Monday, February 07, 2005

Restoring the church

Where exactly is the Church that Jesus died for? All admit that He only died for one Church. It seems that Christians spend a lot of time trying to figure out which one, of the choices we have before us in our neighborhood, is the "right one," the "best one" or "the true one." What you're about to read may come as a shock, but none of the organizations you see around you are the Lord's "One True Church." Nor are any of them, as organizations, a part of it.

That doesn't mean, of course, that you can't find believers in them. But Jesus Christ did not die for a non-profit corporation that has an address, a website, and a tax ID number. Jesus had a conversation with a Samaritan woman:

    John 4:19-21 - The woman said to Him, "Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. (NKJV)
His "One True Church" consists of all of the saved. It is not headed by men or women, and cannot be found in the phone book. God sent His Son to shed his blood on the cross and pay the ultimate price, not to purchase an institution, but to purchase a people--His "called out." Most of the various organizations we know of as churches, denominations, sects, or cults, are simply humans attempting to organize themselves in some way in order to say that they are "the Church." But saying it doesn't make it so.

The people meeting in such organizations are not necessarily evil or even lost. Many may be weak spiritually because of the systems they have adopted, but even that fact does not mean that there are not strong believers meeting within their (or our) walls. In fact, we are definitely supposed to meet frequenty with other believers and live out our faith within a close-knit congregation of believers and elders. But how we think of that congregation is just a little different than how we've been conditioned to think of it due to institutional-Church traditions.

I suggest the following exercise on your next reading through the new testament scriptures. Since the meaning of the word "church" is "the called out," every time you come across it in your reading, replace it with the phrase "the called out." You will get a much different picture of whom (not what) Christ died for when you start to see that he is talking about believers, not an organization.

In this way, it will become clear that Paul was writing to the called out in Galatia, or the called out in Corinth. When he wrote about the church meeting in someone's home, he was writing about the believers meeting there, not the organization located there. Many other subtle connotations will come to light by doing this exercise.

This re-thinking of our usage of the word "church" glaringly points out that we are not meeting together in order to become the "right" organization or to offer a God-ordained "worship service" bookended by an opening and a closing prayer. It does, however, forcedly point out that the assembled believers are there for each other--not to simply assemble together in some prescribed format, but to exhort one another:

    Hebrews 10:24-25 - And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. (NKJV)
We are to build each other up in our singing and prayer, encourage each other in the faith, and commune with each other and with Christ at His table. We should do all of this in a non-disorderly manner, but not necessarily a scripted, routine pattern, as modern "churches" have done. Consequently, it's not accidental that the first century Christians met in homes, which are much more conducive to close friendship and "organic" fellowship than a sterile row of pews or folding chairs in an auditorium. There is nothing wrong, per se, with using these expediencies, but they do have an effect on the quality of fellowship that is possible.

Re-thinking this term "church" has also led me to the realization that much of the talk of "restoring the New Testament Church" is misguided. If we think of the Church as the visible institution that Christ died for, we will be focused on restoring outward patterns of "worship service" based on little more than inferential deductions. It is no wonder the 20th century manifestation of the American Restoration Movement became hyperfocused on the outward organizational structure of the church and the look and feel of the assembly rather than the hearts of the Christians that assembled. It's time we learn that the look and feel of the assembly is a means to the end of reforming and encouraging the hearts of the Christians gathered there. It is not an end in itself.

As a result, we ought to be more concerned with restoring first century Christianity than with restoring the first century Church. The two are not the same. The Stone/Campbell reformers of the early 1800s did not call themselves restorationists, but reformers, and that is what we all ought to be.

We should not be so presumptuous to think we are here to restore an organization that was lost. Christ's Kingdom has never been lost, but has lived in the hearts of His people throughout many dark periods of institutionalized-Church history. Instead, we ought to be out to make citizens for the Kingdom, and to reform our own lives and theirs.

    Mark 16:15-16 - And He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.
Restoring first century practices is a worthy goal, but doing so doesn't bring about the restoration of The One True Church. It is already pristine and doesn't need to be restored. Attempts at reforming lives, however, will bring about the strengthening of Christians everywhere.

Is this only semantics? I don't think so. I think there is something to sink our teeth into here. Attempts at this kind of reformation can only lead to the conversion of a lost world as they see Christ in the collective lives of believers. Let's put our shoulder to the plow and adjust our course, if necessary, toward that end.

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