Perhaps you’ve seen the television commercial in which a doctor instructs his patient how to perform surgery on himself – all over the phone. The “patient” asks the doctor, “Shouldn’t you be doing this?” One would expect something as serious as surgery to be performed by a surgeon – not by the patient. The same is true for the church. If the church is important, and its mission critical, then one would think that God would have significant involvement. He would not leave it for us to do ourselves, as best we can figure it out. Yet, many Christians seem to think that God has pretty much left the church on its own to figure out for itself just how it should function best.
In our first message in this series, I sought to show that God cares a great deal about how we “do church.” The lessons in that message tended to be more negative than positive. We saw how Uzzah was struck dead because of his irreverence in grasping the ark when it appeared that it might be overturned.20 In the New Testament, we noted that some of the saints in the church at Corinth were smitten with sickness or death, because of their disregard for the Lord’s body, as symbolized in the elements at their observance of the Lord’s Table.21
Let me briefly review some of the lessons I attempted to emphasize at the conclusion of the first message.
(1) How we worship (“serve church”) matters to God. He takes irreverence seriously, in the New Testament, as well as in the Old.
(2) Ignorance is not an excuse for disobedience, because it is the result of our own neglect. God’s Word was clear as to how the ark was to be transported, and by whom. David and Uzzah both should have known how to move the ark22 and should have been forewarned by the incident in Beth Shemesh, where over 50,000 Israelites died for their irreverence regarding the ark.23
(3) Emergencies are not an excuse for disobedience. For Uzzah, it seemed like an emergency when one of the oxen stumbled, but this “emergency” would never have come about if the ark had been transported according to God’s instructions. We often create our own emergencies.
(4) Excitement and enthusiasm are no substitutes for obedience. For some, excitement and enthusiasm are sufficient proof that God is with us in what we are doing. The excitement expressed while the ark was being transported in disobedience suddenly ended with the tragic death of Uzzah. Enthusiasm and excitement are good things when we are obeying God, but they are of no benefit when we are disobedient.
(4) The fear of God and a love for His Word are foundational to all worship. Irreverence is the result of a disregard for God – and for His Word.
I would like to remind the reader that when I speak about “serving church”24 or “doing church,” I am referring to all that constitutes the nature, mission, and practices of the New Testament church.
When I speak of “the church,” I realize that this term is used in a variety of ways in the New Testament. Let me briefly summarize the way “church” is used in the New Testament.
(1) The church universal – that body of all believers in Jesus (dead and alive) from Pentecost to now.
And God put all things under Christ’s feet, and he gave him to the church as head over all things (Ephesians 1:22).
(2) Believers in general – believers who are alive, and who are referred to in a somewhat generic way.
But Saul was trying to destroy the church; entering one house after another, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison (Acts 8:3).
(3) Believers in a certain geographical region.
The churches in the province of Asia send greetings to you. Aquila and Prisca greet you warmly in the Lord, with the church that meets in their house (1 Corinthians 16:19, emphasis mine).
(4) Believers in a certain city.
Now there were these prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen (a close friend of Herod the tetrarch from childhood) and Saul (Acts 13:1, emphasis mine).
(5) Believers who regularly gather at a certain person’s house – a “house church.”
3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, 4 who risked their own necks for my life. Not only I, but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. 5 Also greet the church in their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia (Romans 16:3-5, emphasis mine).
(6) The church gathered for weekly worship, instruction, and the observance of the Lord’s Table.
For in the first place, when you come together as a church I hear there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it (1 Corinthians 11:18, emphasis mine).
This last category is an important one. It seems to refer to the church gathered to observe the Lord’s Supper, for teaching, and exhortation, just as we see in 1 Corinthians 11 and 14. The reason it is important is because I believe this is the primary context for Paul’s teaching regarding the role of women in the church. As I understand it, the primary (though not necessarily exclusive) focus of Paul’s teaching about the role of women in ministry is the church meeting.25
The deaths of Uzzah and the Corinthians were the result of irreverence, and they should serve as a warning to all who would go about the business of the church (“serve church”) in a casual manner that tends to disregard the Word of God as irrelevant. But these are negative lessons. Because of this, I would like to pursue a more positive emphasis in this week’s message. I will begin by showing from the New Testament just what it is that makes the church so special. Then, I will suggest some of the challenges that we (and other churches) face. Finally, I want to underscore why Community Bible Chapel (CBC) “serves church” as we have been doing it for over 30 years.26
(1) The church is special because Jesus gave it special emphasis in the Gospel of Matthew. It is generally accepted that the Gospel of Matthew has a Jewish focus. Noteworthy here is that Matthew is the only Gospel where the term “church” is found. In Matthew 16, we find Peter’s “great confession” and our Lord’s first reference to the church:
13 When Jesus came to the area of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 They answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” 20 Then he instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ (Matthew 16:13-20, emphasis mine).
The coming of Israel’s Messiah was so that He could build His church. I am not saying this was His only reason for coming. What I am saying is that Matthew, a Jew writing to a Jewish audience, is saying this immediately after our Lord’s identity as Messiah is proclaimed by Peter. Note, also, that this church is so endowed with power that the gates of Hades cannot successfully resist or oppose it. The church is the means by which our Lord will overcome Satan’s domain. What Jesus achieved on the cross, He works out through His church:
14 He has destroyed what was against us, a certificate of indebtedness expressed in decrees opposed to us. He has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 Disarming the rulers and authorities, he has made a public disgrace of them, triumphing over them by the cross (Colossians 2:14-15, emphasis mine).
7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he captured captives; he gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 4:7-8).
It is no small wonder that later, in Ephesians 6, Paul instructs the church at Ephesus regarding the spiritual warfare in which they are to be engaged (Ephesians 6:10-18).
Now, a couple of chapters later in Matthew, we find our Lord raising the subject of church discipline:
15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. 18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. 19 Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:15-20, emphasis mine).
In chapter 16, Jesus revealed that as the promised Messiah, He would build His church. This would be the result of His death and resurrection, which He also reveals to His disciples, although it is not warmly received, especially by Peter.27 Now, in chapter 18, Jesus instructs His disciples regarding the process of dealing with a wayward saint – the process which we call church discipline. What is significant is that Jesus describes this as taking place in the context of the church. If private rebuke does not produce repentance and obedience to God’s Word, then the sin must be revealed to the church so that the church can enter into the discipline process. If the process fails to produce repentance, the church must withdraw fellowship from the stubborn sinner.28 My point here is that Jesus emphasized that His coming as Messiah would give birth to the church, and that the church would be God’s instrument for discipline (not to mention many other things not specifically indicated in Matthew, such as carrying out the Great Commission of chapter 28).
(2) The church is important because it is the tangible result of the reconciliation Jesus accomplished on the cross of Calvary. In the first ten verses of Ephesians 2, Paul describes how God achieved salvation for both Jews and Gentiles, through faith in the person and work of Jesus:
1 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you [Gentiles] formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom all of us [Jews] also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, 5 even though we were dead in transgressions, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you are saved! – 6 and he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 to demonstrate in the coming ages the surpassing wealth of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them (Ephesians 2:1-10, emphasis mine).
Both Gentiles and Jews were lost sinners, the enemies of God and the pawns of Satan. God, by His mercy and grace, saved us through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf. Having reconciled both Gentiles and Jews to Himself, He also reconciled us (Jewish and Gentile saints) to each other, bringing us together in one body, the church:
11 Therefore remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the flesh – who are called “uncircumcision” by the so-called “circumcision” that is performed on the body by human hands – 12 that you were at that time without the Messiah, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, 15 when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, 16 and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, 18 so that through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:11-22, emphasis mine).
(3) The church is the culmination of God’s eternal plan to display His glory to the celestial spiritual powers.
8 To me – less than the least of all the saints – this grace was given, to proclaim to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ 9 and to enlighten everyone about God’s secret plan – a secret that has been hidden for ages in God who has created all things. 10 The purpose of this enlightenment is that through the church the multifaceted wisdom of God should now be disclosed to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 3:8-10).
We know that our Lord’s work at Calvary brought a great victory over Satan and his fallen foes.
“Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” (John 12:31, emphasis mine).
8 “And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment – 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16:8-11, emphasis mine).
The angelic host is witnessing God’s marvelous work in and through His church.29 The church is God’s object lesson to the heavenly beings. Therefore, it should go without saying that how the church functions is very important to God.
(4) The church is the bastion and bulwark of the truth.
14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you 15 in case I am delayed, to let you know how people ought to conduct themselves in the household of God, because it is the church of the living God, the support and bulwark of the truth (1 Timothy 3:14-15, emphasis mine).
The church is, as it were, the repository of God’s revealed truth. All of God’s revealed Word is for the church.30 The church is responsible to guard the purity of the truth, as well as to proclaim the truth. Thus, an elder of the church must hold to sound doctrine and be able to correct those who depart from the truth:
He must hold firmly to the faithful message as it has been taught, so that he will be able to give exhortation in such healthy teaching and correct those who speak against it (Titus 1:9).31
(5) The church is God’s primary means for evangelism, discipleship, and (outward) ministry. Spiritual gifts are given to the church and empower the ministry of Christ through His church.
And God has placed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, gifts of healing, helps, gifts of leadership, different kinds of tongues (1 Corinthians 12:28, emphasis mine).
It is the same with you. Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, seek to abound in order to strengthen the church (1 Corinthians 14:12, emphasis mine).
11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God – a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature. 14 So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes. 15 But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head. 16 From him the whole body grows, fitted and held together through every supporting ligament. As each one does its part, the body grows in love (Ephesians 4:11-16, emphasis mine).
Apostles, prophets, teachers, and all gifted people have been “placed in the church.” Spiritual gifts are given to the church, for the edification of the church. Spiritual gifts were given to the church so that God’s supernatural work could be accomplished by weak men and women.
(6) The church is God’s dwelling place in the Spirit.
16 And what mutual agreement does the temple of God have with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said, “I will live in them and will walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” 17 Therefore “come out from their midst, and be separate,” says the Lord, “and touch no unclean thing, and I will welcome you, 18 and I will be a father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters,” says the All-Powerful Lord (2 Corinthians 6:16-18, emphasis mine).
19 So then you are no longer foreigners and noncitizens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of God’s household, 20 because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22, emphasis mine).
When I think of the Old Testament and Israel’s relationship to God, I think of that yellow police tape placed around a crime scene or around some kind of dangerous hazard. God was so holy that His people had to keep their distance in the Old Testament. They could not approach the holy mountain, lest they die. They could not look upon God, lest they die. The Ark of the Covenant was placed inside the holy of holies. No one could look upon it or approach it except for the high priest, who just once a year made atonement for the sins of the people. How different things became when our Lord came to this earth as “Imanuel” – God with us.32 We now experience an intimacy with God that no one dared to imagine in the Old Testament days. Christ has dwelt among men in the days of His earthly ministry, and now He dwells among His people, the church, through His Spirit.
(7) The church is the instrument for healing.
14 Is anyone among you ill? He should summon the elders of the church, and they should pray for him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick and the Lord will raise him up – and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 So confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great effectiveness (James 5:14-16).
(8) The church (in its relationship with Christ) is the model for Christian marriage.
22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, 23 because the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church – he himself being the savior of the body. 24 But as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 26 to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, 27 so that he may present the church to himself as glorious – not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In the same way husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one has ever hated his own body but he feeds it and takes care of it, just as Christ also does the church, 30 for we are members of his body. 31 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. 32 This mystery is great – but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless, each one of you must also love his own wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband (Ephesians 5:22-33, emphasis mine).
If Christ’s relationship with the church is the model for Christian marriage (and it surely is), then surely the church is important to God, and surely God has spoken clearly about the church’s relationship to the Lord Jesus. To have a distorted or flawed understanding of the church would thus have serious consequences for husband-wife relationships.
(9) The church is the apple of God’s eye. I’m not quite sure how to say it any better than this. The church is very special to God. The imagery of our Lord’s relationship to the church depicts the love and intimacy between Christ and His church. He is the Shepherd; we are His flock. He is the groom; we are the bride. Christ loved the church and gave His life for it.
Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son (Acts 20:28).
Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her (Ephesians 5:25).
Christ nourishes and cherishes the church (Ephesians 5:29), and He keeps a watchful eye on the church, both in its victories and in its defeats. Read the second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation, and you will see that our Lord knows exactly what is going on in each of the seven churches of Asia. He identifies their strengths and their failures. He gives a word of exhortation and a word of warning. Our Lord cares about His church, and it shows.
There are no doubt many challenges facing the church today, and I will surely not deal with all of them. But I would like to focus on some serious threats to the life and health of the church.
(1) Judaisers. It doesn’t take the reader of the New Testament long to discover that many of the Jews of that day – particularly the Jewish religious leaders – resisted and opposed Jesus and were instrumental in bringing about His crucifixion.33 But Jewish resistance didn’t end with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jews continued to oppose the preaching of the gospel in Acts.34 They stoned Stephen, and they sought to kill Paul. Even some of those who professed faith resisted the gospel by insisting that, in order to be saved, one had to be circumcised and to keep the Law of Moses.35
The decision of the Jerusalem Council did not put an end to Jewish distortions of the truth. The divisions in the church at Corinth were due in large part to divisive teachers and those who were their followers.36 But by the time we get to 2 Corinthians, Paul makes it very clear that these “false apostles” are really “messengers of Satan.”37 Even more revealing is the fact that many – if not all – of these Corinthian heretics were Jewish:
12 And what I am doing I will continue to do, so that I may eliminate any opportunity for those who want a chance to be regarded as our equals in the things they boast about. 13 For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will correspond to their actions (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I (2 Corinthians 11:22, emphasis mine).
So, too, are those in Ephesus who Paul has instructed Timothy to correct.
3 As I urged you when I was leaving for Macedonia, stay on in Ephesus to instruct certain people not to spread false teachings, 4 nor to occupy themselves with myths and interminable genealogies. Such things promote useless speculations rather than God’s redemptive plan that operates by faith. 5 But the aim of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. 6 Some have strayed from these and turned away to empty discussion. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not understand what they are saying or the things they insist on so confidently (1 Timothy 1:3-7, emphasis mine).
The same was true for those Titus was to correct:
10 For there are many rebellious people, idle talkers, and deceivers, especially those with Jewish connections, 11 who must be silenced because they mislead whole families by teaching for dishonest gain what ought not to be taught. 12 A certain one of them, in fact, one of their own prophets, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13 Such testimony is true. For this reason rebuke them sharply that they may be healthy in the faith 14 and not pay attention to Jewish myths and commands of people who reject the truth (Titus 1:10-14, emphasis mine).
Paul penned the Book of Galatians to refute the teaching of the Judaisers. Paul warns about them in Philippians 3, especially verses 1-16. The Book of Hebrews was written to instruct Hebrew Christians concerning the superiority of the New Covenant over the Old and to warn them not to turn back to Judaism for salvation.
Judaisers are most often Jews who seek to claim and to cling to some kind of superiority as Jews, and they must do this by advocating the Old Covenant rather than the New, law rather than grace, Israel rather than the church. Judaisers may be Jewish, but there is also a Gentile strain of Judaiser who seeks to impose the law or rule-keeping on those who would claim to be Christians. We would perhaps just call such folks “legalists.”
The church dare not tolerate any teaching which maintains the superiority of the Old over the New, which seeks to impose Old Testament rituals and law-keeping on those who profess Christ as Savior. We must, like Paul (2 Corinthians 3 and 4; Galatians) and the author of Hebrews (if not Paul), insist that salvation is by grace through faith, apart from works. We must likewise stand firm on the fact that we are sanctified in the same way that we are saved. Salvation is not by faith, while sanctification is by works. Both salvation and sanctification are by faith.
For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
Therefore, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him (Colossians 2:6).
(2) Denominational division. In the New Testament, we see divisions in the church, especially in the church at Corinth. But we do not see different denominations. There was one church in Corinth, one church in Philippi, one in Ephesus. Now we have literally hundreds of different kinds of churches in any large city.
How did this come about? In some cases in church history, it was necessary for folks to leave a particular church and to start another. While Martin Luther may have intended only to reform the Roman Catholic Church, this was not the outcome. The whole “Protestant” movement was the result. There have been times when a group was virtually forced to break away from an established church by doctrinal or moral deviation from the Word of God. But all too often divisions and new denominations have resulted from power struggles between those with overdeveloped egos. Sometimes divisions have come about because of petty differences and a refusal to humbly embrace “weaker” brethren.
The outcome has not been good in that unbelievers look at the evangelical “church” and see a wide range of denominations and churches, each claiming to have the right interpretation and understanding of the Bible. They can easily throw up their hands and say, “If they can’t figure it out, how can I possibly do so? The Bible must mean whatever you want it to mean.”
(3) Competition and debate. Christians sometimes seem to spend more time and energy fighting with each other (over who is right) than they do carrying out the commands of Christ, which are the mission of the church. Must we “defend the faith” from those who would pervert sound doctrine? Of course! But some of the matters over which we debate are far from being fundamentals of the faith.
Another form of competition is seeking to attract new members from existing churches – sheep stealing. When we are convinced that we are “serving church” the right way, and that others are missing the mark, we are tempted to seek to attract those who attend other churches to join ours. Too much of “church growth” seems to be growth in membership by those who formerly belonged to other churches. It is far better to grow by evangelism, which is the kind of growth we find in the Book of Acts.
While we may not have done as well in this matter as we should, we have at least made efforts to cooperate with other Bible-believing churches in our area and beyond. For several years, we have had a prayer partnership with the Church of the Open Door in Glendora, California. They share their prayer concerns with us, so that we can join with them in prayer. We do the same with our prayer requests. We have even attempted to pray at the same hour. Colin McDougall has come to our church from the Church of the Open Door, and I have spoken there. This partnership is just a beginning, but we believe that it is an effort in the right direction.
This week, leaders from several local churches will come to our building to meet for lunch and then prayer. We believe this, too, is movement in the right direction. Churches need to work together to pursue the Great Commission, rather than to compete with each other.
(4) The Parachurch Phenomenon. The parachurch movement is a rather new innovation. Ideally, this movement would see itself as coming alongside the church, assisting the church in carrying out its mission. Some might ask why the parachurch movement is needed.
In its defense, I would be inclined to say that it has arisen because of the failure of the church in fulfilling its calling. When the church becomes too absorbed in its own interests, it will often fail in the area of evangelism. Sometimes the church focuses its evangelistic efforts on too narrow a group. In such cases, parachurch organizations like Campus Crusade have been raised up, and as a result, many more have come to trust in Jesus for salvation. The church has not always been diligent at discipling new believers, and consequently organizations like the Navigators have arisen. Where Bible teaching was lacking, a group like Bible Study Fellowship has filled the need. The point I am trying to make here is that some parachurch organizations may have come into existence because we (churches) have failed to carry out our mission. It is possible that some parachurch organizations have come about for less than noble reasons.38
Having said this, parachurch organizations present the church with certain challenges. To begin with, parachurch organizations are not a church. They do not have elders, they do not (or should not) baptize, meet for worship, or observe the Lord’s Supper (Communion).39 Because of this, they may inadvertently downplay baptism, church membership, and the Lord’s Supper. Worse yet, they might even excuse themselves from the commands and obligations of the church by saying, “That doesn’t apply to us; we are not the church.” For example, a parachurch organization might hesitate to exercise (or even cooperate with) church discipline. In my opinion, a Christian counselor does not have the freedom to “help someone work their way through their divorce” (for the normal fee) if they are doing so in disobedience to the Scriptures (and perhaps even in opposition to the counsel and admonition given by their church). I do not think it is possible for those who claim to know Christ to defend themselves by denying that they are, as Christians, part of the church. Every Christian is a part of the church and should be an active participant in a local church. When discipline is required, they should support the process, if not participate in it.
Many mission agencies are parachurch organizations. If they do their task well, they may assist or facilitate churches in sending out missionaries. Sometimes these agencies are required because of the distances involved and the need for shepherding those who are sent out. Sometimes these agencies have been necessitated by the refusal or reluctance of churches to work cooperatively with other churches. In the past, I was involved in teaching in-prison seminars with Prison Fellowship. It was both amazing and delightful to participate in a ministry where evangelical Christians from a wide range of church and denominational backgrounds worked together in unity.
The challenge for churches is to “step up to the plate” and to take leadership in matters that are – first and foremost – church responsibilities. When parachurch organizations truly seek to serve and assist the churches, they are moving in the right direction.
(5) Cultural Concession, or Accommodation. I won’t say a great deal here, but I am speaking about the desire to be culturally non-offensive and thus (in the minds of some) “relevant.” This approach makes the Christian appear to be a “seeker,” not unlike the lost: “We’re all looking for the truth, and none of us has all the answers.” Isn’t this just seeking the approval of men? Does it not water down the gospel when men who profess to know Christ speak in this way? Paul had a very different approach to winning the lost:
20 Where is the wise man? Where is the expert in the Mosaic law? Where is the debater of this age? Has God not made the wisdom of the world foolish? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world by its wisdom did not know God, God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching. 22 For Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom, 23 but we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:20-25).
14 But thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and who makes known through us the fragrance that consists of the knowledge of him in every place. 15 For we are a sweet aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing – 16 to the latter an odor from death to death, but to the former a fragrance from life to life. And who is adequate for these things? 17 For we are not like so many others, hucksters who peddle the word of God for profit, but we are speaking in Christ before God as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God (2 Corinthians 2:14-17).
9 As we have said before, and now I say again, if any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let him be condemned to hell! 10 Am I now trying to gain the approval of people, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ! 11 Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 For I did not receive it or learn it from any human source; instead I received it by a revelation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:9-12).
Dialogue doesn’t appear to be the apostolic method; preaching does.40
(6) Sidestepping Scripture. We function the way we do as a church because we are convinced that this is what the Scriptures teach. Recently a visitor to our church said something like this after observing our worship service: “I’ve read about this in the New Testament, but I’ve never really seen a church that does it.”41 There are many Christians who would observe the ways in which we function as a church and agree that this is what we see in the New Testament, but most of them don’t seem to feel that what we do is necessary. They think it is an option, which they may embrace or set aside (for something better).
Those who feel no obligation to follow the New Testament as their guide for church practice usually do so because (1) they don’t believe that the New Testament actually teaches a certain way of doing church; or, (2) they believe that what the New Testament teaches is not necessarily the way the church should operate today. They see New Testament teaching on the church as mere history; informative, perhaps, but not prescriptive.
(7) Scholarly Sabotage. This is something that I feel very strongly about. It is the kind of argument that comes from some academic scholars and institutions (not all, thankfully). This kind of reasoning goes something like this:
“I know that this passage of Scripture appears to teach _____________, but when you follow my reasoning (often complex and inferential, and certainly “scholarly” in its presentation), you will see that it doesn’t really mean what it clearly seems to say.”
This approach is especially effective when the teacher makes much of his academic pedigree, or when he or she appeals to the “original Greek” or Hebrew language. This signals the uninitiated that they are now in the realm of the scholars, where no mere lay person venture, and certainly not challenge.
In my lifetime, I have watched some scholars “rethink” their position on a particular passage – something not bad in and of itself – when their previous position has become culturally offensive. This has happened, for example, in the interpretation of those biblical texts which place some restrictions on the role of women in leadership and public ministry in the church.
I was reminded of this text in the Book of Galatians, which may give us insight into the reason why some are inclined to ignore or deny certain biblical teaching:
Those who want to make a good showing in external matters are trying to force you to be circumcised. They do so only to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ (Galatians 6:12).
Blessed are those who change their interpretation of Scripture because they have studied God’s Word more carefully (or have listened to another who has given additional insight); cursed are those who change God’s Word because they can’t take the heat for holding to the truth, especially fundamental truth like that pertaining to the cross of Christ.
I am committed to the conviction that the Bible has been written to common people, and that the message of the Scriptures can be discerned from the English language when studied in the context of that text and the teaching of the entire Bible. While extra-biblical (information found outside the Bible) material may be illustrative and helpful, it is not essential to biblical interpretation. Scholars who see their training, expertise, and contribution in this light can be very helpful to us in understanding the Scriptures. Thank God for such men.
(8) Applicational Avoidance or Selective Obedience. I alluded to this earlier in this message, but by the expression “applicational avoidance,” I am referring to those who grant that a certain truth is taught (or a command is issued) in Scripture, but then go on to reason that it is not applicable today. Some would say, “Yes, Paul did teach that to the Corinthians, but that was for them then, not for us now.” Others might say (in response to Paul’s teaching about the ministry of women in the church), “Paul was a bachelor, and a chauvinist. I don’t need to listen to him.” Or, “Paul was right about most things, but not about this.” For those who would restrict some of Paul’s teaching to that church, those people, and that point in time, I remind you of these texts of Scripture which plainly teach otherwise:
18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).
16 I encourage you, then, be imitators of me. 17 For this reason, I have sent Timothy to you, who is my dear and faithful son in the Lord. He will remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church (1 Corinthians 4:1-17, emphasis mine).
Nevertheless, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each person, so must he live. I give this sort of direction in all the churches (1 Corinthians 7:17, emphasis mine).
If anyone intends to quarrel about this, we have no other practice, nor do the churches of God (1 Corinthians 11:16, emphasis mine).
33 for God is not characterized by disorder but by peace. As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak. Rather, let them be in submission, as in fact the law says. 35 If they want to find out about something, they should ask their husbands at home, because it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church. 36 Did the word of God begin with you, or did it come to you alone? 37 If anyone considers himself a prophet or spiritual person, he should acknowledge that what I write to you is the Lord’s command. 38 If someone does not recognize this, he is not recognized (1 Corinthians 14:33-38, emphasis mine).
With regard to the collection for the saints, please follow the directions that I gave to the churches of Galatia (1 Corinthians 16:1, emphasis mine).
And after you have read this letter, have it read to the church of Laodicea. In turn, read the letter from Laodicea as well (Colossians 4:16).
Paul was very careful to distinguish between his personal expressions of personal conviction or advice and that which was a command of Christ, with full authority.
6 I say this as a concession, not as a command. 7 I wish that everyone was as I am. But each has his own gift from God, one this way, another that. 8 To the unmarried and widows I say that it is best for them to remain as I am. 9 But if they do not have self-control, let them get married. For it is better to marry than to burn with sexual desire. 10 To the married I give this command – not I, but the Lord – a wife should not divorce a husband 11 (but if she does, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband), and a husband should not divorce his wife. 12 To the rest I say – I, not the Lord – if a brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is happy to live with him, he should not divorce her (1 Corinthians 7:6-12, emphasis mine).
It was clear when Paul spoke with apostolic authority. It was likewise clear that Paul’s teaching and his practice were one and the same – he practiced what he preached. Likewise, we see that Paul’s teachings applied equally to all the churches. His teaching, his practice, and his instructions were for all the churches everywhere, not just for a particular church with particular circumstances. Thus, we dare not say, “That’s just Paul” when he speaks with apostolic authority – as he does when speaking about the church. Neither dare we say, “That’s just for this particular church, and not for churches today.” The truths, teachings, and commands of the New Testament42 are for us today.
We believe that the Scriptures are not only inspired and inerrant, but that they are authoritative – applicable to us today in such a way that we dare not set them aside. We believe that while the Scriptures do not tell us everything we might wish to know, they do tell us all we need to know related to life and godliness, and certainly about how we should function as a church:
14 I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these instructions to you 15 in case I am delayed, to let you know how people ought to conduct themselves in the household of God, because it is the church of the living God, the support and bulwark of the truth (1 Timothy 3:14-15, emphasis mine).
16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17, emphasis mine).
2 May grace and peace be lavished on you as you grow in the rich knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord! 3 I can pray this because his divine power has bestowed on us everything necessary for life and godliness through the rich knowledge of the one who called us by his own glory and excellence. 4 Through these things he has bestowed on us his precious and most magnificent promises, so that by means of what was promised you may become partakers of the divine nature, after escaping the worldly corruption that is produced by evil desire (2 Peter 1:2-4, emphasis mine).
16 For we did not follow cleverly concocted fables when we made known to you the power and return of our Lord Jesus Christ; no, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father, when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory: “This is my dear Son, in whom I am delighted.” 18 When this voice was conveyed from heaven, we ourselves heard it, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 Moreover, we possess the prophetic word as an altogether reliable thing. You do well if you pay attention to this as you would to a light shining in a murky place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you do well if you recognize this: No prophecy of scripture ever comes about by the prophet’s own imagination, 21 for no prophecy was ever borne of human impulse; rather, men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:16-21, emphasis mine).
This is why we function as a church the way we do, the way we have done for over 30 years. We believe that the Scriptures are our only authoritative source of guidance and instruction on all spiritual matters, and particularly (in this message) regarding how we should function as a church. I realize that sincere, godly, Christians disagree over these matters. I also realize that these things are not the fundamentals of the faith – matters where being wrong would mean the difference between heaven and hell. I don’t really agonize about those who seriously and sincerely study the Scriptures regarding church truth and who come to a somewhat different conclusion. They, as I, will answer to God for our understanding and practice of His Word. But what does bother me greatly is those who simply brush the Scriptures aside without serious consideration, and instead seek to “serve church” the way the latest and most successful Christian leader does. God’s ways are not man’s ways, and this is as true for “serving church” as it is for getting to heaven. Let us commit ourselves to doing it God’s way.
And so I would challenge you to ask yourself this question about how you go about “serving church”: “Do I have the freedom to do this as I (or the experts) think best – is this an area of conviction and liberty – or do the Scriptures instruct me to do it a certain way?”
Now, a final word for those who may agree with what I have said and with the way we do church at Community Bible Chapel. Don’t feel proud or arrogant that we’ve “got it right” while others do not. It is not just a matter of having the right forms (structure), or of using the right terms; it is a matter of having the right heart. God willing, I will have more to say about this in the future.
19 Copyright © 2008 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 2 in the series, Can We Serve Church Cafeteria Style?, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on January 27, 2008. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
20 See the account in 2 Samuel 6.
21 1 Corinthians 11:17-34.
22 David, in particular, should have known about transporting the ark because he was required to write out the law and read it regularly. See Deuteronomy 17:18-20.
23 See 1 Samuel 6:19-21.
24 As seen in the title of this series: “Can We Serve Church Cafeteria Style?”
25 I understand this to be the case in 1 Timothy 2, as well as in 1 Corinthians.
26 Community Bible Chapel, located in Richardson, Texas. I have been associated with CBC for over 30 years.
27 Matthew 16:21-28.
28 See also 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; Galatians 6:1-2.
29 See 1 Corinthians 11:10; 1 Peter 1:10-12.
30 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
31 See also John 16:13; 17:17, 19; 2 Corinthians 4:1-2; Galatians 2:4-5, 12-14; Ephesians 4:14-15, 25; 1 Timothy 6:3-5, 29.
32 Matthew 1:23; Isaiah 7:14.
33 There is no question but what the Gentiles shared in the guilt for our Lord’s death, but this in no way minimizes Jewish guilt in this matter (see Acts 2:22-23).
34 It is interesting, however, to note that the Pharisees seemed to lose heart, while the Sadducees took up the cause of opposing the gospel and the church. This was at least partly due to the fact that they denied any resurrection from the dead (see Acts 23:8).
35 See Acts 15, Galatians.
36 See 1 Corinthians 1.
37 2 Corinthians 11.
38 I would remind the reader that I have already indicated that some churches have come into existence for less than noble reasons.
39 I am aware of the fact that in the past some who were part of a parachurch organization have agonized about these things. Some have even concluded that they should (as a parachurch organization) observe the Lord’s Supper.
40 I do not see Paul’s “reasoning” with the Jews in the synagogues (e.g. Acts 17:2, 17) or his preaching to the Gentiles in Athens as a contradiction to this. Acts 17:23 is hardly dialogue. A portion of a footnote in the NET Bible reads, “Paul, in typical Jewish Christian style, informs them of the true God, of whom their idols are an ignorant reflection.”
41 This visitor was not at all opposed to what we do. He assumed that this was the way they “did church” in the New Testament. He had just not seen it practiced before.
42 This would be largely true of the Old Testament as well, except for those things related to the change from the Old to the New Covenant (such as we see in Mark 7:19; Acts 10-11). Many of those Old Testament commands which initially appear to be irrelevant will prove to be true in principle (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 9:8-11).