What is the church? What is its purpose? Why is baptism important and how should we do it? What is the meaning of communion and how should it be received? What in the world is church government and how should that work?
These are all questions related to the nature and the role of the church and our role within it. The fancy word that is given related to figuring this stuff out is “ecclesiology”.
Say it a couple of times, you’ll feel smart.
A little more than a passing glance on social media will tell you two things. First, social media is probably the last place you should look for proper ecclesiology. Second, there are huge amounts of opinions and positions on these issues that are informed, uninformed, some angry and some are just crazy. Frankly, it makes my head, and sometimes my heart, hurt.
Do not misunderstand me, these questions are tremendously important.
I hear things like, “I don’t like they way they do church.”; “He is a heretic.”; “That church only cares about numbers.”; “The church can’t be run like business.”; “Small churches don’t want to grow.” (You can throw in whatever complaints, critiques, observations, and the like here)
The more I hear and read these kinds statements, the more I am convinced that proper ecclesiology is needed.
The question is, “If we are truly reading scripture and seeking God and are still landing all over the place on these issues, then what do we do?” We need to do something because often the sheep are eating each other, shepherds are bailing on the sheep (or sometimes abusing them).
I would like to suggest that we pull back from the “issues” and start with a long prayerful look at two things.
First is Jesus (and also last since He is the Alpha and Omega after all).
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
So, Jesus started it and will finish it. He endured the crossed to make it available to us. The author of Hebrews tells us to “Consider him” who endured the cross for it. There is no “church” in existence, purpose, or function without Him. He is the foundation of it and the reason for it. He said He would build it. He is the example of all who have become it.
We can get so caught up in our preferences and offenses. We may even be right about what we are mad about. But we can lose sight of the who in the midst of our what. It is about Jesus. It’s always been about Jesus. It’s only in Jesus that “church” will function. It’s Jesus who is the head of the church and all the more He is the full representation of who God is. (Colossians 1:15-20)
Sometimes we think we are defending, protecting, and holding together the church when in reality we may only be prosecuting our preferences, fears, doubts, and the like. I am not saying there is no place for defending the faith and proper doctrine.
What I am saying is we must start with Jesus, end with Jesus, exalt Jesus, point people to Jesus, and trust Jesus to build His church. I love what Bill Johnson says, “Jesus Christ is perfect theology.”
Let just make a bigger deal about Jesus and knowing Him intimately. I believe if we will do that, people will be more conformed into His image which will produce better interpretation of scripture, better church practice and understanding, and, I believe, much more effective ministry.
Second is a look at the first church in its first days.
Again, I am simply suggesting starting points. I am well aware, as a pastor in a modern western church and being brought up in a denominational construct, that there are many complicated church practice and theological issues that arise. I am also aware that Paul writes pretty extensively to local churches and their pastors regarding church issues. I am just talking about a place to start.
After all, where you start and what you start with has much to do with where you wind up.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
This was the immediate activity of the first believers in the first church. This was their response to what Jesus had done for them and what the Holy Spirit was doing in them. I believe a look at these first believers tells us much about the core operation of God’s church.
We see devotion to the Apostles teaching and to fellowship. This is more than agreeing with it. It is applying and doing it. They were excited about what God was doing. Unity and community erupted around the Gospel and the transformation in their lives. They were outrageously generous. They pursued corporate worship and prayer. They became family and God kept adding to the family because of them being God’s family.
Maybe we should pull a little back from our arguments and preferences, look long at our magnificent Jesus, and remember those passionate first believers. Then we can press back into the important church issues of our time from a better starting point and thereby more accurately hit the target.
Jesus framed it up like this in Matthew 22:36-40,
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”