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Lesson 9: The Study of the Church

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The true Church can never fail. For it is based upon a rock. ― T.S. Eliot

Introduction

What are reasons that people do not go to church? One Christian website lists 10 reasons.1 Perhaps you have heard some of them:

  1. Christians are judgmental and negative.
  2. Church is boring.
  3. The church is exclusive.
  4. Christians are homophobic.
  5. 'I don't like organized religion.'
  6. Churches are full of hypocrites
  7. The church just wants your money.
  8. Life is better without religion.
  9. Christians live on another planet.
  10. I don’t have time.

In spite of these types of objections, Jesus stated, “I will build my Church and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt 16:18). The study of the church in theological terminology is called ecclesiology. What is the church? When did it start? What is its purpose? How should it operate and be organized? How does the church relate to Israel? How important is it to go to church? These are some critical questions that this lesson is designed to cover.

What is the Church?

The word translated church in the New Testament is from the Greek word ekklesia which means an assembly or congregation. It does not refer to a building rather it refers instead to people. In the New Testament, it generally refers to believers Jew or Gentile who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ and have received the Holy Spirit following Pentecost in Acts 2. It may refer to a local assembly such as the church at Thessalonica (1 Thess 1:1) or the universal church of all believers in Jesus Christ in this age everywhere.

Metaphors for the Church

Metaphors are expressions of figurative language that are used to communicate truth through analogies. There are several metaphors that are used in reference to the church, which helps to define what the church is and how it functions. The first is that the church is the body of Christ. There are two good passages that teach this both of them written by the Apostle Paul: 1) “He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church,” (Col 1:18) and 2) “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” (Eph 5:21-22). As a physical head directs the physical body so also Christ directs the church. The body of Christ image also communicates our connection to Christ and to each member of the church. We are members of the same body and joined together. When Paul was persecuting Christians and on the road to Damascus Jesus appeared to him. Jesus didn’t ask Paul why are you persecuting Christians or the church? Rather he asks Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Christ is so connected and identified with the church that a persecution against the church is directly equated to a persecution against him.

A second metaphor of the church is the description of the church as the bride of Christ. John writes in Revelation: “Let us rejoice and exult and give him glory, because the wedding celebration of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. She was permitted to be dressed in bright, clean, fine linen” (for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints)” (Rev 19:7-9). The imagery of a bride communicates both intimate relationship and purity.

A third metaphor is that the church is a temple. “So then you are . . . members of God’s household, because you have been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:19-22). In the Old Testament, the Temple was the place where God dwelt among the people of Israel (Exod 40:34-35).2 The church as a temple then would communicate that holy God indwells it and even individual members of it (1 Cor 3:16).3

Fourthly, the church is also referred to as a royal priesthood. Peter writes, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may proclaim the virtues of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. You once were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet 2:8-9). Royal suggests the idea that the church rules or will rule, while priests suggest that those in the church are God’s ministers or servants.4

Lastly, the church is referred to as a flock. Paul tells the Ephesians elders: “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). Sheep imagery for God’s people is seen in both the Old and New Testaments (cf. Ps 23; Is 53:6). Jesus said he was the good shepherd and that his sheep follow his voice (John 10). Sheep communicate the need for a shepherd who will lead, feed and protect. Sheep are vulnerable and one could say dumb animals which need steady care.

When Did the Church Start?

While some people define the church as God’s people of all ages, there are strong implications from the Scriptures that the church did not begin until after the death of Jesus in conjunction with the inauguration of the New Covenant and descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. There are several passages that one can point to that support this view. First, Jesus spoke of the establishment of the church as a future event in his life. “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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 16:18-19). The term key suggests that Peter would open up the kingdom in the form of the church, which he did at Pentecost in Acts 2. Secondly, the church was “obtained” by the finished work of Christ on the cross. In the verse that we looked at above the church of God is said to be “obtained with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28). This also implies the church was not in effect until after the death of Christ.5

Lastly, the church is defined by the “body of Christ” and members of the body of Christ are placed there by the baptism of the Spirit. Paul states, “For just as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body – though many – are one body, so too is Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:12-13). This baptism of the Spirit was predicted in the Old Testament (e.g., Joel 2) but occurred in Acts 2. The formation of the body of Christ formed by the baptism of the Spirit can be supported by the following verses. John the Baptist stated that the Messiah would baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). This was predicted as a future event. Jesus later stated that the baptism would take place “not many days from now in Acts 1:5. The Holy Spirit descended in Acts 2. In hindsight this event in Acts 2 is referred to as the “baptism of the Spirit” by Peter. Peter states, “Then as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as he did on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, as he used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 11:15-16).6 All of these are good reasons to see the start of the church after the death of Jesus and specifically in conjunction with the descent of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.

The Purpose/Function of the Church

The purpose or function of the church can be summarized into three broad areas: worship of God, edification of the church itself, and evangelization of the world. The worship of God is the highest calling of man. God created us for this purpose and failure to do so will leave a God shaped hole in our lives. Jesus stated, “But a time is coming – and now is here – when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers. God is spirit, and the people who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). The early church shifted the day of worship from Saturday (= the Sabbath) to Sunday (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2) most likely to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus, which occurred on the first day of the week (Matt 28:1; Mark 16:2; Luke 24:1; John 20:1).

Secondly, the church as the body of Christ is to edify itself in the community of faith. Luke records this basic practice of the church in Acts. “They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Paul supplements this idea: “It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, 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” (Eph 4:11-13).

Thirdly, the church is to evangelize the world. Two passages illustrate this well. The first is referred to as the Great Commission. Matthew is one gospel that records it: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19-20). Luke also gives Jesus’ instructions to the disciples just prior to his departure to heaven called the ascension. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Whether worship, instruction, or evangelism, the overarching purpose of all that the church does is to glorify God (1 Cor 10:31). It’s not about us but it is about him!

The Ordinances of the Church

Water baptism and the Lord’s Supper (also referred to as Communion) are two mandates that Jesus gave to the church. The Catholic church and some Protestants refer to these mandates as well as others as sacraments. The word sacrament is used due to the Catholic church’s teaching that participation in these ceremonies will convey grace to the participant with or without faith on the part of the participant.7 Other Protestants have emphasized that the performance of these mandates should be referred to as ordinances and are merely are acts of obedience. Also, they are not grace bearing or meritorious in regard to one’s eternal status of salvation in any way.8

The purpose of water baptism is to identify with Christ and his message. Symbolically, in baptism there is identification with Jesus’ death and resurrection (cf. Rom 6:3-4) as well as purification and cleansing (cf. Acts 22:16). Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). While the church has had differing practices on the modes of baptism (sprinkling, immersion, etc), the practice of infant baptism is hard to substantiate from the practice of the early church as seen in the New Testament. People were baptized after they believed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The purpose of the Lord’s Supper (also known as communion) is to remember what Jesus did for us on the cross. This is also a mandated practice for the church. Paul tells the Corinthian church. “[T]he Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me’ (1 Cor 11:23-25). Like baptism, there are different views on the nature of the Lord’s supper. Referring to the bread, “This is my body” and the wine as, “This is my blood” historically led to debate on what “is” means during the time of the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic View is termed Transubstantiation, which means that the elements turn into the actual body and blood of Jesus. The Lutheran View (i.e., Martin Luther) is termed Consubstantiation, which means that Jesus is with, in, under and around the elements but they do not actually turn into the body and blood of Jesus. The Reformed View (i.e., John Calvin) is termed the Spiritual Presence View, which means that Jesus is spiritually present during the ceremony. Lastly, the Memorial View (i.e., Huldrych Zwingli) sometimes called the Remembrance View, is that the Lord’s table is simply a symbol used for remembering Christ’s death.9

The Organization of the Church

One thing that most people are aware of is that there are different kinds of churches. Some differences relate to the history and doctrine of the church. Other differences relate to different types of church government.10 The table below gives a description of the major types of church government.

Type of Church Government

Description

Examples of Churches

National Government

Churches that are headed by the Secular National Government of the Country

Anglican Church of England or Lutheran Church of Germany

Hierarchical Government

The body of clergy is divided into various ranks reporting eventually to a single person like the Pope or Archbishop

Roman Catholic Church, Episcopal and Orthodox and Anglican (in part).

Regional Federal Government

Synods and General Assemblies appoint pastors and determine doctrine

Presbyterian, Lutheran and some Reformed

Congregational Government

Ultimate authority for the church rests with the members themselves, ministry, budget, choosing leaders etc

Some Baptist churches

Local Federal Government

Elders/Pastors in the local church are ultimately responsible for governing the church

Brethren, Bible Churches Some Baptist and Reformed

The apostles were the highest authority of leaders in the early church. But as one theologian states, it would seem unwise to give someone that title today.11 The apostles were part of the foundation of the church (Eph 2:20) and today’s church is being built on this foundation. In addition when one looks at the criteria of an apostle, the New Testament makes it clear that 1) the person had to have seen the resurrected Jesus (Act 1:22; 1 Cor 9:1), and 2) he must have been appointed by Christ (Matt 10:1-7; Acts 1:24-26).12

Leadership in the church today according to the New Testament consists then of two offices: Pastor/Elder and Deacon. Pastors/Elders are men who are willing to lead and are spiritually qualified to lead the church (Titus 1:6-9; 1 Tim 3: 1-7). Paul tells Titus to appoint such leaders in the church. Paul states: “The reason I left you in Crete was to set in order the remaining matters and to appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). They are responsible to shepherd the flock of God (1 Pet 5:20). The New Testament also indicates that multiple leadership or a team of elders are to be present in each church. This is seen in the plural use of the term. For example, James tells the sick person to call for the “elders” of the church (James 5:14) or Peter who exhorts the “elders” among the church (1 Pet 5:1-2). All of the New Testament examples that we have indicate a plurality of male elders who oversee the church.13

The second church office is the office of deacon. These individuals are also to be spiritually qualified (Acts 614; 1 Tim 3: 8-13) and they are responsible to serve the needs of the church under the leadership of the pastors/elders. Acts 6 reads: “Now in those days, when the disciples were growing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Greek-speaking Jews against the native Hebraic Jews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the twelve called the whole group of the disciples together and said, ‘It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to wait on tables. But carefully select from among you, brothers, seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task’” (Acts 6:1-3). The tasks of these men was to assist the apostles in serving the church by meeting physical needs so that the apostles could focus on the spiritual needs of the church. One question surrounding the office of deacon is whether or not the office is to be held by men only or also includes women. In the Acts 6 passage they are men, but in 1 Tim 3:11 women who are deacons may be in view. Another interpretation is that these refer to deacon’s wives.15

The Distinction between Israel and the Church

How do we distinguish between Israel and the Church? Or should we? In short, the Bible indicates that while there is a clear distinction between Israel and the church that needs to be maintained, there is also a relationship that needs to be understood. One can start to examine this issue by comparing basic definitions. The church is both Jew and Gentile in the current age who believe in Jesus and are baptized into the body of Christ. This baptism took place with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts 2. Israel (used 2515 times in the Old Testament and 68 in the New Testament) refers ethnically to the descendants of Abraham that came though Isaac and Jacob. Sometimes the concept of circumcised of heart (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Rom 2:29; Phil 3:2-3) or the phrase Israel of God (Gal 6:10) is used to reflect the idea of saved ethnic Israel. There is no place in the New Testament or entire Bible where the term Israel refers to or means the church.16 The distinction between Israel and the church is also seen in statements that contrast them after the establishment of the church.17 One good verse for this is 1 Cor 10:32 which states, “Do not give offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God.” Here the “church of God” is distinguished from “Jews.”

In regard to the church’s relationship with Israel, Paul states that Gentiles are grafted into the olive tree (= a symbol for Israel) to participate in blessings while natural branches (= unsaved Jews) are broken off (Rom 11:17). God told Abraham that “in you” all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:3). The promise God gave to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 is referred to as the Abrahamic Covenant. In line with this covenant as Gentile members of the church we are a part of the blessing God gave to “all nations” though the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Paul also states that we are “sons of Abraham” by faith (Gal 3:7). It is important to understand though that Israel was under the provisions and requirements of Old Covenant while the church is under the New Covenant. The Old Covenant included: animal sacrifices, prescribed festivals, dietary laws, Sabbath keeping which included meeting on Saturday, moral laws and penalties for violation. The church on the other hand is under the provisions of the New Covenant and directly stated requirements for it are included in the gospels and epistles. There is both continuity and discontinuity in the relationship of these covenants to each other, that is some requirements of the Old Covenant are carried into the new while others are not. Paul clearly states that Christians are not under law as a system of requirements but under grace (Rom 6:14).

Lastly, there is a future for national Israel in which all the remaining Old Testament promises that God gave to them will be fulfilled: “For I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: A partial hardening has happened to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written, The Deliverer will come out of Zion; he will remove ungodliness from Jacob. And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.’ In regard to the gospel they are enemies for your sake, but in regard to election they are dearly loved for the sake of the fathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:25-29). This does not mean that Christians have to agree with everything that modern day Israel does but it does mean that God has not abandoned his commitments of a future political and spiritual restoration of the that nation.

Importance of Meeting in Church

The lesson started with reasons why people do not go to church. Now, it would be good to conclude with reasons that we should go to church.

  1. The church is God’s ordained organization for spiritual growth in this age.
  2. We were made to worship God.
  3. We need to learn from God’s Word.
  4. We need to use our spiritual gifts to help others.
  5. We need to be encouraged by others in our relationship with God.
  6. We need to set an example to our families and friends and provide for their spiritual welfare.
  7. We need to give financially so our hearts will not be ruled by greed.
  8. We need to have an eternal perspective and not a temporal one.
  9. We need a break from our normal daily routine of work.
  10. We need to set an example to the world that Christians love one another.

The author of Hebrews says, “And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works, not abandoning our own meetings, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and even more so because you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25). Penguins are one of the few warm blooded animals that live in Antarctica during the winter. They can even breed in temperatures of -22°F and winds of 125mph.18 How can they survive in such harsh conditions? One of the main ways is that they huddle together, sometimes with thousands of penguins. Those on the outside of the circle as soon as they are faced with freezing to death move in toward the center while those in the center work their way to the outside. It’s only by sticking together that they survive. Any penguin that gets isolated will die. Is there an application for Christians? I think so. God designed us to survive and thrive spiritually by the encouragement we gain from each other.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are some things the church is doing that is not part of its mandate and what things is it not doing that it should be doing? How about the local church that you are in?
  2. Is there a difference between a church ordinance and a church sacrament? If so, what is it?
  3. How is the modern church different than the early first century church? How much should the modern church adapt to its culture?
  4. What are some reasons that some Christians give to not go to church? What are some biblical responses you can give to these reasons?
  5. How can the church better connect with society?
  6. How can I be more involved in the life and ministry of my church?
  7. How should our view of the Bible affect our views on national policies toward Israel?
  8. Should the church worship on Saturday? If not, why not?

1 This is a slightly edited list based on Pete Brookshaw, http://www.petebrookshaw.com/2012/08/10-reasons-why-people-dont-go-to-church.html#.UOStWnexm4k (Date accessed Jan 2, 2013).

2 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle (Exod 40:34-35).

3 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If someone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, which is what you are (1 Cor 3:16-17).

4 Robert Saucy, The Church in God’s Program (Chicago, Moody Press, 1972), 38-39.

5 One could also supplement this with the point that the new covenant did not start until the shed blood of Christ as well (1 Cor 11:25).

6 One passage that is sometimes used to indicate that Old Testament Israel was also a part of the church is Acts 7:38 (cf. Heb 2:12) which refers to people of Israel in the time of Moses as the “ekklesia.” But this term can generally refer to an assembly or congregation in secular usage which later came to be applied to the church as the body of Christ a more specific technical referent. See Robert Saucy, The Church in God’s Program, 15.

7 See Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 976 for a more detailed discussion on this topic.

8 One should emphasize that both water baptism and the Lord’s supper (communion) are acts of obedience but are not in any way a condition of reception of eternal life (Eph 2:8-9).

9 Peter Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 2008), 371-374.

10 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1986), 405-411.

11 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 911.

12 Ibid., 906-911.

13 For an excellent resource on church elders see Alexander Strauch. Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. Littleton CO: Lewis and Roth Publishers.

14 The men in Acts 6 are not specifically called deacons but they probably serve as a prototype of what the later office of deacon would become.

15 See Grudem for a discussion on this topic. Grudem, Systematic Theology, 918-19.

16 Sometimes Galatians 6:10 is argued that the “Israel of God” refers to the church. It reads, “and all who will behave in accordance with this rule, peace and mercy be on them, and on the Israel of God (Gal 6:10).” But even here the “Israel of God” as a reference to the whole church is doubtful for two lexical reasons. First, the last “and” (Gk. και) would have to be translated as “even” which is possible but much less likely lexically for the meaning of this conjunction. Second, one would have to find a meaning of “Israel” here that is not seen for the usage of the term in Paul’s writings, the rest of the New Testament or the whole Old Testament.

17Ryrie, Basic Theology, 399.

18http://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/science/cold_penguins.htm (Date accessed November 27, 2012).

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Ecclesiology (The Church)