The universal church consists of all believers in Jesus Christ. It is
expressed concretely in local assemblies of believers who, unified by the
Holy Spirit in confession and mission, gather regularly to worship God,
build up one another, minister the Word, observe the scriptural ordinances,
and actively make Christ known throughout the world by word and deed. The
church is not a building, a television show, or a home Bible study. The
church cannot find its identity as a political action committee, a cultural
center, a country club, a performing arts center, or a self-help society.
The universal church and every local assembly have a threefold mission: (a) evangelism, i. e., going into all the world to make disciples through proclamation of the gospel in word and deed; (b) edification, i. e., bringing every believer into personal and corporate maturity; and (c) worship, i. e., giving heartfelt praise to the God revealed in the Word. None of the three may be subordinated. Rather, each aspect of this mission enhances the other two. For example, churches should not subtly discourage evangelism by stressing Bible study, but rather recognize that equipping members for evangelism is an integral part of their edification.
Fulfilling the mission of the church is the responsibility and privilege of every local assembly. No local church or network of local churches has ever been imparted a special mission from God. While each local church reflects a distinct "personality" with differing emphases, there is no warrant for a church to abandon any of the three parts of the changeless mission of the church.
A church's success should be measured only in terms of souls saved, the maturity produced among the saints, and gratitude and adoration expressed in worship. Success should not be measured in terms of cultural transformation, organizational efficiency, numerical growth or media attention.
The church is commanded to proclaim the gospel based the grace of God and the sufficiency of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ which is received through faith alone. It is a message of: (a) Forgiveness preached by a forgiven and forgiving people; (b) Reconciliation calling people to restored relationship with God and with fellow humans (Matt. 22:36-40); (c) Righteousness and justice because the gospel deprived of its message of Spirit-initiated sanctification is not the gospel of Christ; (d) Ultimate judgment before the Lord Jesus Christ for every human being (2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:11-15). Proclamation devoid of the universal need of forgiveness is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Following Christ's example, believers who proclaim the gospel must lay aside their rights for the sake of Christ's mission, be humble rather than retaliate against persecution, and always be ready to give reason for the hope that is within them.
Christ commands believers to make disciples. The church does not complete its mission of evangelism by a mere declaration of the gospel or moving people to repeat a ceremonial prayer. Evangelism which stops short of incorporating people into the active ministry of the local church and leading them to edification and worship, fails to obey Christ.
While believers are to be peacemakers, world-wide peace and justice will only be established with the return of Jesus Christ. Social activism, political power, or gospel preaching will achieve limited peace at best. While the church must speak prophetically to current moral and ethical issues and to the very real social and economic needs of society, it must not allow its involvement in social and political issues to overshadow or compromise its primary mission of bringing people to saving faith in Jesus Christ and bringing them to Christian maturity. The church must not allow its message to be diluted with a political agenda or to be stripped of a call to justice. For example, a crusade to end abortion can turn the gospel from a message of forgiveness and mercy into a message of judgment and bitterness, portraying abortionists as enemies to be destroyed rather than sinners whom God loves. Angry and judgmental protestors can transform the gospel message into a hammer of hateful resistance. Yet, to be silent in the face of such overwhelming injustice would be unfaithful to the very character of God; Christians must be compassionately pro-life rather than merely anti-abortion.
Christians are to build their lives and ministries on scriptural rather than pragmatic principles. The church must avoid the tendency to make man the measure of truth, proclaiming what people want to hear instead of the whole truth. For example, the fact of universal depravity and sinfulness, and resulting divine condemnation, is deeply offensive to modern humans. The church must resist the temptation to compromise or eliminate this truth, replacing it with positive, uplifting messages telling only of God's love, making it seem that His duty is to forgive and accept unrepentant sinners.
The church must learn to interpret culture as well as the Bible, so that it can proclaim the timeless truth of God's Word in terms that people can understand. Too much attention given to cultural relevance leads to compromising the message of Scripture, while too little may hinder the task of showing the relevance of that message for today's society.
The church must proclaim life in Christ not as an alternative lifestyle, but as the only true lifestyle. Society looks to psychology, technology, sciences and the like to answer ultimate questions of life. The church must proclaim the biblical life style and world view in word and life. It must stand against the cultural values of materialism, narcissism, power and autonomy in favor of spirituality, interdependence, intimacy, community and submission. Blindness to the prevailing world-view and to socially acceptable sins condemns the church to adopt them as its own.
Edification -- the building up of the body of Jesus Christ to "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13) -- includes both personal and corporate maturity. While sanctified individuals produce a sanctified church, it is equally true that a sanctified church produces sanctified individuals. No individual Christian can hope to mature without benefiting from the gifts and ministries God has sovereignly bequeathed to the church (Eph. 1:23). Instead, Christians are called to live interdependently with others in loving fellowship, mutual edification in a network of accountable relationships for ministry and a sense of corporate wholeness. While Christians do not abandon their own unique identity, Scripture commands them to abandon their autonomy, yielding themselves to the love, care, discipline, and counsel of others. Scripture exhorts believers to avoid both a laissez-faire individualism and a mindless absorption into the whole.
Edification is not merely self-fulfillment. As humans Christians desire to be comfortable. Yet God's greater purpose for Christians is to bring us to Christlike holiness. The church is not a shopping center supplying people with the things which make their lives fulfilled and happy. It is an army, being equipped for warfare against the world, the flesh and the devil. Edification leads to self-sacrifice to meet the needs of others. The church is to be a life change-agent, not a social club.
All the gifts God has sovereignly distributed to the redeemed are meant to establish and build up the church, the body of Christ (1 Cor. 3:6-9). The gifts are not meant simply to edify individuals or to produce specialized but largely independent ministries. The gifts are meant to foster personal growth and the incorporation of individual saints into an organism, forging relationships through integration and the encouragement of their mutual esteem and love (Eph. 4:11-16).
Worship is attributing worth to God for who He is and what He does. It is an act focusing of attention on the living God. True worship will meet the deep human need for transcendence with a mixture of awe, wonder and joy as believers bow before the greatness and glory of the infinitely majestic God. True worship will often lead to an overpowering sense of personal sinfulness and unworthiness which yields only to grace (Isa. 6:1-9). This reverential worship is often compromised in favor of making visitors and members feel comfortable. The church's worship is always susceptible to becoming sinfully self-centered. It must never degenerate into a self-satisfying emotionalism, a stifling ritualism, a seductive aestheticism, nor a sterile intellectualism.
The local church with all its short-comings, blemishes, and frailties is the tangible embodiment of the universal church which lies beyond the realm of actual experience. Isolated Christians cannot find the nurturing fellowship required for personal growth. Christian television, radio, tapes and study books do not constitute adequate substitutes for a local church body. The truth of the universal church discourages elitism and isolation. It is not a higher truth which justifies disdain for and aloofness from a local body of believers.
The church is the body of Christ. Christ is its glorious head. Believers are members of His body (Eph. 5:30), partakers of His divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). They will share His utter holiness, live eternally in His presence, and will forever enjoy His perfect love. However, neither the church corporately nor the believers who individually comprise it partake of God's eternal and infinite attributes. Believers do not share an absolute union with the Godhead. Neither do they share nor employ on their own, God's omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, or His total sovereignty. There is no scriptural warrant for believing that an end days apostolic ministry will be ordained by God to purge the tares from the wheat and that once purged, the church will be unified and anointed with Joel's latter rain, commissioned to seize control of the earth. Neither does Scripture teach that the authority of contemporary apostles and prophets is the key to church purity and unity, nor that God will send forth apostolic and prophetic bands to prepare the way for Christ's second coming. Sanctification does not transform individual believers into self-sufficient demigods nor churches into divine "man-child companies" or "Joel's Armies" able to create ex nihilo, able to judge the wicked and overcome spiritual wickedness. The church is never elevated or added to the Trinity to become a "fourth person" of the Godhead. It is not the "continuing incarnation of the Son."
The church continues Jesus' work of making the invisible God concretely visible. Like its Lord the true, righteous church is as different from the world as light is from darkness, yet it permeates the world like light shining into darkness. The church must never become so concerned for its holiness that it withdraws into a cloister, nor so concerned for its relevance that it becomes conformed to this world and compromises its message. The testimony of a changed and changing life is lost when there is no discernible difference in values or lifestyle between believers and non-believers.
Neither the poor nor the rich have special status with God. The rich church, looking through the eyes of capitalism and success theology, tends to look at rich people as divinely blessed, deserving of preferential treatment, while the poor are despised as inherently lazy. The poor church, looking through the eyes of socialism and liberation theology, tends to see the poor as specially loved of God, deserving of preferential treatment, while the rich are despised as inherently greedy. With God there is no respect of persons, rich or poor (Eph. 6:9; Jas. 2:1-9).
Jesus' warning that one cannot serve both God and mammon (riches) must be taken seriously. The church must always be suspicious of wealth, a pivotal power of this evil world. Material possessions often foster entanglements and compromises which strip believers and churches of their witness and erode their faith. Many American churches and Christians are guilty of sinful self-indulgence which compromises the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is as true of churches which indulge themselves in such items as lavish buildings, extravagant sound systems or luxury weekend retreats as it is of individuals who spend money excessively on electronic gadgets, automobiles or clothes. All believers and churches, especially wealthy ones, are instructed to give generously and sacrificially, placing priority on promoting the gospel and aiding the poor rather than indulging in personal comfort and security (Luke 12:13-34; 1 Tim. 6:6-12, 17-19).
Authority in the church is received from God and exercised for the benefit of others. Leaders should guide the congregation in wise decision-making rather than demand obedience. Their authority rests on irreproachable personal character which engenders trust, not on social or professional skills or a merely official authority.
Church leadership is based on scriptural qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9), emphasizing approved character and experience more than a special gift endowment. Charisma alone never justifies church leadership. Churches must be especially wary of falling into the trap of installing leaders who may be highly charismatic, but who do not possess these essential character qualifications.
Though church leaders should be highly respected and their authority honored, no leader should ever be accorded absolute authority. No leader can claim to be God's unique oracle. Leaders should not be exalted to untouchable or infallible status. Rather, their lives and teaching must conform with Scripture and be tangibly accountable to Christ's body. Believers should be very suspicious of church leaders who continuously criticize the larger body of Christ, who are unable or unwilling to reach out to other leaders and establish loving and meaningful relationships, who press their congregations toward isolation and elitism, and who claim a unique bond with God. Cultic authority of charismatic individuals constitutes a real danger for the church.
Church organization should be a tool and not a master. It should provide a structure upon which the church can grow, facilitate ministry, promote unity and order, and satisfy legal requirements. It is abused when its goal is to provide a power structure for an individual, to build an empire for the ambitious, to wield a political force, or simply to perpetuate and serve itself as an organization. Zeal for organizational efficiency can quickly establish unbiblical values as well as bureaucratic legalism which quenches God's gifts. Corporations working toward profit are managed differently than the church which is working toward Christlikeness of believers individually and corporately.
The power and authority of Christ's church is critically dependent upon its unity. Whenever unity is undermined, witness is diminished. Unity must be based on such foundations as the fundamental doctrines of the faith, biblical holiness, compassion, heartfelt worship, and an eagerness to evangelize. Church unity should not be pressed to the point of compromising right doctrine. On the other hand, rigid narrow-mindedness or zeal for secondary doctrinal detail cannot be permitted to threaten evangelical unity. Compassion cannot be sacrificed for holiness nor holiness for compassion. Church unity is not a panacea. Unity based on compromised truth will not enhance the power and authority of the body of Christ nor bring glory to its risen Head.
The Lord of the church is also King of the coming kingdom. He is even now sitting at the right hand of the Father ruling as redemptive Lord over His people, as providential Lord over the whole earth. At the establishment of the kingdom, He will finally and fully fulfill the Abrahamic and New Covenant promises and reign as Messianic, Davidic King over a restored Israel and all the nations of the earth.
God's promises for the restoration of Israel will be fulfilled eschatologically, i.e., when Jesus comes to establish His kingdom and rule as Messiah with righteousness and justice.
While the establishment of the messianic kingdom in its fullness will not occur until the promised Day of the Lord with the personal return of Jesus Christ, His reign is inaugurated in the church as it yields to His lordship and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.
The call to pray for the peace of Jerusalem (Ps. 122:6) or to view Jews as the chosen people must not become a naive endorsement of Israel's politics, nor lead to forgetting Arab Christians, nor viewing Arabs as enemies of God to be destroyed.
The church, as the mediator and sign of the kingdom, is gathering and preparing members for Christ's kingdom by carrying out its mission of evangelism and edification. It should demonstrate what human community looks like under the rule of God.
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