I am prompted to write an article on the church, owing to a number of comments made to me, and internet articles that I’ve read recently, that reflect what seems to be new thinking regarding the role and form of a local church. Because this new thinking has some serious implications as to the nature of what we may see of church in America in the future, I felt it relevant to jot down my reflections of church.
A person that I knew from early on in life became a local celebrity in Portland for her authorship of a article about her problems with church (click here to read). Though the title is “How to Survive Church”, it would be more appropriately titled “How to survive in spite of church”). In this article, Becky P. describes her problems with her childhood church, and subsequent churches that she has attended. Her final solution was essentially to not take church so seriously. She states in conclusion

I’ve also learned what not to expect from church. In the past, my whole life–family, friendships, social activities, vacations, even employment–revolved around church. As a result, church crises impacted every aspect of my life, and leaving a church meant losing my entire support system. Church is still an important part of my life, but it’s no longer the center of every friendship or endeavor. I interact more with the world around me and pursue relationships outside of, as well as within, my church. Most important, I’ve learned not to put too much stock in human institutions or leaders, who will inevitably let me down. Psalm 118:8 reminds me, “It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.”

I had always wanted to give Becky feedback since I feel that her conclusions are not only quite dangerous, but just the opposite of what Christ wishes for us to experience with the church, and what I’ve been able to experience the last 16 years. Over the past few years, I’ve learned that

  • church is my high-point of the week
  • church is the most relevant activity that I do
  • church as a formal structure is far more delightful than as an informal structure
  • church is where my worship is at its highest and where I am closest to God
  • church is where I best see myself for who I really am and God for who He really is
  • I survive because of church and not in spite of church

In essence, I am offering a 180° counterpoint to Becky P. Perhaps I should begin with Scripture references to orient and set a reference of how I view church.

One thing I have asked of the Lord, that will I seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. Psalm 27:4

How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts. My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God… Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise… For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. i would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God that dwell in the tents of wickedness. From Psalm 84
I was glad when they said to me “Let us go to the house of the Lord” Psalm 122:1

A few relevant theological & historical points need to be made.

  • Unlike dispensationalists and other new-church thinkers, I consider the Old and New Testaments to be one book, describing one set of behaviors, by a single God with a single similar character and expectations in the Old and New Testaments.We can thus consider any model of “church” or temple worship in the Old Testament as reflective of the similar form of worship we should be offering corporately at this time.
  • I cannot find ever in early church history where church was modeled as house micro-churches. Because of structural limitations, churches were not huge, but Christians always, I repeat, always, built churches or larger structures when the law and absence of persecution permitted it. In the apostolic age before the fall of the temple, worship still continued for Christians in the temple!
  • Throughout church history, God always worked through the greater visible church, and not through autonomous individuals. This is not to say that he did not use individuals, or that these individuals never went against the belief structure, but that these individuals always functioned as though part of the greater church.

Biblical and historical references have gone by the wayside in an age where the church and post-modernism have become dear friends so that many people are rethinking and speaking out or writing about new concepts of church. The so-called cell group as a during-the-week extension of church has been turned into “church” itself. Hypocrisy and ill-sought gain of many clergies have led many to disavow many of any possibility of clergy in their life. Therapeutic models of church have been found to have the same efficacy as voodoo medicine, and unhealed people conclude that church no longer has a purpose. Entertainment and seeker models of church have worn themselves thin, as electronic and television churches provide an ample replacement, in the convenience of ones’ own home, sipping coffee and eating donuts in a lounge chair while receiving the weekly heavenly instructions and motivations for life. Some will expect church to be a quasi-paradise where theology is all non-controversial and people get along with such contentment for each other that one would think they were at an LSD party —only to discover the truth of Luther (simul justis et peccator), that all Christians are hypocrites and sinners, oftentimes worse than one would encounter on the street, and thus justifying an exit from fellowship with all but a few chosen believers in the comfort of ones’ own home, or at the local coffeehouse or breakfast restaurant.
And so church goes by the wayside. Church has been found wanting, and Christians who desire true worship have found that they must create that environment for themselves. They may still attend church, mostly out of guilt of needing to follow Biblical instructions to not forsake the assembly of other Christians, yet their true worship is found in the loneliness of their private time, one-on-one, tete a tete, with God. If a given church fails to meet ones’ needs, or if it proves either controversial or too impersonal, then one can simply pack their bags and go church-shopping for a fellowship that most satisfies an individuals’ personality. The smorgasbord of churches is huge. There are mega-churches and tiny 2-3 family fellowships struggling for existence. There are young-upstart-meet in a local school building churches, middle age churches, and dying or dwindling churches. There are churches of entertainment, churches with almost no structure to the liturgy, high churches with a rigid structure and formality, pastor as big-screen television church, pastor as gee-I’m everybody’s friend church, pastor as layperson struggling to survive church. Churches could be oriented around football and sports, movies and entertainment, drama and music; you can find special interests group churches, politically oriented churches, environmental churches, god-save-America-gee-I-love-my-country churches, commie-pinko-freak churches, social justice “feed the poor” churches, and even wife-swapping churches. All of these churches are filled with members that consider themselves not only Christians but evangelical and with a higher plane of spirituality than the hoi polloi of this world. Yet all of them are doing everything but what a church should do, so it’s no wonder that church itself is driving many sincere folks away.
What then should church be? I could do no better than to quote J.G. Machen, the last paragraph of his seminal book Christianity and Liberalism. He states…

Is there no refuge from strife? Is there no place of refreshing where a man can prepare for the battle of life? Is there no place where two or three can gather in Jesus’ name, to forget for the moment all those things that divide nation from nation and race from race, to forget human pride, to forget the passions of war, to forget the puzzling problems of industrial strife, and to unite in overflowing gratitude at the foot of the Cross? If there be such a place then that is the house of God and that the gate of heaven. And from under the threshold of that house will go forth a river that will revive the weary world.

Scripture establishes the nature and order of a church. Berkhof in his Systematic Theology describes the marks of a church in particular, being 1) the true preaching of the Word, 2) the right administration of the sacraments, 3) the faithful exercise of discipline. We will deal briefly with each of these issues. Regarding true preaching of the Word, this discriminates against heretical churches such as the Mormon church of Jehovah’s Witness, where a false gospel is being offered, or a false Christ. Preaching is the cornerstone of a church service, and about which all revolves. It is here that we offer respect to Scriptures as being alone our motivation, our driving influence, and God speaking directly to us. In the modern church, the message is more often conveyed in other portions of the service, such as the music, the drama, or the personal worship/fellowship time, yet the administration of Gods’ Word is the entire pivotal portion of a service. Too often, a preacher will read a Scripture passage, yet the sermon will be on everything but an attempt to expound the meaning of that Scripture to us. Those are false preachers, preaching of themselves, rather than solely of Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The administration of the sacraments have taken an enormous hit in recent times, since “new-think” tells us that the sacraments are devoid of meaning or significance. In regard to the sacraments, I am referring to baptism, the eucharist (communion) and marriage, and not the extended sacraments of Rome. While the Roman Catholic Church has turned the Sacraments into something too much, almost magic, the Protestants have progressively devalued the sacraments into an optional, ritualistic activity symbolic of corrupt institutionalized denominations. They have de-sacralized the sacraments by allowing the administration of the sacraments in a casual fashion by laity and clergy alike, so that you could be baptized by your favorite person, rather than a minister of the church, or have a communion session in a coffee shop with friends. My scriptural basis for the sacraments is found in the orderliness of ecclesiastical practice as described in the NT, noted throughout Paul’s and Peter’s epistles, as well as the even stronger example of the OT, where professional clergy were strictly described. It is a grave error to consider that the OT does NOT provide instruction regarding our liturgy and administration of our sacraments. Finally, the church administers discipline for the growth of the body of believers. Ecclesiastical discipline has been truly been demoted in both the Catholic and Protestant churches, now that you have a supermarket of churches all competing for your attendance and possible donations. To remove oneself from the possibility of discipline would be to remove oneself from anything that you could legitimately call church.
Before I end my statement on church, I will note that church models have been everything that is described in Scripture. The growth of mega-churches leaves one wondering why they even waste calling themselves “church”, save that a church can impose God’s wrath as a threat for encouraging financial giving or tithing. The pastor of many churches nowadays serves more as an administrator than a godly messenger conveying and opening Scripture up to the congregation. It is no wonder that church services leave most people feeling empty, something that must be made up with the smaller cell-group meetings or an individuals’ quiet time. It is no wonder that church has taken such a serious hit in recent years.
The church has weathered many storms, and it will weather the current onslaught or accused irrelevancy. I bring to mind a great Anglican priest and songwriter, Samuel Stone, who grew up in south London as a pugilist (boxer) until his conversion. He went into the ministry, working with the roughest and meanest folk in London. It was said that he once even boxed a disorderly parishioner, knocking them out, but later apologizing for that. He wrote the following song as a glorification of the institution that we have now so bitterly devalued.  Stone was a high-churchman. He was not speaking of the fad of do-it-yourself church-ism. He was referring to the grand visible institution of the church of which he was a very dear part.

The Church’s one foundation
is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is his new creation,
by water and the word:
from heaven he came and sought her
to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her,
and for her life he died.
Elect from every nation,
yet one o’er all the earth,
her charter of salvation,
one Lord, one faith, one birth;
one holy Name she blesses,
partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses,
with every grace endued.

It is in the third and fourth verses that Stone speaks of a heresy going on in the Anglican church in South Africa during the 1860s. The church has taken many beatings and will receive many more until the Lord returns, yet Christ’s body will continue to the end.

Though with a scornful wonder
men see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed;
yet saints their watch are keeping,
their cry goes up, “How long?”
and soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.
Mid toil and tribulation,
and tumult of her war
she waits the consummation
of peace for evermore;
till with the vision glorious
her longing eyes are blessed,
and the great Church victorious
shall be the Church at rest.

The last verse concludes with the proper view of church. It is mystical, yet ordinary. It is an exercise of living with Saints before the face of God. It is an entirely imperfect experience on earth, but reflective of an entirely perfect experience in the life to come. For those who choose to remove themselves from church, to devalue church, or to redefine church as anything less than this description of the church given by Samuel Stone will be all the worse off, and to be pitied indeed.

Yet she on earth hath union
with God, the Three in one,
and mystic sweet communion
with those whose rest is won.
O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
like them, the meek and lowly,
on high may dwell with thee.

I conclude with a plead for individuals to return to a grander image of the church, and for the church to return to a grander image of itself. Our frustration with church should manifest itself by correcting our vision of what a church is, and then encouraging the church leaders to do the same. It is to seek for a church that has a high view of itself, and to be involved. It is not to expect the church to be therapeutic or non-hypocritical, but to be reflective of our own sinful state, a place where together with other sinners we can worship and pray and glorify the God of heaven. May God grant us the view of the church of JG Machen or Samuel Stone, and we will realize that we survive not in spite of the church, but rather because of the church.