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There are three provisions God has made for the nurture of the individual Christian – the Holy Spirit to dwell inside us as our Teacher, Comforter and Helper who will represent Jesus the Son to us, the Bible which is the written word of God, and fellowship with other children of God. This is what the Bible means when it says that God has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness (2Pet.1:3). God knows that no man can walk alone by himself in this spiritual journey of life. And that is why He has provided us with a spiritual family in the church in which we can grow up spiritually.
For those who think of ‘church’ as the special building where Christians meet together, it may be difficult to see this immediately. But the original meaning of the word ‘church’ that comes from the Greek word ecclesia is an ‘assembly’ (of ‘called out ones’). So it is not the place that decides whether it is a church but who are gathered together. Jesus said that He would be with those who gather together in His name, even if they were only two or three (Matt.18:20). What makes the difference is that they are gathered in His name, not just nominally acknowledging His name, but as those who belong to Him and who follow Him as disciples.
When people put their trust in Jesus and get born again, God adopts them as His children. That means that He becomes our Heavenly Father, and we all become brothers and sisters in Christ with Jesus Christ as our Eldest Brother. So, the church is a spiritual family, and our relationship is eternal in nature.
When people first put their trust in Jesus, those who led them to the Lord are to help them to meet together to read the Bible and pray, and over time they become recognised as a church. The first set of churches came up on the Day of Pentecost when about 3000 people put their trust in Jesus after listening to Peter preaching. They met in the Temple and in houses (there is no mention about all of them ever meeting together as a church after they listened to Peter’s first sermon). Very soon another 5000 people believed.
Local Churches And The Universal Church
What we see is that when Jesus began to build His church, starting in Jerusalem, it was seen outwardly as many churches (assemblies of people) meeting in different places such as homes or open spaces. Now we refer to these as local churches, and the church consisting of all these churches as the universal church. In the beginning, as all these local churches were in Jerusalem before the church spread to Antioch and then other parts of the world, it was not possible to identify any of them as the church in Jerusalem. But together they began to form the universal church as a growing organism.
What we see today is a variety of churches following different doctrines, practices and customs. Some are independent local churches, and many are parts of larger denominations. Some of these churches claim to be the true church, usually basing their claim on some doctrine they emphasise or a leader they follow. Among these churches there are also cults that teach heretical doctrines or have abusive practices. At the same time, there is no church that has got all its doctrines right or does everything right. Since we are nowhere near the perfection that is in Christ, no church we form together with other imperfect people can be fully right.
Once we know this, we must be always open to correction and willing to learn – not only from God but also from other people. It is possible that others may know parts of the truth better than we do, and vice versa. We need to see that there would always be things we can learn from other churches in particular aspects of truth or practice.
It seems as if God has distributed spiritual gifts among the different local churches, and that could be one reason why we see different churches emphasise different ministries. For example, some focus mostly on evangelism while some others are occupied with studying the Bible. Some want to make everyone more holy and some want to reach out to suffering sections of society. There are some who are good in the way they praise and worship God while some others are manifesting supernatural works of the Holy Spirit. Aren’t there needs in our church that can be met with some of the ministries in other churches, and aren’t there things we can do to help some other churches? But this type of cooperation does not usually take place in practice among the churches because each church is strongly barricaded with its own set of special doctrines and practices!
We can see that things are this way because we are looking only at our local church without recognising the universal church! But God looks at the local church as well as the universal church, and He wants both to flourish. Aren’t the people in these ‘other’ churches our brothers and sisters in Christ? Should we not learn to follow God’s heart in this?
The Purpose Of The Church
“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Eph.4:11–13). The church is referred to as the body of Christ (with Christ as the Head), and every true member of the church is a particular member of this body with a particular function to fulfil. As we know from the analogy to our human body, every member serves the other members, and together and individually all the members follow the directions of the Head.
In brief, the purpose of the church is to proclaim the Gospel to everyone in the world, to bring them into the church (Matt.28:19,20), and to provide for the growth of each member to the full (spiritual) stature of the Head. Christ is in charge, and He works in the church through the Holy Spirit. As each member responds to the Holy Spirit and uses the special spiritual gifts He has given them (1Cor.12:6,7), the members help one another to grow (Eph.4:16).
As a church works under the guidance and strength of the Holy Spirit there will be teaching based on the Bible (including comfort, encouragement, correction, guidance), prayer, outreach with the Gospel and to meet social needs, care for one another, etc. This helps the others outside the church to hear the Gospel and to come into the church, and individual members to grow in the character of Christ. God appoints leaders in local churches to help the members to grow (Eph.2:11,12), but these verses make it clear that each member has the responsibility to carry out a ministry that would build the others.
Membership In The Church
It is common nowadays to keep a membership register of the local church for administrative purposes. But if we understand the church to be a gathering of those who are born again by faith in Jesus Christ it becomes impossible for us to see who all belong to that church. A man who has membership in the church register may not actually belong to Christ and another man who is really born again may not have registered his name in the church register! It is difficult, really impossible, for any human being to accurately know the true condition of other people’s hearts!
But the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev.21:27), which I am assuming is the same as the Book of Life (Rev.20:12) because the Lamb is the only way to the Father, will contain the names of all people who have ever lived on the earth and who belonged to God. This is the register that really matters! If anyone’s name is not in this book, they will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev.20:15). One very important point to note is that our names are not written in this book with any indelible ink, because there is the possibility that if we don’t ‘overcome’ our names can be erased from this book (Rev.3:5)! It is not enough to get our name into the book, but we also need to endure till the end and make sure it doesn’t get erased.
Leadership In The Church
The epistles in the New Testament that give many instructions to the churches mention elders, deacons, overseers (translated as bishops in the KJV), and apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Of these, elders, deacons and overseers may be recognised as positions of responsibility or ‘offices’ in the churches, and apostles (those sent out with the commission of proclaiming the Gospel), prophets (spokesmen for God), evangelists (those who proclaim the Gospel), pastors (shepherds) and teachers (explaining the word of God) may be recognised as functions in the body of Christ based on spiritual gifts given by the Holy Spirit (1Cor.12:6-10,28). Deacons are generally understood to be those who have the responsibility of managing the practical aspects of the church, and elders and overseers seem to be used interchangeably sometimes, denoting those who have spiritual and administrative responsibilities in the church. Spiritual and practical qualifications have been prescribed for all these officers, and in practice they may be bestowed with one or more functions that are described above.
In one sense, these leaders in the church are set apart as those having some authority over the other members in the church. Paul describes them as those who are workers with God, and the other members of the church as being the field on which these leaders are working (1Cor.3:9). The authority that they have been given by God is for the building up of the body of Christ and not for making themselves great (2Cor.10:8;13:10). That there is a special authority given to those in leadership positions can be noted from the fact that when the elders pray for the sick, there is a greater assurance of healing than when others pray (Jas.5:14,15). In another sense, these leaders are also ‘brothers’ along with the others in the church (Matt.23:8). In that sense they are not to lord it over the others (1Pet.5:1-3). Jesus has made it very clear that the leaders whom He values as being ‘great’ are those who serve their flock with love and humility (Matt.20:26). When people see this servant attitude, it builds up their respect for these leaders and then it becomes easier for them to submit to such leaders.
Unfortunately, what we observe all over the world are people who want to be recognised as leaders, who take on special titles for themselves, seek positions of greatness before the people, who demand subservient obedience, etc. Some denominations have hierarchies of leadership and they run for their offices and manage them just like politicians.
“You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1Pet.5:5). When we clothe ourselves with humility towards one another, we recognise the special grace God has given to different ones and defer to them in the spheres of activity they are responsible for. For example, the pastor defers to the choir leader in the choice of songs, the choir leader defers to the musicians who play the instruments when it comes to how to play them, the musicians defer to the choir leader in the overall conduct of the music, and everyone defers to the pastor in the overall running of the church, etc. If this mutual respect is not there, there is likely to be hierarchies, seniorities, and dictatorships instead of the body of Christ there.
Ministries In The Church
Many local churches these days tend to be centred on their pastor, focussed on his major ministry. If he is an evangelist or a teacher or something else, that is what defines the ministry of the church. Perhaps that is why the New Testament epistles referring to the church mostly refer to the elders in the plural (e.g., Tit.1:5), even though there is place for an individual who is recognised as God’s ‘messenger’ to a particular church (e.g., Rev.2:1 ‘angel’ = ‘messenger’). Such an arrangement would provide for diversity in ministry and also protection from personality cults or despotism.
I mentioned earlier the present reality of local churches being fragmented versions of the universal church, all of them lacking in many areas of teaching and ministry. But the fact remains that when a man or woman comes to a church looking for salvation (used here in the broad sense to refer to meeting every kind of need in life), many times they get disappointed in some areas of life. Perhaps they get good Bible teaching but not fellowship; perhaps there is good praise and worship but no support for hurting people; perhaps the focus is on reaching out to more people, but the people who are inside are getting discouraged. Obviously, only the universal church can be expected to be complete with all the ministries in a balanced way. But let us remember that local churches are expected to grow up (and not remain stagnant) to provide for every aspect of salvation that individuals need. Let us look at some of the major functions that should be present in a good local church.
Biblical teaching. Obviously, this has to be the foundation of any proper church. The church cannot be built around personalities or certain aspects of doctrine, but everything about the church and the lives of the people in the church has to be based on the teachings of the Bible, which is God’s word given to us. A proper interpretation of the Bible is necessary, with openness to learning, correcting earlier errors, and advancing in the knowledge of God.
Prayerful seeking after God. Anyone who knows God and his own relationship to Him will realise his total dependence on Him for everything. Such a man will pray. Prayer is a mark of this dependence. Individuals in the church and the church as a whole must have prayer as an integral part of their life. It is a heart cry to God and not a mere, formal, repetition or ritual.
Dependence on the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God living in every true child of God. He is there to comfort, teach, correct, rebuke, etc. The Holy Spirit is also the One who imparts special gifts to each one in the church for carrying out his or her own tasks in the body of Christ (1Cor.12:7). If we are not open to Him in practical terms, but depend on the knowledge in our head and our natural abilities, we cannot accomplish the work of God.
The church as a proclaimer of the Gospel. If individuals are to be the salt and light of the earth, the church also has to be involved in a collective manner. Evangelistic outreach, training of people to such a ministry and encouraging everyone to be witnesses for the Lord wherever they are placed in life should be a part of the church’s ministry. This is how the church has to grow in number and not merely biologically!
The church as a school for disciples. Everyone who comes to Christ and is born again has to grow now to become more like the Master. That is why people need to become disciples. The church cannot expect that the people will automatically grow once they are born again, but must have a focus on helping everyone to grow.
The church as the family of God. The local church is a part of the family of God, with God as the Father and every member as a brother or sister in Christ. This is to be seen in practice as they love and care for one another (Jn.13:34,35), just as members of earthly families love and care for one another in those families. It is in this process that fellowship builds up among the members, and everyone gets strengthened. This needs to be taught and encouraged.
The church as a hospital. When someone is born again and becomes a member of the church, it is often true that he comes along with a lot of baggage from the past. There could be history of neglect, abuse, rejection, addictions, broken relationships, occult practices, demonic oppression, etc., and these do not disappear just when people first come to the Lord. They may need healing, deliverance and nurturing that may take a long time in some cases. Someone has said that all of us are wounded people to one extent or another, and everyone needs healing. Ministries such as counselling, healing and shepherding are very much needed in a church.
The church is an arrangement through which God exhibits His many-sided wisdom in restoring mankind from their fallen state to the likeness of His Son in every way (Eph.3:10). It is our privilege to be in that church receiving this restoration personally and also to do our part to work with God in completing that task (Eph.4:15,16).
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