Ecclesiology: What God Desires for His Church
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What God Desires for His Church
This week . . . in South Carolina, a Free Will Baptist pastor was charged with kidnapping and raping several women at gunpoint; in Alabama, the Episcopal, United Methodist and Roman Catholic churches have sued the state to block an immigration law; in Texas, Warren Jeffs began his life sentence in East Texas for sexual assault of underage girls in his polygamous Mormon church; in Sacramento, a Catholic priest showed up an hour late for a baptism ceremony, and was so drunk that his speech was unintelligible and he fell over a couple of times.
Is it any wonder that people don’t speak well of the church today? If you invite someone to church–if you say that you go to church the odds are good that the person you’re talking to has been hurt or abused by a church. Heck, a number of you have been hurt and abused by churches in your past. Your experience of the church may have left a bitter taste in your mouth. You’re sitting here thinking that this church is probably as messed up as your old one.
I don’t know your past. I don’t know what churches you’ve been to, or how you’ve been hurt. We are not free of issues. I’m sure that we have hurt people unintentionally and ignorantly. What I’d like to ask of you today is to do one thing for me–just one request for you. Just for an hour leave your baggage at the door. Fight to not be cynical. That’s my request.
I’m not going to try to sell you on our church. In fact, you are welcome to go to another church next week if you need to. What I want to sell you on is God’s vision for His Church. I want to give you a biblical foundation of understanding what the Church is to be and do. When you make a big purchase, you research it to death. Buying a car is 60+ hours of reading CR, Edmunds, Autotrader, test-driving, dialogue. The more serious the decision, the more time it takes to study and get a full picture.
But many people approach church as, try it for a Sunday and stay or go. So today, I want to lay a foundation. I’ll give you the CR report on what God says a good church is so that if you leave next week, or three years from now, or if you stay among us for many years you have a picture of what God wants His Church to be like. And that’ll let you evaluate us, and enable you to evaluate any church you’re thinking of attending so that you can say–this is a biblical Church, this is a church that God loves.
Many churches are not in line with God’s vision for His Church, and we’re not there yet either–we are a work in progress. So if you would, just for a bit, set aside your baggage, disarm your cynicism, and let’s look together at what God desires for His Church.
Now before we start, I need to define “the Church” in some manner. I want to make sure that you’re all thinking what I’m thinking when I say “Church”. First, when the Bible says church it always means the people in it. A building is not a church–the believers who worship there are “the church.” Our English uses the same word for the people and the building.
The Bible speaks about the temple, the synagogue and various houses where churches met. But when it talks about the church, it is always referring to the people. So the church is the people, not the building.
Second, the Bible refers to the church in different senses–it may talk about the Church visible or invisible, local or universal. The local church is made up of all those who come together in one place to worship as a church and profess faith in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:2). “To the church of God which is at Corinth.” Faith Bible Church is a local church. Kindred Community Church, where Chris is preaching, is a local church. Scattered throughout the world are many local churches.
But the Bible also uses Church to mean a collection of local churches, in a region or even universally (Acts 9:31). “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up.” First Corinthians 12:28 says, “And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers.” Paul is not saying that apostles were given to each local church, but to the universal Church–the whole family of God worldwide.
So the church can refer to a local gathering, or all churches as one. But then the Bible also differentiates between what we see and what God sees–the visible and invisible.
The visible church is the church as we see it on earth. First Corinthians 16:1 says, “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you are also to do.” In general, it is the people who attend that church–people who we see as part of the church.
The church invisible is the Church as God sees it. This is the community of all true believers. As Ephesians 5:25 puts it, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Actual genuine believers comprise the universal church—those are the ones God sees.
Someone’s participation in the visible church doesn’t mean that they are a part of the invisible Church. There are people who’ve been a part of this church, the visible church–and they now no longer profess Christ. That means when they were here they were part of the visible church, but were not part of the invisible Church. God never counted them as a true believer.
So the Bible talks about the church in various ways–visible and invisible, local and universal. As we talk about the church today I’m going to try and keep that clear. I’ll try to say which one is meant. So let’s look at what God desires for His church–the visible church, both local and universal. We’ll leave our past experiences behind and see what God says He wants His church to look like. The church that makes the news is not what God intended, so let’s look at the church through God’s eyes, revealed in His Word. What does God desire for His church?
I. God Wants the Church to Love Jesus
There are two common responses by people toward the church–they either hate the church or love the church. The haters view the church as a place for bigots and hypocrites. Sitting with a guy on a plane last week, I was asked, “Are you one of those fundamentalists?”
Non-Christians often hate the church because of the perceived hypocrisy, bigotry and evil that is done by those who attend a church. Professing Christians sometimes stop going to church because of wrongs done to them by other supposed believers. The haters have cause to hate the church.
On the flip side, there are people who love the church. This is a smaller group–every evening is spent doing whatever the church is doing. Church programs consume all their time. They are busy, busy, busy–VBS, BSF, MOPS, Awana, outreach, Bible Study, youth, recovery, recovery from recovery. They love the church and its programs because it keeps them so busy that they don’t have to reach out to the lost, or even deal with their own life. Their busyness is the ground of their salvation–because they’re at church, God must love them.
Some people hate the church, some people love the church–both groups are wrong. God wants the Church to love Jesus more than anything else. God did not make the Church so that it would love itself. God made the Church so that it would love Jesus.
He sent His Son to die for the Church–Ephesians 5:25, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” The parallel here is of a husband and wife–a marriage works well when the wife loves the husband and the husband loves the wife. Think how messed up it would be if the wife loved herself most.
The Church is not to love itself–the Church is to love Jesus, just as Jesus loves the church. The Church is who Jesus died for. The Church is who Jesus will be joined to in heaven (Ephesians 5:27). The Church is the one who Jesus now stands among, watching and guarding.
In Revelation 1, the Apostle John has a vision of Jesus standing among the churches. The one who died for the Church is now dressed as a glorified King. He is watching over us, He is speaking to us, He loves and cares for us. The Church is not to be loved. The Church is made to love Jesus. The Bible repeatedly speaks of the Church as a bride, waiting for Jesus, the groom.
Some of you remember your wedding day. Or maybe you remember watching Patrick and Amanda get married, or Neil and Crystal, or Nick and Albertina. When the wedding march began to play and the bride appeared, she only had eyes for the man at the front. Tears well up, there’s a knot in the throat–the groom is watching and smiling as the bride walks slowly toward the altar.
God made the Church to love Jesus. Her eyes–your eyes are to be fixed on Jesus. A bride’s eyes wander to no other man. They are undistractable. She’s in love. You individually, and as a church, are made to love Jesus.
The Church is called the Bride of Christ, and what makes Jesus so amazing is that we were not pretty. The Church was not a beautiful bride that a man would be excited to walk to. We were not simply reluctant or unworthy of Jesus to be our groom–we found Him repulsive and ugly. We were sinners, in rebellion toward Him–and yet He loved us. To the point of death, He loved us. Though destined for marriage, we hated Him–and His perfect love changed our hearts so that we fell in love with Him. His death for our sins became the sweetest thing. Our heart for Him became like a bride.
For that reason, Paul tells the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 16:22, “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed. Maranatha [Come!].” If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be dedicated to destruction. Wow–I think he’s serious about this. The Church is made to love Jesus, and Jesus gave us two ordinances that would help us keep our eyes fixed on Him.
A. He ordained that believers would be baptized
Matthew 28:19 says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Then in Acts 2:38, “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.’” When a Christian is saved, he is to be baptized. Baptism is an outward symbol of an inward transformation.
Romans 6:4-5 tells us, “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection.”
Baptism is a visual symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection for us. It is a picture of how we are washed from the sins of our old life and made new in Christ.
For the community that witnesses the baptism, it displays a regular visual reminder of how Christ died and was resurrected to new life. Baptism is one way that God ordained for the Church to be regularly fixated on Jesus.
B. God also commanded the Lord’s Supper
Those instructions are found in 1 Corinthians 11:23-32, and were read earlier this morning. The Lord’s Supper is another symbol which Jesus gave so that the Church would regularly think with joy about Him. That act of communion is a picture of Christ’s love for us. His perfect righteous life, put to death as atonement for our sins. That is the picture of the bread and the cup.
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not sacraments which impart grace. They are expressions of faith which the Church is commanded to do, as visible symbols of Jesus’ love for the Church. Jesus wants every church to do these things and remember His great love for them, so that the Church itself would love Jesus more than anything else.
So if you’re looking for a church, find one that makes more of Jesus than its programs.
Find one that preaches Jesus–not just evangelistic sermons, but preaches from the text and proclaims the Gospel from it. Find a church where the people love Jesus. Find one where there is an affection for one another that’s rooted in their love for Jesus.
II. God Wants the Church to be on Mission
I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but Jesus didn’t talk much about the Church. The gospels only record Him mentioning it two times–one is in Matthew 18:17, where he speaks about telling the church the sins of someone who’s hardened and unrepentant. Two chapters earlier in Matthew 16:18, Jesus uses Church for the first time to Peter, “I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
As awesome as the end is, what I’d like you to notice is the “I will build My Church”—it’s future tense. When Jesus said this, it hadn’t happened yet but would. The Church was not around when Jesus was–it came later.
Luke is the most technical writer in the New Testament–a doctor by training and early church historian. It’s significant that Luke does not use the word for church in his gospel, but does use “church” 24 times in the book of Acts. The testimony of Scripture is that the Church began in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost. It was on that day that the Spirit of God came on the early disciples and Peter preached the Gospel, with the result that 3,000 believed and were baptized. Later, as the Gospel spread, Gentiles (non-Jews) began to believe and be included.
Paul later writes in Colossians 3 that the Church, and particularly the inclusion of non-Jews into the people of God, was a mystery–something not understood from the Old Testament. It was something new that God was doing. And when God does something like that, there is purpose.
What was the purpose for which God created the Church? Here’s a hint—it’s not about you. God made the Church to do what Israel did not. Psalm 67:1-2, “God be gracious to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon us. Selah 2 That Your way may be known on the earth, Your salvation among all nations.” And then in verse 7, “God blesses us, that all the ends of the earth may fear Him.”
From the promise to Abraham to the dedication of the temple, Israel heard that God’s plan was to reach the nations through their uniqueness. When they failed to do that and even rejected Jesus as the Messiah, God commissioned the Church with that task. The purpose of the Church, broadly stated, is to reach the world–to declare the greatness of God and the hope of salvation.
First Peter 2:9 says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” His purpose was, by doing so, to make Israel jealous so that they would return to the Lord. Romans 11:11, “Salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make [Israel] jealous.” So God made the Church to be a witness to the world so that Israel would return to the Lord.
When we gather as a church, and when we go out into the world people see Jesus more clearly in us as a group, than in you alone by yourself. One of the reasons for adult discipleship groups is a fuller picture of Jesus together. At FBC, we often sum up our purpose by talking about the 4 G’s:
The Great Commission–to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:18 to 20)
The Great Commandment–to love God first and most (Matthew 22:37 to 40)
The Gospel–our message that Christ died for our sins and was resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:1 to 3)
The Glory of God–our concern and priority (1 Peter 4:11)
Those are the things that are to be on our lips and heart. Or if you want the plain, simple version–we want people to come to Christ and be like Christ. The Church was created for this, that the world would see Jesus and know Him. So why did God make the Church? To reach the world and make Israel jealous so that they would return to Him.
Our church exists for this purpose. That’s why every local church exists. And spread across the globe are hundreds and thousands of local churches–each one is to be committed to this task. But here’s the problem–what happens if you put 535 people in a room, all full of different ideas about what’s best? You get our US Congress.
In a church, there are people who are recently saved and those who have walked with the Lord for many years. There are people who’ve grown quickly and those who’ve simply plodded forward. If you let everyone in the visible church vote on everything, little progress is made–even unbelievers directing how the church is led. Instead of that chaos, God has written in His Word how churches are to be led.
God gave elders and deacons to keep the church on task and on target. Titus 1:5, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.” Elders are a team of biblically qualified men who shepherd, oversee and lead a local body of believers. First Timothy 3 and Titus 1 give their qualifications–the type of character, gifts and lifestyle that one must possess to be an elder. Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5 both describe the duties of an elder. An elder is to lead, guard and shepherd the church–that’s his job. He keeps the whole church family on task and on target with God’s priorities.
Deacons are men of similar character, but with different gifting and function. Deacons are incredibly gifted servants. They take care of needs in a way that frees up the elders to focus on the ministry of the Word. First Timothy 3 describes their qualifications, character and lifestyle.
At our church right now, we have five elders and three deacons—their pictures and names are behind me. You’ll notice that they’re all men. In 1 Timothy 2:12, God plainly limits women from exercising spiritual authority over men. This passage and 1 Corinthians 11 both make plain that leadership in the church is to come from men.
Now some of you have come from a place that did not have an eldership, or you had one man who functioned as a Moses-type leader.
Biblically, a church is led by a team of qualified men called elders–99% of the time Scripture mentions elder, it speaks of them in the plural. The only exception to this is 1 Timothy 3:1, where it is describing the qualifications of an elder–which kind of makes sense. There is no head elder. There’s not one guy with more authority. Jesus is the head elder. He’s the one with authority. He’s the one who’s in charge–not Chris, not me. Ephesians 1:22 says, “And the Father put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave [Jesus] as head over all things to the church.”
Jesus is in charge–He’s the Chief Shepherd. We look to Him and His Word for our priorities and direction. That’s what keeps a church from acting like Congress. God appointed leaders for it. In fact in Acts, a gathering of believers is not called a church until they have elders. In Acts 13 to 14, Paul and Barnabas go to Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. They preach the Gospel, make disciples, then get run out of town.
After their last stop in Derbe, Luke the historian, the technical guy, writes this in Acts 14:21 to 23, “After they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch . . . 23 When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” That’s the first time those bands of believers are described as churches.
So get this–the groups of believers in each city are not described as churches in Acts until elders are appointed for them. Now I’m not saying that your Baptist church, which was led by deacons, was not a church. What I’m saying is that biblically, part of what defines a church is leadership by a group of biblically-qualified men. They may mix up the title and call themselves a board of directors, or deacons or pastors–but practically, a church is to be led by elders. That’s how God designed the church–for the purpose that the Church would stay focused on its mission. That’s why elders and deacons are there.
To help us stay on mission as a witness to the world with the 4 G’s:
The Great Commission–to go and make disciples (Matthew 28:18 to 20)
The Great Commandment–to love God first and most (Matthew 22:37 to 40)
The Gospel–our message that Christ died for our sins and was resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:1 to 3)
The Glory of God–our concern and priority (1 Peter 4:11)
So what does God desire for His Church?
1) God wants the Church to love Jesus
2) God wants the Church to be on mission
3) God wants the Church to be strong
I don’t mean that you all need to go to LA Fitness, though you might–I mean that He wants the Church to be healthy, stable, and mature. Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m going to let you in on a little secret. There are some people here who are new in the faith. And not everybody here is actually a Christian. Are you shocked? Are you surprised? I hope not.
The Bible says that the visible church has believers and unbelievers in it. It actually says that they may be indistinguishable from one another. Matthew 13:25 to 30 describes how unbelievers exist alongside believers, and sometimes are impossible to tell apart. In the visible church, in every local church, there will be a mix of Christians and non-Christians.
Some of the non-Christians may profess to love Jesus, but live contrary to the Bible. Some Christians who know Jesus may struggle to obey what God’s Word commands. But God wants the Church to be strong and mature. And so he’s given us different tools to help us be and stay healthy.
Three major tools are:
People object to all three of these today. Many people argue that membership is not biblical, as there is no biblical command for it. I used to be one of them. However, as I’ve studied and wrestled with this, I would now argue that the New Testament does not know of a Christian who is not a church member. Every true believer in the New Testament identified with and was involved with a particular local church. The people at that church knew them–they functioned under the authority of the leadership at that church.
Many commands in the New Testament require a recognized affiliation with a local church. First Corinthians 14:23 says,” If the whole church comes together in one place . . .” Then in Acts 20:28, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” And Acts 5:13, “None of the rest dared join [the church], but the people held them in high esteem.” Matthew 18:17 and 1 Corinthians 5:13 states, “Remove him from fellowship and treat him as an unbeliever.” Last, Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account.”
Back then, to become a Christian and be baptized meant that you risked being cast out of your family, losing your job, being imprisoned and possibly put to death. You had to be serious to profess Christ. The church knew its members. And today we have a formal membership process (tapes, interview, testimony). We don’t really care about the term “member” though. What we’re looking for is what the early church had–people who are one heart and one mind with the doctrine and direction of the church. We’re looking for people who will formally identify with this church, pursue the goals of God’s Church and submit themselves to the leadership of His Church.
Call it membership, partnership, covenanting–whatever. It’s a tool that God has given for the strength of the Church so that we all work together toward the same goals. At FBC, we have six major goals–we call them the 6 E’s.
Equip the saints
Evangelize the lost
Empathy toward the hurting
Establish other churches
Encourage other believers
Listen to the third membership message to hear more about those goals. Another tool God has given us for our health is church discipline–so if I haven’t scared you off yet, let me try again.
2 Church discipline
Let me start where we all agree–God disciplines His children. Hebrews 12 is very clear on that. One of the means by which He disciplines His children, and a way in which He keeps His Church healthy, is by involving you individually and as a church in that process. Let me say that again–God uses you and the church as a tool in correcting His children.
Church discipline is the process of confronting unrepentant sin to achieve repentance and restoration. If you’re repentant, church discipline is not for you. If you’re an unbeliever, church discipline is not for you. Church discipline is for those professing Christians who have committed sin to which they’re blind and defiant against. The goal of church discipline is not to condemn or slander those individuals.
The goal of church discipline is always repentance and restoration. It involves graciously, kindly, gently speaking to the sinning believer and trying to help them see their sin. Many of you do this on a weekly basis with your spouse and with others in the church. You were sinned against, you went and told the person, they saw their sin and repented. Congratulations–you just practiced church discipline.
Sometimes though, they don’t hear you and turn from that sin, in which case Scripture counsels you take along another person or two. That additional party listens and may plead along with you for repentance, or they may turn to you and tell you that your concern is not a sin in God’s eyes and that you need to let it go.
You take me along to confront someone for eating beef tongue. I’m going to ask you to stop and give me a verse for that. Confront on country music? I’m in! So the witness may help you, or they may end the issue. But sometimes that sinning brother still doesn’t repent. At that time, God commands in Matthew 18:15 to 17 that the whole church be involved. The church is to call that person to repentance, and if they continue in their sin without change, then we are to treat them as an unbeliever. We do that part of the process in our members’ meetings.
Now that’s the general pattern that Scripture sets out. It does provide different processes for divisiveness, laziness, the public sin of an elder, and certain other sins. The goal of the process is always repentance and restoration. God commands churches to practice church discipline for the health of the church. As Josh Harris says, “Don’t go to a church that isn’t willing to kick you out.” So God gives the church membership to stay strong, and he ordained church discipline to keep us healthy.
We are growing as a church, but we really don’t push you to serve because we have needs. God takes care of all our needs. You hear us regularly push for people to plug into ministry and serve because God gave service in ministry as a tool for our spiritual health.
Ephesians 4:1 to 16 says, “But speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” If that was a bit tricky to understand, here’s the New Living Translation–Ephesians 4:16, “As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.”
We grow up to be like Christ, when each person in the church uses their gifts to serve the rest of the church. You don’t just grow and mature by sitting there, listening to me and Chris. You serve and use your gifts. We all grow and mature as a result. It’s how God made the church.
First Corinthians 12:7 says, “To each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” We need you to minister to us. If you are new here, and you’re hurt and you’re wounded, we understand–we get that. Heal up. Take your time. But if you think that church is just about hearing a sermon and singing some music, then you need to get off your duff. Talk to somebody and get plugged in.
God wants FBC to be a healthy church. One of the ways He makes that happen is by every believer using their gifts and serving others. Maybe you need to plug in. He also brings health through church discipline. Maybe you need to deal with sin in your life, or lovingly confront someone who’s blind to their sin. And He brings health through a body that’s one heart, one mind–in doctrine and direction. Maybe it’s time you became a member.
God wants the church to be healthy
God wants the church to be on mission
God wants the church to love Jesus
We’re not perfect as a church–and neither are you. Is there an area you need to repent of and change today? Is there a way you can change that will make our church more what Jesus wants? Maybe you need to repent of loving yourself more than Jesus. Maybe you need to repent of not pursuing God’s goals for the church. Maybe you need to repent of just sitting there.
We want to grow as a church to be what God desires. And while we as elders lead, we really need your help to do that. This is what God desires for His Church. We’re pleading with you to help us become that.