Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Ecclesiology

PRAYER MEETING

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Review:

A Praying Church: The Neglected Blessing of Corporate Prayer

Dennis Gundersen

Grace & Truth Books

170 pp., pb

 

It is a sad fact of modern church life that prayer meetings are poorly attended, if they still exist at all.  Many churches no longer have them, and the ones that do typically see only a handful of people show up on a Wednesday evening.  It was to address this sad state of affairs that Dennis Gundersen wrote his book, A Praying Church: The Neglected Blessing of Corporate Prayer.

Dennis and I are past acquaintances (and subsequent Facebook friends), having both attended Trinity Baptist Church of Montville, NJ in the 1970’s, where we had the privilege of sitting under the ministry of Pastor Albert N. Martin.  Dennis has since gone on to serve as pastor of several churches in the Tulsa, OK area, and his is currently President and owner of Grace and Truth Books, which published the current volume.

Dennis, of course, is very much concerned about the demise of the midweek prayer meeting; but his take on the problem is a little unusual.  He lays most of the blame at the feet of the people leading the prayer meetings, if we can even call it “leading” at all.  Dennis notes that one of the pervasive problems with the meetings is the utter lack of direction.  The person nominally in charge simply asks if there are any prayer requests, and most of the requests forthcoming deal with personal issues, especially health needs.  It is no wonder then that many church members wonder what the point of it all is, and choose to stay home on prayer meeting night.

Much of Dennis’ book, then, is basically an instruction manual on how properly to lead a prayer meeting.  In Chapter Four he specifically goes into what to prayer for; and points out that the spread of the kingdom should have priority – we should be praying for our missionaries, the persecuted church, our lost neighbors, and other churches in the vicinity.  We should also make it a priority to pray for each other’s spiritual needs.  This then could be followed by the various personal needs of the members.  There is also a chapter by a fellow pastor, Larry Dean, on the qualifications for a prayer meeting leader.

The second half of the book consists of thirty devotionals which are ones that Dennis actually gave at the prayer meetings at his church.  They cover a variety of topics related to prayer.  One particularly interesting one is entitled “Devoting an Evening of Serious Prayer for Genuine Revival,” which apparently was intended for a special prayer meeting that lasted (apparently by design) longer than usual.  In it he gives us a good definition of “revival.”  He points out that the word “revival” literally means to “’bring back to life,’ to rekindle what was nearly extinguished; to fan the flames which have died out or become low, so that the fire rages hot again” (p. 144).  In a word, it is the revival of spiritual life within the church, along with the accompanying power of the Holy Spirit in evangelism, that constitute a revival.  We should all desire it, but are we praying for it?

On the whole the book is very helpful and worthwhile.  We would want to make a couple of observations, however.  At points Dennis seems to be reading modern church life back into the New Testament when he argues the case for the traditional mid-week prayer meeting.  The prayers mentioned in I Tim. 2:1-8, however, most likely were a part of the regular weekly gatherings of the assemblies, apparently held on Sunday evenings in private homes (cf. Acts 2:46; see Acts 20:6-12 for a brief description of such a meeting).  In many of the better modern churches something similar occurs in small group meetings.  But what the Bible does make clear, however, is the importance of corporate in some shape or form, and Dennis cites several passages from the Book of Acts to underscore the point.  We would simply add to that the promise that Jesus gave us in Matt. 18:19,20: “Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (NKJV).

We also cannot help but wonder if the modern church’s spiritual problems do go beyond simple ineptitude in the way prayer meetings are led.  Too often on Sunday mornings we have seen dull, formal “worship” followed by a sermon marked by poor exegesis, a flat delivery, and little or no practical application.  Many of the men, including sometimes even the pastor, will stand with one of their hands in their pocket – can anyone even imagine Moses at the burning bush with one of his hands in his pocket?  Where is the sense of the presence of God in all of this?  Might not the underlying problem be with the spiritual life of the pastor?  Too often the pastor has received a formal, academic education at a seminary or Bible college, who then treated the ministry as a job description he was being paid to fill.  Where there is no spiritual life in the pulpit there is not likely to be found more life in the pew.  Is it possible that the reason so few people attend prayer meeting is because they do not see the need for prayer?  We leave it to each pastor to search his own heart and decide for himself.

On the whole, however, A Praying Church is a good book deserving of serious consideration.  It can be ordered online directly from the publisher at www.graceandtruthbooks.com

 

 

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WHY CHURCH?

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Many readers would undoubtedly agree with most of what we have said so far.  But in the minds of many younger people there remains an important question.  Granted the necessity of having a personal relationship with Christ, why bother going to church?  Cannot someone worship God and have a relationship with Christ without going to church?

For many people the question arises because of bad church experiences they have had in the past.  Some pastors are domineering and tyrannical; some church members are judgmental and self-righteous.  Some churches are too commercialized.  There have been ugly church splits.  There have been sex scandals and financial impropriety.  And in all too many cases there is very little that is genuinely spiritual about the typical modern institutionalized church.  It is understandable, therefore, that many would want Christ but not the church.

The biblical answer to this is found in 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).  Why should we not “forsake the assembling of yourselves together”?  So that we can “stir up love and good works” and “exhort one another.”  And none of this can take place unless we have regular interaction with each other.

To understand what exactly this passage is getting at it is important to realize that the First Century church did not operate the way most modern churches do today.  In the First Century there were few, if any, church buildings, nor was there a professionally trained clergy.  Nor were there separate denominations.  Rather, the entire Christian community in a given city was considered a single church, so that it was possible to speak of the “church at Ephesus” or the “church of the Thessalonians.”  Each of these large metropolitan churches was governed by a board of elders (Acts 20:17) who were chosen from within the local church based on their spiritual gifts and maturity.  There was no “senior pastor.”  On certain occasions the entire, large, city-wide church would hold a meeting in some open, public place (Acts 5:12).

Within these large, city-wide churches there were smaller groups that met in private homes (Acts 2:46; Rom. 16:5; Phln. 2).  It was in these smaller house churches that the Lord’s Table would be observed.  We have a description of one of these gatherings in Acts 20:6-12.  The believers were meeting in an upper room on a Sunday evening and Paul preached long into the night, after which they broke bread.  It would have been in these smaller gatherings that the believers would have had the opportunity to interact with each other.

In this context, then, it is easier to see how a church is supposed to function.  It is assumed that all baptized church members have been genuinely born again and have the Holy Spirit dwelling within them.  They are each given spiritual gifts (I Cor. 12:4-11) and they are to use these gifts to edify one another and build up the body of Christ (Eph. 4:7-13).  We do this by exhorting one another (Heb. 3:13), confessing our sins to each other (Jas. 5:16) and bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).  All of this necessitates some form of regular, small-group interaction, which is why the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together.  It is the means by which we “stir up to love and good works” and “exhort one another.”

The Christian life cannot be lived in isolation from other Christians.  The basic ethical requirement of the Christian life is that we love one another, and that means that we must actually care for each other (I John 3:16-18).  And that cannot be done unless we are an active part of a local church body.  The question should not be, “what can the church do for me?”; but rather “what can I contribute to the church?”

The church has long since departed from the apostolic model.  During the Middle Ages it developed into an elaborate hierarchy supported by the state.  Worship became formal and ritualistic.  During the Reformation improvements were made, but they mainly involved taking existing state-sponsored institutional churches and “reforming” them.  The priest was replaced by the pastor whose chief function was to teach the congregation, but it was still largely a one-man ministry.  During times of revival, however, when there were real spiritual awakenings, small group interactions would often reappear – Sunday afternoon conferences, prayer bands and class meetings.  Where there is genuine spiritual life it must express itself, and express itself it did.

So what about today?  Where can one find a church like that? – one that is genuinely spiritual?  No church is perfect – we are all human and fall short of what God expects from us, and that includes churches as well as individuals.   The truly amazing thing about church history is that a God who is infinite, holy, all-wise and all-powerful would choose to use clay vessels like ourselves to accomplish His purposes on earth.  And so there is no such thing as a perfect church, but some are better than others.  Is the pastor a godly man?  Does he possess the biblical qualifications for an elder?  Are his sermons biblically sound?  Are they practical?  Does prayer play an important part in the life of the congregation?  Does the church exercise church discipline?

But more importantly, is there meaningful small group interaction?  This can take several forms, including small home group Bible studies, an active midweek prayer meeting, or adult Sunday School classes.

But the question is, do the believers actively work to build each other up spiritually?  Only then can the church accomplish what Christ intended for it.

“And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with

All your heart.”        (Jer. 29:13; cf. Dt. 4:29)

WHAT GOD THINKS OF THE MODERN CHURCH

 

            Near the beginning of his controversial novel The Shack author Wm. Paul Young has his main character Mackenzie Phillips (Mack) complain that “. . .Sunday prayers and hymns were cutting it anymore, if they ever really had.  Cloistered spirituality seemed to change nothing in the lives of the people he knew . . . He was sick of God and God’s religion, sick of all the little religious social clubs that don’t seem to make any real difference or affect any real changes” (The Shack, p. 66).  Most of us would probably have to acknowledge that there is more truth to this accusation than we would care to admit.

In many ways the condition of the modern American evangelical church resembles that of the church at Laodicea, described in Revelation 3:14-22.  Ancient Laodicea was a prosperous city, situated on a fertile plain in Asia Minor.  Located at an important crossroads, it was a center of trade and commerce.  But its material prosperity affected the spiritual life of the Christian church located there.  It was the infamous “lukewarm” church of the seven churches of Asia that were addressed in Revelation chapters two and three.

What is especially striking about this particular church is how different its perception of itself was from the way God saw it.  Their self-perception is summed up in verse 17: “You say ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing . . .’” (NKJV).  Material prosperity leads to a sense of self-sufficiency.  Outwardly they appeared to be doing very well – they had financial resources at their disposal and could pretty much do as they wanted.

But how very different was God’s perception of them!  “You . . . do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked . . .” Their material prosperity masked a spiritual poverty.  “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot . . .you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot” (vv. 15,16).  They were half-hearted Christians, content to go through the formalities of public worship, but not really devoted to Christ; precisely the kind of church life described by Young in his book.

And so it is with us today.  We have impressive looking buildings and institutions and “ministries” galore, but can scarcely bring ourselves to spend any meaningful time in prayer.  What passes for “worship” is hardly more than glorified entertainment.  We sit passively in the pews (or theater seats) and when the service is over we go our merry ways, scarcely giving any thought at all at how we may serve Christ in our daily lives.  We are all too prone to ethical compromise.  “ . . .these people draw near with their mouths / And honor Me with their lips, / But have removed their hearts far from Me, / And their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men . . .” (Isa. 29:13; Matt. 15:8).

The problem is that the modern American evangelical church is a holdover from the Victorian era.  The early nineteenth century was marked by genuine revival – the Second Great Awakening (the First Great Awakening had taken place in the 1740’s).  But during the Victorian era of the late nineteenth century it became quite popular and respectable to identify oneself as a Christian.  Being a Christian came to be equated with being a respectable middle-class American.  It was easy to attract an audience, and impressive looking church edifices were built, complete with stone masonry, stained glass windows, and carved wooden pulpits and pews.  But an institutionalized form of church life developed that was unhealthy.  The theology was watered down, the sermons were filled with sentimental commonplaces, and a variety of religious practices were developed – processionals, robed choirs, responsive readings – that had little to do with actual discipleship or developing the spiritual life.  In short, Protestant Christianity became an American civil religion – comforting, supportive of the standing order, but superficial.

And then the twentieth century arrived, along with the intellectual challenges of evolution and higher criticism.  The more affluent churches in the urban centers tried to change with the times, adopting a liberal theology.  The more conservative churches in the rural areas clung to the older ways.  But the surrounding culture continued to change and drift further and further away from its Judeo-Christian moorings.  First it was the denial of the supernatural, and then it was the abandonment of basic moral principles” the sanctity of life and the sanctity of marriage.  Churches were faced with a painful dilemma: either conform to the changing mores of society or risk being marginalized and irrelevant.  The liberal churches caved in; the more conservative churches tried to keep the faith, although with many of the Victorian trappings.

But what does God think about all of this?  What He told the church at Laodicea in our text is striking: “I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich: and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see” (v. 18).  What they needed was true wealth – spiritual wealth.  And the way He described it has an ominous ring to it – “gold refined in the fire.”  Gold is a precious metal, but it is refined or purified in the fire.  Likewise the Christian’s true spiritual worth is sometimes tested by the fire of persecution.  And this gold, the Lord says, must be “bought from Me.”  Genuine life must come from God himself – it is the fruit of the Spirit.  We cannot work it up ourselves.

Likewise the church at Laodicea was counselled to buy “white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed.”  They were so utterly destitute of genuine godliness that they were spiritually “naked.”  They were the proverbial emperor with no clothes.  In Rev. 19:8 the bride of Christ (the church) is “arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.”  God wants His people to live lives that are pleasing to Him; only then will we be attractive in His sight.

And then the church was advised to “anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see.”  They were so spiritually blind that they could not see their own true spiritual condition.  What they needed was spiritual insight and discernment so that they would have a clear view of God’s will for their lives.

The Lord goes on to say, “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.  There be zealous and repent” (v. 19).  If God truly loves us, what will He do to us when we are in this condition? What will He do to us now?  Our text says that He will “rebuke and chasten” us.  God loves us, but that means that He will not stand by idly while we wander into sin and apostasy.  A loving parent will discipline his children when they misbehave, because he wants what is best for them.  But the same token God may bring pain, suffering or hardship into our lives to awaken us, humble us, and make us feel our dependence upon Him, and thus restore full fellowship with Him.

What Christ tells the church next is nothing less than stunning: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (v. 20).  This verse is often taken out of context and given an evangelistic meaning.  But taken in its context Christ is standing outside of the church.  This, of course, is not where we would expect to find Him, and yet that is where He is all too often.  He has, in effect, been excluded from the life of the church, so used has it become to operating without Him.  But there may be a few within the church who are still listening to His voice, and to them He makes a promise: “I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”  Even in the worst state of the church it is still possible for individual Christians to maintain a meaningful relationship with Christ.

The aim of the modern evangelical church, then, should not be to revive  the American civil religion of the past; it ought to be to become authentic disciples of Jesus Christ – and that means going back to the first century and sitting, as it were, at His feet.  The answer is not to try to become more relevant; it is to become more spiritual.  It is not to become more accepted by the world; it is to become more conformed to the will of God.  The aim is not to become more like the world but to be lights shining in the darkness.  When the world looks at the church, it should not see a reflection of itself, but rather the image of Christ.  Only then can the church have the kind of testimony to the world that it ought to have.

TRUE WORSHIP

 

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David the psalmist giving thanks

 

What does it mean to worship God?  Different churches have different ideas on the subject.  Some have very elaborate formal liturgical “services.”   Some are more informal and emotionally expressive, with raised hands, shouting and hand clapping.  And in some churches nowadays the “worship service” is virtually a rock concert.  But what does God think about all of this?

The apostle Paul gives us a clue in Ephesians 5:18-21 (and in a parallel passage in Col. 3:14-17).  He tells the believers in Ephesus not to be drunk with wine, “but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (Eph. 5:18-20; NKJV).

To understand this passage it is necessary to know the context.  We today think we know what worship it, based on our own experience.  But the church experience of First Century Christians was very different from ours.  In fact, if we could go back in time to the First Century and sit in one of their meetings we would hardly recognize it.

For one thing, there were no church buildings per se.  There was no professional clergy, no choirs and organs, and no Sunday schools.  How did they manage to function, then?  “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2:46).  This suggests that First Century church life functioned on two levels.  First, there were large public gatherings where unbelievers might be present – this may be what is described in I Corinthians 14; and secondly there were smaller gatherings in private homes.  It is in these small home groups that the Lord’s Table was observed, perhaps on the model of the Jewish Passover meal (cf. I Cor. 11).  Thus church life tended to be less formal and more intimate that what we are accustomed to today.

What, then, does Paul say about worship?  First of all, it is fundamentally an act of praise directed towards God Himself.  The object is to be “giving thank always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . (Eph. 5:20).  A hymn should be a kind of prayer addressed to God, and when we gather for worship we should be consciously entering into the presence of God to praise Him and thank Him for all that He is and all that He has done.  Worship is not supposed to be a form of entertainment, in which the congregation sits passively in the pews and listens to someone else sing to them.  Rather, they are to be actively engaged in praising God.

But what should the congregation sing?  According to Paul it is “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (v. 19; cf. Col. 3:16).  Exactly how Paul meant to distinguish the three is not exactly clear.  However “psalms” certainly includes the psalms of the Old Testament.  But it is entirely possible that the “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” include songs with a specifically Christian content, and suggestions have been made that there are fragments of such hymns scattered throughout the New Testament (e.g., Eph. 5:14; Col. 1:15-20; I Tim 3:16 and II Tim. 2:11-13).  And it is even possible that some of the songs used in early Christian worship were ecstatic utterances immediately inspired by the Holy Spirit (cf. I Cor. 14:26).

The important thing, however, is that worshippers  should be singing from the heart, “singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (v. 19).  Too often we dishonor God through our listless, half-hearted “worship.”

“. . . these people draw near with their mouths

And honor Me with their lips,

But have removed their hearts far from Me,

And their fear toward Me is taught by the

commandment of men . . .”

(Isa. 29:13).

Rather, God expects us to “make a joyful shout to the Lord . . .” (Ps. 100:1).  When we worship, we should act like we are genuinely grateful for what God has done for us.  Sometimes we insult God through faint praise.

But most importantly, our worship should be driven by the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Eph. 5:18-21 forms a single sentence, and the main thought in the sentence is “be filled with the Spirit” – the main verb being “be filled” (v. 18); all the rest of the sentence elaborates on what it means to be “filled with the Spirit.”  In what way?  By “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”  Worship is supposed to a spiritual activity driven and motivated by the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, giving us a sense of God’s awesome majesty, His unapproachable holiness, and His condescending love.

But what about musical style?  How should the music be performed?  We must be careful here – historically the church has employed everything from Gregorian chant to shaped-note hymns to rock bands.  Perhaps the biggest failure in both traditional and contemporary styles of worship is the lack of artistic expression.  Too often every song sounds alike.  The musicians sometimes act as if they were not thinking about what they are singing.  Christian music should reflect the whole range of Christian experience, and that should be reflected in the way the music is performed.  The music should express the content of the words.

And what about Christian rock music?  I want to be cautious here, but Christian music, if it is genuinely Christian, should reflect Christian values.  In other words, it should be marked by the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  If our music comes across to outsiders as “in-your-face” and “head-banging” it is conveying the wrong message.

To worship God, then, is to

“Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,

And into His courts with praise.

Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.

For the Lord is good;

His mercy is everlasting,]

And His truth endures to all generations.”

(Ps. 100:4,5).

TRUE WORSHIP

 

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Model of Solomon’s Temple

What is worship?  And why do we do it at all?  In some traditional churches it is little more than a mere formality, or even second rate entertainment if a choir or soloist is involved.  In other churches it is a thinly disguised rock concert.  But what is worship really supposed to be like?

Psalm 100 gives us a brief but comprehensive view of true worship.  It is divided into two stanzas, and each stanza gives us both a “how” and a “why.”

The psalm begins by exhorting us to:

“Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!

Serve the Lord with gladness;

Come before His presence with singing.”

(vv. 1,2; NKJV)

The first thing to be noted is that true worship is directed toward God.  “Make a joyful shout to the Lord.”  Worship is not supposed to be a form of entertainment.  It is not a choir or soloist singing to the congregation; it is the congregation singing to God.  It is a means of expressing our love and devotion to Him.

Secondly, there ought to be a real sense of being in the very presence of God Himself when we worship.  We are to “come before His presence.”  It is not enough merely to be present in a church building.  It is our relationship with God Himself that counts.

Worship, moreover, is not to be a dull, mechanical exercise, a mere formality to be endured for the sake of tradition.  We are to “make a joyful shout,” “Serve (or worship) the Lord with gladness,” and “Come before His presence with singing,” or “a joyful cry,” as the word might be translated.  The idea here is that our worship ought to arise out of a sense of genuine joy (“gladness”) in our hearts.  God is not honored by grudging praise.  What He wants to see are people who are genuinely excited by having Him as their God.

But why should we bother?  What is the point?  The psalm goes on to tell us to

“Know that the Lord, He is God:

It was He who made us, and not we ourselves;

We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.”

(v. 3).

First of all, we are to understand that the Lord is God.  He is the Supreme Being, the Ruler of the universe.  Secondly, He is our Creator: “It was He who made us.”  We would not exist at all if He had not made us.  We owe our very existence to Him.

Furthermore, “We are His people.”  The ancient Israelites could say this because they were God’s chosen people with whom He had made a covenant.  Christians can say the same thing because they have been redeemed by the blood of Christ.  He bought us, therefore we are His.

But significantly we are “the sheep of His pasture.”  The word translated “pasture” more properly refers to the act of pasturing or shepherding.  God actively watches over us, protects us and provides for our needs, and for this we should be genuinely grateful.

The second stanza begins by exhorting us to

“Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,

And into His courts with praise.

Be thankful to Him, and bless his name.”

(v. 4)

What is pictured here, of course, is the ancient temple in Jerusalem, surrounded by courtyards and accessible through gates.  Three times a year, during the great Jewish feasts, worshippers would throng the temple courts to worship God.  And so we too are to engage in public worship, and “be thankful to Him, and bless His name.”

But why?

“For the Lord is good,

His mercy is everlasting,

And His truth endures to all generations.”

(v. 5)

What does it mean when it says that “the Lord is good”?  The verse goes on to explain.  God’s goodness consists of two basic character traits that are found in Him.  The first of these is “mercy,” or as it might better be translated “lovingkindness” (NASV) or “steadfast love” (ESV).  It is God’s kindness in bestowing favors and benefits on His creatures.  The second quality is “truth,” or as it might better be translated “faithfulness” (NASV, ESV).  This refers to God’s firm reliability, consistency and trustworthiness.  It is what enables us to trust in Him implicitly.

Moreover these attributes are “everlasting” and endure “to all generations.”  Everything we experience here on earth is subject to change, and is therefore unreliable: “here today, gone tomorrow.”  But above it all is God, eternal and unchanging.  We can count on Him to be the same forever.

What all of this means is that we do not live in a universe governed by chance and blind, purposeless natural processes.  Rather it is ruled by God, an infinite but personal Supreme Being.  Nor is He some malevolent despot in the sky, but a God whose designs are benevolent and whose word can be trusted.  For us this makes all the difference between glorious hope and the utter despair of those without God.

That hope should be reflected in our worship.  We should consciously enter into God’s presence and lift up our voices to praise Him.  And our praise ought to flow from hearts that are genuinely filled with love for God and joy over all that He has done for us.  To Him be the glory!

 

WHY SMALL GROUP BIBLE STUDIES

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East Troupsburg Baptist Church, Troupsburg, NY

 

Today we think we know what a church is – an organization that owns a building and hires a pastor who comes in from the outside to run things.  The church puts on a variety of programs and activities, and on Sunday mornings gathers together in the building to go through a formal routine which involves a brief prayer, some congregational singing and “special music,” and a message from the pastor.  In the more traditional churches there might be a choir wearing special robes, responsive Scripture readings, and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or Apostles’ Creed.  And then everyone goes home, enjoys their Sunday dinner, and gets on with the rest of life.

It may come a shock, therefore, that that is not how the church in the New Testament operated at all.  First of all, there were no church buildings.  How, then, you ask, did they gather for worship?  “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart . . .” (Acts 2:46; NKJV).  The primitive church apparently operated on two levels: on the one level was the entire Christian community of a given metropolitan area – the church at Corinth or Ephesus, for example – and then there were smaller groups that met in individual homes – the church that met in Priscilla’s and Aquila’s house, for example (Rom. 16:3-5; I Cor. 16:19).

Moreover, a church in the New Testament was not under the control of a single pastor, or “senior pastor.”   The church was not his personal domain to govern as he wished.  Rather churches in the New Testament were under the oversight of boards of elders, spiritually mature men who were chosen from within the congregation.

But must we imitate the New Testament church today?  That was then, and now is now.  We live in the Twenty-First Century, not the First.

The answer is yes and no.  Just because something was done then does not necessarily mean it must be done now.  But it must always be remembered that Christ is the Head of the church; our aim must always be to please Him.  The real question, then, is how did Christ intend for the church to operate?

In answering that question we must distinguish between passages of Scripture that are prescriptive and those that are merely descriptive.  Just because we are told in the Book of Acts that a church did something 2,000 years ago does not mean that we have to do that today.  But the prescriptive passages, passages that command us to do something, are binding on us today.  They tell us how the church is supposed to operate.

The first thing to consider, then, is the general nature of the church itself.  It is not primarily a legally incorporated organization that owns property, nor is it a mere social club.  Rather, it is “the communion of the saints,” a group of born-again believers bound together by the common bond of the Holy Spirit in a kind of mystical union with Christ himself.  The church, in fact, is referred to in the New Testament as “the body of Christ” (Rom. 12:4-8; Eph. 4:11-16) or as a kind of building or temple (Eph. 2:19-22: I Pet. 2:5).  This is a mystical bond that transcends ethic and cultural boundaries (Gal. 3:26-29).  And the Scripture makes it clear that each member of the body has a spiritual gift and a corresponding role to play within the body (I Cor. 12:14-30: Eph. 4:7-16; I Pet. 4:10,11).  That means that if a church is functioning properly all of its members should be actively involved in the work of ministry.

The next thing to be considered is the responsibility that the members of the church have towards each other.  The most basic responsibility, of course, is to love one another, and this is mentioned in numerous passages throughout the New Testament.  But what does that mean in actual practice?  First of all, it means that all the members must be zealous to preserve the unity of the church (Eph. 4:1-4; Col. 3:14,15).  That in turn means that decisions are to be made by consensus (Rom. 12:16; 15:5,6; I Cor. 1:10; Phil. 1:27; 2:1-4; I Pet. 3:8,9).  We are to submit to each other (Eph. 5:21), and bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). We should seek to build up one another (Rom. 14:19; I Thess. 5:11).

But how is this to be accomplished?  First of all, we are to admonish one another (Rom. 15:14); and pray for one another (Eph. 6:18) and with each other (Matt. 18:19,20).  We are to speak to one another “in psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs” ((Eph. 5:18,19; Col. 3:16).  We are to provide financial aid to those in need ((Rom. 12:13; I Tim. 6:17-19; I Jn. 3:14-18), and we are to restore those overtaken in sin (Gal. 6:1).

What all of this requires is that we meet together on a regular basis.  “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” (Heb. 10:24,25).  And Christ himself has promised that “where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).*

What all of this virtually requires is some sort of small group interaction, in which believers have the opportunity to know each other on a personal level and interact with each other.  It is also significant that most of these exhortations are addressed to entire churches, but the elders are practically never mentioned by name.  The spiritual life of the church is the responsibility of all of its members and each one must do his part.  In my experience the spiritually healthier churches supplement the Sunday morning service with some sort of small group interaction in which committed disciples study the Bible together and pray together.  This is as Christ intended it to be.

 

*It is significant that He says “in My name.”  It is not to be primarily in a denomination’s name ((I Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17).

WOMEN’S HEADCOVERINGS?

 

4.2.7

Lorenzo di Credi,  The Annunciation

Review:

The Truth of Headship and Its Symbolic Practice:

A Study of God’s Grace & Government

Stephen Hulshizer

Spread the Word

50 pp.; pb

 

Stephen Hulshizer raises a question about a practice not often observed today, viz., the practice of women wearing headcoverings in public worship.  Years ago it was a common practice for women to wear hats in church, yet nowadays it is rarely seen except in a few small groups such as conservative Mennonites with their distinctive coverings.  Yet there is a passage of Scripture that seems to enjoin it – I Corinthians 11:2-16.  Is this, then, a practice we should be observing today?

Mr. Hulshizer is associated with a fellowship of believers known to outsiders as the “Plymouth Brethren.”  In his booklet “The Truth of Headship” he argues the case for women wearing headcoverings in public worship.  It is a thought provoking study to say the least.

Mr. Hulshizer begins by laying out the general principles of God’s government of the universe.  From the very beginning the universe was structured in such a way that everything was subject to some sort of authority, with everything ultimately subject to God’s authority.  Mr. Hulshizer traces the great biblical themes of creation, fall and redemption to show that the governing principle is “loving authority and willing submission.”  When man fell he rebelled against God’s authority and created a dysfunctional state of affairs as a result.  The purpose of redemption, by the same token, is to restore creation back to its original state of harmony, and with it the basic principle of authority and submission.  This observation is especially striking, coming as it does from a teacher from among “the brethren in the assemblies,” since the sharp dispensational contrast between “law” and “grace” can be traced back to one of their early leaders, John Nelson Darby.

Mr. Hulshizer points out that the Father is the Head of Christ, Christ is the Head of man, and man is the head of woman.  This sounds like a radical proposition today, but it goes right to the heart  of what ails contemporary society – our casting aside of authority altogether.  We talk endlessly about “freedom” and “equality,” but cannot make a marriage work with all of its duties and responsibilities.

With all of this in mind Mr. Hulshizer turns to the passage in question, I Corinthians 11: 2-16.  On the surface the passage seems clear enough: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head [i.e., her husband . . .] (v. 5; NKJV).  But there is a problem here.  The passage seems to imply that a woman may pray or prophesy as long as she has her head covered.  But I Cor.14:34 specifically states, “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak . . .” The commentators have long puzzled over this.  John Calvin took the position that “when the apostle disapproves of the one thing here he is not giving his approval to the other” (Commentary on passage).  Mr. Hulshizer takes a similar position.  In his view I Cor. 14:34,35 absolutely forbids women to speak in public worship.  Thererfore, in Mr. Hulshizer’s view, I Cor. 11:4,5 condemns two different things simultaneously: women leading in prayer and having their heads uncovered in public worship.  But his exegesis here is forced.  Passage is clearly describing a woman praying or prophesying.  It tells us how she should comport herself when she does so.  It does not say that she should not pray or prophesy.

The answer, as we have suggested before, is that I Cor. 11 apparently small private gatherings where the Lord’s Table was observed, while I Cor. 14 discusses what should happen when “the whole church comes together in one place” where unbelievers might be present (vv. 22-24).  In fact, it could be argued that the whole purpose of the headcovering is to permit women to pray or prophesy while still recognizing their husbands’ authority.  Prophesy was clearly a spiritual gift that some women had (Acts 21:9), and was a gift that should be encouraged (I Cor. 14:1, 5; I Thess. 5:19,20).

But does the passage in I Cor. 11 require women to wear some sort of hat or scarf on their heads?  Mr. Hulshizer points out that “there is a definite action implied in the text with regard to being covered or uncovered” (p. 38 – you “covered” your head or “uncovered” your head, implying that you are putting on or taking off something).  He also notes that simply having long hair was all that Paul had in mind verse 6 would be a nonsense statement (“For if a woman is not covered, let her also be shorn,” i.e. if she is not covered, let her be uncovered).  The Greek terminology that Paul employs in the passage suggests that what he had in mind was some sort of shawl or mantle that a woman can pull up over her hair, effectively covering it.

But isn’t the practice of a woman covering her head merely a cultural adaptation?  Something that applied to ancient Middle Eastern society, but not to us today?  But Paul goes back to the order of creation, appeals to the sensibilities of angels, and concludes by saying “But if anyone seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (v. 16), all of which transcend local culture and custom.

What shall we say, then?  Mr. Hulshizer raises an important question but gives a faulty answer.  Women praying and prophesying in small private gatherings are clearly in view in I Cor. 11, but they are required to wear something on their heads when doing so.

The passage should clearly be given more serious consideration than it is today, and we are grateful to Mr. Hulshizer for raising the subject.

THE NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH

 

173

Paul in Athens

Review:

Characteristics of a New Testament Church

Robert Gessner

Spread the Word, 2000

24 pp., p.b.

 

Robert Gessner is affiliated with a fellowship of believers generally known to outsiders as the “Plymouth Brethren,” although they themselves eschew any denominational titles.  In Characteristics of a New Testament Church he has given us a brief but thought provoking study on what a New Testament church should look like.  It is certainly a subject worthy of consideration by any genuine Bible believing Christian.

Much of what Mr. Gessner has to say is obviously true and many of the issues he raises need to be taken seriously by Christians today.  He points out, for example, that in the New Testament there was no distinction between “clergy” and “laity,” that denominationalism is unscriptural, that teaching in the church should be based solidly on Scripture, that prayer is central to the life of the church, and that there should be room for the exercise of spiritual gifts.  He is also quite correct in criticizing modern churches for the ways they try to increase membership and raise funds.  To all of this we can only say a hearty “amen”!

In some other areas, however, he wades into treacherous waters.  He tries to argue, for example, that the Lord’s Supper “ought to be given absolute priority over every other meeting of the church” (p. 2).  Yet when we read the general description of a New Testament church in the Book of Acts, the Lord’s Supper, while it is obviously important, is listed as just one of several different activities (Acts 2:42,46).

Mr. Gessner also raises the difficult but important question about the role of women in the church.  Here he runs into the apparent contradiction between I Cor. 14, in which women are instructed to remain silent, and I Cor. 11, in which women are described as praying or prophesying, albeit with an appropriate head covering.  The apparent solution to the problem is that the early church appears to have functioned on two different levels.  According to Acts 2:46, the early Christians in Jerusalem were “continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house . . .” (NKJV).  What this suggests is that there were large public meetings in the temple and small gatherings in private homes.  Elsewhere in the New Testament we are told of city churches in places like Ephesus, Corinth and Thessalanika, and of house churches (e.g., Rom. 16:5; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15).  Very likely, then, I Cor. 11 describes small gatherings in private homes where the Lord’s Supper was observed, while I Cor. 15 describes larger public gatherings where unbelievers might be present.  Women, then, were allowed to pray and prophesy in the house assemblies, albeit with their heads covered, but were not permitted to speak in the larger public meetings.

Mr. Gessner says that “the word of God is very clear and explicit” that women should remain silent and wear head coverings (p. 16).  Yet the assumption on the part of many expositors is that the head covering was a cultural adaptation, and Mr. Gessner does not furnish us with an exegesis of I Cor. 11:3-16.  (A strong case can be argued, however, that the passage is in fact enjoining the practice of women wearing head coverings).

Mr. Gessner, of course, is not the first person to consider what the Bible has to say about the church, and theologians from a couple of the denominations that he criticizes (Presbyterians, Baptists) have written extensively on the subject.  Yet the fact remains that over time the older denominations drifted away from their biblical moorings and settled into an institutionalized pattern of church life that bore little resemblance to that of the early church.  Instead of being close-knit fellowships of Spirit-filled believers, they have become purely human organizations managed by professional clergy.  They adopted practices and procedures that had no warrant in Scripture and contributed nothing to the spiritual life of the people.  The churches spiritually became lifeless corpses.

Mr. Gessner’s little booklet, then, raises some valid questions, and the Evangelical community at large would do well to take those questions seriously.

HOW THE CHURCH IS SUPPOSED TO WORK

 

We have already seen in our studies in Ephesians that all genuine believers are a part of the universal church, which is described as “the body of Christ.”  We have also seen that we are to be “endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3; NKJV).  But how is this possible?  Given the highly fragmented church scene today, how could we ever achieve church unity?

Part of our problem is that the church today does not function the way it was intended to.  Today when we see the word “church” in our Bibles we think that we know what it means.  We automatically think of an organization that meets in a building and has a paid pastor brought in from the outside to run the various programs and activities of the church.  Most of the church members simply show up on a Sunday morning and sit passively in their pews while the church runs through the program outlined in the bulletin.  There is music, there is an offering to defray expenses, and there is a comforting message delivered by the pastor.

That, however, is not how a church is supposed to function.  What we have inherited from the past is an institutional model of church life that slowly evolved over the centuries.  But it is very far from what is described in the New Testament.

In Eph. 4:7-16 the apostle Paul gives us an overall picture of how the church is supposed to operate.  The first thing that is to be noted is that the ministry involves the exercise of spiritual gifts.  “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (4:7).  “Grace,” in this context, is the special ability to perform a spiritual ministry, and it is something that is given by Christ Himself through the Holy Spirit.  It is not a diploma received from an academic institution.  There are people who have never darkened the doors of a college or seminary who have the spiritual gift of teaching.  Sadly, there are many who have seminary degrees who do not.  Our text says that individuals have these gifts “according to the measure of Christ’s gift,” i.e., it is up to Christ to decide which Christian has which gift.  Our job is to discern who has which gift, not to create a gift which has not been given.

Secondly, it should be noted that every member of the church has a spiritual gift of some sort.  “But to each one of us grace was given.”  Thus ministry is not the exclusive prerogative of the paid professional.  Rather, all the members of the church should be actively involved in ministering to each other.

Some of the gifts, of course, do involve a formal teaching ministry, and Paul lists these in verse 11: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers . . .”  In this context the term “apostles” evidently refers to the twelve original apostles who functioned as the personal representatives of Christ and were the human founders of the church.  There is much debate today, of course, about whether or not the gift of prophecy still exists, but there is no clear indication in the New Testament that it was meant to cease, and there have been incidents of prophecy down through history that appear authentic.  “Evangelists” would probably be what we would call today missionaries – traveling preachers who would parent churches.  There would have no distinction in Paul’s day between foreign and domestic missions.  Anyone who was sent to preach the gospel to the lost was an evangelist.  And then, of course, there were pastors and teachers, who would typically occupy the office of elder in a local assembly.

But what is the aim of the teaching ministry?  Paul tells us that it is “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (v. 12).  In other words, the aim here is not to concentrate ministry in the hands of a single person or a small professional staff, but rather to make it possible for everyone in the church to use their individual spiritual gifts to minister to each other.

But what does this accomplish?  The passage makes it clear that the ultimate aim of the ministry is spiritual unity: “that we all come to the unity of the faith” (v. 13).  And how is this accomplished?  By coming to “the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  And this, in turn, means that “we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the treachery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” (v .14).  In other words, doctrine, truly sound doctrine, should unite rather than divide.  And it does this by drawing us each closer to Christ, and as we each draw closer to Christ we draw closer to each other, like an ever constricting circle.  Thus, “speaking the truth in love” we are to “grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Christ” (v. 15).  The unity of the universal church depends on a common relationship with Christ Himself.  Or, to put it another way, the Holy Spirit does not lead different parts of the body in different directions at the same time.  If we are all truly following Christ then we should all be headed in the same direction.

The end result should be that “the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (v. 16).  Here it will be noted that “the whole body,” not just a privileged few, has an important role to play in building itself up in love.  (To “edify” literally means “to build up”).

Today most churches are filled with nominal Christians who are content simply to show up on Sunday mornings and sit there passively in the pews and be spoon-fed by the pastor.  This is not what church is supposed to look like, however.  It is supposed to be an active, living fellowship of brothers and sisters in the Lord who care for each other and minister to each other’s needs.  It is in this practical, concrete way that the love of Christ is made manifest to the world.

THE HOUSEHOLD OF GOD

 

The apostle Paul found himself in a unique position in the history of redemption. Originally a devout Jew, trained as a rabbi, he converted to Christianity and became “the apostle to the Gentiles.” He spent his ministry travelling through the Graeco-Roman world preaching the message of salvation far and wide. And people from every conceivable background responded. Churches were established throughout Asia Minor and Greece.

This was revolutionary. Up until this point Christianity had been largely a Jewish phenomenon. Christianity was an offshoot from Judaism. But now Gentiles were flocking into the church, and this created a theological problem. What was the relationship of these Gentile converts to Judaism? Should they become Jewish proselytes, get circumcised, and keep the Jewish Law? Or did they occupy a different place in the overall scheme of things. And Paul, the Jewish rabbi turned Christian missionary, found himself right in the very center of the controversy.

But for Paul it was more than just an abstract, theoretical problem. It was an intensely practical one as well. He had established churches throughout Asia Minor and Greece. These churches contained believers who came from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. But how were they to get along together? They had practically nothing in common. The Jews were used to living a very moral life, bound by strict rules and regulations. The Gentiles were used to wine, women and song. How, then, would believers from these two very different backgrounds to get along with each other in church?

Thus it was in this context that Paul wrote his epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. And while these two letters are very similar to each other, they are also noticeably different. Ephesians is apparently aimed at a predominately Gentile audience, while Colossians appears to have been addressed to believers from a Jewish background.

And thus Paul, in Eph. 2:11-3:13, comes to reflect on the Gentiles in God’s overall plan. And in the process he describes for us the nature of the universal church, which he calls “the household of God.”

Paul notes that the Gentiles, in their former life, were “without Christ, being aliens from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12; NKJV). “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). Paul goes on to explain that Christ, through His death on the cross, brought salvation to both Jews and Gentiles.

But now what? “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God’ (v. 19). Here Paul uses two metaphors to describe the position of believers in Christ: he says that we are “fellow citizens” and “members of the household of God.” “Fellow citizens” suggests that Christians are all members of a common political entity, with all the rights and privileges thereof, as we would say. “Members of the household of God” means that we are all part of a common household headed by God Himself.

But Paul goes on to elaborate. This “household,” to change the imagery a bit, has been “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (v. 20). The church, the universal church, was founded by Christ Himself; at first through His own earthly ministry, and then through the apostles and prophets of the First Century church. And what happens since then is that in Him “the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (v. 21). The church is “fitted together,” it is a coherent whole. Moreover, it is “a holy temple in the Lord.” The imagery would have been unmistakable for a First Century Christian, especially for one from a Jewish background. A temple was a sacred building, a building in which the divine presence resided. And thus God is pictured as being personally present among His people. The church is not just a human social organization; rather, it is characterized by the very presence of God Himself.

Thus it becomes apparent that what Paul is describing here is the universal church, the sum total of all Christian believers throughout history, from the time of Christ until now.

Thus Paul brings it all home to the specific church in Ephesus: “in Whom you also are being build together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (v. 22). The church at Ephesus was a local expression of the universal church. Each local church is “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” It is not a mere social club; it is the communion of the saints built around the presence of God Himself. And specifically, this communion is realized “in the Spirit.” It is specifically the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Trinity, who is a t work in the church creating the spiritual life. At the practical level it is the Holy Spirit who creates the church and makes its ministries effective.

Because the church is based on union with Christ two logical corollaries follow: 1) True believers who are united to Christ are united to each other by virtue of their common bond with the Savior, and 2) anyone who is not united with Christ is not a part of the universal church, and therefore there can be no thought of “fellowship” between believers and unbelievers. In other words, evangelical Christians should be united with each other and separate from the world, including apostate liberal denominations.

Unfortunately two dangerous and opposing tendencies have made themselves felt in the modern evangelical community. The first is a spirit of accommodation which manifests itself in the misguided notion that the way to win others to Christ is to make ourselves look like the world. This was seen in the Neo-evangelical movement of the 1940’s and then in the “Young Evangelicals” and more recently in the “Emerging Church.”

But then there is the opposite tendency as well, manifested in self-described fundamentalist churches that practice “Second Degree” separation. That is, they separate not just from unbelievers but from fellow believers whom they deem to be in error over one doctrine or practice or another. Thus they refuse to have fellowship with other Bible-believing Christians because they use the wrong translation of the Bible or the wrong kind of music in worship. The result is endless divisions within the professing church, and this hardly glorifies Christ at all.

What we need to do is to focus on our relationship with Christ, and as we do so we will draw closer together with each other and farther apart from the world. And then the church will start to look like it should be.