A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 8: Church-A Concise Exposition)

A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 8: Church-A Concise Exposition)

Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.

Missiology is inextricably intertwined with ecclesiology; one cannot be discussed properly without the other. It is probably for that reason that there are so many controversial issues at the intersection of the two disciplines. In this post, we will give a cursory overview of some of the main themes of ecclesiology. This concise biblical ecclesiology will give us a “place to stand” as the next post will speak to some significant and controversial ecclesiological issues in contemporary missiology.

Being the Church

Scripture does not give us a dictionary definition of the nature of the church. What it does instead is give us images and analogies that help us to understand the nature of the church. The church cannot be defined apart from its relationship to God, which is evident especially in the following three images.

In I Pet 2:9-10, the church is described as the people of God, which serves to remind us that we are God’s possession, and that we are a community rather than a collection of individuals. Second, Paul instructs us that we are the body of Christ. Sometimes he uses the image to refer to the church universal (Eph, Col) and sometimes to the church local (Rom, 1 Cor). This image helps us to understand that we are many members but one body (unity and diversity) and that each of us belong to the other members of the body (mutual love and interdependence). Third, we are told that the church is the temple of the Spirit. Our body is a temple of the Spirit (1 Cor 6:19); we are living stones built into a spiritual house (1 Pet 2:5). This image not only evokes the memory of Christ who “tabernacles” with us, but also the idea of relationship. We are held together by the Spirit.

As the Fathers and the Reformers reflected upon the Scriptures, they came to identify the church with certain marks. The church fathers spoke of the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We are one, in that we are indwelt by the same Spirit. We are holy, in that we seek to allow as members only those who profess faith in Christ and show visible signs of regeneration. We are catholic, in that the gospel is universally available for all people, in all places, at all times. We are apostolic, in that we hold to the same gospel proclaimed by the apostles. Moreover, the Reformers noted that the church is marked by the right preaching of the gospel, the right administration of the ordinances, and a commitment to church discipline.

These marks, however, are not exhaustive. There are many ways we can describe the church. For example, as John Hammett has pointed out, the church (1) is organized and purposeful, (2) is primarily local; (3) is by nature, living and growing; (4) is centered on the gospel; and (5) is powered by the Spirit.

Hammett also correctly and persuasively argues that the church is composed of regenerate members (1 Cor 5:11), that this is the center of Baptist ecclesiology, and is directly linked to the purposes of the church. While, on this side of eternity, we will never know for sure the state of another person’s soul, we may keep diligent watch over the church, discipling and disciplining toward the goal of faithfulness and holiness.

Doing Church

The way that the church functions is a direct outworking of who the church is. Scripture gives us specific guidance as to how we are to live as the church. Among these are four.

Because the church is defined by its relation to Christ, we are actually connected to one another. Our union with Christ connects not only to God but also one to another. This is evident especially in the Eucharist and in the “one another” commands. For example, we must live in harmony with one another (Rom 12:16; 15:5), forgive and bear with one another ( Col 3:13) and must not pass judgment on one another (Rom 14:1). We must admonish and encourage one another (1 Thess 5:14) care for one another (1 Cor 12:25), and comfort one another (2 Cor 13:11). Perhaps all of the many “one another” commands could be summed up in 1 Thess 5:15: “Always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.”

These commands are given to all of the members of the church. It is not just that the leaders are responsible for the church. Rather, we are all responsible to one another, and ultimately to Christ. The church is congregational (Acts 6:3; 13:2-3; 15:22). While recognizing Christ as the ultimate divine authority, we recognize the congregation as the human authority. We follow Christ as he leads the church. This is not at odds with the appointment of pastors, to whose leadership we submit, unless for doctrinal or moral reasons their leadership is rescinded.

As to leadership, Scripture teaches that the church has two offices, that of the bishop/elder/pastor and that of the deacon. The officers are chosen by the churches (Acts 14:23). The bishop/elder/pastor much be able to administrate (bishop), teach and nurture (pastor), must be mature in the faith (elder), and must meet the requirements laid out in Scripture (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1). The deacon is a servant (Acts 6:1-6) and must meet the requirements laid out in Scripture (1 Tim 3:8-13). The pastors, in particular, are to equip the saints for the work of ministry. The church’s ministries are manifold and may be summarized in five categories. Hammett points out that these five ministries may be seen together in Acts 2:42-47. Those ministries are teaching, fellowship, worship, service, and evangelism.

The Scriptures speak of churches that meet in houses (Rom 16:5) as well as house churches that were connected to one another as city churches (Acts 13:1). Further, the Scriptures speak of these churches, together, as a sort of regional church (Acts 8:1), and of the church universal (1 Cor 1:2). The universal church includes believers both living and dead, is not synonymous with any one institution, denomination, or network of churches, and is not entirely visible at any time.

Conclusion

It is difficult to overstate the significance of ecclesiology for Christians in general and for missiologists in particular. We must agree with Mark Dever, who writes in A Theology for the Church: “The enduring authority of Christ’s commands compels Christians to study the Bible’s teaching on the church. Present-day errors in the understanding and the practice of the church will, if they prevail, still further obscure the gospel. Christian proclamation might make the gospel audible, but Christians living together in local congregations make the gospel visible (see John 13:34-35). The church is the gospel made visible.” May we not obscure the gospel by neglecting the church.

A Thought or Two about Resolution #6 (Part 1)

A while back I had the privilege of preaching at 1st Baptist Church of Kearney, Missouri, which so happens to have been the home church of Jesse James. Jesse was a member in good standing when he led the first daylight bank robbery in Liberty, Missouri, a town about ten miles away. The church minutes record that deliberations to discipline Jesse were complicated by the concern that he might burn down the building. Everyone in the community knew Jesse was staying at his mother’s farm (she was a Sunday school teacher at the time), so two deacons were selected to go to confront him according to the guidelines of Matthew 18. The minutes of the next business meeting report that, for one reason or another, the deacons never could find the time to visit the notorious bandit. Then the minutes report that Jesse himself arrived at the meeting, and wishing to cause no embarrassment to the congregation, requested his name be removed from the roll. The church obliged.

By passing resolution #6, this year’s SBC convention admitted that Southern Baptists have failed to obey New Testament principles concerning church accountability. The decline of accountability and discipline in SBC life is well documented. However, a foundational ecclesiastical principle is that the body of Christ is composed of individual members who are truly integrated with one another (see 1 Cor 12). When put into practice, this principle is a beautiful manifestation of the love of Christ for his Church. Each member, when he unites with a congregation, makes himself accountable to that local body, and he is to care for the welfare of every member as he would care for himself.

So what went wrong? How did such a powerful truth disappear from the collective consciousness of Baptists? How did accountability come to be viewed merely as discipline-or more often than not-degenerate into mere punishment? Some very good studies explore these questions in better detail than I can give them in this blog (see Gregory A. Wills, “Southern Baptists and Church Discipline”), but I want to focus on just one factor: the tendency to select the wrong candidates for discipline. In other words, in times past too often discipline was exercised in a vindictive and arbitrary manner. We need to recover what was good about the practice of our forbearers while at the same time try to avoid their mistakes.

The Bible focuses on two types of members that are to be reproved by the congregation, but Baptist churches unfortunately have focused too often on a third. Public discipline should be reserved for (1) the indifferent and (2) the obstinate, but many times it was directed at (3) the weak.

The indifferent member is the one who stops showing any interest in Christ and the things of God. He demonstrates his apathy by his lack of attendance or support; he is spiritually lazy (2 Thess 3:6-15). It is not unusual for a traditional Baptist Church to have a church roll four or five times larger than its actual active membership. The Bible never gives comfort to the indifferent (just take a look at the Book of Hebrews) and neither should we.

The obstinate member is the second type of professing believer who the Bible directs us to call into account. This is the person who either is involved in flagrant sin, seriously disrupts the life of the church, or advocates clearly heretical beliefs. He (or she) disregards attempts by believers to be reconciled, has no desire to repent, and in fact digs in his (or her) heels (1 Cor 5; 1 Tim 1:20; Titus 3:9-11). The New Testament requires the local church to act in such cases (Matt 18:15-17).

However, more often than not, discipline was not directed at the backslider or the hard headed, but at those who stumbled. There is a world of difference between the one who is “stiff necked” and rebellious and the one who is overtaken in a fault (Gal. 6:1-3). The church is instructed to give attention to both, but in very different ways. Too often the targets of discipline have been unwed teenage mothers or those struggling to overcome an old life of drug or alcohol abuse. In these instances, discipline was not exercised so much as it was wielded. Too often discipline became a weapon.

Spiritual struggles and stutter-steps are not signs that one is unsaved. Just the opposite; it is one of the surest signs of spiritual vitality. Ask anyone who ministers to those who have been saved from a variety of addictive behaviors. They will tell you the old cliché, “Only live fish struggle to swim upstream; dead fish float with the current.” Spiritual battles indicate spiritual life. I’m not as concerned about the eternal destiny of those beleaguered with temptation as I am with the member who doesn’t give a rip.

Accountability is always in order; discipline is not. So we must be discerning about when and when not to discipline. We do not want to be like a church in northeast Arkansas with which I am familiar. The minutes from one of its business meetings of long ago tell how the congregation debated whether or not watching a square dance was grounds to be “churched.” Not dancing, mind you, but just seeing others dance. The church concluded that this indeed was sufficient cause and duly kicked out the guilty parties.

In no small measure, an important element in the successful reimplementation of the principle of accountability and the practice of church discipline will be whether we teach our people how to distinguish between those who demonstrate a lack of concern or open rebellion from those who stumble on the journey.