God really does exalt His Name and His Word above ALL THINGS. His Glory is His highest priority... and His Glory is to be our highest priority, too. We live in a world where everything presses us away our true "chief end" - to glorify God and enjoy Him forever - to any number of other things. Even good things are wrong if they usurp our proper focus on our God. All of the good in the world that we do is worthless and meaningless if we are not exalting God's Name and His Word in what we do. And we've seen how insidious this can be, because we can
- Do the wrong things
- Do the right things the wrong way and
- Do even the right things, but be the wrong people while we do them.
We've been focusing on the church, and the question for us to answer ultimately is this: Who do we want to be?
By the way, this is a question for all of us to answer. Don't leave this up to your pastor, or your elders. By the way, thank God for godly men who lead in our local assemblies - and pray for protection from the ungodly ones who have "crept in unnoticed" (Jude 4). By the way, as in Jude's day, this has not caught God by surprise - notice that they were "long ago designated for this condemnation"... but that's a subject for another post!) What I mean is this: YOU are responsible. You and I are - whether we are "leaders" or "congregants" - we own responsibility for whether or not our "church" follows God's priorities.
We believe in the "priesthood of all believers"(1 Peter 2:5, 9). We believe that the Holy Spirit provides each one of us the ability to learn even without assistance of another (1 John 2:27). I'm not denigrating the importance of the leadership function within a local assembly and especially not the role of teachers, but you must bear your own responsibility for obedience individually - and corporately. And when your leadership is going the wrong direction, I would suggest that you may not ignore that... you will be held responsible for participating in the corporate sin.
So whoever you are, I'm asking you: Who do you want your church to be? Do you want to be part of a body that exalts God's Name and His Word above ALL THINGS, or are you counting on God grading your assembly on a curve, hoping you're doing better than the others?
And by the way, the fact that God evaluates - and punishes - local churches should be obvious to anyone who's read the Bible. Without going any further, I'll say this: Revelation 2 and 3.
So here's my answer to my own question. It has two parts:
1. I want to be part of a "local" church. You heard me... unfortunately, I think that the concept has become very confused these days.
The word for "church" is used at least 3 ways in the New Testament, meaning the following:
- The timeless, universal body of all whom God will save through His Son. For example, this is what Jesus was referring to when he said to Peter in Matthew 16:18 that, upon Peter's confession, "I will build my church" - see also Ephesians 1:22, 3:10, 5:23-27, 29, 32; Colossians 1:18, 24)
- The totality of Christians living and meeting in a particular locality or larger geographical area, but not necessarily limited to one meeting place. (See Acts 5:11, 8:3, 9:31, 11:26, 12:5, 15:3, 18:22, 20:17; 1 Corinthians 4:17; Philippians 4:15; and 1 Timothy 5:16)
- The gathering of individuals who were in community personally - frequently in their houses. (Paul in Romans 16:5 sends a greeting to Prisca and Aquila, and to "the church in their house.")
I'm coming to understand that the Church exists in these three forms: Universally, Regionally and Locally. We belong to a body who's membership spans human history and geography. God is gathering together from all nations a people - the Church. What an amazing and wonderful thought! We also belong to a body of believers alive today, that we can work with to accomplish God's purpose for our time. And, we are to be sharing daily life - to be interconnected - with believers who know us because they live with us.
This is my conclusion: Too often, we miss one or more of these three aspects of the Church. For example:
- The importance of the Church Universal is sometimes forgotten in a culture that doesn't value its own history, or is so parochial and ingrown that it doesn't recognize God's working outside of its own boundaries. While thankfully, I believe it has changed, I grew up in a church that didn't easily recognize God's working outside of its own denominational borders.
- The importance of the Church Regional is sometimes forgotten in a culture that values individuality. How many of our communities see a consistent, unified witness even from Bible-believing local churches town? Why is it so hard to work together on areas of common focus?
- The importance of the Church Local is sometimes forgotten in a culture that substitutes the "weekly worship experience" for a daily lifestyle of real community.
This last point is particularly a problem in my experience. I'm certainly not against "church growth," but the reckless pursuit of numbers in many local churches I've seen has a price - we've traded numbers for community. Sadly, it is increasingly possible in my experience to "go to church" and never really be part of an inter-dependent, accountable, supportive community of believers!
The rise of "mega-churches" furthers the problem. The thinking is that the bigger the church is, the more "resources" it has to offer to those who attend. And while bigger churches support bigger budgets and bigger programming schedules, it becomes increasingly harder to disciple and shepherd those who attend. Pastors become administrators, Elders become trustees, ministry becomes "professionalized" and people become congregants or giving units. Real community becomes something you have to hunt for, and it is far too easy to escape.
I think this is happening too often in the church in middle-America. Or at least in DuPage County. It has become far too easy to be satisfied with the programming provided by the Church Regional while missing out on the community found in the Church Local. "Church" too often has become a service provider, or even an event, rather than the inter-dependent community it was intended to be. Church for many is a one-stop convenience store for our spiritual needs... a religious mall experience. We go there when convenient, we get what we need, and then get on to the rest of our life.
Here's a self-diagnostic question: If you start making bad decisions, who knows you well enough to see them? Who knows you well enough to come to you and confront you? If you are in a crisis, who will come to support you? I don't mean just bringing a meal... who will walk through life with you? Who are you sharing life with? If you don't have names to name, I'd suggest that you don't belong to a "local" church.
Too often in my experience:
- People throw their energy into the programming of their Sunday morning church experience, helping that organization run... and I'm not opposed to that at all. Good things can happen there, but the bigger the assembly, the harder it is to build community. I am suggesting that if your connection to other believers is limited to the programming of your Sunday morning church, you don't belong to a "local" church.
- People funnel their giving solely through the budget of their Sunday morning church... and I'm not opposed to giving to your church. After all, a lifestyle of charity doesn't provide tax receipts for your next 1040 filing, does it? But what percentage of your budget goes to supporting the infrastructure as opposed to doing ministry? I'm suggesting that if your giving is limited to what you provide in the Sunday morning offering, I'd suggest that you don't belong to a "local" church.
As for me, I'm thankful for the Church Universal - I look forward to the day that I'll be joined with all who have been redeemed. I'm thankful for the Church Regional - I believe that we have a unique opportunity to reach our communities, and I don't want to denigrate it's importance. But I'm also thankful for the privilege of having people who really know me, and will call me out when I'm wrong, hold me up when I'm weak and cheer me on when I'm doing well. And I feel very sad for those who don't have this experience.
Just to say it, my experience has been that my generation expresses a desire for "local" church... but its money and passion go into the "Sunday morning experience." And the need for local community breaks my heart, and drives me to prayer.
And here's the other thing (I know this is a surprise):
2. I want to be part of a body that exalts God's Name and His Word above all other things.
After all these months of thinking about this verse, I come back to the thought that struck me when I heard this verse mentioned in a sermon: God puts HIMSELF above ALL THINGS - and that's right and good - AND I SHOULD TOO. Individually, and corporately. And here's just one example of what this looks like:
I picked up my oldest son from college yesterday... he gave me a copy of his final paper for his class in Greek New Testament Exegesis (do I sound like a proud father?) :) His text was Ephesians 4:25-32. I'm so grateful for what God is teaching him, and his commitment to study... and his growing love for God's Word. (By the way, I'm still stunned when I hear of preachers who have no interest in reading the Bible in the original language. For a stinging rebuke of this trend - as well as a strong encouragement about the practical benefits of the importance of the ability to read "God's Word in God's handwriting," see chapter 12 of Brothers, We Are Not Professionals by John Piper.) But I digress.
In part, Brad dealt with Ephesians 5:26a ("Be angry and do not sin..."), and points out that the verb translated "be angry" is not a conditional or permissive imperative, but that Paul is using the command imperative form. The point is this: We are supposed to be angry - we are, in fact, commanded to be so. In context, when things are happening in the local assembly that are contrary to the Lord's revealed will, we are supposed to be angry about it - yet without sin.
We live in a culture that says "it's none of my business" - and maybe you've felt that way about this little series of mine. "Who is he to say anything about this stuff? If something really is wrong in the church, shouldn't that be left to God to deal with? Shouldn't we just focus on the 'positive' and leave the rest to God to address?"
The answer, from God's Word, is that it is our responsibility to address wrong in the church. And (here's the really counter-cultural thought) we are supposed to be ANGRY about it. Our anger is not to be in sin, but it is to be anger none the less. This is, by the way, the point of what Paul was chastising the Corinthians for when they had tolerated incest (among other things) within their fellowship.
Now I know that people go overboard sometimes on this, but that's really not the danger I see. I see far too many people who go along, look the other way, give unreasonable benefit of the doubt, and in the end DO NOTHING.
If that's you, don't be that person any longer. Believers must feel righteous anger but not sin because of it.
So as for me, I'm done with the game. God's Name and His Word is too important, our time is too short, and the problem is too big to ignore any longer.
And I'll speak up when I can be heard. I'll plead with those who will listen. I'll do whatever the Lord puts in front of me. And I'll continue to pray that God will choose to step into our paths, and reveal Himself in a way that puts into perspective the silliness and showiness that has substituted for real spirituality in our day.
In a very short time assuming the Lord tarries, someone will write the story about our generation. Will it be that we changed music styles from 40's music to 90's music? Will it be that we grew the average church size from 120 to 450, and increased by a bazillion the number of mega-churches? Will it be that we created a whole new market place for "worship" musicians?
Or will it be that we exalted above all things God's Name and His Word?
Our Lord Jesus set this example for us. He is our example of what it looks like to exalt God's Name and His Word above all things. We ought to hear clearly then from John when he says:
"...This is how we know we are in Him.: Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus did." (1 John 2:5b-6)
If we are to do this, the WHAT, the HOW and the WHO of what we do must be right. And there is still time to do so, even for old people like me. When our time is through, may it be said of us that nothing was more important to us ... nothing was more alluring to us... nothing provoked more passion in us... than the Name of the Lord and His Word. If we really love Him, how can we do otherwise?
Let me love Thee, love is mighty
Swaying realms of deed and thought;
By it I can walk uprightly,
I can serve Thee as I ought.
Love will soften every trial
Love will lighten every care;
Love unquestioning will follow,
Love will triumph, love will dare!