Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What is Theology?: Church

Hello again everyone! Well, looks like we're making excellent progress. Our last post was long and it was probably the hardest work I've done on a post ever! Thus the break. If you didn't get a chance to read it, we tackled the age old Calvinism/Armenianism debate. I hope you'll check it out if you have the time. Today should definitely be a bit shorter, and quite a bit more straightforward.

Today I would simply like to point out a few ways of thinking about the church that have popped up in recent years and how we should approach these ways of thinking form a Biblical standpoint. Really, I would simply like to ask three questions. What is the church? What is it supposed to look like? What is it for?

For anyone who has heard many recent sermons from popular pastors today or have read recent books, you have probably heard many different answers to the first question. So what is the church? I find that there are two basic answers. Both are true, and both are necessary in order for Her to fulfill her role.

One, every Christian in the world, collectively, is the church. The church is the bride of Christ that he promised to build until the day of his return. Some go so far as to say that the church is plural for "Christian." I wanted to give this answer first because I find that today it is the most popular. However, I wanted to say it first because it is also becoming the most overemphasized answer that is out there today. This is mostly the reaction to the idea that the church is a building. It is a response to the extreme that says, either explicitly or implicitly, that we can't do church apart from a brick building with a steeple.

Is that kind of extreme wrong? Certainly. Paul makes it clear that the collective body of Christ is now the temple where the Lord dwells. We no longer need a temple to approach God's holy presence. We can be confident to approach now that Christ has made a way through his blood. At the same time, an overemphasis on "being" the church, has its dangers. The Bible paints a slightly more complex picture.

With too great of an emphasis on "being" the church, there have been movements where Christians are taught they can do church in a Starbucks if two or three Christians get together there and talk about God. Or Church is when a Christian goes into the woods and contemplates God's general revelation through nature. Basically, whatever we do, as long as it is an attempt to be with God, is church. I would say there are two flaws in this way of thinking. It minimizes the power and biblical warrant of local bodies gathering for worship, and it also implies that all believers have the same calling, capability, and authority to instruct the body as teachers. However, by looking just a little deeper into what the Bible says, I think you'll agree that it instructs us to think in a much different way. This leads to the second definition of the church.

The church is something we do. What many Christians don't realize is that the vast majority of references to the church in the New Testament are references to the local church body. The idea that is often taught, that the only way to do church is "house" church or "small group" church, is only partially true. There no doubt are references to house gatherings in the New Testament, but that is only part of the picture. Not only that, but the house churches in Rome were Roman houses. A Roman house could hold hundreds of people.

It is very clear that Paul made a big deal out of Christians gathering together on a regular basis as a large group. In his letters he commanded his followers not to forsake the gathering together of themselves. He makes reference to scripture being read publicly in order that the body would be edified. He makes reference to hymns and spiritual songs being sung in these gatherings. History makes it clear that there is no reason to think he didn't see Christian gatherings as the Christian version of Jewish synagogue worship. What was different was the need for exclusion from God's holy place. His Holy presence was made manifest among the believers themselves.

What needs to be noticed, which I think really drives this point home, is that Paul spent so much time writing pastoral letters that outlined how church leadership should be exercised. He makes it very clear that, while we all have individual access into the presence of the Lord, we do not all have the same authority. We can agree with the reformation's emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, but we cannot say that we are all teachers. James warns explicitly that "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." Paul asks in one letter whether all have the gift of teaching, clearly pointing out that they do not. It should be clear at this point that God set up church government for a reason. He is not against order. He set it in place for a reason. Discipleship is done through friendship and leadership.

This leads to the next question. Now that we have a better idea of what the church is and what it's supposed to look like, what exactly is it for? This is also a question that has been thrown into dispute in recent years. I think there is one basic answer we can all agree on. We are called to accomplish the mission of God. This answer has led to instructions to be "missional." It has led to a greater emphasis on all Christians being missionaries. The problem is, "mission" is a very broad term. Many people have their own definition of it. These definitions tend to lead, yet again, to one of two extremes.

The first extreme emphasizes the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection in order to get as many people into heaven as possible. I will point out in a moment that I do believe that this is in fact the church's primary role, but it is important that we see that it can be used as an extreme in spite of its priority. If all we do as proclaim, it is undeniable that we are neglecting an entire side of the heart of Christ.

It is clear throughout the gospels that Christ had a heart for every community he entered. He healed the sick. He bound up the broken hearted. He showed compassion everywhere he went. When he revealed that the kingdom of God was within his first disciples, he then sent them out to reveal it, and it was clear that an essential part of that ministry was to heal the sick, and meet the felt needs of the homes they visited. The problem, however, is that just because something is "essential" to being the church, doesn't mean it is "primary." It is inexcusable for a church to neglect ministry of compassion to it's community, but it is also inexcusable for Her to give up her primary role of "proclamation" in order to "replace" it with compassion ministry.

Often an emphasis is put on compassion ministry and is called "extending of the kingdom." I suppose there is some truth to this. However, scripture does not speak of the Kingdom as something the Christian builds. It is usually referred to as something the Christian "inherits" or "carries" or "proclaims." I think I can sum up the way we should think about this rather simply.

Because we carry the kingdom of God within us, we should automatically have a heart for the poor and the broken. If we don't, we are clearly missing out on a massive part of the heart of Christ. However, if we know the truth of Christ, we will realize the cross is in fact the entryway into that eternal kingdom. Therefore, all compassion ministry should be a means for and a result of the "proclamation" of that spiritual kingdom. If we focus on the physical needs of those we meet to the neglect of the eternal needs of their soul, we really have been no help to them. However, if we do not accompany our proclamation with the meeting of the needs of our hearers, what reason will they have for thinking the Kingdom of God is a reality in our lives?

So what do I hope we can take away from this? First, go to church. Plain and simple. We should listen to the writer of Hebrews when he says: "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." God gave us the system of church as an "institution" or dare I say a "religion" for a reason. It is meant to be a visible and present reality in our local community, not merely a universal, nebulous, invisible spiritual reality.

Secondly, we must understand the church's primary role of gospel "proclamation" as we continue to seek to join the efforts of social justice in the world. While Christ would encourage us to meet the physical needs of those around us, I think he would also remind us that if the church does not spread the good news of the cross by way of word and deed, there is no other institution in the world that will.

For further thoughts on this topic, I strongly recommend Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck's book "Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion." It birthed many of the thoughts in this blog and I think will benefit those of you who choose to pick up a copy.

Up next, Eschatology, aka, the study of the end times! This should finish up my series on theology, so I hope you'll join us!

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