Over the past several months, I’ve written multiple times on the necessity of repentance in light of God’s providence in 2020 through primarily the COVID-19 virus, but also the riots, rise of critical race theory and intersectionality, and political chaos. However, hand in hand with repentance, as pointed out HERE and HERE is also the need for reform. By this, I simply mean that repentance is a change of heart, literally a turning in the opposite direction, and reform is the product or fruit with regard to actions. Once applied personally, repentance and reform ought to be applied corporately within our churches. Unfortunately, as discussed in a recent post, corporate repentance has been neglected, so we ought to expect that reformation has followed a similar path. Instead, returning to and maintaining the status quo has been the greatest desire of the day.
One of the areas, if not the chief area, of need for reform concerns the form and function of our churches. This begins first by understanding what the church is (form) and then what happens when believers gather (function). The opportunity to realize the need for reform came at the beginning of the pandemic. The response to the virus, nearly worldwide, exposed just how fragile our traditions and preferences have become.
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against itMatthew 16:18However, this verse from our Lord guarantees that Christ’s Church is NOT fragile, it never waivers or waffles, it’s not weakened or shuttered. It is sealed with the promise of victory in Christ. Even when she faces persecution, Scripture and history both show that these are the times when growth happens most. Kill the Christ? He’ll resurrect Himself. Can’t meet at the temple? We’ll meet in a locked upper room. Murdering Christians on sight? We’ll gather in catacombs. Kick out all of the preachers on a single day? We’ll preach in the woods or barns. Order the doors shut because of a virus? We’ll all go home and sit on our couches.
What should have been viewed, through God’s providence and in the light of Scripture, as an opportunity to reexamine everything and bring our practices back into line with Scripture was instead viewed as a momentary speed bump that required an online/virtual work around.
Just consider this for a moment.
Participation, fellowship, and exercise of spiritual gifts were considered non-essential, that let’s you know what priority they had been given prior to the pandemic. Instead, sitting on the couch and watching a sermon on a screen was considered worship. The former are the Scriptural backbone to believer’s gatherings in Scripture. The latter is a facade.
Evidence that confusion over the form and function of our churches abounds can be seen by simply observing a few examples from the interactions of those who have assumed themselves as evangelical leaders (Big Eva) for short.
First, early on in the pandemic response these Big Eva leaders had intramural debates on what constitutes a meeting of the church. Some held fast to the belief that the church building (you won’t find that in Scripture) was essential, while others were more willing to move their gatherings outdoors or into homes (others virtual, as previously stated). Within this debate, and you can see it, was the one side who wanted to maintain the status quo, i.e. keep doing what has always been done chiefly by meeting in their building and under the banner of their church sign while the other side was willing to be more flexible in abandoning the building and looking for alternatives. These choices were couched in decisions on whether to rebel against the State mandates for church (building) doors to be closed*, which is a running theme here.
The second example from these self-assumed leaders is that some of the larger mega-churches** elected to split up into smaller congregations allowing people to continue meeting and fellowshipping with one another. One might first question how a gathering of mega-church size would ever be able to foster fellowship or allow for the exercise of gifts when the body meets (1 Corinthians 14:26-40), but that was not the point of contention made within this debate. Their opponents countered this decision by questioning whether a church of 10,000 attendees could biblically split into smaller congregations of say 10-15. Questions lobbed to these churches were along the lines of whether any of these small house churches were in rebellion against Jesus through their structure or even in ecclesiasitical rebellion; whether they had that many qualified elders to lead each one; whether each group observed the ordinances (again assuming the need for
Third, and more recently, the debate has arisen over the purpose of church or what we’re simply summarizing as the function. On the one side of the debate, another mega-church who is currently unable to meet in their building due to State regulations has [mentally] combined the idea of worship and the building, concluding that without the latter the former cannot take place. Subsequently, they have summarized the function of the church as having five distinct parts, of which worship is one, alongside ministry, mission, fellowship, and discipleship. The question might come up, how or in what ways does one define those parts but as it is they remain undefined and in reality are general enough that they could mean anything. In opposition to this view, one detractor has spoken out against them by questioning whether discipleship and fellowship (let alone ministry and mission) can occur anywhere but a Sunday morning church building by listening to a sermon. Furthermore, he asserts that the main purpose for a gathering is itself to worship.
This of course brings up a question that he has not defined, what is worship? While not explicitly defining it, he goes on to say that the worship which is described in Revelation ought to be mirrored, although imperfectly, here on earth. But again, the question comes up does Scripture anywhere command (prescribe) or describe that as a requirement? Also, in Revelation we don’t find a sermon being preached rather we find singing and prostration before the holy God.
In this brief summary we ought to note what each of these disagreements were over: Building, Form, and Function. It is fascinating that the majority of leaders within evangelicalism, particularly the reformed wing, ascribe to the sufficiency of Scripture, but not one of them appealed directly or even coherently to Scripture in order to explain and apply what they say about Christ’s ecclesia. Though it is taking me a bit longer than expected, I knew early on that these questions would come up precisely because of the pandemic response and have attempted to answer each one in our ongoing series through the book of Acts specifically addressing each of these points. (Get caught up here: When You Come Together)
The fascinating thing in each of these examples and their subsequent debates is not that these leaders on either side were defending their positions based on Scripture, rather that those who had made their decisions did so to accommodate the State’s mandates restricting church gatherings and those who opposed their decisions did so on the basis of their own ecclesiastical tradition or opinions.
It’s no wonder we are in the mess we are in.
Our self-assumed evangelical leaders – and by the way I’m mainly focusing on those within the reformed community, do not even know what the church is or how it is to function when it gathers. I am not trying to be overly critical or argumentative for the sake of argument or even asserting that I have all the answers – God knows I don’t, but when God shuts the doors (literally) to how we have been operating then perhaps it should serve as a wake up call to repent and return to the Scriptures to see if we are in-line with His Word.
This past year was an opportunity for reform, much like those opportunities that had been given to Israel time and time again, yet like them I’m afraid we have ignored the warnings and missed the opportunity. Make no mistake about it, should the Lord be leading us into widespread persecution in the West, He will lead us into reform. Like the old saying goes, we can do this the easy way or the hard way. Unfortunately because we are sinners, it usually takes the hard way to get our attention.
Soli Deo Gloria *The irony here is that all parties within this debate accepted Paycheck Protection Program loans from the State as compensation for being closed. I’ve covered that here Caught in the In-Between.
**Generally speaking a mega-church is defined by a weekly attendance of greater than 2,000 people.