This… is the church…
We have all seen church. It has become a part of our society. Indeed, church in America has become a popular icon in our culture. But therein lies the issue that plagues the church. I suppose the first question one must ask is, “What is church?” Some would say it is the building one sits in on Sundays. But, as it has been said, “trying to refer to the church as a building is like trying to refer to people as two-by-fours.” Others believe church is an escape—a drug, if you will—for people who want to feel better about themselves. Others still see the church as a brainwashing factory full of hypocritical or apathetical persons who wear the façade of Christianity in order to appear as something superior to the rest of humanity. And there are still others who see church an entirely different way…
Some point to doctrine as the defining factor of a church. Granted. But what is doctrine for in the first place? The Latin word “doctrina” literally means “a code of beliefs”—in essence, doctrine is the foundation upon which a certain school of thought, a specific organization, or, as is in our case, a church is based. It is a set of beliefs that is apart from all others as the authoritative creed for a group of people. For us, it is seen as basic. At least, isn’t it supposed to be?
A saddening realization comes to my mind concerning doctrine. More and more books have been written, more and more classes have been taught, and even more points of doctrine—again, referring to its literal definition—are constantly disputed. Everyone seems to have a say. In fact, doctrine has become such a hot topic that people have created disciplines for specific bodies to follow. Thus you have denominational beliefs that remain at the core of each individual group, some overarching among all the groups, and others separate and unique. But let us look for a minute at the whole principle of denominations.
One definition for denomination is this: “a group of religious congregations having its own organization and a distinctive faith”. I hope you see this next point clearly. This definition clearly outlines what a denomination is. It is a religious group, separated from other religious groups—of the same faith—by its own organized infrastructure and “a distinctive faith”. I wonder—are we called as believers in the “Body of Christ” to each hold to our own divergent notion of faith?
So then, you may see the progression at this point: doctrine has somehow led to a deviation of the church, so much so that different groups have formed and split and reformed—thus we now have denominations. I have heard it also said, “We’ve got to unite ourselves as one body, because Jesus is coming back, and he’s coming back for a bride, not a harem”. Christ did not instruct us to become divided in our faith. Indeed, he prayed in earnest that all who believed his disciples’ message would be united as one, just as he and the Father are one (John 17:20-21). He did not call us to diversity, though we are diverse as human beings, for our Creator uniquely designs all men for his purpose in their lives.
I don’t think it is necessary to look back at the history of church at this present time to answer the question, “When did this happen, that the church has become so divided?” The fact is it has happened. And the church has never been exempt to fighting this issue; indeed, Paul warned many in his letters and his travels of this, saying that “even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw disciples after them” (Acts 20:30). Now, perhaps men have had good intentions all along—but if they are not God’s intentions, and rather simply “of human origin, it will fail” (Acts 5:38). And indeed, in many cases, it has. History has proven it. The church became an institution rather than a fellowship of brotherhood and peace. It became a dogmatic persecutor of the world rather than a persecuted remnant in the world. It became a terror and an oppressor to mankind—that stain has marred the church indefinitely. And because of this progression, we have sought to become focused on doctrine rather than becoming doctors to the sick—the very intent of the advent of Christ (Matthew 9:12-13), who came for sinners, not scholars.
So then, what has indeed happened to the church? This is nothing new; there are many who have scratched their heads repetitively and asked this question. Indeed, as humorous as it is, books have been written (and by far better hands than mine) concerning this issue! Yet it still remains simply that—an issue. When, I wonder, will it become a rising conflict in our minds? You see, in today’s world, an issue is nothing more than something people like to talk about without doing anything for or against it. Very rarely in today’s society do we see anyone stand up in defiance or support of a critical issue. If they do, they are labeled as radical, and rightly so—they swim upstream instead of down. But when the issue becomes personal—when it hits us hard in the face like a chilling winter wind—then it no longer is a matter of talk. It becomes a matter of action.
Thus, I call your attention to this next statement, and it is both bold and radical, but nonetheless it is both true and not without credibility, as many have asserted it to be truthful: the time has come for us to move past the phase of reaction and on to the phase of action. The time has come for us to return to the true essence of this faith we so earnestly seek. I do not mean to be cynical or derogatory—I believe there are many in the church today that truly wish to love God and acknowledge the power of the Cross. But what holds us back, I think, is us—our doctrine, our tradition, our own organization. Now, hear me in this, please: I am not condemning doctrine, in its truest form, nor tradition, nor organization. All are essential in the church. But the way we go about them must be based on something besides ourselves, and that something is called Scripture.
If church disciplines were perfect, we wouldn’t need to hold conventions in order to amend and change them. And if by some miracle you attend a church or adhere to a denomination that has a discipline that never needs to be adjusted, then I suppose you need not bother reading this. But the plain fact of the matter is this: if God’s living word is not our basis for every single belief—for doctrine—then we have no basis of belief.
I say all this because I am tired of church. I am tired of being a Christian on Sunday and a heathen on Monday. I am tired of the fact that in this country the Sunday morning hour is the most segregated hour of the week. I am tired of the fact that we are largely without want or persecution, and so we succumb to being stagnant in faith. I am tired that we do not abhor the evils around us. I am tired of churches that sneer at the world and at each other. I am tired of churches that revolve around their own leadership, buildings, and creeds. I am tired of the image that so many people see when the word “church” comes to mind. In fact, I hate that kind of church. It is not of God, whatever it is, and it is detestable in his sight.
Now, I must be accurate in what I say: there are many churches that live out God’s calling. There are many who are to be commended for walking the straight and narrow path that God has called them to. But when I look at the statistics—and they are extremely accurate, if one commits to proper research—that declare that America is second to Europe in church membership decline, I fear for the life of the church. Not that it shall die, for the Lord declares, “my words shall never pass away”, and that, “the gates of hell shall not stand against it,” but that it shall limp on as a maimed figure in the world, becoming infiltrated by the evils that the apostles and the inerrant words of Christ warned us to be wary of.
Hopefully by now you understand what I have been saying: American Christianity and Christianity in America are two completely different things. Indeed, if churches mirror society rather than the person of Jesus Christ, I must beg the question, “What on earth are we doing?” And I mean that, truly—what on this earth are we doing? We are commanded to tell others of the grace of God through the blood of Christ. It was not a suggestion, an idea, or an offer. It was a command.
So what is the church? I believe that God has revealed to us its definition in three simple words. And let it be known that this is not contrived in my own mind—it is something we all know and understand, but somehow find difficult to live out. These three words are found in one of the most beautiful passages of the New Testament: 1st Corinthians 13:13, which says this: “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
That…is the church. But let us look closer.
Again and again Paul refers to faith, hope, and love in congruence with one another. Indeed, Christ defined them with his life. His apostles set the example for them. And the Word of God does not lie—these three remain as the essence of our faith. 1st Thessalonians 1: 3 says this: “We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” So let us dive headlong into this notion of the true doctrine of the church.
Faith is spoken of first, and I shall explain why. Works are not required for salvation. Discernment and knowledge are not necessary to merit God’s grace. Before anything else, we must have faith. And faith branches out into other things. Faith and prayer are intertwined constantly in Scripture and in our daily lives as followers of Christ. One cannot exist without the other. And prayer is intertwined with worship. Worship is equal with intercession. Oswald Chambers described it well when he said, “Too often instead of worshipping God, we construct statements as to how prayer works. Are we worshipping or are we in dispute with God—‘I don’t see how you are going to do it’. This is a sure sign that we are not worshipping.” You see, prayer is not shooting an e-mail to God. Nor is it simply a required routine where we eloquently pray for everything but yet ask God for nothing, drawing the assumption that God has simply nodded off to sleep and that we must therefore take care of the situation ourselves. Indeed—if we could do it ourselves, we’d have no need for prayer, and if not for prayer, then there is no need of worship, and if there is no need of worship, then we’ve no need for faith, and if we have no need of faith, then we have lost sight of the will and power of God, and we condemn ourselves to a life of insecurity and a poverty of the soul.
So we see the pattern. Faith coincides with prayer, and prayer with worship. And all three are encapsulated by action. James spoke of “faith and deeds”—indeed, he did not say one must have deeds but no faith, just as he did not say, “You must have faith but no deeds”. Rather, as seen in the second chapter of his letter, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17).
The second aspect is hope. Hope is found solely in the embodiment of our Savior—Jesus Christ. Without his sacrifice, we are hopeless. Without him, as Solomon declares, “Everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). So where do we learn of this hope? The Bible. Hope, therefore, is in correspondence with the Gospel, that is, the Word of God, which is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). And it is because of this hope that we understand that we have been called to a life set apart from the world, for Christ declares, “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Thus we die to self and live to Christ, for it is not we who live, but Christ who lives in us. Thus we are not our own person—we are, in fact, inhabited by the person of Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. Therefore, the Holy Spirit is enacted by this same hope. So then, in light of the hope that we have, we must each ask this vital question of ourselves, as proposed again by Oswald Chambers: “Have I entered into the glorious privilege of being crucified with Christ until all that is left is the life of Christ in my flesh and blood? ‘I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’”
The last part of this captivating verse declares, with finality, “But the greatest of these is love.” Love corresponds to compassion. Another translation of the word in the New Testament text refers to it as charity. Charity, by simple definition, is described as “benevolence or generosity toward others or toward humanity”. Compassion, or charity, is the action we are called to. Compassion invites service. Service invites humility. Humility invites a yearning in the hearts of those being served for the result of our humility: a peace and a joy that comes only through the Father. “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). For happiness is a vapor—it cannot maintain its sustenance in our lives; it eventually wears out or becomes depleted, and we must search for something else to fulfill our lives. But joy is found in service towards men, and especially in the denial of self—by humility, by service, and especially by persecution. “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,” (II Timothy 3:12).
Love knows no bounds. It conquers indifference; it destroys hatred. It brings low the curse of pride; it embraces the hunger for humility. Love remembers no evil; it forgets no act of mercy. Love surpasses every evil deed—as well as every good one. Love envelops injustice; love raises the meek to their feet. Love captures us on the Cross; love sings to us from the empty tomb. Love devours malice, it restores peace, and, as Paul’s words mightily declare, “love never fails” (I Corinthians 13:8). Christ was the ultimate example of this love, this charity. His sacrifice went well beyond the physical torment and death he suffered. He was denied by his own Father, who cast aside his face from his own Son, and for our sakes. Then the Lord was cast into hell, and for three days endured the devil’s wicked laugh. But not in vain, for on the third day, the Lord rose not only from the grave, but also from the depths of Hades, leaving sin and death chained behind him. Thus we are free. How blessed a thing is the love of Christ, which cannot be ripped from us, by anything above, within, or below the whole of creation. Therefore, we truly are “more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).
Faith. Hope. Love.
These three words sum up everything that Christ did. They sum up everything that the apostles taught. They embody what all the saints of the church bled and died to uphold.
Faith. Hope. Love.
These words ring throughout the realms of history. They surpass the might of armies; they defeat the hatred of the world. They cause men to break before the Creator; they cause the strong to become weak.
Faith. Hope. Love.
They overturn the tables of moneylenders; they reject the fallacy of human law. They stand firm against persecution; they do not recoil in the face of oppression.
Faith. Hope. Love.
They become a shield for the weak, a sword for the powerless, a banner for the weary. They stand over the Enemy’s snares; they dismantle the authorities of men. They ring—not with church bells, not with choirs of men and angels, but rather in the hearts of the faithful, the called, the set apart. They bid us to stand in a world that has fallen. They command us to submit to the only one who can never be defeated. They persuade us to stand in surrender, to bow the knee of our hearts, and to kindle the flame that rests in the hope of the Gospel within the hearts of the lost. And they go before us, so that we may carry the message of hope to the world—not with a resounding trumpet call, not with the eloquence of human speech, and not by the power of man’s understanding and knowledge. They call for dependence in the one who declares our independence. Thus, the church is clearly defined for us all. Thus, we understand that these words are from God, demonstrated by Christ, and seen in the Spirit. Thus we understand that Christ is the head, and we are the feet. How precious it is that we are considered worthy to be the heralds of the King!
So let us not be divided. Let our doctrine be united in the Father. Let our denomination be known simply as the Body of Christ. And let our message be the Gospel that was preached to us. And let us run the race set before us, with unbending perseverance and zeal, maintaining our fervor, shunning all silence, and let us go forth, with the banner of Christ before our feet, with the words of truth resting in our hearts. And in all things, let us not forget who walks beside us, before us, and in us. And with those weapons—faith, hope, and love—let us now be called to action, this day, this hour, this moment, henceforth until we draw our last breath. For, as David declares, “I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”
Faith. Hope. Love.
This…is the church.