Recently a brother wrote to me needing to answer the following question:
What is the heavenly vision or call of the church? People I speak to want to know what is the purpose of the church? I have spent a lot of time reading and thinking about this question, but what is the best approach or angle to take when answering? I believe it’s a very important question that I should be able to answer when I’m asked.
This question affects a lot of things. What should be our focus as a local church? The gospel, soup kitchens, ending poverty (social gospel), trying to change culture, etc.
My answer: The true Church – and what it is in the Sight of Men
I have been giving more thought to this question. We need to see what the church is in the sight of Christ – which is the true Church – and what it is in the sight of men – a religion here.
Before starting, Christians must realise that their calling is a heavenly one. ‘Wherefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus’ (Heb 3:1).
The Greek word ἐκκλησίᾳ /ekklēsia/Strong 1577 . The word implies people called out from the world and to God, the outcome being the Church or assembly comprised of all believers formed into one by the Holy Spirit. It is viewed as the body of Christ and also the habitation of God. In a more general sense. it meant simply assembly – e.g. calling together for a civil function. Incidentally, the English word ‘church’ or German ‘Kirche’ comes from the Greek word κυριακός/kyriakos/Strong 2960, ‘belonging to the Lord’ (kyrios), the French ‘église’ from ‘ekklēsia’. The Hebrew word ‘קָהָל/qahal/Strong H6951’ has a similar meaning.
We must recognise the direct role of the Spirit of God. It has been said that the Holy Spirit ‘is here; but He has taken a lowly place, . . .and has been here on earth for over 1,900 years in that lowliness. He maintains what is due to God according to what God is in heaven; there is a perfect answer to that in the presence of the Spirit down here, and the Spirit is here in the assembly; and that brings out the greatness of the assembly’s place too, but nevertheless the assembly is never part of the Deity.’ and ‘The assembly is nearest to Deity in the whole realm. What is sovereign is seen in the assembly.’ [*] That being the case what has the assembly to do with the things of this world?
The Church in the Sight of Christ
The church is a perfect vessel (for the want of a better word), formed exclusively of saints worked on by the Spirit of God, apart from sin. It has been said that it is of heaven in origin and destiny. It is here in the body of Christ and its hope is totally towards Jesus – as a bride is towards her bridegroom. Her desire is to be with Him – and therefore has no part here. But she does care for His interests here. His interests are what is for Him, His glory and to worship the Father, and for the members of His body to point to Him. The church’s view is God-ward, not man-ward.
Ministry is for those of the church universally (as there is only one church) – ‘we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness’. (Romans 12:5-7)
The fact that it is ‘called out’ is important. If it is ‘called out’ it cannot be ‘part of’. Over the centuries Christians have been called out of every other religious organisation – in the earliest days Judaism and paganism, later Catholicism, later nationally established churches, later clericalism, and more recently social liberalism, charismatic Christendom or systematic legalism. Importantly, if we are called out of something, we cannot reform it. It is in the attempt to reform the old lump that Christians have become unstuck.
2 Corinthians 6:14-17 makes this clear ‘Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.’
This brings me to:
The Church in the Sight of Man
This is something different, and different people will have different ideas.
1. A group of disparate organisations with common central beliefs and many interpretations, grouped together loosely for example in the World Council of Churches – sometimes preaching the gospel.
2 A humanitarian force for good, seeking to make the world a better place, while preaching a gospel, but not always the gospel.
3. A place of religious exhilaration and excitement with rousing music – usually with the gospel but this is sometimes distorted – or a liberal ‘inclusive’ community – no matter what the bible says.
4. Beautiful buildings, ornate robes and trained choirs, with or without the gospel
5. A system of contention and oppression, having a form of piety but denying the power of it.
Many Christians see their role and that of their ‘local church’ in terms of no 2 above, preaching the gospel, having a good church community engaged in the support of local and other needs. But think of it – it is an earthly Christianity. Whilst there are many genuine believers, sorry to say that in some places the gospel has been corrupted to salvation (if such a thought exists) through works and presenting Jesus just a Model. This is hardly Christian. I see it differently, as should all true lovers of our Lord Jesus.
So where does that leave true Christians?
Christians should do good works – towards the Lord, towards each other and towards their fellow human beings. They do this because they love their Lord and that is what He would have them to do. They are not interested in politics – national politics, charity politics or church politics. They do what the Lord gives them to do: However, they don’t do this as part of the Church, they do it as individuals.
Admittedly, Christians can work with others (informally or in registered charities) to humanitarian ends – the relief of poverty, helping those who are sick or mentally unstable, being of support to victims of crime or raising funds for such activities. Some of those with whom they might co-operate with may not be believers – so this cannot be part of the Church activity. Some might be shocked at the thought, but if it is the function of a church community, it might be a misguided one or not even a Christian one. It is not a function of the body of Christ.
Of course, it is better if those who are working together have confidence in one another. If they gather regularly from the same Christian assembly, they will no doubt know one another well and be able to work together better. They may even use their meeting hall (what is a building anyway? – a person or a trust has provided a place for saints to gather)– but this is not the local assembly doing it, and should never be thought of as such,
I could go further, and this might be a bit difficult to grasp. When it comes to testimony the church’s service is heavenward, not earthward (indeed if we look at the testimony of the public church it is ruin and confusion). Paul wrote ’in order that now to the principalities and authorities in the heavenlies might be made known through the assembly the all-various wisdom of God’ (Ephesians 3:10 Darby). It follows that preaching the gospel, or teaching (indeed what I am doing now) comes into the individual service – the Lord commissioned His disciples to out individually. As they did the church grew.
The church doesn’t preach; the church doesn’t teach. Christians do both.
I trust this helps. I am conscious that not all will agree totally with what I have written. However I do believe sincerely that it is accordance with scripture (which is infallible), and also the teachings of that servant of God, John Nelson Darby (not infallible) please feel free to write your comments below (or email me directly if you prefer). firstname.lastname@example.org or my personal email.
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