Saturday, June 4, 2016

What Is the Real Purpose of the Church?

Two incidents occurred to me recently that made me realize how much people do not realize what the purpose of the Church (as in universal) is versus the purpose of the church (as in the local body of believers that gather to worship). The first was a parody post that someone put on Facebook about a "Christian" family who could not understand why their daughter went astray when she left home, as they had faithfully taken her to church whenever there was not a sports game or other event which she needed to attend. This amounted to about four times a year plus the requisite Christmas and Easter services. This post sparked some dialogue among a few people. Now while this was meant as a parody, I can actually witness to the fact that there are people who do this very thing and wonder why their children have gone wrong, so in truth it was not a parody.

One of the first comments made was the following: "One cannot sensibly attend church if one does not have a vital relationship with Jesus Christ and his body, the Church."

On the face of it, one would be tempted to agree without thinking twice, for it is true, you are not going to get much out of a church service if you do not have a relationship with Jesus and are a part of the body of Christ. But what was meant by to "sensibly" attend church? Does it mean that you have to be there for every service? Does it mean that you have knowledge of the subject being taught? Does it mean you enter into a mystical experience? Does it mean that one can only get something out of attending if one has a relationship with Christ and the the Church universal? Or by "Church" did he  mean with the local body? What was this person's definition of Church (with the capital "C") and "sensibly"?

Now as I have seen and known more people than I care to admit attend church un-sensibly from the definition given above (having a relationship with Jesus), I wanted to follow up on that idea, so said the following: "It wouldn't matter if they had had her there every Sunday. Or had her enrolled in a Christian school to boot. A child doesn't really learn a relationship with Christ from attending church or going to a Christian school. A child learns to have a relationship with Christ from being trained at home on a 24/7 basis, and seeing their parents relationship with the Lord in constant action. One doesn't even have to attend church to teach a child to have a relationship with Christ. Look around at the Muslim and atheist countries where people might not be able to attend church. Yet they pass on their faith, because they are living it and their children see that."

A response to my comment was the following: "There is, however a dimension of this that is easy to miss: the church IS the Body of Christ and the effects of Jesus' Passion, death and resurrection are both personal AND communal. In my opinion, this is emphasized nowhere MORE clearly than in the letter of Paul to the Ephesians. Even in the countries you mention, there is at least some sort of fellowship occurring, and then there is the presence of the Church in the prayers of all the faithful around the world. One may not be able to attend a service under the circumstances you mention, but there truly is no such thing as a Christian outside the Church. Under ordinary circumstances, we NEED the fellowship to grow in holiness, to "come to full stature in Christ." I truly don't understand why a person cannot come to know Jesus through the church. Is not one of the reasons for the church the spread of the gospel? To help those who do know and love Jesus to grow in that love, and in the love of their neighbor? The couple may well be failing, but so also may the particular congregation to which they belong.

The first thing I noticed about this interchange was that this person equated the church (the local assembly) with the Church (universal - the Bride of Christ made up of regenerated individuals). That fallacy disturbed me. While that is what it should be, that is not what it is. The second thing I noticed would not normally have bothered me, but considering that this person equated the church with the Church, and from the context felt that a person had to attend church to be a Christian, I was concerned about the statement that "there truly is no such thing as a Christian outside the Church." Then the misunderstanding of what I said to interpret it to mean that I felt a person couldn't be saved by attending church bothered me. Following that was the statement that one of the reasons or purposes of the church is to spread the gospel, and that the congregation had failed the children. I was quite disturbed to see this individual had so misunderstood the purpose of the local assembly. I answered the individual on these points, but I would like to take a little more time to speak to them here as well as some other points.

A major problem was this individual's definition of church (as we view it today) vs. Church. I found out later that this person was a new Christian coming from the former background of a Catholic monk. This explained his lack of understanding of the difference, for what is taught in that denomination is that salvation comes through being a member of the denomination, which they believe is the only true Bride of Christ. Individual regeneration is not the issue in this church. Being born into it and maintaining the rituals, or converting to it by going through all the rituals, along with good works is the means of salvation, for they believe salvation comes through the denomination itself.  If you are not part of this church denomination, the denomination teaches that you cannot come to Christ through any other. They do not recognize it as merely a denomination, which is the crux of the matter. They actually believe it is the Bride of Christ established by Christ through Peter. This belief is not Scriptural in the least. Salvation comes through personal repentance, confession, and belief in Christ's sacrifices for your sins. This needs to be followed with a life lived in obedience to the Lord, enduring to the end. There are two ordinances that were given that we should also obey, which are baptism (by immersion - see my article on baptism, and partaking of the Lord's Supper (which is not transubstantiation or consubstantiation, but merely symbolic - see my article on Does the Eucharist Make Christians Cannibals, 

The definition of the Church, as in the Body or Bride of Christ is "the corporate body of individuals who have accepted the Lord as their personal Savior."  It is a group made up of people who may or may not know each other or worship together, but who all have accepted Jesus as their Savior. It has nothing to do with man-made institutions or organizations. It is a spiritual corporate body, not a physical one in the sense of an organization one can look at and see the individual members by enrollment. Only God truly knows the membership of the Church. The definition of a church (with a small "c") should be "a local assembly of believers who gather to worship and praise God; disciple and hold accountable members (this is best done through individual mentors throughout the week, who have a relationship with the person being discipled) , fellowship with and edify each other; help other believers in their assembly with physical needs,  and study the Word to equip them to go out to spread the gospel. This is the purpose and reason for the local assembly. Instead the definition of the church seems to have become "a local assembly of believers and unbelieving seekers who gather together, so that the believers can evangelize in a corporate (as opposed to individual) way through entertainment, social gatherings, self-help programs, and some non-threatening watered-down presentations of the gospel, leaving out the difficult teachings and ordinances, and getting rid of "churchy" things which create an atmosphere which might offend the seekers (such as pews, pulpits, and God-honoring music), and provide a place where believers can expect their children to be taught how to know and love God (in place of the parents doing it), so that they might follow in the footsteps of their parents being members in good standing in the local church and living the lifestyle of a "good" Christian. 

As one can see, the parody which generated the discussion was pointing out that people believe the  second definition of the church as the true definition. The members of the local assembly have been made to believe it is the responsibility of the assembly as a group to evangelize the lost, raise the children, and provide programs for the needs of people - unsaved and saved alike. In so doing, they abdicate any personal responsibilities for following the command that we are to take the gospel out to the world and disciple people. And also it allows them to abdicate any responsibility to evangelize and disciple their own children. Instead it is the "church's" responsibility (and often fault when it fails) which often also becomes, in the eyes of the members, the pastor's responsibility, as the shepherd of the assembly, to see to it that people (and in particular their children) come to and grow in the Lord. 

This wrong idea was supported in a couple comments I quoted above from the individual with whom I was dialoguing.  "Is not one of the reasons for the church the spread of the gospel?" and "The couple may well be failing, but so also may the particular congregation to which they belong."  As just pointed out, the reason for the local assembly is not to spread the gospel. It is to prepare the saints for the spreading of the gospel by equipping them with gifts to edify, exhort, and help each other grow, so that they might be able to put on the full armor of God and go out to do battle, for presenting the gospel is a battle against the spiritual wickedness holding people in the grip of sin. (Ephesians 4:11-12 "And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers;  For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:" and 6:11-18 "Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.  Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.  Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness;  And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;  Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God:  Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints;"

Preaching the gospel message should not be having to occur in the church. We are not to be delivering the gospel message there, for the purpose of the assembly was for the coming together of the saints, not unbelievers. We are to move on to subjects that will teach growth in the body. 2 Timothy 2:15 " Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." Hebrews 5:12-14; 6:1-2 "For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment." 

As for the statement that the church failed, because the child did not accept the Lord, it is the duty of every believer to present a life that reflects Christ, but it is not the duty of the church assembly to raise someone's child. That is akin to saying it is the responsibility of a school teacher to teach a child discipline and manners. No, it is the responsibility of the school teacher to teach educational subjects, not give the child his character traits, which studies show are set by the time a child is of an age to start kindergarten. The church is responsible to offer the child Christian fellowship,  exhortation and knowledge of God's Word, and edify them through the gifts that the body practices. And it is true that a child may come to the Lord through these things, but it is not the responsibility of the church in the one or possibly two hours a week they have the child to do the job that the parents have not done with the other 166 hours in the week. Discipleship and discipline is definitely the responsibility of the parent, as is a thorough working knowledge of the Word and intimate prayer relationship with God, for this requires more than one or two hours a week to teach. The church is not to blame when a child has no training. Proverbs 22:6 "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it."  In addition to this is the fact that the local assembly is most likely not solely filled with believers. Most churches have people who attend because it is part of the way they were raised, rather than the fact that they have a vital relationship with the Lord. Some are so far from the Lord that they have sins which affect the congregation. I have known far too many churches where pedophilia has been a secret problem. In one large church I attended - an evangelical Bible church - a young man murdered his wife for the insurance money. The same church had a serious pedophilia problem in which multiple children were abused. And its leadership was found to be guilty of having mishandled the church's funds. I have personally seen adultery, rape, and homosexuality in the most conservative of evangelical churches.  As if that were not enough, I have known of churches where Satanists have infiltrated for the very purpose of destroying the church. To trust the spiritual state and growth of your child to the local assembly is an idea that is so bad in its concept, that I have no words for people who would defend its existence.

Another statement that the person above made that I need to address is " One may not be able to attend a service under the circumstances you mention, but there truly is no such thing as a Christian outside the Church."  While it is true the way he wrote this, with the Church having a capital "C", meaning the Body of Christ, it is not true that one must attend a church to be a Christian. These days more and more Christians who are concerned to live their lives for Christ even more fully, are leaving the church due to the apostasy which they find there. While fellowship is needful, for to have to go without it is a burden that is very hard on a Christian, it is becoming harder and harder for those who seek to obey God in every way to find fellowship with like-minded believers. And if finding fellowship with other Christians apart from any particular local body is hard, it is nigh impossible to find a local assembly where one can go to worship that is not deeply entrenched in apostasy. Not attending a local assembly does not negate a person's Christianity. In fact these Christians often have a much more intimate and serious walk with the Lord than those in the church. They see doctrines of demons which they cannot abide, they see itching ears wanting to be satisfied, and unbelievers, often the very young and untrained, ruling the roost or at least calling the shots,  so to speak. We are not to stay in Babylon when we find ourselves there. So these people depart the church in favor of remaining steadfast in the faith.

At the beginning I had said that there were two incidents that made me reflect upon this issue. The other was a visit with a friend recovering from major surgery, who happens to be a pastor's wife. We discussed this problem, for it is a problem that has directly affected her and her husband. It seems that they find themselves blamed when the church "fails" in some way, for ultimately people equate the "church" as being the pastor and his leadership. It had not "failed" because of the pastor's and his wife's lack in any way. It has "failed" because the expectations of the congregants were not viable expectations. They were not exercising their personal responsibilities as Christians, nor were they recognizing that the pastor and his wife had no ability to succeed in things which they thought were the responsibility of the "church," for the very reasons explained above. Two hours a week is not going to do a job that 166 hours a week for many years has failed to do. I happen to know this pastor puts in many hours of preparation to teach this congregation, and do all the things that they as a corporate group should be doing (edifying and helping each other), not just he and his wife. In addition to this, when the pastor does try to do what is required of us Scripturally, taking the gospel out to the people where they are, he has been criticized for it, as some think he should not show his face in a place where "sinners" can be found, even if he is not doing anything other than offering the gospel and comfort to those in need. I hate to tell these judges, but "sinners" are found in every church including the one they attend, and they qualify in that very group they are so worried about. The pastor should not be the only one taking the gospel out there, yet he is, as they believe is the "church's" responsibility, not theirs. 

Having discussed the purpose of the church as a local body, we must then look at what the purpose of the Church is. The Church as the Bride of Christ has the following purpose. They are to love God, praise God, and obey God. They are be a light to the world bringing the gospel wherever they can, disciple those whom they bring to the Lord, and serve the Lord and each other using their gifts for God's glory and the edification of each other. They are to be prayer warriors. They are to endure to the end no matter what that might include in the way of tribulation, persecution or even martyrdom. They are to maintain the faith, keep doctrinally pure, and while they must live in the world, so therefore should not separate themselves so that they cannot interact with the world, for then they cannot share the gospel,  they are not to be a part of the world by living carnal worldly lives in imitation of the world. They are to be holy and separate unto God. This is the purpose of the Church universal, the Body and Bride of Christ.

There is not that much difference between what the purpose of the Church is, and what the purpose of the church should be. What is mentioned here for the Church beyond what was mentioned above for the church, is really also required of the church. They should also be as a group doctrinally pure, they should endure to the end, they should pray in a corporate gathering, they should be faithful, and holy, and obedient. The difference is that the individual's responsibility of evangelism is not a responsibility of the corporate group as a single entity. Therein lies a big difference, for when one removes the concept of evangelizing from the church's responsibility, then the things which are causing the apostasy are also removed, such as the non-churchy atmosphere so as to not offend, the ungodly music to entice, the entertainment to keep them coming, the programs to satisfy their non-spiritual needs, and the like. All of the things which are causing the problems in the church seem to stem from the whole idea that evangelism is a corporate church obligation, not an individual one.

We need to get back to the idea that the church is supposed to be a gathering of believers for their spiritual growth and worship of God. It is not meant to be an outreach to unbelievers. I believe the reason this is becoming a problem is due to numbers. The churches are getting smaller and smaller, and the pastors cannot continue to serve them without a congregation sufficiently large enough to employ them. Many work second jobs to be able to be pastors. Rather than realize that if the individuals of the church were doing as they should, being prayer warriors and going out and evangelizing and discipling individually and bringing the converts into the church as believers, they are fixing the problem by bringing in unbelievers through any means available to fill the pews and the offering plates. And the unbelievers want the church to change to suit their needs if they are to stay. They do not realize the church is not there to serve their needs. It is there to serve God and equip the saints. And so things which do not belong in the church become what the church is all about. And so apostasy reigns.

We have lost the ability to trust God in favor of trusting our own abilities to manipulate circumstances, by compromising. This never works when one is seeking God's favor. It really boils down to the individual people in the Church (and the church) and their walk with God. We have lost our way in favor of having itching ears. We have lost the idea of holiness and obedience. We have no desire to personally spread the gospel, and we do not study or pray. When the Church is in trouble, then the church is in trouble. And the Church is in trouble.

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