Why We Need the Church

I began to follow Jesus seriously in the 1970s. Back then, I thought of it as a decision. “I have decided to follow Jesus,” I sang. “No turning back, no turning back.” But over time, I came to realize that it was more a case of Jesus drawing me after Him. I worked the midnight shift at a fast-food restaurant and started reading the Gospels during my breaks. Their stories of Jesus calling the disciples to drop everything and follow Him caught my attention and eventually captured my heart.

In the early days of my new life, it didn’t dawn on me that church was also part of the package. Our family didn’t attend and now that I thought of myself as a Christian, it seemed unnecessary to me. I had Jesus and the Bible. I had made friends with others who shared my faith. Why ruin it all by adding church into the mix? I had visited a few churches in the past. With its unfamiliar people and odd music, the experience was more uncomfortable than anything else. We stood and sat. Stood and sat. And then a man got up and lectured us about things I didn’t really understand. But after I became a follower of Jesus, I started regularly attending because someone told me that it was what Christians do. The music was still strange to me, but the lectures made more sense now that I was reading the Bible. I have been going to church ever since, though not always with enthusiasm. The music and the people still seem odd to me at times. But I have come to see the church as an essential part of my Christian life.

What is the Church?

We often talk about the church as if it were a location. We say we are “going to church.” We point to a steepled building that we call “the church on the corner.” We think of church as a place we go to worship. But the Bible speaks differently. On the one hand, in 1 Corinthians 11:18, the apostle Paul describes how the Corinthian believers “come together as church.” According to this, church is something we do. It is the act of coming together as those who worship and follow Jesus Christ.  On the other hand, the apostle also speaks of church as an identity. Church is what we are. It is a community of those who belong to Christ. For example, later in his letter, Paul brings greetings from Aquilla and Priscilla, two of his friends and colleagues, and from “the church that meets at their house” (1 Cor. 16:19). This is the same letter that he addresses to “the church of God in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2).

So a church is not a building but an assembly of believers. A church is a community of faith. When you read Paul’s references to the church in the New Testament, you find that he sometimes refers to it in the singular and at other times in the plural. He speaks of “the Church” and also of “the churches.” These are the church’s two primary modes. One is broad, and the other is narrow. On its most expansive level, there is only one Church made up of all believers, at all times, and in all places. This church is not confined to what is seen. It spans heaven as well as earth and includes both the living and the dead. It is also evident from the way Paul writes that there are many churches. This is the other mode of the church. It is local and consists of individual congregations made up of those who profess faith in  Christ. These local assemblies each have their own distinctive make-up, personality, and style and may sometimes differ on points of doctrine or practice. As a result, the New Testament can speak both of the Church and the churches without contradiction.

Irenaeus, the second-century bishop of Lyons, characterized the church as “a paradise in the world.” The book of Acts provides a snapshot of what life was like in the early church. According to Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Luke describes what, on the surface, might sound like a utopian community. They shared their possessions, and their meetings were characterized by gladness and sincerity. Yet, the New Testament also paints a realistic portrait of church life. There we find people who are much like us, forgiven sinners who sometimes fight and complain but are still traveling the way of Christ together with the help of the Holy Spirit. In the book of Acts, we see some of the real-world flaws of this remarkable community. We discover that some of its members were hypocrites (5:1–2). We learn that the church’s first significant organizational change took place because some of its members were being neglected, possibly due to cultural prejudice (6:1). And we observe how reluctant the church initially was to accept the newly converted Paul because of his former life (9:26). Its members struggled with jealousy and ethnic prejudice. Some New Testament Christians were upset after they heard Peter had met and dined with Gentiles (11:2–3). Paul and Barnabas had so sharp a disagreement that they each went their separate ways (15:39). Some preachers taught with needed further doctrinal instruction (18:25–26). And Paul warned that others would become false teachers (20:30).

Why Church is Necessary

But do we really need the church? The Bible’s answer is an emphatic yes. One reason is that the assembled church provides a unique context for worship. When Christians come together as church, they do so to worship God through Jesus Christ. Ephesians 2:19-22 says that those who are in Christ are fellow citizens with God’s people and members of his household. They are a kind of temple, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. All who belong to Christ are being “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” One of the primary reasons Christians come together is to experience the reality of God’s presence through worship. Another reason the church gathers is to hear the word of God taught. When Acts 2:43 gives a snapshot of the life of the early church, it says that the first disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” Christians meet together to study God’s word to know how to be the church when they go their separate ways. A church is a community bound together by what Jesus Christ has done and what it has been taught. On the one hand, the word of God is the foundation that establishes the church. The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). Because of this, the church is also an agent of truth that proclaims God’s word to the world.  In 1 Timothy 3:15 the apostle Paul describes the church as the “the pillar and ground of the truth.”

Long before social media adopted the language of connection to refer to relationships enacted in the digital realm, the apostle Paul expressed the idea more concretely by calling the church a body made up of members who have been joined to one another through Christ. The church is a place where “we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Rom. 12:5). God’s Spirit has empowered every believer to contribute to the well-being of the other members. Instead of losing our individual identity and disappearing into the whole, each of us has a distinctive function in the church. Every member adds value to the church, even those who do not seem to add value. Christ has arranged the church this way, “so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:25). Therefore, Christians come together as church to worship God, hear the word of God proclaimed, and care for one another. Then they each go their way to represent God’s interests in the world around them.

Although there are many organizations that work for the betterment of the world, three things set the church apart from every other institution. First, the church is a community where God uniquely manifests His presence. It is the dwelling of God by the Spirit. Second, the church is a believing community that both hears and proclaims the word of God. It is through the church that God spreads the good news of forgiveness through Christ. Third, the church is a community of servants empowered by God to represent His interests in the world.

God’s Beautiful Imperfect Church

Anyone who has visited a church knows that it is still a work in progress. God has given Christ’s righteousness to the church as a gift, but our practice of that righteousness is not yet perfect. Those who claim that there are hypocrites in the church are right. No congregation is everything that it should be. But there is more to the church than our experience of it. An essential discipline of the Christian life is learning how to view the church through the eyes of faith. We learn to look beyond our disappointments and take God at His word. All that God says of the church is true. This faith-driven approach to church life does not deny or explain away its problems. Just the opposite. Most of the New Testament was written in an effort to apply the truth of God’s word to the failures and inconsistencies of the church.

So how does one find their place in the church? The starting point is to recognize that union with Christ also unites us to the church. The same faith that is the door to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ is also our entrance pass into the church. We must also recognize the importance of intentionality. Scripture urges Christians to study the art of being a church. Belonging to the church comes automatically, but behaving like the church takes learning and practice.  Hebrews 10:24-25 uses the vocabulary of thoughtful reflection when it tells us to: “. . . consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” The closer we get to Christ’s return, the more we need the church.

What is God Like?

The Bible teaches that God has revealed Himself to us through creation and by His word. But what does that revelation tell us about the nature of God? Theologians have traditionally divided God’s attributes into two main categories. Some are attributes that have no analogy in human experience. These attributes, often called God’s incommunicable attributes, display the uniqueness of the divine nature. Others, called communicable attributes, are characteristics that have some analogy in human experience. God’s incommunicable attributes show how the divine nature is unlike our own. They display God’s transcendence and reveal the great gulf that exists between the Creator and His creatures. God’s communicable attributes remind us that we have been created in the image of God and, in some small measure, were designed to be like Him.

When Jesus spoke of God to the woman of Samaria, He emphasized two fundamental characteristics of God. According to Jesus, God is both a Spirit and a personal being who seeks those who worship Him in spirit and truth (John 4:24). The title Jesus uses to describe this being is Father. This label implies that God is both intimately involved with His creation while being distinct from it. Creation depends on God for its origin and continued existence, but God is not dependent on anyone or anything (Acts 17:24-25). This independence is reflected in four attributes that flow from it and reflect God’s power: Infinity, Omnipresence, Eternity, and Immutability.

God Has No Bounds

When we say that God is infinite, we are not really talking about size or distance but the fulness of His perfection. God possesses all His attributes without measure or limitation. All that God is, He is to an infinite degree. This infinite God is omnipresent. He is always present everywhere. The Psalmist acknowledged this when he wrote, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there” (Ps. 139:7–8). There is no place or situation in which we will find ourselves that God is not already present. We cannot hide from God or escape His presence.

Where time is concerned, God is eternal. He does not experience the limitations of time the way we do. As Psalm 90:2 observes, He exists as God “from everlasting to everlasting.” God’s eternal nature has implications for God’s interaction with creation. The eternal God can act within time as we know it, but He is not bound by time. Because God exists apart from time, the Bible uses our experience as a point of reference when talking about His eternal nature. 2 Peter 3:8 urges us to remember that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” What seems to us like a delay is not a delay to God. Our physical life has a beginning and an end. God has neither. Because we are time-bound creatures, we can only experience time as a succession of events. Unlike us, God is not subject to time or to cause and effect.

This means that God’s infinite nature is also immutable. God can’t be more or less than He already is. James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” God’s character and nature do not change. Nor does He mature, grow, or evolve. His plans and purposes are fixed (Ps. 33:11; 102:27). At the same time, there are passages in Scripture that seem to attribute change to God. For example, Genesis 6:6 says that God “regretted that he had made human beings on the earth.” Jonah 3:10 tells how, after the people of Nineveh repented, God relented from the destruction He had threatened to bring upon them. As with time, the Bible speaks of these instances using human experience as their primary reference point. In these instances, it is not God who changes but humanity’s relation to God.

Omniscient, Good, Holy, & Omnipotent

The other category of God’s attributes is called communicable because they have some analogy in human experience. They describe God in terms with which we are familiar. They speak of His knowledge, righteousness, and mercy. At the same time, these attributes reinforce the Bible’s message that we are not God, even though we have been created in His image.

God’s communicable attributes include omniscience. God knows things, and so do we. But God knows everything to an infinite degree. He knows all things comprehensively. He knows all that has happened, and all that will happen. “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me,” the Psalmist declares. “You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar” (Psalm 139:1–2). God knows all that we think before we think it and what we will say before we say it. He knows our secret thoughts, even those we have hidden from ourselves (Ps. 139:4, 24). By comparison, our knowledge is as infinitesimal as God’s is infinite.

Another communicable attribute is God’s goodness. This goodness is expressed first in God’s holiness and righteousness. God is Himself the ultimate standard of all that can be deemed good. For this reason, Jesus declared, “No one is good–except God alone” (Mark 10:18). Because God is perfectly holy, His moral standard is one that demands perfect holiness. He upholds this standard by acting justly and holding all those who fall short of it accountable. God has a moral nature and created us to be moral beings. But our nature is imperfect and is flawed by the presence of sin. Our unrighteousness separates us from God and makes us liable to His judgment. This problem of sin calls forth the other dimension of God’s goodness, the love that He has shown by offering us grace and mercy through Jesus Christ.

Of all God’s attributes, perhaps the most familiar is His omnipotence. God is all-powerful. This characteristic is expressed in Job 23:13, which says that God “does whatever he pleases.” Omnipotence does not mean that God can do anything. There are some things that Scripture says God cannot do. God cannot lie. He cannot sin. God cannot deny Himself. But God can do all that He purposes to do, and all that God purposes to do is consistent with His nature. Our God is mighty to save (Isa. 63:1; Zeph. 3:17).

Unity in Trinity

Although we tend to separate God’s attributes when we analyze them, they are not separate in God’s being. God is not divided, nor is He in conflict with Himself. God’s holiness does not battle with His grace and mercy. One of the dangers of focusing on the divine attributes is that it tends to reduce God to a list of philosophical abstractions so that we lose His personal nature. The Scriptures reveal that God is a personal being and that He exists as a unity of three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Both the Old and New Testaments agree in their assertion that “God is one” (Deut. 6:4; Mark 12:32; Gal. 3:20; James 2:19). This means that there is only one God. There are not many gods. But it also means that God is one by nature. The three Persons in the Trinity are distinct from one another as persons but not in essence. Scripture does not portray God as a single divine person who manifests Himself in three different modes, nor does it speak of the Godhead as three separate divine beings. The triune nature of God has no analogy in human experience. All attempts to explain it by comparison with nature or philosophy are bound to fail. We can affirm this truth by faith, but we cannot fully comprehend it.

“Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves,” the Reformation pastor and theologian John Calvin observed. He goes on to note that one leads to the other. When we look at ourselves, our thoughts turn to the God who made us and sustains us. When we contemplate God, we can’t help being aware of the ruin that sin has brought about in our lives. “To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God,” Calvin explains, “and we cannot seriously aspire to Him before we become displeased with ourselves.”

The Bible shows us what God is like so that we will see ourselves as we truly are. The main lesson of the attributes is twofold. First, God’s attributes show us that although we have been created in the divine image, we are not God. Second, they remind us that we need God’s mercy and grace shown to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ before that image can be fully restored in us. This is the hope of the Christian. It is the hope that “when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

The Christian Art of Incivil Discourse

John Calvin and Sebastian Castellio used to be compatriots. Until they weren’t. Calvin was initially so impressed with Castellio that the iconic Reformer invited him to serve as rector at the college of Geneva. Things changed when Castellio started to disagree with Calvin. The two Reformers began to take aim at one another, with Castellio publishing tracts that criticized aspects of Calvin’s theology and Calvin answering him in kind. One of Calvin’s responses was entitled A Brief Reply in Refutation of the Calumnies of a Certain Worthless Person. The first line reads, “There has come to my notice the foolish writing of a worthless individual, who nevertheless presents himself as a defender and vindicator of the glory of God . . . .”

I thought of Calvin’s essay recently, when the furor over John MacArthur’s dismissal of Beth Moore’s ministry erupted. When MacArthur was asked what he would say to Beth Moore in one or two words his answer was, “Go home.” MacArthur’s remark was relatively tame compared to Calvin’s, at least when you consider that in the Reformer’s day theological disputes often ended in prison or even death for those who disagreed. I guess we live in a kinder and gentler age by comparison. But that doesn’t make disagreement more comfortable for us. Especially when it is between people that we look up to. Listening to Christian leaders that we admire when they disagree with one another can be like listening to your parents fight. We aren’t sure whose side we should take. We just want it to stop.  

Listening to Christian leaders that we admire when they disagree with one another can be like listening to your parents fight.

In our digital age, where it only takes a click of the mouse to enter the fray, it is easy to turn a disagreement into something more. Like players pouring out of the dugout to protest a bad pitch, each side piles on the other using their words as fists. The fact that our theological brawls are mostly verbal may not be as much of an improvement over the old days as we thought. It is true that we no longer burn people at the stake. But we do occasionally burn one another in effigy via social media. Words can be weapons. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment,’” Jesus warns in the Sermon on the Mount. “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

 I suppose it might be different if our verbally violent exchanges led to mutual agreement. But they do not. How can they, when the views in contention are mutually exclusive? Neither side can capitulate to the other without compromising their convictions. Each finds it equally difficult to speak in moderation. The greater the conviction, the stronger its expression. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that both will eventually agree to disagree, but neither side can say that the other is right.

Don’t misunderstand me. The tone certainly matters. 2 Timothy 2:24–25 warns that “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” In other words, if we are going to disagree, and we are going to disagree, we need to learn to disagree like Jesus. But what does that look like? Is it the gentle Jesus of the children’s hymn, who is meek, and mild? Some envision a Jesus who never said a harsh word to anyone. But that is not the Jesus described in the Gospels. The Jesus of Scripture called those who rejected His teaching “blind fools” and “hypocrites” (Matt. 15:7; 23:17). He grew angry when the religious leaders tried to accuse Him of Sabbath-breaking for healing a man with a shriveled hand (Mark 3:5). He made a whip of cords and used it to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple courts (John 2:15).

Some envision a Jesus who never said a harsh word to anyone. But that is not the Jesus described in the Gospels.

Likewise, the same apostle Paul, who wrote that the Lord’s servant must be gentle, is the one whose disagreement with Barnabas over ministry personnel was so sharp that the two of them went their separate ways (Acts 15:39). Was their dispute a sin? I guess it might have been, but the Scriptures don’t call it that. Paul also said that he wished those who were preaching circumcision to the Galatians “would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12).

If we look beyond the New Testament, we can find other examples of strong disagreement expressed in passionate language. There is Moses, the Psalms, and the prophets, of course. When the returned Jewish exiles compromised their lifestyle, Nehemiah rebuked them, called down curses, beat some of them, and pulled out their hair (Neh. 13:25). I am not saying that moving forward we should adopt Nehemiah’s behavior as a pattern for our disputes, only that we shouldn’t be so shocked to find believers with opposing views expressing themselves with conviction.

For those who already agree with his views, MacArthur’s remark was simply a tersely stated biblical correction. For those who disagreed, it was a case of mean spirited bullying and prejudice.  But given the nature of MacArthur’s convictions, it is hard for me not to see the resulting outrage as somewhat disingenuous. How could MacArthur have said any different, given what he believes? Of course, he might have said nothing at all. I suppose that would have been more polite. But when he said that Beth Moore should “go home,” I suspect he meant it literally. Likewise, I think Beth Moore was right to be equally dismissive of John MacArthur’s suggestion. Her implied response to him, posted on Twitter, stated, “I did not surrender to a calling of man when I was 18 years old. I surrendered to a calling of God.” In a subsequent tweet, she added, “Whether or not I serve Jesus is not up to you. Whether I serve you certainly is. One way or the other, I esteem you as my sibling in Christ.”

The real rancor in this dispute didn’t come from MacArthur or Moore, so much as it did from their followers and other observers who piled on via social media. Those who took issue with MacArthur criticized his tone, but what they ultimately objected to was his view. Would they have felt any better if he had expressed his remarks with a sweet smile and a soft-spoken explanation, supported by extensive Scripture references? I doubt it. What was really at issue for them was not whether he should have used a different tone, but whether he had the right to hold his convictions at all. The same is true on the other side. In the end, both sides in the controversy essentially share the sentiment that MacArthur expressed. Each would like it better if the other would go away. Neither is likely to do so anytime soon.

In the end, both sides in the controversy essentially share the sentiment that MacArthur expressed. Each would like it better if the other would go away.

So how should we manage disagreements like this in the church? We can start by recognizing that complete agreement is unlikely, if not impossible. Our differences matter and they are not always able to be reconciled. If merely holding the opposite conviction is incivility, then incivil we must be. But it may help to recognize that not every doctrinal disagreement is a matter of life and death. It has helped me to sort through these matters by drawing a distinction between three levels of doctrine. First, there is a basic shortlist of fundamentals. These are the truths that are foundational to the Christian faith. They are so essential that if you eliminate them you no longer have Christianity. These are the truths that show us which hill we should die on.

Second, there are those truths over which Christians disagree and which are important enough to warrant a separation in fellowship or practice. These doctrines are essential to one’s theological identity or express convictions which shape essential ministry practices. But we would still consider those who hold views different from ours to be Christians. The difference between MacArthur and Moore falls into this category.

Third, are doctrines that we might call disputed matters. These are doctrines about which we will agree to disagree. We cannot all be right about them. Perhaps we are all wrong. But we will fellowship and minister together in spite of our differences. These truths are important, but they are not so important that tolerating those differences does damage to our identity or compromises our practice.

Of course, distinctions like these, which look neat on paper or in a diagram, are always messier in practice. One person’s disputed matter is another’s distinctive and sometimes even their fundamental. We will not always agree. Where convictions are strong, we should expect that their expression will be equally strong. Beth Moore is right when she observes that even in our differences we remain siblings in Christ. And anybody who has taken a long trip in the family car knows that siblings don’t always get along.