All posts by John

Christian saved by grace through faith.

What is Church?

 

What is Church? (notice I’ve left out the article “the” commonly placed in front, The church)

Since 2014, this is a question that I have been wrestling with, wading through the slough of opinions and the trappings of tradition to look at what Scripture has to say.  Some have considered this to be an inappropriate question to even consider, yet it is the same question asked by James Bannerman in his magnum opus The Church of Christ and it is the same question asked by Edmund Clowney in his own study of the Doctrine of the Church.  Pick up any systematic theology, turn to the chapter on church, and they’ll begin with the same question-any proper study of the Church must begin with this question.  In fact, on a more basic, practical level, every believer must ask and further define this question based on Scripture to know what it is they are to participate in and how.

Why is it important?  Understanding this question and answering it according to Scripture determines whether you are Roman Catholic or Protestant or other for that matter.  It determines whether you include as God’s people: all of the elect of God, or simply those post-Pentecost, i.e. whether there are Two Peoples or One People of God.  It determines what denomination you identify with and whether you believe in credo-baptism vs. paedo-baptism.  It answers whether the church is the Kingdom.  If you are a Millennial and have “left the church”, properly answering this question lets you know your actions are an impossibility.  It brings resolution to many of the dichotomies that exist in matters of religion, particularly those who identify with or at least outwardly profess Christ.

On a practical level, a dear friend of mine recently left Christianity for the Roman Catholic Church (<–see that?) because she thought the church out of Rome was more biblical because it was older, historic, and built upon the apostles (no, no, and no).  Further, the “Bible Answer Man” recently left Christianity for the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church (<–see that again?) because he too came to view the answer to “What is church?” as being in-line with the EOCC.  In just these examples, the creep of tradition is evident.

Asking this question matters.  Answering it biblically matters more.

We may be easily tempted to shrug off a question like this or to simply assume that church is what it has always been.  But notice how that assumption played out in the examples above.

What if our modern conception of church, i.e. what we see and have experienced, is not what Scripture has defined?  Then what?  What if over the centuries we have, perhaps even unknowingly, allowed the layers of tradition to creep in and obscure what church really is or supposed to be?  I would suggest that largely our individual understanding of church has most often been influenced by our experience, followed closely by society, with Scripture well down the line behind family and preference.

Case in point, consider how you would answer the following questions:

  • Is church primarily a location? (architectural)
  • Is church primarily an event? (institutional)
  • Is church primarily an identity? (congregational)
  • Or is it a combination of all three?

The source for answering these questions should be Scripture, as the final authority in matters of faith and practice (Sola Scriptura) and where we should turn principally.  But what happens if we do that and find something different than what we are used to seeing?  Are we willing to change what we think and do to be more inline with what God has revealed?  If we find this to be the case, it would require a certain amount of swimming upstream, against the popular tide and we know the purpose of salmon swimming upstream.

Consider now how we use the word church particularly in the West.  What church do you go to?  Did you go to church on  Sunday?  How was church this morning?  We are just getting out of church.  Would you like to go to church with me?  There’s Purpose-Driven Church,  The Emerging Church, the aforementioned Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church, the Mormon (LDS) Church, The Church of England, the Southern Baptist Church, the Ecumenical Church. We build churches, plant churches, reform and revitalize churches.  We have un-churched, de-churched, and churched.  As I look out my window at work I see 5 “churches”.  If I were to ask someone to walk down the block to the next church, they would stop at a building.  Relatedly, we have terms like church staff, church secretary, church membership, someone who cleans the church, church maintenance, church budget, church mortgage, and increasingly popular is the notion that an individual can be the church….and on we go.  The variety and meaning with which we use the word church is broad.  Just simply look at the dictionary definition used in the post header.

Perhaps we have let our use of the word church determine its meaning, not all to uncommon these days where we can make words mean what we want. Contrary to this thought, words do have defined meaning and origin.  This is true across the board, but most certainly with biblical words, sometimes those found in our translations, but more importantly those found in the original biblical languages.  A wise man once told my my interpretation is only as good as my translation.  A thought to ponder for another day.

Before we take time to examine the etymology of church and more importantly how it is defined in Scripture, simply consider whether this question is an important one to raise.  Is it important for us to know what (or who) church is?  Is it important for us to biblically define what many of us have been apart of for most of our lives?

An additional reason for why this question matters is that it effects how one addresses these points on the form and function of church:

  • The mission of church
  • The governance of church
  • The people of church
  • The “marks” of church
  • The order or operation of church

Each of these depends on properly answering the question, what is church?

In summary, can we come up with a loose understanding of what church is based on some of the scattered thoughts above about how church is used in our modern vernacular?  It may look something like below:

Church is _______________

  • A religious building
  • A religious organization (may or may not be truly Christian)
  • A religious meeting
  • A religious people
  • A religious institution
  • A recurring religious event
  • A particular religious denomination
  • A tax-exempt religious business

*Note: I’ve simply used the word “religious” to highlight that church is never used in a generic sense (or at least rarely), but that it carries a certain religious connotation.  This isn’t a post about Jesus being anti-religion or that Christianity is about a relationship and not a religion.*

In the next post, we’ll look at the origin of the word church and whether or not its usage corresponds with the Greek word ekklesia, translated as as church in the English bibles.

 

 

 

Twin Implications of Original Sin

 

Having examined the doctrine of original sin, along with some of the more common objections levied against it, we turn now towards two implications that flow naturally from this neglected, yet profoundly significant Scriptural teaching.  These twin implications are the Doctrine of Total Depravity and the Doctrine of Total Inability.

As with original sin, these daughter doctrines are usually objected against strongly.  Often, some will affirm original sin, yet emphatically deny her two offspring, certainly an inconsistency, but perhaps most likely the fruit of failing to think deeply on the things of God.  Bear in mind, though I’m using the word doctrine rather freely, it shouldn’t be thought of as academic, high-browed, or otherwise reserved for the theologian.  In a sense, we are all theologians (students of God, i.e. disciples) and doctrine is simply shorthand for the “teaching of Scripture” as in 1 Timothy 4:16.

The much maligned doctrine of total depravity refers to the influence that original sin has had on an individual’s human nature, specifically corruption.  We can think of it like this, if we have a glass of water and add to it a drop of cyanide, the entire glass is polluted.

Is it as polluted as it could be?  No.  It certainly could be at a higher percentage of cyanide, but it is nevertheless polluted, completely.  Could you spoon out a little corner of the water that was untainted?  No.  Some have summarized total depravity as corruption, “not in degree, but in extent”.  Additionally, all of our faculties have been corrupted, from our exterior bodies and members to our interior thoughts, will, and desires.

Biblically, Romans 3 is the locus classicus on total depravity:

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
11     no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
    they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14     “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16     in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

I’ve discussed this passage elsewhere, particularly the trajectory that the Apostle moves along from the mind, to the mouth, to the hands.

A.W. Pink summarizes:

The doctrine of total depravity is a very humbling one. It is not that man leans to one side and needs propping up, nor that he is merely ignorant and requires instructing, nor that he is run down and calls for a tonic: but rather that he is undone, lost, spiritually dead. Consequently, he is “without strength,” thoroughly incapable of bettering himself; exposed to the wrath of God, and unable to perform a single work which can find acceptance with Him. Almost every page of the Bible bears witness to this truth. The whole scheme of redemption takes it for granted. The plan of salvation taught in the Scriptures could have no place on any other supposition. The impossibility of any man’s gaining the approbation of God by works of his own appears plainly in the case of the rich young ruler who came to Christ. Judged by human standards, he was a model of virtue and religious attainments, yet, like all others who trust in self-efforts, he was ignorant of the spirituality and strictness of God’s Law, and when Christ put him to the test his fair expectations were blown to the winds, and “he went away sorrowful” (Matt. 19:22).

As to the doctrine of total inability, this refers to man’s incapacity to improve his standing with God through his own efforts, will, or exercise of his volition apart from the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit to renew the heart, changing both the affections and the will.  When God says in Ephesians 2 that man is dead in his trespasses and transgressions, this implies the doctrine of total inability.  Dead men cannot choose God.

To clarify a common misconception regarding the will, man still retains his “free will”.  He is not a robot.  However, his will is consistently bent towards sin.  He is so comfortable in it, he lacks the desire to do anything otherwise.  In his own, unregenerate “free-will” he cannot and would not choose God, a total inability.

Turning again to Pink we read:

Fearful indeed are the effects of this darkness. Its subjects are rendered incapable of discerning or receiving spiritual things, so that there is a total inability with respect unto God and the ways of pleasing Him. No matter how well endowed intellectually the unregenerate man may be, what the extent of his education and learning, how skillful in connection with natural things, in spiritual matters he is devoid of intelligence until he is renewed in the spirit of his mind. As a person who lacks the power of seeing is incapable of being impressed by the strongest rays of light reflected upon him, and cannot form any real ideas of the appearance of things, so the natural man, by reason of this blindness of mind, is unable to discern the nature of heavenly things.

If we misunderstand Original Sin and subsequently Total Depravity and Total Inability we misunderstand grace, ultimately the Gospel.  It is a front line issue.  A failure to understand the sinfulness of man and rightly explain it in a biblical manner has been a great malady throughout the history of the church.  The remedy is coming face to face with the holiness of the Sovereign God.

For more see these posts:

http://voiceoftruthblog.com/sermon-total-depravity-voddie-baucham

This post summarizes several posts, including answering some key objections brought against it.

http://voiceoftruthblog.com/summarizing-total-inability

 

Thinking about Church

 

Since 2014, I’ve had ebbs and flows in my thoughts regarding the church.  When I lay aside these studies, they inevitably come back seeking further clarity and resolution until I grow weary and lay them down again.  Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

In that year, I was taking a seminary course called the Doctrine of the Church where we looked at every single use of “church” in the Scriptures.  Note that I didn’t simply say use of church in the New Testament.  That’s because the Greek word, ekklesia, translated church in our English Bibles (a poor translation by the way), is also in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) quite frequently.  It is a common translation of the Hebrew word qahal, which our English Bibles translate as assembly or congregation (hold on to that).

So the concept of ekklesia, or what we read translated as church, is not an entirely New Testament idea.  We must also allow the Old Testament to inform our understanding of how we define church.  Want a practical implication of this?—How often have you been taught that the church was formed at Pentecost?  Really?  Then we need to explain how the church was in the wilderness with Moses, as described by Stephen in Acts 7:38 as well as the more than 100 times ekklesia appears in the Greek Septuagint.  There is both continuity and discontinuity from Old to New Testaments regarding ekklesia.

I’ll hope to unpack all this in the future, but for now I simply want to lay out some thoughts or better, questions, much like I did in the post “Who or What determines how you worship?”  As there, so also here, the Scriptures must be our final authority.

  1. What is an ekklesia?
  2. What is the church? A building, event, identity, or other (denomination)?
  3. Does church require a building?
  4. Can we leave the church?
  5. Can you become a member of a church?
  6. Who runs the church?
  7. Is the church a 501c organization?
  8. Is the church universal?
  9. Is the church invisible?
  10. Is the church an institution?
  11. Is church history monolithic?
  12. Is Christ building His church eschatological?
  13. What does Christ intend to communicate to Peter (and us) by the statement, “Feed my sheep”?
  14. Is there a biblical distinction or hierarchy between clergy and laity?
  15. Are “pastors” the only preachers?
  16. What is preaching?
  17. What is teaching?
  18. Is pastoring a profession/vocation?
  19. Is a formal seminary education required to “pastor” or preach?
  20. Is church a worship service?
  21. Is church participatory or non-participatory?
  22. What are the implications of 1 Corinthians 14:26-33 on our churches?
  23. Where did our modern expression of church come from, Scripture or tradition?
  24. Can we build a church?
  25. Can we plant a church?

What about you?  What are you thoughts on church?  Have you thought about it with Scripture as your guide?  Have you wrestled with what you see versus what Scripture describes?  Have you ever stopped to ask, wait…now why are we doing this?

My goal is not to ask why as an end to itself.  My goal is to more conform my life to the Word of Almighty God and participate in His ekklesia as He has directed.