1 Timothy 3:14-15
Last week we looked at our spiritual roots, here in this community, and also in our history as Churches of Christ. This morning, I want us to look at our spiritual roots in the Bible itself as we see what the Bible says the church should look like. And when I say Church of Christ, I’m not talking about the Church of Christ in contrast with the Methodist church, or Baptist church or the Assembly of God. I’m using Church of Christ the way the Bible uses it – as describing the church which Jesus died for and purchased with his blood. We are the church which belongs to Jesus. Now what does that look like?
We are committed to being the church of the Bible
We hold the New Testament as our only creed (document of beliefs) – not the Westminster Confession, not the Apostles Creed, we don’t hang our beliefs on Calvin or Luther or even Campbell or Stone. We have no magazine or lectures that lay down a rule of belief or practice. There’s no convention or synod that establishes our system of belief. We believe every man and woman can go back to the Bible themselves and come to an understanding of what God wants in a Christian and in the church. And in that respect, that means we are constantly studying, willing to reexamine the scriptures, and revise our understanding as our knowledge of the scripture grows.
So, when someone asks me “what does the Church of Christ believe?” on some subject, they get a puzzled look and a dumb answer – because I believe absolutely that what we believe is in the book. And so, if I ask you in return “well, what does the Bible say?” I’m not trying to be obstinate, but true to what I believe. Each person is responsible to God (that doesn’t mean that it’s thrown open to the kind of modern day “my opinion’s as good as anyone else’s” – with no absolutes, no firm truths, no definable doctrine).
It just means that I can’t excuse myself by saying “brother so-and-so preached this” – nor will it suffice to say “aunt Gertrude had enough religion for all of us”
No one can speak for me – I cannot speak for anyone else. It has long been our motto – “we speak where the Bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent.” We appeal to the authority of the Bible, we believe in its inspiration by God. What it says, we believe to be true and binding. And where the Bible is silent, we do not press our opinions and traditions on others as binding.
If that is true (and I believe it is) then we can only conclude that if we are to be the church that God wants us to be, we can only find his will for the church in his Word. And such a significant matter cannot be left to human opinion and preference if God has spoken. Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, “Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.” (1 Tim. 3:14-15)
The NT is the only pattern for the church
The crucial question we need to ask this morning is, “what does God want his church to be?” What makes the church the church? Is it culturally determined – left to each generation to modify and decide? Or is there something timeless and permanent which transcends cultural relevance? The first century church struggled with this question – Gentile and Jewish churches had incredible cultural differences and when you tried to mix cultures – as in Rome with Jewish Christians and their compulsions over eating meat from the pagan meat market, and Gentiles who celebrated certain holidays.
In some ways we are too much like the 1st century church with their petty arguments over eating meat and keeping holy days. And Paul didn’t mince words in telling them that they had missed the point – He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord… Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble… Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. (Romans 14:6-8, 19-20; 15:7).
I think of some of the squabbles the modern church has had over the most trivial and insignificant items. We strain gnats over the most ridiculous and petty arguments imaginable while losing sight of what really is most important.
Now let me say as strongly as I know how that the NT describes certain non-negotiables without which the church would not be the church of our Lord.
· Salvation by grace through faith -- the cross looms large as central to everything we are.
· Baptism as the new birth into God’s kingdom.
· The priesthood of all believers.
· We know they met on the first day of the week and that the Lord’s Supper was a central part of their worship.
The New Testament’s list of non-negotiables, though, is a short list. Our list of what makes the church the church is much longer. Why these particulars? Not just because it’s the best way or the most efficient, or because we voted on it, or because some group “got their way” – but because Christ established the church, and implemented it through the apostles and it is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit.
And when we find the NT church described and characterized in certain ways – we find Christ’s authority behind them.
Are they simply an attempt to be unique and different? No, precisely the opposite – they define not uniqueness, but universality. These are not things that should divide and cause controversy, but upon which all Christians should be able to agree and unite. They are the most basic essence of the church.
If we feel smugly obedient because we have nailed down the details of the church we need to listen to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 7:2)
It is a danger to assume that because we have the externals of the church that we have mastered the heart – that because we have restored its form that we also practice its life.
The truth is that it is not a cross on the front of a building that makes a church, but the church that has a cross upon its back. We must not only have a commitment to the form, but to the heart of NT Christianity. When we look in the NT, we find certain distinctives which capture the heart of the church. Let’s talk about those truly distinguishing marks of the church of the New Testament:
1. Jesus said, “a new command I give you: Love one another”
“As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Jesus drives home to us the authenticating power of love. Before a person ever asks whether a church has right doctrine, they instinctively want to know whether they love one another. You cannot make an impact on a lost world with correctness of doctrine if you communicate it with a cold, cynical haughtiness. The world will not care what you believe if they see it negated by the isolation and loneliness and mistrust among its members. There is an old saying – “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” And it is true.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he was writing to a church that thought they were doing all the right things – they prided themselves in having the most glamorous of the spiritual gifts and being sophisticated in their worship. But Paul tells them, there is more to being the church than right externals – If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 1 Cor. 13:1-8.
Now, some churches go the other direction and they don’t care what you believe, or what you do. Anything is fine with them – and their rationale is “we just believe in love.” And I say, “show me.” Love that isn’t laid over a foundation of Jesus Christ – love that hasn’t been funneled through the hard demands of discipleship – isn’t love. When you read about that early church in Acts 2, “they devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and to fellowship.” Doctrine and relationship walked hand in hand, believing right and genuine love are inseparable.
2. Secondly, you see a church devoted to prayer
Not just that we have a few compulsory prayers interspersed in our worship services, or that we have a prayer list in our bulletin – but that we are a church that believes in prayer and lives in prayer and relies on prayer.
Do you want to see a church that was committed to prayer – look at the church in the book of Acts –
Ac 1:14 They all joined together constantly in prayer…
Ac 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Ac 4:24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.
Ac 6:4 “… we will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
Ac 12:5,12 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him… went to the house of Mary the mother of John, where many people had gathered and were praying.
Ac 14:23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.
Ac 16:25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…
Ac 21:5 But when our time was up, we left and continued on our way. All the disciples and their wives and children accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray.
It’s going to be when we get serious about prayer that God is going to start blessing this church. God already knows what he wants to do with this church – he’s just waiting for us to ask him to do it, and commit ourselves to following his lead.
Prayer isn’t easy work – prayer demands more than we ever thought we could give. When we sit down to pray, we think we’re sitting down for a little small talk with God, but when we’re serious about prayer, we are opening the door for God to break us and use us and take us places we never intended to go. Are we willing to get serious about prayer? The early church was. It was marked by prayer.
3. A third distinctive mark of the church takes us to Galatians 6, where Paul wrote, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal. 6:17)
What kind of marks is he talking about? Well Paul experienced the hard and painful truth of what Jesus told his disciples in John 15:18-19 – “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.”
When we become Christians, it puts us crosswise with the world – its values, its morals, its priorities. And because we are different, we won’t fit in. And we don’t fit in because we look more like Jesus than like the world.
When Paul experienced that life-changing transformation on the road to Damascus, he suddenly found himself at odds with the very system he represented. And he brought on himself the wrath of those who once claimed him as their champion. Paul received persecution from every corner – both Jew and Gentile – because he had become such an irritating reminder of their sin and lostness.
It wasn’t just Paul. You hear it again and again in scripture:
· Heb. 11:7 – Noah “By his faith he condemned the world in righteousness…”
· Mt. 5:11 – “Blessed are you when men persecute you”
· 2 Tim 3:12 – “Everyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
If we are not being persecuted, is it because the world does not recognize the difference and is not convicted, or challenged, or even mildly annoyed at our differences? Persecution is not the mark of the church, but the result of the lives of righteousness which are.
Persecution comes because our lives are so distinctively different from the world’s that it cannot ignore its own sin and lostness.
Peter wrote that we are aliens and strangers in the world.
Most of us are so immersed and enmeshed in the world, we don’t see that we look just like it – Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever. 1 John 2:15-17
Jesus did not go to the cross, because he made a few social blunders, but because his righteousness so deeply convicted the world that it could not ignore its own unrighteousness – and we share that convicting presence – For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? 2 Cor 2:15-16 So I have to ask – does the church bear on its body the marks of Jesus?
What makes the church the church? Love, prayer, distinctive lives. These are the things you can’t stamp out with a cookie cutter. These are things that only occur when the heart of a congregation is turned toward God. If we want to be the church Jesus created and owned – these are the things we need to pour our lives into.
There is a fascinating comment in Acts 4:13 about the distinctiveness of the early disciples: When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
I cannot speak to the church, only to individuals – my purpose is to move each of us to desire to become Christians who are marked by the touch of Jesus, for then we will become the church of the NT.
In the summer of 1805, a missionary to the Seneca Indians spoke to a council of Indian chiefs and warriors of the six nations at Buffalo Creek, NY in the presence of the govt. agent for Indian Affairs. This is the story as told by A. Campbell in the Millennial Harbinger:
Said the missionary, “I am come brothers to enlighten your minds and teach you how to worship the great spirit according to his will and to preach the gospel of his son Jesus Christ. There is but one way to serve God, and if you do not embrace the right way you cannot be happy hereafter.”
To that offer of sharing the gospel a Seneca chief replied, “Brother, we understand your religion is written in a book. You say that there is but one way to worship and serve the great spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agree as your read the same book? Brother, we don’t understand these things. We also understand your religion was given to your forefathers. We also have a religion given to our forefathers. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we receive, to love one another, to be united – we never quarrel about our religion. We’re told you have been preaching to the white people in this place – they are our neighbors, we are well acquainted with them. We will wait a little to see what effect your preaching has upon them. If we find it does them good, makes them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians, then we will consider what you have said.”
Let’s be a church that lives what it says it believes. Let’s be a church that brings honor and glory to our Lord. Let’s be the church of Christ.