The Doctrine of the Church: The Church in the 21st Century
Sunday’s sunrise is accompanied by the ringing of thousands of church bells across America. Churchgoers prepare to gather for worship just as our fathers and their father’s father have done since the birth of our nation. By noon, a significant number of Americans from Maine to California have participated in one of a variety of spiritual exercises. In some places those worshipers will gather again on Sunday evening, and some will even return for a mid-week service. The American comedian and political commentator Will Rogers once quipped that highway engineers in Texas constructed roads for Texas Baptist to wear out going to and from church. Even though recent decades have seen a decline in church attendance and biblical literacy the church remains a viable influence in our nation.
Over the next several weeks, we will begin looking at the Doctrine of the Church. We will look at its current state, its origin, its nature, and its mission. We will also take a look at its polity, ministers and leaders, and its ordinances – baptism and the Lord’s supper. Speaking of the Church, our Baptist Faith and Message declares:
- A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture. The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.
This description will be our guide as we examine the Doctrine of the Church.
The fundamental question is: “What is the Church?” The Church is not merely an organization though it organizes to accomplish its work. Nor is it an institution though it is a mechanism for social order that helps govern the behavior of the individuals within its community. The church is not a building, though we use buildings. The Church is not a club though even though we are an association of people with a common interest or goal.
We are the ekklesia—the call out ones. A New Testament church is a body of believers who have been called out from the world by God to live as his people under the authority of Jesus Christ. We accomplish this by being in covenant relationship with like-minded believers who meet together physically for worship, fellowship, teaching, prayer and encouragement in the faith.
Indeed the term “Body of Christ” best describes what the church is and was the Apostle Paul’s favorite descriptor for it. It is a visible expression in this world of the kingdom of God—though at an imperfect one.
I. THE CHURCH IS A TWO-THOUSAND-YEAR PHENOMENON
- the church was founded by Jesus himself almost 2000 years ago
- since that time the church has suffered internal turmoil, insufferable persecution, misunderstanding, and, in some cases, serious moral and spiritual setbacks
- nonetheless, the church has endured exactly as Jesus promised
- the Gates of Hell have not overcome it
- they never will
- across the years, the people have God have lived militantly and often triumphantly
- during this time certain things have been characteristic of the church
A. DIVISION HAS CHARACTERIZED THE CHURCH
- our Lord apparently knew that divisions would occur in the church
- His priestly prayer in John 17 was particularly a prayer for unity within the church
- “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.” (John 17:20–21, NIV84)
within a few years of our Lords ascension, the early church face the difficulty of deciding whether Gentiles should be admitted to the Jewish-Christian ranks
- predictably, the early Christians were divided on the issue
- ILLUS. We see this in what historians have come to call the Jerusalem Council. We find it recorded in the 15th chapter of the Book of Acts. The huge question of the moment revolved around circumcision; did Gentile converts to the Christian faith also have to be circumcised and essentially become Jewish? Here’s the back story: the Apostle Paul and Barnabas had been preaching the gospel in Antioch and many Gentiles had come to faith in Christ. According to Acts 15:1 “Certain men came down from Judea and taught the brothern, “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” The very next verse tells us that Paul and Barnabas “had great dissension and debate with them”. Finally, the members of the congregation decided to send Paul, Barnabas, and others to Jerusalem to request the opinions of the apostles and elders on this matter. The apostle Peter finally helped to settle the argument by sharing his testimony of the conversion of Cornelius. Peter ends up by affirming that circumcision is not what saves a believer, but rather the grace of God shown through Yeshua the Messiah.
this decision did not fully settled the issue
- a group arose who we refer to as Judaizers, who constantly sought to undermine the free grace of God by insisting that Christians keep the Jewish law
- these people were a thorn in the side to the Apostle Paul’s ministry
- the issue became so polarizing that the apostle Paul wrote a forthright letter to the churches in Galatia, insisting that keeping the law had nothing to do with God’s program of salvation
unfortunately, we see division among believers not only over serious theological issues, but also over personalities
- Paul and Barnabas would themselves have a sharp disagreement over whether or not to take John-Mark on another mission trip after he had deserted them during their first missionary journey
- Barnabas was willing to give him a second chance
- Paul was not
- they separated and went their own ways
as centuries passed, controversies about the person of Christ rocked and divided the church
- numerous councils were called where pastors sought to settle the theological issues
- these councils often issued confessions of faith that outlined orthodoxy
in the early 16th century the Protestant Reformation triggered the modern age of denominationalism
- 500 years later we have a few major denominational groups, such as Baptists, Methodists, and Anglicans, and Presbyterians and hundreds of smaller, and lesser-known denominational bodies
- each claims a unique insight and emphasis
one would suppose that such splintering would render the church inoperative and ineffective, even unconvincing
- obviously such divisions have not always been helpful
- these divisions have caused suspicion and even failures on numerous occasions
- however, God has worked marvelously and effectively among his people regardless of the splintering of the Christian faith
- this is illustrated by the way God blessed Paul and Barnabas after their intense debate and eventful separation
most people recognize that neither God nor Jesus is responsible for the splintering of the church
- such splintering occurs because of our human inability to understand all that we should about God
B. DILUTION HAS CHARACTERIZED THE CHURCH
- the witness of the church has also been subject to dilution
- this has occurred because of encroaching worldliness, materialism, and the over emphasizing of one doctrine to the radical exclusion of others
- worldliness is always devastating to the church
- in the apostle Paul’s second pastoral letter to Timothy we read one of the saddest commentaries in the New Testament …
- “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia.” (2 Timothy 4:9–10, NIV84)
the membership rolls of churches across the nation are filled with people like Demas—they have deserted Christ and his church because they love the world more in the Book of Jude, the author warns us of worldliness …
- “For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord.” (Jude 4, NIV84)
- ILLUS. Take Country singer, Faith Hill, for example. She claims to be a Christian; yet she has posed twice for Playboy magazine!
- ILLUS. Consider one of the newest evangelistic strategies being adopted by some churches. In an effort to appear trendy and socially relevant, and “unchurchy” a growing trend in many Evangelical Churches in recent years are Beer Brewing Clubs. Their motto is WWJB—What Would Jesus Brew. Now, I understand that not every denomination has a prohibition against the use of alcohol. And, I know that Monks across Europe, in places like Ireland, Belgium and southern Germany, have carefully crafted renowned beers for centuries. But using the brewing of alcohol as an evangelistic tool, personifies “worldliness” in my mind.
worldliness does not mean that everything in the world is immoral or evil
- worldliness results from the failure of the Christian to adopt a worldview that is guided by the authority of the Scriptures
- the result is a morality that becomes relevant to, and subservient to the prevailing view of the culture
- ILLUS. There was a time in American culture when having a baby out of wedlock was considered shameful and humiliating. Homosexuality was a word that was hardly whispered. Those who practiced it did so in private and it never admitted it. Today, homosexuals are clamoring, not only for social acceptance, but for the criminalization of opposing views.
the first commandment of this culture appears to be do whatever makes you feel good and many Christians seem to have adopted that philosophy materialism is always devastating to the church
- in Matthew 6:24-25 Jesus taught that ...
- “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Matthew 6:24–25, NIV84)
materialism is the philosophy that stuff satisfies
- Jesus explicitly tells us stuff will eventually rot away or rust away or be taken away, and yet many Christian continue trying to serve both God and stuff
- ILLUS. In a recent survey, George Barna found that seventy-two percent of Americans believed that people are blessed by God so that they can enjoy life as much as possible, and fifty-eight percent agreed with the statement that the primary purpose of life is enjoyment and fulfillment. Eighty-one percent believed that God helps those who help themselves.
this philosophy has infiltrated the Body of Christ why do so many Christians measure their success in life by materialistic standards when Jesus tells us we shouldn’t?
- “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” (Galatians 5:17, NIV84)
many professing believers have left the church because they’ve been caught up in a quest for wealth and stuff
- “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:6–10, NIV84)
over emphasizing of one doctrine to the radical exclusion of others has always been devastating to the church
- among some believers an over emphasis on the spiritual gifts of the New Testament has led to dysfunctional worship
- in some charismatic fellowships nothing is done decently and in order
- worship becomes a spiritual free-for-all
- among some believers an over emphasis on rules and outward behavior has led to a legalism that denies Christian freedom
Satan is never at rest—long ago he learned that he could inflict more severe injury to The witness of Christ by diluting the Christian message than he ever could by persecution and hardship
- therefore, he wages a continual assault on the Church of God, attempting to neutralize our witness by diluting her message
C. DECLARATIONS HAVE CHARACTERIZED THE CHURCH
- great declarations of faith have also characterized the church over the millennium
- the first great confession of the church came from the lips of the apostle Peter in a place called Caesarea Philippi
- it was there that Peter confessed “Thou art the Christ the son of the living God”
- this is the most fundamental confession of a believer and the church
- everything flows from this confession
- as the church struggled with heresies from without and from within other great confessions were declared
- by the middle of the second century the Apostles Creed defined the fundamentals of the faith
- as a people called Baptist we have our Baptist Faith and Message
- it expresses what we believe the Bible teaches concerning the major doctrines of The Scriptures
- while declarations of faith are not inerrant or infallible they help guide us in understanding our faith in communicating what we believe about Christ and his Kingdom to the world around us
D. TRIUMPH HAS CHARACTERIZED THE CHURCH
- the church awaits her ultimate triumph when she will be gloriously transformed into the image of Christ
- but while we wait for that ultimate triumph, the church of Jesus Christ continues to march triumphantly in this world
- the church began with 120 disciples gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem almost 2000 years ago
- today, adherents are found in every nation of the world
- Jesus achieved this without using arms, without spending money, without mobilizing armies, and without causing wars
- Christ’s superbly wondrous achievement is the Church
- this achievement is not human
- it is superbly wondrous because it was achieved by the Crucified Christ
- before the crucifixion the state of his work looked pitiful
- Judas betrayed Him
- Peter denied Him
- the rest of the Disciples fled in order to save their lives, while many believers abandoned Him
- He was left alone among enemies
- but this crucified Christ rose from the dead— he is a living Savior
- his resurrection changed the lives of his followers and their proclamation of the living Christ changed the world
- only the supernatural oversight of God throughout the centuries can explain the survival of and success of the Body of Christ
- while much needs to be done, the Gospel of Christ is finding success all over the world
- ILLUS. Missiologists tell us that by the year 2050, the center of Christianity will be south of the equator. In Africa and South America, the Gospel is finding fertile ground. In the last 10 years, more Muslims have come to faith in Christ than in the last 15 centuries of Islam. In Iran alone it is estimated that 3,000 Muslims convert to Christianity every month in spite of the fact that doing so is punishable by death. In some parts of sub-Sahara Africa there have been reports of entire mosques coming to faith in Christ. Also, in the last 20 years more Jews have become followers of Jesus than in the last 2,000 years of Christianity.
II. THE VIABILITY OF THE CHURCH
- by viability I mean the capability of things to grow and develop
- in an era when church attendance is on the wane and secularism is on the increase how will the church survive?
A. A PERPETUAL HUNGER FOR GOD KEEPS THE CHURCH VIABLE
- as long as men hunger and thirst for the living God the church will remain viable
- the prophet Amos envisioned a day when the land of Israel would experience an excruciating famine—not a famine of food but of the word of God (Amos 8:11)
- the psalmist spoke of “panting for God as the deer pants for water” (Psalms 42:1–2)
- even in an age of reigning secularism, men find themselves with an insatiable thirst for the refreshing rivers of the word of God
- obstetricians deliver new life into the world, but it’s the church that nurtures and sustains that life spiritually and provides parents with hope and optimism about the future
- surgeons can heal the body and perform life saving operations, but it’s the church that offers the healing of the soul by acceptance of the Great Physician
- corners establish officially the time of death and the reason of death, but it’s the church that offers hope through the resurrection
- as long as God is continuing to save his Elect throughout the world the church remains viable
B. THE ARRESTING NATURE OF THE SCRIPTURES KEEPS THE CHURCH VIABLE
- “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12, NIV84)
- the word of God is powerful, and as long as the Word of God is in the world, it will give life to the church
- it’s powerful in the conversion of the lost
- the Apostle Paul reminds us that it is through the preaching of the gospel that men will be saved
- “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14–15, NIV84)
it’s powerful in the sanctifying of the believer
- “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word,” (Ephesians 5:25–26, NIV84)
- it is through the Word of God that the Body of Christ—Christians—are sanctified
c. THE PERMEATING NATURE OF THE CHURCH IN THE COMMUNITY KEEPS THE CHURCH VIABLE
- can you imagine a community with all of the churches silenced or closed?
- who would stand for morality and righteousness in the community?
- who would comfort the distressed?
- who would defend the defenseless?
- like so many aspects of our lives, the presence of churches in our communities is so commonplace that they go unnoticed by us
- but if they were all suddenly gone we would notice the difference
- ILLUS. Some years ago, Dr. James Kennedy, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, wrote a book entitled “What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?” In it he clearly demonstrates that an enormous array of benefits to humankind—from economics to art to government, science to civil liberties, morality to health, and beyond—would never have occurred had Jesus Christ not lived, his church established, and the Gospel propagated.
D. THE HEROISM OF ITS ADHERENTS KEEPS THE CHURCH VIABLE
- heroism, of course, is not limited to the church or to the religiously inclined
- however, a remarkably sacrificial nature has surfaced frequently because of the eternal consequences of the message of Christ in the strategic importance the church attaches to love
- frequently this heroism has been exhibited in the midst of persecution
- the annals of church history are full of heroes who died for the faith
- “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.” (Hebrews 11:36–38, NIV84)
others simply burn themselves out for Christ through the tireless laborers
- can you spell L-o-t-t-i-e M-o-o-n?
such acts are common to every era of Christian history as long as those who are living for Jesus are willing to die for Jesus the church remains viable
The Church in the 21st century will be a church challenged by its culture. That, however, is nothing new.