The Voice 5.07: February 15, 2015

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The Voice

Individual Christians and the Local Church

The New Testament reveals that the most basic unit in Christianity is the individual Christian: a person who has believed in Jesus as Lord, has repented of sin, been baptized, and seeks to follow Jesus (Acts 2:38, Romans 10:9-10, 1 John 2:3-6). Individual Christians in the New Testament associate with fellow Christians in a given area so as to comprise a local church of God’s people (Acts 2:42-47, 9:26-28, 1 Corinthians 11:18). What is the relationship between individual Christians and the local church?

We do well to first recognize that God intends for the individual Christian to be part of a local church. We do not find any examples in the New Testament of Christians faithfully serving God while not a part of a local congregation of believers. Through the preaching of the Gospel people came to a knowledge of the truth, they believed it, were baptized, and then began associating with other Christians in their local area as the local church (Romans 10:17, Acts 2:38-47). The connections among Christians are described in terms of a body, and the church is identified as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 1:22-23): to not be part of the body is to not be part of Christ! God is one in relational unity (John 17:20-23): as Christians we must reflect God’s unity both with Him and among ourselves. The concept of being “a Christian without the church” is foreign to the New Testament!

The local church consists of individual Christians. Throughout the New Testament the church is spoken of as the collective of the people of God, either in its singularity across time and place (the “universal” church, Ephesians 5:22-33), or in its expressions in specific areas and times (“local” churches, 1 Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:2). The church is described in terms of a body with different members (Romans 12:3-8), a household with God as Father and Christians as adopted brothers and sisters (Romans 8:11-15, 1 Timothy 3:15), or as a temple with individual Christians making up its edifice (1 Peter 2:3-9). In all of these illustrations the church is made up of its constituent members; if there are no Christians, there is no church!

Since individual Christians make up the local church, they must shoulder and support its work. In Greek the church is called an ekklesia, an assembly: what is an assembly that never assembles? And what kind of assembly exists that does not feature the assembling of its constituent members? Such is why the Hebrew author encourages Christians to not forsake the assembling of one another (Hebrews 10:24-25). The local church can only do the works of benevolence, evangelism, and edification if its individual members provide the necessary support to do so; this support ought to involve not only time and effort but money as well (1 Corinthians 9:1-15, 16:1-3, Ephesians 4:11-16).

The work and responsibilities of individual Christians goes well beyond the work of the local church as a collective. Individual Christians must manifest the fruit of the Spirit while avoiding the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-23). Individual Christians are to reflect the light of God in Christ, seeking to do good to all people, especially those of the household of faith (Matthew 5:13-16, Galatians 2:10, 6:10). These efforts reflect upon the local church: just as each part of the human body has its own independent function yet also works with other parts of the body (e.g. the hand grasps but at the direction of the head and in concert with other parts of the body), so individual Christians serve the Lord in their individual lives independently, in concert with other believers, and at times to strengthen and encourage other believers (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). When individual Christians encourage one another they are building up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16). Thus it can be said that individual Christians are working in the local church and on behalf of the local church through their service to fellow Christians and to those in the world; this is the only way it can be said that “the church” is faithful, or righteous, or reflecting the will of its Lord, when its individual constituent members are doing so!

The New Testament does make distinctions between the local church and its individual constituent members in terms of responsibilities, roles, and some instances of collective function. Local churches are to be shepherded by qualified men; the individual members should be in subjection to them (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:1-4). Paul lays down the principle in 1 Timothy 5:16 that individual Christians should provide for widows in their extended families so that the church can support widows indeed; in so doing Paul places the primary responsibility for supporting people on individuals and expects the church to provide continual support only as a means of last resort. We can see that individual Christians are not relieved of the obligations to provide benevolence, to promote and support evangelism, or to be active in encouraging and edifying fellow Christians because the church has also been given those works to do; if anything, Christians are to be all the more diligent in such efforts!

A local church is made up of individual Christians. Individual Christians have responsibilities toward their fellow members of the body of Christ but are also expected to serve and work for the glory of God in Christ in their individual lives. Individuals may make up the church, but it cannot be said that whatever individuals can do the church can do; they are not synonymous. Let us serve the Lord Jesus as Christians, building up the local body of Christ while doing good to all!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Voice 5.03: January 18, 2015

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The Voice

The Nature of the Church: The Church as Temple

Know ye not that ye are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man destroyeth the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, and such are ye (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).

Throughout the New Testament the Apostles speak about the church less by direct statements and more through illustrations and imagery. The church is spoken of in terms of a body, comprised of different individual members who work independently and together for its own growth, development, and function (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). The church is also spoken of in terms of a family, with God as Father, Jesus as the elder Brother, and Christians as fellow brothers and sisters in God’s household (1 Timothy 3:15, Hebrews 2:17). Yet in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and 1 Peter 2:4-6 the church is also spoken of as a temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells. What does it mean for the church to be spoken of as a temple?

The Queen of Sheba before the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, by Salomon de Bray (1597-1664)

The ancient world was full of temples: from ziggurats in Sumer and Akkad to the elaborate Greco-Roman temples throughout the Roman Empire (Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 19:24-28). It was believed that temples were the dwelling places of divinities: adherents would come and “meet” the god or goddess at the temple, presenting food offerings to feed and/or placate them. The Israelites recognized that not even the heavens could contain God, let alone a physical building (1 Kings 8:27); nevertheless, YHWH their God, the One True God, authorized the building of a house, or temple, in which He would make His name and presence dwell, in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:1-9:9). The Israelites were to bring their sacrifices to the house of YHWH, the Temple (Deuteronomy 12:10-11); there priests would offer them before God on behalf of the people (Hebrews 9:1-10). Therefore, even though the Israelites recognized that YHWH was God everywhere, they nevertheless were to draw near to God in worship, in prayer, and for atonement, in the place where He established His presence and made His name to dwell, in or towards the Temple (Acts 24:11, Hebrews 9:1-10).

Jesus of Nazareth, as the Word made flesh and Immanuel (God with us; Matthew 1:23-24, John 1:1-14), came not only to provide the perfect atonement for sin but also to re-center the Israel of God around Himself. This is well illustrated in John 2:18-22: Jesus declares His own body to be the temple which is raised imperishable in the resurrection. This explains Jesus’ response to the Samaritan woman in John 4:21-24: the people of God would soon no longer go to Jerusalem to render obeisance to God; God’s presence would no longer be manifest at the Temple. Little wonder, then, that the curtain of the Temple was town in two when Jesus died (Matthew 27:51)!

Jesus’ Kingdom was established after His death, resurrection, and ascension (Acts 1:1-2:47, Colossians 1:13). Within fifty years the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans; it has not been replaced. Yet God had not left His people as orphans; throughout the New Testament all the elements of service present in the Temple in a concrete way were understood now in light of the Kingdom and the gatherings of the people in the Kingdom. Jesus was High Priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:1-28); in a sense all His followers are priests, ministering before God on behalf of the people (1 Peter 2:5, 9). Christians are likewise the sacrifices, offered up to the glory and honor of God (Romans 12:1, 1 Peter 2:5). Prayers are as incense (Revelation 8:3-4); the songs of the saints are praise, their hearts as the instruments (Ephesians 5:19). Thus it was also with the Temple: it is no longer in one physical location, but exists wherever the people of God exist, since the Holy Spirit, God Himself, dwells in their midst, individually and collectively (1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20)!

Thus the church is as a temple, the place where God has established His name and His presence through the Holy Spirit. This temple is not made of brick and mortar; it is founded upon the apostles and prophets who proclaimed the truths upon which it stands, and Jesus Christ as its cornerstone, who gave Himself for it (Ephesians 2:20, 5:22-33, 1 Timothy 3:15). Its stones are not dead rock but living people, the members of the church (1 Peter 2:5). Thus the people of God, individually and collectively, are to represent where God has placed His name; those who wish to find God ought to see His presence among His people through their words and deeds (Matthew 5:13-16, 1 Corinthians 14:25).

God intends for the church to connect and identify fellow members as a family and to work in terms of a body yet also is to be defined as holy in terms of a temple. The church is not to be any ordinary family or to function as any ordinary body of people; the church is to be a holy family and a sanctified association, empowered by God through His Spirit who dwells in the midst of His people (Ephesians 3:14-16). Let us live in holiness and righteousness, seeking to fulfill the purposes of God in Christ, and reflect the holiness demanded of those among whom the Holy Spirit of God pleases to dwell!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Voice 4.49: December 07, 2014

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The Voice

Gods of This World: Efficiency

One of the prized values in commerce since at least the Industrial Revolution is efficiency. The drive toward efficiency, in fact, often powered the Industrial Revolution, leading to the assembly line among other innovations that has led to quicker production with fewer costs. Companies are willing to spend a lot of money to find ways to become more efficient, reducing waste and increasing productivity.

Efficiency is also a prized value when it comes to energy consumption. We have seen significant movement toward making homes, offices, and automobiles more energy-efficient. Energy efficiency is seen as a “win-win” situation: the consumer saves money by cutting down on waste, and there is correspondingly less demand for oil, gas, and electricity.

Thus there is no doubt that efficiency is valuable and has its place. In many senses, efficiency is an indication of good stewardship since it cuts down on waste (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:2).

Yet there can be a darker side to efficiency, as everyone who has ever attempted to call customer service for many products and services knows. It is more efficient for the company to have automated systems answer the call; it is hardly efficient for the consumer. The consumer is often left to feel flustered by the circumstances and more like a number than a person.

While efficiency may work wonders for processes and in mechanical terms, it poses more challenges in the realm of interpersonal relationships. Efficiency tends to be a cold, heartless master, often leading to lost jobs, inhumane conditions, and a contributor to the loss of community in many places.

Nevertheless, efficiency has become a “god of this world,” a self-evident standard that is to be accepted as good in every circumstance. Since it has worked so well, by all appearances, for industry, commerce, and business since the Industrial Revolution, it must therefore be a higher good in any situation. Few will come out and say such things; their actions and reasoning behind various actions demonstrate its fruit.

In the spiritual realm, the quest for efficiency is most evident in how assemblies are turned more into performances, the popularity of fellowship halls, and the practice of churches giving its financial resources to benevolent organizations.

Many churches want to keep to a set schedule and frown upon anything that may take longer than is expected. While it is true that everything done in the assembly should be accomplished decently and in order (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:40), there is no indication that this means that everything must be timed precisely and given the feel of a performance. The assembly is designed for the encouragement and edification of its constituents, not their entertainment or display (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:25).

Giving church resources to benevolent organizations and the building and use of fellowship halls became strongly popular in waves in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. Such practices are often justified either by an appeal to the ability to do so, or, more often, because that way more people can be fed with fewer resources.

Now, if efficiency were the standard for feeding saints and non-saints, then perhaps that would be commendable. But the point has never been to just feed as many people as possible with as few resources as necessary. It also has to do with showing love and compassion and reflecting Christ to others (cf. Romans 8:29), and systems and organizations cannot do such things.

Christians sharing meals has never been just about food. It represents an opportunity for Christians to associate with one another and be strengthened in their relationships, and God has charged individuals with the task of being hospitable (1 Peter 4:9). It is not as efficient but it will lead to stronger relationships, just as God intended!

James 1:27 is a justly famous passage regarding the need to help others. But notice what it says: pure and undefiled religion involves visiting widows and orphans in distress. It does not say to create an organization charged with the care of widows and/or orphans and for the church to fund such organizations. Instead, God intends for Christians themselves to sacrifice their time, resources, and energy to assist those in need!

There can be value in efficiency in terms of energy consumption, time management, and business practices, among other things. But the Bible never enshrines efficiency as the ultimate standard for anything, and we should never overrule what God has commanded us to do in the way God showed us to do it because, in our estimation, it is “inefficient.” It may very well be inefficient: and perhaps that is how God wants it to be. Let us not be coldly efficient in all things but willing to expend time and money to love and show care for one another and for all!

Ethan R. Longhenry