The Local Church: A Sense of Community
August 29, 2004 Topical
Scripture Reading: Responsive Reading #646, The Church
Our youngest daughter and her family moved to the Toledo, OH, area about 3 years ago.
Life wasn’t easy, jobs came hard and were hard, personal problems seemed to take hold.
But she began to take example from her life with us here and in this church.
She found blessing in being a part of our church community.
We advised her to find a good church there – to become a part of a church community of faith that would help to ease some of life’s struggles and where she could contribute her gifts as well.
She began to search and eventually landed in a good local church.
The kids joined Awana.
She joined the choir and began to sing special numbers in worship services. They sought and obtained counseling.
Their lives began to stabilize.
Her husband was given a secular job through someone in the church.
The church faithfully brought meals when she got sick.
And now, this weekend, God is blessing them with a move out of the inner city to a nearby suburb in the apartment building where Miguel does maintenance.
They are getting a reduced rent on the apartment.
She will be able to quit work and raise the children and reduce her stress. Her son will be able to start kindergarten in a much better school.
She wondered just how they would be able to move all their belongings.
My wife was planning to go help watch the children while they borrowed money from us to rent a truck and do it themselves.
We told her to let her need be known to the church.
We prayed about it.
She called this last Thursday to say that the people of the church were coming with several trucks and all the help they need as long as she provides the meals.
My wife wouldn’t even need to be there after all, and she is here this morning.
Our daughter called yesterday to say that the move went extremely well.
And I tell you all this to show how we are blessed when we get our priorities right. They put God first in their lives.
They sought to serve him and seek his help in time of need.
They found a local community of faith committed to ministering Christ where they are and they will remain faithful and loyal to that church community.
They will not forget where their help came from.
The nature of life in this world we live in requires that we consider priorities.
Priorities are necessary because so many things compete for our attention.
The nature of life holds many troubles and responsibilities.
We can get confused by the barrage.
The general teaching of the church over the ages gives us the very practical approach of God first, family second, and job third.
But the truth that we must clearly see is that God’s church spans them all.
The church is where we worship God in community and find his help in time of need as God works through that community.
The church is the container and teacher of the divine truth in which we nurture and raise our families in hope that their faith will even surpass our own someday.
And, of course, your job fits in here as the physical means by which you take of your family. But the church is the spiritual means by which you take care of your family. And your job is also a physical means by which you take care of the church by your offerings, even while remembering the church will far outlast your job.
Third on the list of priorities, we must keep our secular jobs in perspective.
The place of the church in it all seems too easily forgotten by many.
The church is Christ’s present kingdom on earth where we are hatched, matched and dispatched.
It is where we celebrate birth, marriage and even death. It spans all of life because all of life belongs to God.
This all seems fairly straight forward: God is sovereign and he gave us our families according to his plan to care for, but it is the concept of the church and our care for it that I want to talk about this morning.
Most of you have a fairly good concept of God and family, but you may need to better understand the concept of the local church and where it fits in your life.
This is a good time to learn about this as we head into the renewed thrust of our church into the fall ministry schedule.
So just what is this organization, the church, of which we are a part? What does the Bible have to say about it? And just what are we to understand about how and where it fits into our lives?
The Greek word for church (ecclesia) in the NT simply means “an assembly” without any original connection to a place of meeting. That connection was later developed by the apostles as they spoke of “the church in such-and-such a city” like Ephesus or Laodicea, for instance.
The particular nature of the assembly finds several different senses in the NT.
1. The secular (socio-political sense) -
“If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of today’s events. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it." After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.” (Ac 19:39-41 NivUS)
2. The singular (a few Christians gathered together as in a house church -
“Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia.” (Ro 16:5 NivUS)
“Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.” (Col 4:15 NivUS)
3. The multiple (the collective church in an area like a city) -
“In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.” (Ac 13:1 NivUS)
“To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ— their Lord and ours:” (1Co 1:2 NivUS)
“And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” (Ac 8:1 NivUS)
4. The universal (the visible church; the whole body of professing Christians throughout the world) -
“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.” (Ga 1:13 NivUS)
“For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” (1Co 4:17 NivUS)
“And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.” (1Co 12:28 NivUS)
5. The spiritual (the invisible church; the whole body of the redeemed) -
“And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” (Col 1:18 NivUS)
“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect,” (Heb 12:22-23 NivUS)
The church visible are all those in the world professing true religion by faith in Jesus – visible because its members are known and its assemblies are public. Herein are chaff as well as wheat, a mixture of saints and sinners. God has commanded us to give visibility to his kingdom in public places of worship for the proclamation of the gospel and the gathering of all the elect. Each one of these distinct organized communities faithful to the Great King is an integral part of the visible church, and all together constitute the universal invisible church. This is the Kingdom of Heaven.
All true individual believers past, present and future is the church invisible gathered into one under Christ, the Head. This is a pure society, the church in which Christ dwells. It is called invisible because the greater part of it are those already in heaven or yet unborn, and also because its present members on earth cannot certainly all be distinguished. The qualifications for membership in it are first of all internal and therefore possibly hidden. But they are not unseen by “Him who searches the heart”.
“Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: "The Lord knows those who are his," and, "Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness."” (2Ti 2:19 NivUS)
This one true church, visible and invisible, has certain other characteristics:
1. United: God has ever only had one church on earth. We sometimes speak of the OT church and the NT church, but they are the same. The true OT church was not to be disqualified but enlarged.
“But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me." "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isa 49:14-15 NivUS)
“"At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people— everyone whose name is found written in the book— will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Da 12:1-2 NivUS)
“"As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance."” (Da 12:13 NivUS)
“"I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. "Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out— those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” (Joh 5:24-29 NivUS)
It has always been about faith.
“It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” (Ro 4:13 NivUS)
When the Jews are restored they will not enter a new church but be grafted in again to their own “olive tree”.
“And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again.” (Ro 11:23 NivUS)
“Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” (Eph 2:19-21 NivUS)
The apostles did not set up an entirely new organization. Under their ministry disciples were added to the church already existing.
“praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Ac 2:47 NivUS)
Unity was prayed for by Christ (John 17) and called for by the apostles.
“"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Joh 17:20-21 NivUS)
“There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph 4:4-6 NivUS)
2. Universal: It is not confined to any one country, outward organization, race or nationality. It comprehends all believers throughout the whole world.
“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—” (Joh 1:12 NivUS)
3. Perpetual: It will continue through all ages to the end of the world and beyond – it can never be destroyed, an everlasting kingdom.
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Mt 16:18 NivUS)
So here we have the history of the church; its concept and direction.
ILLUS: We had an Awana training meeting a little over a week ago. It was tier one training where they taught the origin of Awana from the concept of Art Rorheim at the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle to today. He still lives and gives direction on how Awana can meet the needs of today’s kids. It gives you a sense of connection on where you fit into what God is doing. That is what we learn here about the church – how we fit into what God is doing over the ages in the establishment of his Kingdom.
It is like that with Mayfair Bible Church too. We will be celebrating our centennial a year from now and it is exciting to put it all into the big picture of what God has done over the years as he continues to birth his Kingdom in our own hearts and of those yet to follow.
The Greek word “ecclesia” is translated as church 77 times in the NT. Jesus only used it three times as recorded by Matthew in his gospel.
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Mt 16:18 NivUS)
“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.” (Mt 18:17 NivUS)
But in these two references, Jesus covers the span of the church from the invisible to the visible, that is, from the church’s eternal nature through the foundation of a faith like Peter had all the way to the church’s authority and the way this community of faith is to conduct itself in the world.
The apostles carried forth the teaching of Jesus for another 67 references to give us a well-rounded picture of the spiritual, local and universal sense of this earthly body of Christ of which he is the Head.
But then Jesus closes the NT with the last 7 references to the church in Revelation where he uses the word only in reference to the local church.
So with all the varied references to the church throughout the apostles teaching, why do you suppose Jesus closes with only his 7 references in challenge to the local church?
· I believe it is because the local church is where the action is at.
· I believe it is because the local church is where Jesus knew the challenge must be made.
· I believe it is because it is the local church that will be held accountable.
· I believe it is because the local church is the embodiment of the community Christ envisioned on this earth.
And it is here that I want to address the subject of church priority and loyalty.
And, as in all things, Jesus sets our example.
We know that Peter and then Paul often taught that the gospel message must go to the Jew first.
“When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways."” (Ac 3:26 NivUS)
“Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: "We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” (Ac 13:46 NivUS)
“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” (Ro 1:16 NivUS)
They got their example from Jesus.
“The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. "First let the children eat all they want," he told her, "for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs." "Yes, Lord," she replied, "but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs." Then he told her, "For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter."” (Mr 7:26-29 NivUS)
You see, it was a matter of priority and loyalty. Jesus was a Jew because God chose Abraham to be the seed-bearer. Jesus traced his lineage back to Abraham and beyond. God was to come to man through the Jews. The Jews deserved first shot at faith. Although most of them rejected it, we Gentiles are called upon not to forget that same loyalty.
“If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you.” (Ro 11:17-18 NivUS)
Indeed, God himself is loyal.
“And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!” (Ro 11:23-24 NivUS)
And I believe this is what Jesus is talking about in his references to “the first shall be last and the last shall be first”.
“Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Mt 19:28-30 NivUS)
“"But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ "So the last will be first, and the first will be last."” (Mt 20:13-16 NivUS)
I bring these things to your attention because I believe it helps us make a case for the priority of the local church in our lives and our loyalty to it.
This is not loyalty to a denomination but to a local community of Christ; not to a creed but to the Savior’s message and how that message transforms and works in the accountability of local community.
Local churches have been in existence since the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem in the First Century (Acts 2). Because Christ said He would build His church (Matthew 16:18), groups of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior have gathered together all across the world to form local congregations. In those congregations they could worship Him, teach His Word, evangelize the community, and practice the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Table. He indeed was building His church.
Through the centuries, many local congregations have chosen to identify with various groups and associations (often called in America "denominations"). Today, many people can only conceive of a group of churches with one authoritative, central office and one leading officer who directs the affairs of all the associated churches. This kind of church organization is usually controlled by the central administrative authority of the church group and the designated officers. The church lands and buildings in this kind of organization are usually owned by the group itself, and not by the local church's members. Pastors for each of these churches are directed by the central office and are usually told in which of the group's churches they will serve and for how long they will serve there. Money is also an issue in these kinds of churches: each local church must send to the central office a certain, designated, mandatory amount of money each year for maintaining the central office, its officers, and its programs. In time, problems often arise in these kinds of church groups over issues like control ("who is in charge of the group and each of our churches?"), authority ("who will make the decisions for our group and each of the churches?"), and doctrinal integrity ("what will all of us believe as the core teachings and distinctives of our group?").
Biblical Foundation for the Independent Local Church
But that is not the only way to understand how local churches are to be governed.
Throughout history there have been independent local churches free from outside control, dependent simply upon the Lord Jesus as the Head, the Holy Spirit as the Power, and the Bible as the Guide. The churches established by the First Century apostles of Christ began as independent local churches.
Those churches were self-governing which means they:
· chose their own officers (Acts 6:1-6) according to a Scriptural standard (1
· exercised their own discipline (1 Corinthians 5:13)
· handled their internal problems as an individual congregation (1 Corinthians 6:1-5)
· were responsible to preserve the true teaching of the Bible in their church (1 Timothy 3:15)
· were accountable to the local elders of their church (Acts 14:23; Hebrews 13:7, 17a) who in turn were accountable to Christ (Hebrews 13:7b)
The churches begun by the First Century apostles of Christ were also self-supporting which means they:
· supported their own local ministries through regular, systematic giving (1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 9:6-8)
· financially supported their own pastor (1 Timothy 5:17-18)
· took care of their own local people in financial need (like widows, 1 Timothy 5:3-16)
Following this pattern, each of today's independent local churches depends upon the Holy Spirit's direction (Acts 13:1-3) and chooses its own name, government and programs. It is free to call its own pastor and invite into its pulpit any speakers it considers true to the Word of God. It is also free to seek God's direction in supporting those evangelistic ministries they find Scripturally acceptable and choosing the Christian education materials they believe are best to teach Bible truths to their people. They are also free to support whatever schools and institutions they believe are valuable for training their own young people and preparing their men for the Gospel ministry; mandatory obligation to protect a tradition or an investment is not involved in an independent local church's decision to support an educational institution.
Challenges to the Independent Local Church
But the concept of the independent local church can be greatly misrepresented in the sinful actions of the church people. If the church leaders
and congregation are not obedient to the Bible and refuse to be humbly directed by the Holy Spirit, they can degenerate into warring factions in the church (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 3:1-9) and domineering leaders lustful for control and power (1 Peter 5:3; 3 John 9). Even though the New Testament teaches the autonomy of the local independent church under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, autonomy is meant that each church grows in its dependence upon the Lord. He is the Head of each church and He demands their godly submission in all areas of church life. They are to look to Him for the provision of their every need as a church. This type of church government encourages prayer, faith, and spiritual growth among all of its members.
Also, the concept of the independent local church can be greatly misunderstood to justify isolationism and a spirit of exclusivity. Remember that the body of Christ transcends all earthly denominations and organizations (Ephesians 1:22-23). It is composed of all who have trusted Christ as Savior, regardless of organizational affiliation. Biblically independent churches strive to be loyal to Christ and His Word rather than to any organization. They seek to establish, preserve, and expand local churches according to the New Testament pattern.
Yet the First Century apostles of Christ also encouraged cooperative interdependence between local churches:
· greetings were extended throughout all the New Testament between independent churches, indicating a relationship with other churches in other regions (example in Romans 16:23)
· Paul instructed the church at Rome to assist Phoebe in her visit from Corinth (Romans 16:1-2)
· Paul instructed the churches of Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia to collect offerings for the poor believers in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-3; 2 Corinthians 8:1; 9:1-2; Romans 15:25)
· Barnabas was sent by the Jews of the church of Jerusalem to be an encouragement to the Gentiles of the church at Antioch (Acts 11:22-24)
· the Gentiles in Antioch sent an offering to help the Jewish believers in Jerusalem during a famine (Acts 11:28-30)
· an inter-church conference was held in Jerusalem in order to clarify doctrinal teaching regarding what is to be the true understanding of salvation (Acts 15:1-21)
· after the inter-church conference in Jerusalem, Paul and others were sent to inform the new churches in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia of the resultant teaching (Acts 15:22-23)
· the independent local church in Thessalonica had a loving concern for all the brethren in Macedonia (1 Thessalonians 4:10; 5:27)
· local churches in Macedonia financially assisted Paul in his efforts to start a local church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 11:8-9)
· the local church in Philippi financially assisted Paul in his efforts to start a local church in Thessalonica (Philippians 4:15-16)
· the same New Testament letter was to be distributed and read in groups of churches (Colossians 4:16 [Colosse and Laodicea were 32 miles apart]; Galatians 1:2)
· Paul says that there were similarities between local churches regarding customary practices found in all of them (1 Corinthians 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 1 Thessalonians 2:14)
· one church planting team who accompanied Paul was from many different places (Acts 20:4)
· Gaius was commended for assisting itinerant ministers (3 John 5-8)
· Titus was a regional overseer, problem solver, leadership recruiter for the island of Crete and was accountable to Paul in the process (Titus 1:5)
But despite the biblical truth of the one true eternal, invisible, universal church and the interdependence that all local churches are to have toward one another, loyalty to one’s chosen local church must maintain priority or it all falls apart.
This is because the work of God is done in the accountability of local community.
It is all too easy, especially here in the city, to drift from church to church only taking, without accountability, and not contributing.
Personal growth rarely happens in such cases, and even if you think you maintain, you actually slip because a lack of growth is always slippage because you didn’t grow when you could have.
Others belong to a local church but seem to spend a considerable amount of time and effort attending or serving elsewhere, spreading themselves and their chosen local church thin by not contributing all they could to its ministries, either in time or money.
Yet others are inconsistent in attending and serving the local church. It is not that they spend a considerable amount of time elsewhere, it is just that they don’t come and contribute as often as they could – and should.
The small core of the faithful are left to carry on for all the rest.
How shall I conclude this message?
It is a call for your understanding and obedience to the priority of the local church in your life as Christ intended.
It is a call for your loyalty to your chosen local church as we all work together to make it happen.
It is a call for you to seek Christ’s heart as to how you might contribute as we present Christ in this place.
We would be glad to talk with you further about what Christ lays on your heart.
Perhaps God is even stirring you to seek formal membership in this local body of Christ.
That membership is a statement of commitment.
“Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 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 10:23-25 NivUS)