2: “Church”Posted: January 17, 2012
The evangelical world has traveled the trajectory of the ice cube.
Really, we have. In Holy Ground, Chris Castaldo explains:
“Ice cubes have come a long way. A century ago, cubes were delivered in one enormous block. When I was a child, my family used ice-cube trays. Today, however, if you need to fill a beverage cooler before a picnic or ballgame, you needn’t even touch a tray. Many refrigerators produce cubes one at a time. Simply position your cooler below the dispenser, push the button, and watch individual pieces of rice roll out of the door.
“As the ice cube has gone, so has the Evangelical church. This is true at least in Western culture, where one’s identity is no longer defined by the block (the Catholic Church) or the tray (a denomination in which there’s a shared ecclesial structure). Instead, Evangelicals are individuals who roll out the door with little-to-no commitment to church membership.”
Indeed, we have seen this course played out in church history. We’ve come along way from Cyprian’s famous 3rd century maxim:
“Outside the church there is no salvation.” (Epistle to Jabaianus)
Early Christians understood their roles as parts of a whole. We find in the book of Acts a commitment to a strong, tightly united community:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47 ESV)
What happened since apostolic times?
Basically, as the church grew in structure and political influence, particularly in the West (and I am generalizing here), the emphasis on being united to the institution of church was so great that an almost superstitious ideology swept through the hearts of Christendom. Despite the politics, the simony, the nepotism, the moral decay, and the addition of numerous extra-biblical dogmas, the Church was still seen as the authority to bring one in step with God whether or not that one had a personal, living faith.
Enter the Reformation.
The unspoken sola ecclesia was supplanted by the outspoken sola scriptura. The scriptures, now becoming available in common languages, reintroduced an emphasis on personal faith and an individual relationship with God through Christ. The lowliest of persons was given an opportunity to circumnavigate ecclesiastical authority on route to the throne of God. William Tyndale famously quipped, “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”
But did this awakening of the importance of one’s individual accountability to God anticipate the rugged individualism of today? Was this the Reformers’ intent, to foster a generation of Christians so disgruntled with institutions and authority that they would chip themselves off the old block and spill out of the doors on their own?
Anne Rice seems to lean that way. Rice grew up Catholic but rejected the church as a teenager. She then lived a godless life, one steeped in darkness and Gothic themes and became famous for her novel, Interview with the Vampire. Later, however, she claims to have had a religious awakening, considered herself a Christian for some time and even wrote a book about Jesus. In 2010, however, she decided to leave Christianity, posting on her Facebook:
“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.”
Rice’s willing split from Christianity is nothing new, but her statement that she can divorce herself from the church and yet be “committed to Christ as always” is a scary trend in modern Christianity.
Frequently, Christian organizations are dropping the “church” label in favor of “ministries” or “worship center” (I speak of places that do these things out of a disdain for the word church or a misunderstanding of ecclesiology. Ironically, I attend a church that does not contain the word church in the official name. Yet, we do not downplay the significance of the church nor do we shy away from using the term). Some community groups feel it necessary to say “we’re not a church.” As highlighted in the post on the term Religion, misconceptions of organized unity have fed the modern notion of individualism that so plagues Christendom today. We’ve overreacted to the abuses of the institution.
But is this trend a natural consequence of the Reformation? I don’t believe so. Consider two giants of the Reformation, Luther and Calvin:
“For it is dangerous and terrible to hear or believe anything against the united testimony, faith and doctrine, of the entire holy Christian Church, as this hath been held now 1,500 years, from the beginning, unanimously in all the world. Whoso now doubted thereon, it is even the same as though he believed in no Christian Church, and he condemneth thus not only the entire holy Christian Church as a damnable heresy, but also Christ himself and all the apostles and prophets.” (Martin Luther, 1532 letter to Duke Albert of Prussia)
“As it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels . . . Beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation can be hoped for . . . The paternal favor of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar people, and hence the abandonment of the Church is always fatal.” (John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV)
The abandonment of the priority of the church is not a direct consequence of the Protestant Reformation, but a mixture of:
2. The anti-institutional, anti-creedalism of the Second Great Awakening,
3. The individualistic, manufactured piety of revivalism,
4. The anti-authoritative spirit of the Enlightenment, and
5. The inherent over-emphasis on the personal intellect in Western culture
I believe these things contributed to the downplay of the church that is so rampant today. The campaigns of Moody and then Graham, as successful as they may have been, have cultivated a generation of folks who have their tickets stamped for Heaven because they prayed prayers and signed cards and raised hands and went to altars, but who have never stepped foot in church. How far from the block we’ve fallen!
While on one hand I rejoice that a return to a more robust theology has seen an emphasis on the importance, no, necessity of the church, we still observe many supposed followers of Jesus who claim no church at all. What feeds these tendencies? A few suggestions:
1. Our sinful, self-centered nature,
2. Popular Dispensational theology which promotes the church as “plan B” or a “parenthesis” in God’s redemptive plan,
3. Modern conveniences such as television or the Internet that allow professing believers to put their time in at home, and
4. The promotion of the god of individualism in pop culture.
Despite these issues, we should remind ourselves that the chief cornerstone of the church is Jesus Christ, an immovable Rock (Matthew 16:16-18, 1 Peter 2:6). The gates of hell will not prevail against the church. The church is precious to God, for he purchased it with the blood of his own Son (Acts 20:28). Take heart – the church ultimately wins.
And why? Because, unlike many Dispensationalists teach, it is God’s plan for the ages. The mystery of the church is revealed to be the breaking down of the wall separating Jew and Gentile and forming one body (Ephesians 3). Jesus died for the church. The Holy Spirit indwells the church. The church is the body of Christ. The church is his bride. He loves and cares for and nourishes the church day in and day out so that she may presented to him as a spotless bride!
The word church comes from the Greek word ekklesia which means “assembly.” Particularly, it’s a gathering that has been called out. You can see that in the word: “ek” in Greek is where we get the word exit. A church is a called out assembly of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the community to which he calls each and every person who believes on his name.
This assembly is not just a good idea, it is vital to the life of the Christian. Mark Dever gives three main reasons a Christian should be committed to the church: to assure ourselves, to evangelize the world, and to expose false teaching. Let me explain their importance:
1. To assure ourselves.
In the church, we have accountability to leaders and to each other. (Hebrews 13:17, James 5:16)
In the church, we have a community to which we belong and with whom we share our love and burdens. (Acts 2:42-47, Gal 6:2)
In the church, we find our authenticity as disciples of Jesus. (I John 5:13)
2. To evangelize the world.
In the church, we have a team that is equipped to minister to each other and our communities (Ephesians 4:12)
In the church, we find the authority to send missionaries. (Acts 13:1-2)
3. To expose false teaching
In the church, we hold to a common confession (I Corinthians 15:1-5).
In the church, we practice discipline and, at times, separation to keep the faith (Matthew 18:15-20)
As part of the new creation inaugurated by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the church consists of the “people of the future living in the present” (Robert E. Webber). In the church, Heaven meets Earth. The importance of the church cannot be overstated in these times. This is the institution Christ founded. It is the place that breaks down barriers and contains a beautiful, united choir of worshipers from every tribe, tongue, and nation. An un-churched Christian is such an oxymoron considering the New Testament’s emphasis (I realize many go through valleys of searching), that a professing believer without a connection to the church is sharing the status of a lost pilgrim who cannot be guaranteed the destination for which he hopes. He must stop living only for the future and realize the future is here now – in the church of Jesus Christ.