What exactly is the Church? Today it would seem like a gathering of people governed by a hierarchical structure headed by a man or woman which engages in "worship", "evangelism" and "good works in the community". What does the bible say? Who are the members of the church? What is the role of the church? What activities should the church be engaged in? Is what the modern church calls "worship" biblical?
The Universal Church, or simply "The Church", is made up of all believers since the inception of the church (on the day of Pentecost) until the rapture. The Universal Church must not be confused with the Ecumenical Church. The Universal church consists of all believers in the "Faith Once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3, Ephesians 4:4-5) whereas the Ecumenical Church is the bringing together of many faiths (Rev 13:8, 1 Timothy 4:1, 2 Timothy 3:1-5). In the Universal Church there are absolutes but in the Ecumenical Church there are no absolutes.
The Local Church is a gathering of believers in a particular area who meet together and fulfil the role of the church in that specific locality. We see the difference between the church (universal) and the church (local) by the way it is spoken of. The book of Acts speaks of God adding to the church (universal) daily, such as were being saved, while Some of the epistles were written to "the church at" a particular place (E.g. to the church at Corinth, to the seven churches in Asia, etc.) which demonstrates the local church. Just because the words local or universal are not specifically mentioned in scripture, we use these words to convey a concept, just as we use the word trinity and rapture to describe the nature of the Godhead and the calling home of the church even though neither of these words are actually in the bible.
Christ is the founder, head and builder of the church (Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 5:23, Col 1:18, Acts 2:47). Christ is also known as the cornerstone, and the teaching of the Apostles and Prophets form the foundation (Ephesians 2:20). It is clear that no other foundation can be laid, that is, no new teaching or revelation should be expected (1 Cor 3:11, Hebrews 1:2, 2 Peter 2:1). The church is also known as the "Body of Christ" (1 Cor 12:27). Each member of His body (a living stone built upon the foundation), the church, has a function or purpose in the local gathering. The Church is the dwelling place of God. (Eph.2:21). Though there are elders and deacons who have responsibilities to shepherd the flock, they are not over the flock but "among them" (1 Peter 5:1-3). As members of Christ's body, we then work together to accomplish the will of the Head, Christ.
The role of the church (and in particular, the local church) is to:
1. Demonstrate the manifold wisdom of God to the principalities and powers in heavenly places (Ephesians 3:10, 1 Cor 11:10, 1 Timothy 3:15) by our conduct as the body of Christ in corporate worship;
2. Meet together to remember the Lord's death until He comes (1 Cor 11:23-26, Acts 20:7);
3. Pray together (Acts 12:5, Ephesians 6:18, Col 4:2, 1 Thessalonians 5:17);
4. Spur one another on in the faith (Hebrews 10:24-25, 1 Thessalonians 5:11);
Study the Word of God and proclaim it as truth by living it, breathing it and preaching it (1 Timothy 2:15, 2 Timothy 4:2, Matthew 28:19-20, Romans 12:1-2).
It is the role of the local church that I wish to focus on today, in particular, the first two points. The last three points about praying, encouraging and living out the Christian life are obvious but the fact that we are on display to the principalities and that Christ has specifically told us to remember Him in a particular way are often neglected in today's preaching.
Since we are all members of Christ's body, and since the Christian life is a full time job, most of our activities of evangelism, encouragement, prayer and living out His Word occurs every day. The problem with a lot of churches is that they cram all of this into Sunday and forget about the rest of the week. As members of the local church, our daily responsibility to Christ is to fulfil our function and use our gifts as He provides the opportunity, the strength and the discernment. We should pray for each other, provide for the needs of each other and be subject to one another, that is, esteem others as more important than ourselves in our attitude and dealing with them.
As for our weekly gathering, what should it be like? What should be accomplished during this short time?
As it is written: (Ephesians 3:1-12) The mystery of the Church was not known in the past but was revealed to the Apostles and Prophets in the interim while God put His dealings with Israel on hold. The purpose of the church is to be a display of God's manifold wisdom to the principalities and powers in heaven. This is why our conduct is so important. The method and reason for our gathering is of great significance, if it were not so, Christ wouldn't have founded it. We should therefore treat our gathering with great respect, for there is nowhere else in creation that God can demonstrate this mystery except in the church. If He could, He wouldn't have created it.
So what exactly is it that we are showing to the principalities? How God in Christ reconciled us to Himself and how we respond in adoration and remembrance. Our response to God's grace is therefore extremely important. Our time of Worship should therefore be filled with Christ centred expression and not self-centred activities. We do not come to receive from God a blessing as so many churches teach but we come to remember Christ, to thank Him and to pour out our hearts as we centre our thoughts on Him and His character. Worship is in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24) this may or may not involve our emotions, and if it does, it maybe an indication of our inability to grasp God's greatness and mercy but it is never an indication of how spiritual or great the service is. We do not gather on our terms to feel good but on His terms to give Him what is due Him regardless of our emotional or physical state.
Since we are on display to the principalities and powers of heaven, the order of our gathering is of utmost importance. God is not the author of confusion but of peace as in all churches of the saints (1 Cor 14:33). The Word of God clearly teaches that Christ is the head of the man and the man the head of the woman. It clearly teaches that a man ought not to pray or participate with his head covered or with long hair. It teaches that the woman should be silent in the church and that she in participating in the meeting must do so with her head covered. Her hair is her glory and therefore must be covered. The angels and other powers which then observe our operation see the order of God. (1 Cor 11:3-16, 14:34-35, 1 Timothy 2:11-14). This excludes women from the eldership and from teaching men. The nature of elders and deacons also excludes "one man shows" as in many modern churches.
It is very wrong of us to bring the elements of the world into our worship and remembrance service. When we do so, we rob God of His rightful focus. It is very wrong to change our operation to accommodate unbelievers. After all, we are setting an example to them and not them to us. Our evangelism and explanation of worship and remembrance must be done outside of this time as this time is the Lord's. If one comes off the street and sees our manner of worship, the person will know of a truth that God is amongst us. By accommodating the world in our manner of worship, we are proclaiming that the ways of the world and idols of the world are acceptable. Some of the idols which rob God during this time are entertaining music, rousing speeches to whip up emotion, self-centred choruses which talk about me, etc. It is clear from scripture that Paul never used cunning devices to proclaim truth. He spoke with simplicity and only used the Word of God. (2 Cor 4:1-6, 1 Cor 2:1-5).
The second role of the church which is quite intimately related to the first is our remembrance of Christ:
And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight. (Acts 20:7)
The primary reason for gathering was to break bread and remember the Lord as He instructed. The secondary reason for gathering was to grow in the Knowledge of the Lord through the hearing of the Word of God. In today's churches, the focus is on the message and the real purpose for gathering has been lost. The remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ's death and atonement for sins by the breaking of bread and taking of the cup is to be done as often as we meet and only until He comes. This is then a reminder of our blessed hope, His return. We are forgetful creatures and this continual remembrance is necessary!
We are taught to examine ourselves before participating in this remembrance as not discerning the significance of the emblems is a serious offence which caused some in the Corinthian church to fall sick and even die.
How do we appear to the principalities and heavenly powers? Do they see God's order? Do they acknowledge God's manifold wisdom when they see our response to His grace? Have we allowed the world to permeate our worship and remembrance to obscure our focus on God's character, holiness, righteousness, love and future plan? Do we examine ourselves adequately before taking the bread and cup? Do we truly see our sin in its absolute rottenness and the immense and unwarranted pardon accomplished for us in the Lord Jesus Christ's shed blood?
May our prayer and desire be to take our place in the church as member's of Christ's body seriously in our everyday life so that our gathering for worship will truly reflect His Lordship over our lives.
By Joseph Stephen.
Sunday, 09 February, 1997