I have felt over these few years that we Christians did not fully understand what we are called to be and therefore how that should affect and guide what we do as a people. Over these 2 years however, the Holy Spirit’s revelations of truth only continue to flood us at home, and so I’d like us to look again at what Christ wants his church to be. That enables us to judge whether we are a part of the church Christ is building or whether we are building our own.
The Universal Church
“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb 12:22-24)This passage is part of a warning by the writer of Hebrews to the Christians of the Jerusalem church, warning them not to be deceived into going back to the legalistic Judaism that they have been saved from. Note the use of the tense “you have come”. This is a depiction of the Church not in future tense but in the present, what God sees of his church as a whole. There are some things to note as well in this passage.
1. The church is called the “city of the living God”. It belongs to God and it originates from him. It was founded on Christ.“Simon answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’ … And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it”. Therefore Christ has been given authority over it. He is the head of the church and there is no other head given by God “And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church” (Eph 1:22).
2. The membership of the church is kept in heaven – “whose names are written in heaven”. That is the church’s headquarters. There can be no earthly headquarters for it.
3. It is also referred to as an “assembly” of both angels and those “whose names are written in heaven”. Ro 12:4-5 states that “For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another”. An assembly gathers or is called for a certain purpose and until that purpose is achieved, the assembly has failed. However an assembly is not made up of one person, but of many. Each member individually contributes in some unique way to the decisions that the assembly reaches, and whatever decision is taken is binding on its members.
A further look at 1 Pe 2:5 will further clarify the uniqueness of the church. “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Christ.” Peter says we are being built into a house. Not houses, but a house. Each member has their part to play in that house, but the whole house is to be judged as worth living in not by the individual stones, but altogether as a unit.
He further goes on that “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light”(v 9-10). All these references are to a plurality of individuals who together are considered a unit and as special – a “priesthood”, a “nation”, a “people”. But even more exciting is the fact that Christians as a “people”, “priesthood”, “nation” are to declare to the world “the praises of him who called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light”.
It is therefore of non-trivial consequence that Jesus Christ will pray to the Father that his people – the church he was going to be given authority over – should be a united, immovable, invincible and inseparable people. “My prayer is not for them alone, I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you … May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me“.
There is no doubt then that there is a purpose for God building his church up the way he wants it – “I will build My Church”. He wants it to stand out to the world a clear symbol of his victory over the devil. He wants the world to know clearly that a decision to ignore His church is an emphatic decision to ignore the grace of God and to bring judgement upon its own self.
Not only to the world is this open declaration necessary, but also to the spiritual realm “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Eph 3:10). The church of God is the bride of the Lamb, and that choice made for the Lamb must be publicly declared and submitted to by the spiritual realm (Rev 19:6-9).
These are the reasons why Paul says in Eph 2:10 that “We are the workmanship of God, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”. “We” does not refer to himself or the Ephesians only, but to the universal church. The church is the work of art or poem (the original Greek word is “poiema” which gives us the Latin “poema”, the root of the English word “poem”). To both the physical and spiritual realms the church of God is a poem that declares “the praises of him who called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light”. This is what God wants his church to be, and this is the church he will come for because “Forever oh Lord, thy word is settled in heaven” (Ps 119:89 KJV).
The Local Church
Christ used the word church twice in the Gospels, the first of which we’ve already seen – “I will build My Church”. The second however refers to the local church in Mt 18:15-20. He speaks of how disputes among brethren should be resolved in the church and mentions he authority of the church as final. In this passage Christ is emphatic that the local church is the final determinant of moral character among it’s members. There is no appeal to any higher authority than that, except to Christ himself. He reiterates the power that the local church as a part of the universal has in bringing the will of God to pass “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” (v 18-20). The Greek word rendered “agree” is “sumphonos”, the root of the English word “symphony”. If the local church were to come to symphony on any issue, it will be done by heaven. I don’t think we realise the authority of the local church in God’s sphere of things. We’ll delve into how this influenced the actions of the apostles in the book of Acts next. However, Paul again points out the authority of the local church in determining moral character in 1 Co 5. I hope those whose mantra is “Why are you judging me? Christ says we should not judge” will have a look at that chapter.But what about doctrine? Who gives the compass on doctrinal issues in the church? Let us look at the example of Ac 15. The church in Antioch was confronted with some false doctrine emphasising circumcision and obedience of Moses’ laws (v 1), and this forced the church to send Paul and Barnabas along with some others to the Jerusalem church to seek clarification (v 2). There are some things to note in these passages.
1. Paul and Barnabas were sent by the church in Antioch. They were not called by the church in Jerusalem to account to them or anything of that sort. The Jerusalem church exerted no authority on the Antioch one, but churches being interdependent, the latter felt the need to consult it’s brother on this issue of doctrine which originated from the former (v1,24).
2. They were “welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders” and they reported what God had done through them to the whole body (v 4).
3. There was a private session of discussions among the elders and apostles on this question that the brethren from Antioch brought (v 6-11). Peter’s contribution to that discussion is recorded. However, the matter was brought before the whole assembly again for further discussion (v 12-21) and ratification. Again James’ contribution to the discussion is also recorded.
4. “Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church …” (v 22). The final decision rested with the whole assembly, not with a small elitist top-heavy bunch. The NKJV puts v 25 even better “It seemed good to us, being assembled with one accord ...”. It’s interesting that from a point of division in v 5, the whole body has come “with one accord” to a certain agreement to send men with Paul and Barnabas to confirm, along with the letter being sent, what the whole body in Jerusalem had decided. This could not have happened except with the movement of the Holy Spirit amongst them (v 28) “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements …“
5. It will be good to take note as well of the following observations from this passage.
a) The leadership was very accountable to the members. No decisions were taken for them. The whole body had to ratify those decisions. This is a mark of a people who are dependent on the Holy Spirit to bring about guidance and conformity, and not on the wisdom of men. Paul and Barnabas after having been sent out in Ac 13 did the work as directed by the Holy Spirit till in Ac 14:26-28 where they came back to those who sent them to report to them on what God had used them to do.
b) It is also very interesting to note the phrase “apostles and elders”. The New Testament church never accepted a single leader as the norm. There was always a multiplicity of leadership, never one elder/pastor/bishop/overseer/shepherd (which all refer to the same post of elder) or one apostle leading the church. As a part of the catholic (which means universal) church, the only authority they submitted to was that of the Holy Spirit as the representative of Christ among them. There was no “Pope”, “District Pastor”, “Archbishop of the Diocese”, “General Overseer”, “Moderator”, “President”, “Chairman” or a single “Pastor”. Only Christ through the Holy Spirit. The same pattern existed in Antioch (Ac 13:1-3) and elsewhere (Tit 1:5,1 Ti 5:17).
c) A system of interdependence between churches based in different locations, allowing men to come from one church in another city/town to bring them a word or revelation (whether it was from God or not was judged by themselves, or by consultation with related churches and in both cases under the guidance of the Spirit).
I’ll leave the comparison between this model of the church and what we have today open to the reader to do. Suffice it to say that what we have today is a clear departure. Let us look at some statistics to confirm the importance of Spirit-filled, house/neighbourhood-based churches belonging to one city wide ministry and unattached to any denomination.
In the bible there are 35 references to “a church” in a city but none to “churches” in a city, 36 references to “churches” in a province but none to “church” in a province, 4 references to “church” in a house, 20 to “church” universal and 16 to a local “church” undefined (Rediscovering God’s Church, Derek Prince). This clearly shows that the nucleus of one city-wide church comprised of smaller house-based churches. I was amazed when I looked up the root of the word “thousands” in Ac 21:20 ” You see brother, how man thousands of Jews have believed …” in E-Sword under Thayer’s and Strong’s dictionaries. It turns out that the Greek word is “murias”, root of the word “myriad” which means not “thousands”, but “tens of thousands”. I guess most of us are used to thinking that the church in Jerusalem was just a small church. Historians will tell you that it had about fifty thousand members. This is not too surprising. History put this visit by Paul around AD 58, which is considered twenty seven years before since that mighty outpouring of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Note that around those times, five thousand men was the initial number saved (Ac 4:4). And yet it was called “the church in Jesuralem”. Apparently the church of Antioch also had about fifteen thousand. Interesting.
Therefore it was more the pattern for one city to have a church with many leaders, who are in turn leaders of smaller house/neighbourhood based churches. Such a church recognises itself as only a part of the universal church and directly related to its brother church in another city. It submits itself to the leadership of the Holy Spirit and insists on the indwelling of the Spirit within every member. In this way our unity as Christians will be clearly visible to the world which and we would clearly be the poem of God’s wonders.
I challenge you to begin to look at the church from Christ’s perspective. He is building His Church. Fortunately for us he always gives us a pattern to follow, that we may not get lost. Mt 4:19 says “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men”. He has told us what he wants to make us – fishers of men. The only requirement is that we follow – not men, their traditions, their theologies nor their wisdom – but “Me”. Just as I’ve said in a previous post, though I pray that the grace of God will bring this vision of the church to our existing churches, I don’t see that happening soon to churches that “have forsaken Me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jer 2:13). That is why after all the seven messages of warning that Christ wrote, he ends by saying “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches”.