world. (I'll comment more on this "doctrine of separation" championed by ultrafundamentalists in a later post.)

Yet, the imperitive of unity must also be differentiated from the water weak concept of ecumenical "unity" based merely on "love." Please understand what I mean. The greatest chapter in the Bible on unity is John 17. In this chapter, most appropriately called "The Lord's Prayer," Our Lord prayed a number of times, "that they all may be one; as you, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be one in Us..." (John 17:21). Yet, Jesus also prayed, "Sanctify them through your truth; Your Word is truth" (John 17:17).

The Apostle Paul puts it most succinctly when he charges the Ephesians to "[speak] the truth in love..." (Ephesians 4:15a). The basis of the unity of the Body of Christ, The True Church, the Church Universal, Spiritual, both truth and love. Love void of truth is mere emotion and sentiment; Truth void of love is cold, hard, robotic. Neither one can produce unity -- true, biblical unity -- without the other. That is why Fundamentalism is so judgmental and legalistic; that is why Liberalism is so mushy and meaningless.

Is this easy? Clearly not. Look at how the church has failed fairly consistently at it over the past 2,000 years. But it is God's call to His true Body. Truth and love form a symbiotic relationship that, when balanced, can provide the type of unity God desires -- the kind that only His Spirit can produce. Anything less is the product of the made with hands churches, institutions, movements and men who lead them.

Doctor Robertson McQuilkin, past president of Columbia International University (my alma mater), has a famous saying -- one which has become a guiding principle and motto of my life and ministry. He said, "It is easier to go to a consistent extreme, than to stay at the center of Biblical tension." So true... Humans, believers, have an extremely difficult time finding balance at the center of Biblical tension. This is true on this key issue of unity -- and it's just as true with the other issues of Ekklesia -- the Church, that I've addressed in these several posts. Here's hope that you can strike a balance in your walk -- HINT: It can only be found in HIM.

A closing note for now: Some would read this and believe that I am condemning the current manifestation of "the church" wholesale. Some would conclude that I reject any form of local church, denomination, institution or organization other than "The Church" universal, invisible, and spiritual. That's not necessarily true -- if you've read past posts, you may have caught some clues of that. However, my last post on this subject will deal with "Ekklesia: Clarifications and Caveats." That, I hope, will deal with any lingering doubts or questions you might think to ask. Or at least it will prove to you once and for all that I really AM a heretic! :-)

Monday, November 21, 2005

Ekklesia - Conclusions

The concept of the "Church" has been long debated. Good people differ on exactly what it means and how it is composed, what are its essential characteristics and who are its congregates. I certainly don't believe anything I say could end the arguments. I can only conclude with a summary of where I stand, of what I believe constitutes the True "Church."

First, "The Church" is the universal, invisible, spiritual Body of Christ. It is organic, born of the Holy Spirit of God, not of men.

Second, "The Church" as scripturally understood is to be differentiated from "the local church," a denomination, a sect, or some other man-made creation or invention. These entities are what I refer to as made with hands churches; they do not necessarily reflect the spiritual principles of God's Kingdom and true Body.

Third, Since the definition of ekklesia is "a called out assembly," any group of individuals meeting in Christ for worship, prayer, and study of Scripture in accord with the Spirit and in keeping with core Christian Doctrines, may be Biblically referred to as "The Church."

Fourth, made with hands entities called "churches," denominations, and other such institutiuons and organizations within "Christendom" were the creation of humans. In many cases, they were founded with great and good intentions, but they have become (or are becoming) useful tools to control and exert power, rather than to further God's kingdom. As such, these made with hands churches may only be regarded as "The Church" in proportion to how obedient they are to the Scriptures and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Many of these entities, unfortunately, must be discarded as apostate, or as a hindrance to the True Church and the True Gospel. This includes not merely liberal and modernist churches and institutions, but also evangelical and fundamental churches and organizations.

Fifth, the fundamental reason for the corruption of the institutional (made with hands) churches is the depravity of man.

MORE, shortly....

NOTE: Sorry I've been absent for a while -- I've been "under the weather."

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Ekklesia - Congregations

A friend of ours that we've known for well over a decade came by to help us out after we moved back to Irmo, South Carolina in 2002. It was fall, and he'd been our HVAC man, installing our Gas Pack some years before. He had attended Columbia Bible College, where I went to Seminary, and we'd always looked to him when the unit needed servicing. Well, it was Fall that year, and there were some problems with the furnace, so he came by.

After fixing our unit, he stayed and chatted with Tammy and I for some time. It had been over four years since we'd talked to him, since in those years we'd moved to Nashville, Tennessee. As we talked, I asked him where he and his wife and children attended church now.

"We actually just meet in our homes with a group of our friends and families."

I was a bit surprised at that, but he went on to explain that "church" had become such a hassle, with its internal politics, and the sometimes plastic worship, that this group just began doing "church" in their homes. He said that they avoided all the "money issues," they were comfortable with people they knew and trusted, and they didn't have to put on a show for anyone.

The traditionalist side of me found this a hard pill to swallow. After all, if you didn't "go to church," how could you be a Christian, right? But the Biblical student within soon answered that question. The Word of God never tells us to "go to church." The scriptures DO say not to "forsake the assembling of yourselves together" (Hebrews 10:25). But what does that mean?

At its most basic level, its fundamental core, the organism of the "Church" may be "Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there I Am in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:20). That is all that is "required" of a group to constitute itself as "a church" biblically. Consider this issue from another perspective...

Is it necessary, according the Hebrews 10:25, to "go to church" everytime the doors are open to fulfill God's command? Is that what this verse teaches? Sunday School, 10AM; Morning Worship, 11AM; Sunday Evening Service, 7PM; Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting and Bible Study, 7PM? Not to mention youth meetings, choir practice, supper before prayer meeting, etc... Please understand, I'm not saying there's anything inherently wrong with these activities in a "local church." But they aren't necessary for a group of believers to be considered "Church."

Some would insist, particularly among Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, that these meetings are necessary, yea, that the abandonment of such meetings is a compromise of the Gospel, and that any group of "so-called Christians" that do so need "revival bless Gawd!" Sorry...You get the idea. Many Catholics would insist the same, even to the point of attending Mass everyday - for the same reasons.

But nowhere does the Bible EVER detail or demand we MUST meet this amount of times, in this way, according to this tradition! The Bible prescribes meetings "on the Lord's Day" (Revelation 10:1) more commonly referred to in Scripture as "the first day of the week" (Acts 20:7; I Corinthians 16:2). The Bible also commands meetings "from house to house" (Acts 2:46). Incidentally, Church History records that no formal meeting houses were ever built for the Christian Church until the late third century -- mostly because the religion was illegal and meetings were held in homes or secret locations. Church buildings only became prominent afterConstantine made Christianity the state religion of Rome. Then, he gave them former pagan temples and converted them into "churches."

The concept of "going to church" was foreign to the Early Church. They didn't "go to church," nor did they "do church," ratherm the Apostles taught that they were to "BE the Church!"
The Biblical Church has Elders, and Deacons. They are "called" by God and confirmed in their call by "The Church." And yes, Scripture does give some outlines and guidelines of these offices and of how a local assembly should govern itself. The problem I've tried to point out is that, too often, we've ignored the teachings of Scripture, and adopted the traditions of men with regard to who and what "The Church" really is. We've surrendered the substance for the shadow. We've jettisoned the truth to swallow a lie. We've taken the Spiritual, living organism, the Body of Christ -- The Church -- and turned it into something more befitting us, our nature, our achievements -- made with hands. Depravity corrupts, tarnishing all it touches.

Was my friend wrong in assembling together with a small group of believers in homes for studying God's Word and worship? Shouldn't he have his wife and kids down at the church house? Maybe so, according to those in the made with hands churches of our day -- but NOT according to the Word of God.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Ekklesia - Conditions

I've spent the better part of my nearly 19 years of ministry in the "local church." I've pastored 3 churches in three different states. I've actually ministered in 3 different denominations: The Southern Baptist Convention, The Convention of Original Free Will Baptists, and the National Association of Free Will Baptists. I mention this just to establish that I've "been there," and I know whereof I speak.

In my last post, I ended asking the question, "Does the local church...have part in this [Body of Christ]?" Does any denomination, institution, para-church ministry, mission board or even local church participate in the "Body of Christ," and it's ministry on earth? And for that matter, why does it seem I'm so hard on the local church and other institutional Christian organizations?

In the past, I wasn't. From the time I first sensed God dealing with me as a rising Senior in High School, and at the World Congress of Fundamentalists in 1983, I've been involved in local churches. I've believed in local churches. I've even worn blinders for the sake of local churches. Let me explain...

As with other "made with hands" institutions, when humans are involved, even "believers" in Christ, their suppressed yet potent depraved natures cannot help but "leak out." In my experience, I've known Pastors and other ministers who were liars and cheats, I've known deacons who followed their examples. I knew a deacon once who was a drunk. One Pastor I was acquainted with was a serial adulterer -- he'd had at least two affairs in the church he served. I could go on, and I could reveal much worse. I'll spare you. I mean, "We're all human, right?"

God did not entrust His message to humans so they could shame it, smear it, and spit on it. Yet, too often, the actions of "church leaders" do exactly that. The actions of "church members" are as bad or worse. The testimony of "the church" is not a plus for the building of God's Kingdom.

But you might charge that I am basing my generally negative views about the "institutional church" and its subsidiaries on the actions of a few, or only on my own experience. Well, examine the Scriptures.

When we look at the New Testament, we find all the Apostles who write of "The Church" as the "Body of Christ," understand it to be very positive and pure. But when the term "the churches" is used -- or when a single local church is mentioned (Corinth, Laodecia, Thyatira, etc) -- it's usually in the context of the troubles it's having.

For example, after Pentecost the young church in Jerusalem boomed. They rode a wave of blessing and growth hard to conceive of in our day. Yet, within three years or so, "there arose a dissension between the Grecians [Hellenistic Jews] and the Hebrews [Palestinian Jews]..." (Acts 6:1). This lead the young church to appoint "Deacons" -- the seven men who would meet the ministry needs of the Grecian Jewish converts, and thus solve the problem. Though necessary, this indicates a pattern that continues to this day -- when there is a problem, let's start a committee, or two.... So the institution grows, but how long before the cure to the original disease become a disease in itself?

Divisions within a local church, or in larger Christian institutions, are notable and numerous. Consider the split in the Church in 49 AD regarding how one becomes a Christian (Acts 15). Or, consider the Corinthian Church -- of all the Apostle Paul's "church" plants, this one was the worst. "Now I beseech you, Brethren...that there be no divisions among you...For it has been declared to me that among you, my brethren...that there are contentions among you" (I Corinthians 1:10,11).

Time and space forbid me to explore the myriad examples in the New Testament of "local churches" that were corrupt -- whether in outright immorality, divisions, deviant beliefs, etc.. And it is no different today.

Consider that of the seven churches named in the book of Revelation 2-3; only 2 were not judged or criticized by the Lord. Smyrna was too busy being persecuted to be unfaithful or untrue to the faith; Philadelphia is portrayed as having "a little strength" because they "kept the word of [God's] patience" (Revelation 3:8). It is debated why Philadelphia had "little strength," but it is clear that they were faithful -- and just as clear -- they were the exception.

Today, the "local church" that reflects faithfulness to the leadership of the Holy Spirit, to the Purposes of God, and to the principles of His Word, are rare. Certainly, there are exceptions. But, "local churches" are only exceptions to the rule of the failure of the "made with hands" institutional churches to the extent that they are loyal to -- and diligent in -- faithfulness to God and His Word....No matter what the denomination, Bishop, Session, hierarchy, Canon Law, the World or the Devil Himself says.

So, is "The Church" in a given area only found in a "local church," or is it manifest in different places, under different conditions and circumstances, without the made with hands structures, bureaucracies and consequent corruptions?