Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Importance of the Visible Church

The organized, visible Church is looked down upon by most people today. Especially in America, individualism has infiltrated our thinking, and the Church has suffered for it. While this is not a new problem for us, recent years have seen a greater move from fracturing the Church to simply leaving it. The younger generations especially are seeing the hypocrisy of the Church and want nothing to do with it. It is considered a burden and a waste of time. In some respects they are right. The Church is in a sad state today. Nevertheless, it is not going to get any better by our abandoning of it. The Bible puts a great deal of importance upon the Church, including its visible aspects, and must have its reasons for doing so. When we see it for what it truly is, it is clear that the visible Church is vitally important and should be enthusiastically embraced by the believer.

The Church is not a voluntary society created by men but is created and maintained by Christ its Head. As the Head of the Church, Christ organizes and directs its workings. He sets up its government in His word, and it cannot operate apart from His commands; it is subject to Christ in everything (Eph. 5:23-24). The place of the Church cannot be taken by any other institution, but it has been given certain authority that it wields on behalf of its Head. Moreover, Christ not only organizes the Church, but also gives it life and ability. As Paul explains,
“we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).
This body which is mentioned here is visible, with pastors and baptism (Eph. 4:5, 11). It is Christ that gives His Spirit to His people so that they may believe in Him and minister to one another. This union that the Church has with Christ is not merely theoretical, but real and living. “An organic and Spirit-produced relationship exists between Christ and His Church, more intimate than that of a husband and wife, and more complete than that of the head and the body” (Morecraft, 382). How dare we think lightly of the Church when Christ nourishes it with this special care? If we are to be built up in love, we must be in the Church, because the Church is where Christ gives life and growth.

Not only is Christ the Head of the Church, but the Church is His body. If we have union with our Head, we must have communion with His body. We are renewed by Christ into this communion. Our gifts, which are given by the one Holy Spirit, are meant for the body. They have little or no use besides. As a church we are “the body of Christ” and are each “individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). We all need one another. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12:21). These gifts covers all sorts of needs, spiritual and material. To abandon this body of visible believers is an amputation of Christ’s body. Instead we ought to use the gifts that Christ has purchased for us by His humiliation and ascension (Eph. 4:8-9). When we use what Christ has given us in the Church, then the body will be “joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped” (Eph. 4:16). It is when we are equipped by the gifts of the visible leadership that Christ has ordained in the Church, that we will “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13).

This visible leadership of the Church is instituted by God with real authority and power. The elders of the church have a duty to teach and preach the Word and guard it from falsehood. We are not left completely to ourselves to learn God’s Word, but have been given the ministry of the Church to teach us. Right after describing the officers of the Church, Paul declares that the Church is “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). He also exhorts Titus to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” and to “exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” (Titus 2:1, 15). The elders of the Church in council also have valuable authority. In Acts 15 the Jerusalem council takes up a problem and renders a decision, one that was reached by the council and “the Holy Spirit” and lays down a “burden” upon the Church. The preaching of the Church is also vital. It is in the preaching of those sent by Christ for that purpose that Christ is heard (Rom. 10:14-16). Preaching is the “power of God” to those who are being saved, and God is pleased to save those who believe through preaching (1 Cor. 1:18, 21). Christ calls specific men to preach His Word. He started with the Apostles (Mark 3:14, 2 Tim. 1:11), and continues to call preachers for, and by, His Church in our time (1 Tim. 4:11-16, 2 Tim. 1:6, 2:2). While the individual Christian does benefit much from his own study of Scripture, he ought not ignore God’s ordained preachers and teachers of His Word, through whom God works in His people.

The elders of the Church also have authority concerning the sacraments of the Church. The Church’s mission of discipleship is not only accomplished by teaching, but also by baptizing (Matt. 28:19). This Christ-ordained baptism is very connected to the visible aspect of the Church because we are baptized into a body of visible believers (1 Cor. 12:12). When Peter says in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized every one of you...and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” we not only see that baptism is commanded, but also that baptism is connected with this “gift of the Holy Spirit.” As we have discussed above, the Spirit unifies us to Christ and His redemption and thus also to Christ’s people, His Church. Thus the close connection between “one body and one Spirit” and “one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-5). And not only is baptism a bond of union with Christ and His Church, but the Lord’s Supper is as well.
“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16-17).
Our communion with Christ in the Lord’s Supper is affected by our relations with others in the Church (1 Cor. 11:17-34). Thus the Church has a duty to guard the Lord’s Supper against those who would corrupt the Church. If a church does not judge and purge the evil person from itself and its communion, Christ will judge that church (1 Cor. 5, 11:31-32). The Church has authority from Christ to define the membership of Christ’s body, out of which there is no ordinary forgiveness (Matt. 16:19, 18:17-20, John 20:21-23). And to voluntarily seek Christ apart from His visible people and communion is to excommunicate one’s self. As The Catechism of the Church of Geneva says concerning the sacraments of the Church,
“M. Were any one to despise the use of them, in what light should it be regarded? S. As an indirect denial of Christ. Assuredly such a person, inasmuch as he deigns not to confess himself a Christian, deserves not to be classed among Christians” (Q. 363). 

With this discussion of the importance of the Church it is easy to become too inwardly focused. The Church is not important merely for the sake of Church members, but also for the sake of the world. Its visible purity and unity is not only for avoiding the judgement of Christ, but also so that it might be a bright light to the world. Christ prayed to the Father that those who believe in Him may be one “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20). Because Christ is the light for the Gentiles (Luke 2:32), so also is His people, that they “may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47). As prophesied in Isaiah 2:1-5, the nations will learn the ways and law of the Lord from the Church and will walk by its light (Rev. 21:24). From the Church we will see “the whole Word of God going out as the universal principle of righteousness, encouraging prosperity and peace in the world” (Gentry, Lecture 5). While we each ought to faithfully serve God and bear witness to the gospel, we do that as individuals and families who are members of the Church and who bear good witness, in part, by loving one another as the Church.

When considering the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28:18-20 we ought to pay attention to the thing upon which Christ bases the commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore...” In Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the Father “put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church” (Eph. 1:22). All things, then, are subservient to Christ and His purposes. He cares for His Church and directs all things for its good and the good of its members. His enemies and the enemies of His Church shall be shattered (Ps. 2, 110). It is the Church that Christ said He would build and “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” (Matt. 16:18). This is also how Christ ends the Great Commission, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Because Christ has all authority, and because He will not abandon us, we may work in hope of victory for Christ and His Church and Kingdom. “With the power and authority of Christ the King behind the command, and with the outcome resting in His hands, ultimate failure is not possible” (Mathison, 116). Why would one not embrace the Church when Christ’s universal authority over the world is for its sake and victory?

The Church in its visible manifestation is dear to the believer. As 1 John 4:20 points out, how can any man love God whom he has not seen if he does not love his brother whom he has seen? It cannot be. Because we love Christ, we love the Church He died for. We love the Church because it is Christ’s body. We love the Church because it is where Christ has established His Word and sacraments, by which, through the Spirit’s work, we are bound tightly to Him and His people. We love the Church because we understand that its purpose is beyond itself. It seeks the dominion of Christ’s Kingdom in all areas of life, in all the world, and in this mission Christ promises protection and victory. As John Calvin said concerning the “visible church,”
“let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels” (Institutes, 674).
Thus may we live in constant union with Christ and His Church, always seeking the Church’s good and building up one another in love. May we hold on to one another with tenacity and fervor. May we ever submit to one another, not letting difficulties and trials separate us, but ever growing up together in Christ.

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Calvin, John The Catechism of the Church of Geneva. http://www.reformed.org/documents/calvin/geneva_catachism/geneva_catachism.html
Calvin, John Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2008.
Gentry, Dr. Kenneth. “Lecture 05” SYS 106 Christian Doctrine III. Lakeland, FL: Whitefield,
2008.
Mathison, Keith A. Postmillennialism. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1999.
Morecraft, Dr. Joseph C. Authentic Christianity, Vol. 2. Powder Springs, GA: Minkoff Family; American Vision, 2009.
The Holy Bible (ESV). Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003.

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