Basic Christian Theology, Part 6: The Community of Faith

 

Focal Passage: Acts 8:29-39

 

In the last post of this series we looked at the sanctified life and how it comes about. Today we will look at how that life is lived in the structure that is the community of the faith or, as it as better known, the church and what we as Christians believe about that structure. Last time we studied the operation of sanctification as it works among believers. Once someone becomes a believer, once they have made that step of ascent to the saving power of Jesus, the final step of sanctification which we discussed was confession. This final step of confession leads us into what it really means to be a functioning member of the church. But, before we push off, I feel it is necessary to clear up some potential confusion from modern tradition which seems to have crept into the mindset of some of the church in the past few decades which have given the wrong impression of what we as Christians consider being this confession.

The intent here is not to cast doubt on anyone’s salvation, but to give definite, concrete definition to this issue. There seems to be an idea, an unfounded notion, that walking the aisle constitutes public confession of Christ. This is not the traditional or stated view, as many Christian traditions hold as such. Because of scripture, because of what we believe salvation consists of, our traditional view of public confession, we have to look into 1st century Jewish tradition which was co-opted, in a sense, by the early church, believer’s baptism. As this is considered to be one of the the first ordinances of the church, the entry way into its membership and practice, as this study goes, I believe that it is a good place to start.

Let’s be clear, baptism does not equal salvation. Salvation must have occurred before it can take place because we, as believers, hold that only when the facts of salvation are understood, not by manipulation of emotion and not open to children under the age of accountability. Under those conditions, all that has happened is the person has gotten wet with water. Since baptism isn’t necessary for salvation, why do we stress it so? Because it is a picture, a living picture, uniting believers with the stark image of our Savior’s death, burial and resurrection, keeping it foremost in our minds (Rom. 6:4). Also for the new believer, it signifies their death to sin and resurrection into the newness of life only available through faith in our Lord. It also pictures the union that we have with Christ in the name of the Triune God. Finally, it pictures the union we have as the people of God. Through baptism a believer is testifying to his belief in what Christ has done for him/her, is committing to living in union with Christ, committing to being an active part of the church, which are the people of God. (Now, this is just me personally, but it also puts every mature believer on notice of the responsibility we have to every new believer, to guide, counsel, and stand watch over every new believer.)

A majority of Christian traditions believe that the only proper mode of baptism is immersion, because the word, from which baptism comes, baptizo, means to immerse. The reason why so many believe that so strongly is because only immersion can fully represent death, burial, and resurrection as well as the believer’s death to sin and resurrection to new life (Acts 8:37-39). Now this is not to say that other forms of baptism (ie sprinkling or pouring) are illegitimate. In fact, one of the earliest non-biblical, Christian documents that we have, The Didache, which was probably written in the middle of the first century as a guide for the young Christian movement, probably growing out of the Judaizing controversy described by Paul in Galatians 2 and the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, says regarding baptism,

The procedure for baptizing is as follows. After repeating all that has been said, immerse in running water ‘In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’. If no running water is available, immerse in ordinary water. This should be cold if possible; otherwise warm. If neither is practicable, then pour water three times on the head ‘In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’. Both baptizer and baptized ought to fast before the baptism, as well as any others who can do so; but the candidate himself should be told to keep a fast for a day or two beforehand.

Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (Classics) (Kindle Locations 3015-3019). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

And now that the believer has been baptized, he/she is now brought into the fellowship of the church; the second ordinance of the church begins to take precedence in life, the Lord’s Supper.

Some traditions may refer to the Lord’s Supper as Communion, but the intention is the same in that it is a memorial. In it we are memorializing the last night our Lord spent with us before his crucifixion. We are also memorializing the new covenant that was made with every believer who professes faith in Christ. The bread, representing Christ’s broken body, and the wine, representing his spilt blood, are a constant reminder of the price paid to establish and fulfill this covenant in the here and now for believers as well as in the future. The majority of Protestant Christian traditions do not see these elements as sacramental, as elements through which grace is dispersed, rather as constant reminders of the promise to us fulfilled in Christ. As to frequency of the observance, it really doesn’t matter if it’s quarterly, monthly or weekly. The importance is that we are conscious of it symbolism and that we to observe it until we are presented bodily to our risen Lord. Now that we are inside the Church through baptism and fellowship with Communion, we need to further clarify some misconceptions and apply some definitions to words and terms which we use.

First, let’s talk about what church is and what it’s not. The word the biblical authors often use to describe church is the word ekklesia which simply means an assembly gathered for a specific purpose. It originally referred to the political assembly of Rome. It is used more than 100-times in the New Testament with great implication: those called out to worship and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s look at Matthew 6:18. When we talk about the foundation of the church, what exactly are we talking about? Some claim that Peter is, some claim it’s his testimony, and some Jesus. It all comes down to how you define the word rock and what one believes that it refers to, but such discussions are not the point of this post.

With that in mind, we begin to understand that the church is local and universal. This concept comes from two distant yet related uses in the New Testament. Ninety-three times, Hershel Hobbs, a Baptist theologian, pointed out, the word church is used to refer to a local body of believers, the rest of the time it refers to the larger, overall church. So, with that in mind, the majority of the time the church is depicted as the local assembly of Christians who meet, worship and minister in the name of Jesus Christ. Never is it used to ever refer to a denomination. So we are incorrect when we say, something like “the Baptist church”, or “the Presbyterian church”, or even “the Catholic church”, when referring to our denomination; we should instead simply refer to ourselves as “Baptists”, “Presbyterians”, or “Catholics”, and leave it there. In the more universal sense, church is used in the broad sense when taken in light of Ephesians 5:25, where Paul states, Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Therefore the church is much bigger that just the local congregation, it is the larger community of Christians as well. The church consists of all believers, from all times; we are brothers and sisters existing across all the barriers of race, geography, tradition and denomination.

As I have stated before, the church, most precisely, consists only of believers. When we look at Acts 2:42-47, at the first growth spurt of the church at Jerusalem, the significant point is contained in v.47: The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. God adds to His church, He adds those who are saved or believe in Jesus Christ as the source of salvation, and as a consequence of their belief are baptized. Phillip, in the first recorded personal act of witnessing to the Ethiopian eunuch, only baptized him after he believed (Acts 8:36-37). Since the church is made up only of believers, it is the believers’ church. And I say believers-apostrophe and not believer-apostrophe-s, because the church is a community, a community in covenant with each other. Often times we overlook that nature of the church, and that is why new member counseling is necessary to help orient new believers and new members into the organization of the local body, to teach them the nature of church membership, commitment, and participation.

Numerous scriptures paint pictures of the church. First, we are seen as the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 1:22-23; 2:14-16; 4:4,12,16; 5:23,30;Col. 1:18-26; etc.). We have many gifts, some of us have the same gift, but use them differently; nonetheless, we are instructed to look down on anyone’s gift, or exalt ours over theirs, but to use them to the fullness that God has given them to us, and to encourage one another in that use. In that sense, we should feel Christ’s presence, be unified, and recognize that in that Christ is our head. We function effectively and gloriously when we operate in that light.

We are also pictured as the people of God. Peter reminds us in his 1st epistle in 2:9-10, 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 darkness into His wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Look back to the Old Testament, what made Israel, Israel? It was the fact that God called them out of slavery, more than that He had called them to be priests and proclaimers of His name.  By Christ’s blood, we are brought in as God’s chosen people, not by anything we’ve done, but by the will of our God who saved us. In the church we are a special possession, given a spiritual home, serving God with our very bodies as a spiritual sacrifice.

We are pictured as a family or members of God’s household (Gal. 6:10). God is our Father in a most intimate sense (Gal.4:6-7), and in that we are given special intimacy as brothers and sisters, because we are now His children via adoption (Eph. 1:3-6). And because of that we should absolutely love one another (1 John 3:11).

The church is pictured as the bride of Christ (2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19:7-9; 21:9; 22:17). It paints the picture of Jesus’ loving care for his precious church. This picture is given as a strong example of how spouses should love and care for each other and conduct themselves (Eph. 5:22-32; 1Pet. 3: 1-7). The Book of Revelation describes a pending marriage feast that is a picture of great victory and joy for Christ and His bride at the end of time.

At last, we are pictured as an expression of the kingdom of God. As such, we recognize Jesus as king, and his right to rule over our hearts and lives. As believers, we are not only subjects but citizens of something which is stronger and will last longer than anything on this earth. Our first command presented in the Model Prayer is to pray after praising God, for His kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. Now that we have looked at the outer image of the church, let us look at the inward structure.

In the vast majority of Christian traditions there are two primary offices of the church and, as of late, reemphasized a third: pastor, deacon, and laity. Doctrine studies, such as this one, are meant to inform and call all of God’s people into their appointed ministries. The laity, in particular, has been an underused resource for ministry and stems from the very beginnings of Christian history. In emphasizing the laity, it in no way diminishes the other two, but helps to unify those roles in the life of the church.

The leader of the church is the pastor or, in some traditions, the elder(s). As such he/they is/are God’s under shepherd(s) and has/have been given responsibility as such and is charged with equipping God’s people through teaching and preaching. As a leader, he is to be prayerfully humble, not a tyrant, leading by example; because he will be held accountable for the ministry he has been given (1 Pet. 5:1-5). Even though, the pastor or elder(s) serves at the will of the church, he is not our employee, so we are to treat him with respect as God’s servant and not ours (1 Tim. 5:17-19).

Deacon, as an office, is not so clearly described. The creation of the office of deacon rose from a need in the church at Jerusalem. Acts 6:1-6, records the account of the reason why the office of deaon—diakonos or servant—was needed, to see to the care of the Greek-speaking widows in the church. The New Testament era saw a need arising in churches and deacons rose to fulfill those needs, and has emerged right alongside the pastor as an office necessary for proper church operation (Philippians. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-13). But if we look to Acts 6, we gather a sense of the duties of deacon, in v.3-4, the apostles tell the church, “Select (men) full of the Holy Spirit, who are well thought of by everyone, and put them in charge of this business. Then we can spend our time in prayer, preaching and teaching. (Living Bible).” Pastors are dedicated then to prayer, preaching and teaching; deacons, then, are charged with the day-to-day business of the church. In that they can: planning, counseling the pastor and one another, resolving crises, reconciling, supporting and promoting various church programs, and modeling churchmanship.

And because a church can have so many ministries going on it is necessary for the laity, the volunteer arm of the ministry to fill in. this includes: teaching, music ministry, various positions of leadership and service. Paid staff is sometimes necessary, depending on the size of the church and its ongoing ministry effort, but just like those who are called or appointed to specific areas, the laity is accountable to Jesus Christ for every good gift that we have been given that we neglect and refuse to use.

As a church we have a purpose and that purpose is to accomplish the work that we have been given to do by our Lord.

First, we are to worship. Our primary call is not evangelism or missions or benevolence; it is worship because from our worship, all these other things spring. Worship energizes us to do those other things, which are important. Look at Revelation, what is going on around the throne: worship. A life of worship leads us to proclamation.

The joy and energy found in and through worship of God empowers us to operate within the commission of God through Christ. Proclamation includes witnessing, which means all you are telling about is what God has done for you in Christ. It includes seeing and meeting needs, because unless we care, we will not be effective witnesses. By looking for and meeting needs, there is no boundary we will be afraid to cross to witness. When we are crossing boundaries, meeting needs, and witnessing, we will have power to do it. Above all that it means if we want power to cross those boundaries, meet needs and witness we will have to go. Matt. 28:19 sums up the Christian ideal of the proclamation of the gospel, Therefore go and make disciples of all nations; literally what Jesus was saying, “Going, therefore disciple all the nations.”

As we proclaim, we will go into discipleship, which simply means a process of learning and teaching. As we sit under our school-master Jesus we will learn, and in exchange we will teach others and the process moves out from there. In that process, we find fellowship.

The Greek word used frequently and translated as fellowship is koinonia. It describes a deep, common connection and is characterized in the church by the fellowship of believers, united in the Spirit and founded on Jesus Christ.

Here is just a little more about fellowship and what it means as I close. There’s a story of a little girl, who was playing in a fenced yard. The time came for her to come inside for supper, but when her mother came out to call her in, she was nowhere to be found. He parents searched frantically even calling the police. After a long while, the little girl came walking home. He parents were over-joyed, frustrated and confused. “Where have you been?” they asked anxiously. “At Kathy’s”, the little girl replied, “The head of her favorite doll came off and I’ve been helping her try to get it back on, but it wouldn’t, so I was helping her cry.”

We love the joyful times together, but the sad ones…they just leave us wondering, and that’s okay. It is in those times, when the greatest gift we can give is a shoulder, and our tears, and unity in Christ Jesus, who has “borne or sorrows.”

 

 

 

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