Archives For Doctrine of the Church

Cars, Vows, and the Death of the Church

Greg Strand – January 12, 2016 2 Comments

If you were asked the question, “what is the most important date in church history?,” how would you respond?

On the one hand, it would be important to ask a follow up question related to what, i.e., the most important date for what? The propagation of the gospel? Technological advancement? Missionary outreach? The church? And yet on the other hand, regardless of the specific what, even in any of those areas just listed there are numerous options that would vie for the preeminent place.

Carl Trueman identifies his vote for the most Important date in church history: the invention of the automobile. The reason? It changed the way the people viewed church. They could drive by a number of good, godly Evangelical churches on the way to their personal preferred church. It changed the way the church is structured and how she operates. It also made living out the covenant within the community, especially when it comes to accountability and discipline, almost impossible, since those in that setting simply leave.

It’s always interesting to see, every now and then on a webpage or something, “the most important date in church history.” I would say the most important date in church history – I think it was 1909, when Henry Ford designed his model-T. I think the invention of the motor car is probably the most significant event in church history, because it utterly transforms how the church operates. You can have your reformations, you can have your medieval church piety, but once people can jump in a car, and drive outside of their community to a church elsewhere, everything changes. Church discipline is almost impossible in the era of the automobile, because we live anonymous lives, and we have the ability to run away when our church comes after us.

In another piece, On Cars, Vows and the Slow Death of the Church, Trueman delineates further what he means by the automobile’s effect on the church.

The thing that is killing the church today is surely the car.   In the olden days (and no, for anybody under twenty, I am not talking about the 80s here but rather a hundred or so years ago and beyond), mobility was limited.   If you crossed the local priest or minister, you could be in trouble because there might be no way you could go to the next town or village for worship on the Lord’s Day.  So church discipline could actually mean something: sooner or later you had no choice but to face up to your responsibilities to the church officers.

Yes, the pre-automobile systems of church discipline were abused (
Silas Marner
anyone?). Is that a surprise?  They were staffed by sinful human beings.  But at least they stood a theoretical chance of working and, indeed, proved remarkably effective in many instances.

Today, I have even had friends who left their wives, took up with someone else, fled church discipline and, guess what?, found a church that would take them in as members in good standing.  Today, unlike the olden days (teenagers: in case you’ve already forgotten, for definition of ‘olden times’ see above), they can simply jump into their car and drive and drive and keep driving until they find a church that will accept them.  And if they drive far enough, they always find such a place.  Trust me.  They always do.  There is always some place that either does not know them or simply does not care what they have done.

. . . church shopping is one of the things that is weakening Christianity; but that is not simply a function of general consumerism; it is the result of the opportunity provided by the automobile. The thing that allows many of us to attend church is also that which is eroding the power of our membership vows.

Of course, membership vows are as solemn and as binding as ordination vows. The average member is no less bound by them to the church than I am as a minister. But the car makes them seem so much more negotiable. We have come to believe that even God can be dodged when we are behind the wheel.

I have said to students at Westminster more times than I can remember: the church has never really come to terms with the invention of the internal combustion engine.

I confess that although I do not agree with most of the Roman Catholic Church’s view of ecclesiology, I do like their notion of a parish (and some other Protestant denominations will also refer to ministry in local churches in this way). What that means is that since this is the local church in this specific geographical area, that is considered the parish. This gives a location to the church, those who live in this geographical area are considered a part of that church, and the leaders know those in the community for whom they are responsible for pastoral care.

I reiterate – I do not agree with the RCC notion of ecclesiology. But I also confess there is something healthy to the notion of a parish, viz., those who live in a certain community, go to an Evangelical church in that community.

What often happens today is, as noted above, people will drive out of the community, drive by a number of other Evangelical churches, on their way to their preferred local church, based on the preaching, the programs, the friends, etc. I think there is something amiss as one thinks about and approaches church in this manner.

How do you think about this? What effect has the car had on the church? What are other issues that have either positive or negative effects on the church? How do we respond to them?

These and other issues will be addressed this January at our Theology Conference as we focus on The Doctrine of the Church. You can register here. Come as a leadership team/staff, since this will be an excellent Conference to learn together and then to discuss together.

One of the joys and privileges I have in my role in the EFCA is that I am asked questions. I find delight in attempting to give biblically faithful, theologically accurate and pastorally sensitive responses to these important questions. I certainly do not conclude my responses as THE answer, but I do pray they are an answer that is faithful to the Scriptures.

Below are a series of questions I received about “biblical fellowship.” I have highlighted the questions. My responses follow. Although the person remains unnamed, I have, nonetheless, received permission to include the questions and my responses. It remains mostly unedited.

I am hopeful reading through this will help you to understand the importance of fellowship in the context of the local church, and that it will increase your love for and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ and his Bride, the new community, the redeemed people of God, the church – a community with real names, with real faces, with real joys and with real sorrows. And that through this life together, you become a visible manifestation of the gospel you proclaim.

By the way, I would be interested to learn how you would have responded to these questions. And if you do not include those thoughts in the comments, I would at least encourage you to think through the questions so that if/when you are asked, you, too, would have answers that would be biblically faithfully, theologically accurate and pastorally sensitive.

Here, then, are the questions and responses.

How does the Bible define Christian fellowship? Fellowship originates in and by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14). This results in a relationship with God, the Trinity (1 Jn. 1:3-6) and with one another. It really means living and sharing life together. Here is a good article on fellowship.

Can relationships within the immediate/extended family qualify as fellowship, or is fellowship something that only occurs within the local church? Fellowship used as a technical term is used for those relationships in the family of God, not a biological family. The exception would be if the biological family is all believers. But even then, that biological family is trumped by the spiritual family in that it is not exclusive. Generally we say that “blood is thicker than water,” to mean that when push comes to shove, biological family stays with one another. I like to turn that around to reflect what biblical fellowship means: water is thicker than blood. I wrote about that, turning around that common phrase: “Water is Thicker Than Blood” – Reflections on The Implications of the Christian Family (It may imply that baptism is what is important, but that is not my point. I use “water” to refer to the family of God, those who have truly been born again by faith through faith in Christ.)

What is to be done when the “ideal” church cannot be found? In brief, first, it does not exist. That does not mean we do not strive for the biblical model, the “ideal,” but we do so knowing that we will always, until the return of Christ, live with the church of the real. And if we do not acknowledge this, and we attempt to live by and find the church of the “ideal,” we will critically destroy the church of the real. Second, it already exists. The church of the real does not catch God by surprise. Jesus has been and remains the Head of this church. And this is the church that is divinely ordained by God, in His good and wise sovereign providence, to bring Him glory and will be for our good. It will be a place where the gospel is manifested in real time in real relationships.

As life goes on, time seems to become a more precious commodity.  How does one balance a desire for efficiency with a desire to honor mechanisms set in place by church leadership to “create fellowship”? This is a real challenge as a young family grows. I was convinced that live together in the body of Christ needed to occur as part of my biological family. They are not one and the same, but there is significant overlap between the two. I am not sure efficiency is the right way to look at this. I would rather see this as an attempt to live life wisely as a steward under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Regarding the structures in place, it is necessary to attempt to provide structure for this to happen, especially in a church setting since it becomes more challenging the larger the group becomes. The manner in which one engages in these structured events of fellowship is important. Of course, it is vital that one understands both the biblical nature of the church and the biblical nature of and purpose for fellowship in the local church if one is to discern how this ought to occur. It is also important to note that in God’s divine design, under the Lordship and Headship of Jesus Christ there are leaders who are gifted (by God) and affirmed (by the congregation) to serve the local church. It is for God’s glory and our good that we submit to their leadership, as long as it is biblical (Heb. 13:17).

Should fellowship always incorporate the entire family or should each member of the family be seeking out fellowship on a more individual basis? I think this is not an either/or but a both/and. I also think it will likely shift and change through seasons of life. Although I served as the pastor, much of our serving was done as a family. It became part of our lives. There were also times that each of us had a time of fellowship with others, e.g. my wife’s women’s Bible study, my leadership training, the children with friends at AWANA, etc.

How much of fellowship should be formal and how much should be “organic”? Without quantifying a percentage, this is another both/and, not an either/or. Often I find that because many do not understand biblical fellowship (koinonia) it does not happen organically. It is not just talking about the weather or the football game. It is living life together with a common ground and goal of living all of life by God’s grace and for God’s glory. And this is not and cannot be done alone. Spiritual growth, sanctification, is a community reality (Heb. 3:12-13; also consider the other “let us” commands in Hebrews, and the rest of the “one another” commands in the rest of the New Testament). If it is only organic, it will often mean I do things with those I like and with whom I resonate. Some of the structured will force one to be with those who are less like me and those with whom I will not necessarily gravitate toward, but who are still nonetheless my brothers and sisters who I need (and they need me).

Regarding the true and local church, those who are a part of the true church by virtue of the fact they have been born again, will be a part of a local church. The notion of a churchless Christian is a misnomer. The gospel that saves and makes one a member in the true church will find expression and be manifested in the local church, with real people in real time. Often people move and then attempt to find a church home. I am convinced the better route would be to find a church home and then find a place to live. The notion of being a part of a church in the community in which one lives speaks volumes. The fact that many can drive by some good Evangelical churches on their way to their preferred church often reflects our consumerism. It is difficult to live life together from a distance. It can be done, but it is challenging. We attempted to do that when we moved here and we were no longer in pastoral ministry. We drove for about eight months and realized it was not wise. We then became a member of the local EFC church where we live.

By the way, Gordon MacDonald has written a two-part article on the importance of community I just read, so I forward them on to you: True Community: What ‘we’ learn that ‘I’ will never know; and Building One Another: What’s involved in Christian community: part 2

Similar topics will be discussed at our upcoming Theology Conference as we focus on The Doctrine of the Church. You can register here. Come as a leadership team/staff. This will be an excellent Conference to learn together and then to discuss together.

 

“Apostolic,” like “catholic,” is not found as an explicit expression of the Church.  But the Church’s apostolicity is an important truth taught in the Bible.  Before we address the biblical teaching on what “apostolic” means, it is important that we look at two common meanings that are inaccurate or not biblical.  The Roman Catholic Church, for example, believes that the Church is apostolic through its connection with Peter and all the successors of Peter primarily seen in the office of the bishop of Rome or the Pope (this is known as apostolic succession).   This claim will not stand up to biblical scrutiny. 

Another misunderstanding is rooted in the meaning of “apostle” as “sent ones.”  Overlooking the technical meaning of the term, viz.. those who were with Jesus, the emphasis is on the present-day “sentness” of the church or its missionary mandate.  This is partly right, but it assumes or ignores the heart of what it means to be apostolic.  What is missing in both of these missteps is the apostolic deposit, the gospel of Jesus Christ inspired by the Holy Spirit and inscripturated in the Word of God, incarnated in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

The clearest teaching of the apostolic nature of the church comes from the pen of Paul as he writes to the saints in and around Ephesus – and to all the saints of all time including us today – these words: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19-22).  Paul continued by writing of the mystery that had been revealed “to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:5).  This mystery is that both Jews and Gentiles are “members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6).  This beautiful creation of God the Holy Spirit, the church, is that upon whom the principalities and powers (those evil beings opposed to the work of God) gaze and they see a manifestation of God’s wisdom and His transforming and victorious grace (Eph. 3:9-12).

Here are five truths we can glean from Paul about what it means for the church to be apostolic.  First, the church that is apostolic focuses on Christ.  Although the “apostles and the prophets” are the foundation in this image, Jesus is the cornerstone.  This means that He is at the center of all that is said and done (cf. Col. 1:18). 

Second, the church that is apostolic recognizes the important historical role the apostles played in salvation history.  These apostles were not paragons of greatness, but what made the foundation great was the cornerstone, Jesus Christ (cf. Ps. 118:22; 1 Pet. 2:6-7).  Their function and role were unique and unrepeatable: they were chosen in the Spirit (Acts 1:2), they remembered Christ’s words and deeds through the Spirit (Jn. 14:26; Acts 10:41), and they received the complete – final and definitive – revelation of the resurrected Christ (Jn. 15:26-27; 16:13-15).  The heart of this is that they had been with Jesus (Lk. 6:12; Acts 1:21-22; 4:13; 1 Cor. 15:8-10).  Thus the church is founded upon the apostolic witness and testimony of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:5), as they stand between Christ and all subsequent generations of Christians pointing the way to Him through the Word.

Third, the church that is apostolic is rooted in the Scripture.  We know of Jesus only through the apostles and their testimony of Him as recorded in the New Testament which is the fulfillment of the Old Testament (Matt. 5:17-20).  This means the church orders its belief and behavior according to the apostolic faith “once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3; cf. Acts 2:42).  In all her endeavors, the apostolic Scripture is the supreme authority, and this is manifested in the preaching, teaching and reading of that Word, and passing this Word on to others (2 Tim. 2:2). 

Fourth, the church that is apostolic is continually being reformed by and to the Scripture, the apostles’ writings that give preeminence to Jesus Christ.  We have not yet arrived at God’s desired end for His people.  This is why Paul emphasizes that we are being built, presently and ongoingly, together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit (Eph. 2:22).  And, very importantly, this happens together with other believers (cf. Heb. 3:13; 10:24-25).

Fifth, the church that is apostolic is missional.  This means that the church is missional in her very being, i.e., God has called His people to be a light to the nations (1 Pet. 2:9).  But she is also missional in her lifestyle as she proclaims the gospel of Christ, the whole counsel of God, to all people (Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 1:8). She not only proclaims the gospel, but is also a visible manifestation of the gospel. 

Please join me in confessing our sin against Christ and His Church in that we have neglected, ignored or denied that we are apostolic – we have assumed Christ and His gospel by not giving Him and it preeminence in our preaching, teaching, counseling, living, etc.; we have taken the apostolic deposit, the Bible, for granted in that we do not read and study it diligently; we engage in reform based on relevancy to the culture not the unchanging gospel of Jesus Christ; we live as if God’s blessings are to terminate on us rather than God blessing us to be a blessing to others. 

Lord, please forgive us.  Please also join me in praying that we will recommit to all those positive things we have confessed we have or have not done above, so that God in His grace and mercy will once again enable us to be, as an association of churches, apostolic.  Please also pray specifically for all of the details of the conference – for those responsible for planning and those who will be attending.  We are convinced that apart from God’s work in this conference, it will be a failure, so please join us in prayer asking God to do great things, for His glory and the good of His people.

Please join us at our Theology Conference as we learn about and discuss The Doctrine of the Church. Register here.

“We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”  From this expression from the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, which is a faithful summary of the biblical teaching on the nature of the church, the church is not only one and holy, but also catholic.

Often when one hears the word “catholic,” one thinks “Roman Catholic Church.”  Some Protestants have been so scandalized by this word they will not even use it.  But the term “catholic” is not limited to Roman Catholicism, just as the term “orthodox” is not limited to the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Although “catholic”, like the term “Trinity,” is not used in the New Testament in reference to the Church, the term was intentionally chosen to refer to important biblical truths that speak about the Church.  By definition it means “universal,” or “referring to the whole.”  The important truth the early church desired to communicate was that the Church as a whole is more than the local church.  While a local church is part of the universal Church, it is not the Church universal in its entirety.  One of the first known uses of this expression occurs in the writings of Ignatius of Antioch, who was martyred in Rome about AD 110, which gives a clear sense of its meaning and importance: “Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church” (italics mine).

In addition to referring to the universality of the Church of Jesus Christ, “catholic” also meant “orthodox,” i.e., right belief, in contrast to heresy and schism.  In the fifth century, Vincent of Lerins defined this orthodox catholicity as “that which is believed everywhere, at all times, and by all people.”  Moreover, “catholic” also referred to the Church that extended throughout the world that had no geographical, institutional, cultural or racial boundaries.

It is important for evangelicals to know that the catholicity or universality of the Church of Jesus Christ is exclusive.  One must not confuse the universality of the Church with universalism.  As we have learned, one comes to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ through Jesus Christ alone.  The road is narrow (Matt. 7:13-14) and the way is exclusive (Jn. 14:6).  But once one becomes a Christian by believing in Christ’s completed work on the cross through faith, one becomes a member in the true, universal Church.  Those that are members in the true, universal Church will gather with other believers in local churches.

What this means is that the universality of the Church is grounded in her identity, her relationship to Jesus Christ: in Christ alone does the whole fullness of deity dwell (Col. 2:9); Christ alone is full of grace and truth (Jn. 1:14, 16); Christ alone is the Head of all things, for all things were created by Him and for Him (Col. 1:16); Christ alone is the lone, exclusive Head of the Church (Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:23).

Contrary to what we hear in the world, the exclusivity of Jesus Christ is the basis of unity and universality (cf. Eph. 4:4-6).  One appropriately writes, “if the church is one, it must be universal; if it is universal, it must be one.  Unity and catholicity are two interwoven dimensions of one and the same church.”

In sum, God promised that all the nations would be blessed through Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3), and this promise was fulfilled in Christ and all those who now by faith believe in Him.  God is drawing a people to Himself that crosses all social, racial and intellectual boundaries, a Church that is universal in scope (Matt. 28:18-20; Col. 1:18-20).  Although being a part of the Church is exclusive, only through Jesus Christ her Head (Eph. 1:21-23), membership is universal in that the Church exists globally and is made up of those from every people and language and nation (Rev. 5:9-10).  This is why the EFCA is committed to our Lord’s biblical mandate to “glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people.”

Please join me in confessing our sin against Christ and His Church – our provincialism, our sense of personal kingdom building, our envy against others who are ministering in the same vineyard who appear to be doing “better” than I am, broadening where we need to be exclusive and doctrinally narrow, and narrowing and fragmenting where we need to be broad and universal, our ethnocentrism and racism, etc.  Lord have mercy.  Please also join me in praying that God will do a new work in the EFCA such that the local churches will be true reflections of an outpost from heaven (Heb. 12:22-24).  Lord do this for the sake of Christ.  Please also pray specifically for those who are working on the administrative and logistical details of the Theology Conference, and for those who are making plans to attend the Conference.

For Theology Conference details on The Doctrine of the Church, see here. For registration, see here

“We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”  From this expression in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, which is a faithful summary of the biblical teaching on the nature of the church, not only is the church God creates one, she is also holy.

First and foremost, the notion of holy is rooted in the character of God Himself in all His fullness.  Isaiah saw and heard the seraphim around the throne of the Lord God saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa. 6:3; cf. Rev. 4:8).  In this sense, holy is not used primarily as separateness or morality, but as an adjective for God Himself.  In His prayer for oneness, Jesus refers to His Father as holy (Jn. 17:11).

Jesus, too, is referred to as the “holy One of God” (Jn. 6:69), and this truth was included in Peter’s sermon on Pentecost (Acts 2:27).  Even demons, who were unclean, recognized that Jesus was “the Holy of God” (Mk. 1:24; Lk. 4:34).

And, of course, the Holy Spirit is the HOLY Spirit.  He is One with the Father and the Son (Matt. 28:19-20).  The Holy Spirit is the Helper, the One whom the Father will send in the Son’s name (Jn. 14:26).

Rooted in the holy character of the triune God, the community He creates, the church, is also holy, both individually and corporately.  Those who are part of the church are holy in two respects.  First, they are holy by virtue of being united to Christ through the regenerating ministry of the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5).  Their being holy is connected with their calling, for it is “a holy calling” (2 Tim. 1:9).  This is why believers, the Corinthian believers no less, are called “saints” or “holy ones” (1 Cor. 1:2).  They are not holy morally like God, but they are holy in that they have been positionally set apart unto God.  For all believers, this is the indicative, a statement of fact.

Second, those who are set apart to God as holy or saints positionally, are also to be holy morally or behaviorally.  For those who are saints, there will be an accompanying holiness in their lives.  This is the imperative or the command.  Those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells (2 Tim. 1:14), are both set apart solely to God (positional) and are enabled to become holy in their lives morally (1 Thess. 4:3, 7).  They are progressively being conformed into the image of the Son (Rom. 8:29).  This is the basis upon which Peter calls his readers to be holy.  Because God is holy, he writes, “you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet. 1:15-16).  Later Peter reminds his readers they are “to be a holy priesthood” (2:5) and a “holy nation” (2:9).

Statistics and surveys reveal the sad and tragic fact that the behavior of far too many evangelicals is no different from those who profess no faith at all.  If one were to ask a number of people what a few key marks are of evangelical Christians today, either individually or corporately as the church, my guess is that few if any would list holiness.  This fact ought to grieve us deeply, for it robs our Holy God of His glory, and it puts our lives in peril, for without holiness we will not see the Lord (cf. Heb. 12:14).

Brothers and sisters, please join me in confessing this sin before God, beginning by confessing your own lack of holiness and your apathy about it.  And then, ask God to renew, restore, and revive us, His people, so we will truly be a holy people who serve as witnesses of a holy God to a watching world.  Specifically, please pray for the speakers and other leaders that their hearts would remain pure and their lives would be holy. And as you pray for them, join me in praying for our own personal and corporate holiness, knowing that, positively, it is the pure in heart who will see God (Matt. 5:8), and, negatively, without holiness, one will not see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).

Please plan to join us in January as we address this truth and much more at our Theology Conference on The Doctrine of the Church.