THE SIMPLICITY OF THE CHURCH
In the Bible the Church is called "God's husbandry," "the body of Christ," and the "household of Christ." ( I Cor. 3:9, 12:13; Heb. 3:6). It is also called His bride and a wife (Rev. 19:7-9, 21-2, 9; Eph. 5:22-33). It is evident that these are all simple examples given to help us understand that the church is a spiritual entity, not a building or a human organization. This is probably the most common error found among Christians. It is important that we realize that the church of Jesus Christ is basically and primarily spiritual.
When Peter confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus responded by promising to build His church on the solid "rock" of this great truth (Mt. 16:13-18). According to the New Testament, a person who has recognized, as Peter did, that Jesus is the Christ, and who trusts in Him by faith as Savior and Lord, is "born again." (John 3:1-17). This new birth is a spiritual experience that opens the believers heart to the Spirit of God, who then enters that heart and dwells there. This believer is then a "priest" of God and enjoys direct access into the holy presence of God (I Peter 2:5, 9; Heb. 4:16). This relationship of an individual with Christ is clearly a spiritual relationship, and Jesus joins together individuals who have this faith in Him into a spiritual body- -His church.
The scriptures give us only three requirements for a church. First, there must be personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior which brings the new birth. Then there must be at least two individuals that share that faith. One person cannot be a church, since a church is made up of "living stones" and is a body with "members" (I Peter 2:5, I Cor. 12:12). The third requirement f or a church is that the believers must commit themselves to Him and to each other. Christ is the head of the church. Without commitment and submission to Him, there can be no church. The Lord draws certain believers together in a special relationship which the Bible calls being "built together" (Eph. 2:22). Christ Himself brings Christians together in this relationship and directs them to care for each other (I Cor. 12:25-26). It is evident that a church like this is the work of God, and is not merely a human organization.
As you consider this teaching, you can see that there are many misunderstandings about the church. It is not a building, it is not a human organization, it is not headed by a man, and it does not require a particular group of "ordained" men or "clergymen." This does not mean that the church should not "ordain" leaders, or "separate unto the Gospel" those that have God given abilities to lead the church. Nor does it mean that people with no training or experience should be given responsibility in the church. When ordination serves as an evidence of spiritual gifts and serious study of the Word of God, it can be valuable to the church. When it becomes a badge of superiority or a religious "class" division it is a hindrance to the church. In any event, ordained men are supposed to be the servants of the church. Their presence may be valuable, but it is not essential to the survival of the church in times of persecution. Such leaders recognized by the government may be required to carry on many of the activities which are normally found in western style institutional churches today, such as performing a wedding or a funeral, but are these activities identified as basic functions of the church in the Bible?
The first thing we notice about the life of the believer in the scriptures is that he is expected to "live" his faith. The miracle of the new birth and the presence of the Holy Spirit in his heart should become evident in the way he lives his everyday life. Such basic principles as his submission to Christ and his commitment to the welfare of other believers are not to be just ideas, but they are to affect the way a Christian lives.
Suggested Discussion Questions:
1. What kind of "commitment" should Christians make to each other?
2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a nice building for the church to meet in?
3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having an ordained pastor?
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There seems to be four specific functions of the church identified in the Bible: the church is told to evangelize in Mt. 28:19; to disciple or train those who are evangelized in Mt. 28:20; to serve one another [which includes fellowshipping together] in Gal. 6:10; and to worship together in John 4:23. There are other verses which teach these same functions, but all other activities of the church should be able to be summarized in these four.
If a person really has come to know Christ as his own Lord and Savior, he will want to share this wonderful experience with those he loves. It sometimes seems "hard" or "embarrassing" to share the Gospel with our friends and relatives. But if we really love them, and if we really believe that without Christ they will suffer for eternity separated from God, we will tell them, no matter how oppressive the culture or the political situation may be. Determined people can always find ways to share the Good News of salvation with their friends and loved ones. Sometimes it may even prove to be an advantage that it is not too easy to share the Gospel, because the words will have greater impact if a person has been able to see the testimony of a life changed by God before hearing the message. This reaching out to others with Gods plan of salvation is one of the most important evidences of our own relationship with God. It is also the primary function of the church.
Once we have seen a friend or loved one come to Christ we have a responsibility to see that they grow in the Lord. In the western institutional church we have a tendency to expect them to learn from the regular preaching services and we assume no additional responsibility. This has been a great failing. In some cultures if a man saves another man's life, he becomes responsible for the man he saved. This is a good concept for the Christian. If we lead someone else into new life in Christ, we are responsible to see that they learn what the Bible teaches about the Christian life. The Bible is so important to Christian growth that many Christians want to immediately give a Bible to anyone they may lead to the Lord. In some countries, like the former Soviet Union or mainland China, faithful Christians had to continue in the faith for years without Bibles, but it was very difficult. They had to depend on scripture verses that one of their number memorized at some earlier time, or perhaps heard on a Christian radio broadcast. The almost desperate hunger for the Bible among Christians who have been cut off from it for an extended period of time dramatically illustrates just how important the Bible is to Christian life. Believers in restricted countries become ingenious in finding ways to protect their Bibles and to be able to continue to study them. In some cases, they have even torn the binding apart so that each book of the Bible became a separate small pamphlet. Very few non-Christians could recognize the Bible in this form, if they are trying to destroy them, and it makes it possible for many people to be using one Bible at the same time. Whatever the circumstances may be it is very important that continuous study and review of Bible teaching becomes a part of the life of a new believer.
It is also important for Christians to spend time together to share their spiritual lives, encourage each other, and have fellowship. Satan wisely brings all his efforts to bear upon Christians to prevent this fellowship. He realizes that believers need to help and strengthen each other, so he will try to prevent it by simulating indifference or use the force of circumstances (Heb. 10: 24, 25). Even informal or casual meetings can be used of the Lord for this strengthening, especially when formal meetings and large group fellowships are forbidden. As Christians we need to be aware of the spiritual needs of others and sensitively seek to help our brothers and sisters in Christ at every opportunity. A word of encouragement or a small act of kindness may be the deciding factor in whether or not a struggling friend is able to stand against the enemy. Of course, large meetings can be useful, too. But normally, more help is given one-to-one or in small groups where specific needs can be discussed in depth. In this matter, as in the other functions we have discussed, Christians should take advantage of the traditional church meetings as much as possible, while recognizing that other forms and methods may also be used to fulfill this need.
All true believers recognize the privilege and responsibility to worship God. This worship begins in the heart of the believer when the Holy Spirit enters his being and grows and continues throughout his lifetime. Every believer should worship the Lord privately, as well as gathering together with other believers to worship whenever possible. We can worship the Lord because of who He is; because of what He has done in creation and redemption, and because of all that He has done for us individually. The Bible makes it clear that believers should worship, and why they should worship, but gives very little guidance as to how to worship. It is obvious that many of the forms of worship used in pagan religions (repetition of phrases, bowing to images, self-inflicted punishment of the body, bloody sacrifices, and other rituals) have no place in the church.
Worship in scripture seems to revolve around praising God. This is an act of the will not necessarily related to how a person "feels" or the immediate circumstances of life. In other words, we should praise the Lord even when things seem to be going wrong. This is an act of submission to His divine will and pleases the Lord (Ps. 67:3; Heb. 13:15; Isa. 12:1). Worship is evidently a matter of attitude that may be expressed outwardly in prayer, various bodily positions [such as kneeling], singing, etc. Music plays a very important part in the heartfelt worship of most believers.
Suggested Discussion Questions:
1. One church leader defines Evangelism as, "Presenting the Gospel in such a clear way that the hearer must either accept or reject Christ." Do you agree? Has your family been evangelized?
2. James 2:15-18 implies Christians should have a very practical fellowship. Have you considered this kind of responsibility?
3. How many different methods of worship can this group mention?
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In connection with worship we should mention the ordinances of the Lord's Supper and Baptism. Both can be very important parts of a worship time and should be observed whenever possible. It is interesting to note that both of these ordinances reveal all four of the functions of the church: they testify to others of our position in Christ [evangelism]; they help others to understand the basis for that position [teaching]; they bring Christians together in a shared experience [fellowship]; and they focus our attention upon Christ [worship]. With the exception of these two ordinances, the Bible deals very little with the possible methods through which these four functions may be expressed. The methods most widely used by the institutional churches today generally follow western patterns, and have drifted far from the simplicity found in the New Testament. The use of big buildings, complex organizations, involved programs, huge budgets that provide for schools, hospitals, orphanages and other social activities are only possible in financially strong unrestricted societies. Although the Lord has blessed these activities in many places in the world, we must recognize that they are not essential to the existence of the church. In some countries these activities are forbidden by the government, while in others, the local economic situation makes them impossible. Still the church can thrive, because it is not dependent on these things. Serious problems have arisen when Christians have become confused on this point. Several years ago, for example, some South Vietnamese Christian leaders thought that their lack of funds for buildings, etc., was the cause of the slow growth of Christianity there. On one occasion, the following conversation was overheard:
"Do you have Communists in your part of the country?" the observer asked.
"Most assuredly. They are there." the leader replied.
"Are they growing in numbers and influence?" he then inquired.
The leader hesitated momentarily, then admitted sadly, "Yes, they are growing very fast."
"Can you show me their meeting places, and schools or introduce me to their leaders?" the observer continued.
"Certainly not," the leader said in disgust. "If they were known, they would be arrested."
"You mean they are secret, without buildings or property and still they grow in number?" the observer asked in amazement.
"Yes. You could say that." the leader nodded.
"Then it must be that their growing influence does not depend on such things. If they can be wrong in their beliefs and still grow without money and buildings, why do you think the church of Jesus Christ needs these things?" The man concluded.
If God provides these things, then use them for His glory. If He does not, remember that the New Testament church had none of these things, but they turned their world upside down (Acts 17:6). The early Christians did not confuse the churchs functions with methods. If they had done so, the church would have died in the bondage of Jewish legalism. The early churches were not encumbered by the presence of buildings, nor hindered by the lack of them. They met in public places, when they were permitted to do so, but when they were not they went from house to house.
The Apostle Paul taught in the synagogues as long as they were open to him, but when he was expelled from there, he simply shifted to teaching in private homes. Sometimes he met with others at a river bank, or in the market place. There were no signs to point believers from other communities to a place of worship, but believers were able to find others with which to fellowship. The importance of such simple structure is evident in Acts 13:1-4.
The church of Antioch did not recognize any organizational authority between it and God. When the Holy Spirit led Paul and Barnabas out as missionaries, the Antioch church did not have to ask permission of someone else, and they were not encumbered by long-range programs. The church leaders simply prayed with them and sent them out. In those days, there were no mission boards, but there was great missionary activity. They did not have great financial resources, but as evangelists and missionaries ministered, their needs were met by local congregations. There were no seminaries and Bible schools, but the truth was committed to faithful men who in turn taught others (II Tim. 2:2).
The fact that the church can exist and carry on its functions of evangelism, teaching, fellowship and worship without dependence on physical forms and traditional methods is vitally important. This means that any group of believers, established by God, can survive victoriously in the most hostile environment. When forms and methods are confused with the functions of the church, they can become an obstacle. There are many places in the world today where the forms and methods most common to western Christianity are forbidden. Some people think that this means that the church cannot exist in those places. Not so! Many governments since the times of the Roman Empire have successfully suppressed outward forms and methods, but none have been able to destroy the church. If you will commit yourself to the biblical concept of the spiritual church, carrying out its functions in simple ways, you and your fellow believers will be a church that can survive victoriously under any circumstances.
Suggested Discussion Questions:
1. Some Christian groups call the Lord's Supper a sacrament or sacrifice. How can people be misled by these terms?
2. Consider the advantages and disadvantages of receiving financial help from other Christians in other places.
3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a church meeting in a private home?
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Many examples could be given of the ways that forces opposed to Christianity have attacked the institutional church. Consider the following actual experiences and decide how you would have dealt with them. Do you think a small informal church would have been able to deal more effectively with these situations?
Suggested Discussion Question:
Respond openly to each example and question asked above.
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